Dogtown Redemption

Dogtown Redemption tells the story of the West Oakland residents who subsist recycling other people’s garbage. Specifically, it exposes the impoverished community that revolves around Alliance Recycling on Peralta Street. Many, if not most, of the recyclers are homeless, but the recycling center offers a regular, meager income and a binding sense of purpose to the most industrious among them.

Filmmakers Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush created the film over seven years. It reveals a complex picture of a delicate economic system that sustains an entire community, providing work opportunity to over 1000 people in the neighborhood. While it acknowledges a power imbalance between Alliance’s wealthy owner, Jay Anast, and the people who supply a constant flow of scrap material, it paints a picture of a friendly and productive relationship between them, and the foundation of a functional community. It also highlights dire repercussions when the business gets sued by the City of Oakland, in a political vendetta to shut the place down due to unconfirmed criminal activity.

Most importantly, the film investigates the lives of individual recyclers, their histories, their relationships, and their somewhat chosen lifestyles, to illustrate the problem of poverty as both individual and systemic. Jason Witt, a warm-hearted recycling high-achiever, lives in a tent on the edge of Highway 80 with wife Heather Holloman, has a seven year old boy who lives with grandparents, and practices karate as a black belt. Hayok Kay, former drummer in a punk band, moves in and out of shelters, and suffers grief over the recent death of her partner. Charismatic Landon Goodwin climbs out of his life on the street, develops a ministry and gets married.

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We gain intimate access to their struggles with drugs, their heartbreaks, successes and failures. We learn that not only does poverty transcend race, but so does love. The lives of these collectors are multidimensional and relations between them are dedicated and intimate.

AMC Theaters Bay Street sponsored this free screening in Emeryville which was organized by local online journal The E’ville Eye and John Bauters’ campaign for city council. John Bauters brings specialized knowledge and experience to issues of homelessness. If elected, he promises to be an informed and caring advocate for the poor in Emeryville.

Dogtown Redemption screens again tomorrow, June 18 at the West Oakland Youth Center at 3:00pm, a valuable opportunity for locals to meet the filmmakers, and to discuss these issues with the community in which the film takes place.

Mothers of Men at the Silent Film Festival

One of the most fascinating things about watching silent film is how the movies reveal cultural values, exposing fears and preoccupations of the era, so different from those of today. Mothers of Men stands squarely unapologetic, and exceptionally bold in its imaginings of a future of women leaders from the vantage point of 1917. Fictional Judge Clara Madison accepts the pleas of the Women’s Party to become their candidate for governor. Not only does she sentence criminals to death without appeal, she excels fully in the domestic realm as a loving wife, seamstress, and mother-to-be, pictured in gentle bedroom scenes wearing a flowing nightgown. Actress Dorothy Davenport harmonizes these two portrayals, and plays the role with a detached softness.  Her diffident disposition appears unusual to a modern eye accustomed to more assertive women heroes.

In an act of revenge against a unwanted verdict, Judge Madson’s adversaries hatch a plot to frame her husband in the murder of a newspaper editor, which leads to his condemnation to hanging. The melodrama posits her loyalty toward her husband against duties as the newly-elected first female governor, where the prospect of pardoning her husband (and father of her child), jeopardizes the entire future of women leadership. She must choose intellect over emotionalism and the professional over the personal, to ensure the aspirations of her political party. This clever plot paints a glimpse of the high stakes and urgency of the women’s political movement of the time, two years before women won the right to vote nationally by passage of the 19th amendment.

Silent Film Festival ends tomorrow Sunday, June 5, after a full day of programs.

Banksy Does New York

Above:  Everything But the Kitchen Sphynx

“A 1/36 scale replica of the great Sphinx of Giza made from smashed cinderblocks. You’re advised not to drink the replica Arab spring water.”  ~Banksy

Other Cinema presented Street Art Saturday night, a program beginning with shorts and a lecture, anchored with Banksy Does New York, a documentary of the anonymous artist’s month long “residency” in the streets of New York.  Banksy sparked a daily treasure hunt by creating an original work each day in October 2013, presenting each piece on his website with no location. Check out the trailer here.

