The Ecphorizer

The San Francisco Film Festival, 1885 Review of Films
Paul W. Healy

Issue #44 (April 1985)

This year's winners, with commentary

The quality of films entered in the 16 mm competition of the San Francisco International Film Festival seems almost to oscillate from year to year. Last year was a vintage year; this year was not. And the term "16 mm competition" really is no longer accurate. The productions may

The Air Force...promptly returned him to the United States and a mental hospital.

have been created on 35 mm or 16 mm film, or on 1-inch, 3/4-inch, or 1/2-inch videotape; they [quoteright]can be entered on either 16 mm sound film stock or on 3/4-inch videotape. Only if they win an award need the producer send a 16 mm print. So, whereas last year all finalists and the three top award winners were on film, this year the winner of the Golden Gate Award and the silver medal were submitted on tape; only the winner of the bronze medal came in on 16 mm film. Most Festival jurors regret this trend, but it can be expected to increase in future years. It is a lot cheaper to make a 3/4-inch videotape than a 16 mm film copy, and also very much cheaper to mail or express. Even the National Film Board of Canada now submits many of its entries on tape.

Once more this year the twelve jury Chairmen of the Festival, who make the final determination of the top award winners, showed a distinct bias for social documentaries rather than films featuring spectacular technical achievements, such as last year's Golden Gate Award winner, Lights, Action, Africa. Perhaps next year

Once more the winner of the gold medal was a film from the National Film Board of Canada, Abortion Stories from the North and South (1984; written and directed by Gail Singer; photography by Susan Trow; music by Diane Le Floch; narrated by Dixie Seatle). This remarkable documentary focuses on the problems of women all over the world–Northern Ireland, Peru, and Canada were some featured countries–in obtaining safe, legal abortions. There is also a sketch of the attitudes of governments and the Catholic Church throughout recorded history. The film notes that not until 1869 did the Catholic Church oppose abortion since until that time it was considered that the soul did not enter the body until eighty days after conception. In that year the Pope decided that the soul existed from the moment of conception; hence the prohibition on all abortions. The tragic consequences to the poor women in South America who were denied access to safe, legal abortions is graphically portrayed. The Canadians wisely gave this project to a group of women; the result was a beautifully made and very moving film.

Winner of the silver medal was another social documentary, And That is Why The State is to Blame (1984; The Netherlands; produced by Frank Diamond and Jan Van Putten). Through interviews and some newsreel footage, this film tells the story of Marianella Garcia, one of the founders of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador. She was investigating the use of chemical weapons by the government against the civilian population when she was murdered by the government in March 1983. The story is told mainly through interviews with former political prisoners, th ex-rector of the University of San Salvador, Dr. Charles Clements, and President Duarte who considers the Human Rights Commission as "an instrument of the terrorists." When he accepted the Golden Gate Award (April 21, 1985), producer Frank Diamond spoke movingly of his appreciation of the Festival jury for making the award and of his great disappointment that the film would not be shown on American television. Even the PBS network would not take it, using as an excuse the fact that it had just presented a four-part series on Latin America. Most of the interviews are in Spanish, which Is not really a drawback since the producers used subtitles with very large type so that the words are easy to read on a television screen. Indeed, that is the way the jury saw it, because it was one of the entries on 3/4-inch video cassettes. The film leaves one in no doubt about the kind of "democracy" the citizens of San Salvador enjoy today.

A companion film to the above is Witness to War (1984; directed by Deborah Shaffer; produced by Skylight Films). It is the story of Air Force officer Charles Clemens, a man from a family with a strong military tradition, who flew numerous combat missions in Vietnam until he was sickened by what he saw happening to the civilian population of that country and finally told his commanding officer that he would fly no more missions. Because he came from the Air Force Academy and had a strong family military background, the Air Force decided that the only reason for such behavior was a mental unbalance and promptly returned him to the United States and a mental hospital. After his release, he went to medical school and became a doctor. He then went to El Salvador as a volunteer working behind enemy lines, where the villages in which he worked were bombed almost daily by the same type of aircraft he had flown in Vietnam. In its thirty minutes, the film traces his early career, shows him at work in the villages of El Salvador and lecturing on his experience in churches in the United States. The film, winner in its category, complements the Netherlands' film in showing the nature of El Salvador's government.

