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Every year the opening night of the Oakland Underground Film Festival is held at the historic Grand Lake Theater on Grand Avenue. Assistant manager Erik Kleins, who has been working at the theater for 18 years, was in charge of the ticket sales at the Thursday night opening.

Oakland Underground Film Festival showcases the unexpected

on September 23, 2011

You never know what to expect from the Oakland Underground Film Festival. In fact, neither does the staff.

“These are organic, living, breathing films,” said Kal Karn, the festival director. “It all depends on what films are currently being made, what’s being shown, and what films are available. We like to try new things and stretch the boundaries, so each year our focus is a little different.”

The 2011 festival series started Thursday night at the historical Grand Lake Theater with the screening of actress Victoria Mahoney’s first film, Yelling to The Sky, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a mixed race African American teenage girl growing up in New York. Nearly 300 people attended the event, and some of them werevstudents from a San Francisco State University class, “Issues and Images in Black Visual Media,” that Mahoney was invited to visit on Wednesday to discuss her film.

“Rarely do you see women of color directors and women of color telling our stories in film,” said senior Imani Sutton, who said she attended the festival after hearing Mahoney speak in class. “Normally when stories come from women of color, they’re about men or something else. But this is a film about us, by us, for us.”

College student Imani Sutton stocked up on popcorn and candy before the premier of "Yelling to The Sky" on Thursday night.

College student Imani Sutton stocks up on popcorn and candy before the premier of “Yelling to The Sky” on Thursday night.

The Oakland Underground Film Festival was started in 2009 by a group of Bay Area filmmakers, film enthusiasts, and film experts who wanted to create an event in which people could learn about and watch independent and experimental films. The inspiration, they said, came from similarly themed film festivals, such as South By Southwest in Austin, Texas and the Underground Film Festivals in New York and Chicago.  Oakland, they decided, needed to be on the list. “Oakland has so much character and culture that I knew we needed a festival of our own,” said Karn.

Loosely defined, the Underground Film Festival is an annual celebration of independent and experimental films that span a range of topics—sometimes controversial ones—and are usually produced on a low budget.

“It’s a vague term,” said Misha MacLaird, a program coordinator for the event.  But the vagueness is also part of the appeal.  For the first two years, the films in the festival were primarily documentaries with heavy music components, covering subjects ranging from the history of reggae to Chinese shopping malls to female wrestlers in Bolivia.

“Last year, we happened to have mostly documentaries,” MacLaird said. “It’s in some ways just the nature of the film industry for independent or first time filmmakers. Documentaries have less of a budget so for a lot of people that’s what they start out with.”

This year, they’ve taken a slightly different approach from the last two years.  Instead of films about community gardens and female wrestlers in Bolivia , they are featuring more creative films, such as an animated stop-motion Japanese film about a cat named Komaneko, as well as multiple international coming-of-age stories. Other films to look forward to include Tarantino: The Disciple of Hong Kong, a documentary about the influence of Hong Kong and Asian cinema on the films of (you guessed it) Quentin Tarantino; and Marimbas From Hell, an amusing tale about a down-and-out musician in Guatemala who forms a band with an unlikely set of characters.

Friday night features a racier lineup. This year’s festival includes a live drag show at 10:30 PM Friday, followed by local director xuxE’s aptly titled Devious Inc., a fetish musical chock full of kinky costumes, song and dance numbers, dangerously high heels, and pounds and pounds of makeup.

“We really made an effort to show narrative films and fiction films,” said MacLaird. “We want to make clear that we show both fiction and nonfiction films.”

Each year, the festival staff sorts through dozens of film submissions, in addition to scouting other film festivals for movies they would like to bring to Oakland. Movies from local filmmakers, as well as international filmmakers are a priority, said MacLaird, because it helps ensure a more diverse selection.

“Oakland has such creative, artistic, and political people that we want to show films that we know will speak to them,” she said.

Another priority is films that have not yet been shown in theaters and most likely never will.

“Usually, these films don’t tell a story in a way that we are used to with Hollywood cinema,” said MacLaird. “The filmmaker raises his or her own money to make the film and for that reason has artistic control over it, as oppose to more commercial films that are focused on the audience and profit.”

Every year, the Festival is held at the end of September for three days, and with alternating venues each year.

This Friday, the festival location moves to NIMBY, a multiuse, creative arts space in East Oakland, where it will continue hosting the festival until closing night on Saturday.

Every year there are festival favorites, and this year MacLaird is certain she knows which they are. “Yelling to The Sky is one of this year’s big hits,” she said, but another guaranteed crowd-pleaser will be the closing night film, The Furious Force of Rhymes. Made by local filmmaker Joshua Atesh Litle, the movie charts the evolution of hip-hop and transports viewers on a whirlwind tour of hip-hop spots around the world, from Paris and East Germany to Senegal and Israel.

“The music will be great and I know that everyone’s going to love it,” MacLaird said.

After the film, NIMBY will transform into a “club,” with local performers Punk Funk Mob and Oakland Faders slinging beats while artists from the Illuminated Corridor Department of Public Works decorate the walls with video projections of photography and art. And after all, who can resist a party?

The 2010 Oakland Underground Film Festival runs from Thursday, September 22 to Saturday, September 24. To find out more, visit

Correction: This article has been corrected to properly state the closing night for the film festival as Saturday and to further clarify the the nature of Victoria Mahoney’s film and visit to SFSU and past films shown at the festival. apologizes for the confusion.


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