Mar 28, 2017
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Oakland International Does It Again
by Doniphan Blair
David Roach, who has been running the Oakland International Film Festival for 14 years, at the Jack London cabin, near where next year's festival will be held. photo: D. Blair
WHILE OAKLAND HAS HAD SOME
sports’ losses and police scandals recently, The Oakland International Film Festival, now its 14th year, is steady as it goes. Transpiring two months ago, in April, the OIFF had more films then usual, 52 compared to last year’s 45, which obliged an extra day. And, as opposed to last year, when they had screenings across the East Bay, they focused on Oakland.
“Just being at Holy Names [University, Oakland] was really special,” festival director David Roach told me, when we met at Jack London’s cabin (shipped in from Alaska), two blocks east of Jack London Square. “We had day screenings and [entire] classes would come.”
“Sometimes Oakland is not seen as a beautiful city,” Roach said, as we sat down near the cabin, next to the wolf sculpture. “But this is really beautiful,” he said, gesturing at the surrounding boats and restaurants.
Indeed, next year, Roach and his team—about ten people throughout the year plus a bunch of volunteers during the event—plan to hold the festival entirely around Jack London Square, the mere name of which suggests the arts, story telling, opposing injustice and, of course, adventure—in this case, the adventure of filmmaking.
Indeed, the OIFF combined all of those elements in this year's opening night film, “From Ghost Town to Havana” (2015), a documentary by Berkeley filmmaker Gene Cobbs. It looks at a youth baseball league organized by Roscoe Bryant, who draws kids from the East Bay’s worst areas, raises the money and does most of the work.
Filmmaker Eugene Corr (lft) and Coach Roscoe Bryant near a Havana ball field from 'Ghost Town to Havana'. photo courtesy E. Corr
But instead of driving to San Francisco, where some Oakland kids have never been and Bryant often takes them on their first day, they traveled to Cuba and played youngsters, also impoverished, if more protected by that country’s socialized medicine, see
“It is a fabulous film,” Roach said. “It tells of a park in Richmond that was abandoned. We want to get involved with the City of Richmond and bring baseball back to that park, using that film.” Indeed, film as a vehicle for social activism is a central interest of Roach's.
“We think we can get a lot of workshops and panels going on simultaneously, and bring a lot of business to Oakland," he enthused about next year's festival. "We are not far from the hotels of Old Oakland and downtown, as well as Jack London Square’s venues, and there are ferries that connect Oakland and SF.”
Indeed, OIFF’s star has been steadily rising, even if financial support is still spotty. In 2015, Mayor Libby Schaaf introduced “East Side Sushi”, the indie feature by Oakland native Anthony Lucero (2014), see
, which joined with Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale” (2013) to become a huge film for Oakland.
“We didn’t have any big local feature like two or three years ago, when we showed ‘Licks’ [2013, J. Singer-Vine, see
], which recently got distribution,” Roach said. For its part, “East Side Sushi” is now on Amazon, iTunes and Netflix and about to release on Latin America’s Cinépolis.
This year’s big film was "Njinga, the Queen of Angola” (2014), from Portugal and directed by Sergio Graciano, see trailer
. About one of history’s most heroic queens, who fought the Portuguese for 40 years, freed a region of Angola and made it a free state during the slave trade years, it played at the Grand Lake Theater, always a popular OIFF venue.
One of the OIFF's biggest films was the historical thriller 'Njinga, the Queen of Angola', 2014, from Portugal. photo: D. Blair
“We had an amazing session dealing with education,” said Roach, recalling some of the festival highlights. Held at the Impact Hub, at 2323 Broadway, and one of Oakland's dozen new "art hubs," it featured “Misguided Altruism” by Oji Singleterry, an LA filmmaker, see trailer
“Misguided Altruism” focuses on Singleterry’s teacher Dr. Ozel Brazil, who helped get over 20,000 black and Latino students into college. Unfortunately, to avoid college loan burdens, he advised parents to transfer their children’s guardianship to poorer grandparents, to qualify for more financial aid. He ended up doing three and half years prison time, which many think he didn’t deserve.
Attending the education session along with Singleterry was Chris Chapman, head of African-American Male Achievement, an organization emerging from Oakland’s Unified School District, which supports boys struggling with school. Their documentary, “The Kingmakers” (2015), by Oakland filmmaker Tyale Tiaumba, showed how they help boys to see themselves as kings and learn to help one another.
“It countered some of the stereotypes,” Roach said. “Tiaumba runs a program that has gotten high accolades. They also have a fellowship program for young filmmakers learning how to make documentary called Changemakers.”
“Where are you supposed to start to have more equal opportunity in education?” Roach wondered. “Given the history of African-Americans, where education was denied through slavery for 400 years? It was really powerful to bounce ideas off each other’s past experience with the education system,” recalled Roach.
Dr. Brazil, the subject of 'Misguided Altruism' by LA documentarian Oji Singleterry. photo: courtesy O. Singleterry
Another education related piece was Kelly Amos’s documentary short ”Imagine Calvin” (2015). “She saw a picture of [the boy] in a class with kids who have Downs Syndrome and she said, ‘Wait a minute, why would he be in a class like this?’” Roach explained.
After getting permission from the child’s mother to advocate for him at school, the school's vice principle went through the boy’s file and told Amos, “There is nothing in this file that would put this child in Special Ed.” Unfortunately, a lot of African-American boys are put in Special Ed. for behavioral issues and many get so far behind they can’t graduate.
“One amazing piece,” exclaimed Roach, “was a film about women soccer players in Zanzibar,” “New Generation Queens” (2014) by Megan Shutzer, see
. “You have a country that is about 98% Muslim; you have Muslim men saying, ‘This is against our culture.’ You have women saying, ‘This is great exercise. We want to play soccer!’ It was really well shot.”
