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People Power Media Expands in Oakland
by Doniphan Blair
Filmmaker Rafael Flores in front of United Roots, the co-creative space where he works, which is part of Oakland's new media-to-the-people movement. photo: D. Blair
PEOPLE POWERED MEDIA HAS BEEN
booming across Oakland. Indeed, Bobby Seale, the venerable Black Panther chairman, who is now 78 and was always the more multicultural of his colleagues—“All power to ALL the people” is his version of the famous saying—is currently raising money to produce his feature: “Seize the Time: The Eighth Defendant,” see the end of
Despite cutbacks in Oakland's film commission and commercial production over the last few years, there’s tons going on, from the city’s “people-owned” television station, KTOP, to Zala Films, the hardest-working doc company around AND a new phenomena, media workshops for young people, which are springing up all over.
“I would say two years ago every one started acquiring space in downtown Oakland and creating not collectives but co-creative workspaces or labs—a trendy word they use,” I was told recently by Rafael Flores, a local filmmaker, producer and teacher, whose last project was the stylish and tragic “
Amor for Alex
”, in response to the "Black/Brown Lives Matter" movement.
“It has to do with property prices. You have people like Pandora [Internet radio] coming in and people from San Francisco.”
“I was a consultant for one,
[16th/Broadway]. They sell a membership for you to come in and do your work. Then there’s
Oakland Impact Hub
[24th/Broadway], a really big co-creative workspace.” Now he’s involved with
, at 28th & Telegraph, run by the talented multi-tasker Galen Silvestri.
Galen Silvestri runs United Roots, with some grants from Silicon Valley, including a program with young people providing web design to help local businesses. photo: D. Blair
Alas, these outfits follow a fairly standard pay-to-play procedure, although there are discounts and scholarships. Flores, on the other hand, is also involved with a working media collective, a rarity this side of the 1970s since filmmaking is so auteur-oriented. Indeed, an Internet search showed only a dozen media collectives world-wide, mostly in India.
Green Eyed Media
fluctuates. It has a core group of 20 folks living in Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco and Los Angeles—each city has their own regional director. Not funded [externally], it is completely based on the contracted work people bring in.”
“A capitalist-socialist interface?” I inquired.
“Of sorts... What is interesting about our model, since it is run out of people’s homes, we actually provide housing. A lot of the [Green Eyed Media affiliates] have become autonomous self-sustainable production houses, if you will.”
To be sure, cooperatively is how filmmakers often organize themselves, on the freelance level. Nevertheless, Flores eschews excess producer's salary—even though producers do a ton of work, from all the calling, monitoring and managing to the fundamental selection of talent. Some even consider themselves the real auteurs.
Conversely, he sees a lot of producers taking sometimes exorbitant fees from the projects now flooding out of social-sponsored media programs, particularly in New York and Los Angeles, where they are trying to play catchup on the "Lives Matter" movement.
Sound/visual artist Ise Lyfe (rt), with one of his student co-workers, in front of their massive mural piece in KTOP's 'Brighter Than Blight' documentary. photo: KTOP
In May, with Flores directing, and Green Eyed Media and Shear Genius Production supporting, they shot “Tears in your Eyes”, a short for a national anti-domestic violence campaign. It features
A.S.H.E.S the Chosen
, a Seattle-bred emcee, his band and their energetic, if enigmatic, blend of soulful hip-hop and folk revival.
Lucena Herrera, who had a secondary part in the award-winning “Fruitvale Station” (2013), and Soma Mitra and Blake Fosenburg act in the three-part video, which also features Brynn Braxton and her husband and co-songwriter Sean Braxton.
Meanwhile down at KTOP, Oakland’s municipal television station, things are cooking despite cuts in staff and funding. In addition to covering the City Council meetings for all city residents to see—including the out-of-control meeting in April, disrupted by protestors protesting the police reaction to an earlier protest!—KTOP is creating more of its own content.
One striking piece is “Brighter than Blight”, directed and shot by Michael Munson, the station director, and produced by Shomari Smith, which follows Oakland councilperson Desley Brooks as she brings together Oakland's Housing Authority and the artist Ise Lyfe. Together they transformed an East Oakland apartment building slated for the wrecking ball into a temporary but vital art exhibition concerning community-themes.
“First they painted it completely black,” Meadow Holmes, another KTOP producer/editor, told me when we met in March. “It was a two-story building—the entire thing was really beautiful, covered in photos that Ise Lyfe [pronounced "Ice Life"] manipulated. In one unit they replicated a grandma’s house. [In another,] they put in students’ desks.”
Enthused by the results, KTOP turned towards something more ambitious, the anti-underage prostitution movement currently emerging in Oakland, in a video titled "Bought and Sold." Subject matter abounded, including an Oakland police/FBI task force, a phrase that used to strike terror locally but is now being praised (see
Contra Costa Times article
Holly Joshi, who works undercover in the OPD, talking about underage prostitution in the city's inhouse doc, 'Bought and Sold'. photo: OPD
“We were going to do a ten minute piece on these billboards,” a public service campaign showing a child’s backpack and sneakers to highlight the problem's horrific underage aspects, “But then Mike [Munson] came to me with footage—I do the editing—and I said this is much bigger story.”
