Mar 28, 2017
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Alex Ghassan: The cineSOURCE Interview
by Doniphan Blair
Alex's interview started at the fountain on the shores of Lake Merritt and continued at cineSOURCE, on the roof as well as in the studio. photo: D. Blair
Given his perspective as a recent Oakland immigrant, a world traveler specializing in North-Eastern Europe (notably Estonia and Finland), and a cutting-edge cinematographer, director and producer, I immediately thought Alex Frantz Ghassan would make a great subject for a cineSOURCE article, see it
Alas, given cineSOURCE's financial situation and the avalanche of other duties, transcribing a full, few-hour interview, which can easily take ten hours or more, was not doable.
Sadly and sickeningly, it took the disgusting inferno of the 'Ghost Ship Fire' on December 3rd to change our minds, as well as to make this Alex's last interview.
On the evening of October 5th, we started at the Lake Merritt fountain, downtown Oakland twinkling across the water, then moved to the roof of cineSOURCE studios and finished downstairs, along the way consuming two joints (shared) and four beers (each).
Although we ranged widely from the arts and world travel to race and Trump, Alex started with some sound advice for the beginning film artist.
Alex Frantz Ghassan:
I had a teacher at film school in New York who told me about the three ‘R’s: rent, relationships and reel.
I know I have to sacrifice to do projects that are artistic. In the beginning, I did a lot of shit for relationships—a lot of work for free. I sacrificed a lot of personal relationships to do that type of work, you know.
But you grow up and, fuck it, time for some rent shit—you got to pay your bills!
Now, it is time for some reel shit. In the sense that it's reel and it's real, both words.
I’m in a position now where money is coming in consistently. It is a 9 to 5, doing film work [at the San Francisco court]. It is not that I am a hobbyist—I am still a filmmaker. That has given me the perspective, the ease, the lack of stress that I need so I can be creative—for the first time!
Alex settles in with a brew for the bulk of the interview, cineSOURCE studios, West Oakland. photo: D. Blair
I am going to be 35 on Friday, on the 7th [of October].
This is the first time in my entire career—however long, ten years I have been doing this, eleven years—that I am going to be able to create art without any sort of stress financially—normal stress, but no financial.
I am taking that as a blessing. I need to take this opportunity.
For me, it is like now or never. I am at that point where I am around so many prolific artists and I have been around so many prolific artists, for so long.
Like today, Brad Abana, or Obanga, I don’t know if I am saying his name right [Brad Ogbonna], just got written up in the Fader Magazine—like a cool kid magazine [see
]. Another photographer I know was in the same issue.
These are guys who have been on my sets taking pictures while I am shooting for other people—you know what I mean? Now they are in these magazines.
For me it is not jealousy thing—I am very happy for them. It reminds me. When you see people—who you sat down with and drank a beer and had to split money for a slice of fucking pizza—doing amazing shit.
It is like, OK! Don’t give up, don’t stop!
Just the other day, Saturday, I am on Instagram and I see Common—the rapper Common—they put a video up of his latest video and my footage is in it. He used found footage: my footage, he found on the Internet.
Little things like that will keep poking at you, when you start to doubt yourself. Look, I did that video five years ago and now a rapper’s using that shit in 2016! What does that tell you?
Like you [Doniphan] were saying earlier, ‘You definitely have a style.’ I didn’t see the beauty in those images, maybe, but someone else did.
You have been using that bobbing and weaving style for a while?
Those exact shots, that same style.
In the middle of drinking a martini at cineSOURCE's Holiday Scorpio Party, Alex announced, 'Man, I got to film this.' photo: D. Blair
I like to do something that is called a video portrait, a lot of people do it. Someone looks into the camera and you move around. There are three shots like that in the Common video.
I feel it is time to rebrand. Europe is part of that, going to Finland is one thing, the first step in trying to make new work that doesn’t feel like…
That feels like the old work BUT that feels fucking amazing, that has no flaws in all the triggers that have been flawed before, whether it is budget or time or creativity.
Sounds great, congratulations.
Thanks, I am excited.
You have been in Finland a lot?
I have been there a lot. My girlfriend lives there but she is moving here in the end of November. Eventually, I plan to relocate there for at least a year or two.
But I want to bounce back and forth. I want to maintain a place here and have a place there. I want that to be my base but Oakland to be my 60-40 or 70-30 thing.
