Film Review: Mission and Chinatown Struggles Most Compelling in “Company Town”

Aaron Peskin in a still from "Company Town" by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman.

Progressive politicos, activists, and other movie-goers descended on the Roxie Theater on Friday night for what has become a San Francisco tradition in recent years: lamenting tech’s influence on the city, particularly its financial takeover of local politics.

Supervisors David Campos and Aaron Peskin, State Senator Mark Leno, author and journalist David Talbot, and various aides, journalists, and local activists packed into a sold-out premiere of “Company Town,” a new film looking at the year-old election between Peskin and Julie Christensen, which ended up shifting the balance on the Board of Supervisors from the moderates to the progressives with Peskin’s victory.

The documentary, from the veteran husband-and-wife pair Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, uses the local election as a lens for analyzing — and criticizing — the influence of corporate overlords who have taken to playing in San Francisco’s political sandbox and throwing around buckets of cash.

The race between Peskin and Christensen takes center-stage, the filmmakers following both candidates during the heavy weeks of their campaign as the poll numbers swing from a slight Christensen lead to a Peskin blow out of 52-44 percent.

But the more compelling moments of the 77-minute doc are those following two native San Franciscans as they walk around transformed neighborhoods.

Joe Fitz Rodriguez, the leftist “On Guard” columnist for the San Francisco Examiner, strolls with the filmmakers down Clarion Alley and Valencia Street, calling the Mission District “ground zero” of anti-gentrification struggles and “everything San Francisco loves about itself.”

“This is it,” he says, standing at 24th and Mission streets as the cameras pan to the Chinese food store across the street, a nearby joyeria, and the BART Station. “This here, is it. San Francisco in turmoil, San Francisco at a crossroads.”

Fitz Rodriguez takes the filmmakers to a Clarion Alley mural with hundreds of blue dots representing evictions in the city. One dot, he says, pointing to a spot in the Castro, is his grandfather. Explaining the eviction, Fitz Rodriguez says his grandfather was Ellis Acted, he had cancer, and he died “in a place that was not his home.”

“It infuriates me to this day that he was moved out of his home, the home that is where all of my family’s memories are, where all of us came and had so much love, it infuriates me to my absolute core that he had to die in a place that was not that place,” he says, staving off tears.

“It just gets me angry,” he says.

Jeffrey Kwong, a campaign volunteer for Peskin during the election whom Snitow and Kaufman follow through Chinatown, has a different, equally San Franciscan story. He, his parents, and his younger brother grew up crammed into a Chinatown single-room occupancy hotel, sharing a bathroom and kitchen with five other families.

“It’s really just barebones. An entire floor would share this one bathroom,” he says, opening a small one-toilet, one-sink room.

Hotels in Chinatown are “getting converted one by one,” he says, often evicting tenants for nonsense: drying clothes outside the window, for instance, or putting up Chinese New Year’s greetings on their doors.

Interviewing one SRO resident, who lives with plastic containers stacked from floor to ceiling, socks hanging from the ceiling to dry, and every inch of her room used up, Kwong asks what would happen to her if she were told to move from her small room.

“I’ll be homeless,” she says.

Instead of delving into data on the true impact of Airbnb on the housing market, the film relies on personal anecdotes and criticism of the tech execs. The titans of tech industry don’t come off well.

Ron Conway, the billionaire Airbnb investor and mega-donor for Ed Lee — who he calls his “tech-friendly” mayor in a snippet — and mayoral ally Christensen says the effects of short-term rental on the housing supply are entirely made up. Alongside his big political spending, he hopes to mobilize tech workers to vote, vote, vote in city elections, presumably for his well-funded candidates.

Brian Chesky, the founder and CEO of the $30 billion giant Airbnb, says that home sharing rentals may well be “one of the great inventions in human history.“ The company’s head of policy, Chris Lehane, Bill Clinton’s former “master of disaster” and crisis communications expert, states the bed-and-breakfast is so large no army could stop it.

But it is Airbnb, not its skeptics, that’s raising an army. The day after defeating a ballot measure that would have regulated short-term rentals, the corporation announced it would organize political clubs across a hundred cities in the country to fight regulation attempts, a tactic that has those in the film — and Snitow and Kaufman — extremely worried.

“These companies are exploiting the personal information of their consumers for political ends,” says Peskin. Snitow and Kaufman said in an interview with Mission Local last week that corporations wielding user data was a troubling development for unknowing consumers.

Still, the film is most successful when it tells the tales of a city under gentrification, not when delving into policy debates. It shies away from housing, where the real solutions to the city’s problem’s lie, and admonishes tech industry honchos for doing what all business people do: back a winning horse, and make sure that horse has a laissez-faire market ideology.

The political victories of the Peskin-Christensen election may prove fleeting after all. In a week, San Francisco will have another election, and the power balance on the Board of Supervisors is up for grabs once again.

The fear of those in rent-controlled Victorians in the Mission District or living in 300 square feet Chinatown SROs, however, are here to stay.

“Company Town” has showings at the Roxie Theater until November 9 and the Elmwood Theater in Berkeley until November 3. It will also be playing at the Smith-Rafael Film Center on November 6, featuring a discussion with the filmmakers.

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