Friday, April 29, 2011

San Francisco International Film Festival; Exploritorium Children's Film Festival

Though I haven't seen a black director yet this season, there are plenty of films of interest to an African Diaspora audience, not to mention a socially conscious and aware audience at that.

This year marks a first for me re: multiple screenings and activism. I don't recall ever participating in SFIFF screenings as part of an organization connected to the subjects and themes in a film, in this case incarceration of women who were battered by their boyfriends and/or husbands.

The film is Yoav Potash's Crime After Crime. Talk about a defense attorney with a magic wand in his back pocket, in this case, "Yoav Potash," Joshua Safan's friend. How many attorneys do you know who enlist the assistance of an award-winning filmmaker and his team as part of one's defense? You can probably count the instances of this happening on one finger (smile).

Debbie Peagler, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, was referred to the two attorneys, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safran, through the California Habeas Project at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. The land use attorneys are given release time for the case from their firm which lasts longer than either had imagined when agreeing to take the case. However, no matter how bleak the scenario painted multiple times on the wall during strategy sessions, the attorneys do not admit defeat.

"Crime After Crime" shows how justice is a marathon, the form set to weed out the weary. However, the team holds each other up as together they all, with Debbie in the leading position, sail across the finish line. Justice is a collaborative project, crime doesn't occur in isolation and justice is not achieved in isolation--one needs cameras and lights to spur action. The fact that such a document like this film exists is a way to east the process for so many other women in prison with Habeas claims.

Debbie's attorneys not only withhold evidence, lie to her and her co-defendant, then have them agree to a plea bargain, to avoid the death penalty, Crime After Crime shows how this same legal team has as its key witness an informant, who perjures himself repeatedly before the deal is made and the defendants sign.

The film is a roller coaster ride, Joshua always ready with a quip, comic relief in a situation that intensifies as the years parade by, the California judicial system filing counter motions and denying agreements, like the DA's reneging on his agreement to release Debbie, as if this isn't a human being's life we are talking about. Debbie herself is such a trooper; she couldn't have been better cast.

Yoav's camera is everywhere and when it isn't, it is not too far behind. His style reminds me of Michael Moore's, in your face. He sticks his microphone in the faces of DAs like Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley (who ran against Kamala Harris for State Attorney General and lost) and lets them prove his point, which is their complicity the injustice and the absence of empathy--they really don't care about this Debbie or the countless other Debbies wrongfully incarcerated. It is amazing how much material the courts already had which the legal team with the help of its private investigator, the late Bobby Buechler, uncovered which exonerated Debbie--on paper, yet they wouldn't let her free.

The immediacy of this issue, domestic violence and women who are survivors criminalized is apparent and enhanced by the women in the audience at each screening. These women talk about their friend whose life reflects their own. Debbie's daughter Natasha and her children were present at the Berkeley screening, along with Marisa Gonzalez of the CA Habeas Project, and of course the two attorneys, Nadia Costa and Joshua Safan, director, Yoav Potash.

"Crime After Crime" is also the story of the power of media to shape ideas and perceptions; one just needs to know how to bend the tools to one's end, in this case justice. Often campaigns are ill-equipped and out-maneuvered in crucial public policy deputes, one, because they might lack the media savvy tools to compete or they might not have the funds. In Debbie's case, not only was her team aware of the power of media, they had a powerful law firm and other constituent donors available to make their plan work. Another key was they entered the contest hoping for justice, yet knowing the crooked system, prepared for the worse. Yoav was there from the beginning collecting data which when strategically necessary, the legal team used.

There is one more screening Monday, May 2, 2011, in San Francisco at 9 PM. Check ticket availability beforehand. The film will have a theatrical debut later in the summer in the San Francisco Bay Area and will open in New York before the Los Angeles opening. There is an LA outdoor screening in June, I think June 25. Visit the website:

Detroit Wild City

I have a certain affinity for the city of industry, Detroit or Michigan period. Though I've never been there, when I think of Detroit, I recall Motown (Motor + Town Records, and Berry Gordy Jr., Diana Ross and Little Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye. I think about the Jones brothers: Elvin, Thaddeus and Hank from Flint. I think about Ogun, Ford and Firestone. I recall King Leopold and the ghosts which haunts this city today, the ancestors in Congo whose lives fertilize the soil.

Detroit is the hometown of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and the birthplace of the Nation of Islam and the Republic of New Afrika. Detroit was the epitome of black America working, perhaps this is why it looks the way it does today --at least the way French film director Florent Tillon portrays it in its vacant vacuous despair. Detroit, the film, reminds me of Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11"--Flint, Michigan not a far stretch of the imagination from its big city sister Detroit.

Florent Tillon's "Detroit Wild City" isn't seen in Pearl Cleage's "I Wish I Had a Red Dress"--the setting for her novel a place where a woman starts a program for young girls who need mentoring and guidance. Tillon's Detroit isn't the perhaps fictive place that hosts a jazz concert each summer with Michigan native sons and daughters as headliners.

