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SFFILM Doc Stories Opens In Bay Area, With Eye On Oscar Documentary Race

SFFILM’s 9th Annual Doc Stories festival is getting underway, featuring a distinguished lineup of Oscar-contending nonfiction films.

Little Richard: I Am Everything, directed by Lisa Cortés, screens this afternoon, while the opening night slot goes to another music-driven documentary, Matthew Heineman’s American Symphony, an intimate look at Grammy Award winner Jon Batiste [scroll for full Doc Stories schedule].

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SFFILM Doc Stories runs November 2-5 in the City by the Bay, with several of the films available for streaming Nov. 6-7. By design, it’s a tightly curated program.

SFFILM Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks
SFFILM Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks

“It’s incredibly competitive and we only have two shorts blocks and the rest are features,” notes SFFILM Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks. “It’s really an opportunity for us to showcase what we consider to be the best of documentary filmmaking at this point in the season. We require a Bay Area premiere, so we’re bringing films that no one in the Bay Area has seen before. They weren’t at Mill Valley or at Doclands [in Marin Co.] or at other places. Some of the films are exciting, new buzzy titles from Telluride and Venice and Toronto, and some of them are international titles that haven’t got as much of a platform as perhaps we believe they should.”

SFFILM Doc Stories coincides with a frenetic pace of Oscar campaigning ahead of next month’s announcement of the Oscar shortlists for documentary features and short films. The Bay Area boasts a greater concentration of Academy Doc Branch members than anywhere else, Fairbanks observes.

“One of the reasons why Doc Stories has done as well as it has is because it is positioned late in the season,” she tells Deadline. “And because we do have the third largest contingent of Academy voters and the largest contingent of Doc branch voters in the country, it is of interest to filmmakers and to campaign managers and to studios to be a part of the showcase. So, we’re grateful for that.”

Missionary John Chau walking on the beach in Port Blair, Andamans.
Missionary John Chau, main focus of ‘The Mission’

Among prominent Oscar contenders on the Doc Stories slate are Wim Wenders’ documentary Anselm, a film in 3D about the extraordinary German-born artist Anselm Kiefer. National Geographic’s The Mission, directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, tells the fateful story of a young American missionary who ventured to North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, with the intent of converting to Christianity a largely uncontacted Indigenous group. It didn’t go well.

Stamped From the Beginning, the new Netflix documentary from Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams, is based on the bestselling book by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.

‘Stamped From the Beginning’
‘Stamped From the Beginning’

“Roger just does Roger magic with this,” Fairbanks observes. “A film that tackles the idea of racial imagery and policies in history can sound really overwhelming. And yet Roger brings this joy of curiosity and understanding to the approach. And he uses archival footage and animation and reenactments to create this story that is engaging and that doesn’t feel overwhelming to the viewer, but really asks us to think about the language we use and the assumptions we make about social interactions. But I also feel like the film points a way forward of how we can move past the stasis that we seem to be in when it comes to race relations.”

'Four Daughters'
‘Four Daughters’

Stamped From the Beginning fits with a central theme of this year’s Doc Stories event, “the powerful effects of institutional erasure and the unlimited possibilities of human determination.” Another of the documentaries that speaks to that theme is Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters, about a Tunisian mother of four who saw her two eldest daughters join ISIS in Libya.

In her film, which shared the Golden Eye prize for the best documentary at Cannes, Ben Hania creates cinematic moments in which actors portray the two missing daughters and their mother.

Four Daughters, to me, is a film that’s looking at erasure on a very personal level,” Fairbanks explains, “and how we kind of tell stories to ourselves.”

Doc Stories hits at a time of geopolitical strife, in the midst of the Israel-Hamas conflagration in the Middle East and the ongoing war in Ukraine. The lineup by no means offers escapist fare, yet the program can lift audiences from the gloom of world headlines. And it offers a counter to genre-driven documentary films and series that have proliferated on streaming platforms.

“We don’t want just biopics all the time. You want something you can sink your teeth into that is beyond just a profile of a well-known individual,” Fairbanks notes. “And so I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to step back and look at the titles that had really risen to the top and were the final choices, [to see] how inspirational so many of these stories are, and had no idea in August where we would be right now and how badly an audience might need to come see stories like this.”

Director Julia Reichert
Director Julia Reichert

SFFILM Doc Stories is also paying tribute to a beloved member of the documentary community, Oscar winner Julia Reichert, who lost a long battle with cancer in December 2022.

“We have programmed a lot of her work in the past at SFFILM, and we actually tried to do a tribute for her both in 2019 and again in 2021, and her health precluded her from taking part. And so it is bittersweet that we are doing it now,” Fairbanks says. “Julia has deep ties to the Bay Area. She’s the co-founder of New Day Films and spent a lot of time out here.”

Reichert’s work often focused on the experience of women in American society and the workplace, as in Growing Up Female (1971), and on the labor movement, as with Union Maids (1976). With her filmmaking and life partner Steven Bognar she directed the Oscar-winning American Factory (2019) and the Oscar-nominated The Last Truck: The Closing of a GM Plant (2009).

Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar take a break after the 2019 Sundance Film Festival Awards ceremony.
Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar take a break after the 2019 Sundance Film Festival Awards ceremony.

“I always admired her tireless advocacy for workers’ rights and for women’s rights for equality,” Fairbanks says. “Julia asked the really simple but hard questions about the world we want to live in, which is so apropos for this moment.”

She adds, “The fact that Julia really listened and really cared about the stories that she was telling and the people that she was capturing is something that we all admired so much and responded to in her work… It’s going to be a really special moment to sit in a room with some other amazing creatives and to honor her.”

This is the SFFILM Doc Stories schedule:

Thursday, November 2 – Vogue Theatre

3 pm PT – Little Richard: I Am Everything—Community Screening (98)

6:30 pm PT – OPENING NIGHT: American Symphony (94)

Friday, November 3 – Premier Theater

3:30 pm PT – Richland (93)
6 pm PT – New York Times Op-Docs (92)

8:30 pm PT – The Mission (104)

Saturday, November 4 – Vogue 

12:30 pm PT – Sorry/Not Sorry (90)
3 pm PT – Four Daughters (107)
6 pm PT – CENTERPIECE: Copa 71 (90)
8:30 pm PT – Stamped from the Beginning (85)

Sunday, November 5 – Vogue 

10 am – Story & Pictures By (84)
1:30 pm PT – Shorts Block: Ideology vs. Identity (95)
4 pm PT – A Tribute to Julia Reichert (100)
7:30 pm PT – CLOSING NIGHT: Anselm (93) presented in 3-D

VENUES 

Vogue Theatre
3290 Sacramento Street (at Presidio) San Francisco

Premier Theater at Letterman Digital Arts Center 1 Letterman Dr # B
San Francisco

SCHOOLS AT DOC STORIES 

The Schools at Doc Stories program introduces students ages 6 to 18 to the art and storytelling process of documentary filmmaking while promoting media literacy, deepening insights into other cultures, enhancing foreign language aptitude, developing critical thinking skills, and inspiring a lifelong appreciation of cinema.

Classes from across the Bay Area will attend weekday in-person and online matinees of curated Doc Stories film programs at no cost to students or educators. Filmmaker guests from around the world will also visit local classrooms in person and online to discuss their films with students.

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