On a wintry night in 1957 at the Metro Theater on Union Street, the San Francisco International Film Festival was born. Actor Franchot Tone emceed the evening. German director Helmut Kautner’s “The Captain From Kopenick” screened for the formally dressed crowd.
Now the longest-running film festival in the Americas, the SFIFF launches its 58th edition this week. More than 180 films from 46 countries screen in 15 days at the Castro Theatre, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Clay Theatre and other venues. “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” Alex Gibney’s new documentary, will get things rolling at 7 p.m. April 23 at the Castro.
The lineup includes high-profile upcoming theatrical releases and under-the-radar fare. “Mr. Holmes,” Bill Condon’s drama about a retired Sherlock, played by Ian McKellen, is on the bill (12:30 p.m. April 25 at the Kabuki) as are selections from countries ranging from Argentina to Zimbabwe that may never see U.S. distribution. Short films, classics, experimental fare, awards presentations and special events also are featured.
“Film festivals play a very special role not only in the film world, but in culture in general,” says Noah Cowan, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, which presents the festival. He adds that this year's festival, while remaining international, was put together specifically for knowledge-thirsty and adventurous Bay Area audiences.
The festival began as part of an attempt to establish San Francisco as a world culture hub and to expose its cosmopolitan population to foreign cinema. (Its inaugural edition also featured featured Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” and Luchino Visconti’s “Senso.”)
“We like our famous people, like everyone else,” Cowan says. “But we like to explore the totality of cinema. When the magic happens is when communities come together.” Programs covering issues of importance to San Franciscans figure prominently. For example, a discussion presented in collaboration with Human Rights Watch accompanies the 6:45 p.m. April 29 screening of “3 1/2 Minutes” at the Kabuki. Marc Silver’s documentary looks at the “loud music” murder trial of white Floridan Michael Dunn, who fired his gun into a car of four unarmed black teens.
Producer Nansun Shi (“A Better Tomorrow”) speaks about Chinese cinema at a 4 p.m. April 26 screening at the Kabuki of “The Taking of Tiger Mountain,” Tsui Hark’s political thriller and action spectacle.
Rachel Rosen, the film society’s director of programming, says, “San Francisco has a sense of adventure, a curiosity, and an expansive way of thinking.” She highlights the festival’s “Live on Stage” events, in which filmmaking and other media come together in programs featuring notable guest artists, including the Kronos Quartet, at 6:30 p.m. May 6 at the Kabuki.
“Boomtown: Remaking San Francisco,” at 7:30 p.m. April 30 at the Kabuki, is an evening of film and storytelling addressing how San Francisco handles change.
Rosen also spotlights a 4 p.m. April 25 Castro Theatre screening of “Wanda,” a 1970 indie, verite style drama by Barbara Loden, the first woman to write, direct and star in her own feature film. Telluride Film Festival guest director Rachel Kushner speaks at the event. Patrons, especially newcomers, are encouraged to check out the festival catalog, which has been reworked and made audience-friendlier, Rosen says.
IF YOU GO
58th S.F. International Film Festival
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., S.F.; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.; Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore St., S.F.; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
When: April 23 through May 7
Tickets: $15 for most films, more for special events
Contact: (415) 561-5006, www.sffs.org