The Revolution Will Be Digitized 

Berkeley Video & Film Festival celebrates nineteen years on the digital vanguard.

"The Revolution is over, and we won," says Mel Vapour, the ever-jocose director of Berkeley Video & Film Festival. Vapour explains that the switch to digital has liberated and enabled filmmakers in a variety of different ways. In the old days, for instance, films had to be shipped in heavy, 35mm reels, at a cost of roughly $15,000 for a package of three. But now that most films are shot in HD, they can be loaded onto hard drives and shipped in a tiny, compact container called a pelican case. Ten years from now, even those things will be obsolete, says Vapour. Filmmakers will simply upload their files to a server and share files instantaneously. "We do it at the East Bay Media Center every day now," Vapour said. Now the question is: How will anyone make any money at it?

That question doesn't weigh too heavily on East Bay Media Center, where "fast, cheap, and out of control" amounts to more than just marketing speak. Indeed, the fest has used digital projection almost exclusively since its inception in 1992. Its programming is equally forward-thinking. This year's fest includes only one feature-length film — a carefully chosen romantic comedy called Karma Calling by Indo-American director Sarba Das. Otherwise, said Vapour, it's the year of the short doc. Of the several dozen documentaries screening this year — all of which fall in the 3- to 69-minute range — most combine high-end Hollywood production values with underground themes (Scissu by Tom Bowilogua and Alex Beier, a German film that incorporates sex, guns, violence, depravity, and all variety of lurid pleasures), lefty politics (Barry Levy's Division Denim, an animated flick about child labor), literary arcana (Lars Movin and Steen M. Rasmussen's Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road, which compiles rare, unseen footage of the famed Beat writer), or a storyline that hits you from left field (Jonathan Dane's Birth Control, which tells the story of a relationship in three minutes and reveals its big "aha" moment in the last twenty seconds).

Additionally, the 2009 program includes several veritable ethnographies. In Behind the Wheel, director Tao Ruspoli and members of the Los Angeles Filmmakers Cooperative buy a school bus on eBay, outfit it with HD cameras and editing equipment, and take a road trip through the South, interviewing people about their artistic and political tastes. (According to Vapour, it's far from the standard Blue State-meets-Red State motif.) Andrea Young's similarly designed Polka Face looks at a subculture in rural Minnesota, where people make quilts, hold concertina clubs, and preserve fruit in jars. Brian Darwas' The Devil at Your Feet examines hotrod purists at car clubs and garages throughout the country.

Global economic collapse and "regime change" are the two principle themes at this year's film festival, and both seem germane to its high-velocity bent. Yet there's nothing grandiose or pretentious about Berkeley Video & Film Festival; it has no celebrity red carpet or frivolities. It's a revolution that, in Vapour's words, managed to avoid being "tragically hip." The Berkeley Video & Film Festival runs Friday, Sept. 25 (7:30 p.m.-11:15 p.m.) and Saturday, Sept. 26 (noon-midnight), at Landmark's Shattuck Cinemas (2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). $10-$13 gets you in all day.

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