'Dear Homeland,' a KQED-produced documentary of the singer Diana Gameros, is part of this year's SF Latino Film Festival. (Dir. Claudia Escobar)
“You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” Joni Mitchell warned us years ago. Alas, her rueful Zen koan emerged as the moviegoers’ mantra of 2020. So we continue to hone our home-viewing game until it’s safe to return to theaters. (April 1 at the earliest, I’m guessing, unless venues are allowed to reopen for those with proof of vaccination.)
If you haven’t already, then look beyond the well-combed playlists of the major streamers. Stop foraging for binge-worthy (or cringe-worthy) Euro-soaps and detective shows. Instead, watch a new movie via the local virtual cinemas (Roxie, Balboa/Vogue, Smith Rafael Film Center and BAMPFA) or video on demand. Don’t overlook the array of local film festivals, transported online and rife with revelations from around the world. The filmgoers’ mantra for 2021? Neil Young’s wry observation will do nicely for the first few months: “Motion pictures on my TV screen/A home away from home, livin' in between.”
The S.F. Latino Film Festival opened on Dec. 30, thus staking its claim to the first such event of 2021. A high-quality selection of recent narratives, documentaries and shorts from the southern tip of South America all the way up to Canada and beyond, the program is full of enticements.
I enjoyed Brazilian writer-director Déo Cardoso’s take-no-prisoners debut feature, Cabeça de Nêgo (A Bruddah's Mind), a youth-in-revolt homage to the Black Panthers. A bookish Afro-Brazilian high school kid draws the line when another student calls him a monkey and the teacher punishes our ticked-off protagonist instead for mildly retaliating. Saulo initiates a one-man occupation, issuing a list of basic demands (current textbooks, no mice or roaches) and instigating a rally by his fellow students outside the school’s gates.
Saulo name-checks Angela Davis early in Cabeça de Nêgo, but later confides that his favorite Panther is the charismatic Chicagoan Fred Hampton. It’s only after the movie’s tone darkens, as the authorities respond arrogantly, foolishly and violently to the student protest, that we grasp the full significance of Saulo’s identification.
Cabeca de Nêgo effectively calls out (take a breath) racism, misogyny, militarism, the ruling class and the cooption of TV news, though the political commentary embedded organically in the storyline gives way in the last reel to overt polemics. Then again, the Black Panthers realized that subtlety wasn’t always conducive to social change. The revolution may not be televised, brothers and sisters, but it will be facilitated by cellphones.
Dear Homeland, local filmmaker Claudia Escobar’s verité portrait of Bay Area singer-songwriter Diana Gameros, provides a welcome and poignant perspective on a less-discussed aspect of the immigration conundrum, namely the separation of undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. from their families.
Gameros attended a small Michigan college on a student visa, then continued her classes after her documents expired. She moved to San Francisco in the aughts, finding her voice and building a following in the Mission. Years went by, and she couldn’t return to her hometown of Juarez without the green card that would grant her reentry to the United States.
Dear Homeland, which was produced by and will air on KQED later this year, is a unique profile of the artist as activist. (It’s appropriate that Joan Baez makes a brief appearance.) Although the documentary (which boasts a kicker climax) is choppy in places and held together by the quiet urgency of Gameros’ singing and the stark poetry of her lyrics, it is much more than a music film. Gameros embodies the responsibility of identity, the debt to family, the urge to create and thrive in the present and the influences of the past. Her gracefulness—and joy—as she navigates her path is quietly inspiring.
'The Reason I Jump'
Opens Jan. 8
Cinema SF (Vogue/Balboa), Roxie, Smith Rafael Film Center
Narrative and nonfiction directors have attempted to capture and convey the experience of every kind of physical and psychological experience, from blindness (The Miracle Worker, Ray) to deafness (In the Land of the Deaf, Touch the Sound) to paralysis (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) to mental illness (Fear Strikes Out). The impulse in those movies, and their success, derives in no small measure from, as the late critic Roger Ebert put it, film’s special ability to function as a machine that generates empathy.
Jerry Rothwell’s remarkable documentary The Reason I Jump, which won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary sidebar at Sundance a year ago, does that and much more. It takes Naoki Higashida’s 2013 book, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, as its starting point and voiceover-narration thread. Impressionistic and sensation-alistic in its early stages, the film aspires to evoke autistic children’s impulsive reactions (to sensory stimulants like noise, light and color), their nonlinear sense of time and memory and their frustration at not being able to voice their feelings.
But the thing I learned, from the five children and their parents whom we meet in India, England, Virginia and Sierra Leone, is that neurotypicals (people with typical developmental, intellectual and cognitive abilities) can’t perceive the world the way autistic people do. I can’t imagine, or identify with, their specific worlds. That said, I now see them with more humanity and, yes, empathy.
The Reason I Jump includes a couple of what we could crassly call success stories, but it doesn’t peddle a Hollywood fantasy. At one point Amrit, an Indian girl who pours her vibrant inner world into colorful, geometrically clever drawings, receives a gallery show. But it’s not clear what she thinks of the whole production, and Rothwell allows the moment to pass without forcing an interpretation.
One of the book’s English translators remarks, “The book felt like an envoy from another world whose cultures, whose rules, I didn’t understand.” By guiding us across that border, Rothwell’s film makes an enormous contribution.
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