The Cuban Missile Crisis was on: President Kennedy threatened to initiate a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union over its placement of missiles in Cuba. Fortunately for all of us, Krushchev withdrew the missiles, and a delegation of Soviet filmmakers attended the Sixth San Francisco International Film Festival.
By Miguel Pendás
“When the Sixth San Francisco International Film Festival opens," wrote Paine Knickerbocker, "San Francisco becomes the film capital of the United States for two weeks." The year was 1962, but the sentiment expressed by the popular arts and entertainment writer of the San Francisco Chronicle would be just as true if it had been made today.
The Sixth Festival was unique in that the Cuban Missile Crisis was happening simultaneously. President John F. Kennedy had threatened to initiate a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union over its placement of missiles in Cuba. Fortunately for all of us, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev decided to withdraw the missiles, thus averting the annihilation of the human race. At the same time, this made it possible for the Sixth and subsequent San Francisco International Film Festivals to take place.
Opening Night on Halloween may seem all too appropriate given the situation, but no one seemed to notice the irony. The film, Sun and Shadows, from Bulgaria took a back seat to the glitter of the celebrities in attendance. Local socialite Maryon Davies Lewis reigned as the chairman of the Festival auxiliary which organized the extravaganza at the Sheraton Palace. Providing a boisterous, if perhaps surreal, touch to the screening at the Metro Theatre, the U.S. Sixth Army Marching Band came over from the Presidio and paraded up and down the aisles, playing rousing military music. They did not play the Bulgarian national anthem, noted columnist Knickerbocker. Also adding to the merriment was the presence of Miss Brazil, the mayor and the Yugoslavian Minister of Culture.
But tension still hung in the air.
In particular, the fate of films from the USSR that had been invited to the Festival was undecided. It seemed certain that they would not be allowed into the country. The day before Opening Night, however, it was announced that the films had arrived, but unfortunately the filmmakers would not. In the end, it was a pleasant surprise when the Soviet delegation finally touched down November 2 at SFO.
At a press conference, a man sitting at the end of the table, his chin resting on his hand, looked pensively at the floor. He was an unknown filmmaker whose first feature was about to be screened: Andrei Tarkovsky. The Chronicle described him only as, "A young director who was wearing a pair of very pointed, Hollywoodish shoes." One wonders what footwear characteristics could be described as being typical of the film capital of America the other 50 weeks of the year.
The Soviets started by announcing that a film about the Cuban Revolution was being shot at that very moment in Moscow. "It's not anti-American," Soviet delegate Mikhail Romm rushed to say. Instead, it was being made because, "There is a deep feeling for the Cuban Revolution." We now know that the film was I Am Cuba, a strange hybrid of Russian solemnity and Caribbean panache, set in Havana in the last days of the Batista dictatorship. (Both Soviet and Cuban authorities despised Mikhail Kalatazov's film with equal fervor, and the Festival was unable to show it until 1993.)
In defiance of the Cold War atmosphere, films were also invited from Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania and Czechoslovakia. In all there were 23 feature films from 18 countries and dozens of shorts. Festival director Bud Levin was justly proud of his achievement. Other Festival highlights included Georges Franju's Thérèse Desqueyroux (with star Emmanuelle Riva in attendance) and a silent film from Thailand which was shown with a pair of live Thai performers speaking the voices of the characters, like a Japanese benshi.
The Chronicle might have added to the description of Tarkovsky that he had just won the top prize at Venice with his first film, Ivan's Childhood. (The film is better known today as My Name Is Ivan.) Few realized that the introspective young man before them would go on to become an incalculable influence on cinema, a fiercely original artist whose legacy includes the soulful, metaphysical works Andrei Rublev, Stalker and Solaris.
The film critic at the Examiner, Stanley Eichelbaum, had nice things to say about Tarkovsky, calling him a "vibrant 30-year-old director with a crew cut," and "an obviously gifted and sensitive iconoclast." Of Ivan he wrote, "The movie slithers back and forth between the subconscious and a slow, stark reality." No further insight into the shoes, however.
The Festival jury was an all-star affair, including Hollywood stalwart Lewis Milestone; Argentine director Leopoldo Torre-Nilsson; Czechoslovakia's leading director, Jiri Weiss; and French composer Darius Milhaud.
November 13 the Golden Gate Awards were announced. Taking the Best Director award was the man in the pointed shoes. "Tarkovsky was on hand for his prize," wrote Eichelbaum, "which, the jury commented, was for his 'powerful style and the poetry of his images.'"