SF Urban Film Fest
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SF Urban Film Fest

Through the Lens: Realizing Identity & Needs Through Filmmaking

Bay Area Artists Connecting Emotional Truths to Social Priorities for Change

Written by Bobby Shijia Lu

Dedicated to Those Who, Jules Retzlaff, 2021, courtesy the artist.

I’ve been asking myself — What is the future? How do we get there? Attending Through the Lens: Realizing Identity & Needs Through Filmmaking this year brought me closer to the answers.

On Friday, March 11th, 2022, the SF Urban Film Fest (SFUFF) and Bayview Hunters Point Center for Arts & Technology (BAYCAT) co-presented the film and panel program at the Ninth Street Independent Film Center in SoMa. It included three short films: Blackness is Everything, an experimental/performative short film that celebrates the diversity of the Black diaspora in The Bay Area. Rent Check (the pilot episode) tells the story of Mike, a young Black comedian, being conflicted upon discovering his brother’s career. And Dedicated to Those Who, a hybrid documentary and visual album exploring the struggles of the past, present, and future San Francisco.

Top: Blackness is Everything, Alba Roland Mejia, 2021, courtesy the artist; Bottom right: Rent Check Preview, Mike Evans Jr. & Jules Retzlaff, 2020, courtesy the artists. Bottom right: Dedicated to Those Who, Jules Retzlaff, 2021, courtesy the artist.

As we have come to expect from the SFUFF, the screening was followed by a lively panel discussion which not only illuminates the intentions of the filmmakers but also allows for the audience to digest and dissect the themes of the films. Joining moderator Isa Nakazawa, Director of Marketing and Communications of Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) were filmmakers and key figures featured in the films: Donté Clark (Poet, Blackness is Everything), Mike Evans Jr (Comedian, Writer, Filmmaker, Rent Check), and Jules Retzlaff (Filmmaker, Dedicated to Those Who; Co-Director, Rent Check). After the panel discussion, Mike Evans Jr surprised the audience with a work-in-progress stand-up comedy performance that added another layer to the already intimate evening.

The panel discussion very much reflected the energies of the panelists: Isa was witty, Donté was poetic, Mike was funny, and Jules was political. They shared their thoughts about films as a medium for storytelling, about home and ghosts, about futures, and joked about kids and spiritual awakening. In the audience that evening, I felt the kind of spontaneity and spark I had been craving for. I felt that I belonged, that I was part of the discussion happening onstage, part of the community of artists whose members are actively claiming a foothold, a voice in our society.

Today’s society is defined by profit where, to paraphrase poet Adrienne Rich, mass media (in the United States) centers white voices and stories, and markets theatricals and excitements that take the place of ideas, of real collective debate, vision, or catharsis, thereby isolating us from what’s going on in our immediate communities, the people and their stories. I recall South African writer Nadine Gordimer once said, “the lack of means to distribute is another form of censorship.” The local media makers showcased in this program are fighting against that kind of suppression, misrepresentation, or a lack of representation by creating what they want to say, how they want to say it, without asking for permission, while also considerately representing and engaging their communities in that creative process.

Moderator Isa Nakazawa led panelists (from left) Donté Clark, Mike Evans Jr., and Jules Retzlaff in discussion at the 9th Street Independent Film Center in SOMA. Top right: Mike Evans Jr. closed the evening with a comedy set.

As a spoken-word artist, whose expertise is language, Donté Clark understands the limitations of the English language. “Language is kind of like a complicated situation, because English is not my native tongue…… If I came and spoke exactly how big momma and my grandpa spoke, something may come off as funny, but for certains things, when you live it, you know why he’s speaking the way he speaks. It is a different experience.” Donté challenges what the English language represents and creates a new language that integrates the lived experience and specific truths of being Black in the Bay Area via film and performance. It allows the audience who has never experienced it to see the textures and layers, the walk, and the music, and visualize the beauty and poetics of Blackness.

