It’s time once again for SF DocFest, and this year the festival’s programmers have truly outdone themselves. In addition to the usual focus on worthwhile local films, it also includes a high quotient of tempting pop culture offerings, making this year’s festival a genuine garden of non-fiction cinematic delights. Most films are available for streaming through Sunday, June 12.
If you paid any attention to chart music at the end of the 20th century — or simply listened to ‘modern rock’ radio during the late 1990s — you’re no doubt familiar with the singalong anthem ‘Tubthumping‘, a top 10 hit in both the U.S. and U.K. from the Leeds-based anarcho-punk collective known as Chumbawamba. I Get Knocked Down recounts the band’s rise to success, and the inherent contradictions of that success for a band that had absolutely no intentions of crossing over to the mainstream.
Thirty years later, singer and filmmaker Dunstan Bruce is still coming to terms with it all. Framing I Get Knocked Down as a debate between Bruce and the grotesque masked alter-ego featured in the record’s marketing campaign, the film is laden with wry humor and thoughtful musings about what happens when outsider musicians accidentally stumble into the belly of the beast.
We Were Hyphy tells the story of the uptempo rap style that briefly dominated the Bay Area hip-hop scene around the same time Chumbawamba were topping the charts. Focusing on local rappers E-40, Mistah Fab, and the late Mac Dre, director Laurence Madrigal paints a picture of a vibrant, unconsciously dadaist movement where humor, playfulness, fashion, and dance were equal partners. The joyous abandon of hyphy is much missed.
Clarissa’s Battle records the years-long efforts of Oakland-based parent activist Clarissa Doutherd to expand childcare subsidies for Alameda County residents via a ballot measure that barely failed in 2018 and one that passed in 2020. If you’ve ever met Ms. Doutherd you know she’s a tireless advocate for both children and their carers, and Oakland director Tamara Perkins’ film is a worthy and well-deserved tribute.
Moving across the Bay to San Francisco, It Came From Aquarius Records recounts the history of one of the area’s most eclectic — and iconic — record shops. Opening in 1970, Aquarius remained in business until 2016, when it sadly closed after its owners willingness to lose money finally ran out. As a former Aquarius customer, I still miss it: Even though its old space is now occupied by the similarly eclectic Stranded Records, it just isn’t the same. I want the weekly List back!!
In addition to music and film, another of your humble scribe’s longtime personal obsessions has been the Kennedy assassination and the theories spawned by it. The Assassination and Mrs. Paine is certainly one of the most interesting JFK films of recent vintage, focusing on the story of Ruth Paine, who lived with Lee and Marina Oswald in the final months before the president’s murder.
Now in her late 80s but still alert and spry, Paine has never been shy about sharing her perspective on the events of 1963, and as a result quickly became the subject of numerous accusations regarding her alleged role in the assassination. Berkeley-based director Max Good’s film doesn’t draw any firm conclusions, but it also doesn’t shy away from confronting Mrs. Paine with difficult questions — which she bats away with impressive equanimity. CIA agent, Quaker peace activist, or both? Until the federal government finally releases all the relevant classified documents — and Trump and Biden both flinched when presented with the opportunity — we’re unlikely to find out.
Also worth your while: Other, Like Me, which details the largely ignored history of Hull art collective Coum Transmissions and Throbbing Gristle, the industrial music group that sprang from it; and Roger Corman: The Pope of Pop Cinema, a salute to the ageless and prolific wonder of exploitation cinema who’s still producing films at the age of 96.