The San Francisco Film Society’s Fall Season of mini-film festivals concludes with the fifth Cinema by the Bay festival. This three day showcase of feature-length films and shorts made in or about the San Francisco Bay Area will take viewers to such locales as North Korea, Guam, and the mean streets of San Francisco.
Susanna Helke’s heartbreaking documentary “American Vagabond” will particularly shame San Francisco residents who consider homeless youth less than dirt.
Lovers James Temple and Tyler Johnson flee religious homophobia in Chico for the gay haven of San Francisco. But instead of finding gay community rebirth, the homeless duo encounter cold streets, starvation, and a need to survive via nightly Golden Gate Park campouts or self-prostitution with older gay strangers. Yet that’s not the worst twist of fate awaiting them.
Viewers accustomed to seeing the Castro Theatre and Orphan Andy’s Restaurant as comforting sights will regard these places as inaccessible havens through James’ eyes. Temple’s narration in the first half of the film captures his gradual shift from optimism to disillusionment. The duo’s Golden Gate Park sleepovers are less about lowering property values and more about surviving with scant financial resources. Seeing Tyler carry around rackets in his backpack and hearing him confidently pronouncing he wouldn’t resort to using shopping carts demonstrates his naivete.
Helke’s film observes without comment Temple and Johnson’s struggle to find a place among other San Francisco gays. No words are needed to see them realize today’s San Francisco makes self-reinvention while trusting the universe impossible.
Could S.F. Supervisors’ viewing of “American Vagabond” have prevented their recent decision to ban the early morning presence of people in the city’s parks? It’s doubtful. But at least viewing Helke’s film may start a shift from regarding young homeless youth as some contemptible Other.
“Lovers from opposing sides of a war get separated by politics” is a familiar workhorse of a plot. In Hak Jang’s Korean War melodrama “The Other Side of the Mountain” takes this workhorse-like story and sends it to the aesthetic glue factory.
The first U.S.-North Korea joint film production unsurprisingly proves more interested in furious rhetorical flag-waving. Female lead Son Ah is less plausible character and more North Korean fighting spirit incarnate mixed with altruism that’d shame Buddha. Lovable crying orphan girl Oki and dear friend Kuk Hwa exist solely as foci for hating gratuitous American barbarity.
Lack of continuity or plausibility provide many moments of unintended comedy. An onscreen jet plane sounds propeller-driven. The film’s 1980 framing device doesn’t explain the anachronistic 1992 medical convention poster or the sight of post-1980 personal computers. Son Ah’s frequent declaration that all Koreans are brothers turns into a comical “Animal Farm”-like moment when male lead Il Gyu admits his affiliation with South Korea’s army.
Jang’s film may entertain those with a shaky grasp of mid-20th century history. For everyone else, this melodrama only offers masochistic appeal.
By contrast, Britta Sjogren’s drama “Redemption Trail” eschews melodramatic manipulation for skillfully restrained storytelling.
Loner Tess Eldridge (Lisa Gay Hamilton) quietly watches over John Stubbs’ Sonoma County winery and waits to end her decade of criminal probation. An unexpected encounter with grieving obstetrician Anna Cole (Lily Rabe) sparks an opportunity for both women to make peace with their individual tragic pasts.
Despite the title’s implication of a certain path to redemption, Sjogren’s script doesn’t obviously tip how either Tess or Anna can move forward. Tess’ isolated lifestyle is as much a product of uncertainty about her rehabilitation as it is her unstated fears of emotional confinement. Anna’s deep depression is a toxic mix of guilt, grief, and directionlessness. Sjogren’s slow revelation of each woman’s personal life, such as Tess’ connection to the Black Panthers, engages the viewer in empathizing with them and looking for small positive emotional changes. However, as Anna’s arc in particular shows, character empathy doesn’t mean overlooking a character’s personal failings.
Mark Orton’s haunting theme with tinges of lonely longing provides a nice complement to the mood Sjogren wants to create. Ironically, the good guy-bad guy ethos associated with Westerns only plays a minor role in this film.
“Redemption Trail” may sport the minor fault of not considering all the consequences of Tess’ and Anna’s actions. (e.g. How does Anna’s absence not result in unemployment?) But Sjogren’s film still manages to be warm and gripping.
As the Homer allusion suggests, Berry Minott’s documentary “The Illness and the Odyssey” concerns a decades-long search for the key to an epidemiological Rosetta stone.
Neuro-degenerative disease Lytico-Bodig primarily affects Guam’s Chamorro natives. Victims of the disease manifest one of three sets of symptoms, such as dementia or muscular paralysis. Since the disease was discovered during World War II, theories about what causes Lytico-Bodig have ranged from genetics to fruit bat consumption. At stake is the possibility of applying knowledge about this Chamorro disease to such familiar neuro-degenerative disorders as ALS and Alzheimer’s.
Minott engagingly captures the human aspects of scientific research. Scientist Leonard Kurland’s family history spurs his interest in Lytico-Bodig. Hearing the genesis of the excess aluminum exposure theory painlessly shows viewers how scientific theories are actually created. Bits of puckish humor, such as old horror film footage, rescue the film from self-important seriousness.
The film suggests the current impasses in Lytico-Bodig research arises from such human traits as professional distrust and possessiveness. Hearing one interviewee calls the current professional environment “a thieves’ market” sabotages viewer confidence in these researchers’ eventual success.
(“American Vagabond” screens at 4:30 PM on November 23, 2013. “The Other Side of the Mountain” screens at 2:15 PM on November 24, 2013. “Redemption Trail” screens at 2:15 PM on November 23, 2013. “The Illness and the Odyssey” screens at 7:00 PM on November 24, 2013. All screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF). For advance tickets and further information on the films, go to www.sffs.org