Cambodia, India, and the Cloud: SFIFF Documentary Sunday

I saw three films at the San Francisco International Film Festival on Sunday–all documentaries. That wasn’t planned. It just worked out that way.

B+ A River Changes Course
Kalyanee Mam’s ethnographic documentary follows three struggling families in imagemodern-day Cambodia. And while no river literally changes course, the modern world forces the film’s protagonists to severely alter their lifestyles. Corporations are chopping down the forests, fishermen are getting smaller catches, and young people leave for the city in a futile hope of raising their families out of poverty. Visually striking and deeply sad.

Unfortunately, I had to leave before Mam’s post-screening Q&A.

A River Changes Course will not play the festival again. However, it is on the list of files that "have secured U.S. distribution or are in negotiations with a U.S distributor," so you may get a chance to see it.

B Salma
This is in no way a well-made documentary. It’s poorly shot, and often leaves you imageconfused about many details. But the basic story is so strong you can forgive it almost anything. Salma, a Muslim woman born in a small Indian village, was effectively under house arrest for 25 years–first by her parents and then by the husband she was forced to marry. Her crime? Being female and passed puberty. But while imprisoned, she became a famous poet, and then a successful politician, fighting (not surprisingly) for women’s rights. It was only after she was elected that her husband let her out of the house. I would love to see this story better told.

Salma won’t screen again this festival. I’m not sure if you’ll ever have a chance to see this film.

A Google and the World Brain
In this wonderfully entertaining documentary, Ben Lewis takes us through Google’s attempt to scan every book in every library, and the copyright lawsuits that at least for imagenow have derailed it. Along the way it covers privacy issues, other digital archives, and the magic of an old-fashioned, paper-based library. Among the people interviewed are Wired’s Kevin Kelly (who gave the Festival’s 2008 State of the Cinema Address), an executive from Google Spain (the American headquarters refused to cooperate), an angry Japanese author, and a French librarian who seems to personify every annoying stereotype of the snooty Gallic intellectual.

The film manages a light, snappy feel despite the serious undertones. Computer-generated cityscapes, a server farm built into what appears to be a medieval cathedral, and animated interview subjects keep it visually lively.

Lewis is clearly worried about Google’s growing power and willingness to violate your privacy. But Google and the World Brain is no simple piece of propaganda. Both sides in this issue are treated fairly.

Lewis was unable to attend the screening (he lives in England and he has a new baby), but he was interviewed afterwards via Skype. Some highlights:

"Three or four years ago, I became interested in a study of the Internet, around issues of monopoly, free market, and privacy. I was looking for a story."

He considered a story about music piracy, but "Nobody sympathizes with musicians. We assume they don’t make any money."

"Just as we’re entering this knowledge economy, the people who are making this knowledge are told that we’ll give it away for free."

"Google makes money from what we produce."

On Google’s response to the film: "They didn’t want to take part in it. After it came out, they said they were deeply disappointed by the tone of the film."

I saw the last festival screening of Google and the World Brain. It’s not on the likely-to-be-released list, which surprised me. With it’s lively and funny presentation, immediate subject matter, and reasonably happy editing, this is about as commercial as a documentary gets.