Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance

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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

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This Week in Oakulture: A Conversation with Michael Franti, “Code Oakland” West Coast Premiere, The Art of Elizabeth Catlett, Oakland Flamenco Sessions & Black History Funk II (Jan 30 – Feb 3)

Music, Justice and All Love: A Conversation with Michael Franti 


As part of the 112th Earl Lectures and Leadership Conference, Berkeley’s Pacific School of Religion presents Be|Art|Now, a public conference for activists, artists and progressive people of faith. The program, which is held from January 29th through the 31st at various East Bay locations, will feature a talk with Oakland-born (and San Francisco resident) activist-musician Michael Franti on Friday, January 30th at the First Congregational Church of Oakland.  Franti is known for founding groundbreaking Bay Area bands The Beatnigs, The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy and Spearhead, producing the decade-long Power to the Peaceful free concert series in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and directing the documentary film, “I Know I’m Not Alone.” With a touring schedule busier than ever, Franti — who is also a practicing yogi — infuses social justice and activism into his music, which covers a diverse range of stylistic genres, from folk to rock to reggae to hip-hop. He will discuss integrating arts with social justice as well as how the arts can catalyze social change, followed by a short performance at the end of the event.

Music, Justice and All Love: A Conversation with Michael Franti, 1/30, 7:30 p.m., $45.00 in advance, $55.00 at the door, All Ages, First Congregational Church of Oakland, 2501 Harrison St., Oakland.  » Buy Tickets.

TEACHED: “Code Oakland” West Coast Premiere

Kelly Amis is a former teacher turned filmmaker and education equality activist. Inspired by education inequality, she founded Loudspeaker Films in 2009. In 2013, Amis received the Teach for America Social Innovation Award for TEACHED, a short film series, which examines the causes and consequences of the U.S. “achievement gap,” particularly as experienced by urban youth of color. “TEACHED: Code Oakland” is the first of three new short films comprising TEACHED Vol. II, and will have its West Coast premiere screening in Oakland this Saturday. “Code Oakland” examines  tech-minded social entrepreneurs who are determined that youth of color not be left on the sidelines as Silicon Valley spreads across the Bay and into the home of the second largest black community in California. The film features Qeyno Labs co-founder Kalimah Priforce, Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant and ‪#‎YesWeCode‬ founder Van Jones. The premiere screening and celebration is presented in partnership with D’Wayne Wiggins’ West Wind Artists at Mindseed Soundstage. Due to limited capacity, there are only a few seats left, so hurry to secure your spot for this FREE event!

TEACHED: “Code Oakland” West Coast Premiere, 1/31, 6:30-9:30 p.m., Free Admission, All Ages, Mindseed Soundstage, 926 85th Ave., Oakland. » RSVP required at screenings@teached.org.

The Art of Elizabeth Catlett


Elizabeth Catlett, an African American sculptor and printmaker known for politically charged sculptures and prints, made her mark as one of the 20th Century’s most revolutionary artists and a leader of the black expressionism movement. Catlett, who was born in Washington DC in 1915, studied design, printmaking and drawing at Howard University. She made history in 1940 when she became the first student to receive a Master’s degree in sculpture at the University of Iowa. Using her art to address society’s ills, Catlett celebrated the resilience of African-American and Mexican working-class women. After partaking in civil rights protests, which resulted in her arrest, she was barred from visiting the United States for a decade. Eventually settling in Mexico City, she worked with People’s Graphic Arts Workshop, married, and became a Mexican citizen. She taught sculpture at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City until retiring in 1975.  Selections from the collection of Samella Lewis, a former student and life-long friend of the artist, opened Jan. 16 at MoAD; the exhibition runs through April 5th.

“The Art of Elizabeth Catlett.”  All Ages, Museum of the African Diaspora, 685 Mission St., San Francisco. » Free-$10;  Museum Hours.

Oakland Flamenco Sessions Presents ‘La Nota Azul’ with Alex Conde & Jose Blanco

Widely respected as one of the most brilliant pianist-composers of his generation, Alex Conde is already getting rave reviews for his soon to be released album, Descarga for Monk, which explores flamenco versions of beloved Thelonious Monk tunes with Bay Area heavy hitters John Santos, Jeff Chambers and John Arkin.  In anticipation of his record release — out on ZOHO, February 10th — Conde performs this Saturday at Oakland’s intimate Birdland speakeasy with flamenco singer and cajon player Jose “El Grillu” Blanco, as well as surprise guest artists. Aimed at nurturing the improvisational and community conversation that is at the heart of flamenco, the new monthly Oakland Flamenco Sessions presents ‘La Nota Azul’ in reference to the blue note in jazz – an unidentifiable sweet spot of raw emotion and honesty which informs both jazz and flamenco.

Oakland Flamenco Sessions Presents ‘La Nota Azul’ with Alex Conde & Jose Blanco, 1/31, 9 p.m. – 11 p.m., $20, $10 for Birdland Members (tickets available at the door only), All Ages, BYOB, Birdland Jazzista Social Club, 4318 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, Oakland.

Black History Funk II with John Wesley Payne & The Hurt Band


Isn’t it only fitting that we kick off Black History Month with a tribute to funk music’s legends? On the heels of last week’s Sly & the Family Stone’s “Stand!” tribute at the Fox Theater, Oakland keeps the funk flowing with the upcoming Black History Funk celebration at Yoshi’s Oakland this Tuesday. The show will feature Oakland-born songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist John Wesley Payne — who has recorded and performed with George Clinton, Larry Graham, Rick James and many others — and his Hurt Band, paying tribute to James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, Rick James, Teena Marie and Prince. Special guests include saxophonist Ric Alexander and singer/songwriter Carmen Jones. Rounding out the lineup are comedian Kalvin Lathan, who’ll share hosting duties with Elise Hollywood Evans.

Black History Funk II with John Wesley Payne and The Hurt Band, 2/03, Doors 7:30 p.m., Show 8 p.m., $20, All Ages, Yoshi’s Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West, Jack London Square, Oakland. » Buy Tickets.

This Week in Oakulture is compiled by Zsa-Zsa Rensch.  Connect with Zsa-Zsa on Twitter at @zsazsa.

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