Funk, reggae and wrestling at this weekend’s Oakland Underground Film Festival

The Kashmere High School band

The Kashmere H.S. band in "Thunder Soul," a documentary featured in the 2010 Oakland Underground Film Festival. Courtesy, Mark Landsman.

This weekend, Oakland movie theaters will host body slamming Bolivian women, an afro-sporting high school funk band, and break dancing.  It’s all part of the Oakland Underground Film Festival, opening Thursday night at the Grand Lake Theater.  “We go after the very best films that fit in with Oakland,” says Kahlil Karn, the festival’s director. “We have a rebel spirit, funk music and funk in every sense in the word.”

The second annual festival, which runs Thursday-Saturday, is more underdog than underground.  All five of the festival’s featured documentaries are well-established in the film festival circuit; three played this year at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas.  But each film exhibits its own form of come-from-behind spirit.

“In our first year we had a ton of docs–this year it’s all docs,” said Karn, who organized the two-venue, three-day festival. “We are underground, but to us it means Betty M Park with a brand new film about Bolivian wrestlers. These women are kicking ass and they are trying to take care of their families. That’s exactly the story we are going after.”

The festival kicks off Thursday at 7pm with Thunder Soul, a documentary that follows the reunion of the Kashmere High School stage band. Conrad “Prof” Johnson, the school’s jazz band director, founded the band in Houston, Texas in the 1970s.  Johnson decided to rework old jazz songs into funk music to appeal to his students’ musical preference.  The ensemble became the first all-African-American high school jazz band to tour the country, and went on to win 46 national championships.

The band was so talented that even the film’s director, Mark Landsman, was fooled when he first heard recordings of its music on NPR. “I thought it was a big ’70s funk band,” said Landsman, an independent filmmaker based in Los Angeles. “I was so pleasantly surprised when the reporter said it was high school kids. I basically got on the phone and looked up every Conrad Johnson in the Houston phone book.”

Thunder Soul jumps ahead 35 years to document the reunion concert of Johnson’s former students honoring his work.  Landsman, who used to live in the Bay Area, said he believes Thunder Soul will resonate in Oakland. “It’s about socio-economics and where our resources go, which kids get exposure to arts and music education and which kids have to fight for it,” he said.

Mamachas del Ring, showing Saturday night on an outdoor screen at Linden Street Brewery, tells the story of the most famous professional wrestler in Bolivia. That wrestler, Carmen Rosa, is a woman.  Rosa struggles to meet the demands of her family while competing in the male-dominated Bolivian wrestling scene.

“Carmen is a really complex woman, she is super tough but also super sensitive,” said Betty M Park, who makes her directing debut with Mamachas. “It’s not just the factor of living in a machismo society. She cares about her family and loves her husband.”

Park, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, received full access to the female wrestlers, known in Bolivia as cholitas, as they toured their own country. “We were living their lives with them,” Park said. “With the cholitas we were protected from danger. We experienced a version of Bolivia we wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise.”

Both Park and Landsman will lead Q&A sessions after their screenings. Other movies in this year’s festival include American Grindhouse, a film documenting American exploitation movies; We Don’t Care About Music Anyway, which details the Tokyo avant-garde music scene; and Rocksteady: Roots of reggae, a documentary on the roots of Jamaican reggae music. The festival will also feature a light and projection art show, an urban dance competition and a screening of a collection of short films produced by Bay Area-based Yak Films.  Oakland’s Grand Tavern will host an opening night party Thursday at 5pm. Admission to all shows is $10.

Festival director Karn said he hopes this year’s selections will continue to inspire the burgeoning local film scene. “One of the things we are trying to work on is encouraging production here in Oakland. There is more production here than you might think,” says Karn as he mentions local filmmakers like Carmen Madden, whose film, Everyday Black Man was inspired by the murder of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey. “There are more artists per capita in Oakland than any other city in the US besides maybe Austin. It’s such a rich environment, people forget that.”

For more information on the 2010 Oakland Underground Film Festival visit: Oakstuff.org

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