Ten months into her new role as director of programming of SFFILM, Jessie Fairbanks is returning to live audiences the festival’s signature documentary film program, Doc Stories, which runs at the Castro and Vogue theaters and online Nov. 4-7. In an affront to the pandemic, almost every featured filmmaker will appear in person. San Francisco is a documentary film town — in terms of both production and appreciation — and Fairbanks knows that well. She comes to The City by way of DOC NYC, Tribeca Film Festival and Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. The Examiner emailed with Fairbanks about why we are in a golden era of nonfiction film and what not to miss this weekend.
You’ve programmed documentary film programs all over the country. Is there anything specific about documentary film watchers in San Francisco?
The Bay Area audience is incredibly sophisticated and curious and has a strong appetite for stories from all over the world. We are so thrilled to welcome our members, friends, neighbors and new attendees back in theaters for the first time since the fall of 2019. I know our audiences are excited to see “Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” on the big screen at top volume at the Castro Theatre with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Fong-Torres in attendance. The festival includes films by documentary titans who are well loved in the Bay Area, such as Stanley Nelson, who is here with his new film “Attica.” He is the only filmmaker who has the acumen to make a film on the infamous Attica Correctional Facility uprising of 1971 with pathos and curiosity. And I look forward to introducing our audience to new filmmakers like Jessica Kingdon with her feature debut documentary “Ascension,” a visceral exploration of contemporary China’s identity and the paradoxes of economic progress. Finally, we are so honored to host the Bay Area premiere of “Lead Me Home,” made by two local filmmakers Pedro Kos and Jon Shenk. This film explores the unhoused crisis in California from the perspective of those living on the streets and is essential viewing for anyone living in the Bay Area.
The number of documentaries and festivals devoted to non-fiction films keep growing. Why are documentaries so seemingly popular now?
Documentaries have been in a golden age for almost a decade now. I think people are hungry for true stories that help us gain a deeper understanding of our current social and political situation, or films that profile famous individuals or moments in history. And there is a huge hunger for documentaries that remind us of the sheer vastness and wonder of what it is to be human. We are all searching for truth and documentaries are a key source of knowledge, information and experiences.
Are documentaries as an artform in an ascendent moment due in part to new film technologies?
Yes, filmmakers have so many new tools as their disposal when it comes to nonfiction storytelling. Gone are the days of dry, academic, talking heads with a few title graphics. From AI to digitally altered subjects to restored archival footage and revelatory animation, there are so many exciting pathways to documentary storytelling right now. Part of this ascension is driven by developments in technology, which always pushes forward the medium of film, and part of the innovation is driven by the increasing demand for nonfiction stories.
Streaming has changed our access to so many genres of films, including documentaries. So why do we still need theaters and festivals and curated screenings?
Streaming has been an incredible asset for documentaries, and those platforms are a huge part of why these types of films are so popular. As an artform, documentaries owe a lot to streamers and hopefully have a long, bright future with these partners. And it is important to note these platforms have so much content on offer, so curation in theaters and festivals remains key to assisting people with their discovery of fresh, bold and unexpected stories. An algorithm will just keep feeding you what you like, and that can get stale, so it remains essential for curators to highlight titles outside of your typical viewing diet. Also, documentaries are now being shot and produced in a very similar fashion to narrative films, meaning the images and graphics and sound design are simply stunning. You don’t get to appreciate all of that when you watch a film on your phone or tablet. So yes, festivals and theaters are essential and we can’t wait to be back in the room with our audience.
What are your favorite documentaries of the past decade?
That is akin to asking me to name my favorite family member. I have so much respect for the incredible people who make documentaries. It is hard work that frequently requires years of effort with little financial return (compared to narratives). People make documentaries because they have a passion and a calling to tell true stories in cinematic form. We are so lucky to enjoy their efforts. That said, films that have stayed with me over the years include Andrew Renzi’s “Fishtail,” Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap,” Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro,” Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “Leviathan” and Erik Shirai’s “The Birth of Saké,” to name a few.
What are you most excited about showing at SFFILM’s Doc Stories this year?
Everything! These films are the gems of the fall releases, and you’ll be hearing these titles a lot in the coming months as award season heats up. I say you cannot miss a single film but I’m biased! I mentioned “Attica,” “Ascension” and “Summer of Soul” earlier. We are thrilled to have Academy Award-winner Megan Mylan at the festival with “Simple as Water,” a searing documentary that explores the lives of refugees in four different countries as they try to build new lives. This is a refugee story we have not seen before; the film is a timeless ode to our shared connection as humans and the dreams that empower individuals to overcome the unthinkable.
I’m so happy to host the west coast premiere of the new film from Oscar-nominated and Emmy Award-winner Matt Heineman. “The First Wave” looks at the spring of 2020 in NYC as the coronavirus slammed through New York City and provides an assessment of the pandemic — which is still taking thousands of lives daily — in a way we have yet to see as a country. And closing night will be so much fun with Dave Wooley’s new film, fresh from Toronto, “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over.” This joyous celebration of a living legend is packed with luminaries such as Alicia Keys, Gladys Knight and Snoop Dogg, and features incredible footage of Dionne performing over the years. She spills the tea and it is such a fun, wild ride.
Was it hard to pull off Doc Stories due to the pandemic? What were your craziest, best or worst moment in the planning?
It is very challenging to put on events right now. Everyone has a different risk threshold, which is why the festival is in-person and virtual. We take the safety of our audiences and our filmmakers very seriously so there are many new layers to planning live events. And, again, we are so excited to be back at the Castro Theatre and Vogue Theatre, to be in the room with filmmakers and audiences as they connect. We are honored almost every filmmaker at the festival has traveled to the Bay Area for Doc Stories. Many of them are bringing guests for the Q&As. Planning the festival with these artists has been such a pleasure.
IF YOU GO
Presented by SFFILM
Where: Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St. and Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F.; and online
When: Nov. 4-7
Tickets: $16 per screening; $80 for six-pack
Note: Most films are available both in-person and online. Films will be online at 12:01 a.m. the day after the live screening and available for 24 hours.
Attica: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 at the Castro
Lead Me Home: 5:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Castro
Ascension: 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Castro
Simple as Water: 12:30 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Vogue
The First Wave: 3:3o p.m. Nov. 6 at the Vogue
Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised): 8 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Castro (live only)
Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over: 8 p.m. Nov. 7 at the Castro