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At the Oakland film festival, filmmakers and organizers tackle issues of community, identity

on April 8, 2012

The Oakland Film Society is celebrating the tenth anniversary of its annual Oakland International Film Festival this weekend, this time at the Oakland Museum of California.

In order to support young and new filmmakers, especially from Oakland, and to increase awareness to the many careers related to the film industry, the Oakland International Film Festival gives a platform to new filmmakers who can show their work to a larger audience, even if it is still work in progress. There are no rules or restrictions and no competition; anyone can submit a movie about any kind of subject. “We like to let the people talk for themselves,” says David Roche, the director of the film festival. “We are not judging the films, we are just showing them. Filmmakers are amazing storytellers and their stories should be heard.”

About 50 movies, some shorter than others, can be seen at this year’s film festival, from local filmmakers to independent international ones. “We are currently collaborating with a couple of culture institutes from Spain, Mexico and Hawaii,” Roche says. ”We are still a small festival but we hope filmmakers from all over the world will eventually come to Oakland and to this film festival. We want to be a vehicle for that to happen.”

Roche is honoured to promote the film community in Oakland. “Oakland is the most diverse city in this nation and we want to bring this diversity to the festival,” he says. “The great thing about Oakland is that it has a good sense of community, people here work together and support each other. Business owners, restaurants, museums, bars—they all promote each other and you can feel this here at the festival as well.”

Roche’s long term goal for the future is to make Oakland a safer city. By attracting a larger audience he hopes to also promote more volunteerism in Oakland. “There are a lot of neglected areas in Oakland that need support,” Roche says, “and the films create more awareness of that. Arts can play a huge part in changing the image of a city.”

For Samm Styles, co-organizer of the festival, Oakland is the perfect spot for a film festival. “As eclectic and as multi-dimensional Oakland is, so are our films. They reflect our city and that’s what makes this film festival special,” he says. To him, Oakland also offers the best filming environment. “It is film-friendly and the people understand the struggle of getting the point across and delivering a message. The city of Oakland sympathizes with that, which makes filming here a lot easier than, for example, in San Francisco.”

One film that was shot in Oakland just celebrated its premiere on Saturday at the festival: Gary Lane’s “Just Us,” a play on the word “justice.”  In his film, Oakland native Lane deals with the time he had to serve at Leavenworth prison when being sentenced to 6 years for drug trafficking. The film is based on Lane’s own experiences in prison, but it is not entirely autobiographic.

The film tells the story of Vincent Valentine, played by Lane himself, who is released from prison after serving time for narcotics trafficking in the streets of Oakland. Vincent, like Lane, is a white guy from a well-off family who started dealing drugs not because of financial pressures, but because the Oakland drug scene fascinated him and he wanted to become famous.

However, Vincent takes a different approach when getting out of prison than Lane did in real life. While Lane decided to use filmmaking as a form of therapy, Vincent Valentine is vengeful when he gets out of prison. He seeks revenge on those who once ratted him out and tracks down his betrayers one by one in order to kill them. Constant flashback scenes from prison show us what made Vincent what he is now—a psychopath, as Lane calls him.

Vincent embodies the kind of person Lane did not want to become. “He is the kind of guy that you don’t want to be around and that you don’t even want to have in society. He scares me. He doesn’t look suspicious; he could be your neighbour or your dentist and is simply not a stereotypical felon. He is unpredictable. But if it weren’t for this project, I might have ended up like him,” Lane says.

“Prison numbs you up. It makes people violent, even when they weren’t before. If there is a dispute in prison, it will be confrontational, violent and unforgiving. So the only way to survive in there is to become violent yourself,” Lane says. “It took me years to adapt to life in prison and when you get out, you suddenly have to change back and lose your prison mentality again and that takes time. When I got out I thought I could never love again. Luckily, I was wrong. The dream to make this movie was much more powerful than the alternative. It is the only thing that kept me sane. It is my way of getting even.”

Throughout the film, Lane uses the character of Vincent to criticize the current prison system. “The world became a 5-by-8 cell. I can’t believe they build this to house human beings,” Vincent tells the audience when he arrives in prison. He later wonders: “What am I supposed to learn from three big-ass Negros coming into my cell, trying to make me drink piss?” The closing lines of the film emphasize this critique: “Here is your product: I went in a non-violent drug offender and became a murderer and rapist. So did you get your money’s worth, America?” Vincent asks.

For Lane, the current prison system is not about rehabilitation, it is about punishment “Locking us up and throwing away the keys doesn’t work anymore,” he says. “The system needs to find a way to give something to the people in there, a skill that they did not have before and that builds their self-esteem. They have to change the thinking to change the action.”

Lane says he wants to give current prison inmates motivation and hope that they can follow his example. “Yes, it is very atypical to come out of prison and knock on Hollywood’s door. But if I can do it, anybody can, and that is the message I am trying to bring across,” he says.

Lane says that the city of Oakland shaped him. Nowadays, the city’s impact is positive, he says, but it didn’t used to be. “I don’t come from a ghetto family, my mother is an academic. She worked hard to give us everything we wanted,” he says. “But I wanted to be one of the drug dealers; they were like heroes. I wanted the prestige, I wanted to be part of Oakland, which was all about narcotics at that time.”

Lane says he probably would not have become a drug offender in another city, but he doesn’t blame Oakland. “I was young and dumb and wanted to be famous. Oakland was inspirational in a very negative way at that time. I subscribed to it and it shaped me. But now I understand what Oakland really is about. It is not traffic and drugs. It is a progressive, special place, the inspiration is positive now,” he says.

Lane worked with several Oakland rappers, including Too $hort, Richie Rich and E-40, who helped him create his film’s soundtrack, and he recommends that other filmmakers to come to the city to shake its bad reputation. “Oakland is a very unique, special and beautiful place that has a magnetic energy in the air that you can tap into. It is full of creative, beautiful, friendly people,” he says. “I want Oakland to become a better Hollywood.”

The Oakland International Film Festival continues throughout the day on Sunday, April 8. You can see the full film schedule here. You can read Oakland North’s previous coverage of two other Oakland filmmakers showing their films at the festival here.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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