Solid-gold lifestyles and agents provocateurs: SFIFF's documentary highlights
Of actual local origin are several SFIFF nonfiction highlights, not least festival closing nighter Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, Ramona Diaz's film about the incredible journey of Filipino superfan Arnel Pineda, from fronting a Journey cover band to fronting the actual Bay Area outfit itself as its latest lead vocalist. There's also Micha X. Peled's last globalization trilogy entry Bitter Seeds, focusing on hitherto self-sufficient farmers in India increasingly driven toward bankrupting debt (and widespread suicides) by costly biotech "advances;" Peter Nicks' The Waiting Room, which sits us right there at Highland Hospital in Oakland, illustrating the heroically coping status quo and desperate need for improvement in a microcosm of U.S. healthcare; and Jamie Meltzer's world premiere Informant. The latter's subject is activist-turned-FBI snitch Brandon Darby, whose testimony got two anarchists imprisoned — and who fully participated in this portrait, even its re-enactments of his protest-group infiltration. Darby is expected to attend the festival; given this town's political leanings, he might want to wear a raincoat.
Speaking of audiences hurling things — abuse, at the least — Caveh Zahedi (plus his lawyer) was evidently met with a shitstorm after the SXSW premiere of The Sheik and I. You, too, may feel the spasmodic urge to throttle him during this latest naughty-boy's own adventure, in which he accepts a commission to make work for a biennial perversely themed around "art as subversive act" in the far-from-liberal United Arab Emirates. Professed fans, the curators had duly seen his prior work; surely they knew they were inviting trouble in these circumstances?
Nonetheless, they play perfectly into his hands, expressing dismay and barely masked fear as Zahedi faux-naively proceeds to do everything he shouldn't. That includes ridiculing Islam and the host sheik, stereotyping Arabs in general, putting everyone (including himself and his two-year-old son) in potential danger, all the while claiming his aim is "a critique of imperialism." Is he really the very model of the privileged Western artist, railing about artistic freedom while ignorant that sometimes, some places, some things (like blasphemy, and prison) must take precedent? Or is the whole act just a deliberate provocation (hardly his first), albeit one with disturbingly dire potential consequences? Alternately very funny and completely infuriating, The Sheik and I is one movie you might want to attend just for the Q&A afterward. Odds are, it's gonna get ugly.