Independent Counsel

The brand-new San Francisco Independent Film Festival highlights the real indies

In spite of the proliferation of film festivals, major studios starting indie divisions, cable TV desperate for content, and cheap technology, many movies are DOA, unable to find a distributor or even a venue. As Jeff Ross, director of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival, says, "If a film hasn't played Sundance and received distribution, or been selected to play one of the city's film festivals, it is very unlikely that it will be shown in San Francisco." To fill that gap, Ross has assembled a mostly strong program of 17 independent features that prove, if proof were needed, that independents continue to thrive while the screen-hogging mainstream, with its biblical bug dramas and wheezing action pix, slides into senescence.

There's a welcome freshness and topicality in much of this year's fest. Among the winners in this realm is Gary Ellenberg's Ted, a hilarious mockumentary about the Unabomber. Ellenberg uses a combination of flashbacks, interviews with relatives and ex-girlfriends, and a purposely cheesy atmosphere to reduce his version of the brainy serial bomber to a hopeless nerd who can't get a date. Andy Dick has a fun bit as a gay cop who apprehends poor Ted. A grimmer view of outsiders is Randolp Kret's Pariah, an ethnographic study of racist skinheads disguised as a trashy exploitation movie. Highlights here include the unintentionally funny "Dance of the Skinheads" (think Alvin Ailey meets Jesse Ventura) and a string of crudely effective performances by players with more conviction than talent. Oozing comic-book violence, this one has all the makings of a future guilty pleasure. Of course, no modern festival would be complete without some millennial angst, and Nick Davis' 1999 delivers it with some sharply observed humor. Drugs, suicide, a bathroom peephole, raging teeny-boppers, and a Greek chorus in the form of a crusty old hippie liven up a Greenwich Village party. The film may be the first to prominently feature durian, the stinky "psychedelic" fruit from Thailand that's been much in the news lately.

Some of the films seem ripe for the rep houses. Richard Schenkman's amusing and affecting Went to Coney Island recasts the road movie as an excursion through a deserted amusement park, where two lost souls try to find a third, an old high school buddy now homeless and deranged. Schenkman gets striking, natural performances from his actors and adds enough comedy -- much of it dark -- to make the more depressing elements endurable. Wendell Jo Andersson's With or Without You is a well-crafted star vehicle for Kristoffer Winters, as a pathetically naive student, and Marisa Ryan, brilliant as an alternately vicious and vulnerable slacker girl who sadistically manipulates him. While college boy coos to her about "the harmony of the spheres," she says simply, "You were a pity fuck." Richard Sears' Bongwater, set in Portland, takes a kinder view of its aging slackers, a group of artists, drug dealers, and party hounds who bicker, bed-hop, and get high. Andy Dick again shows up as a brittle, dishy queen.

One of the attractions of the indie is that you can make one in a few days, with a skeleton crew, on practically pennies. Such is the case with Mick Diener's Which Way, Por Favor? This object lesson in low-budget moviemaking disproves the notion that direct-to-video is an inherently artless form. Set and shot on Mexico's Pacific Coast, the film overcomes the dreaded "curse of video" look, combining gorgeous scenery with an "expats in emotional turmoil" story that eventually rises above its cliches. One of the festival's standouts, Killer Flick, about a quartet of crazed auteurs with guns (!) trying to put together a film, provides a different kind of lesson about the indie world. Director Mark Weidman shows how to graft a grade-Z road movie plot -- "titties, gunfights, car chases, explosions," as one of the characters correctly observes -- onto a Brechtian scenario of self-reflexivity and narrative breakdown and still make a breathless, funny, inventive film.

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