DocFest is back (already!) with a slate of standouts

Hot-cha-cha: 'Bettie Page Reveals All'

FILM First things first: yeah, you did just attend the 11th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival in November. The schedule shift for the 2013 fest — it's now sandwiched between the well-established San Francisco International Film Festival (which ended May 9) and Frameline (starts June 20) seasons — is a gamble. Will Bay Area film fans (who probably also attended the DocFest-affiliated SF IndieFest in February) suffer festival fatigue, or will DocFest's programming (Burning Man! Bettie Page! Pint-sized magicians!) lure 'em in anyway?

Let's hope it's the latter, since the 12th annual fest boasts a well-curated mix of films that loosely fall into two categories: those with provocative subject matter and those that are crowd-pleasers, with crossover potential therein. Opening-night selection Spark: A Burning Man Story melds both traits. Suitable for both longtime Burners and folks who don't know much about that colorful desert carnival — but have marveled at the scope of its cultural influence, for better and worse — this film by locals Steve Brown and Jessie Deeter offers an insider's look at variously chaotic, despairing, and triumphant preparations for the 2012 festival.

Spark captures Burning Man's inner-circle organizers amid a tumultuous period, as they confront concerns both practical (including a stressful ticket-sale snafu) and philosophical (why are they selling tickets in the first place?) that have exploded along with the event's ever-growing popularity. The film doesn't shy away from showing the less-graceful aspects of this transformation, but at its core it's a fairly starry-eyed celebration of Burning Man's allure, depicting the event as a magnet for artists and free spirits — and Spark's striking cinematography suggests that Brown, Deeter, and crew also found inspiration there.

"For some people, Burning Man ignites a passion or creativity that might have been buried or beaten out of them through their adult life," says Brown, a first-time filmmaker with a background in tech start-ups. "That was the theme of the film: what does it look like, maybe for the first time, to act on a dream? It takes a lot of courage and tenacity to make that happen — and inevitably, dreams collide with reality and become difficult and challenging, and you have to make compromises. I saw a lot of stories like that coming out of Burning Man, and it was kind of my story, too." (For more on Spark, check out Steven T. Jones' article in this issue of the Bay Guardian.)

Bearing a far less hopeful message is DocFest's closing-night film, Terms and Conditions May Apply, about internet privacy (or rather, the increasing lack thereof). Director Cullen Hoback turns to animation, talking-head interviews, and pop-culture snippets — like Parks and Recreation's lovable lout Ron Swanson learning about "cookies" — to liven up what could've been a movie comprised mostly of computer screenshots.

Though a late-act attempt to ambush-interview Mark Zuckerberg feels a little gratuitous, the concerns Hoback raises are completely legit, and backed up with real-life examples; thanks to government initiatives like the Patriot Act and corporate sneakiness (you don't really read those lengthy "Terms and Conditions" agreements before you click through, do you? Does anyone?), one's online profile can be laid bare with ease. This explains why those random ads on Amazon seem to know an awful lot about your interests — and, more alarmingly, why a SWAT team paid an urgent visit to a guy whose Fight Club-inspired Facebook status was misinterpreted as a terrorist call to action.

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