Must-See Documentaries at SFIFF 2015

The San Francisco International Film Festival opens tomorrow with what will undoubtedly be a big draw: a documentary exploring the life and legacy of Steve Jobs. (Bonus: Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney will field questions after the screening.) But there are over 30 other feature-length documentaries and more than a dozen documentary shorts also screening at the festival this year. How to choose?

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard to tell if a documentary will be good just by its description. Many compelling films might fall through the cracks because they don’t at first appearance seem as though they would be interesting. Take Cutie and the Boxer, for example, which was nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar in 2014: “Another film about an artist?” I thought. But the film was less about art and more about marriage and rivalry and all that other good life stuff. It has turned out to be one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

What I’m trying to say is, take my list with a grain of salt. If you can’t make any of these, try another. I’ve rarely regretted time spent watching a documentary.

Descriptions excxerpted from the San Francisco Film Society website. All photos courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.


3 1/2 Minutes

Still from the  movie 3 1/2 Minutes

The “loud music” murder trial of Michael Dunn is the urgent subject of Marc Silver’s unhurried, deeply perceptive and stirring documentary, a special jury award winner at Sundance this year. Dunn is the middle-aged white Floridian who in 2012 fired his gun into a car carrying four unarmed African American teens, killing Jordan Davis. Taking place in the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder and just before Ferguson became a worldwide flashpoint, Silver’s up-close investigation cuts through the miasma of mainstream media discourse. Featuring candid interviews with the parents and friends of Jordan Davis as well as startling recordings of Dunn’s phone calls to his distraught fiancée, 3 ½ Minutes never over-dramatizes but rather brilliantly humanizes its subjects, illuminating the essentials of what became a sensational news story while chronicling the role of the case in a reenergized civil rights movement.

Note: I’m clearly not the only one anticipating this film as the April 29th showing is already at rush (meaning that tickets have sold out, so if you want to attend you can wait in line before the show and hope to get in last-minute). According to the SFIFF website, presenter Alison Parker (Director of Human Rights Watch’s US Program) (April 29), subject Ronald Davis (May 6, May 7), subject Lucia McBath (April 29), producer Bonni Cohen (April 29, May 6, May 7), producer Minette Nelson (April 29, May 6, May 7) and producer Orlando Bagwell (April 29, May 6, May 7) are expected to attend. It’s not common for subjects to come to screenings, so take advantage of this unusual opportunity!


The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

Still from the movie Black Panthers: Vanguard of the RevolutionStanley Nelson, the award-winning chronicler of African American life, history and social movements, shines a light on the iconic Black Panther Party (BPP), charting its meteoric rise in the 1960s and its disintegration several years later. Fed up with racial discrimination, poverty and police brutality, urban Black youth in Oakland, CA, were ready for radical change. The film offers candid accounts by lesser known rank-and-file members—-many of them women-—who did the Black Panthers’ daily work. With police brutality, the militarization of police departments and government surveillance once again at the forefront of the American conversation, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is not just timely, but profoundly resonant.

Note: While this looks to be a pretty typical “historical moment” type of documentary, what makes it stand out is the connection to our very own Oakland. That local connection also affords a rare opportunity to meet some of these history-makers in the flesh. Several Black Panther members will be in attendance at the April 25 screening. Not surprisingly, both screenings of this film are also at rush. (Photo by Pirkle Jones, courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.)



Still from the movie DemocratsThe transition to democracy from autocratic rule might seem impossible when the tyrant is actually still in power. Such was the position Zimbabwe found itself in after the elections of 2008, when President Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party lost Parliamentary control to opposition party MDC. The widespread violence and accusations of vote rigging that ensued triggered sufficient international outrage to force the regime’s hand. It appointed leaders from both parties to draft a new democratic constitution. Camilla Nielsson’s Danish crew gained extraordinary access to the two men presiding over this most delicate and treacherous of negotiations. As their committee struggles to make progress, each step fraught with drama, Democrats proves an unforgettably vivid illustration of a paradox: The people’s will might be an unstoppable force, but Mugabe is one hell of an immovable object.

Note: As I mentioned in my review, Democrats is both an important and compelling documentary–at once a portrait of two men as well as a picture of a nation struggling to change.


The Diplomat

Still from the movie The DiplomatRichard Holbrooke—American diplomat, UN Ambassador, Assistant Secretary of State, Peace Corps official, professor, investment banker and author—died of heart failure on December 13, 2010. At the time of his death he was President Barack Obama’s point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his career as a diplomat spanned 50 years of American foreign policy. Holbrooke traces his father’s life and legacy through interviews with friends, family, journalists and colleagues, including Diane Sawyer (Richard Holbrooke’s former girlfriend), General Wesley Clark, President Bill Clinton and several secretaries of state, including Hillary Clinton. The Diplomat is not only a telling and forceful reminder of the singular political achievements of a complicated man, once dubbed the diplomatic hope of a generation, but also a unique and moving story of a son’s love for-—and personal coming-to-terms with—-an all-too-imperfect father whose work and exceptional career achievements more often than not took precedence over his family.

