Gang Wars on a Shoestring 

Mario Bobino's Townbiz successfully traffics in Oakland's criminal mythology.

It was accidental that the release of Mario Bobino's film Townbiz coincided with the Discovery Channel's highly distorted Gang Wars: Oakland. Both chronicle all the sordid things for which Oakland is known: gang violence, prostitution, and the drug economy. But where the other show came from outside producers exploiting the mythology of Oakland, Townbiz is entirely homegrown. And Bobino shot his film "guerilla-style" on a shoestring, $15,000 budget with an all-volunteer cast. He scouted locations in town, figured out a time when people weren't out (usually Sunday morning during church service), and set up decoys to distract the cops. Somehow, he managed to shoot a whole feature-length film of elaborate stunts and violent action sequences, each done in a very short time window. Despite the odds, Townbiz is terrific.

A lot of the movie's success owes to Bobino, who directed, produced, starred in, and co-wrote the film — and is a pretty fascinating character in his own right. Raised in East Oakland's San Antonio district, he grew up playing football and eventually switched gears to earn a BA in media productions at Sacramento State University. At 45 he still cuts an impressive figure: large and efficient, with an earnestness that's kind of endearing. Bobino is now a sportscaster for Oakland Unified School District's KDOL TV station, where he grills players from the Oakland Raiders about their nutritional habits and asks them to dispense time-management advice to aspiring high school athletes. (His show, called "In Bounds," has aired every Thursday since 1996.) He's spent the last two decades making cult films that recall the blaxploitation flicks he watched as a kid — Bobino's oeuvre includes a couple of crime capers, a high school drama inspired by Cooley High, and a "comedy-drama" about two office workers trying to get into the porn industry. Additionally, he works several days a week as a juvenile hall corrections officer, a job that makes him a de-facto role model for young gangbangers. Years of navigating the pro sports and law enforcement realms have taught him how to manage tough personalities and get what he wants.

Thus, Bobino didn't stray too far out of his comfort zone in Townbiz, a shoot-'em-up gang-bang movie with no discernible moral compass. The script — mostly credited to Damon Hart — centers on two rival gangs, the Grimey Boys and the Repo Brothers ("Repo" stands for "Repossession"). The Repo Brothers were two brother-hitmen who reigned supreme in Oakland during the 1980s, but ultimately tried to parlay their gangsterism into the real estate market — not unlike Stringer Bell on The Wire. One of them, Mo Sr. (played by Bobino) moves to a tony mansion in Blackhawk, where he raises a son and daughter who are both infatuated with the culture of violence in Oakland. One night, Mo Jr. (Alphonso Thompson) accidently scratches a Mercedes owned by the Grimey Boys' leader D-Man (Keita Jones), launching a turf war that's actually years in the making. In the months that ensue, women are drugged and kidnapped, men are taken hostage, and the violence escalates to the point that Mo Sr. has to abandon his square life and return to the streets.

Hart, Bobino, and the other members of their company, Debonair Productions, began casting the film in 2007, holding auditions in local high schools and colleges, and on public access TV. They initially had about 200 people interested but whittled it down by eliminating anyone who wanted to get paid or couldn't meet the demands of a rigorous Thursday through Sunday rehearsal schedule. In April of 2008 they began rehearsing at a small studio by Laney College, and shot the film about a year later. That's when things got dicey.

Bobino and co-producer Ramasses Head didn't secure any permits for filming, so they developed their own system. Bobino would find a location a week prior to using it, and get the lay of the land. Usually they'd have about an hour at a time to shoot what often amounted to a complex action sequence with no retakes. To speed things up, they created an assembly-line process for shooting: wide lens first, then medium wide-shot lens, then close-up lens. An assistant would change the lenses while Bobino blocked the actors. Ramasses, meanwhile, would begin conceptualizing the next shot. The final cut contains some very unusual shots (intimate conversations shot from afar, action sequences captured at weird angles, whole scenes without any close-up zoom), all of which are a by-product of this ultra-streamlined methodology.

While his colleagues manned the camera, Debonair Productions manager Jonathan "Fitness" Jones served as a lookout. "If the police would pull up, they would decoy them for a minute, talk to them, and let them know what we were doing so they just wouldn't bust into the middle of our set," said Bobino. If the cops didn't buy it, then Bobino would pull out his correctional officer badge and show that he was one of them. It usually worked, he said.

The crew's worst near-catastrophe happened on the second day of filming, midway through a tricky carjacking scene. All the actors carried pellet guns (Desert Eagles and 9mms) that the crew had painted to look real. Right after Bobino called "Action!" a motorcycle cop pulled up on the car. "The cop was ready to draw," said Bobino. "'I'm like, 'Nooooooooo!'" The cop radioed in some backup, and several patrol cars had pulled up by the time Bobino could get to the scene and flash his badge. "Some of my guys on my sets, they had warrants and what have you — that's just how it was. So them guys got really nervous," said Bobino, who was ultimately able to defuse the situation.

Bobino saw Townbiz to its completion by finding a systematic way to solve any problem. He was able to manage a cast of roughly two-dozen untrained actors, get them to memorize a script full of slangy, naturalistic dialogue, and persuade a group of professional strippers to work four hours overtime for no pay, so that he could get some strip club scenes in the movie. (It helps that his cousin owns the Pink Diamond strip club in San Francisco.) He managed to convince his actresses — many of whom work as dental hygienists, teachers, or hair salon owners in real life — that they would make good hookers in the movie. He recruited celebrity rappers Too $hort and Mistah F.A.B. to make cameos. He worked out elaborate forms of damage control, charmed the Oakland Police, and made his presence known in the community. By the end of the film, neighborhood folk got used to seeing Bobino's crew at the muffler shop on High Street and International Boulevard, where they shot several scenes in the film. The cops who had that beat would wave as they rolled by.

For a film done under such fly-by-night circumstances, Townbiz is actually quite sophisticated. It features several highly choreographed stunts, and the script plants little clues in the beginning that become important at the end. Not to mention that the acting isn't half bad. Townbiz falls in the lineage of blaxploitation films that dramatize — and to a certain extent glamorize — urban crime, but unlike most of its forbears, this film doesn't have a real strong message about sticking it to the man. (There is, however, a female gun-for-hire who shoots another woman on a dime for not having a good grasp of "sisterhood.") Nonetheless, it has the potential to be a cult favorite, so long as Bobino — who began hawking the film in barbershops a few months ago, and currently sells it at Rasputin's — can get the word out.

The director says that from now on he'll only make light comedies.

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