I lived through this event, waking up each October morning to experience daily reveals of brilliant wit and prank, and watched the phenomena unfold on social media in real time. It’s an experience hard to replicate in retrospect, but the documentary captures the thrill and frenzy. It follows Banksy-hunters around Manhattan and its boroughs and records the social fallout of exorbitantly-priced artist acts publicly abandoned in obscure corners. The film provides followup on the fate of the artworks, and offers interpretations by cultural theorists and participants. Mayhem ensues as public response becomes performance, where the pieces get variously defined:  valuable loot by opportunists, crime by the police, precious “cultural currency” by connoisseurs, and irrelevant by gallery owners.

The film was preceded by a slide lecture by Russell Howze, author of Stencil Nation.  Howze, an expert in all things stencil, presented the history of stencil art from Indonesian cave art to Banksy and beyond, with a focus on Banksy’s 2010 six-day tagging of  San Francisco. I am eager to hunt for what survives of these works, locations listed here.

With Banksy/Not Bansky comparisons, the slideshow illustrated Banksy precursors and influencers, fakes, and Banksy-esque conspirators worldwide, such as Hanksy and Bambi. It was a fascinating report of the fluid and unregulated world of street art where influences move quickly, artist brands shift to ephemera, and stencil culture extends to war zones. Check out Russell Howze’s website:  http://www.stencilarchive.org

Field Niggas at Crossroads 2016

The San Francisco Cinematheque presents Crossroads 2016 this weekend, its annual festival of artist-made film and video. The festival celebrates abstract works that fall far outside mainstream cinema, and which include non-traditional documentary, and genre-defying gems of artistic expression. Field Niggas by Khalik Allah, an unflinching observational testimony of the drug-induced street community in Harlem, New York, arguably marks this year’s most significant inclusion.

Pointing a camera at this intoxicated group immediately raises questions of exploitation, but the long takes, tight close-ups, and extensive recordings communicate the consent and respect of its subjects. The relationship gets further complicated by its presentation to the artist-elite at the Crossroads festival, a position from which my own commentary emerges here, but is also testament to the festival’s willingness to accept the challenge of that complexity. Sociological revelations, exposed humanity and the tone of engagement make this video a work of exceptional value.

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Filmed at the crosshairs of Lexington Avenue and 125th Street, this video bears witness to a confluence of diverse outsiders, including children and pregnant women, who appear to be drifting in and out of a dangerous sea without life jackets. It generously allows us entry, and makes it impossible to avert our eyes from the difficult realities it represents, a world infected by the use of K2, a rock-bottom-cheap synthetic marijuana that poses severe health risks.

The slow motion portraiture separates voice from bodies, with untethered interviews vaguely associated with faces on screen. This technique disorients the viewer, but also draws us in, demands active listening and forces questions. The words from its multitude of characters vacillate from indecipherable to deluded to spiritually enlightened to intellectually critical. Requiring active viewer participation, it builds a bridge for those willing to cross. For this community accepts anyone and everyone willing to enter, even the police who lurk like familiar uncles. With luscious photography, Field Niggas beautifies and humanizes, accomplishing a most sacred intervention simply by its deliverance.cdn.indiewire.psdops.com

Pixilation Prodigies at Other Cinema

ATA Gallery was stuffed to the gills last night with an audience eager to injest a program of high caliber, mostly local animation work. Politically-tinged experimental shorts introduced the show, then Jeremy Rourke transported us through dreamy ruminations of his shifting studio coordinates in Goodbye Cole/Hello Tunnel. Cutouts of vintage imagery, postcards springing into action, and layers of clay, video, and pencil peeled off into nested realities. Adding spoken word, song, and guitar, Rourke jumped on and off a podium to interact with the projections in surprising ways. With exuberant splash, his inventions brought the audience to cheers. I highly recommend you look out for more performances of Jeremy Rourke, possibly next season at Other Cinema!