Mike Evans Jr and Jules Retzlaff are perhaps more explicit with their intentions of speaking to current political issues like police brutality and displacement. For Mike, film is a medium that brings peoples’ attention to the seriousness of issues faced by different communities in a way more powerful than spoken-word and comedy. It allows, or forces, people to experience an “issue” firsthand, confront it visually and viscerally, as we have witnessed in the anger and changes brought about by videos of crimes against people and communities of color. He combines the issues facing the Black community and his own truth — as an artist with insecurities — in Rent Check to “have a conversation about police brutality that wasn’t Black dude white cop, but Black dude Black cop, which exists in the world but has never been put on-screen.”

Jules wants to bring extreme clarity to the political mechanisms that are actively displacing local communities in the Bay Area. Jules believes that by centering the narratives of a community’s past while ignoring their thriving legacy society is effectively creating living ghosts. To Jules, filmmaking is an act of defiance, a tool of power against that political process, and an assertion that “I am not a ghost, I am alive and well…and I deserve to be here, to be part of the conversation.”

It was Donté’s words on ghosts that haunted me the most:

I’m from Richmond, California. It’s a very small city and we are all very related… At the time it was fifty or fourty-sixty percent Black. Just seeing what it was like when I was younger, and feeling like I can go anywhere, the world seemed really big, and when I became a teenager, it was like, no, you can’t go over there, and you could die here. Having this infatuation with death at a young age from twelve to fifteen, feeling like eighteen is a stretch, I don’t know if I am going to get there, and we are all in this race trying to beat time…The idea of ghosts is always around, because we are standing at the corner where such-and-such and such-and-such got killed. Whatever we do, we have to do it in honor of this because there aren’t many places we can go. Before it was an idea of gentrification, it was just men who die out here and go to jail, then (now) we get moved out. It’s like we have always been under extermination, and me as an artist, I have to document.

After the event I asked myself and my friends, who are also urban planners, what do history-honoring (ghost-honoring) urban policies and programs look like? We couldn’t think of any good examples. A bad example was brought up — in talking about economic development as part of the West Oakland Specific Plan, there was no mentioning the history of Black Panthers’ social service programs, some of which went on to inspire Federal policies in the 1970s.

…what do history-honoring (ghost-honoring) urban policies and programs look like?

None of the films by these artists-of-color felt, as Isa pointed out, that they are pleading for a gaze, for a recognition. They were simply stories of themselves, their friends, their communities. Yet the message of “I am here, I am still here” felt so strong. The imagery, the words, the music, the rhythm, and the movements invoke in me a sense of sadness, pride, joy, and a call for change that honors the history, the memory, the communities, and the people of color.

Moderator Isa Nakazawa and panelists Donté Clark, Mike Evans Jr., and Jules Retzlaff.

The theme of the 2022 SFUFF was urban futures; “the promise of the future shouts adventure and new hopes. But thinking about the future does not have to mean blasting off to unknown worlds — leaving us, our problems, and our places behind. Urban futures will not be found in the metaverse”. The artists and films from this program have offered us some hints as to how we move forward into the future. Audre Lorde said, “for there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt — of examining what those ideas feel like being lived on Sunday morning at 7 a.m., after brunch, during wild love, making war, giving birth, mourning our dead — while we suffer the old longings, battle the old warnings and fears of being silent and impotent and alone, while we taste new possibilities and strengths.” These artists encourage us to move towards change. By being in touch with our feelings and desires and sharing those deep feelings with each other in community. Borrowing Donté’s words, “by finding words centered around love, showing what love looks like, packaging it with imagery, and putting it out there as much as possible so that those who buy into it would start to see themselves in the stories.” Or as my friends at the SFUFF write, “by imagining with compassion and clarity–about piecing ourselves and our community back together with the glue of our common good. Right here, right now”.

The SFUFF team poses with the evening’s panelists and artists after an electric discussion and comedy set.

Watch the panel discussion:

This event took place on March 11, 2022 and was curated by Omeed Manocheri. For more information about the SF Urban Film Fest, visit our website.

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SF Urban Film Fest gathers a diverse, engaged audience and uses the power of storytelling to spark discussion and civic engagement around urban issues. We focus on what it means to live together in a city and make urban planning more equitable and inclusive.

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