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The 8th Annual Berkeley Video & Film Festival 2001 Reviews

November 28 - December 4 2001

No Dinosaurs


Cheap and local: Filmmaker Phil Gorn

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.”




Friday, November 30, 2001

El Cerrito animator featured at Berkeley Film & Video Festival

In the animated short "The Daydreamer," Roger begins to let his mind wander.



The most desperate laid-off dot-commer wouldn’t want Roger’s job — or Roger’s boss. Both are featured in Bay Area filmmaker John Atkinson’s “The Daydreamer,” an animated short film that has won the Grand Festival Award for Animation from the 2001 Berkeley Video & Film Festival. The comical story of an office worker doing battle with some highly assertive fantasies, “The Daydreamer” will be screened at 9 p.m., on Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley.

Previously, “The Daydreamer” has won the Crested Butte Reel Fest Silver Award for best animated film and was screened at Siggraph 2001, the leading West Coast animation trade conference. It will also be shown this season on “Dash’s House of Animation” on San Francisco’s technology-focused cable network, TechTV The film features an innovative score by Texas composer John Jordan.

Atkinson on Wednesday talked about the life of an independent animator to Albany High seniors as part of the school’s Career Day.

“Making independent films is certainly not for everyone. One must love the process of filmmaking and relish the journey,” he said.

“Cutbacks in recent years to school arts programs have hit young animators hard — student filmmakers must work to develop their artistic and storytelling gifts, as well as learning computer skills.”

The eighth Berkeley Video & Film Festival includes an international selection of documentaries feature films, commercials, and animated and live-action shorts — this year including several films featured at Telluride’s IndieFest. Taking place at the Fine Arts Cinema at 2451 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, festival screenings start at 2 p.m. on Dec. 1. Atkinson will also be interviewed by KALX-FM radio before the screening.

Atkinson’s previous animated short film, ‘Aspire”, won a number of awards and has been screened nationally and internationally. He also received first prize for 3-D Animation in the Beyond the Canvas Competition for his first animated short,“Spaceport Mars.”

In addition, he works for postproduction houses around the Bay Area, creating video effects and animations for art-house documentaries such as “Surfing for Life” and “Cricket Outta Compton,” TV documentaries for the History Channel and the Travel Channel, and national TV series including “America’s Most Haunted” and “Weird Places.”




Berkeley Daily Planet Arts Friday (excerpts)

Friday, November 30, 2001

A Movie Marathon

Berkeley Video and Film Festival 2001 showcases two Berkeley artists during its 37-film run

By Peter Crimmins

On Saturday the Berkeley Video and Film Festival begins its marathon 10-hour,
37-film screening at the Fine Arts Cinema. While the programmers at the East Bay Media Center, who curate the festival, cannot expect the average moviegoer to sit through the entire festival of general interest features, shorts and documentaries from aroundthe country (a ticket allows in-and-out privileges) a little patience will
uncover many gems.

One is born-and-bred Berkeleyan Kia Simon, who has two short works in the
festival. "The Sway" is a music video for a club dance track by Jondi and Spesh of San
Francisco-based Looq Records. When Simon heard the track electronic beats and harmonies with no lyrics but a house diva intoning a melody - she invented a story component.

"It's a gritty, dark track but it also has a romance to it, so I wanted to come up with something that would match that feeling in terms of a story." The whimsical plot she created follows a young woman pursuing a young man seen on a Muni train through late-night San Francisco streets. Contrasted to the dingy underground trains, crumbly warehouse spaces and club beats are inserted black-and-white images of a coifed-and-gowned nightclub singer fronting a tuxedoed two-man band (that's Jondi and Spesh behind her) amid floating champagne bubbles. It's a bit of nostalgia'in the sweet and gritty romantic pursuit.

"There's something about going to my grandmother's house when I was a kid and watching Lawrence Welk," said Simon. "She had a black and white TV, and I know Lawrence Welk was in color, but to me it will always be a flat, low-contrast black and white."

