The Ecphorizer

The San Francisco International Film Festival
Paul W. Healy

Issue #32 (April 1984)



Unlike last year, this was a great vintage year for films entered in my section (Fine and Performing Arts). Of 22 entries we gave a top award (which went on to win the Golden Gate award), four Honorable Mentions (two of them Academy Award Nominees), and three Participation with Merit awards. For us, a very good year indeed! Not all the juries were so lucky.

[quoteright'/>Just as last year's Golden Gate Award winner ("The Burden of Dreams") was about the making of "Fitzcarraldo," so this year's winner, "Lights, Action, Africa!," was a behind-the-scenes look at Joan and Alan Root making three of their African films, namely "The Year of the Wildebeest," "Castles in Clay," and "Mzima - Portrait of Spring" (the latter film was also entered in another category). This is a really excellent film in all respects: the proper length (55 mm.), wonderful photography, good editing, and a restrained and humorous sound track. The almost infinite patience of the Roots, and their consummate skill and dedication to the wildlife of Africa, come through in every frame. If you've ever taken home movies or made a videotape, imagine yourself filming a cheetah with a telephoto lens while he is running across your field of vision at 70 mph. Alan Root keeps it in the center of the frame throughout the shot!

Winner of the Silver Medal was "Squatters: The Other Philadelphia Story." This was a social documentary of one solution to the housing problem in Philadelphia: squatters move into abandoned houses that are in good condition quite openly, and live there until the city takes care of their housing problems. Mostly they are not ejected, and sometimes they end up with the legal right to live in the houses if they maintain them and bring them up to housing standards. The 25-minute film is very well made, presenting as it does a problem and a solution.

The Bronze Medal winner was "Atomic Artist." The artist is Tony Price, who regularly goes to the salvage yard at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to buy up the unusual metal, plastic, and glass discarded from finished atomic experiments. From these he creates wonderful robots, wind chimes, and other exotic pieces. Some archival footage of the first atom bomb test at the Trinity site near Alamagordo is included, as well as some shots of the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. The final section is the display of a set of sculptures titled "After SALT II," suggesting that only metal robots will be around for discussions if the armament talks fail. This is another 25-minute film, with exciting photography and an interesting, timely subject.

The film which nearly tied for the Bronze Medal was "High Schools," a long, dreary recital of the recent Carnegie Report on Secondary Education. If you want to know what is in this report, I suggest you get it and read it, not find out about it from this film, which I found dull and uninspired, and poorly edited to boot. It could have made the point in half the time.

Another one of the six films which all the 12 jury chairmen saw as contenders for the top prizes was "Kiss the Animals Goodbye." This was a very powerful documentary filmed in the Eureka, California, animal shelter. Its purpose, which it should surely achieve for anyone who sees it, was for pet owners not to abandon their pets or bring them in to be killed. The disgust and dismay in the voice of the director as he tells of one woman, who brought in her Siamese cat because he no longer matched the decorating scheme of her apartment, is not soon forgotten; nor is the remark of an attendant who says of parents who adopt an animal "so their children can see the miracle of birth" that a proper reply would be: "Fine. And when you bring the puppies in afterward, bring your children along so they can see the miracle of death." Very well and sensitively photographed - no horror, just a simple recitation of facts - but a film you will not soon forget.

Another of the very fine entries in the Fine and Performing Arts category was "Ming Garden," which documents the installation in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of a Ming-style Chinese garden and courtyard, installed by skilled craftsmen and engineers sent over from China for the purpose. The dedication of these men - working for the most part with the same tools used centuries ago, fitting the pillars and rafters so exactly, using wooden pegs for fastening - is a joy to watch. And the shots of the finished garden must make all who see it long to visit it in person.

An Academy Award nominee was "Spaces: The Architecture of Paul Rudolph." This architect has designed many modern buildings in a most distinctive style. Highlighted in the film is his designing of the Chapel at Emory University, and his deep disappointment when the local planning committee refused to allow him to use his design for the altar platform and table. There are many fine camera angles and some excellent editing of a subject not often well treated.

The English Entry in our category was a puppet film using a script by Samuel Beckett, "Act Without Words." It is certainly typical Beckett: a small, pensive clown is cast up on a desert island, where he is tantalized with a flask of water which he cannot reach. Even the rope with which he tries to hang himself is taken away, as are ultimately all the objects on the island - even the palm tree.

Present plans are for the award winners to be screened at the Ghiradelli Theater on Monday, 23 April, though this date is not firm - watch your local paper. Some of the other films, such as "Act Without Words" and "Flamenco at 5:15," will very probably be screened with one of the evening features. Look for them in the official Festival Program.

A final item worth noting is that an increasing proportion of entries are coming in on Video Cassettes (3/4 inch, not VHS or Betamax). It is significant that all of the six finalists for the top awards were on film. Nevertheless it is expected that the trend will continue.

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