More and more independent filmmakers have come to disdain the old refrain, “Sundance or bust!” They’ve figured out that all too often the reality is “Sundance or busted.” The vast majority of indie directors now concoct a strategy to get their work seen via a raft of alternatives, including niche festivals, DVD sales, and online streaming, while moviegoers are learning that adventurous, proactive audiences see the most interesting flicks. One of the prime beneficiaries of what we might call the New Indie Underground is the San Francisco Independent Film Festival — aka IndieFest — which, in its 11th year, has matured into a coveted destination for young filmmakers from around the globe. As the tools to make movies have become decentralized, spreading panic through every takeout sushi joint in Hollywood, the fest has been deluged with entries from talents great and, well, not so great. The programmers’ eclectic selections for this year’s lineup coalesce around the themes and demographics of previous IndieFests: men and women in their 20s and 30s striving to establish identities, create opportunities, and invent realities.
Daniel Davila’s accomplished urban fable, Harrison Montgomery, follows the desperate and absurdist exploits of a small-time dealer and would-be artist in the Tenderloin. The film takes its name from the hero’s downstairs neighbor, a reclusive coot played by Martin Landau who may have the potential to become a slum-bear millionaire. Another S.F.–set feature, Jon Bowden’s The Full Picture, likewise derives a great deal of pleasure from juggling seemingly opposite tones. This oddball domestic farce with echoes of ’70s Sam Shepard deviously maps the fissures in a couple’s relationship when the guy’s twisted mother comes to town for a visit. Some of the best performances in the IndieFest program can be found in Josie Lehrer’s The Men’s Story Project: Building Strength, Creating Peace. A straightforward record of a one-night-only performance last summer at Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center, the doc captures a dozen or so confessional and deeply funny monologues by a cross-section of local dudes about the wrenching price of conforming to popular or parental definitions of masculinity. This trio of Bay Area films mirrors in miniature the aesthetic risks, sociopolitical ambitions, and astonishing commitment that distinguish every IndieFest title. Make no mistake: Independents, and nobody else, are maintaining the cherished ideal of movies as a medium of personal expression.
The Men’s Story Project screens tonight at 7:15 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St. (at Valencia), S.F.
Feb. 5-22, 2009