Tillon courts the voices of urban gardeners who plant food in tubs that exude radioactive contaminates as one gardener speaks of the benefits of dirt and how much she loves to get dirty. I wonder at the metaphor, brown soil on white skin? Who are the people she references who refuse to eat fresh food? Where are they? Do they only come out at night? If these people stopped eating fast food and started eating live foods would the city then come back to life as she suggests?

The only part of the film that faintly resembles the Detroit of my imagination is shown in a scene at the end of the film when the Sunday community gatherings in the park with music and food and fun. Another critic whose review I read disagrees and says this end is fanciful and unrealistic, as if African people haven't disappeared on American landscapes and then come back before, perhaps immaculately conceived--unlike the indigenous people who didn't. After all Detroit's not completely dead yet.

Robert F. Williams and his wife, Mabel Williams lived just outside Detroit and their older son told us about a program he developed in Detroit to help youth. I wonder if he is still there. He and his mother visited Oakland several years ago-- What would he and his mother say about this bleak film which looks like Will Smith film, I Am Legend. Are Florent Tillon's subjects zombies, duppies, ghosts?

One of the subjects speaks about how the unoccupied buildings have evidence of its former inhabitants as if they left in a hurry. Reels of film in the director's box at this lovely old theatre lie in a dark corner. The train station looks like the passengers are still somewhere near waiting for the next train-- The stadium--what's left of it, fenced in, is philosophically prepped for the season about to begin.
Why demolish the city's stadium is there are no people to fill the vacant housing nearby, let alone new development?

There are a lot of unanswered questions here. Who are these voyeur narrators the majority outsiders without ties to the people? Scavengers, they subside on echoes of discarded memories speculating on what is in the context of what is left. I love the scene with the burned books, all the same title--it seems like the director set the scene up the book about Detroit--the subject Black Monk (a white guy) shares its opening pages, ones he hadn't read before. We look out the window and there is a billboard with a message from God, something about the temporal nature of life and life ever after with him.

I was like "wow."

Tillon's "Detroit Wild City" is a lovely treatment of what a "Day of Absence" (Douglas Turner Ward 1965) really looks like: a world where traffic is silent, not many birds sing and the only life which is increasing is that of dogs whose noses look like pig snouts-their story another tragedy we learn of as dog catchers snare strays and then take us to the shelters where recent arrivals snarl at the camera. See

He states that Detroit is known nationally for its negative stats, such as "murder capital," "high unemployment," "citizen flight," "poor schools," that these negative assets are capitalized on by the remaining residents who live down to national expectations. How inhuman can I get? How beastly can I become?

Many residents breed dogs to have them then kill or maim each other in competitions, their owners guilty of callous abandonment of the pets or their brutal killing such as burning the dogs alive. This is the only population that is increasing, numbering in the 100s of 1000s; stray dogs abandoned wandering the streets killing and being killed.

I like the way the director projects the captor as other or outsiders as well. The subject here talks about how he is more comfortable in the woods than in the city, and as we travel the highway in his vehicle, Detroit seems to have areas dense with green landscape. The animal controller reflects on a time when he met a cheetah in the wild, as he laments the possibility that man will kill everything that can potentially maim or kill him and what such a world would look like. Detroit Wild City screens again at UC Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive Wednesday, May 4, 8:40 PM. Visit

Better this World

Another film of interest is "Better This World," which looks at FBI surveillance today and how if you think COINTELPRO ended with the killing of Martin King and Malcolm X, think again. It shows how like Hitler, the enemy is a master at seduction and uses one's passions, in this case, two young men who wanted to make the country uphold its ideals expressed in founding documents: the Declaration of Independence and its Constitution and Bill of Rights. The only problem they meet a man, Brandon Darby, a sky, on the FBI payroll who breaks the law, yet it is these two young men who take the fall.

It is an amazing story with cast and causes the San Francisco Bay Area audience is familiar with like Malik Rahim and Common Ground Relief, Robert H. King and Angola 3. Informants are not all bad, I guess, if one looks at Brandon's work at Common Ground Relief and his rescue of Robert F. King, but he definitely needed watching, his behavior then and as depicted in the film, unstable and extreme--read: "crazy."

Darby twists the boys' enthusiasm into a terrorist operation. It shows how vulnerable certain people are and how evil is manipulative and pervasive--by the time the two subjects wake up, they are captured ideologically and then physically with their arrest.

"Better This World" directors, Kelly Duane de La Vega and Katie Galloway's film is a study in how good intentions are preyed upon by scavengers who cowardly use the naïveté of youth to further ends which look sane to the uninitiated. These are the same kids we see blowing themselves up around the world, while their tutors remain safe and alive. The film screens for a final time, Thursday, May 5, 8:45 PM at Sundance Kabuki in San Francisco.


