Wisdom Lives in Places: Stories as Catalysts

Is It Enough To Uplift A Voice? How Do We Take Action With Storytelling?

SF Urban Film Fest
SF Urban Film Fest
Published in
5 min readFeb 16, 2021


digital illustration of two people with bald heads wearing bandana face masks and kissing
Still from Primavera by Adrian Garcia Gomez. Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Video Data Bank, www.vdb.org, School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

When the pandemic hit, we saw how cities across the country struggled to adapt, to reevaluate their priorities, and provide resources for the most vulnerable. We wondered too if we needed to pivot on our mission and activities: if our communities are in crisis, what can we contribute immediately to support them? In reflection, we ultimately found that in doing what we do best, bringing people together and sharing their stories, we could continue to be an active catalyst in reinforcing necessary change.

So we turned to the streets, to our communities, and to the people who have been fighting to have their voices heard so that we could center their needs and proposed solutions. The SF Urban Film Fest (SFUFF) is an organization that has a history of emphasizing equitable urban planning, building community, and fighting for just cities. So in our case, stay at home orders didn’t shake us. The new moment was just the signal to roll up our sleeves and get to work doing what we do best: uplifting the stories of the people and creating avenues of empathy to actualize justice.

“We are centering community stories, experiences and solutions this year because traditional systems have failed to deliver,” says Founder and Executive Director Fay Darmawi. “With the pandemic, communities that have been neglected are banding together to help those most in need. Our festival program this year highlights this wisdom and fortitude in our streets.”

Indeed, the need to come together and address our most pressing urban issues is more urgent than ever. Which is why this year’s SF Urban Film Fest: Wisdom Lives in Places suggests the way forward is to honor the wisdom that’s been here, long before 2020, from folks who have been resilient in the face of adversity, showing us how not only to survive but to thrive.

While the foundation of our festival’s curation has always been about centering community, this year we are paying close attention to the stories of those who are most urgently impacted. For years, we’ve been working with SOMA Pilipinas Cultural Heritage District to bolster community goals around land use, anti-displacement, and cultural production. We’re honored to expand on this experience with the recently-founded American Indian Cultural District. In partnership, we are curating a film and panel discussion on increasing the visibility of urban American Indian culture, history, and people through storytelling. In a similar fashion, we’ve brought the conversation around the ongoing houselessness crisis in the Bay Area and are taking action on a national level with the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago. In our program People-Led Solutions: Models of Our Shared Future we’ll be working with multimedia journalist Yessica Prado to practice acts of caring by writing love notes and assembling care packages for unhoused residents in Chicago, Berkeley, and Oakland. For us, film is just the vehicle for telling the stories that mobilize our audience to partake in tangible activism beyond the screen.

Ada Pinkston, a Black woman, poses on top of a pedestal where a Confederate monument used to stand
Ada Pinkston performing LandMarked. Image courtesy of the artist.

One of the greatest challenges that the film festival has faced this year, like everyone, are the boundaries around congregation. While the translation of film watching from public to private is an obvious pivot, a crucial component of our programming has always been about engagement with our audiences in public spaces.

In our programming this year we tried to find solutions to address physical space, gathering, and connection with communities in order to appropriately mourn the tragedies of the past year and the histories before that with which we have yet to come to terms. We explore this tension in our program How We Mourn, Where We Remember, by looking at how we can adapt public spaces to be more inclusive and serve the present while honoring the past. We also put these values into practice in our program Immersive Storytelling: Museum of the Hidden City, where we’re featuring an augmented-reality walking tour on the Fillmore District’s history of urban renewal and convening a group discussion around multi-sensory storytelling as an organizing tool and remembrance of the past.

Also as part of our festival this year, we’re proud to present MOURNING IS AN ACT OF LOVE, a multimedia, free, public installation on the exterior walls and windows at exterior of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) that is reflective of the ideas and issues we’re engaging with in our virtual programs. Through photography, video, performance, sign painting, poetry, and , of course, film, the artists explore the inextricable ties between how we love and how we mourn collectively.

This installation is about not hardening ourselves from societal trauma, but letting our mourning and remembrances guide us to move forward in love. We mourn because we love. Like always- love is both the cause and the antidote for our pain,” says curator and program producer Susannah Smith.

In paying respects to the communities we serve, we recognize that much of communal ritual, healing, and reckoning happens in person and in place, an untenable component during this time. Yet still, we wanted to help people process their grief and express civic love safely in public spaces, share the lessons of the past, and create solutions for our future. For this tribute, we chose to work with YBCA because of its importance and influence as an institution. Because of its physical placement, we can bring the people to the places they would otherwise not be found: into the heart of the city, where they belong.

“When YBCA asked SFUFF to come on board as our Artist in Residence, we knew their inspiring commitment to sharing ideas, stories, and memories of place would help us reimagine the way we gather and inhabit a public experience,” says Meklit Hadero, Chief of Program at YBCA. “Their endeavor with this year’s film festival and in-person art installation on the exterior of our building is helping lead the way in considering what comes next and how we continue to find pathways for connection with our communities.”

In this moment we are at a junction, and our institutions need to hear the voices of the community. As a global pandemic intensifies overlapping inequities we are invited, and sometimes forced, to see things in a new way. These insights demand a response. We offer our 7th season, WISDOM LIVES IN PLACES, as a way to move forward, together, to learn from one another and our pasts, to employ the lessons of these difficult seasons instead of falling back into our society’s old ways.

We invite you to join us in our ongoing fight to make our cities safe and joyful for all.

More information on the MOURNING IS AN ACT OF LOVE installation at YBCA here.

Programs associated with the installation include:

Tuesday February 16th at 6:30 PM PST — A Pandemic of Opportunity: What & How to Change the Public Realm

Thursday February 18th at 5:30 PM PST — Exploring the Urban American Indian Experience in Yelamu

Friday February 19th at 4:30 PM PST- Let’s Make Civic Love

Saturday February 20th at 4:30 PM PST — How We Mourn, Where We Remember

SF Urban Film Fest: Wisdom Lives in Places

February 14th — 21st, 2021

See All Programs Here