I am trying to explore the European market, trying to shoot new landscapes, to experience cultures I have never seen and still keep my feet planted here.
Like I told you on the roof, West Oakland, in particular, but Oakland, in general, IS IT! This IS THE place where you can do all sorts of stuff, where all sorts of people are coming together, getting projects going.
Everyone is coming west, you know, and there is a reason for it.
New York isn’t done— New York will never be done—but New York is a fucking machine. When you are there you are battery and, as soon you are done, they replace your ass. As soon a photographer moves out, another moves in.
As soon as a filmmaker leaves, ten filmmakers move in. I don’t want to be fuel for that fucking machine anymore. I don’t want to be another cog. That is what it felt like for me, when I was in New York.
Here I feel like I am actually contributing something to this place, through the documentary I did for the Oakland Museum and just being here as person.
The people I work with, the people I know, the art I create—anything I do, I can highlight this area.
In New York, you can make amazing shit and no one will ever see it because everyone is making amazing shit. Let’s say you are a published photographer—everyone is a fucking published photographer. Everyone!
An evocative Alex portrait, evincing an odd, contemporary reference. photo: unattributed
[He takes out a cigarette.]
Yesterday, I really wanted a cigarette—I haven’t had that feeling for ten years.
Don’t start smoking, I am trying to quit these things.
Oakland is always becoming. It has been like that for a long time.
What I am saying to you is nothing new? You have seen tons of people coming through here?
After I moved to Oakland in ’89—you know Old Oakland [the commercial zone downtown]?
I was trying to sell them graphic design services and the developer said he couldn’t get Oakland to give him a loan—he had to go to San Francisco. Old Oakland was the promise of the ‘90s but it is still not fully rented.
But this is the biggest wave ever. With Uber moving in, a lot of artists coming. The whole Art Murmur is just fantastic and that only started about five years ago.
People are leaving New York. I was just talking to a friend today. He said his girlfriend is moving to Atlanta and they are questioning their relationship. She had to leave because she said, ‘New York is killing my spirit. Anything I put out, no matter how good it is, it is not getting the reception it deserves.’
You hear about all these kids and people in other places doing amazing shit. It is not like it used to be. The Internet has brought a lot of people closer together. You can have an amazing artist in Milwaukie and someone in Finland or Estonia will hear about it, you know.
I think Oakland has to have its own identity. It has to have its own style. I think it has to be very multicultural, which includes whites.
And Latinos, we have it all. We have a massive Latino neighborhood and we have a massive Asian—
I was just hanging with the New Black Panthers on 7th Street. I think they are doing the old story, rehashing the ‘60s.
I came up with this concept called Black Girls. I had a couple of black women friends, one was African, full Masai, who loved shoes and modeling. I said, 'Let's do a modeling agency called Black Girls.'
They thought it was too racy but I also had another friend, Celestine, a black woman who modeled and even ran a small agency. She thought is was dynamite, hot, edgy, transgressive.
I love the idea of public art or community art. At cineSOURCE, I have also focused on Oakland with massive issues, 20 articles.
Yeah? That’s cool.
Another evocative Alex portrait, evidently mid-mix, and more upbeat. photo: unattributed
But I can’t really get the energy going.
But you are still here.
They are all about coming here. I was talking to some ad agencies and they are like, ‘Are you in LA?’ I was in LA for this Finnish film meet-up thing. You got people in Finland trying to get that Hollywood look, as opposed to me. I am trying to go there, make indie commercials, music videos—anything I can do.
In parts of Europe, even parts of American, people [like] the old system. If you want to make it in the music industry, you get signed to a major.
[Now] everyone is like, ‘Fuck that! I am going to be indie. I am going to run my own shit. I am still going to perform in a fucking stadium.'
You have to have people behind you. You have a team but you don’t need the major. But in Europe, they still think having the major is hot.
In general, if you are making high art, it doesn’t matter where you are making it, as long as it is good shit—obviously! And you need the right people behind it, to make sure it gets seen. You don’t need Hollywood, Hollywood comes to you.
Exactly, you just go to Hollywood at a later stage. You control to the very end—
When you have what they need, they will come to you.
It is amazing how the music and film industry—
Completely flip-flopped. Film will always be there. It is a team sport. Whenever you have a team sport, it is going to be harder to completely knock out [the industry] all together—you still need a crew to make a film.
