Felicity Price on Wish You Were Here

Felicity Price on Wish You Were Here

I remember reading someplace that a good story often just falls into your lap fully formed. Now I don’t want to speculate over whether my story is a good one or not, that conjecture is now in the capable hands of film going audiences everywhere, so you can make your own decision, but that’s how it came to me – fully formed. However it still took four years to shape into a script that anyone was willing to finance.

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Notes from Sundance: American Promise

We asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson to reflect on their experience screening their Special Jury Award-winning, SFFS-supported film American Promise at Sundance.


So far the Sundance Film Festival has been a whirlwind of activity – from screening our film American Promise, to interacting with audience members, to attending parties, to meeting other filmmakers around the world, to talking with prospective investors. It is a very intense experience and although it is very exciting, it is also exhausting. The audience reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. Many other people have told us they're touched and that the movie has given them a tremendous amount to think about as it relates to race, class, gender, educational opportunity and even parenting.

In the Q&A sessions following the screenings, we're fielding a lot of questions about the boys -- people are clearly rooting for them. Both young men are doing extremely well. Idris just completed his first semester at Occidental College. Like many college freshman he's finding it challenging, but he's growing, learning and starting to stand on his own two feet. Seun told the audience that his freshman experience was "no walk in the park." But he, too, is acclimating to his new environment and doing extremely well. Both the two of us and Seun's parents, Tony and Stacy Summers, are beaming with the knowledge that our sons have overcome tremendous obstacles that we did not anticipate and could not protect them from, and are now doing well in their lives.

People also comment a lot about our bravery, saying that we are exceptionally courageous to expose our family and some of our most difficult parenting days, as we have. We believe that building connections and creating community requires openness. That said, some people feel unsettled by our decision to film our boys. By nature documentaries about people reveal them to the world. The fact that we've exposed our own family puts us in a far better position to protect our son and Seun than the parents of, say, an impoverished child in another country whose story a filmmaker tells are in. If you were to run into either of our young men, he would tell you that he is proud to be part of the film and are grateful to have a role in spreading the word about ending the educational crisis facing Black males. The presence of the cameras made us all into a better people.  

Perhaps most significantly, many people have told us that while they don't want to minimize the issues facing African American boys, watching the movie made them realize that both our family and the Summers’ seem strikingly similar to their own. This is one of the most satisfying pieces of feedback we could possibly receive. Because in making American Promise, we bet on our belief that if we could expose the public to who Black boys really are so that their promise is no longer obscured by stereotypes, distortions, and negative media portrayals and people can actually see their humanity, perhaps the world will fear them less, care about them more, and join us in advocating for their wellbeing.

Be Careful What You Wish For: Prepping for Sundance

We asked directors Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson to reflect on the lead-up to their SFFS-supported film American Promise getting into Sundance. American Promise premieres today at Sundance.


Joe: When we received the phone call from Sundance, we were in the editing room agonizing over how we should end our film.  When the phone rang and we noticed the call was from the Sundance institute, I couldn’t bring myself to pick it up so I handed the phone over to Michèle.  For a moment, it was as if time stood still.  I could hear Michèle say “Hey Shari,” after that, even the sound in my head had been drowned down. I had anticipated this moment for years and the thought of hearing no was now impossible for me to come to terms with, only because of my temporary brain fix.  Suddenly, Michèle went airborne, jumping up and down, pumping her fist in the air.  Then the sound in my mind came back on.  She was screaming the word, “YES!” 

Michèle: Perhaps there was some fist pumping and jumping up and down, I don’t know, I think I was numb with elation.  I called my mother in Quebec to share the good news, she asked, “What film did you get in with?”  She was surprised that a festival as important as Sundance would accept a home movie.  Once all the phone calls to crew members were made the daunting nature of what we had to accomplish by January began to sink in.  Be careful what you wish for.

Joe: Preparing for Sundance has felt like running a marathon every day for thirty days.  We have day jobs and on top of a busy post-production schedule, we are creating a short for NYT Op-Docs and preparing for the Television Critics Association press conference in Pasadena, which just happens to be the same week as the Open of the Sundance Film Festival. We’ve also put preparations for our community engagement campaign into high gear.  The campaign is huge and we are so excited about its potential for change.  So, this means we’re now working on adrenaline and less than 5 hours of sleep a day until February.   

Michèle: We are set on taking advantage of every opportunity that presents itself for the film and our campaign.  And in this day and age of new technologies, that means loads of blogging and social media opportunities to develop a following.   Our engagement campaign is a part of that build up to our premiere screening.  One small piece of that campaign will begin during our film festival tour. It’s unusual to organize a dedicated campaign for a film festival run, so we’re hoping we set a precedent for future documentary films. We came up with this idea because we wanted to harvest any good intention resulting from the screening of the film. Since film festivals draw a general audience, we needed something that anyone could do. 

Joe: So, as we travel the festival circuit, we’re going to ask our audiences to help us raise $100,000 and 100 mentors for Big Brothers Big Sister’s Mentoring Brothers in Action program. The goal of this program is to recruit mentors, particularly men of color, and expand the organization’s capacity to serve more African American boys. We launched the campaign the week after Sundance announced our acceptance. 

