“An independent cinematic marathon,” the self-description of the energetic 18th annual Berkeley Video and Film Festival, showing Friday night and Saturday at Shattuck Cinemas, seems to be the fairest way to depict the ongoing screenings that bring back something of the feel—the exhilaration—of great film festivals of yore, which these days often hold fewer surprises and discoveries than crowds, high per-show ticket prices and the tired format of a typical official event.
But the low Berkeley Video and Film Festival ticket price and viability may be the clincher: $13 general admission, $10 students and seniors, “valid all day and night.”
“Dodge out and back in—that’s the marathon approach to a festival, the way we like it,” said Festival Director Mel Vapour.
Vapour spoke with enthusiasm about this year’s program, its history and the state of independent video and filmmaking while he and festival co-founder Paul Kealoha Blake were engaged in a marathon of their own, preparing for opening night. The festival is under the aegis of the East Bay Media Center, the nonprofit Vapour and Blake founded in 1980.
This year, the offerings range from feature documentaries to ethnographic shorts and experimental shorts to full-length features.
Jeff Adachi’s You Don’t Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story (1:15 p.m. Saturday) covers the career and travails of the Oakland-born late singer and actor Jack Soo (best-known for the TV series “Barney Miller”). David Silberberg’s doc Oh My God! It’s Harrod Blank! is about Berkeley art car creator, filmmaker and art curator Harrod Blank, son of music filmmaker Les Blank (5:18 p.m. Saturday). Words of Advice: William S. Burroughs on the Road is a Danish-produced doc of the public and private faces of the late, great vernacular satirist as he traveled to read aloud and perform his “routines” (8:10 p.m. Saturday). Holland Wilde’s Zapook of the North is billed as “a sociocultural memory mash-up” (11:18 p.m. Saturday). And Neil Ira Needleman’s I Know Who Really Sent the Anthrax Letters (7:58 p.m. Friday) is an experimental short like “What family secrets are hidden in the grainy images of ancient 8mm celluloid? Something to think about the next time you open your mail.” The festival also showcases full-length features like Sarba Das’ Karma Calling (“a fable about hope and love for a family of Hindus from Hoboken,” 9:35 p.m. Friday) and short features, like Andrea Lodovichetti’s Under My Garden (Sotto Il Mio Giardino), a kind of “miniature Rear Window told from a child’s perspective,” which has won a Golden Globe and prizes from over 30 international festivals, including Cannes (9:15 p.m. Friday).
Films and videos such as these, over a wide range stylistically and in subject matter, are programmatically blended, often back-to-back, with student filmmakers, such as Kellan Moore’s The Girl in the Window (7:44 p.m. Friday) or Maria Jose Calderon’s The Edge of the Sea, about “a Puerto Rican fisherman trying to stop coastline development” (3:54 p.m. Saturday).
“You could do a doubletake, seeing who’s on screen,” said Vapour. “The digital revolution so empowered independent filmmaking—camera technology, editing especially, though high definition will be the equalizer—that independent and commercial filmmaking are on an egalitarian plateau at this point. And so we put a 17-year-old producer up against a seasoned veteran because of the qualitative aspects. Again, you might do a doubletake watching Kellan Moore’s Girl in the Window: ‘A Disney film?’ You just have to shake your head. A teenager has the skill set in their bedroom to be an indie—and I say hats off to the educational facilities doing media training.”
Vapour spoke of the festival’s beginnings and history: “Initially, in ’91 it started as an East Bay-centric sort of affair, a venue for indie and student film and videomakers to show their wares. It was presented in Schwimley Auditorium [Berkeley High School], to a sell-out crowd.”
Vapour, who first submitted a film of his own to a festival in 1965, the third year of the first festival for independents, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recalled the early days, “when there were maybe four [festivals] total; there have to be two to three hundred now.”
He continued telling of the Berkeley festival’s beginnings. “It started to grow. The audience base had developed more appetite for independent cinema. We expanded into the old UC Theater on University, a 900-seat-plus venue—and we were filling it. We were going beyond our parameters and starting to get a reputation. New festivals were fast germinating: the Film Arts Foundation started theirs in San Francisco; the Mill Valley Film Festival began in Marin.
“We carved out our niche and presentation style,” Vapour went on, “marathon screening, back-to-back. Many fimmakers hit the screen: Nick Saunders, Robert Greenwald, Mark Birnbaum ... We showed at various places on campus, including Wheeler Auditorium—and in what was really our home, the Fine Arts Cinema, with the right amount of seats. Towards the end, we were turning away literally hundreds from screenings of Unconstitutional, Robert Greenwald’s film, which we premiered. It was sad to see the Fine Arts turn into one of Patrick Kennedy’s restaurants. We were in the Oaks Theatre for three or four years—and had been getting a lot of inquiries from Landmark, dedicated to digital cinema, who had locked onto indie cinema as promoters.”
Vapour concluded with a word about the range of what’s available today in video and film: “We’re seeing the emergence, for one thing, of a new documentary format—almost a new documentary entertainment style—like with Tao Ruspoli’s Behind the Wheel (9:25 p. m. Saturday), going through the South in a hi-tech-equipped school bus prior to the election, not on a ‘red’ and ‘blue’ states thing, but an examination of the Southern Heartland on where we’re all going politically, artistically, spiritually; the format very gritty, very real ... So many different approaches—and still today we have a niche for making purist cinema.”
BERKELEY VIDEO AND
7:30–11 p.m. Friday; noon to midnight Saturday at Shattuck Cinemas, 2230 Shattuck Ave. $13 general, $10 students and seniors. Box office: 464-5980; info: 843-3699 or www.berkeleyvideofilmfest.org.