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Local Film Festival Rekindles Community Spirit with Boost from City College

By Emily Margaretten


The Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema (BHOC), a free film festival that showcases the talents of Bay Area filmmakers and runs until Oct. 29, was off to an impressive start, as it navigated COVID-19 precautions with pop-up drive-in and socially-distanced park screenings during its opening weekend, Oct. 1-2.

The films of City College alumni and students featured prominently in the BHOC this year, reflecting a talented pool of established and emerging filmmakers. Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails’ highly acclaimed 2019 film, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” was the headliner event, a fitting tribute to the festival, as a clip of the film first premiered there in 2014.

Leslie Lampre, Director of Exhibitions and co-founder of the BHOC, recalled the entry of the film during its early production stages. “I spoke with Joe on the phone, and he said, ‘Well, we haven’t made a trailer yet.’ I was like, ‘Come on.’ So low and behold, months later, they did submit the trailer, and the trailer won the Best of Bernal Award [in 2014].”

Because of technical difficulties, the film, which originally was scheduled for Oct. 2 now will be screened at a later date. Taking the evening in stride, Fails was grateful for the large audience turnout and said returning to the festival as the headliner event was “a surreal experience.” Most people, he explained, likely already had seen the movie but still showed up for it as a supportive community.

Alley Frederick, a resident of Bernal Heights who was attending the festival, overheard Fails’ comments and chimed in, “With the pandemic, there’s a greater sense of unity. People have a more inter-emotional connection to the film now.”

Laughing appreciatively, Fails replied, “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

The festival’s focus on “localness” and community makes it especially attractive for up-and-coming filmmakers. Audrey Daniel, a documentary filmmaker and resident of Bernal Heights, explained that the BHOC “gives voice” to people who otherwise might be overlooked at larger festivals. It is, she remarked, “a community celebration of filmmaking,” which this year culminates with an award ceremony on Oct. 29.

The ceremony includes the work of City College alumna, Latiece Brown, whose dance documentary, “Turfin,” won the 2021 Bernal Bright Star award. Brown created “Turfin” in an introductory cinema class at City College and submitted it to the festival to “get [her] work out there.” She did not expect to win an award for it.

“It was just something personal for me,” Brown said, “And this really has been motivating that people actually like what I’m doing. And so I want to make more.”

Caroline Blair, a professor of cinema at City College who has been involved with the BHOC since its early years, also described the unique community feel of the festival, which tends to spotlight issues that “occur very close to home.”

“The cinema department’s films often reflect the ‘voices of the community,’” she said, “And the BHOC is the perfect venue to support this mission.”

While traditionally held outdoors and oftentimes in eclectic commercial and community spaces—“including a motorcycle shop, art gallery, cafe, butcher shop, library, and a laundromat,” as Anne Batmale, co-founder of the BHOC, told the SFGate—the venues, more recently, have adhered to COVID-19 safety protocols. Last year, the organizers implemented a pop-up drive-in experience that they plan to continue at Alemany Market Plaza.

Blair and Daniel both described last year’s drive-in experience as a novel adaptation to COVID-19 restrictions that rekindled a sense of community for filmgoers. As Daniel explained, “Just having the opportunity to see a film festival with people, even if they were in their cars, was really fun. It was different. It was thinking outside of the box and saying how can we share films in a safe way?”

Daniel added, “It continued to be an outdoor film festival although it was just in a parking lot.”

With the easing of pandemic restrictions, this year’s screenings have returned to Precita Park and commercial venues like the Bernal Star Restaurant. Owner Vega Freeman emphasized the importance of supporting local artists, particularly now during the pandemic. “We need to support each other locally,” she said, “And, if we do, we all can survive together.”

Lampre also addressed the challenges of the pandemic that has made it difficult for local sponsors to contribute as much financially as in previous years. “We lost support from local businesses and organizations who were deeply affected by the pandemic and still have not returned to full force. But, I’m optimistic that there will be a 19th season and beyond.”

Carl Rennie, a City College student and resident of Bernal Heights, remarked on the importance of a supportive community as one of his reasons for participating in the festival. His short film, “The Guest,” screened at the BHOC during its opening night on Oct. 1, and he is eager to participate in more events where he can meet and interact with filmmakers and “find out who in the community is doing what.” Up until now, he has not been able to do this easily.

“In the pandemic,” Rennie explained, “there’s this added layer where it becomes difficult to be around people because there’s some danger associated with it. And film, in particular, is such an incredibly collaborative medium that it’s hard to collaborate remotely. When people aren’t getting together and meeting, it’s hard.”

The BHOC, with its emphasis on bringing together local filmmakers, represents one such opportunity.

The festival is being held at various locations in Bernal Heights throughout October. For a full listing of events, visit the BHOC website.

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