"COINTELPRO 101" (56 min 2010), dir. Claude Marks, screens, Thursday May 12 at 7:15 and 9:15 at the Red Vic Movie House, 1727 Haight Street, San Francisco. Director Claude Marks will be present at both shows for Q&A. Visit

Other African Diaspora and African American Interest films at SFIFF:

"The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975," Göran Hugo Olsson, Sweden/USA, Saturday, April 30, 9 PM at Kabuki and Tuesday, May 3, 6 PM at New People also in San Francisco. "Children of the Princess of Cleves" screens at 4:15 PM at Kabuki and so does "The Redemption of General Butt Naked," dir. Eric Strauss, Daniele Anastasion, USA, at 6:45 PM at Kabuki; "Butt Naked," also screen Monday, May 2, 9:45 PM at Kabuki. "Kinyarwanda," dir. Alrick Brown, USA/Rwanda screens three times beginning Sunday, May 1, 12:30 PM at Kabuki and again Tuesday, May 3, 9 PM at New People in San Francisco at 1746 Post Street (at Fillmore) following "The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975," at 6 PM. "American Teacher, dir. Vanessa Roth, USA" screens Thursday, May 5, 3:45 PM at Kabuki prior to "Kinyarwanda" and "The Place in Between," dir. Sarah Bouyain, France/Burkina Faso (you could see all three). I wanted to attend the Novikoff Ward: Serge Bromerg: Retour de Flamme: Rare and Restored Films in 3-D at the Castro, but Vukani Mawethu is celebrating its 25 anniversary at Freight & Savage Coffeehouse in Berkeley from 4-7, so that is where I will be.

The Place in Between

"The Place in Between" dir. Sarah Bouyain, France/Burkina Faso, is the story of displacement of both child and mother in a mixed race union, where father takes the child and her mother is left alone. In this case the man is French and the mother is African and child raised by his French wife with her half-brother, also white. The film takes place when the girl, now grown, wants to know her birth mother and what happens when she retraces those early steps.

The sorrow signified by fractured lives --the brokenness unrecognized --at least by the girl until she tried to find herself, is portrayed well. The juxtaposition of all affected by her birth: both mothers, siblings, other parents, and community in Africa and at large--the relationships lost and the relationships the young woman estranged from her life and from her roots cannot capture or restore, is also explored.

The girl is able to step on and off the set, since she is between worlds, neither of one nor wholly of the other. One sees her dizziness as she tries to choose, her loyalties split. She is an outsider, marked she cannot fade or pass and when she tries she is insulted by a man who sees her in traditional attire and propositions her. African women in big hotels are things not people; of course she is there for his sexual amusement. She can't be a guest.

When the young woman meets her aunt and finds that the memories she recalls are of this mother, this woman who has been waiting for her return, her world is flipped on its other side.

"The Place in Between" reflects on the role of mother in a child's life, transcultural adoptions and interracial adoptions and what the impact is on the child, who in this case, looks black, but is really her step-mother's child, socially, if not genetically. Unlike other transracial adoptions or blended families, this girl does have memories of her earlier life, one her father rescues her from, even if she loses her linguistic access.

This latent memory helps, perhaps even inspires, the quest while it destroys a life, a life built on the absence of truth. The inferno burns all connected to the story and their pain is palatable--the mothers whom love this child and don't or didn't want to let her go, and the third mother whom no one knows or considered who suffers perhaps the most.

"The Place in Between," set in Burkina Faso and France looks at African people symbolized by this displaced child and how horrific the riff between those who left or were taken and those who stayed, and how the repair is shabby and ineffective.

The historic and contemporary European presence is anything but positive here, the poverty striking in the depictions of those with means and those without. Many of the impoverished like the girl's aunt reside or float in memories to great to bear. She, like her other sisters self-medicate, her prescription of choice alcohol, a temporary cure, which only dampens and covers the loss.

The birth mother is shamed and ashamed, so she leaves without a forwarding address and her family is left bereft. The only one, seemingly not affected is the father who dies before his African child makes the journey back home.

The ending is not sweet or conclusive which I think lends honesty to this taboo subject--outside children, a further implication of the continued Maafa in African Diaspora communities. Even those of us with recent memories feel we cannot return home. Yet, the return is what heals the girl's aunt, who has been waiting, wondering, wishing for her daughter's return. Again, the film screens Thursday, May 5, 2011, at the Kabuki, 8:45 PM.

Other films still with screenings left:

Marathon Boy 4/30 1 PM, (5/3 9:15 PM), Miss Representation (5/4 5:45 PM Kabuki, "Incendies" (5/2 & 5/5), "Hands Up" 5/3 1 PM & 5/4 3:30 PM at the Kabuki and "The Green Wave" (5/2 animation) look interesting, as do: A Cat in Paris (5/1) (animation for the family), "The Tiniest Place" 4/30 6 PM PFA, 5/1 4:15 Kabuki, & 5/5 5:45 PM Kabuki; "Circumstance" (5/1 & 5/3), "Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times" (5/1). Hopefully you saw: "Microphone," set in Egypt, Hot Coffee, Pink Saris--excellent from the director of "Sisters in Law," and "Divorce Iranian Style," and "A Day I Will New Forget," Kim Longinott; Jean Gentil set in Haiti, "Women Art Revolution," "The Troll Hunter," "Life, Above All," dir. Oliver Schmitz, South Africa/Germany.


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