A Berkeley Film Foundation Mini-Retrospective

Outdoor screenings showcase Berkeley Film Foundation’s first decade of moviemaker love.


BAMPFA is showing six BFF-backed films, including The Whistleblower, above, and The Barber of Birmingham, below.

Photos courtesy Berkeley Film Foundation

The least interesting aspect of movies, by far, is money. Budgets, salaries, box office receipts, DVD sales (back in the day) — strictly dullsville, unless you’re a stockholder or investor. But money is essential: Unlike a painting or a novel, you can’t make a movie without it. That’s true for documentary makers as well as narrative directors, award-winning auteurs as much as fledgling newcomers.

Ten years ago, the Berkeley Film Foundation was created with the express goal of raising and disbursing funds to Berkeley, Emeryville, El Cerrito, Albany, Richmond, and Oakland filmmakers. “As an independent filmmaker who was always looking for money, I knew how important this could be to other local filmmakers,” said longtime BFF board president Abby Ginzberg, whose numerous documentaries include Cruz Reynoso: Sowing the Seeds of Justice. “And I wanted to do my part to bring my perspective as a filmmaker. When we started, I was the representative of the local documentary community.”

A unique public-private partnership between the city of Berkeley and two Berkeley corporations, Wareham Development and the Saul Zaentz Company, the BFF has fulfilled its mission to the tune of $1.7 million divvied out to 150 films. (Zaentz, who died in 2014, was the Academy Award-winning producer of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Amadeus, and The English Patient.)

Even established filmmakers with stellar track records have a tough time raising money, so you can imagine the hurdles that a novice encounters. For someone at the beginning of his or her career, a BFF grant — no matter how modest — offers crucial credibility.  

“Part of our goal was to support new and upcoming filmmakers, and we’ve done that,” Ginzberg noted. “We have a dedicated commitment to funding students. We have funded more not-famous filmmakers than famous filmmakers.”

Narrative filmmakers are rare hereabouts, but the population of documentary makers in the East Bay is substantial. Many were lured here years ago by the Bay Area’s progressive traditions, while an ever-growing number are products of UC Berkeley’s stellar graduate journalism program. Their concerns are diverse, but they share a determination to examine and expose inequities locally and around the globe.

“We pay attention to who is telling the story, and what the story’s about,” said program director Janis Plotkin, a longtime festival programmer and producer of Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish. She succeeded the BFF’s founding director, David Bergad, earlier this year. “There is great poetry in the films that are coming out.”

Lyricism and grace, among other qualities, distinguish the five BFF-backed documentaries that BAMPFA picked to present from Sept. 12 through Oct. 27 as a salute to the foundation. The mini-retrospective kicks off with a free outdoor screening of Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling’s jam-packed (pun intended) 2013 portrait of Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, This Ain’t No Mouse Music!, followed by Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush’s piercing 2015 profile of homeless Oakland residents, Dogtown Redemption, in BAMPFA’s Barbro Osher Theatre on Sept. 22.

Filmmakers need an audience, to state the obvious, as much as money. That’s their job, to craft stories that connect with — and provoke — viewers. The Berkeley Film Foundation, through sponsored support, outreach and events like its inaugural Gala for Justice & Inclusion in Film in San Francisco on Nov. 23, seeks to expand the depth and breadth of its assistance. (Personal to Oakland’s city government: Get on board and join Berkeley and Emeryville in funding local moviemakers.)

The filmmakers, in turn, employ camera people, editors, composers, etc. As Plotkin put it, “We’re supporting what exists as the independent film industry here.”