The amazing thing is they are selling these blockbusters in China. They are still making the same amount as they always have, about $18 billion a year, or whatever. It has gotten more commercial but there are still odd character studies out there. Weird things like ‘Girl on a Train’.
Yeah, with Emily Blunt.
You saw ‘Kicks’?
That is a perfect example. It was an excellent movie.
Every couple years, they say it is all fucked up, it is all super heroes. And then James Cameron comes out with more ‘Avatars’.
The dude’s a control freak, doesn’t let anyone touch the camera. He is super-talented. Has it down to a science.
Shoots and directs, that is hard. But if you hire the best actors, you don’t have to manage them.
I am not anti-Hollywood at all. I just know there is more than just Oz. Like New York was Oz for everyone.
There is a global economy out here. There is money to be made all over. There are stories to be told all over. You also have to play with peoples minds a little bit.
People are going to wonder what a fucking black dude from Brooklyn, who has lived in California, is doing in Finland directing films. That is strange.
Fourth beer starting to kick in. photo: D. Blair
‘You are like what?’ ‘The director is from where?’ ‘Why is he here?’ Everyone is trying to go from there to here [Finland to California]..
[And] I am not the only one. I am sure there are others, although I don’t know them personally.
I read a book about a Cuban guy who went to Sweden ['Tropical Animal', Pedro Juan Gutierrez]. He met a few Cuban guys and they are freezing their asses off but they are the only Cubans.
And they are killing it because of that. I am gong to play with that. I am going to be the only fucking dude from Oakland.
Are you going to say you are from Oakland or Brooklyn?
If we have to going to all the way back, I am from New Jersey, born and raised. I went to film school in Manhattan, went to Brooklyn, spent the last seven, eight years living there. Then I moved to Oakland, and I have been here two years.
I am from Oakland, by way of Brooklyn, I guess you could say.
Eventually, I am going to spend two years over there and then I am from fucking Finland now! You know what I mean? I am a global citizen. I am citizen of the fucking world!
Yeah that is my whole thing, too.
I kind of rebelled against this colonialist critique thing, where the white guy, the rich guy, can’t come and do some art. I know it gets a lot of critique but freedom is still the best thing. You can’t stop it, anyway. Artists will always be borrowing art or going and living over—
Of course, experiencing other cultures.
That is their business, culture.
I am totally appropriating. I am going to go to Finland and learn shit and tell stories from their perspective, which is what a white dude would do if he went to Africa.
Admittedly, [crossing cultures] is hard but the ones who really do it are great. My favorite guy is Tobias Schneebaum. I interviewed him a couple of times. He lived with cannibals in Peru.
And he didn’t get eaten?
No, but his friend did.
You have to tell me the story.
He was a painter and he went to Mexico—in the ‘50s, beatniks were going to Mexico—and he went to the south where the folks are very primitive. He was intrigued, also sexually intrigued, because he was gay and they participate in that, too.
He dug the adventure of it. After he traveled around the whole world, as a vagabond in the ‘50s, he finally focused on a very primitive society in Peru. His big book is called ‘Keep the River on Your Right’ . He went and lived there and lived with the cannibal tribe.
But how did he get there and they didn’t eat him?
Actually that was my big question when I went there.
You went there? To the cannibal tribe?
Well, they are not cannibals anymore. They are friendly, primitive people. I arrived about 25 years after he was there. ‘Are they going to eat me,’ I wondered.
The fact of the matter is, they only do those type of rituals in times of duress, conflict between two tribes. The shamans usually organize it. It is a long, complicated story.
Alex, on Lake Merritt, his new beloved home town of Oakland, twinkling in the distance. photo: D. Blair
Cannibalism is a form of primitive birth control. In the jungle, if you fornicate and fructify, one group will grow and be eating the monkeys and fish of another group. They have to control their population.
The thing I love about Tobias is that, at one point, he fell in love with this guy in the tribe, the Machigenge [tribe]. And the guy got a disease, a type of pneumonia, everything was turning to water.
So Tobias said, ‘Let’s haul him back to the Catholic Mission.’ He organized the tribe to take him back to see if he could get some Intraviaform or Penicillin or something.
Right, he did?
Yeah, that is the revolution, man.
If you are part of the tribe, visiting, you just follow whatever they say. 'He got sick, can the shaman cure him?' 'No? Then I am sorry.'
But Tobias was in both cultures.