Note: The son-as-biographer angle is an interesting approach for a documentary about a public figure. As such, the film promises to cover more than Holbrooke’s legacy–it will also, I hope, provide a more intimate look at the man behind the persona. Director David Holbrooke will be in attendance for the April 30 screening, which, of course, is at rush.


The Look of Silence

Still from the movie The Look of SilenceJoshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentary The Act of Killing (SFIFF 2013) confronted viewers with a moral vacuum in which the perpetrators of the politically motivated massacres that roiled Indonesia in 1965 were only too happy to reenact their crimes. The Look of Silence widens the frame to include the victims’ perspective. The film follows gentle optometrist Adi as he asks the killers about their crimes—-among them, the vicious murder of his elder brother. The interviewees insist that “the past is past,” and yet it’s only too clear that the lack of accountability leaves the threat intact: one former killer darkly intimates that Adi’s actions could be understood as communist activity, while another—-a legislator no less-—is even more explicit in promising that further questioning will prompt more killing. A startling and grave work sure to be discussed for years to come, The Look of Silence bears witness to the intolerable absence of truth and reconciliation.

Note: Those who have seen The Act of Killing will, like me, have high expectations for Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, which is a companion piece to his Oscar-nominated film. Though it’s sure to be widely available in the near future, why wait when you can see it at SFIFF next week?



Still from the movie MeruWith jaw-dropping cinematography of one of the most remote places on earth and direct access to the trials, drive and anxieties of its renowned mountain climbing subjects, the Sundance Audience Award winner Meru is a hybrid of gorgeous nature photography and riveting nonfictional storytelling. Titled after Mount Meru, a 21,000 ft. Himalayan peak that looms over the Ganges River and features the iconic “Shark’s Fin,” a massive sheer granite spine jutting out of the mountain’s face into sub-zero degreed thin-aired space, the film focuses on three world-class mountaineers as they take on the challenge of trying to become the first humans to ascend its peak. Amidst personal and professional risks and anguish and unexpected narrative twists, the climbers make the daring decision to make one more attempt at one of the world’s most difficult climbs all the while expertly recording the event.

Note: Just watch the trailer for an example of the eye candy this film promises to be. If Sundance audiences loved it, you and I probably will, too. You have two opportunities to hear the directors (one of whom also happens to be a subject) speak about their film–on May 3 and May 6. Even better: at the time of this writing, the screenings are not yet at rush!



Still from the movie WesternEagle Pass, Texas, and Piedra Negras, Mexico, sit across from one another, separated only by the Rio Grande. The two towns have a long and proud history of convivial friendship and close collaboration. Martin Wall is a cattle rancher and family man who makes his living shuttling livestock back and forth across the border. Chad Foster is the longtime, easygoing mayor of Eagle Pass, who is as beloved by the residents of Piedra Negras as he is by his own constituency. Horrific drug cartel violence in their own backyard and federal policy made thousands of miles away challenge the lives and livelihoods of both men—-as well as the souls of the two towns. Sumptuous digital cinematography and intricate sound mixing heighten the intimate moments that make up Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize-winner Western.

Note: We’ve all heard the nightmarish stories about the drug violence in Mexico, which has been the subject of more than a few Hollywood films. I’m ready for a film that puts a more human face on that infamous border zone.


The Wolfpack

Still from the movie The WolfpackThis Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner intimately focuses on the undeniably charming and insightful Angulo brothers who range in age from 16 to 24. Cloistered within a cramped flat in a public housing tower in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the brothers grew up literally cut off from the outside world. They ventured outside the apartment only on tightly supervised excursions a few times a year and had no friendships or social connections outside of their family. Besides the mistrust and fear of others instilled in them by their father, their only knowledge of society came through their mother’s home schooling and movies brought in on DVDs. The brothers repeatedly watched films such as Reservoir Dogs and The Dark Knight, eventually transcribing them into scripts that they used to recreate and record on their own with makeshift sets and costumes. One brother takes the bold step of sneaking out to experience New York, eventually convincing his brothers to join him, shattering the account of reality they’ve been given. With intensely personal access, the movie gives voice to the endlessly surprising brothers’ reactions as they open up to describe their separate and individual journeys.

Note: There’s been so much buzz about this film that you just have to go and see it, especially the screening where director Crystal Moselle is expected to attend (May 3). But, you guessed it, both screenings are already at rush. If you haven’t already bought your tickets, you’d better get there early as I’m sure the rush line will be quite full as well!