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Docfest – Still Making Documentary Film Fun: San Francisco Film Festival Exhibits Unconventional Documentaries

Published by Ernest Deigado

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Documentary film should ideally satisfy viewers’ curiosity regarding the world around them. Yet using the form solely to present an illustrated lecture or a serious social issue acts as a disincentive to explore the possibilities of non-fiction film. DocFest’s documentaries, on the other hand, unabashedly presents subjects that are not “commercially feasible” yet answer questions about the world the viewer didn’t think of asking.

From The San Francisco Independent Film Festival’s Creators

The first San Francisco Documentary Film Festival program took place in 2001. The festival’s founders (Jeff Ross, Tod Booth, and Alan White) were the same ones behind the San Francisco Independent Film Festival. The philosophy of that inaugural festival can be captured in this quote from its publicity materials: “…docs can be a lot of fun. Here at DocFest, we don’t do solemn, we don’t do social issues (well, maybe a little…).”

That first festival ran 21 documentaries at the Academy of Art College’s Post Street Theater over the course of Memorial Day Weekend. Some of the subjects covered that first year included the cutthroat world of yard sale scavengers, legendary noise music group The Nihilist Spasm Band, famed futurist fiction writer William Gibson, and rock groupie Cynthia Plaster Caster, who memorialized in plaster the penises of rock stars from Wayne Kramer to Jimi Hendrix.

Since that first year, with the exception of 2003, DocFest has been an annual event. Though the screening venues have changed over the years, its programming philosophy has not. Some of the notable films screened at past DocFests include Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, The Education of Shelby Knox, and Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

2009’s Strange Documentary Film Subjects

The 8th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival continues in 2009 to uphold the philosophy that sometimes “the truth is stranger than fiction.” From October 16-29, 2009 at the Roxie Film Center, viewers were treated to portraits of: sometimes disturbing cat ladies (Cat Ladies); Baby Champ and his radical scraper bike movement (The Scraper Bike King); the philosophically minded janitors who work at universities (The Philosopher Kings).

Highlights of the 2009 DocFest include Trimpin, Cropsey, and Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison. Trimpin is an intermedia artist whose experiments in creating music involve transforming unpromising junk into musical instruments. Cropsey tells the terrifying story of an urban legend concerning a child killer turning into disturbing reality. Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison is a making of film about Cash’s most famous album and the lives it wound up touching.

Learning More About Docfest 2009’s Documentaries

In the end, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival can be called a reclamation of the possibilities of the documentary form from the mustiness of excessively sober treatment or subject matter. This is not a denial of the need for serious-minded documentaries. But DocFest provides a counterbalance on what can be done in the documentary form. Further information about DocFest can be found here.

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