5 Landmark San Francisco Documentaries

Photo of Thivanka Perera
28 December 2016

Want to experience San Francisco through the decades? Check out these documentaries that capture the Sign o’ the Times—from the earliest documented footage from the 1900s to the trippy psychedelia of the 60s, segueing into the politically turbulent 70s and beyond, these documentaries capture the essence of the city through the years.

A Trip Down Market Street (1906)

Shot from a cable car on Market Street, this 13-minute film captures life in San Francisco just days before the 1906 great earthquake nearly destroyed the city. As the title suggests, it is a 13-minute trip from 8th Street down Market to the Ferry Building. An amazing time capsule of a film, it is full of cable cars, bikes, horses and pedestrians crisscrossing the busy street. For those interested, a digitally restored HD version is available on Youtube.

San Francisco (1968)

Highly indicative of its time, this 16-minute film is an experimental piece that incorporates a soundtrack from Pink Floyd. Basically, it is just a mish-mash of images (shot circa 1968) of San Francisco edited in a kinetic style. What makes this film special is that it was made nearly twenty years before MTV made music videos the norm, making this 16mm film one of the earliest music videos in history.

The Fillmore: The Last Days (1972)

A tribute to San Francisco’s former epicenter of music, the film documents the final days of the Fillmore West auditorium made famous by rock concert promoter Bill Graham—who is featured heavily in the film. It features top-notch performances by a number of legendary SF bands, like The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Reminiscent of Woodstock (1970), the film frequently incorporates split-screen images. It not only includes music, but also gives an account of the growing rock business of the time.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Directed by Rob Epstein, this Oscar-winning film about politician Harvey Milk was one of the first feature-length documentaries that addressed gay life in America. While chronicling the larger-than-life character of its subject, the heady mixture of archival footage and original material show us a time and place much different from now, specially the Castro District in the late 70s. The film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 2012.

The Bridge (2006)

Inspired by an article from Tad Friend in the New York Times, this eerie documentary was shot over a period of one year, capturing the attempts of people who tried to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. It expertly juxtaposes the ethereal beauty of the Bridge alongside the personal tragedies of the individuals, while never venturing into voyeuristic territory. It is a disquieting film that is also artistically pleasing.

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