Some Old and New Things: The SF International Film Festival and 998 Valencia.
At 3am in 2011, Jon Siegal and Charlie Getter called me and told me to come to 998 Valencia street. I had just finished working at the Lone Palm a few blocks away so this was not an odd request if a bit mysterious. I arrived to discover a large and empty storefront with an equally large and empty basement. “Here”, said Siegel, “Here, miraculous things will happen”. We gleefully danced about then and dreamed.
Miraculous things did indeed come to pass in that space that is now most notorious for having been Viracocha. Candlelight honorings were held for the Orishas, (it had been before, a Santeria space), the films of Maya Denning were shown, beautiful, strange and occasionally, goofy, old things, art and antiques filled the upstairs, a Free University was hosted there, poetry rang out and that basement become one of the most vibrant, astounding and intimate venues to ever exist on Valencia St.
Viracocha became a Mecca for the striving, the visionary, the lost, the underground and those who hunger for truth, beauty and love. So, when it closed last year, it left many people heart broken. Those who had been the core of the space scattered far and wide to the Sunset, Oakland, Portland and even, Colorado. Those famous wooden doors, when they closed for the last time also seemed to be one more nail in the coffin signaling the death of our beloved neighborhood that had been a zeitgeist and a haven. It was seemingly, one more casualty of the gentrification tsunami that has swamped the Mission. The street felt much, much colder.
But never fear my finely feathered and freaky friends, all is not lost. Something very groovy has happened.
That 998 space has been revived by Riptide owner David Quinby who has kept almost everything in the space intact including the marvelous bathroom and the downstairs stage. Those pianos that were moved by the sweat of poets are still there and still in tune. And for three glorious weeks it is the home of festival lounge for the San Francisco International Film Festival. Color me super glad happy.
I met and spoke with Quinby in the festival lounge about why he took on that space and what his plans are. “Though I lived down the street I had never been into Viracocha. Then one day my architect called me and told me that though he knew I had a lot on my plate with the Riptide burning down I should look at this place that was up for rent. I loved the space. Over the next month I brought in 25 of my most trusted friends to see what they thought and they all said “”no, I have too much on my plate. It’s crazy to do it. No””. But then they came by and actually saw it and walked out in a daze. Then they were, ““you have to do it!””. Mind you, these are conservative people, business people. But the vibe is so amazing that they told me I had to save it.
People have cried coming into the space again.”
As for his vision, he wants to keep it the same as it was. “It’s not broken so don’t fix it. That’s my philosophy for the downstairs. The upstairs is now Al’s Attire. Al was born in the Mission, right down the street. 30 years ago he opened his first shop. He started as a cobbler and he made the boots on my feet, I’ve known him for years. Al loves the space as much as I do and we met with Siegel and knew that it would be a gentle, lovely thing if we could make this happen. He has been a huge part of this new incarnation in so many powerful ways and we are still talking with him. Because of that and so much more, everyday now, we feel like giddy children, like Alice in Wonderland.
It will definitely be a venue. We had our first show awhile back with the Fantastic Negrito. There was an opera singer being fitted upstairs for this bright green suit while music played downstairs to a packed house. Fantastic Negrito is such a beautiful performer and he came alive in this space. Everyone was transfixed. We all hugged each other afterwards and Al and I thanked him for baptizing the venue and our venture. There is also a female spirit in the space, Oshun, and she needs to be fed with music and art and energy. She’s the orisha of love and sweetness but she’s a warrior too. It’s all love but if we are going to do this let’s make it great. Let’s do it right or go home.”
They had put about six months of work into the space to get it ready to open the doors and were finishing the final touch, turning the front door into a dutch door, when some Film Festival folks wandered by. “We invited them in and they were instantly enchanted by the space, just as everyone is. They wanted to make it the center of the film festival and we are honored to have them. We put a lot of work in and put a lot of money into it, we were flooded during El Nino and there is still a lot to do but to have them here, such a beautiful infusion of artists, theater owners, filmmakers and writers is incredible. That’s why I am working in this room instead of my office because it is so inspiring.”
Yes it is. It was with great delight that I moved through that space once more. A delight that was certainly tinged with a bit of ache for what had once been but if there is one truth I will stand by is that Change Will Happen. It must.
