The phone rings with an invite to a special dinner at Chez Panisse tonight. I'm on deadline, at home, hoping to finish a piece before I drive over to the first full day of the 57th Annual San Francisco Film Festival. I'm determined to make it in by the 3 p.m. screening of "We Come as Friends," by Hubert Sauper.
Alice Waters, it seems, met Sauper at the Berlin Film Festival in February, loved "We Come as Friends," and is hosting a dinner in his honor. "Yes, of course, thank you so much, I'll see you there."
I was entertained, engaged, and horrified by his witty, ironic, and moving "Darwin's Nightmare," Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 2006, and winner of the 2006 Cesar for Best First Film, nominally about the voracious Nile perch, which took over Lake Victoria in central Africa, but actually about the pernicious effects of globalization. "We Come as Friends" was also filmed in Africa, in the Sudan, once the continent's largest country, now divided in two warring nations.
As I'll be staying in Berkeley, I watch "We Come as Friends" online. Not my favorite way to watch a movie, but I am entranced by its beautiful images in service of an ugly reality. Sauper and his filmmaking colleagues hopscotch across the Sudan in a comical-looking tiny homemade airplane, collecting stories both painful and absurd about the oil and mineral riches that flow out of the Sudan, leaving many of the inhabitants of the war-torn nations impoverished and oppressed -- by well-meaning missionaries as well as greedy international businessman and power-drunk politicians.
Come 8 p.m., I join an eclectic crowd of filmmakers and film lovers in the upstairs Cafe at Chez Panisse: as well as Alice, Hubert, and his co-director and cinematographer Barney Broomfield; Noah Cowan, the new Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society; Davia Nelson, SF-based radio and TV producer; B. Ruby Rich, film theorist and UC Santa Cruz professor; singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, who's a famed film buff; and Mark Danner, UC Berkeley professor and prolific writer on politics and foreign affairs, and his wife Michelle. It seems that I am the only one without a personal website. Just an old-fashioned girl…
We sip Alice's favorite Bandol Tempier Rose before being shoehorned into the largest table in the room, a tight squeeze, since we've been joined by a charming young man, Jessey White-Cinis, who's flown in from NYC to surprise his friend Barney, and Anuradha Mittal, the founder and Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank, who provided Sauper with background information for the film.
There are 14 of us. Alice gaily says, "This is more than we've ever had at this table, even for New Year's Eve!" I have seen her hosting notables including Peter Sellars and Jane Fonda (not, I think, on the same evening). Alice has ordered pizzas for the table: one topped with stinging nettles -- something of a misnomer, since the prickly nettles grow harmless with cooking -- and fresh ricotta, the other with tomato sauce, spicy merguez sausage, and sharp, toothy wild rocket, aka arugula. There are bowls of assorted olives, good Acme bread and butter, and a fabulous spring salad that I do not get enough of: tender Little Gems lettuce tossed with delicate slivers of baby artichokes, emerald-green lava beans, fragile fronds of fragrant anise hyssop, anointed with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette. You can tell that I liked it.