Reviewed: Highlights from the San Francisco International Film Festival

A well-deserved and clear-eyed tribute to a one-of-a-kind punk rock pioneer, a journey back to the ‘video nasty’ era and an impressive debut feature with a nod to Aki Kaurismäki.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché. Photo courtesy SFFILM

I don’t remember when I first heard X-Ray Spex — probably sometime in 1979 — but I immediately became a dedicated fan of both the band and Poly Styrene (born Marianne Elliott in 1957 to a Somali father and British mother), the group’s diminutive but powerful singer. Though she fell out of the public eye in the early ’80s (and stayed out of it for the next 30 years), the album and five singles X-Ray Spex released over the course of their brief career were perfect, and still sound great today.

Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché (currently screening as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival) tells the story of her wilderness years, and it’s quite the eye opener. Produced and co-directed by Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell, it’s both a well-deserved and clear-eyed tribute to a one-of-a-kind punk rock pioneer.

Punk arrived before the video age; consequently it was never well-documented on film. Performance footage of X-Ray Spex is sparse, but fans will be over the moon to see original saxophonist Lora Logic (fired by Poly in late 1977, and replaced by Rudi Thompson) playing with the band, as well as post-Logic appearances on television’s Top of the Pops and Musikladen. Commentary is provided by contemporaries Gina Birch & Ana da Silva (The Raincoats), Rhoda Dakar (The Bodysnatchers), Pauline Black (The Selecter), and Neneh Cherry (Rip, Rig & Panic), adding critical context to Poly’s story.

A 1978 trip to New York City left Poly deeply disturbed, alerting her to the plastic, less than fantastic future she foresaw coming to Britain. Her fear spiraled into a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia and admission to a mental hospital; after her release she traveled to India, took a liking to the Hare Krishna movement, and moved to the cult’s Hertfordshire ashram. A later move to the Sussex seaside town of Hastings presaged decades of seclusion.


Three years before her death, in 2011, Poly Styrene reappeared to record a new album with friends and family. Though no classic, the LP was a welcome parting gift for her fans and admirers — and here’s another one. Even if you’ve never heard of X-Ray Spex, this is a rewarding watch.

‘Censor:’ Travel back to the ‘video nasty’ era

Censor. Photo: Courtesy SFFILM

Set in the 1980s, Prano Bailey-Bond’s Censor travels back to the so-called ‘video nasty’ era, when British tabloids set off a moral panic about slasher movies. The film features Niamh Algar as Enid, a British Board of Film Classification censor still haunted by the childhood disappearance of younger sister Nina; when Enid screens a gory epic entitled ‘Don’t Go in the Church’, she’s disturbed to discover its morbid tale parallels her personal tragedy.

While Censor features excellent performances, distinctive use of color by cinematographer Annika Summerson, and some very effective sound design, you’ll need to suspend disbelief to fully appreciate it. There’s a lot to like here, but also some gaping plot holes that can’t be papered over.

‘The Whaler Boy:’ An impressive debut film

The Whaler Boy. Photo: Courtesy SFFILM

From Russia, Kitoboy (The Whaler Boy) is the story of Leshka (Vladimir Onokhov), a young man smitten with an American woman he ‘meets’ on a video chat site. Catching whales in the Bering Strait pales in comparison with Leshka’s dream girl, and after an unfortunate fight with buddy Kolya (Vladimir Lyubimtsev), he’s compelled to up sticks for the United States. How hard can it be to get to Detroit from the other side of the international date line?

There’s a touch of the Aki Kaurismäki about Whaler Boy, which leans into the Finnish director’s deadpan style and features a stone-faced surf band, but writer-director Philipp Yuryev is no copycat, adding hints of magical realism and some very handsome location photography to the cinematic recipe. As with Censor, Whaler Boy’s conclusion betrays the screenwriter’s inability to completely square the narrative circle, but this is an impressive debut feature.