Psssst. There's an international film festival in Oakland. And it's been around for eight years. Pass it on.
The Oakland International Film Festival, which opens its eighth annual session on Thursday, October 8, with a package of five films, a press conference plus filmmakers' Q&A, and a reception, is the true alternative. Despite the proliferation in the Bay Area of a confusing multitude of film fests reflecting every conceivable point of view and interest group, the Oakland distinguishes itself for embracing the "general interest" concept with both arms. It's reassuringly unpredictable and unabashedly inclusive, with a touch of Oaktown's patented defensiveness toward the West Bay's cultural hegemony. If its rich, established, cross-bay cousin, the San Francisco International Film Festival, is the ocean liner of film festivals, the Oakland is the Little Engine That Could.
In the years since Oakland's David Roach and a few associates founded it, the festival has struggled to keep the flame alive. Various side projects, such as the ambitious Black Cinema Café screenings at the old Kimball's East, have come and gone, but the 2009 edition of the Oakland International Film Festival, programmed by Roach with help from his staff of eight, looks to be the strongest in the festival's history, with a solid slate of films you won't see anywhere else, plus a respectable wall of sponsors.
Festival director Roach, in a phone interview, waxes philosophic when it comes to sponsors: "We get the same thing Oakland gets as a city, that for one reason or another companies are reluctant to take a chance on us. But we hope to change that." Comcast, the CW's Channel 5 TV, Mo' Better Food, Clear Channel Outdoor, and (it must be noted) the East Bay Express have signed on for 2009, and the festival has also partnered with Merritt College, the Grand Lake Theater, the Jack London Theater, the Uptown Nightclub, Maxwell's Lounge, and the Oakland School for the Arts — all of which serve as film venues.
But sponsorships mean nothing without the films to back it all up. "Thinking local and reaching international" is one of the Oakland International Film Festival's mottoes, never better reflected than in the two opening night programs at the Grand Lake. Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman's documentary Soundtrack for a Revolution is a rousing history lesson — a chronicle of the 1960s civil-rights movement and how old and new songs of solidarity ("Wade in the Water," "We Shall Overcome," etc.) and their singers (Richie Havens and the Blind Boys of Alabama, among others, are interviewed and perform in the doc) contributed to the spirit of the times. As one witness declares, "Music gave us courage" for bold social protests like bus boycotts and lunch-counter sit-ins in Mississippi and Alabama. The period news-reel footage is surprisingly brutal, and the talking heads, including Congressman John Lewis and singer Angie Stone, are appropriately triumphant. After all, they overcame.
One of the festival's happiest surprises is Leg Before Wicket, a documentary by Shashi Buluswar and Renato Velarde that sorts out the intertwined destinies of fanatical cricket players and Indian-Pakistani relations — in Chicago, no less. Jumping back and forth across the world from the shores of Lake Michigan to the mountains of Kashmir, the doc follows the Chicago Giants, a Chicago cricket team mostly made up of immigrant Pakistanis, with a few Indians mixed in. Socializing across the India-Pakistan border, even for expats in the American Midwest, is a rarity, harking back to decades of ill will and religious intolerance. Now, the overwhelming popularity of this sport — ironically a vestige of the English raj — has created "cricket diplomacy" between ordinary Pakistanis and Indians, who find themselves united in their admiration for the perfect googly. Speaking of which, the filmmakers thoughtfully include an animated cricket lesson that explains the rules — to a point. The sequences shot in Amritsar, Lahore, and other locations "over there" are fascinating documents in themselves. The title, by the way, refers to an illegal strategy in which the batsman tries to obstruct the wicket ... oh, forget about it and enjoy the movie.
Still Bill, another of the fest's ample supply of well-chosen documentaries, profiles African-American pop singer-songwriter Bill Withers, whose plaintive, raw-throated voice and parade of jukebox hits ("Ain't No Sunshine," "Lean on Me, " "Just the Two of Us," etc.) were ubiquitous in the 1970s and 1980s, but who abruptly decided to stop recording in 1985. Under the watchful camera eye of filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack, the affable, unassuming Withers — an Everyman who cut his first records while working at an aircraft plant, installing toilets on 747s — discusses his career, visits his West Virginia coal-mining home town, and plots his return to showbiz. Still Bill and Leg Before Wicket play at 8:30 p.m. on opening night.
