Sam Green narrates his ‘Utopia’ documentary

SF Chronicle photo by Liz HafaliaSF Chronicle photo by Liz Hafalia

April 23, 2010|By Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco documentary filmmaker Sam Green is interested in exploring stories of hope – hope that is misguided and dashed, hope that may eventually be realized.

Green’s new film, “Utopia in Four Movements,” to be screened Sunday at the San Francisco International Film Festival, uses four stories from the 20th century to look at the state of hope and imagination today. And, as a nod to the power of coming together, Green has made a film that can only be seen live. He narrates onstage, while a soundtrack and lyrical score are also performed live.

“I wanted to create an experience that couldn’t be reduced to something watched in passing or sitting alone at home with a laptop or mobile phone,” said Green, 43, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 for his documentary “The Weather Underground.”

“With this film, you have to be there,” Green said. “It’s almost a performance or dance piece. Watching something about utopia, and doing it all together with a lot of people in the same room, creates an energy. It’s inspiring.”

The movie itself, a pastiche of archival and original material, of still and moving images, tackles utopia through four vignettes connected by Green’s poetic explication. There is the artificial language called Esperanto, designed by a man in Poland who grew up amid ethnic divisions and envisioned a universal language that would end war and cultural conflict; a 1939 time capsule from the World’s Fair in New York; the world’s largest shopping mall, located in China and now a ghost town; and an American exile living in Cuba, full of optimism and surrounded by blight.

“After making ‘The Weather Underground,’ I wanted to do something that was hopeful,” said Green, who grew up in East Lansing, Mich., and settled in the Bay Area 20 years ago after earning a master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. “I want people to walk away from this hopeful, not in a Pollyanna way, but in a way that acknowledges the complexity and the difficulties of the world.”

Live narration

The idea for narrating the film live came organically, and took him by surprise.

“It started off as a way to do a presentation, or a sort of live rough cut about the project,” said Green, who teaches part time at the University of San Francisco and the San Francisco Art Institute. “I was thinking about how to string these stories together and have it make sense. The more I thought of it, the more I realized utopia was a collective experience.”

– Julian Guthrie, San Francisco Chronicle