Press time: San Francisco Film Society Director of Programming Rachel Rosen (second from left) introduced the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival to journalists at the Westin St. Francis last Tuesday.

Rosen's Insights into 53rd San Francisco International

Michael Fox April 5, 2010

It may have been a dark day for Bay Area film buffs when, in 2001, Rachel Rosen left the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) after seven years as assistant director of programming to take over the programming reins of the Los Angeles Film Festival. But it was a bright day for Southern California: Rosen was credited with dramatically increasing that festival’s commitment to international film. Of course, Los Angeles is in many ways a company town, so it can’t always have been easy for audiences coming for, say, the Public Enemies premiere to be persuaded to check out a debut feature from Turkey. (Upton Sinclair’s observation, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it,” has an application here.) Rosen’s return to the SFFS last summer as director of programming marked a happy reunion. With opening night of the San Francisco International Film Festival approaching on April 22, Rosen sat down to talk about her L.A. Rolodex, the function of festivals in a broadband world and her favorite films in the festival.

SF360: What did you learn in your eight years in Los Angeles and how does what you learned translate into this year’s program?

Rachel Rosen: I think it’s impossible to live in Los Angeles without learning a lot about the movie business, and specifically the way that the American industry looks at film festivals, and even the way the international circuit looks at film festivals. Just being in the center of some place where film is central taught me a lot about the film business from top to bottom. The fact that the film business went through a bunch of major changes while I was there was also pretty interesting.

Honestly, I think that the knowledge is more helpful than the connections. Connections are great. They can get you a quicker ‘no.’ (Laughs.) They’ll be helpful in giving me the opportunity to explain why something would be to our mutual benefit that they hadn’t considered before. But if my connections don’t consider it to their benefit to have their films here, then it will be of no use at all. I remember having a conversation with [John] Cooper when he used to program Sundance and Outfest in L.A. He would talk about exactly how far connections got you when there were people who were dying to get into Sundance, but didn’t feel like Outfest was the right outlet for their film. The fact that they were close friends wasn’t going to change that. I know a lot more people in the U.S. film business than I did when I was here before. But if they don’t feel like San Francisco is the right choice for their film, friendship is not going to overcome their desire to do a good job.

SF360: American narrative film isn’t what defines and distinguishes the SFIFF, is it.

Rosen: The weight of this film festival is still very much respected in Europe, and [our] focus is still mostly world cinema. But Hollywood looks at European directors, and half the people working in Hollywood are people whose smaller work we might have shown [here], so it’s more about thinking, “Hmmm, I wonder if we could do more for our filmmakers who are interested in doing that,’ or ‘Are there any synergies?’ I have no interest in changing the focus of the SFIFF. I don’t think we need to be more Hollywood. I definitely don’t think we need to be an industry festival. But if there are places where we can bring people together in a way we haven’t before, then that’s a good thing.

SF360: When we spoke after you were hired last year, you alluded to changes in the industry and ‘the role of the festival and the organization in the new landscape.’ Eight months in, what can you say about that?

Rosen: The thing I’ve been thinking about recently, especially since a lot of festivals have announced Internet initiatives–and I don’t want to be negative, because I think everything is worth trying–is this refrain that ‘we have to do more for the filmmakers, and we have to do more to get the films out there,’ as if building an audience and maintaining an audience’s interest wasn’t enough. It’s almost the most important thing that a festival can do.

SF360: So you see the primary mission of festivals as introducing new work and cultivating audiences?

Rosen: There isn’t much of a theatrical audience for foreign and independent films in most cities. It’s mostly eight cities, right? I don’t have statistics right here to back anything up, but I feel like San Francisco is one of those markets where it’s worth opening a foreign film or a documentary or independent film theatrically. Keeping that audience engaged and keeping them in the habit of going to the movies, and keeping their definition of film as broad as possible, is as worthwhile an endeavor to keep this kind of film alive as there is.

SF360: Where does the Internet fit in?

Rosen: As for coming up with alternate distribution models, it’s an important thing that festivals can do. Not all of us have the desire and some festivals don’t have the means to be exploring Internet platforms. But that’s a way of amalgamating the small audience that exists already. I’m not sure that those platforms will maintain and grow the audience for this kind of film. What festivals can and should be doing is looking locally, where their expertise is, to build the audience that appreciates the kind of films that we believe in. And then people can download these films or they can go to the movie theater, but I think they need to be nurtured.

SF360: Conversely, not all festivals have the resources to do year-round programming, which was long a goal and is now an emphasis of the San Francisco Film Society. What do you see on that front, going forward?

Rosen: That’s one of the things that interested me about coming back. The year-round effort is part of this idea of building an audience. The festival is splashy, it’s the jewel in the crown; you have the guests. The special event hopefully will inspire people to take a chance on a film that isn’t heavily supported by marketing, that they might not know so much about. And if they have a good experience, the fact that there is something like that on offer year-round will hopefully continue the habit. That’s the idea. I haven’t been here long enough to see whether that works the way I think it does, but it was really heartening for me to go through the fall season.

SF360: Which included French Cinema Now, among other series.

Rosen: As a programmer, if the interest is there you can go deeper than at the festival where you show the top three or four French films of the year. And it makes your audience more in tune in some ways with the programmers’ perspectives. I see a ton of films and I’m always thinking, ‘This is really interesting in relation to all these other films, but would I pick it as the one film in the festival? Probably not.’ But when your audience is at the same level, when they’re coming regularly to see ten French films at the festival, and then another dozen off-season, they’re interested in those things too. It just is like the food movement in some ways. As eaters’ palates get more refined, restaurants can try different things. It’s just exciting to be some place where the audience is curious and forgiving of certain flaws in the interest of seeing something different and interesting.