There's an ironic sexiness of a gowned diva like a tall, cool drink popping
bubbles floating past offsetting the grainy sort of desperate urban romance that finds flirty consummation under the bleak fluorescent lights and over the day-olds at an all-night Chinese food/donut shop.

Simon's other film featured in the festival is a dance triptych called "In Public Space:' Simon put an open call to Bay Area choreographers and dance troupes to create site-specific dances for San Francisco locations. The first, created and danced by the Potrzebie company, takes place in a BART station. Simon, who admits she has an instinctive inclination to make films in or around underground trains, edited together a disparate collection of dance sketches from a choreographers trick bag based on common tics and shuffles made by people during their banal wait for the commuter train. The result is a dance based on everyday glances and movements synchronized into something exuberant.

Part of the challenge in making dance films is taking a performance meant for
a constant time and contiguous space, and adapting it to the fluid pacing and spatial possibilities of cinema. "Sparrow's End:' the second part of "In Public Space2 was created by Jo Kreider of Flyaway Productions to be performed in a potentially dangerous alley between 15th and 16th streets near Valencia in San Francisco's Mission district.

Using dancers dressed in tattered black costumes hanging off the roof of a building (sparrows), and dancers in brightly colored dressed in the alley beneath, Kreider was proposing a means to reclaim urban space for women. The dance includes hair-raising stunts: harnessed dancers hurling themselves off the side of a three-story building and scaling down a fire escape backwards and headfirst.

"Moreover, it's a visceral experience," said Simon. "I find the costumes really beautiful, and the dangerous stuff on the building really exciting. So I don't know if I emphasized the reclaiming aspect of the dance, but that's where it started from."

The film's third part, "Fuzzy Dice" (by Pieces of E Dance Exchange) is an exercise in adapting the same basic movements to difference spaces: the cramped back seat of a parked car,
straddling walkway banister inside the Stockton tunnel, and leaping stone steps in Chinatown.

Other offerings in the Festival showcase creative and innovative ways of putting together film and video. "The Kicker" by Porter Gale, is a short, informal documentary about Cecilia Clark, last year's female place kicker on the Berkeley High School football team. A product of the Stanford documentary program, it's a collage of 16mm black and white images of Clark and her friends, being athietic, with a voiceover in her own words and one of her teammates. The film implies Keith Stevens, a black student, and Cecelia, a white student, would not have met under any other circumstances than football. It takes a casual look at gender issues in extracurricular athletics, and finds its strength as a portrait of the value of teammates off the field.

The Grand Festival Award for a feature goes to "S.F." a digitally produced feature about young people of different races coming together. This one, however, is fatalistic and tragic. As a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet," its storyline is a proven pleaser: Troy, in a white gang fighting a Chinese gang, falls in illicit love with the sister of a fallen leader of the Chinese gang, and the story continues its well-trod course.

A better comparison is with the action of "West Side Story" than the poesy of Shakespeare: director Phil Gorn shows a knack for fight scenes, tense stand-off staring, and a tame but neatly executed love-making sequence.

John Atkinson's "Daydreamer" is a computer-animated short about a desk worker struggling to stay focused on his deadline. His fight becomes a wrestling match with the "thought-balloon" that keep popping up over his head with seductive scenes of vacation and relaxation. Atkinson makes little residual cartoon blobs of thought-balloon become lively, mischievous scamps scurrying around the office space.

Also notably funny are dead-on parodies of TV's "X-Files" and "The Sopranos." "The Sopranowitzes", by Adam Shapiro, an L.A. prime time television producer, is about a family of middle-class Jews and their mobster tactics arranging a bar mitzvah. "The Simplex Files", by Berkeley's Chris Friden ( the other half of the bay area cult cable hit " Bear Territory/Out of Bounds "), is a dramatically heightened supernatural investigation into computer chip
malfunction (computer failure being as close to baffling paranormal experience as most of
us will get); "Files" pulls a double-whammy in turning the popular TV show on its ear with the technical finesse to rival the real program - you will believe.



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