Anyone who's ever complained about the high price of movies should make an effort to get himself or herself to the Berkeley Video and Film Festival at the Fine Arts Cinema (2451 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, 510-848-1143) this Saturday, December 1. For the price of a normal theater admission, you can watch no fewer than 37 consecutive films, about half by local filmmakers.
The festival showcases a wildly diverse body of work, from professionally produced documentaries to one no-budget video submitted to the festival on a recorded-over promotional tape. The lineup boasts independent video ethnographies, surreal music videos, a parody of the Sopranos called The Sopranowitzes, experimental computer animation, satirical pseudo-commercials, and even a micro-budget hip-hop take on Buddhism.
The fest started in 1991 as a response to the "video and computer revolution," according to festival director Mel Vapour. "The camcorder stood the independent film movement on its head," he says. "It made it accessible to anyone." Vapour helped create the Berkeley event to showcase this new crop of underdog films. "Just because somebody doesn't have a big budget doesn't mean they won't get into our festival," Vapour says. "It's what's on the screen that counts."
What's on the screen this year is a little bit of everything. Take Karen Villeneuve's five-minute Hopping the Davenport, for instance. It's a black-and-white montage of scenes from a real-life train-hopping trip, backed up by an original acoustic guitar soundtrack that gives the piece energy and atmosphere. The film is gritty, realistic, and yet suffused with an old-fashioned romanticism.
A short with a more modern feel is Kia Simon's music video for San Francisco-based Jondi & Spesh's progressive house track The Sway. The track itself is haunting and melodious, and Simon overlays it with a noirish visual narrative that fits perfectly.
Phil Gorn's SF, which starts at 9:24 (yes, 9:24.When you've got 37 films and only ten hours of screen time, you schedule things down to the minute), is the festival's only full-length feature. It's a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story, with all the bleakness (although none of the blank verse) of the original. The film definitely has its moments, like the gang confrontation at Fort Funston. That scene is beautifully shot, and it resonates nicely with the classic Shakespeare narrative. At the same time, it's original and satisfyingly unpredictable.
Even though SF is often visually striking and has quite a few strong performances, you'll never forget that you're watching an "independent" film. For every scene that works, there's another where you could imagine the actors and the director wishing for the time and resources for another take, a script rewrite, or a giant CGI dinosaur to distract people for a moment while the creators get the kinks worked out.
But this isn't Hollywood. The dinosaur never comes. That's one of the nice things about a festival like this: Even scenes that you're not crazy about are interesting to watch. Their rawness brings the art of filmmaking to the surface. "There is an immediacy to this festival," says Vapour. "It's a focus on the essence of the filmmaking process."
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