May Day at the SFIFF: A Sobering Documentary and a Boring Swashbuckler

I got a surprise when I stepped out of the Montgomery BART station on my way to the San Francisco International Film Festival. I ran into a Occupy-themed May Day protest blocking Market St.

That provided two dilemmas. First, should I go to the festival, or take part in the protest? Second, when I decided to go to the festival, how do get there with no 38 Geary bus on a closed Market St.?

A cop told me that I could walk up to Sutter and catch the rerouted 38 there. And I made it to the festival and caught two movies.

 B+ The Law in These Parts
Dense and filled with legalize (which usually makes my eyes glaze over), this Israeli documentary isn’t easy to follow. But if you give it your all, it becomes impossible tothe_law_in_these_parts turn away \. Comprised entirely of interviews with retired military judges who once administered "justice" in the West Bank and Gaza, it examines the legal structure of a temporary military occupation that became permanent. The old men interviewed discuss the legal justifications (excuses, really) they found to hold people indefinitely without trial, hand Palestinian land over to Israeli settlers, and allow those settlers to get away with pretty much anything they wanted. Director Ra’anan Alexandrowicz asks probing questions that reveal these men’s complicity in oppression.

After the sreening, Alexandrowicz came up for Q&A. A few choice comments:

  • "It took five years to make," mostly in research.
  • "About half the people who were interviewed were not happy with their participation. I’m surprised that the other half were."
  • "I tried to make the film in a neutral way."
  • "I learned to conduct these interviews by working around the subjects and not going directly."
  • "The Occupation has become a metaphor for Israel. When you say you’re against the Occupation, people say you’re against Israel."

I saw the last festival screening of The Law in These Parts, but it’s on the Festival’s list of films that will or may get a regular release.

My other film of the day was very different. It was, however, the third film I’ve seen in less than six weeks that was set in 18th-century France.

D Smugglers’ Songs
Writer/director Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche did something I didn’t think was possible: He made a boring swashbuckler. Set soon after the execution of famed outlaw Louis Mandrin, it follows his merry band of smugglers (and, apparently, revolutionaries) as they go from town to town, hawking their wares, smugglers_songsspreading their political beliefs (which are never explained), and confounding the king’s men. The few action scenes are as fanciful as any Errol Flynn picture, with bad guys meeting quick and clean deaths and good guys not getting scratched, but they lack the energy and grace that makes those movies so much fun. In the end, Smugglers’ Songs just asks us to worship these people without offering a reason why.

In all fairness, I should mention that an old friend of mine, Paul Spiegel, liked it a lot. He knows French and is more familiar with French culture than I am, which probably gave the movie an advantage. Apparently there’s a wit to the dialog that got lost in translation.

But from my point of view, this was the worst film I’ve seen at this year’s festival. Fortunately for you, you’ve already missed what will probably be your only chance to see Smugglers’ Songs.

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