April 20, 2017
Please contact us
or breaking news
Made in the Bay Area: April Round-Up
by Joanne Butcher
Dolores Huerta, one of the great farmworker activists, in a '60s-era photo. photo: courtesy D. Huerta
THE BAY AREA IS RICH IN FILMMAKING.
Over the last three weeks, I have seen four feature films all made here, with at least half a dozen more coming in May, as well as several film festivals that highlight local filmmaking, such as the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Oakland International Film Festival.
As far as I am concerned, any filmmaker that completes a feature film is a hero! So, yes, I am completely biased!
Also, what does it take to make a film here? What are the pros and cons of making movies in the Bay Area? What follows is a brief round-up of these films from a filmmaking perspective.
Director: Peter Bratt; Producer: Brian Benson; Documentary
Even before the San Francisco screening of "
" started, the boisterous crowd was chanting in appreciation of the organist at the Castro Theater. And their excited anticipation was not disappointed.
“Dolores,” which recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, made a triumphant return to its hometown with a warm welcome to its local heroes. Much loved writer/producer/director, Peter Bratt, (“Follow me Home,” “La Mission,”) is working at the height of his creative powers in this documentary celebration of speaking truth to power.
Dolores Huerta (lft), Peter Bratt (rt), director of 'Dolores', and guitarist Carlos Santana at Sundance Film Festival, 2017. photo: courtesy P. Bratt
The film is a portrait of Dolores Huerta, which actively seeks to right the wrong that this leader of the farmworkers’ movement, who was equal to Cesar Chavez on every level, has been written out of history.
If Dolores’ story were not profoundly moving enough, the extraordinary filmmaking was. Director Peter Bratt is a master of the craft, and along with Jesse Dana’s exuberant cinematography and Jessica Congdon’s superb editing, “Dolores” makes for a documentary of exceptional storytelling power.
At the end of the film, the audience was again clapping in time to a joyous, closing montage that visually places Dolores Huerta on stages speaking on a microphone, intercut with images of dancers and musicians in performance. This sequence refers to another sacrifice she made in her gift of her own life to the people she was called to help—giving up her love of dance and music.
And when the credits began, the entire audience rose to its feet and continued that rhythmic clapping through the entire—and very long—credit sequence.
An experience I have never had before in a cinema, it felt as though the revolution was going to begin, right there and then! We would march out onto Castro Street and make our voices heard. That didn’t actually happen, but it was a joyous moment of great cinematic achievement.
Afterwards, Dolores Huerta, almost 87 years old, spoke with a power and physical vitality that is simply amazing. She continues to work vigorously on the civil rights issues that have moved her for her entire life through the
Dolores Huerta Foundation
. “Dolores” will open theatrically in September and is being distributed by PBS.
Ex-inmate Harrison graduates in 'Life After Life' by Tamara Jenkins. photo: courtesy T. Jenkins
Life After Life, 2017
Director: Tamara Perkins; Cinematographer/Co-producer: Jesse Dana; Documentary
Life After Life
” is a strong, character-driven film that follows three men, paroled from San Quentin Prison after serving life sentences for murder.
We laugh with them at their confusion with how much the world has changed ever since they were first incarcerated decades ago as teenagers. There were no cell phones, very little Internet, hence, even a trip on a bus can cause panic attacks.
We cry with them as they experience life on the outside with all its emotional highs and lows, and as they reminisce about their past and what they have lost.
What becomes clear as we watch the three stories skillfully woven together, is that for someone to come such a lengthy spiritual journey from the ultimate violence, through total acceptance and remorse for their crimes, to becoming a leader in the community, is a remarkable distance. While the film deals with a painful subject, it is profoundly uplifting.
A story of extraordinary human beings, “Life After Life” is also a great critique of, and education in, the flaws of the prison system in this country.
Kudos to Tamara Jenkins for sticking with this heartfelt project for ten years and the great team she put together! Documentaries often tell stories that are so necessary for the community, their value can simply not be overstated.
Edwin Li does good work playing the central role in 'The Purple Onion'. photo: courtesy M. Szymanowski
The Purple Onion, 2017
Director: Matt Szymanowski ; Starring: Edwin Li and Noreen Lee; Narrative
Although the Hollywood Reporter wrote a pretty harsh review of “
The Purple Onion
”, I find their criticisms pretty useless. Indeed, Matt Szymanowski’s first feature film, starring Edwin Li and Noreen Lee and shot in and around San Francisco, is worth viewing.
I am always fascinated to see what a first time filmmaker can do with a teeny budget and a lot of resourcefulness, otherwise known as producing.
I accept that the script is insufficient for a really compelling story, within which the characters can develop, but a review focusing solely on plot is painting only a portion of the picture.
Indeed, "The Purple Onion" has some exceptional elements, which can only bode well for Szymanowski’s future.
First of all, Symanowski found some real stand-outs to participate in his film. There’s Bartosz Nalazek—Symanowski’s colleague from Film School in Poland—who provides superb cinematography and already has an impressive resume.
