What makes a smart and dynamic film-festival program? Is it simply the quality of the movies? How does audience experience become a factor? The truth is, film programming is not a pure science; it's actually a complex balancing act with multiple moving parts and influences. If you're not careful, the process can drive you mad with frustration. I know from firsthand experience.
But in going through the gauntlet myself, it's become far easier to spot a festival program compiled by someone with a thematic and social vision. Purpose is the key, respect for your audience paramount.
It's exciting to report that the 14th annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, which runs Nov. 7 through 15 at multiple theaters around the county, is an ace practitioner of this insightful methodology. Led by Executive Director Lee Ann Kim, Artistic Director Brian Hu and Managing Director Phillip Lorenzo, this year's SDAFF plans to open and close its event with two very different films that grapple with similar social issues.
It's smart to begin your festival with a rousing crowd-pleaser, and SDAFF will achieve that by leading with Xiao Lu Xue's Finding Mr. Right. Starring Wei Tang (Lust, Caution) as JiaJia, a pregnant young Chinese woman forced to have her baby illegally in the United States thanks to its "illegitimate" status, the film ridicules the limitations of tradition and institutional law while celebrating the jovial ways of the romantic comedy.
Despite its colorful and fluffy façade, Finding Mr. Right examines how exiled people must adapt to their surroundings, realizing new definitions of family as a result. It also explores the hurtful international ripples of China's recent economic boom through JiaJia's purely digital relationship with her wealthy, married and faceless benefactor boyfriend.
If SDAFF opens on an enjoyable slice of genre revisionism, it ends with an emotionally resonant gut punch. José Antonio Vargas and Ann Lupo's stirring documentary Documented examines the personal torment and uncertainty caused by living in the shadows of legality.
Like Finding Mr. Right, themes of identity and citizenship are central to Documented, which focuses intensely on Vargas, a celebrated American journalist who outs himself in 2011 as undocumented in order to impact the ongoing conversation surrounding the Dream Act.
One of the most disturbing truths Vargas discovers is that despite a very public confession (he writes a long piece detailing his journey from the Philippines to the U.S. for The New York Times Magazine), the government ignores his situation primarily because of his high-profile status. Contradictions of policy and practice like these are integral to Documented's success as a social exposé.
Even more harrowing are the personal revelations Vargas makes throughout the film, specifically in relation to his birth mother still living in the Philippines. A powerful Skype call between the two expresses the range of emotions that have been simmering below the surface for so long.
In a way, both Finding Mr. Right and Documented are about every person's right to feel safe, welcome and sheltered by larger institutions that see them as people, not statistics. SDAFF has gone a long way to communicate these issues simply by pairing them together. The audience will do the rest.
Contemporary classics: Ever since it opened its first theater in San Diego back in March, Arclight Cinemas has been screening classic films on the big screen. But this fall, the chain's Arclight Presents series is shifting its programming to reflect great works from relatively recent years. In the next two months alone, audiences will have the privilege of watching such modern classics as Children of Men (7:30 p.m. Oct. 3), Ghostbusters (5 p.m. Oct. 13), The Exorcist (8 p.m. Oct. 27) and The Shining (8 p.m. Oct. 30). arclightcinemas.com
Kino-eyes: It's an exciting time in German cinema, with filmmakers like Christian Petzold making a name for themselves on the international festival circuit. German Currents, now in its third year at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park, will further expose San Diego to the wonders of German cinema. Opening with the 19th-century period piece Die Vermessung Der Welt (Measuring the World), German Currents will screen a host of films during its Oct. 5 and 6 series showcasing the country's dynamic cinematic perspective.
Food and film, African-style: San Diegans get plenty of opportunities to sample food from around the world, but rarely do they get the chance to pair it with some great international cinema. San Diego African Restaurant Week will offer this unique combination from Oct. 18 through 26, opening with a rousing kickoff party at the Digital Gym Cinema in North Park. Throughout the week, five African restaurants from North Park and City Heights will offer cooking classes, live music and dance performances, and Digital Gym will screen a collection of renowned African films. africanfoodsd.com
It's alive!: Addicted to spine-tingling imagery? Mad about demons and devils? Well, the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival is for you. Now in its fourth year, San Diego's premiere showcase for genre cinema will present a mosaic of fright-filled movies from Oct. 24 through 28 at Digital Gym Cinema in North Park. Expect filmmaker Q&A's, lively discussions and plenty of menacing atmosphere as film fans and professionals celebrate their favorite bloody art form. hifilmfest.com