The Berkeley Film and Video Festivals marks its 16th year this weekend with another vast and varied program of independent productions. If there’s a theme to the annual festival, the theme is that there is no theme; it simply showcases independent film in all its unruly diversity, from the brilliant to the silly, from mainstream to left field, from documentaries and drama to comedy and cutting-edge avant garde.
The festival, put on annually by the East Bay Media Center, runs today (Friday) through Sunday at Landmark’s California Theater in downtown Berkeley.
Festival Director Mel Vapour takes pride in one participant’s description of the festival as a bastion of artistic integrity among film festivals, and one that remains blissfully celebrity-free. This year’s program is no exception, providing a feast of cinematic pleasures untouched by commercial considerations.
One of the most extraordinary films on this year’s program is George Aguilar’s Diary of Niclas Gheiler. Aguilar has created what he terms a “documentary mashup,” consisting of old family photographs and found footage combined with words from his grandfather’s diary. The result is a stirring poetic reverie on his grandfather’s life in Germany from World War I, when he served alongside a young Adolf Hitler, and the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in the run-up to World War II. It’s a 32-minute tour de force that approaches history from a deeply personal perspective.
The Big Game, by L A Wood, presents a sympathetic view of the Memorial Stadium oak grove tree-sit. Regardless of where you come down on the myriad issues surrounding the UC Berkeley’s plan to build an athletic performance facility along the stadium’s western wall, this entertaining 30-minute film is sure to provide grist for your political mill. Though university officials declined Wood’s invitation to comment on camera, he does little to fill that gap in the narrative, at no point providing the viewer with an account of the university’s reasoning behind its plans or its responses to the protest. The result is a film which may be endearing to the like-minded, but which will only fuel the ire of those on the other side of the debate, encouraging rather than tempering the tendencies of each side to paint the other in broad strokes. Familiar faces abound; in fact, the film is a veritable who’s who of Daily Planet opinion page contributors.
Henry Ferrini and Ken Riaf’s Polis is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place provides a compassionate portrait of the larger-than-life poet—his work, his humanity and his influence—using archival footage and audio along with testimonials from friends and colleagues. The central narrative concerns Olson’s quest to preserve the unique qualities of his hometown, a quest one fellow poet likens to a Superbowl match-up between the Minnesota Vikings and the Miami Dolphins, in which the Dolphins abandoned their game plan in favor of tactical improvisation that reached the level of poetry. It’s an analogy many tree-sitters would be loathe to accept, but in the context of Olson’s all-encompassing, all-embracing, big-picture view of life and community, such supposed polarities as football vs. poetry are exposed as meaningless.
Other films from this weekend’s program:
• Orit Schwartz’s The Frank Anderson, a sharp comedic short (featuring several familiar faces from larger-budget Hollywood productions), tells the story of an insurance agent who pays a price when he denies coverage for a man’s breast reduction surgery while enthusiastically offering to pay for enhancement surgery for a woman he hopes to bed.
• Flaming Chicken, Gerald Varney’s 20-minute impressionistic musing on San Francisco, is comprised largely of hitherto unseen footage Varney shot while working as a Bay Area journalist in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
• Silhouettes, a seven-minute short by Acalanes High School (Lafayette) students Patrick Ouziel and Kevin Walker, details the plight of a teen whose shadow, which takes the form of a rabbit, leads to bullying from his peers.
• Chronicles of Impeccable Sportsmanship, Erika Tasini’s excellent silent short that depicts curious dynamics among a rooftop-dwelling family.
• The Homecoming, a solemn and mysterious 10-minute film, consists of evocative scenes that almost play like trailers from longer films.
• Tile M for Murder, an absurd, almost cartoonish comedy, features a hostile couple squaring off over a game of Scrabble on a sweltering summer day. “It’s a hot day and I hate my wife,” says the husband, and off we go on a bile-fueled ride in which the words spelled out on the board dictate the course of events.
• Mark Hammond’s feature film Johnny Was boasts an excellent performance by Vinnie Jones as a former Irish Republican Army fighter hiding out in London. The film also features the screen debuts of boxer Lennox Lewis and former Who frontman Roger Daltrey.
But this sampling just scratches the surface. There are simply too many films on the program to do justice to them in the space allotted here. Suffice it to say, this is a film lover’s film festival, one that eschews the predictable fare that so often passes for independent film these days in an effort to present an engaging and wide-ranging program of cinema artistry.
Photograph: A scene from George Aguilar’s poetic “documentary mashup,” Diary of Niclas Gheiler, a found-footage reverie on the life of the director’s German grandfather in the years between the world wars.