The winner of the bronze medal was The Highly Exalted (1984; United States; directed by Kim Shelton and Bill McMillan; 52 minutes). The title is from the remark made by one of the cowboys interviewed for the film: "Fur as I'm concerned, we're the highly exalted." This beautifully made documentary film follows a group of cowboys on a large Nevada ranch through their everyday tasks and their infrequent trips to town. The ranch is one of the last in Nevada to use a chuck wagon drawn by a team of eight horses. The film is full of marvelous shots of the Nevada landscape, and the extreme naturalness of the men, their nearly total lack of self- consciousness as they go about their daily rounds, is especially refreshing. The film suggests that perhaps the American cowboy myth is close to the truth. In the end, though, the cowboy says, "Y'know, we ain't really the highly exalted."

One of the most striking and unusual films of the Festival was Canyon Consort (1984; United States; directed by David Vassar; photographed by Christopher Tufty; edited by Mark Salvaterra; music by and featuring the Paul Winter Consort: Paul Winter, Glen Velez, Steve Silverstein, Eugene Friesen, and Paul Halley; presented by David Vassar and John Lyddon; 58 minutes). It was shown at the Festival out of competition because no finished print was available to the jury for judging. The film follows the members of the Consort down the Colorado River on rubber rafts, with frequent stops to improvise and compose for a forthcoming album entitled Canyon. As the group travels, it tries to capture the mood and feel of the canyon and its animal and plant life in music. After the trip through the canyon, the Consort goes again "on location," this time to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, one of the world's largest Gothic cathedrals. The finale is the debut performance of Canyon in the cathedral. Nearly every aspect of this film combines in harmony–the camera work of the canyon and of the cathedral interior is outstanding, and the editing is superb. The creative process of the Consort in making the music is supplemented by the cameraman and editor in a most unusual partnership. And one's final impulse after viewing the film is to rush out and buy the album.

Another Canadian entry that won in its category was the short film Making a Difference (1984; directed by Louise Shekter). It is an engaging portrait of a six-year-old boy who is kept alive by a pacemaker. He is shown with friends at a birthday party, at the factory where his pacemaker was manufactured, and in his room–where his Lego blocks assemble themselves into a rocket ship and his drawing of the space shuttle suddenly comes to life on the blackboard and takes off into space. These whimsical touches set off the concern of his parents for his condition and chances for survival. The film surely would be excellent for all children facing hospitalization, and for their parents.

A third Canadian entry showcased the impressive animation done at the National Film Board of Canada: Starlife (1984; Churchill Films/The National Film Board of Canada). Starting with the big bang, this film goes on to detail just how stars are born and how they die–with some side excursions into black holes and quasars. This is the kind of classroom film one always hopes to see but almost never does. It is very well drawn and animated, and conveys a wealth of information in a very short time (about 23 minutes).

An unusual entry in the instruction category was Bearskin or the Man Who Didn't Wash for Seven Years (1984; United States; directed by Tom Davenport; photographed by Zack Kreiger; edited by Marcio Neidley; produced by Tom and Mimi Davenport). The makers of this film stated that its purpose was "to encourage the use and enjoyment of fairy tales." It certainly should do that: the story is a combination of Faust and Cinderella. A soldier home from the Civil War meets the Devil (complete with cloven hoof) on a hillside. He is offered a never-empty purse and great wealth for life–without giving up his soul–if he survives for seven years without washing, shaving, or cutting his hair. He agrees, and the makeup man has a real field day with his appearance as the years roll by. At the end of the fourth year, he meets a southern planter ruined by the war and offers him the money to keep his plantation and operate it. In return, the planter offers assurances that one of his three daughters surely will be willing to marry him. Of course, the older two are repelled and run off shrieking, but the youngest, quiet and sedate, gives him her hand. He breaks a ring and gives her half, saying that he will return in three years if he is able to; and if not, she is free. Back on the hillside at the end of the seventh year, he again meets the Devil and forces the Devil to bathe him and clean him up. Now a fine gentleman, Bearskin (from the cloak made of bear's hide he had been forced to wear) now returns to the plantation, where the two older daughters fawn over him while the youngest watches impassively. When the older two leave to dress better, Bearskin drops his half of the ring in a glass of wine and offers it to the youngest daughter. She produces her half and joins the two, and when her sisters return, she is embracing Bearskin. The disappointed sisters leave in a rage. One drowns herself, one hangs herself, and the Devil, alone on the hillside, remarks, "And so, you see, I really won–I got two souls for the price of one!" The acting certainly would take no Academy Awards, but the film is nicely made and should serve its purpose well.

If you missed seeing these films at the Festival, watch for them on television, where they almost surely will appear sooner or later. All of them are certainly far above the usual TV fare, and the three top award winners are outstanding. 

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