Act locally: A single room in an Alameda motel serves as a setting for Sons of a Gun, Rivkah Beth Medow and Greg O'Toole's documentary portrait of a retired LAPD hostage negotiator and the three grown schizophrenic men in his care.

SFFS's Debut Cinema by the Bay

Robert Avila October 22, 2009

A film festival that’s long overdue arrives tonight with San Francisco Film Society’s first annual Cinema by the Bay. A wide-ranging showcase of local filmmaking, as well as a forum for the region’s influence as subject and setting in the work of filmmakers beyond the Bay, it runs through Sunday, October 25, and encompasses the straight-ahead to the avant-garde to the tantalizingly difficult to categorize (I’m thinking Etienne!, but see below) in a four-day program of features, shorts, docs and multimedia live performance from established and emerging artists.

The title might ring a bell. Cinema by the Bay expands on the locally focused series under the same rubric tucked into a section of SFFS’s San Francisco International Film Festival in recent years. But inspiration also comes from SF’s legendary Film Arts Foundation (FAF), which presented a similar emphasis annually from 1984 to 2005 in its Film Arts Festival of Independent Cinema. According to the Film Society’s Sean Uyehara, who programmed Cinema by the Bay with colleague Audrey Chang, the exhibition is just one of the ways the Film Society, publisher of, has been carrying on the Film Arts Foundation legacy since it assumed stewardship of some of FAF’s programs in 2008.

As the latest addition to the Film Society’s year-round programming slate, Cinema by the Bay offers audiences a chance to see the ample flow of Bay Area filmmaking that the International can’t quite accommodate. "All of these films are good enough to have shown in the International," notes Uyehara of CBTB’s inaugural lineup. "But of course the International can’t be only a local film festival. The International is primarily a snapshot of world cinema. Cinema by the Bay gives us another opportunity to show worthy films."

Among those films is the masterfully subtle Ghost Bird. This new documentary from Scott Crocker is an infinitely reverberating exploration of what sounds at first like a cheerlessly obscure topic: a set of alleged sightings in southeastern Arkansas of the ivory-billed woodpecker, an exquisite North American bird thought to be wiped out. But consider, as an early inter-title has it, that by the end of this century fully one half of all animal species will go extinct due to human activity. Then watch how alleged sightings of the bird stimulate the imaginations of a wide cross-section of people, transforming a sad-luck town with promises of economic rejuvenation (woodpecker haircuts, anyone?), galvanizing environmentalists, calling governments to attention, gaining adherence among some professional ornithologists while provoking debate among others, and generally capturing the hopes of people inundated with reports of wars, economic downturns and eco-collapse. This out-of-the-way tale turns into a remarkably poignant reflection on our relation to nature, and to one another.

Another forceful documentary is Sons of a Gun, Rivkah Beth Medow and Greg O’Toole’s candid and complex portrait of a retired LAPD hostage negotiator and the three grown schizophrenic men in his care for the last two decades, as they spend a year searching for a place to live from a temporary roost in a single room of an Alameda motel. The personal and group courage mustered is impressive, as is the help that comes from unexpected quarters. And yet the pressure of their circumstances takes an increasing toll. But the weaknesses of this self-described "family" are nothing compared to those of a society that would set them so adrift. Disturbing and heartbreaking, touching and scary, this is an intimate encounter that leaves an indelible imprint.

Among narrative films, Dia Sokol’s Sorry, Thanks (which recently screened as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival and was the subject of a Q&A in is a wry treat, plunked down in the heart of the picturesque Mission District. It’s a deceptively low-key, offbeat and well-acted tale of love and commitment among a small group of twentysomethings.

And then there’s the unabashedly cute yet cunning Etienne!, whimsical and arch and just its-own thing. Something like a post-punk after school special, and shot mostly on location in the city as well as the forested coast nearby, director Jeff Mizushima’s droll melodrama follows a bashful young man (a disarmingly understated Richard Vallejos) compelled to give his dying hamster a tour of the greater outdoors before a scheduled euthanasia appointment. Somewhere along the way his story crosses that of a sweetly attractive college student (Megan Harvey) reeling from a breakup, but not quite in the way you expect. The bone-dry performances of a fine cast include a delighting cameo by Caveh Zahedi, also represented this year in one of CBTB’s two shorts programs with a bizarre behind-the-scenes accounting titled The Unmaking of I Am a Sex Addict.

As part of Cinema by the Bay, SFFS is also highlighting San Francisco Cinematheque’s tribute to one of Canyon Cinema’s founders, the late Chick Strand, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on October 23. The screenings of several films by the pioneering experimental filmmaker, who died in July, will be presented in association with Canyon, the filmmaker’s cooperative founded in 1961 and developed with instrumental support from Strand. [Editor’s note: More on Strand in Friday’s edition of]

In all, the views to be had in CBTB are varied, and suggest a regional vibrancy far from exhausted by this inaugural dip into local filmmaking waters. Indeed, Uyehara stresses that he and his colleagues see the new festival as the way to expand rather than circumscribe the circle of Bay Area–centered filmic art available to audiences.

"Perforce, we’re programming from what we know," he says. "I’m sure there are films that we overlooked—not on purpose. We don’t want that to continue; we want people to make themselves known to us."

In other words, exchange is part of the design, and Uyehara hopes filmmakers avail themselves of the festival’s social networking opportunities. The full slate of work on display (which you can read about at SFFS) comes bracketed by two very social evenings that mingle eclectic film and video works and live performance: opening night’s celebration at Temple Nightclub–Prana Restaurant; and closing night’s The Anne McGuire Show (October 25), wherein the video artist, chanteuse and provocateur hosts a bill to include some of her best known and newer work as well as lounge lizard alter-ego Freddy, other live acts, a guest MC and "surprises." But then almost anywhere you land in this abundant little fest, you’re liable to find some of those.

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