In it’s tenth consecutive year, the 2012 Oakland International Film Festival starts today and runs through Sunday with an exciting line-up of films, many of them created in Oakland. Currently on screens at a venue near you (click here for the full schedule), the cinematic offerings range from short comedies to feature-length opuses. Two new local filmmakers, one who directed a 6-minute comedy and another who produced a documentary on a legendary Oakland piano bar, will be premiering their films on Saturday as part of the festival.
Oaklander Kim Nunley, a 32-year-old writer by trade, entered a script-writing contest recently to test out her big screen chops. Her script, a sweet little comedy called “Sly Sylvester,” earned praise and last year she decided to flesh it out with more scenes and produce it. It’s the story of an apartment-dwelling Oaklander, caught between his pet-hating, rent-hungry landlord and an attractive cat sitter he hopes to impress. Nunley signed on her wife, April Abeyta, to direct, and did a sweep of her wider swath of connections to find cast members and a place to shoot.
“I live in Oakland, and the film was entirely shot in Oakland,” Nunley says. “The apartment we shot in was offered by my best friend Melissa—it had great lighting and it’s in the Lakeshore area. I knew all of the cast members personally, too, except for the landlord. We ran auditions and wanted him right away.”
The landlord, played by Jay Krohnengold, is certainly a highlight of the film, and an easily identifiable cinematic archetype. With his pitbull-esque aggression and a no-nonsense attitude, he quickly establishes himself as our hero’s foil, there to mess up not only his financial life but his valiant attempts to woo the cat sitter. Will love conquer all? Check it out at 11:30 Saturday morning at the Oakland Museum of California to find out.
On Saturday night, an Oakland-based documentary will also screen at OMCA, in the 5-7 pm slot. “The Alley Cats,” directed by Oaklander Cary Virtue, delves into the history and present reality of The Alley, a piano bar on Grand Avenue that has been in the same location since Prohibition (it is speculated, though there’s no historical proof, that the bar started out as a speakeasy). There were once five others like it on Grand Avenue alone, but today it represents the last of a great piano bar tradition in Oakland. The space itself is rich in history; walls are covered with memorabilia from an era gone by. It was a tradition for patrons of The Alley to pin a business card on the wall, a small way of saying, “I was here.” Today, old business cards—somewhere between 40 and 50 thousand—cover the wall. Watch the trailer here.
Virtue, who has been taking film classes and paying his dues as a production assistant for ten years—he works a day job at Kaiser Permanente—went to the bar with friends one night and knew it was worthy of a documentary. The resulting film profiles Rodd Dibble, who has been playing piano at the bar for five decades, and a group of regular “Alley Cats” who sing along with him.
“I just was really struck by the sense of history there,” says Virtue. “Dibble had been playing there for 50 years, and it wasn’t like people just showed up and sang one night—these people were singing there their entire lives. They have a whole slew of Broadway related songs, and they talked a ton about their passion for them.”
Dibble, who is close to 80, knows somewhere between four and six thousand songs on the piano. The film captures his skills, and the dedication of the “Alley Cats,” by showcasing a number of their favorite tunes. The opening of the film, in fact, is “The Oakland Song,” (betchu didn’t know Oakland had it’s very own song, did you?). A group called the Goodtime Washboard 3 wrote it in 1965, and here’s a little sample of the chorus:
Oakland’s got the Tribune Tower
Oakland’s got Lake Merritt too
She’s got Jack London Square
The Alley Cat is there!
The Kaiser Center sticks up everywhere
Where did all the people go when ’Frisco burned?
They all went to Oakland and they never returned.
Virtue says that Oakland’s got something special that encouraged him to focus his film there. “I hope when people watch my film, one of the things they come away with is the wonderfulness and uniqueness of Oakland,” he says. “People often have strong reactions, in a not so good way, when I mention I live in Oakland. This film highlights a place in Oakland, The Alley, that brings many kinds of people together to have some fun and enjoy life. I feel like this is something very representative of the ‘Oakland experience.’”
Nunley, for her part, says that her future films are definitely likely to stay Oakland-centric. “I definitely have the filmmaking bug,” she says. “And there’s this idea floating around that you have to be in Southern California to make good film, but I want to keep it local. I see a lot of opportunity here to make really quality projects.”
Other notable films coming out of Oakland include “Just Us,” a feature-length offering about a man who can’t leave behind the trauma of prison life. There’s also “Angel for Hire,” which was produced by two former students of UC Berkeley’s Journalism School, where Oakland North is produced. The film takes a look at surrogate motherhood, and what happens when things don’t go according to plan. For ticketing information on these, and other films, visit the Oakland International Film Festival website.