Think you are a diehard film buff? You may think twice when you read about this long-time San Francisco International Film Festival supporter.
By Maria Belilovskaya
Every Festival, Serge Echeverría turns the café at the AMC Kabuki 8 Theatres into his main headquarters. He is a striking presence-gray-haired, very lean and dignified. He is always glad to talk to moviegoers. "I tell them how I came to the Festival," he says.
It was 1957, and Serge had just arrived in San Francisco from Hollywood, where he had been a stage actor. "I had expressed myself on the stage successfully, and all I wanted now was to become an actor in the spectacle of the world," he said in his poetic and flowery manner. Having learned that the first international film festival outside Europe was going to take place here in San Francisco, he came to the office of Festival founder and director Irving M. Levin. "I was full of enthusiasm," Echeverría recalls. He told Levin's secretary that he considered the future Festival to be a cultural revolution. Levin was so moved by that statement that he immediately invited the passionate supporter to work for the Festival. "So I became the first and the one and only volunteer at the Festival," he says.
He filed envelopes in the office and distributed posters through the city. "And it was such a satisfaction to witness the reaction of the people," Echeverría recalls. "Wherever I went, there was enthusiasm. People thanked me." Back in the office, he reported his success to the Festival director. Levin, who was struggling to put the Festival together in the face of Hollywood hostilities, was cheered by Echeverría's efforts.
Echeverría worked at the Festival for the first three years of its existence, 1957-1959. In 1960, he went to Mexico because he felt what he now calls "a spiritual restlessness." In Mexico, he went on to help the people who organized another international film festival in Mexico City. Born in Chile, educated in Britain and fluent in French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, Echeverría helped with the voiceover to films that had no subtitles. "And I spoke for an actor I admire so much, Gérard Philipe," he smiles. It was for the film Montparnasse 19, in which Philipe played the painter Amedeo Modigliani.
After coming back to the U.S. in 1964, Echeverría started working as a court interpreter, considering this to be "a matter of social significance." He also worked as a tour guide in San Francisco and always mentioned the Festival during his tours. "Even if the Festival was not taking place at that time," he says. These days, Echeverria works as a bilingual proficiency test technician, examining those who want to be promoted or transferred.
As for the Kabuki café, it is a really a good place to meet movie directors who attend the Festival. Echeverría likes to tell a story about meeting an Egyptian director, Youssef Chahine, who came to the Festival to present his film, The Emigrant (SFIFF 1995). "He was answering questions after the film and wanted to do it in the café. And he told me that he had in mind to make a film about Spain in Andalusia." It was called Destiny, and Echeverría came to see it a few years later. "I was speaking French with him and the others were talking in English," Serge recalls. "He said to the others, 'I must leave you,' and he said to me, 'I'll tell you why, I'm going to see a doctor.' And then I said to him in French, 'Hurry up and see the doctor as soon as possible, we want you to be well forever and ever.'"
"I believe in cinematography. It's the great combination of all arts," Echeverría says. "I like films that are poetic, romantic and committed socially and politically. I like Iranian films very much. In that country, they do not allow a man to kiss or even touch a woman onscreen. So instead, they make films about a little boy who loses a shoe."