Following the premiere of Barbet Schroeder’s heartbreaking Our Lady of the Assassins at this year‘s San Francisco International Film Festival, a young man from Colombia (where the film is set) asked the director if he was ridiculing Colombian poverty and despair. Taken aback, Schroeder answered in the negative, arguing that the film was about a possible apocalyptic future of the world. “It’s about the possible Colombia-zation of the planet,” he said. Asked what it would take to bring that bleak future about, he replied, “The slightest blip in the stock market. Look around you.”

In a nutshell, Schroeder had captured both a sociopolitical truth and the reason why this year‘s festival was so powerful. From Africa to France, Germany to the U.S. and countless spots in between, a collective film narrative is emerging of a world convulsed by inequality and despair. It was startling and inspiring to see so many filmmakers address issues of entrenched poverty, the oppression of women, racism, the continued fallout of colonization, and the politics of sexuality. The result was a globe-spanning poetry of protest that spoke directly to the reality of the countless homeless people milling about San Francisco’s Market Street thoroughfare — flesh-and-bone counterpoints to the city‘s staggering old and new wealth. Many of the festival films evoked just such a burgeoning world underclass whose global uniform of distress often comes emblazoned with some American designer name.

Not that all the films sought to stoke the proletariat. There were tributes to the avant-garde (Kenneth Anger), Hollywood iconoclasm (Clint Eastwood), the French New Wave (Jacques Rozier) and old-school professional acting (Stockard Channing). The Princess and the Warrior, German director Tom Tykwer’s highly stylized follow-up to Run Lola Run, used color and composition to dazzling effect; his fluid camera work drew gasps from the audience. But while the story — the tortured wooing of a mysterious stranger by a psychiatric nurse (played by Lola‘s Franka Potente) — is more sober and intricate than Lola’s, it‘s also less satisfying. Potente’s constantly dazed demeanor starts off as an interesting tack, but quickly becomes exasperating. Apparently even Tykwer thought so: The film‘s hero completes a journey toward self-realization; the heroine remains the same annoying dullard from start to finish.

Even with Omar Epps co-starring, Takeshi Kitano’s first Hollywood effort, Brother, isn‘t likely to be the crossover hit that Sony Pictures Classics clearly hopes it will be — it’s too measured, wry and idiosyncratic a gangstergangsta flick for that. But longtime fans of Kitano‘s inscrutable screen presence and unromantic take on violence should vibe to it. The French queer-teen coming-of-age drama, Come Undone, directed and co-written by Sebastien Lifshitz, though filled with steamy sex and two beautiful male leads (including Stephane Rideau from Andre Techine’s Wild Reeds), seemed to alienate its sold-out audience with its endless leaps back and forth through time, and its ambiguous ending. Still, the movie aspired to a psychological complexity that American queer film rarely attempts anymore. Another highlight from France was Under the Sand, the latest from overhyped wunderkind Francois Ozon. Working free of the queer content and self-consciously offbeat characters and sensibility that have made his reputation, the young director, who tackles the story of a middle-aged woman (a pitch-perfect Charlotte Rampling) grieving for her missing husband, has morphed into a graceful talent.

In the end, it was the more overtly political films that gave the festival its nervy energy. Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi‘s controversial Baise-Moi, banned in France and hyped as an amped-up Thelma and Louise, uses the vocabulary of porn, including a brutally graphic rape scene, to give voice to its feminist rage. Though this intentionally raw film is flawed and incomplete (it speaks largely in one emotional register), its visceral fury is engrossing. Jafar Panahi’s The Circle is a chilling depiction of the status of women in Iran. Banned at home for its frank discussion of abortion, prostitution and domestic violence, the film haunts you with its unsparing approach. The languid, elegiac Japanese film Not Forgotten, directed and co-written by Makoto Shinozaki, powerfully addresses the lingering wounds of World War II while mourning the loss of civility, tradition and respect for history. Though this ultimately moving film is thickly laced with comedy, its scenes of cruelty toward the elderly are almost unbearable to watch. Daresalam, Issa Serge Coelo‘s poignant essay on civil war in modern-day Chad, is so achingly beautiful and sad that I watched with tears in my eyes. Just as the film seems to be concluding that the barbaric way human beings treat one another cannot be rewired or overcome, that resistance is futile, it ends on a note of un-ironic optimism that is more radical than all the calculated nihilism currently being served up on Western movie screens.

Daresalam and Our Lady of the Assassins, two of the strongest films in the festival, are linked by their depth of heart, by noble efforts to shed light on shadowy existences. But good intentions can backfire horribly when the filmmaker is oblivious to the volatility of his subject matter — as First World director Schroeder learned the hard way after wading into the Third World trenches. In the post-screening discussion someone asked him whether, given that terrorist squads have targeted gays in Colombia, there had been repercussions for his actors, including two street kids who played hustlers in the film. Visibly shaken, Schroeder admitted that one of the boys had been savagely beaten, shot, stabbed and left to die by a carload of men as payback for his role in the film. “I feel tremendous guilt about that,” he said quietly. “I’m looking into ways to get him out of the country. It looks bleak.”

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