It took Jamie Dewolf three years to finish his first feature-length film. That’s partly because everyone who worked on it was juggling multiple gigs. His cast members—local slam poets and beat boxers, comedians, battle rappers and musicians—were moonlighting as actors. Dewolf himself wrote the film, acted in it, and co-directed it while working on other projects, including a short film and a music video. This is what indie film making in Oakland looks like. “You’re really just willing it into reality,” Dewolf said. “You’ve got to have a lot of balls.”
This weekend’s Oakland Underground Film Festival (OUFF) showcases local, independent films, like Dewolf’s Smoked, and new international works. The four-day festival begins Thursday at the Grand Lake Theater and continues at two other venues throughout the weekend. About 60 films will be screened, a mix of shorts, features and documentaries. All films are independently produced, promoted and distributed, Shawn Taylor, the lead programmer for OUFF, wrote in an email, and they also explore unconventional topics. “There will be very few straightforward romantic comedies or action films,” he wrote. “There has to be something either subversive or illuminating.”
The festival was born in 2008 when Khalil Karn, a projectionist who has worked in the Bay Area film industry for more than 15 years, decided Oakland needed its own film festival to reflect the city’s unique culture, Taylor said in an interview, and the inaugural event took place in 2009. The festival is an effort to champion Oakland filmmaking—and independent cinema generally—Taylor said, but it’s also about bringing filmmakers together and exposing the community to their work. “Films are our last campfire,” he said. “They’re one of the only places we can come together to experience stories.”
“It’s a good thing for Oakland,” said supporter Allen Michaan, the owner of the Grand Lake Theater where many of the festival’s films will be screened. “It’s good for the community and good for the theater.”
Dewolf and co-director Joshua Staley saw making it into the festival as a goal when they started editing Smoked, Dewolf said. The movie follows a group of friends whose ill-conceived plan to rob a local cannabis club incurs the wrath of a violent drug boss. The narrative weaves together strands of Oakland’s subcultures—the drug underworld, medical marijuana dispensaries with their murky legality, and the underground art scene.
Dewolf founded “Tourettes without Regrets,” a raucous and raunchy monthly variety show that’s known as a proving ground for local performers, and wanted to make a film that reflected the creative diversity his show brings to the stage. Dewolf described the dark comedy as his “mutant love letter” to the city—a wild and surreal look at how Oakland is identified, or, as he put it, “Art Murmur with guns.” It was a perfect fit with the festival because the movie is defined by Oakland culture, he said, but also because of the festival’s sensibility. “It’s a little more rock and roll” than other Bay Area festivals, he said, “a little more celebration of the underdog.”
Beginning in mid-May, Taylor and the team of festival organizers spent hours watching films submitted for the festival and taking notes, then sharing them and watching again. The goal was to find work that “forces you to sit up and pay attention,” Taylor said. The process was exhausting—he viewed over 16 hours of film straight, he said—but somehow a theme emerged, and the 2012 festival lineup coalesced.
The common thread uniting the films at this year’s event is an examination of subcultures, Taylor said, particularly individuals within those subcultures who make an impact on the larger society. For instance, the festival’s opening film, Bones Brigade, a documentary directed by former pro skateboarder Stacy Peralta, looks at how the styles of a few key skateboarding figures shaped the direction of the sport.
Machete Language (El Language de los Machetes), a Mexican film by Kyzza Terrazas, depicts the relationship between a radical activist who is contemplating an extreme act of anarchy and his girlfriend, who’s in an all-girl punk band. Art Crime, a Canadian documentary by Frédérick Maheux, examines the work of special effects artist Rémy Couture, whose gory horror films landed him in a Montreal court on charges of producing and disseminating obscene material.
A full screening schedule is available on the OUFF website.
The Bay Area lacks the movie making infrastructure of the Los Angeles area, Dewolf said, which can be challenging for filmmakers, but in some ways allows great freedom. Because it’s solely a filmmaker’s vision that drives each project, the local filmmaking community is “super indie to its core,” he said.
Without an established infrastructure, independent moviemakers have to support each other with help from the community. The Oakland Underground Film Festival is part of that, Michaan said. “It’s always good to encourage the local film community,” he said. “You never know when it will be a seed to get someone’s career started.”
As technology makes filmmaking less costly and more accessible, the quality of films OUFF receives has improved, Taylor said. “I can go get a new iPad, a decent camera some mics and lights and stuff and I can go shoot a film,” he said, adding that moviemakers are also now able to share their work through websites like YouTube and Vimeo and sell their films independently.
That’s exactly what Dewolf will be doing at his screenings on Saturday and Sunday at Vitus/410 Ballroom in downtown. After more than three years of work, Dewolf is independently releasing Smoked on DVD. “It’s a celebration of the end of the journey,” Dewolf said. “Or the beginning of a new one.”