The Other Barrio, now finishing up post-production, offers viewers a feature-length noir crime-buster that uses the Mission’s evictions and gentrification as a backdrop.

Adapted from a short story by San Francisco’s Poet Laureate Alejandro Murguía, the film follows Housing Inspector Bob Morales as he investigates a fatal residential hotel fire in the city’s Mission District. It is based on the true tale of the Mission’s Gartland Hotel, which burned down in 1975, but instead of setting the film in the 1970s, the filmmakers placed the film in the present day.

Lou Dematteis, a long-time Mission resident who co-produced the film, talked to Mission Local about the film and its challenges.

“In 2013, we started focusing on what was happening in the Mission because by that time, evictions were heating up,” Dematteis said. “We wanted to add what’s happening more contemporarily in the Mission, since the short story is about redevelopment and historically, the fires in the Mission have happened for many, many years and are still happening.”

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Courtesy of “The Other Barrio”

The Other Barrio has deep Mission roots. Founder and former artistic director of the Mission’s Galería de la Raza—who is now being evicted—is the film’s production designer. The lead actor, co-writer and co-producer, Richard Montoya, helped establish the 1980s Chicano American performance troupe Culture Clash in the Mission. A spoken-word piece by Mission resident Guillermo Gómez-Peña of La Pocha Nostra collective is featured. Murguía makes a cameo appearance.

“It’s almost like you’re watching a documentary but you’re not,” Dematteis said. “We have a realistic portrayal of the Mission, which I’m not sure any film has done….We were able to use this element of the community rising up to protest and to push back against the evictions and the gentrification.”

Using The Other Barrio as a starting point, Dematteis, who has lived in the Mission on and off for the last four decades, seeks to paint a more nuanced look at what’s happening in the Mission District.

“A lot of the criticism about what’s happening in the Mission is laid at the feet of high-tech and the hipsters,” Dematteis said. “We thought it was important to be more sophisticated as to what’s happening in the Mission. We basically lay it on the economic forces of development and the policies of the city of San Francisco.”

“We’re critical of high-tech and their part of this, but we were careful not to vilify anybody,” Dematteis said.”We want everyone to go and see it, to see what they think.”

Dematteis said the film cost $200,000 to make. The budgetary constraints came with challenges including a dramatic shift midway through the project that changed the film from a series of noir stories that would have included Chinatown and North Beach to one feature based in the Mission. With 50 minutes already shot, they brought in another writer to finish off the story. The femme fatale had already been killed off, but another was created, Dematteis said.

As a local filmmaker and photojournalist, Dematteis is a staunch believer in art with a purpose. For him, there is a certain poetry in connecting art with real-life events. Dematteis and his colleagues were active in the opposition to U.S. involvement in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Dematteis covered the U.S.-backed contra war in Nicaragua for six years and Murguía was also active in the opposition. 

Now, ground zero is their own neighborhood.

“There’s an incredible artistic pushback against the gentrification,” Dematteis said. “The Other Barrio is part of this artistic pushback. The Mission is always thought of being Latino, which it is, but artistically, it’s an incredible mix of people….and this is the sadness of the Mission—that we’re losing some of that.”

The Other Barrio has been submitted to the Mill Valley Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival and the San Diego Film Festival. It is currently in post-production and is set to premiere in the fall.