Democracy seems a tad elusive these days, what with our off-the-charts prison population, a government taken over by Cold Warriors, and "zero tolerance" of just about anything that lacks a designer label or corporate logo. But not to worry. America's premier sociopolitical system is alive and well in, of all places, the movies. The knockout combo of cheap technologies and an increasingly moribund mainstream has produced an avalanche of worthy low-budget features and documentaries in recent months, some of which are on display at the fourth San Francisco Independent Film Festival, aka IndieFest.
In this year's program, which includes 99 entries from 12 countries spread over 11 days, it's Armageddon, not prosperity, that's just around the corner -- in spite of the fact that all of these films predate the events of Sept. 11. Calum Grant and Joshua Atesh Litle's Ever Since the World Ended is a case in point. This mockumentary takes place in S.F. a decade after a plague has destroyed all but 186 people. The naturalistic acting, deadly calm atmosphere, and elegant look (it was shot on PAL-DVD video, which looks much like 35mm film) create a chillingly real sense of death-in-life. For those who expect a few laughs as the world careens to a close, there's Todd Hughes' black-and-white ode to B-movies, The New Women. Cult diva Mary Woronov plays Lisa La Strada, an ex-boozer trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world with no men. Hughes is mostly successful in skewering such admittedly broad targets as trailer trash and goddess-worshipping New Agers ("She's gone granola!"). Internal blowouts can be as fascinating as their global counterparts, if Cookers is any indication. This overlong but intense exercise in druggy paranoia focuses on a trio of addled miscreants whipping up meth in a possibly haunted house in the sticks. The supernatural angle seems forced, but director Dan Mintz scores with an accurate portrait of white-trash drug culture. No IndieFest would be complete without over-the-top Japanese schoolboys assaulting each other for 82 minutes -- as they do in Toyoda Toshiaki's powerful Blue Spring(Aoi Haru). At the center of the film, and perhaps at the center of the boys' lives, is a deadly "clapping game" that establishes their leaders. The director works this material to dizzying effect in a series of brutal variations played against a grinding, relentless soundtrack. Teen idol Ryuhei Matsuda, who played the samurai boy-toy in Gohatto, gives unexpected gravitas to his role as a stylish gangsta who would rather grow flowers.
Admission is $20 (includes Castro screenings earlier in the evening)
IndieFest continues through Feb. 10 at various venues
Admission is $6-8 for individual screenings, and festival passes are $35-125
Closer to home, two documentaries look at a pair of the city's most outré artists. Sarah Kernochan's Thoth resurrects the shrieking, prancing, fiddle-playing dervish familiar to many a 24th Street BART station rider. Marc Rokoff's Unspeakable gives the Rev. Steven Leyba a juicy forum for his high heel-wearing, penis-stabbing, devil-worshipping hijinks. Leyba, like Thoth, is a gifted artist who's almost embarrassingly normal under his calculatedly wicked exterior. Readers who noted the recent return of politico Jack Davis may also recall that Leyba was the zany Satanist whose girlfriend shoved a whiskey bottle up his butt at Jack's notorious 50th birthday party.