With the Writers Guild of America strike dragging on, there will be fewer scripted films and TV series on the entertainment horizon. That might mean attention could shift to a bounty of worthy documentaries and docuseries.
For a sneak peek of what’s coming to theaters and streaming soon, check out the 22nd San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, better known as SF DocFest.
The annual event, running June 1-11, includes in-person screenings, the majority at the Roxie in San Francisco, as well as films available for online viewing. What’s fun about live experience is the wealth of revealing Q&As after the screenings.
SF DocFest offers some 85 non-fiction stories, with 39 features and nearly 50 shorts, many with ties to the Bay Area.
Opening night packs a one-two punch with a double bill of two excellent films. My favorite is director Christine Yoo’s hopeful “26.2 to Life.” Habitual marathon participants know well what that 26.2 in the title means, but they probably haven’t heard about San Quentin’s 1000 Mile Club. Launched in 2005, it brings coaches and trainers to the track/yard to train the men for a marathon (a brutal 105 laps) held on the inside of the prison.
Yoo’s debut documentary follows a selection of runners on race day and mixes their progress with them talking about their crimes, about what running means to them, and what they’re doing in hope of gaining their freedom. These accounts don’t soft pedal what landed them there and how they’ve taken ownership of what happened. Yoo spends time with relatives, including a son who wrestles with anger over his father doing time and his absence. The heart and the soul of the film, though, belongs to Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor, a runner, and head coach Frank Ruona. This uplifting movie just may catch Hollywood’s attention. (6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Roxie; also online)
The other opening night feature describes the many faces of multi-talented Bay Area artist, Grammy-award-winning blues sensation Xavier Dephrepaulezz, better known as Fantastic Negrito. In “Fantastic Negrito: Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?” Oakland’s Yvan Iturriaga and Francisco Núñez Capriles offer a glimpse into the mindset, career and journey of the celebrated musician as he works on his latest album. The filmmaking duo toss it back to his tough childhood growing up as a Black Muslim kid in a small town in Massachusetts and forward to his busker and hustler days, and later, to becoming a critic’s darling. The film is boosted by insights provided by the 55-year-old Oakland resident himself and his friends who talk about him with great candor. (8:45 p.m. Thursday, the Roxie; also online)
For extreme-sports athletes and armchair adventurers fascinated by impressive endurance feats, director Marius Anderson’s “40 Below: The Toughest Race in the World” is a find. It’s centered around Minnesota’s annual Arrowhead 135, an ultra-race in which participants elect to run, ski or bike the snowy terrain in bitterly cold conditions during the harshest time of the year. Why would anyone subject themselves to a grueling ordeal – considered by some to be the toughest ever physical challenge? Santa Rosa resident Bill Bradley answers that and explains why he’s determined to complete the race, even though he failed eight times before.
Bradley got into extreme pursuits after his successful Sonoma County video store went bankrupt and his wife left him. It sunk him into a deep depression. With goals in sight, he took on numerous events, from Iron Man competitions to the Race Across America. Anderson frames the film around Bradley, but also introduces other intrepid participants, including a wife and husband. Trust me, you’ll want to pair this film with hot tea or coffee. (2:15 p.m. Sunday, Roxie; also online)
If you were aghast at the bad behavior before, during and after the 2020 presidential election, try to imagine what it felt like for election officials and volunteers trapped in a viper’s nest of outrage. Directors Sara Archambault and Margo Guernsey and their crew tag along with key Rhode Island election workers and officials for “No Time to Fail,” an absorbing, shake-your-head verité experience that nails down how Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen election fired up people working to prove that democracy legitimately won. Watching the movie makes you want to give anyone associated with counting ballots or working on the elections a medal. (6:30 p.m. Monday, Roxie; also online)
A few other films are worth a look:
“How to Have an American Baby”: Silicon Valley filmmaker Leslie Tai tells a provocative, eye-opening story about the surge of pregnant Chinese women traveling to Southern California so their babies will be American born. It’s the centerpiece film. (4:30 p.m. Saturday at the Roxie only)
“Black Barbie: A Documentary”: In this fascinating account of the first Black Barbie, which Mattel released in 1980, filmmaker Lagueria Davis turns to her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, who worked at the toy manufacturer for 45 years, and shows how and why it took so long for the company to create a doll for young Black girls. (6:30 p.m. June 8 at the Roxie only)
“Satan Wants You”: In the 1980s, it became a clear and present danger, even though it didn’t exist. It’s “Satanic panic,” a prevailing fear that devil worshippers were walking among us and might even be your next-door neighbor. What caused the hysteria? Directors Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor point their fingers at the memoir “Michelle Remembers,” a shocking book written by a Canadian psychiatrist and his patient (also his wife), that turned out to be fiction. The closing night film delves into what were the contributing factors. (8:45 p.m. June 8 at the Roxie; also online)
“Museum of the Revolution”: Palo Alto-based filmmaker Srđan Keča describes the nightmarish reality of three women in Belgrade and how they bonded together in a dank basement of a supposedly grand museum that was under construction, but ultimately never was built. Keča takes a fly-on-the-wall approach; we observe their activities and how they try to get by, day by day, night by night. (4:30 p.m. Sunday at the Roxie; also online)
“The Ruth Brinker Story”: Director Apo W. Bazidi’s 23-minute short packs in a lot and shows how, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the retired food service worker founded Project Open Hand, helping to bring meals to those in need. (Noon Saturday at the Roxie; also online)
“The Secret Song”: With retirement looming on the horizon, beloved and unconventional San Francisco music teacher Doug Goodkin, an inspiration throughout his 45-year career, encounters his greatest obstacle yet: keeping children intrigued on a screen during the COVID-19 pandemic. How does he make the pivot? San Francisco filmmaker Samantha Campbell shows us. (6:30 p.m. Friday at the Roxie; also online)
“Prince’s Birthday Sing-A-Long Party Night”: OK, it’s not a movie by any means. But it’s a guaranteed good time with Lulu Cachoo hosting a program full of Prince videos to celebrate the late music icon. It’s a good reason to party like it’s 1999. (9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Roxie)
For tickets ($10-$17 for individual programs; $90-$225 for passes) and the full program, visit https://sfdocfest2023.eventive.org. To watch films virtually, visit https://watch.eventive.org/sfdocfest2023.