“The Internet is very Jewish,” says Sam Ball. “It’s a very Jewish thing to comment. And then comment and comment and comment and comment.”
Ball is sitting in the wood-paneled offices of Citizen Film, trying to explain how the documentary film nonprofit that he cofounded went about making a recent collection of short films. The room, part of an old industrial building that was turned into live-work spaces in the 1970s, feels a little like summer camp, but with very large computers.
Ball is talking about “Half-Remembered Stories,” one of Citizen Film’s most recent projects. The 50 short films and 11 multimedia pieces that make up the collection all touch on what it means to be of Jewish heritage (the project is funded by the National Jewish Film Project). They’ll show this week as part of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. The stories involve the usual tales of diaspora, but also touch on themes as diverse as zombies, Yiddish and South Dakota. “We had an advisor on the project who is the chair of Jewish studies at Columbia. He said, ‘Read the Torah. You’re going to love it. It’s full of zombies.’”
Citizen Film moved to the Mission in 2001, when the dot-com bust left the area a temporary (if zombie-less) ghost town. The Bay Area is known for having an unusually large and close-knit film scene, and the section of the inner Mission around Bryant and 20th became known as documentary gulch for all of the small documentary studios that moved into offices once occupied by tech start-ups.
Everyone in Citizen Film wears multiple hats. Ball credits its continued existence to the fact that tech-savvy staff can do multimedia in-house instead of contracting it out. The resulting films have been eclectic, but all touch on issues of community and identity in some way. Sophie Constantinou, another Citizen Film founder, is producing a documentary about the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative.
The documentary form itself is changing, says Ball. It’s more episodic, more likely to be seen on the Internet, more likely to be multimedia. There’s a seamlessness between publicity and project that is new. Using blogs as a way to warehouse and develop ideas is also new.
The small crew of young Bay Area-based writers and filmmakers that were mentored by Citizen Film have as improvisational an approach to their own ethnicity as they do to technology. They were making films as young Jewish filmmakers, but were neither especially religious nor completely Jewish (most of them also navigate additional ethnicities).
Ball, who along with the company’s other founders has made a living out of documenting change, declares this fascinating. “There’s a lot of hand-wringing in the Jewish community. If you’re not in a shtetl, in the mud, then you’re losing your Jewishness. But it’s possible to be Jewish among other identities. Being Jewish is an act of storytelling.”