Humanitarian aid trip to Transylvania makes for must-see cinema at SF Film Festival

The annual celebration of cinema plants its East Bay flag at Pacific Film Archive. The festival runs through May 1.

Întregalde. Credit: SFFilm

If it’s April (and I’m confident it is), it must be time for the San Francisco International Film Festival. This year’s festival begins Thursday, April 21, and wraps up on Friday, May 1, and while most events are scheduled in San Francisco, Pacific Film Archive will again represent the festival in the East Bay. There are over 100 films and events to choose from, and you can see the entire calendar on the festival’s website.

Of the films I was able to pre-screen, two stand out as must sees. From Romania’s Radu Muntean (The Paper Will Be Blue) comes Întregalde (screening at PFA at 7:45 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, its title referring to a sawmill that figures in the story), an impossible to categorize tale of a wintertime humanitarian aid trip to Transylvania.

While there aren’t any vampires on hand, the film cannily uses horror movie tropes to tell its story of three aid workers literally stuck in the middle of nowhere. While its storyline is simplicity itself, Muntean’s screenplay takes many unexpected twists and turns, building intense suspense and repeatedly defying convention and expectations. It’s rare for me to see a film that genuinely kept me on the edge of my seat; this one did.

Almost as good is Riotsville, USA (4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 1, at PFA), a documentary consisting entirely of archival news footage and excerpts from late 1960s military films. Director Sierra Pettengill makes the case that the militarization of American police began decades before the passage of the Clinton Crime Bill.

Some of the film’s most remarkable footage comes from a faux town — dubbed “Riotsville” by the Pentagon — where military units and police forces trained in the fine art of suppressing inner city uprisings. Shot in color, that footage depicts mostly young white soldiers, some wearing Beatle wigs, upending cars and smashing windows. Riotsville, USA casts light on a previously hidden piece of history that doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

Black Mothers Love and Resist. Credit: SFFilm

Oakland is the focus of two worthwhile documentaries. In Black Mothers Love and Resist (screening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, April 29), director Débora Souza Silva follows the efforts of Wanda Johnson (the mother of Oscar Grant) and Angela Williams (whose son Ulysses was badly beaten by police in Troy, Alabama) to tackle injustice and police brutality. Focused, deliberate and always cool under fire, Ms. Johnson is a force of nature. She and Ms. Williams will attend the screening.

In I Didn’t See You There (3 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, at PFA), Oakland-based filmmaker Reid Davenport brings his wheelchair-eye view to The Town. Scooting around his Fox Theater neighborhood — dominated by a huge circus tent (dating the shoot to late 2019; I remember thinking that tent seemed badly out of place!) — Davenport expresses his frustrations with people who block curb cuts and bus drivers who boss him around.

892. Credit: SFFilm

If you’re in the mood for something featuring a real-life movie star, 892 (7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27, at the Castro Theatre) features John Boyega (Finn in the last three Star Wars episodes) as an ex-marine trying to pry his benefits loose from the Veterans’ Administration. Boyega gives an excellent (if Forest Whitaker-inflected) performance as the justifiably angry vet; he’s ably supported by Nicole Beharie (42) as a stressed out bank manager. Based on a true story, 892 won the Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.