Overtures and Undertows

‘Overtures and Undertows’: S.F. International Film Festival Offers Docs with Bay Area Focus

SFFILM Festival (Capsule Reviews/Bay Area Highlights)

By Noma Faingold

Are you addicted to binge-watching on streaming platforms, in front of a flat-screen monitor dominating your living room space? Put down the remote control. Get off your couch and venture out to a local cultural event. Does it really require that much effort?

The 66th San Francisco International Film Festival is here (April 13-23). There are a number of documentaries exploring Bay Area lore, from polarizing politics of the past to activist artist heroes; exhilarating underdog athletic triumph to going inside the day-to-day struggle of surviving below the poverty line in the City. 

Here are four films worth heading to the cinema to enjoy as a communal experience, brought to you by SFFILM, an organization not deterred by the pandemic, nor by local theater closures. 

“Films are our shared language,” Executive Director at SFFILM Anne Lai said prior to this year’s festival.

“Home Is a Hotel”

Directors Kevin Duncan Wong, Todd Sills and Kar Yin Tham spent five years (including during the height of the pandemic) following a handful of people living in San Francisco SRO (Single Room Occupancy) units. The subsidized housing is meant to be transitional for the formerly homeless and the extremely low-income, among other difficult situations. 

However, one older Hispanic woman featured in the film, who was going blind, had been living in an SRO in the Mission District for 13 years. As her sight continued to deteriorate, she had to keep her room tidy, to help her remember where everything was.

Single mother Christina and her daughter Shirley in their SRO unit from a scene in the documentary, “Home Is a Hotel.” Courtesy photo.

Each story in “Home Is a Hotel” is so different, yet relatable. Some are tragic, while others are inspirational. 

No kitchen. A shared bathroom. Most of the time being surrounded by noise and chaos outside your locked door. 

Sylvester, an artist who was formerly living on the streets, described what it’s like. 

“An SRO is a room and you gotta build your whole life in a room,” Sylvester said. “You gotta eat in this room. You gotta bathe in this room. You gotta work in this room.”

And yet, he seemed grateful and somehow found community in his Tenderloin neighborhood. 

“Home Is a Hotel” does way more than humanize the invisible and those struggling. While viewing, I found myself asking questions like, “How is she going to survive?” or “Why can’t this talented man catch a break?”

From the opening panoramic shots of beautiful San Francisco landmarks, the doc offers a sobering contrast of what it’s like to live in the precarious margins, where one bad day can ruin one’s life.

“Home Is a Hotel” 2023, 92 minutes. World premiere, April 22, at 12:45 p.m., at CGV Cinema 3, San Francisco. Expected guests: co-directors Kevin Duncan Wong, Tod Sills and Kar Yin Tham.

“Joan Baez: I Am a Noise”

The topical footage is not in this in-depth documentary, but apropos. On April 9, Justin Jones of the “Tennessee Three” (the recently expelled Democratic representative from the Tennessee state legislator for standing with his protesting constituents, who was reinstated on April 10), met Joan Baez, 82, on a flight to Newark, New Jersey. Once they arrived at the airport, they sang, while embracing in solidarity, “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” It immediately went viral on social media. 

Young folk singer/activist Joan Baez performing live from the documentary, “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise.” Courtesy photo.

While “Joan Baez: I Am a Noise” covers and uncovers many aspects of the legendary folk singer and activist’s life, the thread running through the well-balanced piece is that she will never stop lending her voice to fight injustice and fighting for what she believes in. 

She insists in the doc that the 2018-19 Fare Thee Well Tour would indeed be the last of her six-decade career. One reason the Bay Area resident chose to stop performing had to do with how her angelic vocal instrument had evolved into a less distinct tone that she perhaps didn’t like as much. She was also ready to let go of the demands of an active music career. She said matter-of-factly in the movie, “For whatever reason, I was the right voice at the right time.”

“Joan Baez: I Am the Noise,” directed by Karen O’Connor (who has known Baez for decades), Miri Navasky and Maeve O’Boyle, weaves on-the-road and concert footage of the farewell tour with reflections of her days with Bob Dylan, growing up in a Quaker family with complicated dynamics and crippling anxiety, along with recent introspective moments at her secluded, serene home in Woodside.

