Just the Facts

San Francisco Film Society’s Doc Stories Festival Brings a Slate of Documentaries to Town

Co-founder and publisher of the popular culture biweekly magazine Rolling Stone typing in their offices, San Francisco, CA, 1968.
Co-founder and publisher of the popular culture biweekly magazine Rolling Stone typing in their offices, San Francisco, CA, 1968.

There’s something gritty and real about even the perkiest of documentary films. Real life, in all of its glory and gore, is generally stranger and stronger than fiction.

The documentary film genre is only getting bigger and bolder, with a steady finger on the pulse of an ever-changing world. From binge-able true-crime Netflix series like “Making A Murderer” to the popular and controversial political broadsides of Michael Moore, documentaries are drawing a broader audience than ever before.

As a result, numerous film festivals throughout the world are expanding their non-fiction offerings — including the San Francisco Film Society. The organizers of the 60-year-old San Francisco International Film Festival are about to launch their third annual Doc Stories, a four-day festival solely devoted to non-fiction filmmaking, running Nov. 2-5.

There are plenty of documentaries to see at the annual San Francisco International Film Festival each spring. But when it comes to nonfiction, one yearly festival is simply not enough, according to San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan.

“We’re in the golden age of global documentary filmmaking,” Cowan says, “so one kick of the can wasn’t enough — and it particularly wasn’t enough in the Bay Area.”

Doc Stories allows the film society to explore the genre more deeply. Organizers can dig into related and emerging technologies such as virtual reality and aim a special focus on short-form documentary filmmaking. Cowan says the festival is designed to be more intimate than the larger SFFILM, connecting fans to new works and new ideas through carefully curated experiences.

“Documentaries operate a bit different than fiction films,” Cowan says. “People that are attracted to documentaries are trying to sort their place in the world in a more committed way.”

Doc Fest doesn’t offer the red-carpet galas or celebrity-laden photo opportunities of SFFILM. Its programs are more about the grit of real story-telling than the glitz of Hollywood. Still, selected works are likely frontrunners for awards-season nominations.

The festival kicks off Nov. 2 with the first part of Blair Foster and Alex Gibney’s new two-part HBO film “Rolling Stone: Stories from the Edge.” The first half of Gibney’s look at the 50-year-old magazine begins in San Francisco, the original home of Rolling Stone from 1967 to 1975.

“It’s a very useful object lesson for today,” Cowan said about “Stories from the Edge,” noting Rolling Stone’s eventual move to more corporate and media-centric New York, “but it’s also really fun and shows San Francisco at its best and at its heyday. The Castro Theatre screening will be followed by a Q&A with Gibney and special guests Gus Wenner, son of Rolling Stone co-founder and CEO Jann Wenner, and Ben Fong-Torres, a longtime writer for the magazine.

Courtesy of SFFILM

Other special events at Doc Stories 2017, include a panel discussion on “Non-Fiction Filmmaking in the Age of Trump,” and a screening of “Baltimore Rising,” a look at the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department and its aftermath.

As part of Doc Stories, the film society is bringing three documentary films to local schools and technology campuses, including “Dolores,” the 2017 documentary by San Franciscan Peter Bratt. The film, screened in theaters this past September, looks at the life and legacy of farm workers’ activist Dolores Huerta, an oft-forgotten contemporary of Cesar Chavez. The other films in this year’s outreach program are “An Inconvenient Sequel,” a follow-up to Al Gore’s environmental expose “An Inconvenient Truth,” and “The Force,” examines the scandal-plagued Oakland Police Department.

Doc Stories closes with “Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond.” Director Chris Smith picked through hundreds of hours of behind-the-scenes footage of actor Jim Carey portraying comedian Andy Kauffman for the Milos Forman film, “Man on the Moon.” The documentary aspires to create what the filmmakers call a “dual portrait” of both performers — “a meditation on comedy, acting, art, and life.”

What that “meditation” means exactly, we’re not sure. But Cowan and his crew do — and they’re trusted by thousands of Bay Area film fans to deliver the gritty goods.

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Doc Stories 2017 runs Nov. 2-5 at the Castro Theatre and Vogue Theater, both in San Francisco. SFFILM.org

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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