At a slot in the 53rd San Francisco International Film Festival program called Porchlight: True Stories From the Frontiers of International Filmmaking, directors took the stage in variety show style to divulge in what are typically humiliations of the job (boasting rarely makes for good stories). The event didn’t cause the expected sparks to fly, though Dane Kasper Astrup Schröder made good use of the inherently risible subject of his documentary, Yoshiro Nakamats (The Invention of Dr. Nakamats), the 80 year-old with 3,400 patents to his name (floppy disc among them), who takes notes underwater, has a penchant for photographing meals and smells cameras to determine their quality. A tough subject to botch, and Schröder proved game. The young Chilean Ché Sandoval, director of the cheekily titled You Think You Are The Prettiest, But You Are The Sluttiest (Te creís la más linda, pero erís la más puta), with the assistance of a droll translator, proceeded to get himself in trouble when he launched into a tale of his experience one night as a teenage hitchhiker. Sandoval’s encounters with a “faggot” and “the ugliest girl in the world” drew ire from the audience, but the question remained: was he being a bigot, or merely faithful to his juvenile experience, or both?

While his film, a Santiago slacker sex comedy, does little to abate the question, the distinction is a worthy reminder of separating the teller from the tale (can anyone imagine Roberto Bolaño leaving out the offensive parts?). The essence of story relies so much on the power of the voice; more conviction begets more vivacious stories, and more vivacious stories beget more memorable cinema, regardless of means or milieu, whether flattering or offensive. Increasingly one goes to film festivals, or cinema at all, with this sole criterion: Does it sing?

So it was that I took my annual sojourn to SFIFF, seeking a sense of the emphatic, even if in muted, protracted, or otherwise inconspicuous displays. Witness the exemplary case of Alamar (d. Pedro González-Rubio), in which a beautiful Mayan fisherman in Mexico’s Banco Chinchorro reef gets custody of his 5 year-old son Natan, born to an Italian mother, and together they fish, eat, play and take notice of the natural wonders around them. Drama is in the details: the casting of fish lines by hand, and the swift recoiling of a catch; diving deep with snorkels only and coaxing lobster from the sea floor; cleaning the boat bayside while crocodiles lurk perilously close by (!); a white egret settling in their sea-shack, only to disappear in the thicket, indifferent to Natan’s plaintiff call. By end credits, nothing substantial has occurred, yet one can feel the briny air commingle with a profoundly sad sense of separation between a father and son. Are they fictional or real? Is the director making this up as he goes along? Such mysteries are part of Alamar’s subtle design, and deservedly this little sleeper is picking up awards on the festival circuit (it won the New Director’s Prize at SFIFF).

Consider the unprecedented example set by Restrepo filmmakers, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, who embedded with a US Platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley during a 15-month deployment, at the time considered the deadliest place on earth for soldiers putatively fighting a war on terror. Intimately accessing the soldiers’ daily routine of warfare (constantly under fire) and downtime (scarce), the film offers a radically visceral and unsentimental look at life during wartime for this tireless troop who attempt to secure an outpost they’ve named after a fallen comrade, Juan Restrepo. A rough video image of him pre-deployment is inserted at film’s finale to devastating effect, as is a minor sequence of the soldiers dancing to a disco beat thumping from a modest radio, wrapped in an ephemeral embrace and bouncing in their tiny bunker.

Topical (if not bound to be perennial), Northless (Norteado), a debut by Rigoberto Perezcano, begins bleakly, set in the whitewashed desert where a migrating Oaxacan man hopes to make his crossing northward to the US. Shot as a fever dream of disorientation amid punishing heat, the opening gradually cedes to a listless, even quietly humorous, routine as Andrés finds an unlikely home in a Tijuana bodega run by two women who embody plenty of reasons to remain national. Simple, uninflected and carefully realised, this quiet debut speaks more loudly about migration, simply by slipping pesos in the jukebox at the local cantina and downing shots of tequila as time simply unfolds.

Mia Hansen-Løve’s The Father of My Children (Le père de mes enfants) is both a deeply personal and coolly detached biographical fiction; we scarcely get to know Grégoire Canvel (surrogate for Humbert Balsan, whose suicide shocked the European film community, and who took an early interest in Hansen-Løve’s career), as he’s always on his cell phone, chain smoking, just out of reach – precisely the film’s point. Financial pressure mounts and Canvel commits his desperate act, which is filmed with bracing, unsentimental brevity. If the film’s first half belongs squarely to the noble but flawed producer, the second half comes to rest on his legacy, that of film production practicalities but more affectingly so how it is emotionally survived by his family, particularly his teenage daughter Clémence. The notion of transmission would seem to parallel Hansen-Løve’s own education within the French film community, and the way she sorts out cinematic and personal history is beautifully mirrored in Clémence’s steps toward maturity, in one scene wonderfully scored to her attempt at ordering a cup of morning-after coffee (Alice De Lencquesaing, seen also in good form in Assayas’ Summer Hours [L’heure d’été, 2008], emanates beyond-her-years wisdom).

Has the emotionally mercurial, Nouvelle Vague-inflected, French family chamber drama reached its limit, post-Desplechin? Non! Christophe Honoré treads fearlessly and imperviously into said territory in Making Plans For Lena (Non ma fille, tu n’iras pas danser). Nominally set in a Breton country house where Lena (Chiara Mastroianni), freshly filed for divorce and children in tow, makes a reckless entry, the film affectively hews to the flux of her emotional states, and how. Honoré’s mythic detour into a gothic country fable, involving a host of suitors drawn into a fatal folk dance with one truly poisonous woman, is pitch-black hilarious and lyrically touching – something the remainder of the film, with its incessant emotional volatility on display, can’t easily survive.

Survival is at the heart of Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol, in which an outsider artist imaginatively recreates a small Belgian village during wartime with haunting verisimilitude, using dolls inhabiting fastidiously constructed sets. As art goes it’s a curious enterprise, but not enough to build a film around until the disclosure that the creator of such tableaux, 38 year-old Mark Hogancamp, realised them as a rehabilitative project after being beaten into a coma outside a bar in 2000. There is both a redemptive playfulness and chilly horror to the work that invokes questions of representation in art, particularly as the work then becomes of potential value to an interested gallery.

Equally obsessive is the subject of Pianomania (d. Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis), a piano tuner (and physician by practice), Stefan Knupfer, who tames Steinways for a host of virtuosos, especially Pierre-Laurent Aimard, in anticipation of none other than a recording of Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. A patient and unexpectedly rewarding look at a craft all too heard but rarely seen; Pianomania went on to win the Documentary Feature prize.

While Frontier Blues (d. Babak Jalali) took the FIPRESCI Prize, presumably for its absurdist take on village life in, as one character puts it, “the land of heartbreak and tractors” (northernmost Iran), it was the Argentine backwaters of The Peddler (El Ambulante, d. Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano and Adriana Yurcovich) that provided the most amusing diversion, in which a septuagenerian DIY filmmaker bangs out genre films with some help from the locals. His truly down-to-earth ethos could be an object lesson to aspiring auteurs who, blessed with good voices, have yet to learn how to sing.

San Francisco International Film Festival
22 April – 6 May, 2010
Festival website: http://www.sffs.org/sf-intl-film-festival.aspx