“Gut Renovation,” veteran avant garde documentarian Su Friedrich’s newest film, will definitely stir anger in the hearts of former Mission and SOMA residents priced out of the neighborhoods they lived in. Despite its East Coast setting, the truths and dark humor captured by Friedrich’s film unfortunately apply to the West Coast as well.
In 1989, the filmmaker moved into the Williamsburg area of New York City. Williamsburg was a six block by fifteen block area of light industrial factories, small businesses, and former commercial buildings converted by sweat equity to artists’ lofts. In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg’s administration rezoned the area to encourage redevelopment. Eviction waves hit Williamsburg over the next few years, forcing out existing artists and neighborhood businesses. Friedrich’s personal film chronicles the greed-fueled destruction of the neighborhood she loved.
Many frames of “Gut Renovation” tremble with Friedrich’s barely suppressed anger. Sometimes her feelings are expressed in snarky onscreen titles such as one observing Williamsburg’s invasion by designer dogs and their well-heeled owners. Yuppies complaining about unapologetic filming of their activities appear utterly petty next to seeing former Williamsburg residents losing their homes and livelihoods. But an animated neighborhood map provides the film’s best visual metaphor. As old Williamsburg buildings get destroyed, the cumulative decimation captures the depth of redevelopers’ greed.
Apologists for gentrification will claim that the mass redevelopment replaced Williamsburg’s old dirty buildings with newer cleaner structures. Friedrich’s camera shows what developers call age and dirt are the architectural equivalent of character built from years of living and associating with one’s neighbors. By contrast, the interiors of the expensive condos that replaced those old Williamsburg buildings reflect an aesthetic that’s the architectural equivalent of botox.
Two pieces of graffiti seen in the film encapsulates the heartbreak of Williamsburg’s redevelopment. A sign reading “Williamsburg” gets changed to “Condoburg.” An “Artists lived here” graffito posted on the Internet brings forth comment trolls applauding the artists’ eviction from the neighborhood. One wonders if City Hall would also be happy with San Francisco becoming a West Coast Condoburg.
Physical screwing frequently occurs in the controversial award-winner “F**k For Forest (hereafter “FFF”).” Michal Marczak’s film concerns an ecological NGO whose method for saving the rain forest definitely falls far from lobbying the halls of power.
Berlin roommates Leona and Tommy run FFF, which raises money to save rain forest lands from the chainsaw. The NGO raises money by creating homemade porn videos and erotic images for paid online consumption. 400,000 Euros have been raised through FFF’s efforts. Marczak focuses on half a dozen of the group’s members, their sometimes tortured interpersonal relationships, and a critical forest project.
Despite the potentially sensationalistic subject matter, Marczak commendably gives the viewer space to know the FFF members before showing what they do. His camera acts like a fly on the wall so the viewer can judge the members’ actions for themselves. Sexual freedom is not a hypocritical excuse for gratuitous sex but seriously taken by most of its members as a valid method of improving the world. Leona’s casual toplessness is not titillation but a declaration of liberation from socially rigid beliefs. One admires Marczak’s gaining such a degree of trust with his subjects that they display remarkable candor in front of the camera.
Of the FFF members profiled, relative newbie Danny proves particularly compelling. A black sheep from a well-off Norwegian family, his stated desire for liberation seems contradicted by his actions. It feels as if his loyalty to FFF comes from having a venue to push his sexual freedom to the limit.
The director avoids being judgmental in showing FFF’s warts. He lets the viewer decide how much their faults matter. Reliance on volunteer performers for the videos runs into disruptions resulting from a participant’s jealousy. Possible discrediting by association causes more established groups to distance themselves from FFF. The contradiction between the international group’s naïve idealism and the harsh realities of preserving rain forest lands ultimately becomes the focus of the film’s third act.
Despite the NGO’s very real problems, its members’ sincerity is never in doubt. Dumpster diving for food and clothing demonstrates deliberate rejection of Western culture’s acceptance of “allowable waste.” In contrast to non-profits which turn social problems into gravy trains, FFF’s existence is in its way quite revolutionary.
The “older man lusting after younger woman” trope gets a welcome shot of humanity in Jared Scheib’s documentary portrait “The Mayor.”
88-year-old Jew Sam Berger lives in Dallas’ North Village Inn retirement community. The community’s residents refer to him as “The Mayor” thanks to his knowing all the community gossip and all the residents and workers. Sam loves chasing younger women. With the late 50-ish Cordelia, Berger thinks he’s found a lover to replace his dead wife. But can age really lessen a man’s fear of commitment?
Seeing Sam unselfconsciously walk around in grotty underwear or following one resident’s trip to her husband’s gravesite may show a supposed unconcern with others’ reactions. Yet that theory doesn’t explain Sam and Cordelia’s mutual reluctance to express their affections in front of their visiting children.
One may intellectually accept that as long as a person is alive, their desire to love another person should be respected. Yet seeing Sam chase the available women at North Village Inn challenges a viewer to not put down or ridicule his efforts. Viewers who believe Berger should behave more respectably do get their wish towards the end of the film. But the emotional emptiness of what Sam does makes sympathetic viewers feel his tail-chasing is in its way a life-affirming action.
(“Gut Renovations” screens at 5 PM on June 9, 2013. “F**k For Forest” screens at 9 PM on June 9, 2013 and 7 PM on June 13, 2013. “The Mayor” screens at 5 PM on June 8, 2013. These screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF). For information on screenings at other festival venues and obtaining advance tickets, go to www.sfindie.com