Arts & Events

What's Up Doc? The SF Doc Fest Comes to Berkeley

By Gar Smith
Friday November 09, 2012 - 12:13:00 PM
San Quentin: Cruel and Unusual.
San Quentin: Cruel and Unusual.

In cinema, documentaries constitute the literature of life. And, on that basis, the latest, 11th edition of SF DocFest rolls into town like a bookmobile for the eyes. Pouring over this DocFest selections — an eclectic list of more than 50 domestic and foreign films set to light up screens in SF and Berkeley from November 8-21— leads one to wonder: What combination of talent and luck does it take to find and film the offbeat tales and oddball personalities that define these projects? While a gifted writer of can endow fictional characters with fatal foibles or superpowers, it would be hard to imagine a novel populated by characters as delightful and daft as some of the protagonists on display in this year's DocFest. 



DocFest is so cutting-edge, the organizers confessed, that some of the films (including Cruel and Unusual and Stolen Seas) were "still in the process of being edited" as the festival date approached. 

Founder Jeff Ross began DocFest in 1998 as a way to showcase a flick by his filmmaker friend Rand Alexander. Ross pulled together four days worth of screenings that drew more than 3,000 enthusiastic viewers. Last year, 21,000 DocFest viewers turned out "to support and celebrate maverick filmmakers and their work." 

"San Francisco filmmakers are strong in the documentary world," Ross explained before an October press screening at the Roxie (a local independent and nonprofit cinematic treasure). In addition to DocFest, IndieFest's hard-working staff of two also manage to grind out the International Short Film Festival, the Action Sports Film Festival and the ever-popular Another Hole in the Head film romp, which features a shameless onslaught of over-the-top, bleeding-from-all-wounds cinema. 

Asked about the possibility of taking the viewing experience online, Ross bristled. "I'm opposed to live-streaming," he said. "I still believe films should be a shared experience. Stand in line, buy some popcorn, then talk about it with friends afterwards. We encourage people to turn off their computers and join us in the theatre." 

"We don't look for any particular categories: we look for diversity," Ross noted. Out of the 50-plus films in the 2012 collection, only two come close to touching on the same topic. "I have only one regret," Ross admitted. "There are no 'animal docs.' Last year we had The World's Ugliest Dog Contest." 

IndieFest screenings are invaluable for independent filmmakers whose work would remain largely unseen except for these quirky annual festivals—and the exposure pays off for the filmmakers and for the public. Ross noted with some pride that, "a lot of our docs eventually resurface in Netflix. A good DocFest review has saved great docs from obscurity and has even led to theatrical releases." 

IndieFest 2012 got underway in San Francisco with an Opening Night Gala on November 8 but, beginning on Saturday 10, the documentary cavalcade crosses the bay and settles into the Shattuck theaters for a six-day run featuring 14 of the festival's top crowd pleasers. 

Here is a list of the films to be screened, along with brief descriptions provided by the IndieFest crew. 

Saturday, November 10 

A Girl Like Her (5 PM) 

An affecting and timely account of unwed mothers in the 50s and 60s, most of whom were coerced to have their babies in secret maternity homes and surrender them for adoption. Director Fessler uses a light hand with the subject, compiling vintage footage to augment simply told stories by the women themselves. The resulting narrative is a moving record of the pressure to be a "good girl" in Atomic Age society, even at the cost of losing a child. 

Co-presented by A Better Way ( and PACT ( 


The Standbys (7:15 PM) 

Every night on Broadway, dozens of the best performers aren't on stage. They are backstage, standing by, ready to go on at a moment's notice." The Standbys follows a variety of undiscovered performers for several years through their ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, onstage performances and private lives. When these Standbys are finally given the chance of a lifetime, anything can—and does—happen. 


Glow (9:30 PM) 

In 1986, the TV show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW) was the answer to the male-dominated World Wrestling Federation. Complete with elaborate characters, costumes, skits, and of course, wrestling, by 1989 the GLOW girls were an international phenomenon, attracting over 7 million viewers worldwide. One year later, it was gone. Follow the rise and fall of this once successful television show through the stories of those who lived it in this fascinating documentary. 


Sunday, November 11 

The World Before Her (5 PM) 

Weaving together the seemingly opposing stories of the Miss India beauty pageant and a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls, director Nisha Pahuja illuminates the situation of women across contemporary India, drawing surprising parallels in the way women are perceived and the opportunities that are afforded them in both modernizing and traditional cultures. The World Before Her is a riveting, thoughtful profile of the fundamental contradictions of a country in transition. 


Fame High (7:15 PM) 

See Planet review. 


