Arts & Events

IndieFest Blasts Off with A Wild Winner Called "The Congress"

Review by Gar Smith
Friday February 07, 2014 - 09:26:00 AM

IndieFest — "the Bay Area’s premier showcase for some of the finest independent films and digital programs" — kicked off two weeks of films (and good-time parties) yesterday at San Francisco's Roxie Theater, with other screenings to be at the Brava Theater (2781 24th Street) and — for the first time — in Oakland, at the New Parkway. 

IndieFest's opening night film was director's Ari Foleman’s visually and viscerally stunning The Congress — an wild amalgam of animation and live action based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1971 sci-fi novel, The Futurological Congress

A big hit at the Cannes Film Festival last year, The Congress is both an actor's film and a director's showcase. It's like nothing you've ever seen before. 

The premise of The Congress provides vindication for an argument I circulated about 15 years ago. I had predicted that actors would eventually be replaced by computerized avatars which would allow dead-and-gone screen stars like James Cagney, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Fred & Ginger to be "brought back to life" and pasted into modern movie story lines in a new CGI world of movie magic. 

The Congress was a big hit at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Understandably. It's both an actor's film and a director's showcase. It's like nothing you've ever seen before. 

Pocket review: "The Congress: Poor title but a great films." No, that's not a typo. Films. The Congress is not just one film; it's two films in one. 

The first 30-plus minutes is a great, dark, send-up of the Hollywood film business, complete with Danny Houston's supercilious turn as a smarmy Hollywood mogul who is sweet-tongued and acid-spitting by turns. Harvey Keitel and Paul Giamatti even pop up to make the movie merrier. But the film belongs to Robin Wright. 

Here's the sci-fi premise: 

With Hollywood ticket sales in decline in an Post-NetFlix Age of Streaming Content, industry bigwigs realize they don't really need actors anymore. They can save a bundle by electronically "scanning" their top celebrities. The electronic avatars can then be plugged into CGI movies with storylines crafted by robot writers working-the-demographics. (Who needs a set and a sound stage when you've got algorithms terabytes?) 

In exchange for an offer of never-aging "immortality," the actor must sign a 20-year contract promising never to perform again in any medium. 

In the film, Wright is a proud but struggling aging artist. Initially appalled, she eventually succumbs after being badgered into compliance by a studio boss who reminds her of a recent string of bad decisions that has stymied her career. And she needs the money to take care of two children, one of whom has an irreversible, debilitating disease. 

One of the film's cinematic high points memorably depicts Wright being scanned (physically and emotionally) inside a huge flashing dome. As Wright deftly executes a jaw-dropping itinerary of screen poses (from glamorous to joyous to confused to heartbroken to horrified), Harvey Keitel unfurls the most twisted/amazing story about "How I became a talent agent." It's one of the screen's great seriocomic monolgues. (Eat your heart out, Christopher Walken.) 

And then, out of nowhere, the screen flashes the message: "20 Years Later." 

A much older Wright is speeding through a vast landscape, heading for the studio's HQ in some future desert. She's stopped by security and ordered to inhale the contents of a mysterious ampule. She dutifully stuffs the tube up her nose and sniffs. And then things get reaaally weird -- as in Disney-on-acid strange. 

This film is a stoner's delight. And, when this comes out on DVD, believe me, people are going to be spending hours hitting the pause button on the remote so they can look deeply into the background of amazing details inside the animated world that Ari Forman (the Israeli director of Waltz with Bashir) has called into being. 


A Two-Week Romp of Films from 17 Countries 

After packing 78 films into three screens over a span of 16 days, SF IndieFest will conclude its "Sweet 16" event on Sunday, February 16, with a screening of the revenge-comedy, Blue Ruina Cannes Film Festival award-winner. Director Jeremy Saulnier is slated to be one of the 28 directors in attendance at IndieFest.  

In addition to the eclectic grab bag of feature films, shorts, documentaries and animated features from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, Estonia, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Mexico, The Netherlands, Poland, Serbia/Montenegro, Thailand and the UK, IndieFest also pays tribute to a pair of local filmmakers. Remember You're Special, the tale of the travails of a would-be Oakland rapper and his best bud, features a cast and crew of local filmmakers. Another local entry is Deluth Is Horrible, a short film from San Francisco filmmaker Vincent Gargiulo. Both films are getting their World Premiers at IndieFest.  

Finally, no mention of IndieFest is complete without mention of the fest's famous line-up of parties. An "Opening Night Party"followed the screening of The Congress. The annual "Roller Disco Party" will convene at the Women's Building at 7PM on Freiday, February 7. The "Bad Art Gallery" event on February 8 (at 518 Valencia) will include a "film-themed pub quiz." The notorious "Valentine's Day 80s Power Ballad Sing-a-Long" will rock the Roxie on February 14. And the "11th Annual Big Lebowski Party" is set to set your pins spinning on February 15, with a special screening to the Coen Brother's The Big Lebowski. Dress (and imbibe) accordingly. 

See full listing of festival films at 

Regular ticket and party prices are $12. Multi-film discount tickets are available and, for those with the stamina, an "IndiePass" good for all the screenings and parties can be had for $180 (only $25 for folks under 21). Tickets and info are available online at and by phone at (415) 552-5580. Please arrive at least 15 minutes before show time to assure seating.