Lights, Camera, Oakland 

Film Commissioner Ami Zins makes sure that for visiting filmmakers, Oakland is set

Some people are best known for their connectivity. Colleagues of the prolific mathematician Paul Erdos assigned each other an "Erdos number" -- if you'd collaborated on a paper with him, your Erdos number was "one," if you'd worked on a paper with someone who had previously collaborated with him, your Erdos number was "two," and so on. In his book The Tipping Point, about how ideas spread and trends catch fire, Malcolm Gladwell wrote about "contagious people" he calls "Connectors," the few whose lives intersect so many social spheres that they end up tying together the lives of the many. In his view, the glue that holds most of the world together is a Chicago city employee named Lois Weisberg; if you don't know her, you probably know someone who does. There are, of course, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Someone really should think up a way of counting how many lives have been connected by Ami Zins.

Zins is the film commissioner for the city of Oakland, and her touch, while pervasive, is so gentle and unassuming that those outside the film industry are often surprised to find how large a role Oakland plays in the development of movies and television projects, or how well-regarded it is by those who do this sort of thing for a living. Banish from your mind the image of the lizardlike movie mogul with the little ponytail, the Ray-Bans, and the sportscar. Robert Bobb -- ultimately Zins' boss, since the Oakland Film Office is a subset of the city manager's Office of Communications and Mass Media -- once dubbed her "Miss Peace, Love, and Happiness," and the name fits. In an industry focused on fame and exposure, Zins does her best work unobtrusively and off-camera; in a business obsessed with money, Zins' currency is in her relationships with people.

On an unseasonably overcast July afternoon, Zins is sitting in on her favorite kind of project -- one in which she gets to work with new talent, and one in which Oakland gets to play Oakland. (The city often ends up playing a generic "anytown" -- or serving as a secondary location for productions set in San Francisco.) This particular shoot, a music video for a rapper named E-Dunn set in a residential neighborhood a few blocks off the 880 freeway, is an all-Oakland production. Director Samm Styles and producer Oliver Sims formed their companies, Habiba Productions and Supreme Films, after graduating from Skyline High; E-Dunn is an Oakland native and former Golden Gloves champ; and the smaller roles in the video were cast using advertisements in local beauty shops. The general theme for the video is "block party" -- not entirely unexplored territory in the world of hip-hop -- but in this case, the shoot actually is serving as a neighborhood get-together. With the help of the film office, Habiba Productions sent out fliers warning nearby residents about noise and street closures the day of the shoot, and invited them to attend the party and appear in the video as extras.

Remnants of the day's production litter the block: tables of watermelon slices and fried chicken, balloons and paper flower garlands laced through neighbors' wrought-iron fences, a dozen kids coloring with chalk on the street underneath a banner announcing the "First Annual Black Is Beautiful Block Party." A deejay with his turntables mounted atop two green plastic garbage bins spins records between takes, and girls wearing tight white tank tops with iron-on letters proclaiming the names of Oakland neighborhoods -- Chinatown, International Boulevard, 98th Street, Linden, Alcatraz -- are getting ready for their big scene, which involves gyrating for the camera on a flatbed truck parked beneath the banner.

But the real action right now is on the front porch of a mint green and pumpkin colored Victorian duplex, where Styles is trying to set up a shot centering on guest vocalist Candace Jones. Seated about midway down the front steps, Jones has neighborhood kids planted all around her. During the long setup for the shot, while crew members carefully take measurements for camera focus and dab Jones down with makeup to make her skin glisten as though the sun were out in full force, the kids are kept quiet with Dixie cups of frozen grape juice, colorful toys, and cans of Silly String to shoot during the scene's final take.

By the time the camera actually begins to roll, the gray and chilly weather has taken its toll; the kids would rather huddle on the steps than bounce to the music. "C'mon kids, c'mon kids," Styles shouts energetically into a bullhorn, as the playback tape booms and Jones sings along. The kids shimmy halfheartedly as parents off to the side yell encouragement. "The hardest thing to work with is animals and kids," Styles sighs. The kids do perk up for the final shot when they get to unloose the Silly String and, in violation of orders to the contrary and an agreement sealed with a handshake from the art director, aim it straight for Jones' hair.

Zins watches happily, her curly hair buried beneath one of her trademark floppy hats and a scarf. "I think the music videos often do create a really good family feel within the neighborhood," she whispers between takes. In fact, Zins has brought members of her own family along for the day, including her husband (retired Laney College theater instructor Lew Levinson), her sister, and her fourteen-month-old niece.

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