Diversity is one of the great strengths of the San Francisco International Film Festival, which runs through April 17, and this year’s program underscores the growing worldwide importance of female filmmakers. No longer relegated to the sidelines or treated as tokens or exceptions, women are increasingly front and center at the festival, with two distaff directors providing a pair of thematically similar, but artistically distinct features for its second and final week at Pacific Film Archive.
First up at 6 p.m. on Thursday, April 12, Sulayman too (Suleiman Mountain) was shot by Russian director Elizaveta Stishova in Kyrgyzstan, one of the Central Asian republics born after the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. A largely agrarian nation primarily populated by nomads and farmers, mountainous Kyrgyzstan is about as distant a backwater as it’s possible to find in the 21st century.
Mystic wanderer Zhipara (Perizat Ermanbaeva) makes a living selling homeopathic clay and performing healing rituals for those willing and able to pay. Consisting largely of swaying, whistling, and the generous application of a horsehair whip, Zhipara’s rituals are quite popular, even earning the approval of the region’s wealthy mayor, who pays her generously for ‘treating’ his coma-stricken mother.
Zhipara’s income supports a family of four: winsome Uluk (Daniel Daiyrbekov, resembling nothing less than a living, breathing Cabbage Patch Doll); ne’er-do-well hubby Karabas (Asset Imangaliev), who supplements the family income with money stolen from unsuspecting relatives; and second wife and expectant mother Turganbubu (Turgunai Erkinbekova), a stunning beauty who deeply resents the elder Zhipara’s continuing presence.
Traveling across the steppe in a ‘house’ mounted on an ancient East German truck, the family’s fortunes rise and fall as luck and opportunity present themselves. It’s an uncertain existence, and one that predictably disintegrates when Turganbubu suddenly falls ill and Karabas discovers that Uluk isn’t his biological son.
Culminating in deep tragedy, Suleiman Mountain is anchored by the outstanding performances of Ermanbaeva and Imangaliev. It’s also lovely to look at, with director Stishova taking full advantage of the raw and terrible beauty of Kyrgyzstan’s rugged landscapes.
‘I Am Not a Witch’
Screening at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, April 14, I Am Not a Witch is a UK-France co-production shot in Zambia by another first-timer, Rungani Nyoni. Eight-year old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is an orphan deemed a witch by government official Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) after a woman blames the girl for a water spill.
Living in Banda’s nicely furnished house and earning her keep by ferreting out criminals as part of a traveling circuit court, Shula’s status as government property eventually proves more than she can bear. Pointed symbolism and an excellent score blending free jazz with familiar classical motifs provide further value in this excellent debut feature.
‘Ship Bound for India’
Finally, a film not associated with the festival — but eminently worthy of your attention — screens at PFA at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 13 as part of the series ‘Bergman 100: The Early Years.’ Produced in 1947, Skepp till India land (Ship Bound for India) is both very early and very rare Ingmar Bergman; online summaries suggest a drama blending elements of Marcel Carne and Jean Vigo. I’ll be there!