A flip through the program guide tells the story. The documentaries on view at the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival are more exciting than the fiction films. That's just how things are in the 21st century fiction is dead. It's too clichéd. Documentary's greater range of possible subjects, the less formulaic stories that emerge, is reaffirmed in the festival's choices.
Take The Rape of Europa, for example a fascinating history of the Nazis' attempt to steal the great art of Europe, and the people who fought back. It has enough drama for at least three Hollywood films, with genuine heroes ripe for Oscar: the mousy art librarian! The soldier-scholar-conservator! But Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham's intelligent film also has plenty to say about art's role in culture.
Not that there aren't formulas in this genre, too. Vanessa Roth's The Third Monday in October aims to follow up the success of a Spellbound in its tale of highly motivated sixth graders running for class president at four very different schools. While in Marin the big issue is getting more flavors of Jamba Juice, the kids at San Francisco's Francisco Middle School have to deal with crumbling mortar and old textbooks that are falling apart. When one student raises that issue in her campaign, an administrator cruelly slaps her down for being "very negative." These scenes are more telling than the upbeat movie Roth tries to make with musical montages of happy kids.
Two excellent documentaries fully break with convention. Murch is essentially a 78-minute monologue by a local legend, film editor and sound designer Walter Murch (The Conversation, The English Patient). It's all about his craft, and whatever else crosses his mind say, for example, a lengthy disquisition on the nature of blinking. Edie and David Ichioka's film about the Oscar-winning editor delivers on its promise of telling us something about an artist, as its form (direct address to the camera, with every pause deleted by a jump cut) perfectly matches its content.
Pernille Rose Gronkjaer's lovely, poignant The Monastery follows an 86-year-old Danish man's efforts to prepare his castle for conversion to a Russian Orthodox monastery. Jorgen Laursen Vig has lived alone in his crumbling manse for decades, love having passed him by, thanks evidently to a frighteningly dominating father he still looks up to. At the very end of his life he's seized with regret, and it's a heartbreaking thing to see. This man's foibles register as something more than a human-interest tale presented for our prurient interest. It's the class of the field. Gregg Rickman
The Rape of Europa: Monday, May 7, 6:30 p.m., Kabuki; Tuesday, May 8, 12:30 p.m. Kabuki; Thursday, May 10, 7:45, Kabuki
The Third Monday in October: Saturday, May 5, 3:15 p.m., Kabuki; Thursday, May 10, 6:15 p.m., Kabuki
Murch: Friday, April 27, 9 p.m., SFMOMA; Sunday, April 29, 4:15 p.m., Castro Theatre; Tuesday, May 1, 1 p.m., Kabuki; Saturday, May 5, 3:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive (PFA)
The Monastery: Thursday, May 3, 4:30 p.m., Kabuki; Friday, May 4, 7 p.m., Kabuki; Sunday, May 6, 1 p.m., Kabuki