Mar 28, 2017
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Film/Theater to the People
by Maria Pecot
It’s Thursday night in Oakland’s Temescal District. Just past Telegraph on 49th Street, hundreds of people have lain down blankets and set up lawn chairs. It’s after nine o’clock, and along with the free popcorn and complimentary cookies, all of the prearranged seating has been taken. Still, neighbors continue to file in. By show time there’s hardly an empty patch of curb to sit on. Welcome to Temescal Street Cinema, Oakland’s latest outdoor film series.
The event, which features weekly independent films by local talent, is the brainchild of Suzanne L’Heureux and Catharina Negrin, two neighbors who sought a way to pull the community together and “take back the streets at night.”
Together, the two women founded the Temescal Street Collective and launched a number of projects – with little success until Negrin suggested they put together a movie night. “In the beginning we started with the focus of community building, it wasn’t about movies,” says L’Heureux, and she explains how film seemed like a natural way to bring people together. “There’s a sense of connection around the stories that we’re all watching together that was a part of the community building aspect that I hadn’t really anticipated.”
Both L’Heureux and Negrin are art teachers – L’Heureux teaches art history at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, and Negrin teaches art to young children at her home pre-school in Oakland. And while they both like films, neither had a background in film prior to embarking on the project. In order to put things together, they used personal connections and grassroots efforts.
A lack industry of experience, coupled with late funding, put them in a delicate situation in terms of programming. “It was maybe April and we didn’t have any films yet, and we had six nights to book all local filmmakers,” says Negrin. But she adds that those local filmmakers were receptive to their vision and within months the duo managed to compile a line-up of top Bay Area films.
Disparate Dreams Realized
La Corona, the Oscar-nominated documentary by Amanda Michelis and Isabel Vega, follows beauty pageant contestants in the most unlikely of places: a Bogot∑, Columbian prison. The character-centered film features a line up of assassins, bank robbers, and thieves, who look more like movie stars than murderers. What’s most compelling about La Corona is not the irony of the subject matter – rather it is how the film exemplifies the incredible resilience of the human spirit, even in the most wretched circumstances.
Sharing similar qualities is Touching Home, the breakthrough drama by identical twins and first-time filmmakers Noah and Logan Miller. The largely-autobiographical story chronicles the twins’ struggle to realize their baseball dreams, while simultaneously coming to terms with their father’s debilitating alcoholism. The Miller brothers wrote, directed, produced, and star in the movie. And, with blind ambition and persistence, they managed to persuade Oscar-Award winning actor Ed Harris to play the role of their father. This year, Touching Home was one of only four films chosen to headline the San Francisco International Film Festival. Sony has offered to pick up Touching Home, which will most likely hit theaters next fall (see May CineSource, page one).
Other selections included Girls Rock! – a critically-acclaimed documentary co-directed by Shane King and Arne Johnson about a real-life school of rock for young women; and Runner’s High, a 2006 documentary co-directed by Justine Jacob and Alex da Silva centered around East Oakland High School students who overcome rough neighborhoods and low expectations as they train to run a marathon.
Runner’s High doesn’t offer the type of feel-good coming-of-age story you get from Hollywood, but the small victories of each student are successes in their own right. The film offers breathtaking views of the Bay Area, amidst a uniquely Oakland story.
Ex-attorney Justine Jacobs says she came up with the idea for the project after her husband received a letter from Students Run Oakland (SRO), the outreach program featured in the film. “I went to some of the workouts and really felt that there was a story that people would want to see.”
In order to make the film engaging, Jacobs chose a character-based model, zeroing in on the lives of a select group of students. There is Ebony, a pretty girl whose main reason for joining the group is the opportunity to go to LA, where the marathon takes place. Edward lives on a street where gunshots and violence are his neighbors. He hopes one day to become a cop, so that he can “get all the bad people off the streets.” Says Jacobs of her choice on style: “It’s not so exciting to watch people running, and so we really had to struggle to strike that balance. [The main objective was] showing how difficult and solitary and long it is to run a marathon but to also make it entertaining and make sure that it moved.”
Since its 2006 debut, Runners High has received critical acclaim and multiple awards. The film has also helped SRO garner a great deal of support and visibility. Perhaps what critics and audiences love most about the film is its candor and honesty. The participants don’t all end up at Ivy League universities, but as SRO coach Alphonso Jackson puts it, “It’s undeniable that the program continues to make a positive impact on their lives. If you can complete a marathon, you can accomplish anything.”
Ebony never did make it to LA, but she now works with youth in Oakland. Edward, who had dreams of becoming a cop, was shot after leaving a party. Since recovering, he joined the US Marine Corps.
Says Jacobs, “My number-one goal is to tell an interesting and entertaining story. The reason I like documentaries so much is that I can do that and have an impact on people’s lives.”
Street Cinema Secures Funding
“Even after we had our film set, we weren’t sure if people were gonna show up,” says Negrin, “but on the first night we had two hundred and fifty people here.”
In light of this year’s success, The Temescal Telegraph Business Improvement District board, which sponsored the event, has approved a budget for next year as well. Negrin says she and L’Heureux plan to make Street Cinema an annual event, in addition to organizing other artistic projects around the community.
Right now the pair are organizing a student mural on the wall of Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. Says Negrin, “It’s all about communication and harnessing the public space and taking ownership of what is ours. The streets are public land, and what we want to do with them is on us.”
Posted on Aug 07, 2008 - 03:52 PM