Widgets Magazine
Capsule reviews: Female directors break the celluloid ceiling at SFFIF
Isabella Rossellini in a scene from Jody Shapiro's ISABELLA ROSSELLINI’S GREEN PORNO LIVE!, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7, 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Capsule reviews: Female directors break the celluloid ceiling at SFFIF

The 58th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF), which runs from April 23 to May 7, features work from every corner of the world. Whether you’re looking for a definitive documentary feature on Zimbabwean politics (“Democrats”) or a beautiful, subdued art film on California’s famous El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”), SFIFF has a selection for your tastes. Both aforementioned films are acclaimed works from SFIFF’s slate of female directors. Continuing our past coverage of the film industry’s celluloid ceiling, The Daily previewed a selection of five films from female filmmakers at SFIFF.

“Democrats”

Director Camilla Nielsson explores Zimbabwe’s fraught political scene at a grassroots level. Robert Mugabe, the country’s Prime Minister, has reigned as the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) for 31 years. In “Democrats,” his as-yet uncontested rule receives strong resistance in the form of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country’s liberal front. Nielsson follows the travails of two men, organizers for ZANU-PF and MDC, as they attempt to draft the country’s first constitution.

Viewers are afforded a glimpse of the MDC’s bitter struggle against the well-established ZANU-PF. Nielsson subtly hints at the heroism of Douglas Mwonzora, of the MDC, as he rallies villagers and city dwellers against Mugabe’s oppressive rule. At the same time, she doesn’t villainize Paul Mangwana, the vaguely bullying ZANU-PF party member who, as far as we can see, is just doing his job — rather, she lets him speak for himself, lets us draw our own conclusions.

“Very Semi-Serious”

Who’s the man behind The New Yorker’s subtly funny comics? Director Leah Wolchok presents us with an intimate character sketch of Bob Mankoff, the wild-haired, bespectacled head of the weekly magazine’s cartoon empire. Wolchok trains her lens on Mankoff’s editorial antics, but it’s hard to ignore the department’s demographics. Almost completely white and male, department is a regular old boys’ club. Wolchok introduces Roz Chast as the magazine’s first female cartoonist. Quiet (and quietly talented), Chast putters around her house, doodles, jokingly describes her first published piece in the magazine’s pages: “Someone asked Bob if he owed my family money…”

A scene from Jenni Olson's The Royal Road, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

A scene from Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 – May 7 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

“The Royal Road”

Jenni Olson delivers a muted, mesmerizing portrait of one of California’s most well-known thoroughfares. El Camino Real — literally, the Royal Road — snakes up and down the California coast like a disjointed spine. For Wilson, it’s 600 miles of history, much of it personal. She’s not afraid to bring her viewers close to her. There’s nearly no narrative distance here as she speaks in a constant monotone, regardless of the topic of discussion. Wilson makes frank mention of sexuality, love and California’s colonial history: “love, and loss, and San Francisco,” as she says. All the time, she’s backgrounded by breathtaking still shots of the Royal Road. Here, a scrubby patch of chaparral; there, an exquisite piece of mission-style architecture. As viewers, we’re just along for the ride.

Brenda Myers-Powell in a scene from Kim Longinotto's DREAMCATCHER, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 - May 7, 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Brenda Myers-Powell in a scene from Kim Longinotto’s DREAMCATCHER, playing at the 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23 – May 7, 2015. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

“Dreamcatcher”

The first time we see them, the Dreamcatchers are cruising the streets of Chicago’s seedier neighborhoods. “Do you need some condoms?” one of them shouts. A prostitute approaches, nods.

In “Dreamcatcher,” director Kim Longinotto takes an unflinching look at the process by which many girls become prostitutes. Like so many good documentarians, Longinotto disappears from the frame, even as she assembles a colorful cast of very real characters to tell a story — a former pimp, a former “john,” the Dreamcatchers and the girls they’re helping. Far from pressing her own take, Longinotto lets the people in the industry speak for themselves.

“Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live!”

Jody Shapiro and Isabella Rossellini (the daughter of Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman and director Roberto Rossellini) direct a series of candid mini-documentaries on animal reproduction; the latter stars as the series’ host. There’s a focus on marine life (sea lions, sardines, etc.) and their unusual mating rituals. For a bit on the shrimp’s molting and mating process, Rossellini dons a sheer pink bodysuit and hugs a large, paper replica of the animal.

Kudos go to Rossellini for her unabashed embrace of material that wouldn’t usually make a splash in a documentary — squid coitus, anyone? — and her use of a chirpy children’s show format to contrast with the weirdly risqué material she’s presenting. The effect is surreal and absurd — and, of course, educational.

Contact Madelyne Xiao at madelyne ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Madelyne Xiao

Madelyne Xiao ('18) is a film writer for the Daily's Arts and Life section and the editor of Vademecum Magazine. She enjoys words and images, particularly those of Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, Francis Ford Coppola, and Wes Anderson.