San Francisco film fest bridges past, future

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The San Francisco International Film Festival turned 50 in 2007, making it the oldest festival in the Americas. Because of that long and venerable history, one might think that SFIFF would be a meditative, backward-looking event.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

While mindful of the history of cinema -- among the offerings is a newly restored version of 1945's "Leave Her to Heaven," starring Gene Tierney -- SFIFF, running Thursday through May 8, is far more prospective than retrospective.

"I want us to maintain that sort of proud tradition but at the same time continually be looking at new work, new platforms, new ways of showing work and new audiences," said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, which presents SFIFF.

Among those new ways of showing work are digital and experimental cinema, which Leggat has made increasingly important to SFIFF since he took over in late 2005. On the program are live shows by multidisciplinary performance collective Cloud Eye Control and genre-defying musician and actress Anna Oxygen. There's also SFIFF's annual State of Cinema address, to be delivered by technology guru and Wired magazine senior maverick Kevin Kelly, titled "Beyond Moving Pictures: Possibilities for the Future of Film."

"We're interested -- especially here, just north of Silicon Valley -- in the crossover between software and film, mobile media and film, computers and video and film," Leggat said.

SFIFF is also outward-looking, and its tech-savvy thrust doesn't overshadow what has always been the core of its identity: internationalism.

This year's program includes films from 49 countries in 31 different languages. Among them is the opening-night selection "Une vieille maitresse" (The Last Mistress) from Paris-based writer-director Catherine Breillat.

"At SFIFF, you can see lots of amazing international films that you're not going to see other places, and the festival has long-term relationships with filmmakers around the world," said filmmaker Sam Green, who has screened three films at SFIFF, including his Oscar-nominated 2003 doc "The Weather Underground," and who is one of the editors of Dawn Logsdon's "Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans," screening at this year's fest.

Also on the agenda of the SFIFF -- which in its 51st edition is presenting 200 features and shorts in its traditional categories (new directors, world cinema, docs and shorts) -- is the celebration of Bay Area film culture.

"Bay Area film culture isn't coming from the industry down -- it's kind of going from the filmgoers up," said writer-director Barry Jenkins, whose San Francisco-set romance "Medicine for Melancholy" is screening. "And I think it makes the selection process at SFIFF much more creative."

"I think Bay Area film is independent-minded, and I don't mean that in the sense of independent film," said Noah Miller, who, with his identical twin brother Logan Miller, wrote, directed, produced and starred in their feature debut, "Touching Home" (starring Ed Harris), which will have its world premiere at the SFIFF. "Those who choose to make films in the Bay Area tend to be very independent in their thinking, and they want to make the films that they want to make and perhaps not be influenced by Hollywood."

"The films they select tend to be really top-notch and often a little edgy," said filmmaker Johnny Symons, who screened his 2002 doc "Daddy and Papa," about gay parenting, at SFIFF, and whose latest project, "Ask Not," will have its world premiere here this year. "They're willing to take some chances on films that other festivals might not."

That willingness is evident even in the accolades that the festival bestows: Among this year's award recipients are Maria Bello, whose work is being recognized for its "brilliance, independence and integrity" with the Peter J. Owens Award; Mike Leigh, who is receiving the Founder's Directing Award; and Village Voice senior film critic Jim Hoberman, who is being honored for championing unique movies with the Mel Novikoff Award.

But SFIFF, which typically presents about 25 juried awards, doesn't celebrate unique voices for the sake of being different. Instead, it's about making a difference.

"Films that have an opportunity to change people's lives, change society or that detect society and people in moments of change -- those are the films we're looking for," Leggat said.
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