“We had a lot of really intense stories,” she effused. “Holly Joshi did a lot of undercover work—I thought her [interview] was very moving."
"Holly really speaks to all the different ways that makes it easy for Oakland to [be a prostitution center]: the port, long streets, lots of hotels and motels—different then a small town where you would have one truck stop.”
“We decided to do an education piece, letting people know that what they are seeing isn’t really prostitution. There was no judgment about prostitution but if the girls are underage and they can’t consent, it is not prostitution, it is rape,” Ms Holmes continued.
"A lot of time, these are underage girls doing it against their will or they have been mind-warped, when the pimps create this power structure over them. [Arresting them] doesn’t seem to help. The pimp is waiting for them when they get out or they are the ones who pay the bail."
"You need more wraparound services. The co-founders of
[an advocate group] speak nicely to that.”
When they premiered "Bought and Sold" in Oakland's council chambers, a lot of people said, "I had no idea." although others worried about representing Oakland poorly.
Cowboy singer Jack Hannah is featured in timely music video about the California drought by Zala Films, Oakland's hardest working doc production company. photo: Zala Films
KTOP is also caught between the two stools of running a 24-hour "people's station," which needs lots of content, and making films to send out to festivals or otherwise distribute, which contradicts their municipal mandate. Meanwhile, festivals generally generally insist on first run pieces.
“But Oakland is similar to many big cities and small cities," says Holmes, summarizing why their mandate should be changed to let "Bought and Sold" and other work go out to larger audiences.
"We are having it translated into Spanish and our neighborhood service corps [is] taking it out as an educational resource. That to me is really exciting.”
Another KTOP piece concerned Tanya Holland, of Brown Sugar Kitchen fame, and a bake-off at Oakland’s
Digital Arts and Culinary
, another media workshop for young people, in East Oakland this time and with the interesting twist of pairing those studies with cooking. Seven kids competed while Ms Holland served as the celebrity chef and judge.
Meanwhile George Paul Csicsery and his associates at
, have been hard at work, mostly on their specialty—math-oriented films—but also a lot more.
“In 2015 we completed a Cinderella story,” Csicsery told me recently, “about an unknown mathematician who made a breakthrough on an old math problem [and was] catapulted to fame.”
Produced with Berkeley’s Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), "
Counting from Infinity: Yitang Zhang and the Twin Prime Conjecture
" started shooting in 2013 and premiered in January, 2015, with Bay Area shows at SF's Exploratorium on May 14 and Berkeley's Rialto Elmwood on May 21.
The biggest project on Zala’s plate now is the one-hour doc “
Navajo Math Circles
“ about math workshops and camps on the Navajo reservation where they blend standard math with traditional Native American ideas about mathematics. It is also supported by MSRI.
In addition to several Navajo crew members, Zala brought in longtime collaborator and veteran Oakland cinematographer Ashley James, who used to run KTOP, in fact. They completed two week-long shoots in the rugged Arizona terrain and will return for pickups in the fall.
A illustration from the eclectic gathering honoring mathematician Martin Gardner, the subject of one of Zala Films major, multiyear doc. photo: G. Csicrery
“In March 2014, I was able to participate in another dream project,” Csicsery told me, "coordinating production of a large-scale documentation of the bi-annual Gathering4Gardner event in Atlanta, Georgia."
"It is the wildest collection of people, all dedicated to the memory of math writer Martin Gardner," said Csicrery, laughing. "The gathering pulls in people from a dozen fields—recreational math, skeptics, philosophers, magicians, puzzle and game designers, sculptors, and artists of all stripes—a one-of-a-kind, invitation-only event. And, this year, it was fully documented by a five-camera crew!"
With over 120 talks and dozens of stand-alone pieces destined for various sites and YouTube, Csicsery and his editors will have their hands full well into 2016.
They are also continuing a historical project started a decade ago, "
Angel of Mercy
", about Sister Margit Slachta, a Hungarian nun who saved 1,000 Jewish children during the Holocaust. Last year, Csicsery presented an 18-minute sample at a Florida conference and at Toronto’s Holocaust Education week.
And he started collaborating with San Francisco videographer Skip Sweeney of Video Free America on a
film about James Cahill
, the Berkeley art history scholar and expert on Chinese and Japanese art, and Tal Skloot, of Tritone Films, doing a noirish
for Robert Roper’s murder mystery "The Savage Professor".
The most recent Zala piece is a very timely music video addressing California’s drought, “
The Gold in California
”, and featuring the singing cowboy Jack Hannah.
"This footage had been sitting in my drive since it was shot in 2009 by Warren Hack," Csicsery said with a chuckle. “It was one of those things that was fermenting for years,” he added, perhaps with a message for all of us: “I guess it was the right time to get it out there.”
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on May 20, 2015 - 01:55 PM