Small Screen Berkeley: ‘San Francisco Docfest 2020’

There are a slew of fascinating documentaries in this virtual film festival, including one on an American-style suburban development in China and another on the last Blockbuster video store in the U.S.

‘Americaville’. Photo courtesy SF Docfest

San Francisco’s annual Docfest, originally slated for June, was re-scheduled for late summer – but of course, we’re no closer to gathering in large groups now than we were three months ago. As a consequence, the 19th iteration of the festival will  take place entirely online from Thursday, Sept. 3 through Sunday, Sept. 20.

There’s a delightfully eclectic selection of films to choose from this year, but Hannah Jayanti’s Truth or Consequences – the festival’s centerpiece feature – is the clear standout. Described as ‘a speculative documentary about time,’ Jayanti’s film is also a bittersweet tone poem celebrating the small New Mexico town named after a once-popular radio and television quiz show.

Focusing on half-a-dozen locals (all of whom live alone, and all of whom smoke) Truth or Consequences presents its dusty, remote subject as a place out of time – and largely out of sync with contemporary America. All things considered, that makes it seem quite attractive these days, and by the end of the film, I was almost ready to buy an Airstream and plant it in the Land of Enchantment’s arid high desert. Almost.

Jackson Hole, meanwhile, gets its day in the cinematic sun in Americaville – but not the Jackson Hole in Wyoming, the one in China! The creation of a developer convinced that middle-class Chinese were ready to adopt U.S.A.-style suburban living, Hebei Province’s Jackson Hole is a fantasy town where Beijing commuters can pursue the ever-elusive American Dream.


One of the pursuers is Annie Liu, a recently converted Christian desperate to please her husband (an unpleasant man we only see once) with a spotless house filled with rustic Americana and ‘traditional’ American food only a sideshow carny could love. Poor Annie is a terrible cook who plies her neighbors and grumpy spouse with Frito pie, Fruit Loops, Twinkies, and a truly vile dish combining – wait for it – tinned tuna and Jello. Watching her try to convince herself it’s delicious is painful.

Food aside, there are other problems in paradise. The residents complain of constant construction noise (the developer is busy building an adjacent ‘Swiss village’), and according to the New York Times, the authorities consider the whole scheme unpatriotic and traitorous. Directed by Adam James Smith, Americaville suggests suburban happiness is just out of reach – no matter which continent you’re on.

Two Docfest films examine our species’ apparently innate need for competition. In The Palindromists, we meet participants in the World Palindrome Championships, where renowned puzzle creator Will Shortz presents entrants with a set of stringent limitations within which they must compose at least two coherent palindromes.

‘Madam I’m Adam’ or ‘A Man, A Plan, A Canal…Panama!’ won’t cut it at the World Championships. Most of the entries are extremely ornate; the simpler ones sound like Captain Beefheart song titles (‘Sit on a potato pan, Otis!’). The eternally youthful Weird Al Yankovic puts in a welcome appearance but alas does not compete.

Participants in ‘the death game,’ that morbid contest to guess which celebrities will shuffle off this mortal coil in a given year, are the subject of Riplist. Shot in 2017 and 2018, the selections include a bunch of folks who are still with us (Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Norman Lloyd) and at least one person who only recently passed on (Olivia de Havilland). Not for all tastes, Riplist’s depiction of the game nonetheless makes it all look like good, clean fun.


Finally, The Last Blockbuster delivers exactly what it says on the tin. Yes, the only Blockbuster Video still in existence remains open in Bend, Oregon, where it continues to fascinate the children of the 1980s and ‘90s who associate the chain with good times, crummy popcorn, worse candy, and hundreds of copies of Titanic. I’m a little older than the film’s target demographic, but it’s a fun watch.