He was going do what ever he could in both cultures. So he brought him back and, sadly, the guy died, but he made the effort.
So then he brought another friend out there [to the jungle]?
That is another part of the story.
After Tobias went into the jungle, his friend in the Catholic Mission, Manalo, from Spain, said, ‘Shit, I am going to go live with a tribe, too. If Tobias can do it—and he is just a skinny, little New York Jewish guy—I can!’
But, as it turned out, [where Manalo went] was the tribe Tobias’s tribe attacked. He may have actually eaten a little bite of his friend.
That was a terrible trauma for him; it came back and haunted him when he was dying. I know [about it from] his lover, Joel Singer, he went to my art school.
Tobias is the great saint of ‘Fuck Appropriation Colonialism!’
'I am just going to go a live with the cannibals; I am going to fall in love with a guy; I am going to say: Maybe we can get some medicine over here because he’s dying.’
Later he went to another tribe [in New Guinea]. He just kept going back and forth [from New York, where he worked in advertising and as an artist].
That is fucking crazy!
I interviewed him, he wasn’t like my friend but I hung out three or four times. He was a cool guy.
He ate a person!
He was part of the tribe when they did.
So they captured someone from another tribe and killed him and cooked him and ate him? That is fucking crazy!
There’s a lot of taboo around it. In Brazil, for example, some people say none of the tribes were ever cannibalistic, that is just what white anthropologists say. But, the fact of the matter is, many of them were.
There was a whole movement in 1980s saying cannibalism never existed. I had this girlfriend who did her thesis—that was her position, that it was a figment of people’s imagination.
We were all cannibals, at one point, so it is in our memory, like a taboo.
Getting back to the appropriation thing, it is a big argument.
The problem with appropriation is, for for years, black people have been creating and not getting credit, or the credit they deserve.
There would be no issue with a white guy, a Spanish guy, an Asian guy, doing something that another culture has done, if people were properly credited.
A black women will wear braids and it is considered tacky—'You can’t wear that. That is tacky!' White women will wear it and it becomes newest rage. Black people have been doing this for years. That is unfair. That frustrates people.
It is looped into the broader conversation about race, racism, appropriation—this, that and the other. It makes people seem that they are super fucking sensitive. And they are!
But it is also the fact that the shit has been happening for so long, and people have been profiting.
Like there was some fucking high-end designer who had a bunch of white guys walking down a runway with doo rags—you know what a doo rag is, with the red and white on one side, you tie your hair to get waves?
He named it ‘hair wraps’ or some stupid shit. It is amazing—no, no, no fuck you! Those are two dollar doo rags we have been wearing since 1970. You are fucking kidding me? That is going to frustrate anyone.
I know, I know, things are very sensitive. In the end, however, there is pure art. No matter what you say, how much you oppose something… Like the Rolling Stones: they are just not going to stop singing those songs, they are just gong to belt them out.
In the end, in that particular case, [the Stones] did them a solid. They went back and played with Muddy Waters in Chicago. They helped bring him up a little—maybe they didn’t give him his fair share—for sure they didn’t. [See cineSOURCE article about The Rolling Stones' new show 'Exhibitionism'
That is a perfect example, they helped him out. [But] if he never created that shit, there would be no music for them to sing. You know what I mean? Things like that are very frustrating for people of color, in general.
You are already creating from such a sad, shitty fucking place—lack of resources. You are creating off of instinct. And you have some kid that hears your shit and comes and copies you. And even if they put their own twist on it—and I am not saying the Rolling Stones copied, don’t get me wrong—
They sang covers, just like The Beatles.
You get what I am saying? Then they go fucking platinum, diamond, whatever it is. They fly the world and your ass is stuck where ever you are, dying in a bed.
Well, that happened to a lot of blues artists [but] that is not happening much any more.
No, but you get what I am saying? In general, that is where this appropriation thing is coming from. People have had enough.
It is understandable. It is emotional and totally understandable. But in the end, having no appropriation is a job killer.
I’m sorry but the New Black Panthers have to have white people; it has to be the rainbow-colored Panthers, somehow.
Well, the old Black Panthers was totally multicultural. Yes, it was all black people that were Panthers but they were down with everyone. There is footage of these guys speaking in poor white neighborhoods saying, ‘We have to band together!’
This is not a race thing. We are getting fucked over by these people just like you are. We are going to fight together or we are all going to sink.
