Zombies at Skyline High. Global resistance to deforestation. The birthplace of the Black Panther Party.
A “warrior spirit art experience.” The secret lives of shopping carts. Two ornery neighbors and how your Haitian disaster relief donation was spent.
Then there's the Oakland firestorm; A cholera outbreak in 19th century London; a one-man dramatization of the Emmett Till story; a charming, dive-y neighborhood lounge for singers.
All this and a whole lot more can be found at the 10th anniversary edition of the Oakland International Film Festival, which kicks off this weekend.
Over the course of three days, OIFF10 offers a treasure trove of independent, underground or otherwise non-mainstream films, shorts and documentaries. In addition to international subjects - there are two films about Haiti and several Spanish language films - numerous films spotlight local filmmakers and/or are set in Oakland or the Bay Area.
To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims ad, OIFF has come a long way, baby. This year, screenings will be held in a newly-renovated theater with a killer sound system inside the Oakland Museum of California - a step-up from the venerable Grand Lake Theater, the festival’s previous home. OMCA’s involvement helped the small organization with outreach, always a sticking point in years past. It also enabled OIFF to set up an additional space for panel discussions, filmmaker Q&As, networking opportunities and bonus screenings (including a selection of music videos) concurrently with the main program.
In addition to OMCA’s support, the visitor’s bureau also is on board, helping to promote OIFF as a cultural attraction; this year, there are pre- and after-parties at local establishments where filmgoers can mix with filmmakers. More info is on the festival's website.
“We’re growing from the grassroots,” OIFF Founding Director David Roach, says. But more prominent sponsors, a snazzier venue and higher visibility doesn’t mean OIFF has sold out.
Don’t expect Sundance-esque celebrity-driven content; what you will find are artistic labors of love, low-budget films with high production values and underground gems you probably won’t see elsewhere.
“We’re getting real independent films,” Roach says,with an emphasis on real.
One certain highlight is the 1970s classic, “The Spook Who Sat By the Door,” the story of an African-American man recruited by the CIA who turns the tables on the spy agency and leads a revolution. Roach says he's "super-excited" about a scheduled appearance by the film’s screenwriter, Sam Greenlee. The “Spook,” Roach says, “illustrates what independent film is all about.”
In addition to several films thematically linking social justice, environmental awareness or health consciousness, including "Who Bombed Judi Bari?" Roach also is particularly juiced about screening the African-American cultural fable “Sankofa,” as well as OIFF's many homegrown cinematic efforts.
Ah yes, the local fare: Journalist and radio personality JR Valrey - a good example, Roach says, of Oakland’s unique independent media perspective - is featured in two films, “Haiti: Rising from the Ashes” (which he co-directs) and “Block Reporting.” Spoken word artist Chinaka Hodge wrote “Miles Away,” a short film inspired by a short story written by San Francisco student Julio Espinoza about an immigrant who relocates from the city to Richmond.
Jacquie Taliaferro’s “10-10 Gotta Win” looks at electoral politics. Kevin Epps’ “Fam Bam” examines African-American family life. “Oaktowne” is a pilot episode, developed for TV, which tells the story of three friends growing up in Oakland. “Fire Ruin Renewal” tackles the 1991 Oakland hills firestorm and its aftermath. “Hip Hop Blues Connection” is a drama about the fight to save the bay area’s last blues club. “The Alley Cats” details regulars at Oakland piano bar the Alley. “Just Us” is the story of a white kid from Oakland who gets caught up in rap music, drug dealing, and, eventually, prison. “Radioactive” is a horror story centered around Skyline High.
The self-descriptive “Merritt College - Home of the Black Panthers” examines the birthplace of what became a worldwide revolutionary movement (besides segueing nicely into OMCA’s “1968” and “All of Us or None” exhibits). Last, but not least, there’s “Basketball 3:16," a drama with comedic elements, set in inner-city Oakland.
OIFF’s local selections, Roach says, reflect the best that Oakland has to offer.
“We’re very unique. We’re not waiting for other people to discover us.”
To him, that uniqueness translates to a legacy of independence as well as innovation. The Black Panthers’ efforts at Merritt College, for instance, were “responsible for African American Studies departments across the nation," Roach says. "That’s something we might take for granted.”