The yearly San Francisco International Film Festival may not be the most prestigious set of dates on the film elite's calendars, but for many years running it has been a first-rate place to catch film from some of the smaller corners of the world. Most of their films don't end of playing in wider release – and I think that's a good thing. Sure, they have the opening/closing films with big stars, high entry fees, afterparties and loads of media guests that help to pay the bills, but a typical Tuesday night will have all sorts of small-scale documentaries, Asian film, first-time French and Scandinavian directors and more. I make a point of going as many times as my schedule allows during the festival's two weeks. This year, alas, that was only 2 nights – but I feel like I did OK and saw a couple of things you might want to take your own gander at. Here goes.
"FILL THE VOID" - I could probably write a lengthy position paper on this Israeli film and the anger it brought up in me, but I'll curb my enthusiasm and temper it in a short film review instead. Director Rama Burshtein comes from Israel's ultra-orthodox Jewish community, and she characterized this film about an 18-year-old girl, Shira (excellently and subtly played by Hadas Yaron), who marries her dead sister's husband out of a sense of fidelity and continuity, as a "love story". OK, if you insist. The film shows a side of Israeli life that those of us who've seen some of the many secular films from that country have never seen, and it's to the film's immense credit that you're totally immersed in that timeless world, where men pray, study and chant all day and night, and women scurry out of sight and into their proper place of indentured servitude.
My atheistic and feministic nature was dumbstruck by the waste of human potential displayed in this community, where women exist merely to marry and birth children, and men exist merely to exalt a nonexistent god. But as Burshstein admonished us in her talk afterward, "it's hard for the secular to understand". You can say that again. Let me then proceed to enthusiastically recommend this film, as it is deliberately made, well-acted and quite a cultural head trip. You can read more about it in this recent New York Times profile.
"RENT A FAMILY, INC." - My wife and I chose this Danish-made documentary about a Japanese entrepreneur who operates a business that rents fake family members out for weddings and other uncomfortable events because we expected it to be a wacky, aren't-the-Japanese-something-else slice of life. Instead we got a major, major bummer of a documentary – a good one, true, but far more focused on Ryuichi (the businessman and husband) and his awful, depressed, uncomfortable life. There are likely many reasons the closed, careful and very inward-focused Ryuichi chose his rather interesting (and barely profitable) profession; the film doesn't speculate, and instead shows us how Ryuichi is at best tolerated and at worst loathed by his wife and two sons.
He has dreams – he just wants to go to Hawaii, on one trip – but he lacks the means nor the will to really change his lonely and very sad situation. It's all real, too – some of the rent-a-family scenes themselves are dramatizations, for understandable reasons – but filmmaker Kasper Astrup Schroder confirmed in the post-film Q&A that Ryuichi's every bit the man in real life that he is in this documentary about him. Somewhere in Tokyo, he's still plotting that trip to Hawaii, and I think everyone in our audience would heartily cheer if he finally got there.