For those who have been following Mission news lately, Sunday’s screening of The Other Barrio at Brava theater within San Francisco’s Indie Film Festival might find a few eerily familiar themes. The slightly campy noir film tells the story of a building inspector who tenaciously follows the trail of tenants killed and displaced by huge building fires. He needs to know what happens, but what he finds sends him deep into a world of conspiracy and extortion.
The Other Barrio is the work of several heavy hitters in the Mission’s art scene, including photographer Lou Dematteis (whose photographs were the inspiration for the recently restored Carnaval mural on 24th and South Van Ness streets), Alejandro Murguia, last year San Francisco’s poet laureate, but always the Mission’s and Rene Yanez, an artist, curator and founder of the Mission’s major arts institutions.
Dematteis and director and co-producer Dante Betteo adapted the screenplay from a San Francisco based noir story by Murguia and added a new ending. They used real footage from protests and photographs from around the Mission to tell their story.
“To this day, people are unsure if it’s a documentary or a feature film,” Dematteis said.
Murguia agreed. “We were documenting things while they were disappearing,” he said.
Indeed, some of the scenes were shot on locations that have either drastically changed or simply no longer exist. Esta Noche, for example, features prominently in The Other Barrio, but announced its closure late last year. Several murals and signs have also been painted over or removed. And that doesn’t take into account the filmmakers’ personal connections to the Mission — Murguia himself used to be the manager at the New Mission Theater, and a dossier on fires in the neighborhood that becomes a critical plot point is a real document Dematteis dug up in the archives of Victor Miller, who ran the former New Mission News. The archives are now in El Tecolote’s office.
Betteo and Dematteis came together to create the film after Betteo picked up a copy of Murguia’s noir stories at City Lights and began to toy with the idea of creating a film from it. He couldn’t, however, reach the author. Dematteis, long a friend of Murguia’s, became the bridge between director and author, and himself took on part of the production. After some major changes in the script, the film was created on a shoestring budget, with total costs reaching around $200,000.
Despite low production costs, the film touches on a wide variety of political and social issues immediately relevant to the city today. It overtly critiques “hipsters” and newcomers to the neighborhood who consume, but do not understand, local culture. It also points a finger at corrupt police, greedy landlords, and mobsteresque developers for permanently altering a neighborhood. But there’s some ambiguity as to the nature of the protagonists, who undoubtedly make poor decisions as they follow their difficult paths.
“That’s part of the nature of noir, is that everyone’s a little bit good, a little bit bad,” Betteo said.
Mona Caron, a muralist with works throughout San Francisco and the world, said she noticed a spectrum of amorality that lends some complexity to the film.
“The fact that there is a hierarchy of corruption is a good thing,” she said. “It helps fill out the picture.”
The filmmakers even removed some of the more “in-your-face” disparaging dialogue about “techies” and “hipsters” and included positive characters who come from a tech background to balance its pointed hits.
Though The Other Barrio does make reference to the Latino culture of the Mission, Betteo said the central themes — the loss of one’s home, being pushed out — are universal.
“This is not a Chicano issue,” Betteo said. “Displacement and gentrification affect everyone.”
The Other Barrio’s world premiere at Brava Theater at 7 p.m. on February 8 has already sold out, but a matinee screening has been added at 2 p.m. A trailer is available here. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.