Non-fiction at home as DocFest goes virtual

We can’t go to a theater, but we can still experience a film festival. Maybe someone should make a documentary about that.

The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, better known as SF DocFest, will run virtually from September 3 to 20. During those 18 days, you can screen up to 25 features and 20 shorts, all non-fiction, on your own time. Of course you’ll have to buy tickets for the films you see – unless you splurge for a DocPass.

Many of the films will be followed by live or recorded Q&As. Of course, the live Q&As will happen at scheduled times.

Before you buy that pass, make sure you can stream the films. If you have technical problems, check the We’re here to help page.

Along with the pictures, DocFest offers two interactive events: Filmmaker Feud, where two filmmaking teams compete to name popular responses to survey questions, and Bad Art Gallery S08E02, which, as near as I can tell, is about viewing and buying bad art.

As I write this, I’ve watched five documentaries that I can recommend (or not). Here they are from best to worst:

A The Last Ice

From the title, I expected an environmental documentary about what will happen to all of us when the arctic thaws. But Scott Ressler’s important film focuses on something much more immediate: Innuits, how their lives have changed when white people came to the arctic, and the destruction of their culture. Ressler’s interview subjects are caught between two cultures and prefer the one of their elders. Yes, they have smartphones and modern winter clothing, and live in modern houses, but they still hunt if they can. They’re finally beginning to gain some control over their land, but the ice they depend on is getting dangerously thin.

This film has a pre-recorded Q&A.

B+ Americaville

Not far from Beijing, a planned community provides a so-called American experience for the well-to-do. Adam James Smith’s funny and yet sympathetic documentary catches this false world of big houses, back yards, artificial snow, and celebrations of the 4th of July. The film primarily focuses on a housewife living alone while her husband is off on “business.” Her attempts at “American” recipes are hilariously bad, but we slowly realize that she’s a very sad and lonely person.

This film will have a pre-recorded Q&A.

B+ The Last Blockbuster

Did you know that Bend, Oregon contains the only open Blockbuster store left in the world? This fun, nostalgically soaked doc doesn’t take everything seriously, but it reminds us of the days when people had to connect with a community to rent a movie. The doc shows more than a profile of the store’s hard-working and upbeat manager, along with her employees (many of them relatives). It also provides a history of rental stores in general and Blockbuster in particular, and how the company made some very bad decisions. Among the interviewees is a very thin Kevin Smith. I should admit that I rarely rented anything from Blockbuster; I preferred independent video stores.

This documentary will have a live Q&A, Sunday September 6, 8:00pm.

B Animation Outlaws

This overly fawning documentary presents hippy entrepreneurs Craig “Spike” Decker and Mike Gribble as naughty gods that made all good things in animation better. They called their animation showcase programs Sick and Twisted, but they could also correctly be called weird, funny, and very much against the grain. And yet, much of the commercial animation you’ve seen in recent decades, from Beavis and Butthead to Pixar, come from artists whose work were first shown publicly on a Spike and Mike show. But watching the film, I wanted less interviews and more animation.

This documentary will have a live Q&A, Friday September 11, 8:00pm.

C- Dharma Rebel

It starts well, as a profile of a punk rock Buddhist who runs an organization helping people off their addictions via meditation. But as the documentary goes on, it begins to feel like an advertisement for his country-wide association. I was beginning to feel I was watching a feature-length commercial when it suddenly got a little more interesting. A woman in the group accuses the tattooed Buddhist of sexual assault (we never hear the woman’s view). And yet the film still tries to make him the good guy at the end.

This documentary will have a live Q&A, Friday September 4, 8:00pm.