And [the Black Panthers] were perfectly normal for that time and fit into liberation movements in Cuba and the world. Now we are in a different time.
Oakland has to be a multicultural town. That is why I thought Black Girls was great idea because, yeah, Black Girls is the name but we include everyone. We are all black girls.
You play with it but deep down you're [multicultural]. The Panthers, too. Bobby Seale, he and Huey were anti-racist. There were some [Panthers] who were very nationalist.
Of course. Because you are a fool if you think that somehow [you can get a] revolt or some sort of revolution against the rest of the world—
They did believe that for a while.
But not without other people from those other communities as well. You can stage a revolution against the powers that be. But you are not going to stage a revolution that excludes the entire fucking world.
That means if poor people and rich people of every other race are not included—you are an idiot!
It’s a small group.
We don’t grow our own food. We don’t even sew the buttons on our fucking pants, you know? Even the bullets in your gun are not made by black people: So how are you going to stage a revolution?
Unless you are going to start manufacturing every single product you need, the water you drink to the clothes on your back, to the spoons—that is too much work, you are going to have to band together.
The thing is that these whole race laws: if you are one eighth black, you are black.
So that means black is the multicultural group!
If you are one-eighth black but seven of your other [great] grandparents, one was the Queen of England, you are still black. That means black is the word for multicultural group. They try to focus on that one part—
And disregard everything else.
It is a losing battle, you always have to make these caveats—a this, a that, the other thing. Whereas the big river is ‘We are all one. We are all one!’
Just coming at you . Whether it is Tobias Schneebaum in the jungle dragging his buddy out. The Catholic priest must have looked at him: ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ [Tobias] was, for sure, naked.
It is understandable. It is a very complex moment, we are in a shit storm with fucking Trump. The racial temperature went up and the other side is all—
They're fucking crazy, too.
They are more crazy.
White people are saying get rid of all the Mexicans or go back to Africa—
They are not saying that. They are saying get rid of all the Mexicans.
I hear it all the time: Go back to Africa.
Oh, fuck yeah! There are tons of articles about racists saying, 'If you don't like it here, go back to Africa.'
Oh. Could be.
First off, we didn't come here on our own [laughs]. That is one. So go back—
That is about 150 years old, that argument—
Bullshit, first off, and if you got rid of the Mexicans, this whole situation would fall apart.
The agriculture of California would collapse.
The entire country would fall to shit. White people—not even black people—want to do the jobs that Mexicans fucking do.
[laughs] Exactly. Of course, of course.
They are the backbone of this fucking country.
They were in California before we took over.
Exactly, exactly. I love it when you hear racist white people saying, 'Go back there, you are an immigrant.' Do you forget you are standing on land you stole from people? What!?!
You are the illegal immigrant! We are all illegal immigrants compared to the Native Americans. How fucking bold can you be? It is insane.
It is insane. Unfortunately, Trump is a very seductive snake.
The people who support him don't actually support the shit he stands for. They are not about some fucking rich guy who is actually not paying taxes. They are not about that, they are poor people.
Evidently, they are about that. They like the way he twists legality. It makes them feel good.
Right, but it is a lie and they know it is lie. There is no way you can't know it is a lie—the guy hasn't paid taxes in 18 years.
As an American, if you are poor Mexican, white, black, Chinese, how can you support him, someone who hasn't paid taxes in 18 years, when you are out here busting your ass?
You are complaining, 'The Mexicans are taking my jobs. The blacks are taking my jobs. The Asians—and you have a guy who hasn't paid taxes in 18 years? That doesn't add up!
It is insane—we are in an insane situation.
Unfortunately, we can be slightly sympathetic because Obama did a very good job. The Republican were very negative and created this very negative situation. You are always going to have a counterrevolution but having Trump lead that counterrevolution is insane.
Don’t even worry about the beer because I have to drive home—OK, fuck it, one more. But I have to sleep and get up early.
I didn’t think I had one but looking back here—
You have four beers, I see’ em.
If white people think Obama is going to lead to some sort of white genocide where white people are going to be rounded up and put in concentration camps—it is the complete opposite.
Trump is going to bring that to their table. No one is going to be able to prosper in this country if you build a wall and they kick out all the Mexicans. That is, honestly, white genocide.
Well, genocide is a strong word.
But you know what is weird, I am from New York but I have hitchhiked across the country. And when I went down through Kentucky, the people are not bad.
