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Screens Treats for All Tastes

From: Berkeley Daily Planet, October 31, 2003 - by Zac Unger

Depending on how you look at things, itís either a wonderful or a terrible time to be an independent filmmaker. On the one hand, Indies have never been bigger, with the massive commercial success of movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and the Blair Witch Project.

But success breeds imitation, and nowadays it seems like everyone with a digital camera is making an Indie. In a crowded field it is frustratingly difficult to find an audience for your flick, a feeling made unbearable other filmmakers go blithely Sundancing their way to riches and acclaim.

The elemental human urge to tell a story is about one second older than the urge to have that story heard and declared magnificent. Itís hard not to worry that the world contains more storytellers than audience members. Luckily for these cinematic strivers (and for those of us who love to watch movies), there is the Berkeley Video and Film Festival, a modest but energetic celebration of independent filmmaking that gives a few talented filmmakers their moment in the sun.

Sixty-five of these have been chosen for inclusion and will be screened in an eye-popping orgy of cineastic bliss, twelve hours a day from noon until midnight.

Donít worry about how nice it is outside; November sunshine is more than you deserve, frankly, and you really ought to be hunkered down in a dark room, hoovering popcorn like thereís famine afoot.

The strength of this festival lies with the documentary films. In an era when tagging along on a strangerís unpleasant first date qualifies as reality footage, these well-conceived, deeply felt investigations are particularly moving. While there is no requirement that the films have a Bay Area theme, many of them do, and the chance to see our home from a different perspective is much appreciated.

Bounce: The Don Barksdale Story features one of the first black players in the NBA, a former Berkeley High Yellowjacket who distinguished himself in athletics, radio, business, and philanthropy. The footage of Berkeley in the 1930s is arresting, and interviews with Barksdaleís basketball descendants (and Bay Area locals) Jason Kidd and Gary Payton show just how valuable it is to turn away from the present and recall oneís progenitors. In general the documentaries tend to be activist, focusing on themes familiar to Berkeley viewers. There are two films that focus on opposition to the war on terror, one about the Black Panthers, one on the horrors of animal trapping and, of course, the obligatory Holocaust documentary.

Suffice it to say that the fact that separate documentaries about nudists both won Best of Festival Awards firmly locates this collection of films here in the Land of the Free (Speech Movement).

The best documentary (and possibly the best film of the entire festival) is Brothers on Holy Ground, an enormously affecting piece about the psychological aftermath of 9/11. Director Mike Lennon chooses to focus not on the horrible footage that we all now involuntarily replay in our own minds, but on the unscripted words of the survivors. In these raw interviews we see a young firefighter drowning with guilt over his decision to swap seats on the engine with a buddy, a chance event that left one man dead and the other standing on a downtown street, covered with ashfall and awash in misery. Lennon eschews the maudlin tone and imperious politicizing common to many 9/11 documentaries, focusing instead on the quiet rhythms of lives interrupted, the way a fireman calmly chops celery for a firehouse lunch as he muses about the violence of the job and the agony of losing oneís closest friends.

Fortunately, the festival is not all portentous and important. The presence of animation, short comedies, music videos and even public service announcements gives the mind a bit of a yawn and a stretch before settling back down to the heavy lifting.

These shorter efforts can be quite winning, allowing the viewer brief dips into the delightfully addled minds of a variety of talented filmmakers. In Lost and Found for example, an odd little man insists that a sculptor has stolen his dentures, and the interaction between the two men borders on the surreal.

Young producers offer short films with whimsical names like Egyptian Rat War and subject matter such as an insectís reaction to high culture.

The music videos are also visually compelling, especially The Dive which was shot underwater and then hand-colored frame by frame for a unique look.

Thereís even a big name hiding among the short piecesóEminemís video White America, which was produced and directed by the local Guerilla News Network. Itís an excellent video; the graphics are simple and powerful, and Eminemís lyrics are, as always, refreshingly self-aware and unsentimental.

If anything, the video is too good in the context of the other films; Eminemís star power and overwhelming marketing machinery feels a little unfair, like Shaquille OíNeal stopping by the Berkeley Y for a pickup game.

Without the aid of an intravenous feeding tube and a vampiric love of the dark, thereís simply no way to see all of the movies on offer here. Viewers will have to look deeply into themselves and make tough decisions.

Will you see Temptation, the Grand Festival Award winner, a lighthearted feature film about new-age pornographersóplease, itís erotica, not porn!óor will you stick with uplifting and earnest by picking the foot-stomping fun of Los Zafiros, a dance through the raucous world of Cuban music?