With all things, including even, film festivals. For the first time in 30 years the SFIFF has changed location.
Long living in the Fillmore district, SFIFF Executive Director Noah Cowan spearheaded the radical and to some, shocking, decision to center the festival around the Mission. In an interview with Noah Cowen for Missionlocal, he said, “We are a city based film festival, and that means that we are also ambassadors for this place. When I arrived here [from Toronto] nothing really rivaled the Mission in terms of the brilliance of its history and its existing culture on the one and, and …on the other, the incredible changes that have occurred there. To me, this neighborhood really represents San Francisco in transition.<…>Without a doubt this neighborhood is among the most vibrant, interesting and contested on the planet. Festivals are all about beginning conversation and dialogue. And so what better place to do that than the Mission? We can create a really marvelous festival village between 16th and 24th streets in the Mission and we’re really proud of that.”
It also makes being a journalist for the festival a fuck of a lot easier. This is the 4th year I have covered the festival and let me tell you, getting up to the Fillmore from Oakland was a pain in the ass. Interviewing festival director of programming Rachel Rosen, she told me that a study of their demographics of ticket buyers and festival goers revealed that they are were predominately located in the East Bay and the Mission and that being on the Bart line was part of the decision to move. But there was another problem with it being up in the Fillmore district. It felt lonely. There is sadly, no longer an imbedded culture on the street or otherwise. I saw few friends or familiar faces there. It did not at all have the spirit of electric dialogue, community mingling and cultural effect.
Cultural affect that has already occurred due to the move. The festival is helping to revitalize long standing and local mission theaters like the deliciously avant-garde and brave Roxy Theater that has been holding on by the skin of it’s teeth or rather by the threadbare cloth of their theater seats and the Victoria Theater which also hosts the LGBTQ film festival. The SFIFF provided funding to make improvements to the sound system, seats and projection capabilities.
And then there is the Mission Theater which, after of 23 years of dormancy, lives again. The New Mission opened in 1911 and then in the 1920’s it was given shine and gloss by famed architect Timothy Pflueger who also designed the Castro and Paramount theaters. The building is a city landmark and has finally been restored to its original luster. It is a truly stunning theater with a Great Bar and has also become to home to another neighborhood staple we had thought we lost — Lost Weekend Video. They have set up shop in the lobby, permanently.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled about the move. Some Viracocha folks are still in mourning, neighborhood die hards may have some issues with a new influx of tourists and outsiders, (a sentiment that I do have sympathy for), and some long time festival goers don’t quite approve of the Mission’s still deserved reputation for being deliciously gritty and activist and punk and not for your SUV. For being a place where dissident voices call out and artists claim their ground.
Indeed, walking to the lounge on Tuesday night to get my tickets, I passed a powerful protest against police brutality outside the Mission police station. Homeless activists are on a hunger strike and and there is a contentious District 9 supervisor race between two progressive candidates vying against one who is in the deep pockets of our monied interests Mayor. Stephen Kovacic who created the Poor SF Bastards Almanac that was on offer at Viracocha is volunteering at the festival lounge. And still, People of all kinds gather at the Bart station on 16th street and Mission on Thursday nights around that chalk circle fostered by Charlie Getter to spin their poetry, sing their truths and shout their creeds.
So, go see some films and let the festival organizers know that naysayers be damned, the Mission is a perfect neighborhood for an International film festival. Especially one that creates and cultivates an environment for the work of people from all over the world and in every visual discipline, some who are silenced in their own countries, to be recognized. To be enjoyed. To be celebrated.
How well I remember so many nights at the Rev where there might be a French woman singing, a black jazzman talking about politics, some Croatians giving good debate, a Spaniard taking photographs, a Persian discussing the fate of independent publishing, a few folks from Mexico City dancing, myself joining into the fray and then, heck, a tango trio might show up and play in the street. That is the Mission I know and love. Diminished as it has been of late, it has not at all died.
And while you are at it, go and say hello to David and Al at Amado’s. Asha, that happy fat black cat, may no longer prowl about the floors and cast her green eyed glare at those sitting on her favorite chair but the spirit she was part of is most certainly — alive and well.
If you want to know what Jon Siegel is up to now you can go to: http://www.viracochaco.com/