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Indie Theater Roundup: 7 Movies to See at the San Francisco Film Festival

Khomotso Manyaka makes her screen debut as a preteen valiantly fighting to save her family in Oliver Schmitz's Live, Above All, making its area debut this week at the Sundance Kabuki.

It's that time again. The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival is underway, bringing with it an eclectic mix of groundbreaking documentaries, riveting dramas and innovative shorts from around the globe. Among them:

1. Life, Above All
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: April 23, 4 p.m., April 28, 6 p.m.
Why: Oliver Schmitz’s graceful adaptation of Allan Stratton’s acclaimed 2004 novel Chanda’s Secrets, about African children forced by poverty and the ravaging AIDS epidemic to assume adult responsibilities and fend for themselves, is at once gripping and heartbreaking. Khomotso Manyaka, as Chanda, makes an impressively assured debut in one of this year's festival highlights.

2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: April 25, 7 p.m., April 26, 9:30 p.m.
Why: Master storyteller Werner Herzog narrates, directs and stars in Dreams, a fascinating 3-D exploration of France's Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caverns, the remarkably preserved home to prehistoric art dating back roughly 32,000 years. Discovered in 1994, the subterranean treasure remains wondrously untouched by the hands of man, but Herzog's breathtaking cinematography (and irreverent commentary) brings it to life vividly on the big screen.

3. Trollhunter
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: April 23, 11:30 p.m., April 25, 6:15 p.m. (at New People)
Why: Fans of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity should find plenty to appreciate about André Øvredal's verité-style faux documentary about student filmmakers (and the dryly humorous ex-Navy Ranger acting as their guide and protector) searching the Norwegian countryside for rabid, real-life trolls not named Armond White.

4. The Future
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: April 23, 6:15 p.m., April 24, 9:15 p.m. (at New People)
Why: Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) returns with The Future – an earnest, whimsical drama, partially narrated by a cat – in which the writer-director stars as one half of a directionless couple contemplating pet adoption. If her surreal narrative occasionally seems precious, it resonates all the same; the movie’s visual artistry, as eclectic as July’s story, is poetic and boldly original.

5. The Whistleblower
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: April 26, 9:15 p.m., April 28, 9:30 p.m.
Why: The world of sex trafficking serves as the backdrop for first-time director Larysa Kondracki’s disquieting thriller, featuring a stellar cast led by Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn and Oscar winner Rachel Weisz. Inspired by the real-life story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska police officer who uncovered an international scandal during a six-month peacekeeping stint in Sarajevo, Kondracki’s debut is a sturdy police procedural that strips back the curtain on the underground sex trade.

6. From A to Zellner
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: April 24, 9:45 p.m.
Why: Austin-based filmmakers David and Nathan Zellner return to the festival (after last year's Fiddlestixx, "the first Web series created by and starring a primate") with a new collection of laughably absurd short films.

7. Stake Land
Where: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post St., 415-929-4650
When: April 25, 9:45 p.m.
Why: Forget Calvin Klein models who glitter in the sunlight and tread clumsily in a sea of retarded sexuality and bloodlust. Jim Mickle's atmospheric chiller – an unholy hybrid of Zombieland and Cormac McCarthy's The Road – finds rugged survivalists fighting a battle on two fronts, targeted by hungry vamps and depraved religious fundamentalists.