In 1988, the day after my film HEAT AND SUNLIGHT won the Grand Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, I drove through the San Francisco Tenderloin district on the way to my editing room. The Tenderloin, then as now, was a place where law enforcement paroled people out of prison, where drugs, prostitution, and gang violence flourished, where ordinary citizens walked the streets with practiced care.
My younger brother Greg, diagnosed paranoid-schizophrenic and a missing homeless man for the previous 10 years, was on my mind that day as I watched the shopping bag ladies, the brown baggers, the screamers, the hookers and the gang bangers mingle with citizens just minding their own business and trying to survive. As in all my trips through the Tenderloin, I thought I might see Greg on the Glide Memorial food line or at Hospitality House waiting for drug counseling. He didn’t appear, but something else happened that day.
In 1992, along with Rand Crook and Ethan Sing, I started the Tenderloin yGroup, a free acting workshop and cinema production ensemble working in the San Francisco Tenderloin and serving inner city residents, professional actors and all comers. A place for marginalized people to learn and practice the Direct Action Cinema method of making community movies, our “players” came from all walks of life and every kind of experience. Some overcame homelessness, substance abuse and mental disturbance and used workshop experiences as a form of empowerment. Others were interested in acting for personal reasons and came to experience the strong emotion and human orientation for which our workshops were known.
We had as many as 50 people attending our player’s workshop each week, representing all races, countries, denominations, sexual identities and self definitions… an inner city melting pot of people and ideas. Gradually we developed a working ensemble of 25-35 players who met regularly, rehearsed and acted in our collaborative films. In our system actors are called players, recalling the traveling players, minstrels and acting troupes of Medieval Europe but also emphasizing the human “play” of collaboration, improvisation and the expression of cathartic emotion. Although most members were amateurs, professional actors also participated because of our emphasis on honesty, strong emotion and self- realization.
Our first dramatic feature, CHALK, was voted one of the top films of 2000 by the Village Voice. Other films have played around the world to excellent reviews including retrospectives at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Mill Valley International Film Festival, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pacific Film Archives, the .MOV Festival and the Manila International Film Festival in the Philippines, the Fargo International Film Festival, Resfest both in Korea and in South Africa, the Kansas City Filmmaker’s Jubilee and many others.
For the last nine years we have been at work on 9 @ night, a series of stand alone dramatic features which together create a portrait of 40-50 marginalized inner city characters at the turn of the 21th century. Kieslowski’s DECALOGUES, or his RED, WHITE, BLUE series were an inspiration in the direction we have pursued in this project. Now, we have completed 9 @ Night features, and we’re preparing for the premiere of the entire series.
As we begin work on our new venture, Citizen Cinema, based in the East Bay, where we will continue our cinematic work with everyday citizens and film professionals, we are ready to market and promote our 9 @ night series for release in 2008. We are planning to work with community institutes, film festivals and international art venues to make the 9 @ night film series known to the world.