50th S.F. International Film Festival — a golden treasure 

Humble they weren’t, but the beginnings of the San Francisco International Film Festival radiated rookie spirit as grand-thinking organizers gave eager audiences a gold mine of global cinema. Fifty years later, celebrating its golden anniversary, the festival, which opens today, has continued to represent such achievement.

It was Dec. 4, 1957, when locals dressed in gowns and tuxes arrived at the Metro, on Union Street, for the film festival’s inaugural show. The opening feature was Helmut Kautner’s "The Captain From Kopenick." Actor Franchot Tone emceed.

The 15-day lineup also included Satyajit Ray’s "Pather Panchali," Michelangelo Antonioni’s "Il Grido," Akira Kurosawa’s "Throne of Blood," and other notable international selections. India’s "Pather," a last-minute replacement for another Ray film, received the best-picture prize.

Miguel Pendas, the festival’s longtime historian, attributes the event’s early success to several factors. These include San Francisco’s vital immigrant population and cosmopolitan sensibility, elements friendly to foreign cinema. Also, foreign films provided a welcome departure from Hollywood codes. Protagonists didn’t ride into the sunset. Sex was depicted realistically.

Pendas also cites the festival’s entrepreneurial spirit, which plays well inSan Francisco. Rare among festivals of its ilk, the event was started by individual visionaries, not collective mind-sets.

Founder Irving Levin created the festival at the suggestion of the Italian consul general, for whom he’d organized an Italian-film series. Financing proved difficult in 1957, but moral support from Mayor George Christopher and substantial media coverage sparked interest. Attendance was 11,500.

In 1964, the event became nonjuried. The transformation, Pendas says, enabled it to accomplish a still-driving goal: "Show as many good films as you can for as many people as you can get."

Also in the 1960s, tribute presentations began. Honorees over the decades have included Antonioni, Bette Davis, John Ford, Jeanne Moreau, Abbas Kiarostami, and, this year, Spike Lee, George Lucas and Robin Williams.

From 1983 to 2001, Peter Scarlet, who helped the festival achieve acclaim as a mecca of foreign screen gems, ran the show. In 2005, Graham Leggat become executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, which presents the festival. Last year, attendance was about 80,000.

Described by Leggat as the "flagship film festival of the Americas," the San Francisco International Film Festival is the only major North American international film festival to have reached the 50-year mark.

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