Veronica Valencia and Richard Montoya in 'The Other Barrio.'
In December of 2012, the Brava Theater held a fundraiser for The Other Barrio, a film noir nestled deep inside San Francisco’s Mission district. More than two years later, the film comes full circle with its premiere at the 17th San Francisco Independent Film Festival (SF IndieFest).
Café La Boheme, at 24th and Mission, served as an ideal place to meet with director Dante Betteo and discuss the path the film took, starting with its inception as a short story by San Francisco Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía.
Why did you choose film noir as the genre for your first feature?
The story dictates the genre, up to a point. And it also depends on how the director treats it. In this case, the producer, Lou Dematteis, and I both decided we liked the genre and that this story would be a good fit for a noir. The film started as a different project from what it became. The original idea was to interweave three short stories together to build into a feature, like 21 Grams or Amores Perros.
I’m always looking for stories, and was looking for what my first feature would be, looking at my budget: is this something that I can do with a low budget, or is it out of my reach? One day I was at City Lights going through books in the local authors section and I found a copy of San Francisco Noir. The book contained local stories from different San Francisco neighborhoods and I saw there was one from the Mission. "The Other Barrio" was the first story from the collection we had on the drawing board. Lou was a friend of the author, Alejandro Murguía, and after meeting with him he agreed to give us the rights to produce the story.
In the summer of 2012 we went into full production. We shot the whole story after I adapted it into the screenplay. And then I started editing it, and once we had a first pass, I told Lou that we had 55 minutes of film on The Other Barrio, but that we still needed to raise money and do the pre-production work and casting for the two other films. I said, Why not build on what we have? All we need is roughly another 30 minutes, and we’ll have a full feature. And we agreed that was a good path to follow.
We added additional scenes to the story. We brought Alejandro on board and the main star Richard Montoya, who was a big engine for collaboration on developing the new material. At that point we started to see that something was going on in the neighborhood—that we may have something that would be more relevant than what we initially began with, because the original story was based on the Gartland apartment fire in 1975. At the same time, we saw all of the changes going on in the neighborhood. And all the protests that came after, and the level of unhappiness with the changing neighborhood.
What were the first signs of change that you started to see in the Mission?
I started noticing unhappiness within the traditional neighborhood residents. A lot of discontent from the people who had lived here for many years, of Hispanic descent, that other cultures were coming in, that they were displaced by not being able to afford the rents, and having to move out to the East Bay. Those feelings started bubbling to the surface as we were developing the film. And that’s why we thought the film was relevant to the time.
What noir films from the past did you find inspiration from?
I like the classics: The Maltese Falcon, and those films from the real noir era. Each film has good and bad merits, so I look at the overall era. And anything newer, of course. Chinatown. That is a big inspiration for me. Tightrope, a Clint Eastwood film, set in Monterey. In that film, I like the visual darkness, mostly night shots, and the darkness of the theme. The detective falls in love with a suspect, and she’s playing with him. I like those films that look deep into the soul of people.
San Francisco itself comes through in the film as a full-fledged character.
This is a very cinematic city. This city has so many corners, so many places that don’t come up in regular Hollywood films. In Hollywood films, we see the Golden Gate Bridge, we see the cable cars, and while San Francisco is known for those iconic symbols, there’s so much more than that. I always wanted to do a project that would showcase the city, but not in this pristine Hollywood light and more of a realistic, down-to-earth view of our city which we all love. The director of photography did an awesome job of portraying what I wanted to show.
Your background is in journalism and making documentaries. Why did you want to branch out into narrative filmmaking?
I have been doing documentaries for many years, and am stepping out of that genre to do feature films. This project was very liberating. You create and you execute: you don’t have to ask for permission or double-check facts. There are certain legal restrictions to feature films too, but it’s liberating in that sense. One of the things that we wanted to do was make it feel like a documentary. Visually, in some areas, we used real footage of marches, protests and sounds from the Mission. We tried to walk that thin line between keeping it a feature and not making it a documentary, because we didn’t set out to make a documentary. But at the same time, we wanted to make a social statement while making it as believable as possible. We wanted to make people think, react, and emotionally connect with a subject or with an idea, and I hope we succeeded.
This may be a spoiler for some, but the ending is shot in daylight, a departure from the tone that precedes it.
If you look at that last shot, everything seems to be in harmony. The hipsters enjoying culture. Inspector Morales, at the end, hugging the artist who we’ve previously seen painting murals. Someone else taking a picture, and the bright colors. Everything is in harmony in that closing shot. On a day-to-day basis, life seems difficult, life seems hard. But if we work together, if we become one family, one team, things can look brighter. We can enjoy one another’s company. We may not like each other, but we have to live together. We have to enjoy what we have and build together, and the future is bright if we do that.
'The Other Barrio' is the Centerpiece Film at SF IndieFest 2015 and premieres Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Brava Theater.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.