Michèle: Idris and Seun are very excited for Sundance; they are eager to represent the film at such a prestigious event – and are certainly more relaxed about it than we are. Although Seun was initially a bit apprehensive about everything, he is getting more and more excited everyday. 

Joe: We decided to prepare the boys for press and interviews, our thought was that we did not want them to became overwhelmed in front of the camera.  That’s when both boys said almost in unison,  “we’ve been in front of a camera for 13 years. What’s another week.”  –  I guess the pressure is really on us.

My War, Part 2: The Glorious Beautiful Blue Sky Future

My War, Part 2: The Glorious Beautiful Blue Sky Future

by Mike Keegan

Editor's note: The Roxie not only is an integral part of the San Francisco film community, but has been closely involved with countless SFFS exhibitions, screenings, and festivals over the years. We asked Roxie programmer Mike Keegan to write about the importance of theatrical exhibition as they approach their Kickstarter fundraising deadline. Read Part 1 of his post here.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a groundswell of theaters across the country that have used this as an opportunity to reinvent the way they operate.  Super-focused programming is an important element, as is truly engaging with your audience, programming for that audience and that audience, in turn trusting the left turns you throw in there every once in a while.  Along the way, something really neat accidentally happened—in this hyper-connected, everything-on-demand age, regionalism snuck back in to movie going.  Cinefamily in LA, the Hollywood in Portland, the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the 92YTribeca in Manhattan—there are a lot of titles we have in common, both old and new, but we also show a lot of stuff, both old and new, that are of interest only to our particular regions.  And I think that is AWESOME.

At the Roxie, we have a couple of unofficial (and official!) guiding principals, but the one I keep going back to is “the best/weirdest/coolest films of the past, present and future”, and it shows the continuum of our programming well.  Our repertory titles are largely deep cuts, b-sides and maligned-at-the-time shoulda-beens.  The new movies we show are from the same cloth–festival favorites, under-distributed or self-distributed, and currently maligned shoulda-beens.  The thing is, we love these movies and want you see them.

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My War, Part 1: The Ugly Side

My War, Part 1: The Ugly Side

by Mike Keegan

Editor's note: The Roxie not only is an integral part of the San Francisco film community, but has been closely involved with countless SFFS exhibitions, screenings, and festivals over the years. We asked Roxie programmer Mike Keegan to write about the importance of theatrical exhibition as they approach their Kickstarter fundraising deadline.

Cinema is dead, no one goes to the movies, film is dead, who actually goes to the movies, they don’t make ‘em like they used to, there’s nothing new under the sun—my gosh, don’t you just WRETCH at the thought of these phrases, either in a hundred and forty characters or time-wasting think pieces or overheard on BART or anywhere else under the sun.  Here’s the secret—and I’m preaching to the choir here—American independent cinema is going through an amazing renaissance at the moment.  Really!  It’s just ACCESS to these movies that’s the problem, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s easier than ever to make a movie.  You, dear reader, could conceivably write, direct, shoot, edit and upload a feature film with whatever device you’re currently reading this on.  Look here—iMovie for your iPhone is just $4.99 in the App Store.  So let’s try a little experiment—go make a movie.  I’ll wait here.  Go do it–it’ll be fun!  Good luck!

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The Act of Writing with One's Own Words

The Act of Writing with One's Own Words

by Sean Uyehara

There is the description of the thing and then there is the thing itself.

It’s difficult to write about the KinoTek programming stream without making it sound extra stuffy, alienating and art-world-y. That’s partly because KinoTek was established in 2006 by SFFS to engage, investigate and present the array of increasingly hybridized modes of media production, distribution and exhibition. The programming stream always incorporates moving image media and has presented live cinema, machinima, dance performance, theater, parametric and computational art and live music and film.

Lots of seemingly heady nerd potential. And, in truth, the majority of work out there that capitalizes on changes or combinations in technological and mediated platforms is (not surprisingly) soulless. But, I’ve worked hard to find and present work that is rigorous, provocative and engaging. Not all of it is for everyone. But, (hopefully) every project is for someone. And, who knows, maybe that someone is you.

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You Want To Start A Film Production Company? Why Not Make It A Non-profit?

You Want To Start A Film Production Company?  Why Not Make It A Non-profit?

by Chris Mason Johnson

I don’t have any statistics on this, but from what I can gather anecdotally, forming a non-profit to make a fictional feature film is a pretty rare thing, but it’s what I’ve done for my new (second) feature, Test, and it’s been a great experience. Mostly great. At first I did have to endure snarky questions from my non-filmmaking friends, along the lines of: “Aren’t you just admitting your film won’t make any money?” Well, no... (More on that later.) From my filmmaking friends the response was more of a blank stare, followed by: “I don’t know anyone else who’s done that.”

There are a lot of filmmakers out there who make one feature and then stop. They didn’t break through to that magical “next level,” and there’s no way they’re doing the same thing all over again. But for those of us who are determined to keep making films on a small scale, truly independently—and who actually enjoy it—it makes sense to explore new models in a distribution landscape that’s in the midst of its own creative destruction and reconfiguring.

