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An insider’s look at the San Francisco International Film Festival

Courtesy of Tommy Lau of the San Francisco Film Society.

Courtesy of Tommy Lau of the San Francisco Film Society.

Noah Cowan, who recently assumed his new role as executive director of the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS), opened the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) press conference on Tuesday morning by discussing his excitement at becoming involved with the Bay Area film scene. After stepping down as artistic director for the Toronto International Film Festival, where he spent over 10 years, Cowan said that he is ready to take on and embrace the Bay Area’s film and arts culture.

“I’m more interested in experiencing it [the festival] with the citizens of the Bay Area,” Cowan said. “The cultural life of San Francisco and the Bay is extremely integrated, so I think understanding how both the festival and the Film Society operate within the larger ecology here is really key.”

Rachel Rosen, director of programming for the San Francisco Film Society, joined Cowan on the panel, alongside Rod Armstrong, Audrey Chang and Sean Uyehara from the programming team.

Rosen explained that while the festival aims to host films with diverse global narratives and perspectives, it also aims to choose films that will resonate with and “speak to” the San Francisco Bay Area audience. She cited the film “Palo Alto,” based on a book of stories by James Franco and directed by Gia Coppola, as an especially appropriate choice as the festival’s Centerpiece Film.

Rosen also emphasized Coppola’s artistic talent and visual skills, noting that “even though this is territory that has been covered by her family and many others­ — the perilous teenage years — she definitely has her own way of empathizing with these characters, while still being very authentic about the real issues at play.”

The concern of films resonating with the Bay audience may also explain imbalances in global representation in the festival. The programmers included many Latin American films this year, five of which are in the festival’s World Cinema Spotlight: “All About the Feathers” (Costa Rica), “The Amazing Catfish” (Mexico), “Bad Hair” (Venezuela/Peru), “History of Fear” (Argentina), and “The Militant” (Uruguay).

By contrast, there are only three Middle Eastern Films: “The Return of Homs,” which offers a localized view on the transformation of peaceful Syrian protests into a bloody civil war; the Turkish film “The Blue Wave,” which follows a teenage girl’s first year of high school; and the Persian film “Manuscripts Don’t Burn,” which chronicles the life of a father working as a contract killer to gather money for his ill son and for a group of writers threatened by the secret service with regards to the publication of certain manuscripts.

Cowan described the Closing Night film, “Alex of Venice,” actor Chris Messina’s (“The Mindy Project”) directorial debut, as a tale about accepting the unexpected.

“Films by actors sometimes are a bit of a treacherous place for film festivals to go— they’ve often been confined to TV movies and such— but this is a really wonderful exception to the rule,” Cowan explained. “[Messina] has created an extremely careful portrait of a family in distress.”

 

Contact Sarah Salameh at ssalameh “at” stanford.edu.