Spies like us: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead plays SF Indiefest, which opens Feb. 4.

SF Indiefest at Twelve

Matt Sussman February 4, 2010

It may be a strange time for independent film, with scaled back "indie" divisions of Hollywood studios and filmmakers self-distributing online, but SF Indiefest, now in its 12th year, is holding steady as a great aggregator and champion of the unsung, underdog, and un-buzzable. Like a wizened video store clerk, this year’s fest offers up an "if you like x, you should check out y" for just about every ‘x’ you could throw out there. Whether you’re jonesin’ for something experimental, a gritty domestic drama, or Shakespearean vampires (more on them later), Indiefest has your fix.

Documentaries have always been one of Indiefest’s highlights (they do put on DocFest after all), and this year is no exception. Winner of the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, No One Knows About Persian Cats plays like a real life, Iranian re-visioning of Flight of the Conchords. Musical duo Negar (Negar Shaghaghi) and Ashkan (Ashkan Koshanejad) are ex-cons who want to take their band on the road within their country’s underground indie rock scene, but are forced by authorities to go to Europe instead. Part documentary on a scene relatively unknown in the West, part Richard Lester homage, Cats is above all an impassioned plea for freedom of artistic expression.

Other docs of interest include Brad Ricca’s Last Son. Following Michael Chabon’s lead in The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, Ricca unearths new episodes in the still largely untold story of Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, the Cleveland teens that devised the iconic superhero. Veteran filmmaker Helena Trestikova’s Rene, one of the festival’s foreign entries, is a remarkable long-form study of one woman’s life behind bars, from juvenile offender to published author. And for those who can’t get enough of art world horse-trading shenanigans, Don Argott’s The Art of the Steal chronicles the protracted, often-ugly struggle for control of the Barnes Foundation, a private collection of Post-Impressionist and early Modern art valued at more than $25 billion.

Two of the festival’s strongest docs also happen to be by local filmmakers about Bay Area subjects. Katherine Bruens’ Corner Store, which is making its world premiere, follows Palestinian Yousef Elhaj who has run a San Francisco corner convenience store alone for ten years in the hopes that he can bring his wife and children to live with him. Bruens refrains from making Elhaj’s struggle into melting pot boilerplate, presenting a remarkable portrait of hope kept alive under the duress of the quotidian. Berkeley filmmaker David Silberberg’s Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank is a bit lighter, following the 20-year career of the titular local artist and mad genius, who has created such spectacles as the Camera Van and the Flash Suit.

The local love continues with SF filmmaker and IndieFest ’05 alum Tom Prankratz ‘s devilish and dark romance Limbo Lounge follows a recently-deceased con man in Limbo whose ex offers him a cushy red collar job in Hell; but for a price. The far more wistful, San Francisco-set, My Movie Girl shows what happens when a cinephile attempts a take-two with a crush he failed to impress the first time around. The shorts program, Life Norcal-Style also offers several slices of local life: from kids whose parents are in lock-up, to recreational drug users, to new boot camp grunts.

Of course, it wouldn’t be IndieFest without some forays into the outer limits. And while there is nothing to rival last year’s mini-retrospective of Japanese "pink" (i.e., softcore) insanity, there is plenty of weird to go around. The aforementioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead should serve as a warning to never get involved with off Broadway theater, lest you become embroiled in a centuries-old feud between a vampire and the real Hamlet. Oh, and the Holy Grail is involved too (suck on that Dan Brown). IndieFest favorite Toshiaki Toyoda (past festival titles include Hanging Garden, Nine Souls, Blue Spring) returns with the luscious and strange The Blood of Rebirth, a loose adaptation of a Japanese folktale that evokes the spirits of such supernatural classics of Japanese cinema as Kwaidan and Ugetsu. Johan Grimonprez’s beguiling Double Take is a found-footage mash-up of Hitchcock and Borges, which imagines the Master of Suspense stalked by his double as television supplants cinema and the Cold War heats up.

If Double Take’s cannily comments on television’s cultural ascendancy, Access Denied celebrates its populist, bastard offspring: cable access television shows. Thanks to obsessive collectors and video sites, cable access—one of the largest and still-untapped treasure troves of new weird American has continued to have a half-life within the age of HDTV (just do a YouTube search for "Stairway to Stardom." You’ll thank me). Fantastic Fest curator and Twitch critic Rodney Perkins has put together an amazing compendium of cable access’ strange gems, many of them of local provenance.

There is also no shortage of, well, indie indie films: you know, the ones about love-lorn hipsters with hearts of gold who drop sassy one-liners, wind up getting a crash course in life lessons, and prove to us by the closing credits that they are more than the sum of their iPods. Opening night pick Wah Do Dem follows one such fellow, the recently dumped Max, whose particular bildungsroman takes place in Jamaica (he is stranded there while on the cruise he was supposed to take with his girlfriend). Reggae fans will delight at cameos by Carl Bradshaw (The Harder They Come) and legendary vocal group, the Congos, but the film stumbles over its attempts to make a shopworn narrative less problematic by superficial denuding of Max of his privilege. Harmony and Me, which closes out the fest, does a little better in putting a fresh spin on the unlucky-in-love slacker. All said and done, you are best skipping on the twee and sticking to the harder stuff.

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