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A Band Apart: Essential SF

A Band Apart: Essential SF

by Sean Uyehara
Photos by Michael Rauner

This past weekend, we presented the third annual Essential SF, the Film Society’s newest edition in our growing compendium of people, organizations and films that we consider “essential” to Bay Area film culture.

There’s a necessary arbitrariness to the selection each year, as there is no way that we can include every person, film, thing and idea that comprises the Bay Area film community (of course), and that’s not really the goal anyhow.  So, the Essential SF list isn’t exhaustive.

What it’s really aiming towards is the celebration of the social context we luckily have here for making, presenting and attending movies.

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Fear & Movies: Morocco, Hollywood and Me

Fear & Movies: Morocco, Hollywood and Me

By John Slattery

Having been overseas for three and a half years, I returned to the United States. When I came back, I came straight to San Francisco.

In the first few weeks people would ask, “So, where’d you move here from?” When I told them I’d just come from a year of teaching in Paris, 99% of their responses had a similar theme, which all fit into one category: I LOVE PARIS!

Often in the same conversations, their follow up question had to do with where I was before Paris. When I told them that I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco for two and a half years—they had a very different kind of response.

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Sometimes You Have To Change The Ending, Metaphors & All…

By Alejandro Adams

“If we do not reunite Sykes and Thornton, which shows that people do side together, that they do stick with each other...then perhaps we have destroyed everything we have been talking about in this picture.”

—Producer Phil Feldman in a letter to Sam Peckinpah regarding the final scene of The Wild Bunch*

It's not every day that a notorious bruiser of a director gets along with his producer. But it's equally rare that a producer respects a filmmaker and his vision to the degree illustrated by the note above—Feldman had even protested Peckinpah excising some of the film's more violent bits. Directors are usually the ones who get so far up the ass of their own work they can't see clearly. In a somewhat alarming inversion, Feldman was a producer exhibiting more concern for the integrity of the film than for the paying audience.**

I've started with an anecdote about a producer not only because this quasi-promotional outing is brought to you by Ted Hope's kind invitation but also because filmmaking is about relationships, sometimes just one relationship, and it can feel like the scene that reunites Sykes and Thornton. Or not.

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by Sean Uyehara

My friend Meredith Brody once teased me a bit for calling a movie “delicious.” It’s ironic because, in addition to being a cinephile, she is a bona fide restaurant and food critic—one of the best that San Francisco has seen, in this writer’s humble opinion. Anyhow, she understood what I meant, and even delighted in the turn of phrase a bit, but the phrase is open for a bit of ribbing.

I bring it up because it’s the term that first came to mind when thinking of the Taiwan Film Days entry Days We Stared at the Sun. Also, I wrote it in the program note SFFS put on the web: “Delicious melodrama.” The film is based on a wildly popular Taiwanese television series. It’s setting is high school; the typical high school that is rife with drug abuse, bullying, class differences, cliques, adolescent rage, big government scandals and the occasional homicide. Ah, to be young again.

So, what makes Days We Stared at the Sundelicious? What can I possibly mean? I don’t mean that rhetorically only. I actually have needed to go back and figure out why I would want to say that. (Thanks, Meredith.)

If I say a movie is delicious, it’s almost certainly going to be a melodrama. It’s going to be excessive, full of diffuse and pleasurable surprises. A taut movie can’t really be delicious. That sandwich was taut, yum? Naw, that sandwich was overloaded with secrets and unexpected textures and flavors. Maybe the best sandwich I’ve ever eaten. That seems a bit more on track.

Here’s a strange thing I start to conclude from these cinegastronomical thoughts: as genres go, in general, it’s easier to justify liking a suspense film than a melodrama. And I wonder, is that true? I do in fact LOVE suspense films. Suspense is explicit in its pleasures. The tensions are conscious and on the table. As audience members, we want to know specific things—Who is the killer? Will he survive? Is she who she says she is? Does he even like pancakes? Okay, that last question is less common, but you get it: Suspense films address specific questions to audiences, tugging them along with a self-conscious playfulness.

With melodrama the pleasure is much more hazy. Excessive narration, excessive emotion, excess in general can overwhelm audiences with information that isn’t always apparently relevant. Manipulating the serial revelation of strange facts can sometimes feel like tricks: Okay, he’s her boss and her lover. Hold on he’s also her therapist… What?! And, he’s her brother? It’s a fine line between the ridiculous and the sublime here. Arguing in favor of melodrama takes resolve. It requires saying you are giggling with the film not in contempt of it. Days We Stared at the Sun is like that, a kind of scaffolding of unlikely events, piling up begging to crash at any second, defiantly and incredibly refusing to give in to reason and gravity. It’s terrifically delicious.

P.S. If you want to see one of the most crazy, delicious films ever, you have to check out Sympathy for Delicious, directed by and co-starring Mark Ruffalo.

Sean Uyehara is a programmer at the San Francisco Film Society.