We have a lot prejudice against them. A lot play music; they pick you up hitchhiking; they give you a meal or whatever. But there is this type of psychological self-hatred, where they are against their own best interests. They are infatuated with this angry, idiotic candidate and they also act somewhat idiotic as a group. But when you get picked up by them or travel through Nashville or—
But you are a white guy. I am sure it would be a lot different if I stuck my thumb out on the highway.
I know, I know but I have met black guys traveling. There is a certain way of presenting as a black hippie. Ahh, you are not going to get as many rides as me—but I didn’t get that many rides because I was a tall guy with long hair.
But, yeah, nevertheless, I have been through New Orleans and Texas. New Orleans is incredible—a special place—but even Texas, it is cool, in its own way. But they have an anger that pools into this, sort of, you know, idiocy.
It’s a struggle and sometimes Texas, you know, does the right thing. They supported Ann Richards, a good candidate. But because of the Obama Administration, that caused a backlash.
But the weird thing is: that backlash is weird, self-lacerating. I mean the guy is insane, having to follow an insane person like that means you are insane.
It reminds me a little— not to make a facetious comparison—but Hitler.
It’s not facetious. It is like Stalin and Hitler, all these other dudes who were crazy.
We think we are going to get through it, [although the election] is going to be a nail-biter.
I have a weird-ass perspective on the whole thing, I hope he wins.
Fuck yeah! I hope he wins since I think Hillary is more of the same. More of the same. She is a corporate president. She is fucking evil, just like every other president, including Obama. I think they are all bad. They have ways of approaching [the job].
He played to an idea that he is a black president. Who in this country, who is black, is not going to be super-proud of that situation? Even if you don’t agree with all his policies, that is a black man, a man that looks like you, in a place called the ‘white house.’ It is not called the black house, the brown house. It was never meant for us and we helped build that shit.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t’ think she is hell on earth. But she is going to be a lot of the same we have already had. She may do a lot of good; she is also going to do a lot of bad.
I think Trump is going to be horrible. And lot of people are going to suffer, myself included. I think we need it because we need to hit rock bottom. This country has not hit rock bottom, yet.
I don’t know about that, man. I never bet on the enemy horse.
I am not betting on him I just think we need to hit rock bottom.
I come from a culture [European Jews] that has hit rock bottom many, many times.
And it is not worth it—so do you [come from a similar culture]. Things are so much better then they were in the ‘60s.
Obama has been fantastic and Hillary is going to be also. He’s out stumping for Hillary and calling her the third Obama administration—I don’t know if he actually said that but he kind of implied.
I can agree with that.
But politics is just a tough business and some sacrifices have to be made.
But they are all lining their pockets, man. That is the situation; that is it. We all know the Clintons are fucking loaded.
Yeah, but they make it in a very straight forward way: they go and give speeches. They don’t get kickbacks like Lula in Brazil who got a kickback—
They have all these supposed shell corporations—we could talk about it to the end of time.
In my head, I think sometimes, say you have a drug addict… For instance, I had an aunt, she was a drug addict. She floated for 20 years because she never hit rock bottom. It never was so serious that you could say anything, even if you had an idea, if you suspected she was high on crack.
You couldn’t say anything because you couldn’t catch her smoking it. It didn’t show up on her drug tests, you know. Her life was never seriously effected.
But one minute she slipped up. She was pregnant; she couldn’t kick it; and she smoked it; and it showed up in her kid’s system.
She hit rock bottom and it is like: ‘You are a fucking drug addict! You potentially put your child’s life at risk! And we are going to take your child away. The cat is out of the bag, You are horrible.’
That is when she had to change her life and that is what I am saying for America.
We have had all this racism; we have had all this prejudice; we have had all this angst towards each other, forever.
When we have these presidents, we say, 'OK, maybe it is on the up.' We ignore the issues we have with each other and just focus on life, you know?
It is like the fucking homeless guy. You walk by, you just keep on going. You can’t be bothered; you have your own shit to do.
But when everyone is at that point when everyone is fucked up: we are all going to have to take a step back and say like, ‘Oh fuck!’
We have to address these actual issues in order to fix this shit. [There is] something, for me, a little exciting about that.
I thought that happened about seven years ago in 2008.
What happened then?
You know, the economic meltdown.
