By C.J. Hirschfield
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently released their short list for the Oscar in the Best Documentary (Short Subject) category. These films include everything from The Speed Cubers, which follows the relationship between two of the fastest Rubik’s Cube-solvers, to Call Center Blues, which focuses on four individuals working at a Tijuana call center after having been deported by the U.S.
Locally, the 23rd SF INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL (SF INDIEFEST) has chosen to (virtually) offer no less than 42 documentary shorts this year. My home town of Oakland is known for its diversity, and the four offerings in this category that are directed by Oaklanders represent wildly disparate subjects and perspectives that I chose to explore.
Dennis: The Man Who Legalized Cannabis tells the story of veteran, LGBTQ+ and cannabis activist Dennis Peron, who fought to get cannabis to HIV/AIDS patients in 1990s San Francisco. Award-winning director Brandon Moore gives us an important story, well told, utilizing historical photos and footage. Peron established the first cannabis buyers’ club in San Francisco’s Castro District, selling his wares to AIDS patients. He was the driving force behind 1991’s first successful medical marijuana legalization initiative ever, strategically focusing the effort in San Francisco, where the AIDS epidemic was decimating the population, and the community was largely sympathetic. He understood how to use the media for the cause, enlisting the help of “Brownie Mary,” who brought her baked goods to men dying of AIDS. The film documents the efforts to take the issue to the state level, with 1996’s Prop 215—the Medical Use of Marijuana Initiative, and Peron’s role in the historic fight, with help from ACT UP. I was surprised to learn that none other than billionaire philanthropist George Soros stepped in to help, and the initiative passed– a significant victory for medical marijuana. With medical marijuana now legal in 33 states, it’s important to understand how we got there, and how so many dots can be connected to the AIDS rights movement, and to Dennis Peron.
Peron died in 2018, and the following year the “Dennis Peron and Brownie Mary Act” was passed by the California Senate, allowing for the distribution of free cannabis for charitable purposes.
I See You is a very short and very sweet film by local director Brian Leonard whose main subject believes that “art is everything,” and the film begins by showing us a colorful array of public art all around Oakland. Erin Partridge is an art therapist working with seniors at the city’s Mercy Retirement and Care Center, and believes that art-making creates a sense of community. She tells the story of a woman who was blind and suffering from dementia– a former artist. When a paint brush was put in her hand, the response to make art was immediate. “That artist was still in there,” Partridge tells us. “If you invite them in, they’ll rise to the occasion.”
The short film No Pain is, in fact, painful to watch. Not because it’s badly made—it’s not—but because of the subject matter. DirectorJohn Picklap brings us into the world of an up-and-coming Strongman athlete, who suffers a severe sport-related accident, but still perseveres. Sounds like a classic story line that usually ends with an inspirational message, but that would not be this film. Driven by a father whom he loves, but who physically and emotionally abused him, our athlete’s obsessive drive to win—or to never lose—causes him to push his body waaaaaay beyond the brink. Sadly, it’s like watching a train wreck, up close.
So, I’ve saved the strangest film for last. Birth of a Poet, co-directed by Pedro Gomez, James Franco (yes, that James Franco) and Oaklander Zachary Kerschberg is a puzzlement. Described as “a dramatic short film that captures the moment Stephen Dobyns transitions from a disillusioned journalist to an emerging poet,” it features a confusing opening and impossibly beautiful actors, including celebrated actress Chloe Sevigny. Our journalist/poet character is an extremely unlikeable sort, and the film noir narration seems better suited to a crime drama. I could be wrong, but this film seems to be an edited down mini-version of the film Black Dog, Red Dog, a feature film about Dobyns released in 2018. It had the same actors, with Kerschberg, Gomez and Franco also serving as three of ten (!) directors. Black Dog, Red Dog was a dramatic feature film that apparently gave birth to a baby documentary. Go figure.
SF INDIEFEST is presented virtually February 4 – February 21, 2021
Complete program information is here: www.sfindie.com.
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”