Arts Listings

Berkeley Video and Film Festival Showcases the Indie Spirit

By Justin DeFreitas
Thursday September 25, 2008 - 10:16:00 AM
The 17th annual Berkeley Video and Film Festival features its usual eclectic mix of independent cinema, from The Road to Bonneville, a documentary about hot rod racing in the salt flats of Utah, to George Aguilar’s virtual cinema-poems, with avatar Cecil Hervi roaming the world of Second Life, to California King, a simple tale of budding romance in a mattress showroom.
The 17th annual Berkeley Video and Film Festival features its usual eclectic mix of independent cinema, from The Road to Bonneville, a documentary about hot rod racing in the salt flats of Utah, to George Aguilar’s virtual cinema-poems, with avatar Cecil Hervi roaming the world of Second Life, to California King, a simple tale of budding romance in a mattress showroom.

Time and time again we’ve seen the word “independent” co-opted by the very corporate forces the independents claim independence from: “indie” record labels engulfed by a corporate parent; “indie” film festivals that draw Hollywood’s A-List roster to remote Western boomtowns. 

Well, there’s at least one independent film festival that has not only retained its true indie character, but prides itself on a “celebrity-free” environment. 

East Bay Media Center’s 17th annual Berkeley Video and Film Festival starts Saturday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley, running Friday through Sunday and screening more than 50 films. Shows start at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 1 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, and continue to nearly midnight each night. 

This year’s program features the usual eclectic blend of wide-ranging fare, from student films to experimental short subjects to feature-length films with a high-gloss sheen—all of them truly independent and all of them unlike anything showing at your local megaplex. 

Things get off to an offbeat start Friday with Emma Strebel’s 45-second Self Portrait, an art project she says developed from “a radical intervention to remedy my head lice.” Get your popcorn early. 

Next up is Eli Akira Kaufman’s California King, a surprisingly moving tale of a mattress salesman who uses his lofty position to bed his more attractive female customers. That is, until he meets one that stirs more than his libido. Like a minimalist short story, the 22-minute California King manages to convey much about its characters with little or no background information; we know their states of mind without needing to know the details. It’s a pared-down love story, with no frills and really no surprises; it simply tells a simple story well. 

Another short subject, Attila Szasz’s Now You See Me, Now You Don’t (30 minutes), takes us in another direction entirely with a story that employs a touch of science fiction in a sort of dark parable of marriage and parenthood. When a work-a-holic scientist uses a formula to make his son invisible, he widens the rift between father and mother and child with tragic results. 

Screening between those two short films are two even shorter films, together adding up to just five minutes, but which open up a brand new world of filmmaking. George Aguilar, who created one of the best films in last year’s festival (The Diary of Niclas Gheiler), returns with two examples from his series of virtual films. Aguilar has immersed himself in the online world of Second Life and has used his avatar, an artist-borg by the name of Cecil Hirvi, to create a series of cinematic poems. The first film, Virtual Starry Night, shows Hirvi stepping into a 3-D world constructed by Second Life users based on the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh. The second film, First Love of a Borg, consists of camera movements that sensually trace the contours of a metallic sculpture of a ballerina on display in a virtual museum. 

Festival director Mel Vapour may have to put an asterisk behind his “celebrity-free” claim this year when poet Michael McClure makes an appearance Friday night. McClure will be on hand to answer questions following a screening of Rebel Roar: The Sound of Michael McClure, a 34-minute film that features that Beat Generation poet reading his own work and offering perspectives on his contemporaries. 

The festival’s opening night concludes with Fix (93 minutes), a feature by Tao Ruspoli. Shawn Andrews carries the film with a charismatic performance and a devilish grin that conveys love and arrogance and dissipation all at once. The film’s conceit—a cinephile films every aspect of his life, even as he ventures to Los Angeles to bail his drug-addict brother out of jail and get him into rehab—wears thin after a while, as the device of the first-person camera requires that much screen time be spent defending and justifying it. And the technique lends far less sympathy to the characterizations than Ruspoli probably hoped for. But when it works it strikes an almost voyeuristic tone that makes some scenes come to life. 

Saturday’s screenings include two documentaries. The first, Road to Bonneville (60 minutes), follows two hot-rod builders as they trek across the country in their homemade vintage race cars to the salt flats of Utah, spouting homespun, geeked-out hot rod jargon all the way. Documentaries can bring us into close contact with subcultures we might never otherwise encounter, and Road to Bonneville does just that, giving us a glimpse of a unique and highly specialized world. 

Stop the Presses (80 minutes) is another kind of documentary, giving us an extensive cataloging of a vexing societal problem, in this case the slow-motion death spiral of the newspaper industry. Mark Birnbaum and Manny Mendoza traveled the country and conducted more than 100 interviews to produce this examination of the shifting American media landscape and what it portends for the future, for an informed citizenry, and for the First Amendment. It’s hardly news to news industry insiders of course, but it elucidates for the uninformed the ramifications for democracy once the watchdogs have been put down. 

Tate Taylor’s feature Pretty Ugly People (100 minutes) closes out the festival’s second night. An animated prologue introduces us to Lucy, an overweight woman who undergoes gastric bypass surgery and stages a dramatic reunion to surprise her friends with her new body. But while attempting to enjoy the good and svelte life with them on an extended camping trip, a series of encounters with each friend’s dark side shows her that life isn’t necessarily all that better for the trim and fit. 

Also included in this year’s program are two Chilean features. Just to make things confusing, Sabado screens on Domingo, depicting a real-time drama of a marriage that falls apart just as it is about to begin. The film, with the exception of a single edit, appears to be shot in real time, using its 63 minutes to follow a would-be bride as she discovers her fiancé’s secret, confronts him with it, and then concocts a plan for moving forward, documenting it all with the help of a student cameraman. As with Fix, the first-person camera can be trying at times, and again the script and actors are called upon to continually justify its presence, but it adds up to a fun little experiment in cinema verite. 

The best feature film of the festival is also the strangest. Malta con Huevo is another Chilean entry and it’s quirky from the start as Vladimir, a sketchy cad-about-town, wakes up to find that he has somehow jumped ahead in time a few weeks. Yet when he sleeps and wakes again, he’s back where he began, and no one seems to know what he’s blathering about. We suspect early enough that his signature beverage of malt beer and raw eggs is playing tricks on his mind, but soon enough the film takes a stark left turn as a more nefarious and absurd comic-horror plot reveals itself. 



One-day passes ($13, $10 for students and seniors) are available starting Friday at the Shattuck Cinemas box office, 2230 Shattuck Ave. 464-5980. One-day and three-day passes ($30) are available in advance at East Bay Media Center, 1939 Addison St. 843-3699.