SFIFF: A History

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Thursday, April 21st marks the opening night of the 54th annual San Francisco International Film Festival. Presented and exhibited by the San Francisco Film Society, SFIFF stands among the Bay Area's preeminent film and cultural events, featuring some of the most promising independent and international cinema. The high pedigree associated with SFIFF is partly due to its stature as the longest-running film festival in the Americas.

The festival dates back to 1956, then known as San Francisco's Italian Film Week. Within the span of one year, the film week expanded to a full-fledged festival as organizers attempted to expose Bay Area audiences to the best of Italian, French and Japanese films of the period. Since its inception, San Francisco has played host to the American premieres of notable international films, including Akira Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" in 1957, followed by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray's "Pather Panchali" in 1958.

In contrast with other popular American film festivals such as Sundance, SFIFF remains one of the few U.S.-based film festivals spanning a global focus. "The festival is first and foremost an international festival," said Rachel Rosen, director of programming for the San Francisco Film Society. "In the intervening 54 years since we started, there have been a lot of American festivals that promote independent cinema, so the international aspect really helps us remain different."

This year features the innovative works of filmmakers from Romania, South Korea and South Africa. Continuing with the Romanian New Wave, Cristi Puiu's three-hour long "Aurora" will be making its premiere at the Festival. Winner of the Un Certain Regard last year at the Cannes Film Festival, South Korean director Hong Sang-Soo's "Hahaha" is also set to screen at SFIFF.

Hollywood has never played a major role in the Festival. Feeling that it posed a threat to the excitement and commercial appeal of the Oscars, producers abstained from participating in the festival. SFIFF first played host to a Hollywood film in 1959 with the premiere of Henry King's "Beloved Infidel." It would be another four years until Hollywood submitted another film to the festival, this time with Carl Foreman's "The Victors."

Meanwhile, the independent films coming out of other American urban centers dominated the two-week long event. John Cassavetes became an annual fixture in the program with the exhibition of such films as "Shadows" in 1959 and "Faces" in 1968. For Errol Morris and Frederick Wiseman, SFIFF became a venue for their early works, quickly establishing the festival as a haven for independent documentary filmmakers as well. Wiseman's influential and groundbreaking "Titicut Follies" had one of its few public screenings at the festival in 1967 prior to the decision by the Massachusetts Superior Court to ban the film. In this manner, SFIFF created an allure that matched the culture of its city.

Much as it has in the past, the festival also boasts onstage events, including conversations with the recipients of the Founders Directing Award (given this year to Oliver Stone) and the Kanbar Award for screenwriting (awarded to Frank Pierson). "I would definitely highlight the State of the Cinema Address, especially for those who are interested in filmmaking," said Rosen. Every year, festival organizers invite a respected industry figure to offer insight into the intersecting worlds of cinema, culture and society.

As the films of Kelly Reichardt and Cristi Puiu make their premieres in this year's incarnation, the festival's historical reputation remains intact. The works of younger filmmakers are set to play alongside the classic films of Federico Fellini and the recently departed Sidney Lumet, culminating in a two-week long celebration of cinema's past and present.

Jawad Qadir is the lead film critic.

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