“Sports as a bridge!” he continued. “Years ago, we showed a film about [Nelson] Mandela showing that the South Africa soccer team was one of the major forces to unite South Africa. He took a lot of criticism for that.”
“Another Muslim young lady did an amazing short about the path towards education,” Roach said. “She lives here in America and attends UC Berkeley, while being from Yemen and seeing that country go through war. During the Q&A she talked about how she was focused on getting her education and bringing it back to Yemen.”
Another film Roach recommended highly was about the “Green Book”, which let black people know where they could stay while traveling throughout the US, but primarily the South. Called “
100 Miles to Lordsburg
” and directed by Karen Borger, who was there for Q&A, it is about a couple on the road and the woman is about to have her baby in the car,—yet no one will let them rent a room!
Roach can wax incredibly enthusiastic about his festival's films. photo: D. Blair
Another excellent documentary concerned the largest African-America cooperative in the US, a food cooperative in Mississippi, which developed networks with churches and credit unions, as well as all of those with likeminded cooperative spirit, to survive.
“Agri is a huge industry in California,” noted Roach. “But we have food insecurity in the cities. When we loose our farmers, we lose our source for food—that was part of the post-film discussion. There has been an increase in black farmers, mostly in urban farmers, [helped by] the Pigford v. Glickman settlement, which Obama extended for a couple of years, a $2.3 billion lawsuit against the USDA for denying loans to African America farmers.”
Will Scott, the president of the
African-American Farmers of California
attended the festival, bringing late-breaking news. About a third of one percent of California’s 96,000 farmers, or about 300, are African-American. Truck farmers, they often sell their crops off the back of trucks in West Oakland and elsewhere.
“We showed a film both last and this year, ‘The TDK Continues’, about an Oakland graffiti artist who was murdered. They had a whole crew, growing up and knowing each other. TDK stands for ‘those damn kids,’ but later it became the ‘the dream continues.’ They all paid tribute to this one muralist. They showed him, his son, his community of artists and the places in Oakland, which are now landmarks of his work.”
“It is that voice that we often times don’t hear. But artists have found ways to put things on the walls, talk about their experience,” Roach said. “It was really special to have that film at Holy Names. The students were talking about it a lot.”
“There was a filmmaker who had an amazing film about the culture of fighting and boxing. Although she is from LA, she went to Skyline High School in Oakland and her first film was in the Oakland International. One the guys who helped her, was her teacher, Sam Styles, who is on our board—so it was like a reunion,” Roach related.
The logo for this year's Oakland International Film Festival was one of the coolest designs in years. illo: courtesy OIFF
“A lot of little things this year were exciting. We had some really good narrative short films. David Sessos’s film dealt with a simple guy. Growing up, his father passed away [but] then this new guy, a bike storeowner, comes into his life and they go fishing. The bike storeowner’s son was messing up and drinking so the father preferred the other kid—a simple story but about a boy assuming responsibility.”
Two Oakland filmmaker brothers had a short called, not surprisingly, “Brother”, which used "special effects, a little blood and quality cinematography. It is really hot,” Roach said. “Now it is blowing up on line. They entered ‘Strange Things’ last year.”
“Speaking of filmmakers returning, Robert Philipson, had a feature doc that everyone was talking about, “Body and Soul: An American Bridge”, see his
production company site
, or the
. In the past, Robert has done films with gay themes but this year his film dealt with the connection in jazz between the African-American and Jewish communities. It had one song that many people have done, so you get many versions. While you are watching the film, you get grooving. That was one of the best films.”
Another short of note was by a filmmaker from LA and based on her personal experience. An older brother is trying to get his younger brother away from the gangbangers selling drugs on the corner but ends up getting shot himself. Meanwhile they are both taking care of their mother, who is going through her own issues.
“We showed films and had panel discussions, including James Gardiner, who runs Pajama Music Company, right here in Jack London Square. Gardiner has done a lot of amazing scores for a lot of films,” Roach remarked. “He was able to share information about the industry. Afterwards, he and Robert Philipson were connecting.”
“We were just creating that space where folks could find out about what each other is doing. We closed out with a party at the Shadow Lounge, which is a cool spot around the corner from Jeffrey’s Club [on 14th]. We had a great DJ, dancing the whole night,” Roach concluded, smiling.
When I asked him how he figures out what to do next, he recalled attending Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival in Utah over the last few years.
“You see a lot of things happening in Park City [, Utah] but they also have a lot of things happening in Salt Lake, which is a half an hour away. It is really a matter of finding good venues and places that want to work together which is why we just stayed in Oakland.”
If Oakland invested in its dedicated boosters like David Roach, and the Oakland International Film Festival, it is not hard to imagine what the city might become. photo: D. Blair
“We don’t have many big sponsors, we have partners who will give us space or help promote the festival.”
“But we are not really trying to promote our brand as of yet. Wwe are trying to be more a social justice, more of a green fest that can build community and tie in some young filmmakers, to help get them into the business.”
“We are planning to have some bigger sponsors,” Roach said. “But we want them to be in alignment with supporting filmmakers. We have had SAG [Screen Actors Guild] here, which became a resource for filmmakers, but we are still a small festival. But we are trying to change that by getting more support from the City of Oakland.”
“There are resources at the Cultural Arts grants,” concluded Roach. “Unfortunately, we missed the application date this year, so I can’t really blame them. But we are hoping we can get around that and make it bigger and better in 2017.”
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Jul 10, 2016 - 06:05 PM