SFIFF 57 – The Curtain Rises… (for Harry)

The 57th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival opened last week. I have been attending/covering this festival for seven years now and it’s always one of the film highlights of my year. Unfortunately, a previous commitment has severely cut into the time I can attend this year, so I asked Peter Warden to attend and provide coverage as well. I will sneak into the city as often as I can, though, because this event is really something I enjoy attending and sharing with our loyal audience.

The Festival opened on April 24th, but Monday the 28th was the earliest I could attend.  After a beautiful drive into the city from the North Bay, I checked in with my Publicity contact Jackson Scarlett (yes, that’s his real name.)  The Festival Offices and Lounge are on Fillmore Street, just a stone’s throw from the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, where most films are screened.  The Lounge is a great place to mingle with filmmakers, Festival staff, and other media folk.  The location changes from year to year as the SFFS has to make do with whatever space is available for only a two-week stay, and this year things feel mighty cramped, but hey, the beer is free from 5 to 8, and it’s nice to have someplace to hang between films (even if it seems to be populated with furnishings from IKEA’s ‘Marquis de Sade ‘ collection…)

I had some time to kill before my first screening, so I hung out in the Lounge and chatted with SFFS’s Rod Armstrong, who programs “The Late Show” series for the Festival.  I would be catching one of those films later that evening. I also ran into friend-of-the-show John Angelico, who covers the festival for SFGate.com. Finally, Peter Warden wandered in from his last screening and we were able to chat a little before I needed to head out.


The first film I screened was a documentary 10 years in the making.  If you’re familiar with the Al Pacino film Dog Day Afternoon, then you’d be interested in catching The Dog.  Infamous as the bank robber who was trying to steal enough money to pay for his partner’s sex change operation, John “The Dog” Wojtowicz gets a chance to tell his own story in Allison Berg and François Keraudren‘s new documentary. “The Dog” is an extremely personable story-teller, just remember that it’s a one-sided story. The directors made clear at a Q&A following the film that their film is not a journalistic documentary, but a character portrait of Wojtowicz, and he is quite a character. I noted that the film seemed to skip over the circumstances surrounding the one death as a result of the robbery (which the Pacino film portrays Wojtowicz as more than complicit in), and asked the directors if that subject was off-limits to them.  They responded that it was not, and that Wojtowicz gave them a story, but that it was not verifiable. They also said that the memories of the surviving hostages were inconsistent or incomplete so they decided to leave it out. Incomplete as a documentary, but a very entertaining character portrait.

After a short break (and a return to the Festival Lounge for a few complimentary Grolschs), I returned to the Kabuki for a screening of horror film maven Ti West‘s latest, The Sacrament.  I was underwhelmed by West’s last film (2011’s The Innkeepers) so my expectations were low. Mr. West met them.


West’s film is a very thinly-veiled recreation of the 1978 Jonestown/People’s Temple massacre in Guyana.  Another entry in the “found-footage” genre (with an extremely inconsistent point of view), The Sacrament  is the story of what happens when a team of reporters from “Vibe” magazine go searching for one of their sisters in “Eden Parish”, a commune in an unnamed country.  If you know the story of Jonestown, you know the story of this film. It is a fascinating/horrible story, but West’s film has a feel of exploitation to it.  It doesn’t help that the film is almost completely sunk by a weak leading performance by AJ Bowen as the reporter. Bowen’s weakness is almost made up for by an extremely charismatic performance by Gene Jones as “Father”, the commune leader.  The best scenes in the film involve Jones’ character, but the faux-documentary approach West chose limits his screen time. That works to the detriment of the film. Ultimately, there is nothing new here, and the film’s low-budget trappings become more and more apparent as it creeps forward to its (unsurprising) conclusion.

Being as many of the Jonestown victims are buried in a cemetery across the bay and many of their families still in the area, I couldn’t help but think of them and left the theatre feeling that there’s an argument to be made questioning the taste of the filmmakers and the decision to screen this particular film at this particular festival.

Something I pondered on my long drive back across the Golden Gate….

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