Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: Video and Film Festival at Oaks Theater

Friday October 06, 2006

The Berkeley Video and Film Festival makes its annual appearance this weekend, starting today (Friday) and running through Sunday evening at the Oaks Theater on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. This year’s program features more than 50 works, from brief clips by budding filmmakers, running just a few minutes in length, to full-length features by established directors.  

Festival Director Mel Vapour says this is their best and biggest yet. The festival has expanded over the years to include films from beyond the East Bay, and perhaps the most notable national product in this year’s program is The Big Buy, directed by Mark Birnbaum and Jim Schermbeck and produced by Robert Greenwald, who also produced last year’s Wal-Mart: The High Price of Low Cost. The Big Buy tracks the spectacular rise and fall of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, from his early days as an apparent no-count in the Texas legislature to his ascent to national power as Newt Gingrich’s right-hand man, to his successful—and illegal—battle to gerrymander the Texas redistricting process, a move which helped send George W. Bush to the White House.  

If you’ve been following the news, you know the rest of the story. But what The Big Buy adds to the tale is the behind-the-scenes machinations of the investigation into DeLay’s organization. Along the way, we hear from the usual suspects when it comes to commentary on all things Texas: Molly Ivins, Jim Hightower, etc., names sure to find a welcoming audience in Berkeley. The Saturday evening screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Birnbaum. 

Other films in the festival have roots a little closer to home. Festival Director Vapour has watched director Hoku Uchiyama grow up, from a young, talented kid who took part in youth programs at Vapour’s East Bay Media Center to a film school graduate and accomplished filmmaker. Uchiyama’s 34-minute film Rose is an engaging short subject with a compelling story and evocative photography. In the film’s first few minutes, Uchiyama clearly and effectively delineates his characters with a series of shots of the young protagonist and just a few lines of dialogue, drawing the viewer immediately into young Travis’ world and setting the stage for a tale that seamlessly blends the mystic with the mundane. The compositions, camera movements and polished style demonstrate the young director’s confidence and control over his craft. 

Two other films concern Berkeley itself. Double-Spaced: A Berkeley Comedy has that “Hey everybody, let’s make a movie!” feel to it. The movie is about students and feels like it was made by students as well, almost as a lark. It features plenty of shots of the city, from downtown to Telegraph Avenue, and of course plenty of shots of the UC campus. It even contains a brief shot of the student protagonist reading this very newspaper, but before you have a second to ponder this stark breach of realism, a close-up reveals that he is fact reading the comics page.  

It’s an amateurish film that wears on its sleeve its aspirations toward Wes Anderson-style preciousness, with a wayward protagonist caught up in a loony bit of intrigue, a soundtrack consisting of light, catchy pop songs, and an optimistic ending meant to reinforce the humanity of all involved. It has an awkward feel to it, and most of its punchlines are oversold. But then there’s Meghan Kane, an actress who, in just two scenes totaling probably just 60 seconds of screen time, steals the show with a hilarious and uncanny depiction of a student many will recognize: the glib, patronizing, utterly self-satisfied graduate student, so taken with her own fabulousness that she must focus her every word and gesture on the never-ending effort to make all around her aware of their comparative lack of fabulousness. It’s just a few seconds, but it’s worth the price of admission.  

Another film takes on the Berkeley theme as well, this one with slightly higher aspirations and budget. Berkeley concerns a young man who comes to town as a freshman in the late ’60s and has his life transformed by what he finds. The film stars Nick Roth as the student and Henry Winkler as his father. The film attempts to capture the experience of Berkeley during the Vietnam War era, but doesn’t quite pull it off. For many viewers the film will probably be a moving evocation of the experience; for others, it may seem to merely trivialize it. The Saturday night screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session with director Bobby Roth.  

These examples only hint at the breadth of the festival’s offerings. For a complete schedule see Day passes for the festival are just $12.  




Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Oaks Theater, 1875 Solano Ave., Berkeley. 


Photograph: Kathryn Robinson as Rose and Phillip Rogers as Travis in Rose, a short film by Hoku Uchiyama.