Umm, I’m not just talking about the economics, because the problem is not just economic—I am not saying our economics are perfect. We are having social, racial political issues.
People here do not like each other; people are calling each other names, and doing things. There is a double standard in this country for everyone. The only way it is going to be addressed is when the shit gets so horrible.
For instance, all these police officers killing black people. The shit is not new; it has been happening; it is just that everyone now has a fucking cell phone with a video camera on it.
So now, even people who would not talk about anything having to do with black men being targeted, or stop and frisked, everyone is raising an eyebrow and going ‘Whoa!’ We are starting to hit rock bottom, as far as this situation is concerned.
It is so bad now you cannot ignore it; you have to have some sort of opinion about it. You are not going to go to dinner with a bunch of smart people and not have that topic come up.
Whereas 20 years ago, you could have dinner and sniff coke and talk about everything else: your wife and kids and job and you never talk about the black dude who got shot down the street because it wasn’t in your face.
Well, where I lived we talked about it and the murder rate was much worse when I was growing up.
Right. I guess it depends. We are not talking about guys like you, though. I am talking about the soccer moms—that average, everyday, non-informed, live-in-their-bubble sort, you know.
Sure, sure, I know, I know. The thing is, yeah, it is a very complex multifactorial thing. We have been dealing with race for a long time but it is a lot worse some years.
You can go behind your block, 24th and Chestnut, that is where I shot the dudes with the guns [for the Oakland Museum short]. Yeah, right there [points]. You go back there right now—
I go back there all the time.
You go back there right now and you walk up to any man on the street and say, ‘What do you think about what is happening in Syria?’ They would have something to tell you. They know.
Twenty years ago, if you asked, ‘What do you think about what is happening in Iraq?’ They might not know. I am just saying, generally, people are more informed about what is happening in the world.
You can go to Berkeley, Montclair, and ask a white woman, a soccer mom, ‘What do you think about black men getting shot in the street?’ She will have something to say. Whether it is what you want to hear or not, she will have something to say.
She WILL say what you want to hear. People are very supportive. Berkeley is ridiculous.
Maybe a while ago, they wouldn’t know.
Well, in this area, they have always thought of that. Berkeley has always been very liberal, next [door] to Oakland.
Yeah, that is true.
Yeah, but it is a cyclical thing that comes up and has to be dealt in terms of its contemporary issues.
A lot of people are trying to deal with it. Whether they are dealing with it in a proactive honest way, that is shooting for the stars rather than for the status quo, that is what I wonder.
I think Oakland has to work it out. It is a very good laboratory to work it out, all the perspectives. You know, it has a large underclass but it also has quite a large [number of] wealthy people, up on the hills, and a fairly substantial middle class.
Didn’t used to be that way, like out in East Oakland, you felt like you were out in an enormous, you know, ghetto, basically.
Yeah, a sprawling one!
Like Castlemount High School. I went out there and shot one time and there was not a single white kid out there in the whole high school. But, nevertheless, it was still Latino, black and Asian, so it was still multicultural, in its own way.
I interviewed a guy who made a film just up here [pointing], in Ghost Town [‘From Ghost Town to Havana’, Eugene Corr, 2015]. You know, um, really put upon, abused kids, a lot of family members had been shot.
It is a very rough life but because it is California, it is not like Harlem [in the ‘60s] when I was playing Little League there. There is an opening, a way of getting out.
You know, they offer a lot of programs. Then they got cut back [under Bush] But there is always this tendency to bring in programs in California. People who are activist, who support their kids [can get ahead].
I was talking about Castlemount [high school] one time at a party in Alameda [an island next to Oakland]. The women next to me said, ‘I am the career councilor there.’ She’s a hip white chick, 35. She claims she got 25 kids into Ivy League schools. Of course, the percent is low, they have 2000 students, say. Nevertheless, they have advanced placement and some good students and they are proud of what they did.
California is really fucked up. On one hand, Watts, Compton—these are oppressive places. But, nevertheless, there is a national forest right over here; there are beaches and there are businesses. It is an enormous economy— eighth biggest in the world. It is not like being in Newark or Camden or something.
Yes, East Coast ghettos are different. I was in Compton, shooting, and I was, like, ‘This looks like a very nice place.’
Remember ‘Boys in the Hood’ ? That was a fabulous film, the whole story was build on the notion it doesn’t look that bad from a distance but—
But shit is really hurting!
