The 11th annual rite of passage for every local film/videomaker -- aka the Film Arts Festival -- arrives in S.F. Wednesday, Nov. 1, with Berkeley-based independent filmmaker Paul Budnitz's 93 Million Miles From the Sun (Castro Theater, 7:30 p.m.). Shot entirely in the Mission District, Budnitz's low-budget feature sets the stage for a weeklong schedule of dramatic features, documentaries, and shorts -- all either focusing on Bay Area subjects or lensed by Bay Area artists.
Established in 1976 by a handful of filmmakers who wanted better access to equipment and funding for their own projects, Film Arts Foundation has grown into one of the largest regional media arts centers for independent film- and videomakers in the country. Having sponsored and premiered many local works that later garnered Academy Award nominations (as well as two -- In the Shadow of the Stars and The Times of Harvey Milk -- that went on to win Oscars), FAF has earned a reputation as a unique showcase for our local talent.
This year the spotlight is on Budnitz. The young filmmaker's breakthrough feature, 93 Million Miles From the Sun, takes the often beautifully portrayed San Francisco landscape and turns it on its head. Showcasing a barren industrial wasteland more akin to the Rust Belt than Baghdad by the Bay, Budnitz weaves together the tormented lives of four characters as they wander the Mission District, sorting out their problems while also confronting a desolate urban setting. Featuring the city more as a character than a backdrop, Budnitz prefers to shoot the gray and angry underside of the Bay Bridge rather than the glorious and sunny Golden Gate. Mixing healthy doses of humor with weighty drama, the director coaxes convincing performances from his four leads (Dylan Kussman, Aaron Davidman, Dena Martinez, and Leith Burke). But Budnitz returns continually to the city's landscape as the inspiration for the film's angst. As one character from out of town dryly muses while driving past boarded-up warehouses and graffiti-branded concrete walls, "It looks pretty nice here; I could see living out here. It's so peaceful."
The festival also will present a number of special programs focusing on San Francisco's diverse community. A screening of the late Marlon Riggs' final work, Black Is ... Black Ain't -- a sweeping exploration of the notions and representations of black identity -- will be presented Nov. 3 at 12:45 p.m. for junior high and high school students at the Bayview Opera House.
FAF also redefines the notion of "family programming" by offering a co-presentation with the Lesbian and Gay Parents' Association of Megan Siler's The Midwife's Tale (Nov. 4, 5 p.m., Roxie Cinema), a medieval fairy tale about a young noblewoman's love affair with the village midwife.
On the documentary front, FAF once again showcases a number of well-crafted projects. Former San Francisco State University cinema Professor Ron Levaco unveils his personal and probing Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom (Nov. 10, 7 p.m., UC Theater in Berkeley). Examining his childhood during the 1940s as a Russian Jew living in China, Levaco turns the focus on a family friend, Israel Epstein, who opted to stay in China for the last 40 years rather than emigrate to America, as most foreigners did.
Other docs worth noting are Jennifer Kaufman's Bottom of the Dial (Nov. 5, 4:30 p.m., Roxie), a video focusing on alternative Berkeley radio station KALX; and Dorothy Fadiman's From Danger to Dignity (Nov. 3, 7 p.m., Roxie), a bone-chilling inspection of the history behind the movement for reproductive rights, filled with tragic tales of death and mutilation at the hands of back-room abortionists.
The 11th Annual Film Arts Festival runs through Nov. 10 at various venues; for information, see Showtime or call 552-3456.
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