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Oakulture’s Picks for the 13th Annual Oakland International Film Festival

OIFF Filmmakers at the Joyce Gordon Gallery

OIFF Filmmakers at the Joyce Gordon Gallery

Now in its 13th year, the Oakland International Film Festival is back for another inspired run of indie and sub-mainstream cinematic fare, much of it locally-produced. Though other local film fests have proliferated Oakland’s landscape in the years since, OIFF is the pioneer. Over its long run, its been a cultural tastemaker as well as a community enabler, offering a platform for local filmmakers with dreams of wide distribution for their labors of love.

At an OIFF meet and greet held at the Joyce Gordon Gallery on Wednesday, the day before the festival’s Opening Night Gala, many of the filmmakers were in attendance. They welcomed the chance to talk about their films.

Vanessa Moore-Bulnes, director of "Jesus saves"

Vanessa Moore-Bulnes, director of “Jesus Saves”

“Last year I was sitting in the audience. I never thought I would be here and be able to share my story,” said Vanessa Moore-Bulnes, director of a short, “Jesus Saves.” The film is about an “actual come-to-Jesus moment,” Moore-Bulnes said, adding that she hopes to attract enough interest to expand the short into a feature film.

“Last year, you were sitting in the audience. This year, you’re in the game,” remarked David Roach, OIFF’s producer and the founder of the Oakland Film Society. Over the years, Roach has doggedly pursued his vision, sticking with OIFF, largely a grassroots effort, through the Great Recession and Oakland’s subsequent Cultural Rebirth  – the city is now widely seen as an artistic incubator and an attractive destination for new residents in search of urban cool. That wasn’t exactly the case in 2002 when Roach started OIFF.

OIFF founder David Roach

OIFF founder David Roach

Oakland’s changing cultural landscape is at the center of another film featured in the festival, “Code Oakland,” which tells the story of Kalimah Priforce, founder of Qeyno Labs. According to filmmaker Kelly Amis, “’Code Oakland’ is about tech visionaries who are teaching kids how to code so they can create new paths… but it’s also about how Silicon Valley is moving into Oakland, and how the tech workforce in Silicon Valley is so white, and male-dominated. They’re coming into Oakland now, which is a historically-black city, and not hiring local people necessarily. So we hope the kids can be the gamechangers.”

Code Oakland: Trailer from TEACHED on Vimeo.

Amis went on to note that “a lot of people talk about Oakland as the new Brooklyn or a new Silicon Valley, and Oakland is already here. Oakland’s been cool before Ask.com moved here. “

Juan Davis (l.) looks on as Kelly Amis (r.) is interviewed

Juan Davis (l.) looks on as Kelly Amis (r.) is interviewed

The filmmaker, whose background is in education,  notes a parallel between the incarceration-industrial complex she covered in an earlier documentary, “The Path to Prison,” and the positive reinforcement of teaching inner-city kids tech skills shown in “Code Oakland.”

“It’s very much connected. ‘Code Oakland’ is almost the answer to it,” she said. “What happens when we tell kids that they’re gifted, instead of treating them like potential criminals? What happens when you give them the skills to do what they would like to do?”

Another film with deep cultural resonance is “Da Cotton Pickers,” an unflinching look at the historical legacy of black sharecroppers. Filmmaker Robert “Fleetwood” Bowden says he “embarked on a story to document the transplant[ing] and migrations of our people… who’ve been through all types of adversity.”

Robert "Fleetwood" Bowden

Robert “Fleetwood” Bowden

He sees his film as “an educational platform” for young people, “so the youth can understand no matter what they’re going through today, they come from a bloodline.”

The subject is one Roach related to personally. “My father was a sharecropper, he picked cotton in Texas,” he said, adding that “poverty has continued from those days. It’s really important to understand that.”

At-risk youth is one of the themes which runs through this year’s festival, represented by a number of fictional dramas about street life and hustle, as well as documentaries like “The Peacemakers” and “Free,” both of which are set in Oakland. The first describes a youth mentoring program, while the second tells the story of Destiny Arts, a dance troupe whose juvenile members often face heavy traumas.

David Roach

David Roach

“A lot of the kids out here, they need guidance. They don’t have guidance in their homes, they don’t have guidance in their communities,” explained filmmaker Juan Davis, director of “The Peacemakers.” Similarly, “Free,” Roach noted, “captures the importance of having safe environments for young people.”

Other highlights include “Melvin and Jean,” a documentary around two fugitive Black Panthers turned European expats; “The Dream Kontinues,” a short about Oakland aerosol king Mike Dream; “Beyond the Walls,” a documentary about muralists; “Zola,” a film about the plight of youth in Zimbabwe; and “The Shop,” an urban crime drama set in Oakland, featuring Tiffany “New York” Holden of VH1 fame.  A complete list of OIFF programming is here.

With multiple programs spread over April 2-5 at multiple locations –including the Grand Lake Theater, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle, San Leandro’s Le Bal, and the Black Repertory Theater—OIFF offers a lot of chances to saturate yourself in the world of indie films and support local cinematic creatives. However, combing through four full days of films can be a daunting task. So Oakulture has compiled a list of our OIFF picks. These are the films we rate as must-sees, although opening up your indie-film chakra and immersing yourself in the full festival experience can be interesting too (festival passes are available for those so inclined):

Oakulture’s OIFF picks:

Melvin and Jean: An American Story

April 2nd , 5-7pm, Grand Lake Theater

TDK: The Dream Kontinues

April 2nd, 730-9pm, Grand Lake Theater

April 3rd, 12-2pm, Le Bal Theater


April 3rd, 12-2pm, Le Bal Theater

Code Oakland

April 3rd, 5-7pm,Le Bal Theater

April 4th, 930-1130am, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle

Beyond the Walls

April 4th, 12-2pm, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle

Da Cotton Pickas

April 4th, 12-2pm, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle


April 4th, 12-2pm, Geoffrey’s Inner Circle

The Shop

April 5th, 730-1030p, Black Repertory Theater