Noir, Docs and South Asian Film on Tap This Month

by Sura Wood

There is something for everyone this month on big screens around San Francisco.

The fifth iteration of programmer Don Malcolm’s ongoing French noir series—The French Had a Name for It 5—is one of three specialty film events around town this month. It features 20 movies made in the 1950s that highlight class consciousness, sexual explicitness and the early use of unconventional leading men. Simone Signoret stars in the tense opening night film “Thérèse Raquin,” directed by Marcel Carné, best known for his 1945 masterpiece “Les Enfants du Paradis.” The formidable actress portrays a frustrated bourgeois housewife consumed by a love affair that makes her prey to the mind games of a blackmailer threatening to sabotage the life she and her lover (Raf Vallone) have surreptitiously planned.

Six films revolve around the thwarted ambitions of Henri Vidal, an actor whom Malcolm describes as “a matinee idol desperately in search of a career as a leading man.” Vidal got off to an auspicious start at age 20, when his strapping physique won him France’s “Apollo of the Year” contest (and the fleeting amorous attentions of Edith Piaf). In a pair of unusual films—“Quai de Grenelle” and “La Passante”—Vidal made an unsuccessful attempt to broaden his appeal to prestige directors; the two films share a triple bill with René Clair’s sole excursion into noir, “Porte des Lilas,” in which Vidal played a criminal, a role that typecast him henceforth. Two pre-New Wave offerings from 1957 capture the singular Jeanne Moreau (already featuring her signature icy stare and whiskey-and-cigarettes voice) on the cusp of international stardom. She’s the main attraction at a seedy traveling carnival—and trouble for the unfortunate sap who falls for her—in “Jusqu’au Dernier”; she’s even more alluring and twice as dangerous in “Les Louves,” a twisted tale of impersonation, mistaken identity, POW escapees and seductive women. The latter is based on a novel by Boileau-Narcejac, the French mystery writing team who supplied the source material for Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s “Diabolique.”

The series closes with a late-career tour de force from Jean Gabin, France’s answer to Spencer Tracy. Gabin’s charismatic, white-haired screen presence is ideally suited to the benevolent tyrant at the center of “Les Grandes Familles”; he’s a manipulative captain of industry trying to keep his warring family together. “There’s something noble in his ruthlessness,” observes Malcolm in the program notes. “It’s a film that still has lot to say 60 years after it was made.”

Nov. 15 → 20

The lineup for Doc Stories, a mini-fest showcasing new long- and short-form documentaries, opens with Morgan Neville’s “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.” The film delves into the tortured making of Orson Welles’ final production, “The Other Side of the Wind,” an experimental, notoriously chaotic, unfinished project shrouded in myth and speculation. (Recently restored and completed, it will debut on Netflix and in a few theaters this month.) Through footage from the original movie, which commenced shooting in 1970, and observations from people who knew and collaborated with the mercurial genius, Neville paints an impressionistic portrait of what has been called “the greatest film never released.”

For “Of Fathers and Sons,” which examines how violent ideologies are passed down through generations, Berlin-based, Syrian director Talal Derki took enormous risks, posing as a photojournalist and jihad supporter to gain access to the life and family of Abu Osama, a soldier in the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda, and the father of eight devoted sons whom he’s training to follow in his footsteps. Closer to home, two docs testify to the innovative, out-of-the-box thinking endemic to the Bay Area in places like Silicon Valley, the locus for Matthew Maude and Sarah Kerruish’s “General Magic,” which documents the rise and demise of a failed visionary company of the same name. Once called “the most important dead company in Silicon Valley,” the short-lived startup conceived of the smartphone, e-commerce and emojis long before they became part of everyday life. Launched in 1990 amidst a blitz of press and high expectations, the company’s team included some of the brightest minds in technology, a few of whom, along with tech journalists, share their perspectives then and now.

The title of Dan Krauss’s “5B” is also the number and letter that designated a ward on the fifth floor of San Francisco General Hospital, the first unit in the country dedicated to taking care of patients with AIDS. The moving story is told through first-person accounts of patients and their loved ones as well as the heroic hospital staff, who volunteered to work on the ward; it was noted for its compassionate, holistic approach to care at a time when hysteria, ignorance and prejudice surrounded the disease.

Nov. 1 → 4

Women directors dominate this year’s 3rd i San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, addressing issues of homelessness, domestic abuse and female empowerment as well as offering lighter pop culture fare. South Bay-based filmmaker Harleen Singh’s “Drawn Together: Comics, Diversity, and Stereotypes” weaves together the stories of three noted comic book artists—Super Sikh creator Eileen Alden, African-American cartoonist Keith Knight and Vishvajit Singh, a.k.a. Sikh Captain America—for a playful exploration of racism, gender, religion and representation in cartoons and superhero sagas. “Comic books have the ability to instill important values such as protecting the weak, believing in hope and a rare combination of courage and a strong moral ethic,” Singh told the Huffington Post. “[They also] have a tendency to perpetuate stereotypes.”

Sabiha Sumar’s documentary “Azmaish: A Journey through the Subcontinent” thoughtfully investigates the fraught relationship between her native Pakistan and India. Traveling to both nations with Indian actress Kalki Koechlin, she encounters political landscapes in the throes of change. Her film helps to give voice to a silent majority of women as she explores the surge of Hindu fundamentalism in India and interviews individuals from different classes and regions of Pakistan. In “Demons in Paradise,” Jude Ratnam returns to Northern Sri Lanka, a province he fled when he was five. In this penetrating documentary memoir, he reunites with old friends, relives past traumas and confronts the troubling legacy of the terrorist group the Tamil Tigers as he unearths remnants of a brutal civil war buried in the country’s scarred psyche.

And finally, the festival wouldn’t be complete without a Bollywood blow-out at the Castro Theatre. This year’s entry, “Befikre (Carefree),” is a colorful romantic comedy extravaganza that’s as fun as it is preposterous. Set in Paris, it features Bollywood superstars Ranveer Singh and Vaani Kapoor as commitment-averse friends who discover—to the beat of show-stopping musical numbers— that they feel more for each other than they realized.

Nov. 1 → 4 in SF; Nov. 17 in Palo Alto