July 10, 2015

LAFF Is a Showcase for LA Stories

From Delila Vallot's 'Can You Dig This'

One of the programmatic strengths of the Los Angeles Film Festival is its propensity to find and show compelling—and often little known—stories about LA. Some of these stories happened long ago; some are happening right now, unbeknownst to many of us. In a perpetually jam-packed festival landscape, and in a month in which LAFF goes up against Sheffield Doc/Fest, AFI Docs, BAMCinemafest, Provincetown International Film Festival and Banff World Media Festival, with the Edinburgh Film Festival and Sunny Side of the Doc coming at the end of the month, the Los Angeles Fest held its own: Of the 23 docs that screened at the festival, 14 were world premieres.

LAFF created an assemblage of fiction and nonfiction work under the LA Muse banner that opened hearts and minds to impressive stories that deepened and broadened the LA narrative. Deilila Vallot's Can You Dig This, which earned the LA Muse Award, spotlights four community gardens that have served as redemptive and empowering oases from the oftentimes harsh surroundings in South Los Angeles and Compton. The gardeners—some of whom had spent time in jail—find empowerment and dignity in growing something in the soil. Over the course of Vallot's film, one of the subjects is arrested and another suffers a heart attack, but they always return to their gardens. “When you're locked up, you understand your freedom,” notes one, who had done 30 years. Having grown up in South Los Angeles, Vallot manages to coax some compelling stories and insights from her subjects—particularly Ron Finley, whose sage presence throughout the film qualifies him as its griot and chorus. We don't see him interact with the rest of the characters, and much of what he shares with Vallot bears the impassioned cadence of a TED Talk—which we actually see him deliver at the end of the film, to a most appreciative audience. In her first film, Vallot has produceded an engaging and intimate counterpoint to The Garden, Scott Hamilton Kennedy's 2010 documentary about a Los Angeles community's struggle to hold onto a garden destined for development.

South LA also figures as the setting for The Drew: No Excuse, Just Produce, an affectionate and affecting portrait of the Drew League, a rough-and-tumble amateur basketball league that has served not only as a spawning ground for NBA talent, but, more crucially, as a catalyst for community empowerment. Baron Davis, himself a Drew and NBA veteran, directed the film with Chad Gordon. Often, though, the film seems overstuffed with stories, and underachieving in narrative drive and flow, when one story—that of Dino Smiley, for example, the longrunning commissioner of the league, and the true heart of the film—would have made for a solid narrative throughline. What's more, consumer video footage from the '80s never holds up, especially on the big screen, and there's a lot of it here. Another go-round in the editing room might be in order for this worthy LA tale.

From Lyn Goldfarb's 'Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race.' Courtesy of PBS SoCal

The Drew includes some historical context—including mention of the 1973 mayoral election of Tom Bradley, the first African-American to be elected in a white-majority city. Such is one of many epochal achievements of the subject of Lyn Goldfarb's Bridging the Divide: Tom Bradley and the Politics of Race. Seven years in the making, this film tells two remarkable stories—that of Bradley, the son of sharecroppers, who more than held his own as a student at UCLA, as an officer in the LAPD, as a city councilman, as a candidate, and finally, as one of the most transformative mayors in the history of LA; and that of Los Angeles itself, which over the course of the film, morphs from a white-run bastion of racist covenants and redlined districts, to a cosmopolitan city of a hundred cultures and languages. Bradley had the temperament, fortitude and savvy to foresee this evolution by building a multicultural coalition en route to victory. Despite the accolades and achievements that run through the film, Goldfarb manages to avoid the hagiographic trap. Bradley did struggle in his final term, punctuated by the LA uprising in 1992, a sad coda to the 1965 Watts riots that fueled his rise to power. The late-period Bradley, worn down by his feuds with the impetuous chief of police, Darryl Gates, and the disenfranchisement of the African-American community from which he had sprung, was dismayed to see his city in flames. The two decades since his passing, though, have redeemed his legacy somewhat, and the Charter for Police Reform, one of his last accomplishments he put into motion, has made a considerable difference in accountability and community relations.

The post-screening discussion, led by longtime LA journalist Patt Morrison, included Goldfarb; producer Allison Sotomayor; Lorraine Bradley, the late mayor's daughter; author Joe Dominick, who has written extensively about the LAPD; and actor Andre Royo, who was slated to portray a character loosely based on Bradley. Royo, who confessed that he hadn't known about Tom Bradley before seeing the film, proved to be the odd man out on the panel, which could have stood to include a contemporary or colleague from the Bradley era to lend a bit more substance and nuance to the discussion.

It was during the Bradley era, in the 1970s, when the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center engaged in the practice of sterilization of hundreds of Mexican and Chicano women as a means of de facto population control—and as part of a federally funded program. Language barriers helped facilitate the process of coercing patients into signing consent forms, which were written in English, and presented when the patients were under anesthesia. In the wake of Roe v. Wade, a team of pro bono lawyers took on what would be the landmark Madrigal v. Quilligan case. And although the results were not favorable to the plaintiffs, the long-term ramifications were: Consent forms have long since been published in both Spanish and English, and bilingual counselors are a state-mandated presence at county hospitals.

From Renee Tajima-Pena's 'No Mas Bebes.' Photo: Claudio Rocha

Renee Tajima-Pena's No Más Bebés (No More Babies) takes a clear-eyed look at the story behind the case—one that had long been forgotten. The filmmaker managed to track down some of the plaintiffs, the lead attorney, a whistle blower from among the County-USC staff, some of the defendants—and Dr. James Quilligan himself, then head of the obstetricians division at County-USC. Tajima-Pena places the case squarely within the context of a vortex of movements—Chicano, women's rights, reproductive rights, immigration rights and population control—lending the film an impression of not only recovered history, but history in the present moment.

As Los Angeles observes the 50th anniversary of the Watts Riots this summer, the LA Film Festival has assembled a commendable program that explored where the city has been and where it needs to go.


Tom White is editor of Documentary magazine.