Sean Uyehara entered undergrad at UC Santa Barbara as a physics major, a decision which, he explains, “I am sure anyone who knows me would find incomprehensible.” He took a few film classes and was blown away by how deeply he was responding to the work, so he switched majors to, he jokes, “the much more vocationally useful film studies degree. It was fun trying to convince my parents why it was important for me to take a class in the history of pornography.” Today, Uyehara is a programmer for the San Francisco Film Society. We talked with him about the work he does there, his love for cities and his surprising fondness for watching them get blown up.
So tell us about the San Francisco Film Society.
SFFS was first established to support the San Francisco International Film Festival — the first one took place in 1957 and it is the longest-running film festival in the Americas. But, today, SFFS presents an array of activities, including numerous screenings, events and festivals year-round and a robust education department that serves primary, secondary and college students and has (to my mind) the best filmmaker support organization in the country, giving grants of nearly $1 million annually to filmmakers at all stages of development.
I am a programmer at SFFS, meaning I develop film exhibitions for the public. I work to present traditional fiction, documentary, short and feature-length films to San Francisco, but my primary focus at SFFS is on developing non-traditional screening events. I put together live music and film, multi- and interactive media, gaming, installations and whatever other kinds of screen-based artistic programs I can find or produce.
What’s your favorite genre?
My favorite genre is the suspense film. I love movies that explicitly engage viewers and self-consciously and playfully prod them to make hypotheses about what they are viewing. My least favorite genre is the poorly made suspense film.
How did you first get interested in SPUR? In cities?
When I was in my 20s and living in Los Angeles, I fell in love with the curmudgeonly writing of Mike Davis as he exposed everything wrong with the city. I rewatched Chinatown and sought out books by Carey McWilliams. When I moved to San Francisco, I bought the book Imperial San Francisco, by Gray Brechin. The idea that cities are intentionally built machines was formed for me in large part by reading these books. Still, everything that goes into making the city is largely unfathomable for me – neighborhood constituencies, money, ecology, logistics, engineering, government power and so on and so on, it’s a lot to grasp. I admire what SPUR does to clarify how cities are pieced together and changing and for explicitly stating what they think our shifting goals can and should be for our shared spaces. Following how SPUR weighs in, advocates for change and promotes debate is a must for anyone interested in the short and long-term health and effects of our cities.
What are your favorite movies where cities play a major role?
Oh man. Too many to name! (There’s actually a genre of film called the “city-symphony.”) Here’s four favorites featuring San Francisco: Vertigo (1958), a well-made suspense film that captures San Francisco (and the Bay Area); Secrets of Silicon Valley (2001), a wonderful documentary about the infrastructure that supports the “tech revolution;” Sans Soleil (1983), Chris Marker’s epic film-essay about modern city life; Basic Instinct (1992), if you pretend not to like this movie, it’s OK. Just be sure not to lie to yourself about it. Also, I am fascinated with disaster movies and why it is satisfying to see our cities destroyed before our eyes.
Is there a film that really got a city wrong?
I grew up in Hawaii and I have never seen a film that gets Honolulu right. This is probably unfair, as I’ve never been to Abu Dhabi either but I’m guessing there’s a high likelihood that Sex in the City 2 got that one wrong.