Everything you want and need to know about the international pics showing at the SFFILM festival

Highlights of a global cinematic cornucopia from programming director Jessie Fairbanks

The San Francisco International Film Festival, also known these days as SFFILM, has long been a kid-in-a-candy-store experience for those seeking movies from around the world. And the festival is about to present its 65th annual slate.

Films from 56 countries will screen, live, at the 2022 festival, an 11-day celebration beginning Thursday, April 21. Screenings will take place at five venues in San Francisco and Berkeley. Fare will range from high-profile titles to under-the-radar indies.

Some of the featured international films have U.S. distributors and will show in theaters in the near future. Others will never receive a big-screen release in the Bay Area. Many of the featured filmmakers will attend the festival.

“Curating the best of international and independent films for the Bay Area has always been a focus of the San Francisco International Film Festival,” says Jessie Fairbanks, SFFILM’s director of programming. “SFFILM had submissions from 107 countries this year; it was an honor to watch films from so many parts of the world.”

The festival began in 1957 as an international showcase that affirmed San Francisco’s reputation as an arts-embracing cosmopolitan city with an appreciation of world cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali,” and Luchino Visconti’s “Senso” were among the films presented that year.

Over the decades, the festival has continued to feature impressive global lineups. Jean-Luc Godard’s “Weekend,” Hirokazu Koreeda’s “Maborosi,” Francois Ozon’s “Under the Sand,” Mike Leigh’s “High Hopes,” Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “The Puppetmaster,” and films by Jia Zhangke, Pedro Almodovar, Ousame Sembene, Andrei Tarkovsky, Lucrecia Martel, Eric Rohmer, Catherine Breillat and many others have screened there.

With the pandemic having taken a severe toll on movie theaters, especially arthouses, film festivals are sometimes the only place where current audiences can see many international films, even films featuring big-name talent, on a big screen.

“I believe that festivals are more crucial than ever,” Fairbanks says. “There is so much content everywhere — on your phone, on streaming platforms, on social media, in first-run theaters — and it can be really hard to find distinctive and unique films. That is where festivals come in.”

She adds that festivals offer an opportunity to meet filmmakers and hear what they have to say about their work.

Storytelling is what matters most.

“We strive to include stories from all parts of the world, to create a program of parity and plurality,” Fairbanks says. “This year, we have a program where 56% of all titles are helmed by female or nonbinary filmmakers, and 52% of the lineup are films from BIPOC directors.”

High-profile international titles this year include, from France, “Both Sides of the Blade,” a love-triangle drama starring screen treasure Juliette Binoche as a woman torn between her current and former partners. The director is Claire Denis, whose stories, on paper, may sound like routine genre pictures — a cannibal-vampire thriller, a romantic comedy, a sci-fi space journey — but, on screen, abound with texture and feeling.

Another top title is “Happening,” Audrey Diwan’s award-winning, fact-based French drama about a university student seeking an abortion in the early 1960s, when the procedure was illegal. Her journey is harrowing and, sadly, relevant today.

Terence Davies — the one-of-a-kind British writer-director whose feature films, period pieces all, include the Liverpool-set “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and recently the Emily Dickinson biopic “A Quiet Passion” — is also on the bill. Davies’ latest, “Benediction,” profiles another poet, Siegfried Sassoon, focusing on his opposition to World War I and his life as a closeted gay artist.

The festival’s “Cine Latino” lineup is back, spotlighting what Fairbanks calls the “vibrant, rebellious and innovative stories coming out of the Latinx region.” In the Mexican drama “The Box,” a boy’s seemingly routine trip to recover his father’s ashes becomes a disturbing look at factory labor. In “The Employer and the Employee,” a tragic accident on a Uruguayan farm leads to unsettling dynamics between two young fathers. “Mars One,” from Brazil, features a working-class family with dreams.

Eccentrically entertaining road tales take the form of “Hit the Road,” an Iranian dramedy directed by Panah Panahi and featuring a family accompanying its youngest son to a mysteriously unspecified place. Radu Muntean’s very Romanian “Intregalde” follows three aid workers whose vehicle gets stuck on an isolated road in Transylvania.

“Children of the Mist,” a documentary from Vietnam, features a Hmong teen who must choose whether to honor or buck tradition. Other international docs include “No Simple Way Home,” in which filmmaker Akuol de Mabior, daughter of South Sudan founding father John Garang de Mabior, explores his legacy; and “Midwives,” in which a Buddhist midwife and her Muslim apprentice care for patients at a village clinic in war-ravaged Myanmar.

Other international selections include: “Costa Brava, Lebanon,” a drama about three generations, and the frustrations, of a Lebanese family that has moved from stressful Beirut to a rural area; “Neptune Frost,” an Afro-futurist Rwandan visual spectacle set in a genderqueer, techno-savvy, defiant community; “Sonne,” an Austrian story about three teenage girls, one from a Kurdish Muslim family, whose casually shot home music video goes viral; and “Wet Sand,” a Georgia-set drama about a young big-city woman who, visiting a closed-minded seaside village, learns about her late grandfather’s secret life.

As for little gems, Fairbanks recommends several.

First is “Fire on the Plain,” directed by cinematographer Zhang Ji. Fairbanks describes this Chinese drama as an “auspicious directorial debut” that “luxuriates in film noir aesthetics while telling a universal story of star-crossed lovers and an unexpected tale of family bonds. … It is a great film to see with friends.”

With “Klondike,” Ukrainian director Maryna Er Gorbach “wanted to make a film about the toll of war on women,” Fairbanks says, adding that the movie, which received a directing award at Sundance, “is based on real events from 2014, when conflict began in the Donbas region between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainians.

“The performances are incredible, as is the cinematography, with a story that could not be more timely.”

“Sun & Daughter,” from Bolivia, Fairbanks describes as a “beautiful story of a young indigenous girl who lives on the shores of Lake Titicaca and finds herself torn between childish dreams and the realities of a parent forced to search for work far from home. The film is so charming and magical, and features the most adorable llama.”

The festival also will present several dozen short and mid-length films from countries ranging from Australia to Yemen.

IF YOU GO:

San Francisco International Film Festival / SFFILM

Where:

Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F.

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F.

Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., S.F.

Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F.

Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), 2155 Center St., Berkeley

When: April 21 through May 1

Admission: $10 to $18 for most screenings

Contact: (415) 561-5006, sffilm.org

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