It is the same thing [all over]. But that is the intensity of California. Of course, a lot of people put America down for all the guns and killings. I am sure in Finland—
They don’t have that!
Yeah, and they put us down for that… BUT the thing about California is: it is a bizarre mix.
And Oakland is the essence of it.
I go to this Lake Chabot Family Campground. It is right above East Oakland—only four miles [away]! You can’t hear a thing from there.
It is paradise and foxes are running around.
And, ah, Europeans come there. They see on their little guides and they book it in advance and they stay there and it is, like, gorgeous.
The contrast! The idea that you have these beaches, then you have these heavy ghettos, and you have this enormous tech industry, and you have these marijuana farms—it is bizarre.
It is a weird place.
It is a very extreme thing. And in the middle of it, as you were talking about earlier, people are spaced-out, lackadaisical, even.
Yeah. It is strange place. That is what scared me. In my mind, when I used to think of California as a kid, and gang culture was a big thing, you would hear about the Crips and Bloods. I am like, ‘I never want to go to LA.’
People would say, ‘Why?’ I would say, ‘First off, you go to a black neighborhood and you could be hooked into some bullshit. And secondly, if you are not from there, how the fuck do you know!?!’
You know what I mean? I don’t know if this is a Crip block and that is a Blood block?
In New York, it is very clear, you know when you are in a bad place. When you are on Park Avenue, you know, 'This is where money is!' You go to 155 Street, to the Polo Grounds Projects, you know, 'You are in a project—be careful!'
I am not saying there not blocks where it is sketchy or unclear.
I had some friends who lived on 95th and Park [in Manhattan] in an enormous duplex penthouse. And then, after 96 Street, you were right in it.
Right. But here the hood can look like suburbia.
That’s ‘Boys in the Hood’.
Compton—I was just there, this year—I am talking green grass, mowin’ lawns. I am like, ‘What the fuck?” There are parts of East Oakland that make Compton look like Disneyland.
[But bad] shit is happening all the time there—all the fucking time!
I know, I know, and that is the irony of it. They’re Californian. They are Californian black people; they moved there about 70 years ago from Louisiana and those are their roots, their culture, but it is still California, one glued on the other.
The same thing, you go to the Italian neighborhood or the Chinese. I just drove through Chinatown [in SF]. It looks like Disneyland but it really is Chinatown. At one point—I was taking some tourists [from India] around—I pointed out [saying:] ‘Look at that kid, just a poor Chinese kid being dragged by his mother to his piano lesson or something.’
He is not a gentrifier; he lives there in this old Chinese ghetto, which has been here for 150 years.
But it is all in California. That is why California is this multicultural dream. It is not like the Old South where there are these ancient hierarchies—although Atlanta and a few places are pretty amazing. Nevertheless, there has been more opportunity here than other places. It is not like the East.
Oakland has a history of being hard hit, with problems in the ‘60s, the Crack ‘80s. Nevertheless, Oakland is still, you know, it has some opportunities, things going on that have sustained it: the Federal Building, all the hospitals, the—
California is strange to me, in that regard. You don’t know where you are at, sometimes.
Then you have the California penal system, which is enormous. If you have the horrible luck to fall into that motherfucker then you are in, like, total hell. It is bizarre. I have contemplated that on numerous occasions—not that I have been arrested. I hear the stories; I look at the numbers: Pelican Bay is a weird penal colony up there [in Northern California].
That is the most negative, insane side of California. But I have kid coming over tomorrow. He is the son of friend; he floats around; he lives on SSI—that is another side of California.
Why is he coming?
His father is sending me a package—he is picking it up. I will take him out to dinner.
The marijuana business is a whole 'nother world. It is a $20 billion dollar business, bigger than film—and that is whole 'nother world. They are all here together.
[The north part of] Northern California is a whole ‘nother thing—kind of primitive, like Oregon, the North-West. A lot of Indians up there, actually. In California, we are used to big, beautiful roads—asphalt, gravel. Up there, all of sudden, little roads, like being in Guatemala. Super-cool, another country.
I like to take road trips. I might advertise one in cineSOURCE. I call it 'The Four-Season Five-Day Tour'. In five days you do Santa Barbara, the desert [flowere] and you go skiing. There is so much beauty and it is cheap: you can camp out for a couple of the nights.
Cool. Mind if I smoke another cigarette?
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Dec 11, 2016 - 03:24 PM