As a filmmaker who was born and raised in Fruitvale, educated in San Francisco, and is now living back across the Bay Bridge, Anthony Lucero has stuck to what he knows best—Oakland. He uses the city as a backdrop in his newly released film, East Side Sushi.
“I am paying homage to Oakland a bit,” said Lucero. “Oakland is a food city. It’s a great place to make a food film.” East Side Sushi portrays Juana, a single Mexican immigrant mother in East Oakland who yearns to move from working the back of the kitchen to becoming a sushi chef in a restaurant that is otherwise dominated by Japanese men. Aki, a head sushi chef who emigrated from Japan, notices Juana’s interest in sushi and begins to teach her its preparation. “You have a Japanese immigrant and a Mexican immigrant. [Oakland] is like where the characters would meet in real life,” said Lucero.
East Side Sushi will be showing this weekend at the 6th annual Oakland Underground Film Festival (OUFF), which runs from September 25-28. The four-day movie-thon begins on Thursday at the historic Grand Lake Theatre and continues Friday through Saturday at the Humanist Hall on 27th Street. Selections will be shown throughout the weekend, ranging from documentaries to features to 45 different shorts. All screenings will be $10 each and festival passes are available.
In 2008, OUFF director and founder Kahlil Karn, along with the program director of San Francisco’s Castro Theater, Keith Arnold, envisioned a festival that would bring community filmmakers together to curate local films and others that aficionados can’t otherwise see in the Bay Area. For the past six years, the festival has brought works from all over the world and East Bay neighborhoods right to theatre screens around Oakland. There is no overarching theme to the film festival except the title itself—underground. “Underground means something different to everybody,” says Karn. “Underground cinema is not distributed under traditional frameworks. We program a lot of films that would be seen as strictly independent.” He also mentioned that film studio financing and distributions companies don’t play a part in most of the selections at the festival.
Local sponsorships and volunteerism play an integral part in orchestrating this DIY festival said Natalie Mulford, the managing director of OUFF. The entire staff has other jobs, but volunteer their time all year long for the four-day event. The Grand Lake theatre provided a discounted space to screen films the opening night.
Mulford said that festival is gaining recognition. This year they had 800 film entries to chose from, which is about double last year’s 400 to 500 submissions. But she said they are sticking to the festival’s original goal: To bring the local film community together. “A lot of these guys never played their films before. We are just giving them an opportunity to show their films,” she said of the filmmakers. One of the ways the festival helps local filmmakers is through the local showcase day (Saturday, September 27), when filmmakers are handpicked to screen their works. Mulford added that there will be a BBQ that day at which the filmmakers and actors can meet and network.
East Side Sushi will screen at the local showcase day, along with films like Broken City Poets. The documentary follows teenagers who are taught to use poetry to channel their feelings about their city, Stockton, California, which is fighting bankruptcy and a gang problem. Jose Vadi, an Oakland resident and the documentary’s co-producer, said that Oakland is a tight-knit film community. “Oakland is kind of interesting. People consider it small when comparing it to other scenes,” he said. But he believes Oakland is a destination for creative types. “With Oakland Music Festival, the Oakland Underground and First Fridays, Oakland has set the creative standards for the Bay Area,” he said.
East Side Sushi was a Bay Area collaboration between the cast and crew—everyone hails from around the region and donated their time. Key shooting locations included Oakland sushi restaurants B Dama and Coach Sushi, which offered their spaces for free. Lucero poured most of his own savings into the film, making it truly independent.
So far, East Side Sushi has won the Audience Awards at Cinequest, a San Jose independent festival, and at the Center for Asian American Media festival. In the future, Lucero hopes he can distribute the film for commercial viewing. For now, Lucero says he is eager to have his work in a festival that pushes talented filmmakers rather than celebrities and names. To Lucero, “an underground film festival is something that goes against convention, goes against the machine.” East Side Sushi, he said, “is as independent as it gets, much like this festival.”