Global Home (9:30 PM) 

What took a British environmental activist to the West Bank? What is a Brazilian dancer doing in provincial Turkey? They're users of SF-based When filmmaker Eva Stotz found out about couch-surfing, she had to know more about this online community providing a free place to sleep anywhere in the world—and an opportunity to meaningfully connect after just a few emails. Her thoughtful film shares that experience in gorgeous locations in Japan, Turkey, Mali and beyond. 


Monday, November 12 

Cruel and Unusual (7:15 PM) 

Approaching its 20th anniversary, California's infamous Three Strikes Law is re-examined in this local doc, which highlights the stories of three individuals who received life sentences after crimes such as shoplifting, writing a bad check, and famously taking a piece of pizza from a group of kids. The law's proponents say violent crime is down, while detractors point to the massive expense and inhumane prison crowding. What's the real cost of Three Strikes? 

Co-presented by Oakland Underground Film Festival ( 


Without A Net (9:30 PM) 

Djeferson, Bárbara, Rayana and Platini live in a drug-controlled slum of Rio de Janeiro. Their families are struggling, their homes are physically unstable, and everyone they know has dropped out of school. When a big-top circus tent suddenly appears in a nearby parking lot, they decide to take a chance. They learn trapeze, acrobatics, juggling and contortion, then audition for the end-of-year show. Without a Net explores the connection between risk, desire, poverty and circus, and celebrates the perseverance and resilience of youth in the face of tremendous odds. Director Kelly Richardson lives in Cole Valley, and graduated with honors from UC Berkeley. 


Tuesday, November 13 

The Final Member (7:15 PM) 

Sigurdur Hjartarson created the world's first Phallogical Museum 40 years ago in Iceland. He has collected penile specimens from most every mammal to display in his unusual gallery over the years except one: the human male. This quirky and wildly entertaining film documents Hjartarson's hilarious, and surprisingly heartrending, quest to add the elusive "final member" to his collection, and the two eccentric men—one Icelandic, one American—competing to have their manhood forever preserved in the formaldehyde-filled jars of history. 


Ballroom Dancer (9:30 PM) 

Former Ballroom star Slavik wants a comeback. After winning the World Championship in Latin Dance, his ex-partner (and ex-girlfriend) Joanna moved on to a new partner and brilliant career, and now Slavik has something to prove. But, at 34, the grueling and image-conscious world of competitive ballroom is taking its toll on Slavik—and his relationship with new partner Anna. From the pressure-cooker of competition to the privacy of hotel rooms, the camera catches every smoldering look and dramatic spin. 




Wednesday, November 14 

Ping Pong (7:15 PM) 

A competition doc with a spin, Ping Pong follows four amazing characters on their way to the World Over-80s Table Tennis Championships: Terry, 81, given just a week to live, gets in sight of winning gold; Inge, 89, used table tennis to train her way out of the dementia ward; Australian legend Dorothy deLow, 100, finds herself a mega-celebrity in this rarefied world; and Texan Lisa Modlich, a newcomer at 85, is determined to do whatever it takes to win her first gold. 


Ann Richards' Texas (9:30 PM) 

Soothe post-election angst with the breathtakingly badass Ann Richards, perhaps the best contribution Texas ever made to democracy. A feisty straight-talking West Texas girl, Richards was a hippie housewife who traded late nights with Willie Nelson for a beehive hair-do, famously zingy one-liners, and uphill battles to better the lives of her beloved Texans—before a stunning loss to neophyte George W. Bush. Her legend is discussed by fans Dolly Parton, Bill Clinton, Lily Tomlin, Willie Nelson, Tom Brokaw, and many more. 


Thursday, November 15 

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet (7:15 PM) 

In 1991, Jason Becker was on his way to guitar-god status, tapped to play for David Lee Roth at just 19. Then, the diagnosis: what he called a "lazy limp" in his leg was ALS (AKA Lou Gehrig's Disease). Jason would not go on tour, and might not have 5 years left to live. But two decades later, Jason's still here, making music. It is a story of dreams, love, and the strength of the human spirit. Winner of the Audience Award at Cinequest. 


Big Boys Gone Bananas (9:30 PM) 

Once upon a time, there was a documentary called "Bananas," about conditions at a Dole-owned banana plantation in Nicaragua. But this is not that movie. This movie is about what happened after Dole decided it was going to squash "Bananas"—by any means necessary. What follows is a story that's both incredibly thrilling and deeply inspiring, as filmmaker Gertten makes the decision to fight the Dole company… and document the whole thing, of course. 

Co-presented by Bay Area Video Coalition (, CounterCorp Film Festival (, Oakland Underground Film Festival ( and SF Green Film Festival ( 


General Information about DocFest 

SF DocFest, presented by the SF IndieFest, opened at Terra Gallery on November 8, and runs November 9-21, 2012 at both screens at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco and November 9-15 at the Shattuck Theater in Berkeley. A complete schedule of film, with trailers, is available online at Advanced tickets can also be purchased online.