At times we go to the movies to learn more about other places. Most often we go to be entertained and enlightened, but certainly not to be preached to. The benefit of the SFIFF is that it's rarely preachy -- even during a time like this, when preachiness would be so easy. And in a festival of 202 films from 46 countries, we'd expect a lot of entertainment and enlightenment.
Another benefit of this collection is that it broadens our idea of what "the cinema of X country" means: The selections from any given region are often wildly different in tone, vision, and style, yet still speak to the particular conditions in that area. Among the more than 20 pieces from Asia included in this year's festival, for example, are such disparate approaches as Blissfully Yours (Thailand, 2002), a sensual film about watching films, and So Close (Hong Kong, 2002), a crowd-pleaser about kick-ass chicks. More than 30 works from Latin America are highlighted, from the atmospheric Extraño (Argentina, 2003), covering one man's quiet implosion, to the in-your-face Bus 174 (Brazil, 2002), about a hijacking in Rio de Janeiro. Guest programmer Michel Ciment, of the French film magazine Positif, has assured that the assortment from France is equally diverse, from Fear and Trembling (2003), which follows a Belgian woman in Japan, to L'auberge espagnole (France/Spain, 2002), featuring the star of Amélie.
The Middle East also makes a prominent appearance, of course, both in films from countries in the region and in films about them. Some images sit differently because we're in the midst of a war, whether they were intended to do so or not. Ten (Iran/France, 2002) is a digital video slice of everyday decisions made under duress, whereas Eat, Sleep, No Women (Germany, 2002) moves from China to Egypt to South Africa to portray the international effects of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Such works are a testament to the power of art -- and the SFIFF -- to move us beyond our day-to-day isolationism and into the world at large.