Secondly, we see a side of San Francisco that locals will love. Not the sexy shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and other cliches necessary in any Hollywood movie set here, but the fog rolling over hills and rows of houses, the endless rides around on public transportation, and a beloved performance venue now lost in our current story of development.
Thirdly, the Edwin Li and Noreen Lee performances are excellent. Szymanowski’s choices around shooting all Li’s on-stage scenes using extreme close ups and non-synched sound works incredibly well. Scenes of Lee’s efforts at getting work are funny and well-observed. Finally, Dan Cantrell’s incredible soundtrack is worthy of its own album.
It may seem obvious, but without a first-class script, there is no chance of making a first-class movie. Conversely, no matter how small the budget, the cheapest work any filmmaker can do to elevate their film is to re-write and re-re-write that script!
A birthday party among Africa residents of China from 'Guangzhou Dream Factory'. photo: courtesy C. Badgley
Guangzhou Dream Factory, 2017
Director/Producer, Christiane Badgley; Producer, Erica Marcus; Documentary
Christiane Badgley and Erica Marcus each have 20 years of documentary filmmaking under their belts, in film and television. They are accomplished filmmakers and fundraisers.
Guangzhou Dream Factory
" explores the phenomenon of entrepreneurial Africans living in China and pursuing the goal of economic success. The documentary begins with great vitality and hope as Africans find that riding the wave of economic growth in China to be an exhilarating journey. But as the movie progresses it turns out that the full picture is considerably darker.
First, the reasons the Africans are seeking out opportunities is because of the appalling lack of them at home. Second there is a huge market that offers business opportunities to Africans in China that have the sole goal of fleecing them of all their money, and that often turn out to be a cover for prostitution and human trafficking. There are many victims of this kind of fraud.
Then, the immigrants who have achieved some level of success, perhaps even married Chinese wives and had children, start to have difficulties with visas, get into trouble with the authorities and are even forced to flee the country and imprisonment. As the troubles mount and squeeze the Africans more and more tightly, it’s difficult to imagine that this special moment of 21st century globalization and economic adventure may have long to survive.
Combining their decades of production experience, Badgley and Marcus have explored a niche subject that falls well within their areas of expertise. What their vast knowledge shows us is a slice of life we would never have the privilege of witnessing without this film.
While the story of economic immigration is one that is fundamental to human history and development, the specifics of life in China for Africans looking for a better life is contemporary in the extreme. It is rare to catch a glimpse of today’s China from such an ordinary perspective: to see how average people live. And it’s also a great opportunity to listen and learn about the hopes, dreams and aspirations of Africans (and any immigrant) in the global economy.
The filmmakers particularly want to acknowledge that major funding for the film was received from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and that both these agencies are being targeted by the Trump White House for zero funding along with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences.
Here are some useful links for community engagement on these issues:
Save the Endowments
Please show your support for these agencies and their support of artists, scholars and storytelling through these hash tags: #NEHMatters, #FundtheArts #SavetheNEA
After decades in a quaint old-timey HQ in the Mission, Dolby moved to a world-class modernist building with equivalent theater at Market and 9th, San Francisco. photo: courtesy Dolby
Dolby Cinema and the San Francisco Film Festival
The new Dolby Cinema on Market Street is not open to the public, generally speaking, so I jumped at the chance to see “Score” (2016, dir. Matt Schrader), a lush exploration of the history of film scoring with a special emphasis on large orchestral recordings. Wonderful as the film was, however, it was all an excuse to experience the theater—and what an experience it was!
As you enter from the lobby, there is a corridor with a ceiling that puffs out jets of air, before you turn left and enter through two heavy—and no doubt—very sound-proofed doors, a feature that is going the way of tape-cassettes in mainstream theaters.
Someone had spoken to me with excitement about the large, comfy seats, but they were nothing to me compared to the sound. A programmer from the San Francisco Film Festival introduced the film on a microphone and the sound was crystal clear without any distortion. It was as if there was a palpable silence around the voice.
Then the demo began...
It explains that we are about to experience the new Dolby Vision and Atmos sound. It visually illustrates how we hear sound from hundreds of locations throughout the theater and then demonstrates, by having sound swirl around us from left to behind to right, or drenches us in the thundering physicality of heavy rain that reverberates through our entire bodies. The experience is incredibly physical.
Then, the demo explains, what we are seeing is the fantastically large screen entirely black, with a large white circle in the middle of the screen. “What you think you are seeing, is black,” the voice of God intones. “It is not!” Boom! Your whole body shudders, and what apparently was black, switches to black of an entirely different caliber of blackness.
IT’S SO COOL!!!!!
Although the remainder of the demo talks about apparently heady topics such as contrast and luminescence, color and light, frankly, it is dazzling. Even a gorgeous movie about Hollywood scoring seemed to use only a little of the cinema’s capabilities, so it will be fascinating to see what happens over time as filmmakers learn to work with this expansion of possibilities.
Joanne Butcher is a coach/consultant working with independent filmmakers to create critically successful films that make money! She can be reached at her
Posted on Apr 19, 2017 - 02:10 PM