This may not have been the greatest vintage year for entries in the 16 mm film competition of the San Francisco International Film Festival, but it was certainly way above average. In our meetings to select the final award winners nearly all of the twelve jury chairmen spoke of the high quality of this year's entries.
[quoteright]Winner of the Golden Gate Award was Les Blank's The Burden of Dreams. It has already had some brief public showings in San Francisco, but will also be screened during the award ceremonies at the Festival. It details the numerous troubles and almost insuperable difficulties encountered by Werner Herzog in filming Fitzcarraldo -- the story of a man who dreams of building an opera house in the remote jungles of South America and hauls a full-size river steamer over a mountain to accomplish this aim. There are scenes of Jason Robards in the title role before he was forced to withdraw because of ill health, and then of Klaus Kinski, his replacement (a better choice, since Kinski can look the wild-eyed fanatic to perfection). The terrible strains endured by the cast and the Indian extras (chosen from tribes not traditionally friendly to each other) are carefully brought out. The film is splendidly photographed and edited.
Winner of the Silver Medal was In Our Water, which documents the five-year struggle of a New Jersey resident to get something done about the pollution of his well by wastes from an industrial dump next to his property. After appealing to every government agency from his local township council to the United States Senate, he had achieved only partial success by the end of the film. The current controversy involving the EPA makes this film especially timely, which is probably why it won, since the photography and editing are competent but not outstanding.
Winner of the Bronze Medal was another "message" film, The Klan: Legacy of Hate. It is a well-made documentary, with exceptional footage of lynchings, detailing the history of the Ku Klux Klan from its resurgence in the 20's to its growth today. Residents of Marin County will not be pleased by the coverage of their community, where two black families were hounded out of town by the Klan. Most striking are the scenes of the indoctrination of youngsters. The NewRight TV evangelists are portrayed as lending support to the Klan's belief that "God does not hear the prayers of Jews."
There were outstanding category winners, which in years with fewer strong entries might have won the top awards. Rodin: The Gates of Hell documents the casting in bronze of Rodin's monumental Gates of Hell, inspired by the Gates of Paradise of the Baptistery in Florence. They were designed for a French museum that was never built. The casting was made from a plaster model displayed at the Rodin show in the National Gallery of Art, June 1981 to January 1982. The film builds up real suspense during the efforts of the foundry to cast the whole work in one great pour, from the initial failure to ultimate success. Photography and editing are outstanding. To Climb a Mountain accompanies an unusual group -- lame, deaf, blind -- to the summit of Mount Rainier. The scenery and the climbers (including one lone dropout) are equally impressive. Iron Man, narrated by Bruce Dern, takes the viewer along on the Iron Man Triathlon in Hawaii -undoubtedly the most grueling test of stamina in the world today, far surpassing any Olympic contest. The great thing here is the event itself, with the added drama of one entrant who collapses just fifteen feet short of the finish line.
There were no truly abstract or experimental films entered in this year's Festival -- possibly because none of the twelve categories really seemed to be the place for them. The nearest thing was Ballet Robotique, sponsored by General Motors, which uses ballet music to accompany the robots on an assembly line. It is stunningly photographed and edited, and will probably be a short subject in the main Festival showings. Watch for it in the official program; it is well worth seeing.
All of the entries from the National Film Board of Canada, whose films have taken so many awards in past years, arrived too late for judging. In fact there were very few foreign entries. One film from Australia must be mentioned, however: First Contact, which chronicles the first meeting of white Australian gold prospectors with mountain tribes of New Guinea. It includes some footage from the late 1930's as well as interviews with the prospectors and tribesmen today. This film is worth seeing, but more for its content than its technique.
All the films mentioned, except Burden of Dreams, were shown publicly in Contra Costa in early March. There will be free public showings in April at the Ghirardelli Square Theater during the regular Festival. Burden of Dreams will be shown the evening of 18 April, with the other medal and category winners during the afternoons of the 18th and 19th. Watch for the published schedule.
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