The World and Its Cinema: San Francisco International Film Festival 60

I’ve always appreciated the fact that this film festival, now celebrating its 60th year, has always been international in a well-curated and thoughtful way. Not that I haven’t enjoyed meeting filmmakers from previously un-represented countries present for the first time and watching their locally-crafted points of view. But with the variety and number of films produced and distributed yearly all over the world, I particularly appreciate that the festival pays attention, not just to formal innovations, but also to (critical) contemporary ideas and global, socio-cultural trends.

2016, one might say, was the year of globalism vs. nationalism on an international scale, and this year’s festival films fully express the tug of those tides. Making the case for global citizenship include the lovely and funny The Future Perfect, Nele Wohlatz’s commentary on the presence of China in Argentina, couched in a lovely and tender coming of age tale; Hermia and Helena, where Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England unites New York City and Buenos Aires; Rahmatou Keïta’s powerful The Wedding Ring, where gender, love, family and desire play out on the transcontinental, transcultural stage; El Mar La Mar, a poetic yet accurate depiction of the US/ Mexico borderlands; and Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge, which takes us (virtually and spiritually) across disparate continents. It is also timely and resonant (at least for Americans) that the festival should screen 1941’s Citizen Kane, a film about a rich heir who “parlays his fortune into tabloid media superstardom and runs for office as a populist savior.” Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

This year, the festival honors the inimitable and eminently respectable (and Bay-Area born) James Ivory of Merchant Ivory Productions, and includes a screening of one of my favorite E.M Forster adaptations, Maurice. While “Merchant Ivory” might conjure up images of Cambridge University and corsets, it is worth remembering that many of its films explore the global versus the national – and more precisely, the effects of the colonial on the indigenous. James Ivory and his collaborators (including the prolific screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) were always interested in stories about what it means to be the other (Maurice, A Passage to India, The Bostonians) and what happens when cultures, genders, nations, economic classes, and languages clash and redefine the notion of self and citizenry. They were particularly sensitive to ways in which the personal sense of self could be co-opted, manipulated, and rendered inferior in the quest for power and dominance. Their films conveyed the modern notion that colonialism, sexism, and racism display the same attributes and dynamics. In 2017, these so-called period films, alongside the contemporary ones, remind us of the value of empathy, curiosity, and kindness in the face of conflict and quickly-changing worlds.

The San Francisco International Film Festival is now SFFilm. The 60th Festival runs from 5 – 19 April 2017 in the San Francisco Bay Area.