This year's documentaries lineup at the SFIFF would warm Alan Greenspan's heart: It's all exuberance, without any pesky irrationality. Indeed, there's much to celebrate in this component of the festival, which covers a heady range of global realities, from a Mexican matriarchy to le jazz hot in a Russian labor camp to those irrepressible scamps, culture-gutting Christian missionaries. The "matriarchy" charge -- it's treated as one -- is denied by the women of Maureen Gosling's beguiling Blossoms of Fire, but the film shows that in at least one corner of the world, the Mexican city of Juchitán in Oaxaca, women do rule. They've forged a lively, colorful, and radical culture that's a perfect argument for keeping men as far away from power as possible. Even the couture cooperates: One woman cures her depression by putting on her "most powerful dress" and strolling regally down the avenida.
One area in which fiction film can never compete with the documentary is in the latter's ability to unearth hidden histories. An example here is Pierre-Henry Salfati's The Jazzman From the Gulag, which traces the life and career of little-known jazz trumpeter Eddie Rosner, a pal of Duke Ellington's and Benny Goodman's who went from German beer halls to one of Stalin's famous camps. The film finds grim poetry in his plight in a re-enactment of Rosner playing sweet tunes in this desolate place.
The horrors of war are a persistent theme in this year's fest, which shouldn't be surprising given their prominent place in reality. Angelos' Film avoids the re-enactment route typical of the genre. Director Péter Forgács seamlessly stitches a portrait of the Nazi occupation of Greece entirely from contemporary footage by amateur Greek filmmaker Angelos Papanastassiou. Atrocity scenes are wrenchingly real, and all the more powerful for being casually inserted. Focusing on more recent tragedies is Heddy Honigmann's superb Crazy. The title refers to Patsy Cline's famous song and points to the film's unusual take on large-scale conflicts: The director interviewed soldiers who were sent to war zones -- Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia -- and plays the music they listened to at the time, causing some of the men to unravel before our eyes, while others remain rigid as they talk tersely of murdered friends and blown-up strangers.
Finding the family is the subject of two notable works. Deanne Borshay's First Person Plural is a personal diary of a Korean war adoptee's attempts to find a comfort zone between her biological and adopted families. The film has moments of raw power but veers occasionally into bathos. Tove Torbiörnsson's Missing Boy is less overtly sentimental -- and ultimately more satisfying in framing the title character's search for his real parents as a riveting detective story. The great gulf between 27-year-old Jonathan's bourgeois life in Sweden and his biological family's poverty in southern India, and between the desperate emotional needs of all the players in this sad drama, moves beyond class into less definable realms of the human condition.
The Christian zealots mentioned earlier are the dark heart of Thomas Balmès' The Gospel According to the Papuans. The poor New Guinea tribe has been through the missionary meat-grinder -- enduring Methodist, Catholic, and Seventh-Day Adventist proselytizers -- and emerged cultureless and confused. It took waves of successive religious fanatics to beat a formerly proud, viable agricultural community into submission, and the result isn't pretty. Once-respected elder tribesmen wear traditional headgear with Ivy League shirts and argue about whether "Satan is in the pig's ass." Like so many of these docs, this provocative film takes us, ready or not, into some of the more bizarre backwaters of the global village.
Blossoms of Fire: Tuesday, April 25, 9:30 p.m., Castro; Monday, May 1, 7 p.m., PFA
The Jazzman From the Gulag: Sunday, April 23, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 24, 4 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Angelos Film: Tuesday, May 2, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Crazy: Saturday, April 22, 4:30 p.m., PFA; Sunday, April 23, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, April 25, 10 p.m., AMC Kabuki
First Person Plural (with Our Silent Traces): Thursday, April 27, 1 and 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Missing Boy: Saturday, April 29, 7:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, May 1, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki
The Gospel According to the Papuans: Sunday, April 23, 3 p.m., PFA; Sunday, April 30, 2 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 2, 4:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki
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