Regional Report: Bay Area Filmmakers Thrive on Passion, Even When Funding's Low
by Christopher Read
There were no Bay Area documentaries competing at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For a region that has carved its niche in non-fiction filmmaking, this revelation is outrageous. Two years ago, six documentaries from the Bay Area screened at Sundance. That was par for the course. No one loves to explore on camera the realities of human experience more than Bay Area filmmakers. The region has its share of narrative and experimental filmmakers, but the majority of producers here delve into the documentary world. Now, after a three-year lag in production, the docs are trickling in.
"Funding's on the low," says filmmaker Angela McCann. She's making a documentary about her experience as an adopted Korean girl raised in the U.S. McCann says she gave up on fundraising after six months. Instead she's opted to drain her bank account. "I'm just that passionate about it."
Her determination undoubtedly sounds familiar to many independent filmmakers. Every indie filmmaker, like a lab mouse, continually seeks new ways to get through the maze. Bay Area residents are no different. With the latest squeeze on arts philanthropy and state funding cutbacks, they are bouncing off the walls and some are miraculously finding their way to completion.
McCann's theme of reconnecting with ones roots was popularized with the success of "Daughter From Danang" two years ago. The trend, however, is moving away from personal discovery and more towards journalistic story telling, San Francisco post house owner Kim Salyer says.
One example at the political forefront is Robin Chin and John Grimes' "Something About W" -- a one hour piece that examines the policies of George W. Bush and his administration's first three years. Co-producer Chin is pitching the program to PBS since she has worked on docs for Bill Moyers and "Frontline," but other innovative plans are brewing too. In addition to streaming on the Web, the DVD of "W" will be distributed to college campuses in swing vote states.
Co-producer Grimes explained that "Something About W," which stemmed from the drumbeats of war in 2002, probably wouldn't have been possible outside the Bay Area. "Here, convictions are out front so you can do considerable fund raising through individuals." Through private parties, the film has acquired needed financial support and accrued more than 30 volunteer crewmembers to contribute to the project.
This week the Bay's largest and most reputable film festival responds to the rippling war cry. "When the consequences of political action are uppermost in everyone's minds, cultural engagement continues to be more urgent than ever," notes Linda Blackaby programming director for the San Francisco International Film Festival. This year's 15-day global extravaganza showcases 175 films from nearly 50 countries and starts April 15th. (www.sffs.org/festival)
In addition to politics, Bay Area filmmakers are equally curious about distinct cultures. Last month at Salyer's Video Arts, "Sapana Sakya" put the finishing touches on "Daughters of Everest" just in time for the Asian-American Film Festival. The documentary follows the first-ever expedition of Sherpa women to climb Mt. Everest in 2000.
Then there's veteran anthropologist Les Blank who is slogging away at "White Feathers, Black Bones" -- a tale about Tea enthusiast-adventurer David Lee Hoffman's travels in China in search of the ideal leaf. Despite his track record and body of work, the process to completion is rarely a sprint. "I still could use some money," he says referring to his latest projects. Blank has been making and self-distributing films since 1960 and swiftly credits the local film community's anchor. "The Film Arts Foundation has always been very helpful."
FAF, similar to the Bay Area Video Coalition, offers production equipment to rent, classes for every step of the filmmaking process and fiscal sponsorship -- almost everything needed to self-produce a film or video.
(Incidentally, a retrospective of Mr. Blank's colorful profiles will be shown at the New York Public Library Donnell Library Center and the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in late May. www.lesblank.com)
While these media nonprofits provide shoot-from-the-hip basics of film production, numerous regional colleges offer formal programs toward fine arts degrees. Generally speaking, experimental film is mastered at the San Francisco Art Institute. Learning an industry vocation is prone to happen at the Academy of Art University or California College of the Arts. UC Berkeley or Stanford make top suitable choices for documentary makers. Finally, San Francisco State University attracts many who pursue narratives.
Yael Braha, a film graduate student at SF State, discovered that collaboration was vital to her development. As part of her Eastman Kodak scholarship award, her first film, "The Waves," will be showcased in the Emerging Filmmaker category during the Cannes Film Festival next month. She describes her first effort as a poetic social commentary told through some unusual voyeurs -- public statues.
The black and white 35mm film was co-written with a friend in Italy by email. An Italian native, Braha had to overcome more obstacles than many. She found that her foreign citizenship restricted her eligibility for grants and scholarships.
What makes the Bay Area film community so supportive? "I find generally a lot of us are in same boat," she says. "No one has enough money to produce and get out something we would really want... We really are helping each other in any way we can." That means offering to p.a. or assist camera or work as a grip on each other's work, whatever needs to be done.
Some women filmmakers in the Bay Area have banded together in collectives and organizations aimed at circumventing what they perceive as a prevailing boys club. Cinema Chicks, formed in 2001, is geared toward broad-based networking and career development services. They hold monthly meetings and movie mixers, where they discuss a movie at a pub or café afterwards. Their formal title is now the Bay Area chapter of Women in Film and Television. (www.bawift.org).
Other individuals are spearheading their own efforts. Scott Trimble, a location scout, dedicates a website to northern California film production (www.norcalmovies.com). He also sends out a weekly email that announces industry happenings and alerts people to who's looking for help and where to send resumes, etc.
"We have more opportunities in the Bay Area, than most places, to see a lot of great films," said FAF President Gail Silva. "There is a zoo of festivals out there now." If there's a category for the topic, then there's probably an outlet here. In addition to the German, Asian, African, Jewish, gay and lesbian festivals (to name just a few), some fests appeal to fans of trannies, short attention-spans, and music lovers.
This year San Francisco debuted the Fearless Tales Genre Fest -- a series of horror flicks usually reserved for midnight screenings. One innovative self-promoter Pepe Urquijo organized "Pepepalooza" last fall -- an exhibition tour of his short films to raise money for film festival entries.
Across the Golden Gate Bridge, a grass-roots movement has been steadily building a dedicated audience over the past decade. A film enthusiast named Tom Boss started a summer series called Film Night in the Park nearly 13 years ago. The outing draws crowds of all ages to local parks in various northern county suburbs. Picnic baskets and blankets in hand, the community gathers for a festive social night on the lawn under the stars.
This June, Film Night in the Park launches its summer program series with "There's No Place Like Home" a salute to movies generated in the Bay Area. Big crowd such as "American Graffiti," "A Bug's Life" and "Vertigo" usually comprise the typical fanfare. This season, however, some smaller films also get thrown into the mix, such as Marin native Jennifer Kroot's wacky sci-fi tale "Sirens of the 23rd Century." In a world where cosmetics and modeling have been outlawed, Kroot directs a vulnerable amazon and a group of renegades who fight to reclaim their beauty.
Another outlet is Digital Verité, an open-mic style short film showcase for video makers. "There are so many coffeehouse filmmakers, says Digital Verité founder Christopher Keiser. "Everybody has cameras and films." So Keiser created a forum for people to submit digital videos and talk about their work afterwards in a casual environment. Every month, a program of pre-submitted material is screened at a bookstore in San Anselmo and time is allotted for "drop-in" shorts. (www.filmnight.org/digitalverite.htm)
Many resident filmmakers live in the Bay Area at extraordinary costs often because of the political, social, or environmental climate. Trimble notes a rollercoaster rhythm of work. He says you can be really busy for six months and then slow for six. "For a lot of people, that's hard to deal with. It's scary in the downtime."