October in Reel Time: A Sampling of Film Fests

by Sura Wood

Four film festivals around the Bay offer varied and compelling fare.

Among the offerings on the cinematic menu at Bay Area film festivals this month: an exploration of the barriers ballerinas of color face in the predominantly white world of major dance companies, an intimate portrait of the late Gregory Peck and an ode to the tactile joys of the typewriter.

If you thought the computer had forced the typewriter into extinction, you'd be mistaken: Doug Nichol's documentary "California Typewriter," one of the 201 movies screening at this year's Mill Valley Film Festival, highlights the pleasures of a machine that might have gone the way of the wooly mammoth if not for its many devotees-Tom Hanks, David McCullough, John Mayer and Sam Shepard among them-who attest to its virtues in a film that's half history, half love letter. In addition to an impressive slate of documentaries, MVFF delivers a full complement of quality indie and prestige art house movies like "Manchester by the Sea," a drama written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan and featuring a crackerjack cast headed by Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler and Michelle Williams. Set in a small New England coastal town, and told in flashbacks, the non-linear story focuses on a distraught man (Affleck) who returns home after the death of his brother.

Among other MVFF offerings, Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning Iranian director of "The Separation," who specializes in the complexities of marriage, once again grapples with the subject in "The Salesman," a tale about husband-and-wife actors whose seemingly content partnership is rocked to the core when the wife is assaulted. The festival closes with "Loving," from one of the most intriguing voices in indie cinema, writer/director Jeff Nichols, a Southerner who imbues his films ("Mud," "Midnight Special," "Take Shelter") with an unmistakable regional flavor. Based on a real-life civil rights saga, Nichols' latest effort concerns an interracial couple from Virginia who violates state law in the 1950s when they marry, and whose legal case is decided a decade later by the Supreme Court.

October 6 → 16;

The San Francisco Dance Film Festival makes a dramatic entrance with Richard Curson-Smith's "Nureyev: Dance to Freedom," which chronicles the charismatic Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev's 1961 defection to the U.S in the throes of the Cold War, a cause célèbre that made international headlines at the time. Shot in St. Petersburg and Paris, the film is narrated by participants in this real-life confluence of espionage and ballet. Examining controversy of another kind, "Black Ballerina" contrasts the experiences of older and younger generations of black women and the persistent racism, limited opportunities for advancement and discrimination against body type they encounter in pursuing careers in classical dance. According to this informative film by Frances McElroy, the high-profile successes of younger African-American artists such as ABT principal Misty Copeland are the exception, not the rule, and obstacles for women of color remain formidable. "It's mainly a white world. The corps has to be lily white…it hasn't changed," observes Joan Myers Brown who, unable to achieve her dream of becoming a ballet dancer as a young girl in the 1940s, eventually founded her own company. SFDFF also offers several programs of shorts including some with local connections like Melinda Darlington-Bach's "The Secret Woman," a poetic evocation of the clandestine love affair between author Charles Dickens, the married father of 10, and a young actress 27 years his junior, performed by two members of the Silicon Valley Ballet; "In the Countenance of Kings," an adaptation of Justin Peck's recent ballet of the same name shot in the former 16th Street train station in Oakland; and "Separate Sentences," a dance/theater project exploring the cycle of incarceration in families. The latter, filmed on Potrero Hill, draws upon the experiences and memories of its cast: former inmates who are also fathers.

Oct. 19 → 23;

Sam Harris-born Szlamek Rzeznik in Poland in 1935-recounts his remarkable story in "The Undeniable Voice," one of 60 thought-provoking social-issue documentaries at the United Nations Association Film Festival. It's estimated that more than 1.5 million children were murdered during the Holocaust; most of the 130,000 who survived were girls because the circumcision of boys revealed their Jewish heritage. Harris is believed to be the youngest to have made it out alive, a harrowing journey he shares through photographs and conversations with the film's producer, Sharon Stone.

The charming movie star Gregory Peck led a vastly different kind of life. He built a career playing stubbornly decent men like Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird," just as, off-screen, he was an outspoken critic of racism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry. Barbara Kopple's "A Conversation with Gregory Peck" interweaves clips from his films, archival interviews and footage of a cross-country speaking tour where, in live onstage events, the actor reminisced about his personal and professional life, relating anecdotes about Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn and others. Also on the lineup: San Francisco-based filmmaker Kristine Stolakis's "Where We Stand," which focuses on Mormon feminists fighting for women's rights. The film follows a stay-at-home mom who becomes an ardent advocate for the Ordain Women movement, and the impact that activism had on her life. Kate Kelly, the founder of the movement, which seeks to open the all-male Mormon priesthood to women, was ex-communicated by the church two years ago.

Oct. 20 → 30;

Modern Cinema, a new collaboration between SFMOMA and the San Francisco Film Society, makes its debut with a trio of cinematèque-style programs that pair contemporary and classic films. They'll be screened on three consecutive weekends this month at SFMOMA's revamped Phyllis Wattis Theater. While the second weekend spotlights a retrospective of works by modern-day Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose characters are haunted by ghosts of cinema past and present as well as by their own psyches, the first and third are devoted to a cache of films from the Criterion Collection and its sister company, Janus Films. For 30 years, Criterion/Janus have preserved and restored venerable titles such as "The Seventh Seal," Ingmar Bergman's richly atmospheric masterpiece in which a war-weary 14th-century knight (Max von Sydow), returning from the Crusades, attempts to keep mortality at bay in a chess match with Death; and Akira Kurosawa's "Rashoman," set in medieval Japan, where four witnesses report different versions of the same violent incident that transpired in a forest. Also on display is the inventive genius of French filmmaker Chris Marker, as seen in "La Jetée," a short, potent 1962 gem comprising enigmatic black and white images. A surreal, post-apocalyptic tone poem, it is shown here with Marker's experimental doc "Sans Soleil," a world traveler's rumination on the nature of time and memory. Finally, to help wind up the series' inaugural season, there's "Carnival of Souls," a zombie horror flick featuring a spectral lady organist that has an ardent cult following; it was made in Kansas for virtually nothing and was reportedly a schlock favorite of director John Waters.

Note: Apichatpong Weerasethakul participates in an onstage conversation October 13 at SFMOMA, where his video installation, "Phantoms of Nabua," is part of "Film as Place," an exhibition that runs through October 30.

Oct 7 → 23.;