Essential SF Q&A: Pamela Gentile

By Pam Grady

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

2017 will mark the 60th anniversary of the San Francisco International Film Festival and photographer Pamela Gentile’s 31st year as the Festival’s official photographer. Gentile never studied photography; it was film that was in her blood. After inventing an independent studies film major for herself at the University of Oregon and later teaching a Women in Film class there, she relocated to San Francisco. She was working on a master’s degree in film at San Francisco State University when she first attended the Festival and took pictures as a member of the press.

Beginning in 1986—a year that brought to the Festival Akira Kurosawa, Spike Lee, Michael Powell, Mike Leigh, Danny Glover, and Agnès Varda, among others—Gentile became the event’s official photographer. That first year, she shot 16 rolls of film. In our digital age, she might shoot 30,000 images for a single festival. Through it all and through all the other festivals she has covered, Gentile has emerged as a vital artist capturing film history on the fly and every inch Essential SF.

Q: Do you remember what year you first photographed the SF International?

Pamela Gentile: The first year was 1985. In 1985, I was a film student and my boyfriend was a film student. He was trying to get us into the film festival, so he contacted this Japanese journal—he is Japanese—Kinema Junpo and asked if he could write an article for them about the San Francisco Film Festival. At that time, I was working for the Weekly, and I was shooting a lot of music. So, I went as the photographer. I showed the Festival my work and the next year, I was hired.

My first year, officially, as staff photographer was 1986. That year was pivotal in some ways for the Festival, because that was the beginning of the Kurosawa award. That was the year they brought Kurosawa. Kurosawa was at the zenith of his career. The reason he was even in the States was because he was going to the Academy Awards.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: That was the Ran year, wasn’t it?

PG: Yes. I think Peter Scarlet was kind of like, ‘Well, he’s in the States. How can we get him up here? We’ll make the Kurosawa award and he’ll come.’ And he did! That was sort of amazing. I photographed Kurosawa. That was the first year I worked there. That was totally amazing. At George Gund’s house, there’s George Lucas, pointing at Kurosawa.

But at the same time, Spike Lee came to the festival that year. And Spike Lee, no one knew who Spike Lee was. That was the premiere—I think it was the world premiere—of She’s Gotta Have It. So, he’s carrying around his reels of She’s Gotta Have It.

Q: The idea of a film director carrying his own reels around. I worked in a theater, I know how heavy those are.

PG: It’s amazing, right? That’s a little bit of my first year.

Q: It was the start of one era…

PG: …and the end of another. You probably know this story of Spike Lee onstage during the world premiere. It was at the Palace of Fine Arts. The lights went out and they called the firemen. Peter Scarlet went onstage with Spike Lee. This is Peter Scarlet holding a flashlight. Spike Lee’s talking to entertain the audience in the hopes that the film will start again. The firemen come, and they start to usher people out of the theater. Then the electricity came back, so he got to finish his film. But he totally remembers this moment. And I was photographing it. I felt kind of bad, because I was using my flash, because I had no choice. I was afraid they were going to fall off the stage, but it was sort of a significant moment in a way.

Q: What was it like for you to be suddenly thrust into this world?

PG: I guess what was really interesting for me was that it felt like—I don’t know if I remember the exact first year—the staff was very small. It felt like you were friends with the staff. It also felt like you were friends with the filmmakers. It felt more like friends hanging around with friends than a hierarchy kind of thing.

Also, in the beginning, I was able to watch more films. The first year when I went with my boyfriend, we watched all the films and I photographed. As time went by, it was just too much work. Watching films doesn’t seem so possible anymore. I felt like I was participating in both ways. I guess it was, too, for me, because I was really excited—I knew Kurosawa’s work, so I could ask him a question about his work. The same with someone like Mike Leigh. I knew the work. Or I saw it at the Festival, so I could speak to them about it, which seems important in terms of the access, to be able to photograph them. I think it makes for two minutes more of their time. Or maybe five, but it helps you in that way.

Q: Does it also open them up as subjects?

PG: I think it does. I remember Jonathan Demme, we were talking and I said, ‘You made this movie called Caged Heat. He was like, ‘You never saw that!’ I was like, ‘Yes, I did!’ Afterwards, he made it a point to go and get the soundtrack from his film and give it to me. I think it does open up something, as opposed to talking about the weather or something else. It does something.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: It is still as thrilling covering the Festival?

PG: That’s a good question. Some part of it is. It may be a little bit more about trying to take a really good photo now. In the beginning, it may have been about trying to take a good photo, but not knowing what a good photo was. Now, it’s more I know what it is and can I go after it and what will happen in this situation? The people change all the time. That’s the part that keeps it really interesting. And lately, the locations are changing like crazy, so that also changes and makes it interesting.

There’s a sort of interesting thing going on for me, which is that someone like Spike Lee came back. He came back for the 50th. So, there’s Spike Lee in 1986, and then there’s Spike Lee later. It’s like seeing people or meeting people twice and photographing them. That’s a pretty fascinating thing. Was the first time good or not good? Was the second time better?

I still really like it. I really, really like shooting the Festival. It’s gotten bigger and smaller and I’ve had more or less help. There were times when it got big and it got harder, because it got bigger. At a certain point, I definitely had to get help.

There were other challenges. There was the digital shift.

Q: I was about to ask what that shift was like for you.

PG: Initially, I wanted to stay with film and I wanted to stay with black and white film. I wanted to continue to do that. I really wanted that badly. But I shifted, and I think it’s the only way it could work. You have to participate in the world. You need to have to do that. Some of the things that are really different for me is when I shot film, I could drop my film off at the lab at night and then I could go to Tosca. (Laughs) Those days—long gone! Now, you shoot, you go home, you download, you edit, you color correct, you make all your corrections, and you send. And then you go to bed. Or if you’re lucky, maybe you have an 11:00 am deadline and then you can sleep and get up and work. Basically, the lab, the edit, the correction, and the final print has all become work that I do. Those jobs were not all my jobs before. I have a dark room and I used to process my own film and I would make my own prints, but certainly I wasn’t doing that on a daily basis during a film festival.

Q: How does it feel to be Essential SF?

PG: I feel like I belong here. Essential SF? I feel like when I was in school in Oregon and they told me to come here, I feel like it’s the right place for me. I feel like the community here, the people here just make this a very different place…I couldn’t do what I do in many other places, in many other cities. I don’t want to live anywhere else. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I think it’s the people here that make it [what it is], basically the film community and the film audience make this the right place.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker Peter Bratt, film organization Center for Asian American Media, festival photographer Pamela Gentile, documentary filmmaker Carrie Lozano, entertainment attorney George Rush, and film programmer Joel Shepard—were honored at the annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.