Oakulture

Documenting the Oakland cultural renaissance


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“East Side Sushi”: A Tasty Film About Female Empowerment

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana

Diana Elizabeth Torres plays aspiring sushi chef Juana. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Great films are often a collection of little moments which form a larger gestalt. A case in point: The sushi chef competition scene in “East Side Sushi.” It’s one of the best sequences you’ll see in any film this year. Like the rest of the movie, it’s a smart scene, played with equal parts comedy and drama, as four sushi chefs, three of them Japanese, vie for the title of “Sushi Champion.” The fourth chef is our heroine, Juana, a single mom of Mexican ancestry who has improbably yet amazingly ingratiated herself into the male-dominated, highly-traditional, world of sushi chefs.

Watching the scene unfold, there’s an emotional investment in Juana’s character and the outcome of the competition. It’s the movie’s defining moment; We’ve followed the journey of Juana, played by Diana Elizabeth Torres, from abandoning her father’s Fruitvale fruit cart business after a violent robbery, to working at jobs which offer no possibility of advancement – or health benefits – to being hired as an assistant prep cook at a fictional Japanese sushi restaurant, Osaka (a stand-in for the real-life Coach Sushi, on Grand Ave.). Despite being told, “we don’t usually hire women,” she gets the job.

Juana’s a quick learner, and the knife skills she developed peeling fruit and working in Mexican restaurants serve her well in cutting sashimi and ngiri. She’s taken under the wing of Aki (Yutaka Takeuchi), an amiable sushi chef, and practices her craft on her family — substituting poblano for nori, using chile relleno, pico de gallo, and Tapatio hot sauce as ingredients — but runs afoul of Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama), the restaurant’s traditional-minded boss, who’s worried Osaka’s authenticity will suffer if he allows Juana to join the other chefs at the front of the restaurant.

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from "East Side Sushi." photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

Yukata Takeuchi and Diana Elizabeth Torres in a scene from “East Side Sushi.” Photo courtesy of Anthony Lucero

The larger subtext—of a patriarchal man afraid of female empowerment – is evident. Yet Juana is not only determined, she’s the fastest, most inventive sushi chef at the restaurant. With Aki’s encouragement, she sets her sights on her goal, and enters the competition as a way to prove her worthiness. She also earns the support of her initially-skeptical father (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), the film’s other patriarchal figure.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood, and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note.

Juana is a feminist heroine without an academic background, a real-seeming person who embraces an adopted culture without diluting her own. Her passing resemblance to Frida Kahlo makes it easy to imagine her as a rebel and visionary. Her ideology, however, comes down to one of social inclusion: “in every great restaurant, there are great Latinos in the back, prepping the food… I don’t want to be in the back,” she says at one point.

Stories like the one “East Side Sushi” tells are the reason why people love indie films. The storyline is refreshingly non-Hollywood and non-cliché, the characters are personable and realistic, and the writing and direction of Oakland native Anthony Lucero (making his directorial debut) never hits a false note. Amazingly, the film was made for less than $35,000, yet it feels rich in storytelling, unlike films with exponentially-higher budgets and empty souls.

The other main theme of the movie is one of cultural intersectionality and embracing diversity, for which Oakland proves the perfect backdrop. Mexican sushi may seem like an oxymoron, but Juana’s “Mayan Sun roll” is a hit with customers, and her signature roll, the poblano-infused “Green Diablo,” plays with the idea that traditional culture can and should be updated and innovated upon.

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) works at a Fruitvale fruit cart. Photo courtesy Anthony Lucero

Part of the fun for local audiences will be in identifying all the Oakland locations referenced in the film, which include KTOP, Tacos Sinaloa, the Main Library, Aztek dancers, the salsa dancers at the Lake Merritt pillars, and cultural murals in the Fruitvale District. Foodies, especially sushi aficionados, will also enjoy all the focus on the behind-the-scenes food prep, such as the correct ratio of rice, vinegar, sugar, and salt to make sticky rice. Be forewarned, though, that watching this movie can stir a powerful craving for sushi which may cause a post-film run to your favorite spot.

“East Side Sushi” opens today (September 18) at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, the Elmwood in Berkeley, and the Kabuki in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.eastsidesushifilm.com.

 

 

 

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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

Zola

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

Free

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

The Shop

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


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The OakQ&A: Oakland Underground Film Festival’s Kahlil Karn

Now in its sixth year, the Oakland Underground Film Festival celebrates independent, DIY, and otherwise non-mainstream cinematic fare. It’s one of many Oakland-centered film festivals which have popped up in the past few years; some of the others being the Oakland International Film Festival and the Matatu Film Festival. The emergence and co-existence of these festivals supports the idea of Oakland as a city which appreciates non-standard, un-Hollywoodized movies, many of which deal with subject matter which rarely makes it onto cineplex screens.

A quick glance at this year’s OAKUFF schedule shows there’s plenty of celluloid diversity to go around, from the opening night double bill of “The Infinite Man,” a time-travel romcom, and “Falcon Rising,” a black martial arts actioner set in Brazil featuring yakuzas;  to subsequent screenings of “Que Caramba Es La Vida,” a documentary about women mariachis in Mexico; “Lost Landscapes,” a collection of archival footage of Oakland through history; three programs featuring short films; “Out in the Night,” a documentary about “killer lesbians”  which examines race, gender, crime, and mainstream media narratives; and “Giuseppe Makes a Movie,” a comedy about an independent filmmaker trying to make a feature, despite having no budget. The festival runs Sept. 25-28; the complete festival program is here ; all screenings are $10.

