I eventually found my way through the intimidatingly large program of the San Francisco International Film Festival, and to the festival itself.
The movie I most enjoyed was Sleep Dealer. It is set in a near-future where the kind of low-paying jobs now often held by immigrants from developing countries (driving taxis, constructions work, waiting tables) are done by machines that are controlled remotely via a virtual reality technology. And the machines are operated, of course, by low-paid workers in developing countries, so that the richer countries can have all the benefits of immigration, without the immigrants. During the Q&A, the filmmaker Alex Rivera made the point that (as far as he knows) this is the first movie to look into the future of developing countries. One often sees SF movies that imagine the future of New York, or London, but not of Tijuana or Delhi. One woman asked him how he reconciles the political message of his movie with the corporate sponsorship. (She noticed an acknowledgment to Coca Cola in the closing credits.) I liked his response: “we are all steeped in inescapable horror,” he started, “the Gap clothes I am wearing were made in a sweatshop, and the meat I ate for dinner came from animals that were treated inhumanely.” And he went on to say that we cannot fight everything, we have to keep on living, but for the big things, then it is worth trying to push back as much as possible. (I completely agree.)
Big Man Japan, about a middle-aged Japanese super-hero was also a lot of fun.
I also saw two movies from Chinese “sixth generation” directors. Still Life won the golden lion (the top prize) at the 2006 Venice film festival, and I should have known better than to go see it: European film festival juries are populated by the worst kind of film snobs, and watchable movies are not their thing. In the spirit of Italian neo-realismo, the movie is interested in seeing great societal change through the eyes of the “little people” that are affected by them, and via small, disjointed, stories. I don’t get it. I concede, however, that the scenes about the towns being demolished in preparation for the rising level of water after the Three Gorges Dam is completed, are incomparably more moving, if considerably less polished, than the same images in Manufactured Landscapes Umbrella was a fascinating documentary shot as part of a large project that will produce ten documentaries a year for ten years. Following umbrellas from the places where they are produced, to the places where they are traded, to the places where they are used, the movie looks into five classes of Chinese society, factory workers, merchants, college students, soldiers, and farmers. The shots inside a PLA training facility are fascinating, and the final segment was very moving, with a peasant complaining about the rising costs of farming, the lack of welfare, and then reminiscing about the various farming policies from the 1950s on, and finally weeping by just thinking about the time of the cultural revolution.