Naturally, you see the artist at her peak with an adoring public and other career highlights. But the doc shows so many more facets of her life: loss and grief; insecurity and trauma; joy and regret; selfishness and sacrifice; creativity and fortitude. The film examines an enlightened person willing to see truth in the world and in her own life. And you can see she’s not done.

“Joan Baez I Am a Noise” (Mead Street Films) 2023, 109 minutes. April 18, at 5 p.m., Castro Theatre. Expected guests: Joan Baez, co-directors Miri Navasky and Karen O’Connor.


Everything you ever wanted to know about the late polarizing political kingmaker Rose Pak and the machinations of San Francisco politics is in “Rally,” getting its world premiere at the S.F. International Film Festival. 

Even though I am a native San Franciscan, who has paid close attention to the City’s most turbulent times – such as the assassination of SF Mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk, the AIDS crisis and the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake – I didn’t really know about the impact the persistent Pak had on local politics, Chinatown and the Asian community. She made sure she had powerful allies, including former mayors Willie Brown and Art Agnos. “Rally” makes the case that she probably was most responsible for getting reluctant City Administrator Ed Lee to become the first Asian mayor of San Francisco. 

Rose Pak (younger photo) from the documentary, “Rally.” World premier at the SF International Film Festival. Courtesy photo.

Not only does “Rally” demonstrate how Pak worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help candidates get elected and put the interests of her once-marginalized community first, she also never hesitated to use her clout to sway public opinion in front of the camera. For example, while on a microphone at a Chinese New Year parade, she literally shamed luminaries she disagreed with, as they rode past her. 

The China-born journalist-turned-activist could also really hold a grudge, as Agnos and Lee found out. 

After the earthquake, experts concluded that the Embarcadero Freeway needed to be rebuilt. Agnos decided that the eyesore would be torn down to make way for a more scenic, prosperous waterfront. Pak, knowing that Chinatown merchants would suffer without consumers having direct freeway access to the district, wanted it rebuilt.

She didn’t get her way that time. 

She felt betrayed by Agnos and cut off all support to his career. She also found another way to help her community thrive by championing and helping to secure funding for the much-delayed Central Subway project, which extended a Muni Metro underground route directly to Chinatown. 

How fitting that the documentary opens with a contentious public forum on whether to name the Chinatown station after Pak. The film concludes with the Board of Supervisors narrowly voting to posthumously honor her by officially calling it Chinatown-Rose Pak Station. 

“Rally” 2023, 101 minutes. World premiere, April 21, at 5:30 p.m., CGV 3 and April 23, at 12 p.m., BAMPFA (UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive). Expected guests: director Rooth Tang.

“Stephen Curry: Underrated”

Like any decent sports documentary, even though the viewer may have witnessed what the Golden State Warriors superstar shooting guard can do and has done during the team’s four NBA titles, “Stephen Curry: Underrated” manages to be suspenseful, despite it concentrating on his early hoop years, along with his development as a player and person. 

The film repeatedly reminds us of the fact that many experts underestimated the capabilities of a too-small, too-skinny athlete, who has become one of the greatest players in NBA history. Many now declare Curry has changed the game with his record-breaking, three-point game.

Director Peter Nicks (who directed 2021’s “Homeroom,” which examined the Oakland public school system) adeptly and frequently flashes back to pivotal periods in Curry’s maturation as a player, especially his three years at the small liberal arts Davidson College in North Carolina, which recruited him when all the major university basketball powers overlooked him.

Stephen Curry while he was becoming a star at Davidson College from the documentary, “Stephen Curry: Underrated.” Photo courtesy of AppleTV+ and A24.

Weaving college game footage and an in-depth interview with Davidson coach Bob McKillop, Nicks reveals Curry’s most significant breakthroughs. The viewer can determine how early failure didn’t break Curry’s spirit or vision. On the contrary. The more chances McKillop gave him, the better Curry became. His tireless, repetitive training led to his remarkable outside shooting precision. Even more impressive is the way Curry’s self-belief never waned. Some closeups of Curry during pressure moments of games prove to be very effective illustrations of his unrelenting drive. Fans and opponents can’t help but wonder what he must be thinking and how he keeps rising to the occasion. 

 “Stephen Curry: Underrated” (Apple TV+ and A24) 2023, 135 minutes. Festival opening night, April 13, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., Grand Lake Theatre, Oakland. Expected guests: director Peter Nicks and producer Ryan Coogler. 

For more information on the San Francisco International Film Festival: sffilm.org.

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