What follows is a Q &A with Kahlil Karn, OAKUFF’s Director/Founder, who explains his motivation for presenting the festival, the logistical challenges inherent in such an undertaking, and how the festival fits into Oakland’s cultural mix.

Oakulture: What’s OAKUFF’s mission?

KK: OAKUFF’s mission is to serve fresh independent and unconventional films and film events to one of the smartest and most dynamic audiences in the world. Cinema that speaks to the culture and character of the Oakland, the East Bay and beyond.

OAKUFF"S Kahlil Karn and Cate Freyer

OAKUFF”S Kahlil Karn and Cate Freyer

Oakulture: The festival is now in its sixth year. What were some of the highlights of previous festivals?

KK: Some of the events and films we are most proud of are; our Northern California premiere of “Black Dynamite” to sold out audiences at the Grand Lake and Castro theaters, our outdoor screenings at the Linden Street Brewery, our screenings at NIMBY, and more recently our Northern California premieres of “Bones Brigade” and “The Punk Singer.”

Oakulture: OAKUFF is a labor of love and a grassroots effort. How much do the organizers really have to love these kinds of movies to put the festival on every year?

KK: Members of our all-volunteer staff work at Sundance, Frameline, Mill Valley, Jewish, Latino, and San Francisco International film festivals and have other jobs in media and art as well and they all give hundreds of hours a year to put OAKUFF on because they love Oakland and what it stands for and they love movies and the power of cinema. There is no financial reward but there is massive joy in connecting with your community and helping shine a light on some of the most fabulous aspects of living in the Bay.

Screenshot from "Que Caramba es la Vida"

Screenshot from “Que Caramba es la Vida”

Oakulture: What’s the biggest challenge in presenting the festival every year?

KK: We have not entered any agreements with corporate sponsors and yet we make great efforts to host a festival with relatively high production value and an exceptional audience experience. We are lucky to be sponsored by the East Bay Express for some print advertising, but we rely heavily on grassroots and word of mouth to get the word out about the festivals. If folks don’t show up to enjoy some films together with us, we cannot continue to do what we do.

Oakulture: In terms of this year’s offerings, what are you particularly excited about?

KK: Personally, I am most excited about “Lost Landscapes,” “True Son,” “Out in the Night,” and “Giuseppe Makes a Movie.”

Oakulture: What’s the selection process? If I’m an independent filmmaker, how do I get my film, documentary, or short screened?

KK: OAKUFF takes submissions from January 1 through June 30. Filmmakers are invited to submit on the website under submissions. We are taking all submissions in the form of password protected online screener links next year (a first). Also filmmakers can submit through Film Freeway if they prefer.

Oakulture: Why watch indie films? What do they offer that you can’t get elsewhere?

KK: Cinema is, to quote [author and OAKUFF programmer] Shawn Taylor, the last campfire. And cinema is like bread. It is an essential part of a healthy and full life. It helps us understand ourselves and each other. To remind us of where, who, and what, we have been, are and may become. Cinema is the written word, it is visual arts, it is music sound and light. It is best served fresh and local. And also, there is something sacred about watching movies together as a community.

Oakulture: When OAKUFF started, the only other Oakland-based film festival was David Roach’s Oakland International Film Festival. Now there’s the Matatu Film Festival, the Fist Up Film Festival, Briefs (the collection of erotic shorts), and probably some others I can’t recall. Do you see these other festivals as competition, or are you more like, it’s good to have them around, because it creates more of a dedicated fan base for the types of films you screen?

KK: It is so exciting that the Oakland film culture is widening and deepening. OAKUFF works closely with David Roach and the fantastic Oakland International Film Festival as well as the EBX Scream and Briefs film competitions. We have from the beginning made a point of never adopting a competitive posture towards other festivals for philosophical reasons and because it doesn’t make any sense. The only way Oakland will be recognized as a destination and a home for film culture is if we work together, that simple. Together we are stronger and Oakland wins.

Screenshot from "Lost Landscapes"

Screenshot from “Lost Landscapes”

Oakulture: How soon after the end of one year’s festival do you start thinking about the next one?

KK: Ha! Good question. We are usually exhausted but we try to have a meeting soon after the festival and start discussing for the next year in earnest starting in January.

Oakulture: Where do you see OAKUFF being in four years, which will be the tenth anniversary?

KK: It is my hope that OAKUFF continues to grow and thrive. It is essential that we become an organization with a few all-year part time employees. To be honest, if we cannot make that step in the next few years, I am not sure that our model of simply “doing it for the love of cinema and Oakland” is sustainable. I am hoping we can enter into an agreement with a like-minded organization that will take OAKUFF under its wing and share some resources. OAKUFF has built an organic, bottom-up film festival infrastructure and takes pride in quality presentations. I believe there is a film organization out there that would love to prop up OAKUFF as a vehicle for good, while allowing OAKUFF to do what it does best and continue to represent our communities.