Most film festivals that come through town have a single theme -- surf movies, say, or zombie horror in 3-D. The San Francisco International Film Festival is different: It has no unified focus, not even, as its name implies, pictures from other countries. (Of its 185 offerings, 70 of them -- or 38 percent, far more than any other country's contribution -- are from the United States, including a handful of productions shared between America and another country.) This strikes me as rather odd.
The fest's program guide bears this motto on its cover: "Every film is a foreign film somewhere." That's true, of course, but this festival is being held here, in the U.S., where (it seems obvious to state) only films from other places are considered foreign. But perhaps I'm just being picky. After all, dipping into the offerings at the SFIFF is like working as a professional taster at an ice cream factory: The flavors may not all be to your liking, but you're still eating a lot of ice cream.
To that end, there are some regions covered here that do hang together thematically. Some of them resonate because of current issues -- particularly films from Southeast Asia, where the world's eyes turned after the recent tsunami, and those from the Middle East and farther hubs of Islam. Others stand out because their countries of origin are cinematically strong, in particular France (the twisted Innocence) and Latin America (the superb Whisky Romeo Zulu).
Despite the SFIFF's lack of a cohesive focus, for this year's film festival package we've pulled together a selection of strong movies about war and government, covering such events as a terrorist bombing (Monday Morning Glory), confused soldiers (Días de Santiagoand Off to War), and governmental shenanigans (Facing the Deadand The Fall of Fujimori). Finally, certain individual movies stand out as must-sees, regardless of where they come from: So far, we've particularly enjoyed India's masterful Chokher Bali: A Passion Play; the latest from the maker of Rivers and Tides, called Touch the Sound; and a documentary about San Francisco's "Winter of Love," Pursuit of Equality -- not foreign at all, but still delightful. Get out your spoon.
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