Oakland Underground Film Festival

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The annual Oakland Underground Film Festival is only in its second year, and already it has begun to fulfill a lot of its potential, screening underappreciated films to the Oakland community. On Friday night, the Festival took a decidedly music-oriented bent, screening documentaries about the Tokyo avant-garde scene and the brief rocksteady movement in Jamaica. On Saturday, a live dance battle and turf dance video screening primed the audience to be immersed in the different subcultures that the documentaries covered.

The Festival's biggest challenge will be for it to mature into an event that truly calls to the East Bay. Located at West Oakland's Linden Street Brewery, the venue had a certain romanticism to it. It was particularly fun seeing trains roll by just 20 feet behind the screen.

The Festival's isolation from major transit points - nearly a mile from the nearest BART station severely limited options for the many residents in the Bay Area who don't have a car. Still, the films more than made up for the offbeat setting. After all, the Festival was all about pushing limits - in essence, the underground.

-Max Siegel & Nastia Voynovskaya

Rocksteady: The Roots of Reggae

This pleasant documentary introduces us to more than a dozen rocksteady stars, who reunited in Kingston, Jamaica to re-record the old songs that made them famous. Rocksteady is the precursor to reggae, a mellower version of ska that cropped up in the mid-sixties. Of course, such labels are hardly set in stone. In a memorable interview, musicians argue about whether a Bob Marley song should be considered reggae or rocksteady.

"Rocksteady" thrives on the stories of these individuals, many of whom made songs knowing they couldn't make a living off of music alone. It's particularly refreshing when we see these musicians as humans, not legends. One singer was so nervous about recording that she took tranquilizers; while recording, she inexplicably loses her voice.

"Rocksteady" would have been even better if it had delved into Jamaica's political connection to the musical genre. The artists mostly cite the lack of jobs in Kingston as problematic, but this is a simplification that depoliticizes what was a more turbulent time. Music can indeed soothe the soul, but it can also reflect more troublesome tensions.

-Max Siegel

We Don't Care About Music Anyway

Things began on an abrasive note with "We Don't Care About Music Anyway," a documentary about Tokyo's avant-garde music scene. A more apt title might have been: "Guitar Torture," "Cello Abuse," or, most disturbing, "Turntable Pounding." This is a difficult but thought-provoking film that thrusts viewers into the frigid world of avant-garde music. Speaking at a roundtable discussion, the artists express their disenchantment with modern-day, economically stunted Japan. Their music - some would argue noise - isn't so much a show of creativity as it is a loud submission to an unhappy future.

The filmmakers dutifully show entire performances, which are beautifully shot, but you yearn for more direction; the documentary filmmaker needs to take charge of his subjects. Otherwise, the artists' music comes across as all bluster, with little soul. Take the surreal set in which a guitarist wearing silver Spandex plays otherworldly music on a salt field. The directors digitally manipulate her body so she occasionally disappears. Then you realize: These are artists who are trying in vain to make a statement in a world that has already left them behind.

-Max Siegel

Mamachas del Ring

Carmen Rosa the Champion put up a fight for the equal treatment of indigenous women in Bolivia - literally. Shedding plenty of her opponents' blood but never her skirt, the pioneering female wrestler of her nation became the subject of director Betty M. Park's new documentary, "Mamachas del Ring." And while her story doesn't satiate viewers with a typical happy ending, Carmen Rosa's charming demeanor and fierce resilience challenge rampant cultural prejudices and inspire a fresh appreciation for her commitment to her sport.

Although full of bright clothing, bustling city scenes and plenty of performance spectacles, the film depicts the discrimination indigenous women face in Bolivia as well as the dominant culture's appropriation of their identity for the sake of entertainment. The microcosm of Carmen Rosa and the other three Mamachas of wrestling, while an unfamiliar subculture on this continent, serves as an insightful analogy to the adverse affects of gentrification in many American neighborhoods. While Carmen Rosa and her colleagues face mistreatment for their colorful indigenous skirts and nontraditional occupations, their appearance is exaggeratedly mimicked in other wrestling matches as a sort of freakshow attraction.

With several comical Claymation sequences to accompany Carmen Rosa's matter-of-fact narration amid the footage, the film presents a quirky, sometimes lighthearted take on pressing social issues. While the men of the wrestling world and even her husband attempt to bar her from fighting, Carmen Rosa continues her journey as far as she can take it. Flipping skirts and gashing foreheads in the ring, Carmen Rosa the Champion reminds the viewer that the struggle for gender equality is far from over. La lucha sigue!

-Nastia Voynovskay

YAK Films Dance Battle

Since the novelty of hyphy and its accompanying dance moves began to thizzle - I mean, fizzle - out, the new direction of the Oakland hip-hop scene was brought to the world stage when YAK Films' videos of East Oakland turf dancing became a hit in Europe.

The nascent film company, founded by Yoram Savion and Kash Gaines, received much Internet acclaim on the other side of the pond for its dance video "RIP Rich D," which shows a group of turf dancers popping, locking and pirouetting on a rainy corner of MacArthur Boulevard.

On Saturday afternoon, YAK Films hosted a live dance battle followed by a screening of their music and dance videos to showcase Oakland's turf and other street dance talent. Led by the charismatic Kash and fellow dancer Silver of the crew Faux Pas Test, the dance battle began with six two-person teams going up against each other two at a time.

While two of the pairs, Zeus and Wah Wah as well as Stuck and Macc, came from a turf dancing background, the other partnerships represented a variety of styles from jazz to old-school break dancing. MJ and Ghost wowed the audience with their head spins while Fiyaa and Desiyaa flaunted their fancy footwork. After contorting their arms and executing several flips and handsprings, Zeus and Wah Wah emerged victorious.

Following the dance battles, a compilation of YAK Films' videos was shown, including footage of twin freestyle street dancers from Paris and a music video for Oakland rappers Los Rakas. With their tightly controlled cinematography, YAK Films' short but powerful projects continue to give these talented performers the exposure they deserve.

-Nastia Voynovskaya


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