The inventor and radical thinker R. Buckminster Fuller walked into a public washroom and, spying an unflushed urinal, pulled the handle. Asked why he attended to someone else's mess instead of leaving it for the next person (or the janitor), Fuller simply replied, "I'm a citizen of the world." If such a broad, self-applied definition of responsibility sounds absurd or pretentious, then perhaps you also recoil from holding doors for old ladies, carrying your neighbors' UPS deliveries upstairs, or accepting that filmmakers are the conscience of the world.
Such musings are inspired not by the worldwide box office receipts for The Hunger Games but the arrival of the annual San Francisco International Film Festival on Thursday, April 19. The notion of movie makers as moral observers and social critics dominates the program, beginning with Benoit Jacquot's opening night entry, Farewell, My Queen, which surveys the Versailles crowd on the brink of ruin through the blinkered eyes of Marie Antoinette and a favored servant. On the back end, the brutal realities of the modern world are as central to Ramona S. Diaz's crowd-pleasing closer, Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, as the vicarious pleasures of witnessing formerly homeless singer Arnel Pineda's ride from Manila rags to Bay Area riches.
The festival's aim of presenting the best available films that premiered at international festivals (and Sundance) in the last year doesn't mandate a political agenda, but knowing one's audience is a solid marketing strategy. There's a deep local hunger, exacerbated by the absence of in-depth international news on the flat-screen, to see how the world abroad is handling new universals like immigration, government belt-tightening, weakening families, and handheld consumer products as surrogate companions.
News junkies and other curious festivalgoers who turn first to documentaries for their fix of social-problem updates are advised to peruse the New Directors lineup of narrative features for tomorrow's front-page headlines. A tense sequence of events unfolds in a Recife neighborhood in Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho's impeccably conceived and ratcheted debut feature, Neighboring Sounds. Navad Lapid's equally taut Policeman contrasts two conflicting strains of uncompromising Israeli idealism — a highly trained, hyper-macho counterterrorism man and a less-disciplined cell of left-wing revolutionaries. Yet another first-time director, Michale Boganim, probes the shattered psyches of post-Chernobyl Ukrainians in Land of Oblivion, while veteran director Michael Winterbottom explores class and colonialism in Mumbai in Trishna, a modern adaptation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the World Cinema section.
While we're at it, this is a good time to jettison the concept of documentaries as earnest, uninspired "message" movies. International doc-makers, in particular, have enormous freedom from broadcasters and audiences to be nonlinear and nonliteral. American makers are generally more constrained, though a trio of local films demonstrates the depth of emotional impact that skillful nonfiction elicits. Closest to home, Peter Nicks' compassionate and touching The Waiting Room hangs out a good long while at Oakland's Highland Hospital, while Jamie Meltzer's Informant spotlights the ostensible villain (sans twisty mustache) of the locally produced 2011 doc, Better This World. John Haptas and Kris Samuelson ventured across the Pacific for Tokyo Waka, a lovely, moody contemplation of the urban metropolis from the crows' perspective.
This year's tributees include one of the American documentary's contemporary heroines, Barbara Kopple, who will be honored with the Persistence of Vision Award, an onstage conversation and a screening of her immortal 1976 vérité portrait of an Appalachian miners' strike, Harlan County, USA (Sunday, April 22). The thread of serious entertainment connects Kopple to the other honorees: Founder's Directing award recipient Kenneth Branagh (feted Friday, April 27, with a Q&A and Dead Again), Peter J. Owens award-winner Judy Davis (saluted Wednesday, April 25, with her latest, the Australian saga The Eye of the Storm), local screenwriter David Webb Peoples (sitting for an interview Saturday, April 28, followed by Unforgiven) and French talent scout, Cannes insider, and ace raconteur Pierre Rissient (who receives the Mel Novikoff award and presents Fritz Lang's dark and relatively unknown 1950 drama, House by the River).
There is plenty of fun — serious, entertaining, or sleazy — to be had at the festival, much of it song-related. The annual marriage of silent treasures and live musical performance pairs a batch of Buster Keaton shorts with Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs and guitarist Ava Mendoza (Monday, April 23 at the Castro). Peaches Christ pays homage to Ken Russell, who died last year, with a stage show and the swell 1975 mess, Tommy ("Acid Queens: Peaches & Tommy" is Saturday, April 21, at the Kabuki). Who's left? The 1979 morality play Quadrophenia, Saturday, April 28, at the Castro.
Pete Townsend had a rare ability to meld rock 'n' roll riffs with ethical dilemmas; doc-maker and local favorite Sam Green (The Weather Underground) has devised his own kind of alchemy. His ongoing exploration of utopians and idealists, presented as a series of live performances, turns the passive audience into active viewers. The two shows at SFMOMA on May 1 of Green's latest piece, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, are probably sold out, but you might get lucky. Regardless, you've had a taste of Bucky's philosophy and know how to behave in public rest— well, in public.