SF360: I’m also thinking of an off-season boxing series you programmed in the ’90s, in your initial tenure with the festival.

Rosen: The audience wasn’t huge for the boxing series. I think it would do better now because the audience then really trusted the film festival but didn’t think of us series curators. They looked to the Castro or the PFA for that kind of programming.

SF360: So let’s talk about this year’s festival, and the special stuff you’re particularly excited about.

Rosen: You don’t see themes while you’re programming, you just see individual films. Even though I feel like I’ve been basically sprinting, there must be some inner calm that’s come over me since I came back to San Francisco because there are all these beautiful, very simple films. Not simplistic and not even minimal but simple that I’m really excited about. My number one Toronto film is the Mexican film Alamar, which is just a story about a young son spending the last summer with his father in this coastal region of Mexico before he goes to live with his mother. It’s a mix of documentary and narrative; you’re basically watching this real father and son fishing, interacting with each other, interacting with nature. It’s the kind of film that might confuse people who are used to seeing only action movies. I never for a minute found it anything less than completely absorbing. There are several films like that in the festival this year.

SF360: Observational cinema is making a comeback, eh?

Rosen: There’s a documentary called Way of Nature which follows a year on a farm in Sweden, almost without dialogue. We see the farmer go through his day, season after season. It’s very stripped down, it’s very simply presented, but I found it very beautiful and absorbing. Maybe film is going through something equivalent to the slow food movement–believe me, I love the language of cinema–but there’s less pyrotechnics with cinematography, less choppy editing and playing with time sequencing, and more slowing down and taking in the world around the camera. That’s the trend I’m excited about this year.

SF360: It’s hard to resist the temptation of trend-spotting.

Rosen: I don’t want to make too big a thing about it, because the trend is always swinging back and forth across the pendulum of still camera to moving camera, fast editing to slow editing. Directors have to find the pace that makes sense for them and the story. So I don’t privilege this kind of filmmaking over something else, but I do appreciate it and I haven’t seen quite as much of it recently.

SF360: This festival has always savored films about setting, place and pace.

Rosen: And time. The German film Everyone Else, which is slightly different–it’s a narrative story and it’s about a relationship–reaction to it was somewhat mixed and has been since it showed in Berlin last year. Some people were like, ‘Oh, couples. Ugh! Who needs to see that again.’ I appreciated the minute power shifts and changes that were being observed along with the larger emotional battles. Time was a necessary element to tell that story, and I’m glad the filmmaker, Maren Ade (Forest For the Trees), took her time to tell it.

SF360: Is there an emerging national cinema that savvy cinemagoers should be attuned to?

Rosen: The continuing story, which started for me last year, is Mexico. I see a lot of really interesting documentary and narrative work. The two narratives we’re showing, Northless and Alamar, are from people who’ve worked in documentary. Part of the idea of the pacing and the naturalism has to do with that commingling. The other trend that I started to see last year that’s continued along that line is the blurring of the documentary/narrative line. I’m not talking about in places where the line shouldn’t be blurred. We have several investigative documentaries that I would be very disturbed if I found out that someone had been blurring the lines between narrative and documentary. Presumed Guilty and Mugabe and the White African and Russian Lessons, those films are very clearly what they are and those [directors] need to be on point. But we have a film called Port of Memory in our New Directors section, but it’s mostly classified as a documentary. And it’s not like I disagreed with them, or wanted to go against how they classified it. I put it in New Directors because I was thinking about the expectations of the audience. I wanted the audience to be best prepared for what they were going to see, because it’s in some ways an unclassifiable film. It’s a nonfiction story of the filmmaker’s family. It’s their true story but maybe not exactly at the time that the true story occurred, and it’s very stylized, so not without some direction on the part of the filmmaker. I don’t know exactly what about it makes me feel like it’s important to put it [in New Directors], but I have. That’s one of the most interesting films in the festival.

SF360: That’s a whole other conversation, the fluidity of approaches and ethics in contemporary documentary.

Rosen: Absolutely. Where can I go get my PhD, because I have a doctoral thesis I want to write which has to do with the chronology of the notion of truth in documentary from the start of cinema to the present. Because it’s mutable and has changed a lot, depending on other things, like TV news and reality TV. There are certain landmarks that shift people’s ideas of what documentary is. Back in [John] Grierson’s day, Port of Memory would be in the documentary section, and audiences would be accepting of that. My definition has always been pretty broad, and the public’s has narrowed. And not without reason. When you get into these things when film is being used as a tool to make a point or change policy, there’s a reason to insist on truth. It’s different if you’re telling your own story with your family.

SF360: Maybe you should give the State of Cinema Address next year.

Rosen: (Laughs.) And it’ll be about truth in cinema?

SF360: Why not?

Rosen: I’ll tell you why not, and it will segue back into the other thing I’m excited about. The great thing about the festival is the ‘event’ nature of it. I’m really excited about the things I haven’t seen yet, because they’re only going to happen once. I have no idea if they’re going to be swan dives or belly flops. But being there while live events are unfolding is really fun. The Live & Onstage section, which we’ve expanded a little bit, includes State of Cinema and A Conversation With T Bone Burnett. I’m super excited to see Sam Green’s Utopia in Four Movements because the idea of live documentary is something I’ve never encountered before. That’s what festivals and live theater experiences have that the Internet doesn’t.