Any number of themes may be found percolating within the 2014 IndieFest -- "Sweet Sixteen" is the official one, on account of it being the 16th annual -- but this year's event seems to be especially and encouragingly full of feminist undertones. Which isn't to say feminism is a first-priority programming agenda, necessarily, or that men and their various concerns aren't represented among the festival's dozens of relatively diverse films. (As is regrettably still so often the case with these things, maleness, well, dominates.) But for viewers in search of women's stories, there is a lot going on here.
In festival opener The Congress, we begin with an inviting closeup of Robin Wright's face. Tears are in her eyes. She's being reprimanded, by a man, for her "lousy choices." It's her agent, played by Harvey Keitel; Wright plays a version of herself, an aging actress whose prospects have dried up. The only offer left is to retire and sell off all rights to her digital likeness, for a studio to use however it chooses, in perpetuity. "You were always their puppet," the agent cruelly reminds her. Later, in a future-world of animated avatars, with her Rebel Robot Robin: Street Fighter franchise presumably having satisfied its investors, the studio comes calling again, to renegotiate. Now they want to sell her image to the public directly, as a consumable chemical. Loosely adapting a Stanislaw Lem novel, Waltz with Bashir director Ari Folman imparts an arresting visual style to these proceedings -- including, late in the film, a surprisingly shocking cut, from animated almost-bliss to a photographic record of physical and spiritual destitution, of "reality." We see Wright's actual face again, and remember the world of make-believe as a poignantly illusory utopia.
A similarly suggestive cut occurs in the first act of Matt Wolf's documentary Teenage, the festival's centerpiece, as we bounce from an uncomfortably close view of a twitching shell-shocked World War I veteran straight to the more ostensibly attractive sight of a dancing girl, a carefree flapper. By this time, a preliminary bit of narration already has informed us, in a young female voice: "We are teenagers, but we didn't always exist. We were a wartime invention." As elaborated from punk historian Jon Savage's book, Wolf's pristine pop history assembles archive footage, recreations, and read-aloud diaries from real midcentury teenagers to recount the dubious fabrication of youth culture -- replete with empty promises, restrictions, and sexually charged hypocrisies.
And so history lurches forward, fueled at least in part by inter-generational rebellion, and drawn ever toward a sort of beauty-industrial complex. In several of these films we see women living up to media-made images of youthful vivacity and sex appeal, or rebuking them, or reclaiming them. We see the troubled legacies of being gazed at, and the ruthlessly conditional freedoms of choice. Of course there are various childbirth-associated freak-outs on display, from the wry comedic quirk of Let's Ruin It With Babies, to the willfully revolting mom-to-be dramedy of See You Next Tuesday, to the sobering teen-pregnancy tribulations of the Polish drama Baby Blues, to the miscarriage-motivated horrors of Proxy. And sex itself is directly examined. There Is Light, which has been described rather cheerfully as Japan's answer to The Sessions, concerns a young Japanese woman who becomes a sex worker for disabled people. San Francisco filmmaker Visra Vichit-Vadakan's fact-fiction hybrid Karaoke Girl, which also will be shown locally at CAAMFest in March, offers a stereotype-exploding profile of a Bangkok escort. Questions about exploitation will arise, and linger, and deepen.
"Don't call me 'babe,'" director Joanna Arnow says to a guy from behind her camera early on in i hate myself :) (crucially, yes, the emoticon actually is part of the title). "It's a realization of your gender-identity," he replies. "Babe the pig. It was a movie." A moment later, he asks, "Why don't you like to be called 'babe?' Did someone rape you?" The movie, a documentary, has shrewdly been framed as an inquiry into what exactly Arnow sees in this guy. Later, among other affronts, he turns the camera back on her. "I think of you as more than a friend," she says, tearfully. His response is skeptical. "As more than a friend. As...uh...subject material?" Arnow's fearlessly self-revealing project is deceptively simple. Call it self-indulgent, but recognize the urgency of that indulgence, and how many selves it might actually speak for. There's also another guy, her editor, who tends to hang around in the nude and spout tough love. He's sort of like some scrappy DIY version of the Keitel character in The Congress. Of course, in most ways i hate myself :), a diary movie made on the cheap with no pedigree of production values or famous players, couldn't be more unlike The Congress. But it puts across a similarly discomfiting vision, and a series of pressing questions about leading ladies. "Is this really where we're going?" some viewers may ask. Actually, wherever it is, we're already there.
The 16th San Francisco Independent Film Festival runs now through Feb. 20 at the Brava and Roxie Theaters in S.F. and the New Parkway theater in Oakland. For tickets and more information, visit sfindie.com.