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Facing West Shadow Opera then performed an ode to Walt Whitman, celebrating links between opera and nature in the settling of the Wild West. Two opera singers and a cello gave a flawless classical performance. However, music outpaced the visuals. Delicate and beautiful shadow puppets required surer hands and precise direction. At times their movements felt more awkward than graceful. The narrative, with bulky intertitles, fell flat.

The Academy Award nominated short Last Day of Freedom, directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, concluded the program with a somber note. It told the story of Manny Babbitt, a traumatized Vietnam war veteran who ended up on death row through a tragic miscarriage of justice. The pencil drawn animation and rotoscoping of the veteran’s brother sensitively expressed this disturbing story.

Photos by Kristin Cato

Timeless Motion at Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters Cinema, an important East Bay meeting ground for local experimental filmmakers, takes place at Temescal Arts Center on the second Sunday of each month at 8pm.  This series celebrates live cinema performance with a gratifying bias toward old-fashioned celluloid and the technology that accompanies it.

Last night, six artists from the SOMArts Gallery Timeless Motion exhibition collaborated for an evening of multi-screen projection with live audio mix.  I counted at least seven devices – Super8, 16mm, live video feed, and a couple overhead projectors from my 1970s days in elementary school.  Media machinery occupied half the seating space offering every spectator a unique eyeline with clunky silhouettes of technical sprawl.  Artists moved in and out of the space for contiguous and overlapping performances, unified by the sounds of DJ Cyrus Tabar who stepped in last minute with an enjoyable mix of rapidly composed audio when the original sound designer cancelled due to a car accident.

While the spirit of experimentation created an energized space for play, I would have loved more thematic coherence, or perhaps more demarcations between artistic voices.  Visual juxtapositions were hit-or-miss.  Keith Evans’ abstract live video feed of jellyfish skins attached to a rotating Super8 reel provided the most curious invention.

 

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Photo by Gilbert Guerrero

Above: Photo by Bojana Rankovic

Alan Berliner at the Pacific Film Archive

Alan Berliner presented his latest film First Cousin Once Removed at the brand new Pacific Film Archive on Wednesday night.  The film was preceded by a short lecture about his filmmaking process, as one in a series of lectures on documentary film, funded posthumously by filmmaker Les Blank.

An audience of UC Berkeley students and fans of the filmmaker listened to Berliner compare his process to putting together a puzzle.  “Start from the pieces themselves,” he suggested.  He described a puzzle that grows outward from associations, rather than from the edges in.  As a result, an Alan Berliner film feels organic and complex, moving from psychological investigation to mystical questions regarding the human soul.

Like Berliner’s classic, Nobody’s Business, a story of his relationship with his father, First Cousin dives fearlessly into vulnerable territory as the camera watches his cousin, poet and retired Brown University professor Edwin Honig, descend into Alzheimer’s.  The film unravels past hurts, as Berliner interviews estranged sons of the poet, and explores questions of self-identity from a life that arguably benefits from memory loss.  It treats its subject with wit and carefulness, through a masterful editing style that incorporates home movies, found footage and various cinematic tropes. Text from Edwin’s poems appears between and upon images throughout.

While documenting the reality of Alzheimer’s Disease, Berliner personalizes it, describing his cousin’s version as a “poet’s Alzheimer’s”.   As Edwin loses his vocabulary, his words still astonish with original beauty and wisdom.  We are lead to infer an inner world that alternates between terror and peace.

For better or worse, Berliner fills that existential empty space for us.  The yawning ‘nothingness’ of Edwin watching trees change outside his window gets repopulated with Berliner’s active ingredients.  This conflict between living and dying, the cascading images and memories to describe the departure of such, reaches a head when Edwin finally scolds:  “For one minute, one hour, one year, just let me be. I am, and that is that!”

 

Photo of Edwin Honig from First Cousin Once Removed