"Reality is always magic," said legendary French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and the quote makes an intriguing tag line for the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival. Two timely movies, for example, document the less-than-charmed life of the U.S. military. Canaan Brumley's Ears, Open. Eyeballs, Click. is a nonfiction remake of Full Metal Jacket that follows Marine recruits being processed through boot camp. The usual colorful abuse ("I know what a broken leg looks like," says a DI to a moaning recruit by the side of a road. "Get up! We hump till we die") is underscored with a swelling, Hollywood-ish soundtrack. Call it Enslaving Private Ryan. Meanwhile, Occupation: Dreamland, by Garrett Scott and Ian Olds, tracks its soldiers through six weeks of survival in Fallujah in early 2004. Hated and shot at, they hate and shoot back, the dumber soldiers cursing the Iraqis, the more thoughtful ones condemning their own superiors.
The equally relevant Call It Democracy, by Matt Kohn, denounces Electoral College roulette, but in a voice that's too even, too PBS-y, to be really effective. High-pitched mockery is more appropriate, and to that end Pedro Carvajal's POPaganda: The Art and Crimes of Ron English more than satisfies. Its fast-motion look at this guerrilla artist, who targets corporate billboards with pasted-on caricatures, transcends mere rooting interest in the anti-authoritarian's antics. It would have been a more aggressive opening-night festival choice than Mana: Beyond Belief, a pleasantly meditative picture by Peter Friedman and Roger Manley about "power objects" -- famous rocks, trees, and monuments around which people gather to draw strength and wisdom. Mana opens with a shot of discarded, decaying Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse statues, an image out of which Ron English could have built an entire anti-corporate ad campaign.
Stephen Tobolowsky, best known as a middle-aged ugly duckling in films like Groundhog Day and Memento, comes out as a swan in Stephen Tobolowsky's Birthday Party, holding forth straight to Robert Brinkmann's camera for a full 90 minutes, telling stories about auditions gone awry and other misadventures. Amazingly, it's not boring. Michael Gitlin's The Birdpeopleregisters as the most artistically ambitious movie being screened, telling its bird-watching tales through a series of silent tableaux, collages of voice-over narration, maps, bird paintings, and other devices. At its narrative core is the hunt for the feared-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker; the bird's recent rediscovery is the happiest of coincidences.
Admission is $7-9
My festival favorite is Brian Lilla's Ghetto Fabulous, all about Oaklanders' loving restorations of 1970s-era Ford Falcons -- weekend mechanics improvising repairs and dealing with police who tow cars for broken brake lights and thieves who'll lift your car doors and hood, get you to sell your "violated" vehicle to them in disgust, and then reattach the missing items. It's highly entertaining -- and as real as it gets.