Two New Films, One Fiction, The Other Non, Examine The Darker Side Of Law And Order
-by Denise Sullivan
The Other Barrio and Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution are two very different films yet both depict crimes against communities of color in the Bay Area and beyond. I recently spoke to producer Lou Dematteis and director Stanley Nelson, about their respective films.
Since its inception, film noir has found its ideal nighttime location in San Francisco, its fog-laced alleys and neon-lit beauty the perfect backdrop for booze-swilling anti-heroes and the ladies who love them, while in the real world, corruption and evil also coexist with the search for truth. The Other Barrio (based on a short story by the Alejandro Murguía, turned into a film by Dante Betteo and Lou Dematteis, acted by local talent, and overseen by a crew of local workers) is the first English language film noir to be perceived through a Latino lens. Exploring the mysteries of local government and its pattern of casting aside citizens of artistically prolific and politically active neighborhoods (in this case the Mission) in favor of profits and comfort for a few, the story of The Other Barrio is not just of local concern but increasingly global.
"The film is an artistic pushback against gentrification," says Dematteis, a longtime resident of the Mission and an award-winning photojournalist. "We tried to cast local people involved in the Mission arts community. We included the murals, restored murals…we have a CD with music by Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Omar Sosa, Dr. Loco, trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez. Our music supervisor was Greg Landau, René Yañez was our production designer." Traditional noir themes of disillusionment and hardened cynicism dovetail with passion and hope in an update of Muguia's short story, itself a contemporary retelling of actual events that occurred following a fire in the neighborhood in the '70s. The film's lead actor Richard Montoya (a founding member of the comedy troupe, Culture Clash) also had a hand in expanding the script which had some eerie coincidences to real Mission life.
"We premiered 10 days after the 22nd and Mission fire," says Demmateis, referring to a horrible apartment fire earlier this year that displaced residents and killed one person (the film's subtitle is Fighting Fire With Fire). He noted the five or six other fires in the area before, during and after the filming. "This was a case of art imitating life imitating art," he says, and its message hasn't been lost on the people impacted the most by the changes---Mission residents.
Bay Area-born Dematteis is the kind of politically-motivated, community-serving artist the city once prided itself on housing, though tomorrow's filmmakers can no longer afford to live in town due to a persistent pattern of hyper-gentrification. A third generation Italian-American, he's lived in the neighborhood for 40 years and is no stranger to extreme environments.
"I covered the war as a photographer in Central America from '85-'90," he explains. Returning to the U.S., he continued to cover events in Vietnam, Ecuador and the Amazon, documenting underreported stories of post-war conditions and environmental destruction. Eventually he transitioned to video and began to work at public television where he first collaborated with director Dante Betteo, a Chilean-American who also leans toward social and political subjects.
"We didn't now for sure how people would respond to the film," says Dematteis, but it when it premiered to sold-out screenings and standing ovations at the San Francisco Indie Fest earlier this year, he got his answer. "The majority of people in the theater were Latino. How often are Latinos part of a feature film, all the main actors? How many times are there positive roles of Latinos on the screen? So that and to see a story that's dealing with what's happening at this time in the Mission, even though it's fiction, was incredible."
Returning home to the Brava Theater on 24th and York Streets this weekend, Dematteis and his cast and crew are committed to continued festival screenings and discussions on gentrification, like one recently held in the Columbia Heights area of D.C. Once largely populated by Latino and African American residents alongside refugees from El Salvador and Nicaragua, the neighborhood is rapidly changing. "They're experiencing what's happening here, there. It's everywhere."
The Other Barrio screens at San Francisco's Brava Theater, October 16 & 17 at 7 and 9:30 PM, October 18 at 3:30 and 6 PM and October 22 at 7:30 PM. Lou Dematteis and special guests will appear at a Q&A following this weekend's screenings. For tickets: www.brava.org
Forty nine years ago this month, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party for the purpose of combatting police violence in their Oakland neighborhood. Just in time for the organization's fiftieth anniversary, the story of the Black Panthers is told once and for all in Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
"I'm interested in movements, not from the top down but the people who join and sustain movements," says Nelson. "I really wanted the film to be about the rank and file members who are normally not talked to." Though hailing from the East, Nelson was exposed to his local Panther chapter as a teen; he considered joining for about a minute, but opted to pick up a camera instead of a gun. Pursuing freedom narratives throughout his career as a documentarian, it was only natural that over time, as an African American observing Black lives, the story of the Panthers was a natural for his historic oeuvre, though he could not have predicted the timelessness of the story and the never ending cycle of police brutality in communities of color, combined with young people's need to invent new ways to resist.
"In the last year and a half, when we were close to locking down the film, Ferguson happened," explains Nelson. Of course he knew police brutality, and the need for better schools and housing were still relevant ("It's why I wanted to do the film seven years ago," he says) so the fact matters became more urgent was simply history taking its course.
"Because of recent circumstances, it's opened a door to a conversation where people don't wish to condemn the Panthers outright or at first glance," he says. "They are more moved to think about the fact African Americans organized to defend their community. A year ago, they might've said,'Defend their community from what?" but people wouldn't say that now."
As the story goes, from their incredible rise to their notorious fall, the sight of young, mobilized Black people caught fire with the media and sympathizers on the ground as BPP chapters sprung up around the country and even Hollywood (Brando, Fonda) got down with the cause. At the same time, law enforcement was taking notes: By the late '60s, J. Edgar Hoover's well-documented COINTELPRO program was full blown. Nelson allows all the players in the dramatic take down of the Party to speak to the highs and lows.
"We wanted geographical diversity, and talked to lot of Panthers, men and women. I knew early on, I wanted to tell certain stories, like the murder of Fred Hampton and the LA shootouts, so we found Panthers in the Chicago and LA chapters involved in those events," he says. "We also wanted to interview as many cops, FBI agents and informants as possible," he explains. Conversely, events like the UCLA murders of John Huggins and Bunchy Carter were left out as were stories of party sympathizers like H. Rap Brown and Angela Davis (there are also no contemporary interviews with former party leaders Seale and David Hilliard). Plenty of filmmakers, scholars and Panthers themselves have attempted historical overviews of the Party, but award-winning filmmaker Nelson (Freedom Riders, Freedom Summer) has landed on something close to a definitive reading of its politics and people, in all their glory and contradictions.
"I never know why people talk or don't talk," says Nelson, "I never ask them. I'm just happy when they do."
The Black Panthers is now playing in theaters throughout the country. Stanley Nelson will appear at a Q&A following the October 16 & 17 7:30 PM screenings at Film Forum in New York City.
Denise Sullivan writes occasionally for DWT! on arts, culture, and gentrification. She is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop.