Sunday, April 4, 2021


SFFILM Festival 2021

What a terrible year it has been! The pandemic not only has taken millions of lives and livelihoods, but it also caused the cancellation of the longest running film festival in America last year. It's the first time that SFFILM Festival (previously known as the San Francisco International Film Festival) has paused in its history of more than six decades. As we gradually recover from the carnage, the festival also returns April 9-18 2021 in a new hybrid format: the festival will show films both online and at in-person events. While a majority of the films will be screened by online streaming across the country through the SFFILM website, select films and live performances will take place at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in theater next to the waterfront in San Francisco.

The 64th edition of the festival presents 107 films, including 26 narrative features, 20 documentary features, 56 short films, and 5 mid-length films (30-50 minutes in running time). These films represent 41 countries and regions in 28 languages. Compared to previous years, this year's festival is at an almost 50% reduction in terms of the number of films shown. Also, perhaps because of the pandemic, this year's awards and attributes are cut down dramatically both in numbers and the monetary amount.

2021 SFFilm Festival

(You may click on each still image for the corresponding screening or event's show time and ticketing information.)

On Friday, April 9, both online and at the drive-in, the festival opens with the world premiere of Chase Palmer's feature directorial debut "Naked Singularity" (USA 2021 | 93 min.). It tells the story of a New York City public defender who deals with drug cartels and corrupt cops in his chaotic world.

On Saturday, April 10, the festival presents this year's centerpiece "Socks on Fire" (USA | 93 min. | Documentary). The film's director Bo McGuire tells his personal family story involving his homophobic aunt and his drag queen uncle. The film will be shown both online and at drive-in, with the in-person event being accompanied by a live performance featuring local artists Rock M. Sakura and FREDDIE, and emceed by the director Bo McGuire.

On Sunday, April 18, the festival closes with Marilyn Agrelo's documentary "Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street" (USA | 107 min. | Documentary). It tells a fascinating story about the creation of the beloved children's television series in the '60s.

Opening night: Naked Singularity Centerpiece: Socks on Fire Closing Night-Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street

This year, the festival simplifies the categorization of its selections, basing simply on feature vs. shorts, domestic vs. international, and narrative vs. documentary. In addition, for the first time, the festival creates a new category called mid-length films in which a film runs 30-50 minutes.

  • Narratives: International

    There are 16 international narrative features selected in this year's festival, including three flashback titles from last year's canceled lineup.

    One of last year's selections is Nicolás Rincón Gille's neorealism drama "Valley of Souls" (Tantas Almas | Colombia/Brazil/Belgium/France 2019 | in Spanish | 137 min.). It unfolds a devastating story of a grieving father's journey searching for the bodies of his two sons who are killed by the right-wing militia in Colombia.

    The only film from Asia at this year's festival is South Korean director Lee Ran-hee's feature directorial debut "A Leave" (휴가 | South Korea 2020 | in Korean | 81 min.). It depicts a mid-aged workers' struggle to fight for worker's rights while raising two children.

    The winner of the 2020 GdA Director's Award of Venice's Giornate degli Autori, Russian writer-director Philipp Yuryev's feature directorial debut "The Whaler Boy" (Китобой | Russia/Poland/Belgium 2020 | in Russian/English | 93 min.) is not to be missed. It terrifically tells a captivating story of a 15-year-old boy in a remote fishing village who falls in love with a webcam girl from the United States, and he takes on an incredible journey to meet his love.

    Valley of Souls A Leave The Whaler Boy

  • Documentaries: International

    There are 10 documentaries in this section covering a wide range of subjects around the world through compelling storytelling.

    The Oslo-based Turkish-Norwegian director Nefise Özkal Lorentzen tells an extraordinary story of the first female imams in Europe in her new documentary "Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam" (Norway 2021 | in Turkish/English/German/Chinese/Norwegian | 81 min. | Documentary). The Turkish-German lawyer Seyran Ateş takes on her personal and ideological fight against radical Islam's sexual oppression by creating a modernized Islam environment at her liberal mosque where there is no gender segregation and individuals of all sexual orientations are welcome, but with heavy police protection.

    Taking more than five years, the director Roberto Salinas follows a Cuban teenager Alexis from Havana's Cuban National Ballet School to Florida, and unwraps Alexis's coming-of-age story in "Cuban Dancer" (Italy/Canada/Chile 2021 | in Spanish/English | 90 min. | Documentary), with many elegant and delightful dance sequences.

    The winner of the Audience Award and the Impact for Change Special Jury Award in the World Documentary category at this year's virtual Sundance Film Festival, the empowering and inspiring "Writing with Fire" (India 2021 | in Hindi | 92 min. | Documentary) covers the only online newspaper run by women in Indian reporting on the lowest class Dalits, also known as the Untouchables. The co-directors Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas follow the newspaper's reporter Meera and show us how Meera and her team make a powerful impact with their smartphones.

    Seyran Ateş: Sex, Revolution and Islam Cuban Dancer Writing with Fire

  • The Rest

    10 US narratives, 10 US documentaries, 5 mid-length films, and 56 short films make up the rest of the festival selection.

    Meet Lily Hevesh, the only female domino artist in her field who designs many fantastic domino projects. She is the subject of the director Jeremy Workman's crowd pleasing documentary "Lily Topples the World" (USA 2021 | 91 min. | Documentary). The film follows Lily, as well as her dreams and passion, for three years and showcases some of her amazing work.

    "Homeroom" (USA 2021 | 90 min. | Documentary), the third chapter of documentarian Peter Nicks's Oakland trilogy, zooms in on Oakland's public high school. The film captures the challenges the Class of 2020 faced last year and the resilience that these students exhibited during the pandemic.

    Renowned contemporary artist Trevor Paglen travels in the Nevada desert, and the director Yaara Bou Melham tags along and listens to him talking about his new project—launching a satellite. The result is an intriguing documentary "Unseen Skies" (USA 2021 | 98 min. | Documentary) that reflects Paglen's stunning body of work.

    Lily Topples the World Homeroom Unseen Skies

The 2021 SFFILM Festival takes place April 9 - April 18 at Fort Mason Flix drive-in theater in San Francisco and online.


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