However you choose, youíre bound to see a few stinkers. But the joy is in the hunt, and there are diamonds littered throughout this field.

Itís a fine time to be an independent film watcher, and the Berkeley Video and Film Festival has done an impressive job of collecting compelling movies that may mark the emergence of big time talent.

The festival runs from noon until midnight this Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 1 and 2. Tickets and show times can be found at and the movies will be shown at Wheeler Auditorium on the UC campus.


Doubles Its Pleasure
10th annual event takes place over two days in Wheeler Hall

From: The Berkeley Voice Friday, October 31, 2003 - by Brian Kluepfel

A lot of local film festivals--even those which show films and feature cinematographers from the East Bay--insist on using that other nearby city to add cachet to their event: San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, San Francisco International Film Festival, etc. How about some props for Berkeley?

Mel Vapour and Paul Kealoha Blake of the East Bay Media Center have no qualms about using the Berkeley moniker to identify their film/video cornucopia, now in its tenth year. The 2003 Berkeley Video and Film Festival moves to Wheeler Hall on the UC Berkeley campus this weekend (its usual home, the Fine Arts Cinema, is being renovated) but Vapour and Blake's vision for the festival remains unchanged: give indie filmmakers a chance to strut their stuff.

"We're the largest independent film festival in Northern California," noted Blake. "We feel we have to select pieces that reflect the diversity and disparities in our community." Blake called the BVFF both a "gift and responsibility" to his fellow Berkeleyans.

The BVFF has grown rapidly over the years and, as in other years, it will be screened over two days. This Saturday and Sunday will feature 22 hours and 65 individual projects, encompassing 12 different categories. Blake, Vapour and a local panel of videographers and filmmakers sifted through every entry---there were nearly 200 this year--to come up with the lineup.

Big range
The range of offerings is amazing: from Berkeleyan Hoku Uchiyama's one-minute spot on the dangers of drunk driving (which won a Golden Lion award at Cannes this year) to two 85-minute feature films that are oh-so-Los Angeles, BVFF touches on politics, sports, art and humor without ever losing a local flavor.

This year, the Festival tips a collective hat to Berkeley filmmakers Allen Willis, Claire Burch and Roberts Blossom. A special presentation will be made to the trio on Saturday evening, but itís not a tribute to retirees: both Burch and Blossom have works in the 2003 edition of the festival.

"Filmmaking isn't a lifestyle for these people, it's a lifetime," said Blake. Vapour called Willis, whose seminal work on KQED in the 1960s is a foundation of modern news programming, "a remarkable Berkeley jewel...and the dean of African-American filming."

He singled out Blossom for both his Hollywood work and his recent devotion to 'cine-poems,' several of which will screen on Saturday. Blossom's latest effort in the experimental genre, where words flow down the screen as they're read, with a variety of backdrops, is "Nudge," which will be shown just prior to the 7:00 ceremony honoring him and his cinematic compatriots.

As for Burch, Vapour said "she's been chronicling the counterculture in her own special way for decades." He called her work, particularly dealing with local homelessness issues, "not sugar-coated in any's extremely edgy and raw." This edge is exposed in Burch's 17-minute "Telegraph Avenue Follies," which also screens on Saturday.

On the light side
Programming such an extensive collection is a chore, and Vapour notes that longer feature works are interspersed with lighter, shorter fare such as music videos (including Eminem's powerhouse "White America," animated by Ian Inaba and Stephen Marshall) and commercials for the audience's sake.

"They need a little comic and visual relief," he said. Commenting on the large student population that's bound to attend, Vapour also proudly noted the ticket prices, including the $8 one-day pass. "It's a real bargain to see emerging new artists."

Pressed to name his favorites, Vapour picked the feature film "Temptation," a comedy mixing the San Fernando Valley porn with new-age crystals and chakras, with particular praise for its star. "Annette O'Toole brings the same energy that she brought to 'Cat People' and 'Nash Bridges,'" he said. He also praised "Los Zafiros," a documentary on Cuban music's answer to American 1950s stylings.

Blake singled out "The Fact of Asian Women" and "Next Question" as a part of BVFF's vision. "The festival brings issues back to the community and acts as its voice," he said.

From rather humble beginnings in 1991 at the Florence Schwimley Little Theatre, BVFF has blossomed into a festival that's compared favorably by some to Sundance in its commitment to independent voices. Hundreds of entries come from around the world to Blake and Vapour's offices in the new Berkeley Arts District. "Our reach is now global," said Vapour.

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