Soundtrack for a Revolution screens at 6 p.m. on opening night, right after a lightly amusing narrative short from Spain, Ciro Altabás' Manual Práctico del Amigo Imaginario (A Practical Guide to Imaginary Friends). It's the mercifully brief comic story of a grown-up contemporary nerd in Madrid (Christian Sampedro) who finds a steady girlfriend, which means that his longtime imaginary playmate, the costumed superhero Capitán Kilotón (Luis Larrodera), has to go. An "imaginary friend convention" confirms the bad news that due to the Internet, video games, and other competition, these figments of the juvenile imagination are now a vanishing breed.
There have been several fine documentaries on the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Add Hailima Yates' Saints Rising to that list. Four years later, these "voices of post-Katrina New Orleans," residents of hard-hit NOLa neighborhoods, are still unhappy over the general devastation — homes, schools, streets, jobs gone but not forgotten. While local children battle post-traumatic stress disorder ("They're too poor and too black to be a poster child for any politician"), seemingly undamaged public housing remains off-limits, and there's an apparent land rush of moneyed speculators buoyed by "good-neighbor laws" that allow the city to declare eminent domain on distressed properties for not mowing the grass often enough. The big question: Where did all the relief money go? Find out when Saints Rising shows at 6 p.m. at Maxwell's, Sunday, October 11.
Not all is bleak in the homeland, though. The US armed forces are growing, and there's a pronounced new multiculturalism in evidence among enlisted personnel, if not officers, as explained by New American Soldier, Anna Belle Peevy and Emma Cott's illuminating new doc. A hitch in the service is once again a fast-track ticket to US citizenship, and fully 5 percent of armed forces personnel are immigrants seeking eventual citizenship. But the first hurdle is getting that security clearance. The next hurdle is called Afghanistan. How are we supposed to react to the courting of noncitizens to fight America's wars? Is it a golden opportunity for kids from Africa and Latin America, or just another example of outsourcing? The film screens at 7 p.m., October 10, at Oakland School for the Arts.
The festival has scheduled numerous workshops, panel discussions, and filmmakers' conversations designed to open up opportunities for local filmmakers, and the local touch is also evident in three Northern California productions. Race to the Bottom, a documentary directed by Jonathan King, outlines the plight of truckers serving the Port of Oakland. They're caught in a triple bind. As independent contractors (there's that term again, the magic formula of early-21st-century corporate business), they are forbidden to organize into a union. They suffer from cancer due to the toxic air near the docks. And they face constant underbidding for contracts. Carlos Bolado's River of Renewal profiles the efforts of Native American tribes, farmers, and loggers to reach a compromise on the use of the Klamath River. Natives there have always practiced sustainable living — it's good to see the larger society finally catching up. Meanwhile, in Chike C. Nwoffiah's narrative drama Sabar, a young Oakland woman finds personal meaning — and a boyfriend — thanks to the eponymous traditional West African music and dance form. It stars Bunmi DeRosario and David Ali.
Also worth a look: Life Outside of Pearl, a dramatic portrait of Haitian immigrant life in urban New Jersey, directed with a daytime-TV flourish by Uscla Johnny Desarmes. Faire: An American Renaissance, which tells us much, much more than we ever wanted to know about the California phenomenon of Renaissance Faires — you know, those annoying, kid-friendly themed gatherings where out-of-work actors dress up in jerkins and bodices and practice their archaic-English accents while selling trinkets to tourists. Filmmaker Doug Jacobson delves into ye olde scene, big-time. And from Spain, Con Dos Años de Garantía (Two-Year Guarantee), in which a selfish, abusive man trades in his female robot sex doll for a newer, "romantic" model. If it were a Hollywood movie, it'd be stretched out to an hour and a half — in director Juan Parra Costa's hands, it's a crisp seventeen minutes.
Many of the films will screen more than once, and the schedule is being updated as we go to press, so visit OIFF.org for the latest Oakland International Film Festival news. It's the ultimate in "buy local."
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