Erin Mei-Ling Stuart and Kim Jiang Dubaniewicz in Girl in Golden Gate Park. Photo courtesy of the filmmakers.

Like film festivals around the world, this year’s SF IndieFest is taking place online, presenting some three dozen features and 42 shorts gleaned from 20 countries. Screening from Feb. 4 to 21, the event might be virtual, but it remains closely tied to the Mission, which continues to boast a deep and diverse contingent of cinema talent. 

The 23rd edition of IndieFest features some high-profile projects, including the mystical journey of Carlos S. Hintermann’s The Book of Vision, which was executive produced by legendary director Terrence Malick and opens the festival Thursday. 

Billed as the festival’s Centerpiece Film, Blindspotting director Carlos López Estrada’s Summertime bounces 25 high school-age actors against each other during a single, simmering summer day in contemporary Los Angeles. And IndieFest closer Puppy Love brings together Hopper Penn and Paz de la Huerta in a sordid tale of addiction and homelessness with an intriguing cast of supporting actors, including Rosanna Arquette, Michael Madsen, and Wayne Newton.

Among these ambitious projects, it can be easy to lose sight of little gems like California Creole, a short film about the great Richmond zydeco accordionist Andre Thierry. The co-directors, Abby Berendt Lavoi and Jeremey Lavoi, divided their time between New Orleans and the Mission until the pandemic prompted them to hunker down in Crescent City. 

Part of a larger documentary project looking at contemporary Cajun and zydeco musicians, California Creole is a brief but intimate portrait of Thierry, a Grammy-nominated band leader who has forged a propulsive sound that blends his Louisiana roots with soul and rhythm & blues. Thierry’s irresistible music, designed for celebrations and dance parties, offers a glimpse at a little-known Creole community in the East Bay that traces its roots to the booming Richmond shipyards in World War II. 

Andre Thierry. Photo credit: Roots of Fire.

“We met Andre and became interested in the fact there was a vibrant zydeco scene in Northern California,” Jeremey Lavoi said. “He fit the bill about how we were thinking about the project, which looks at how a new generation of musicians is reshaping Cajun music and zydeco.”

Living at 19th and Church for more than a decade, he and Abby Berendt Lavoi were part of the Mission’s vibrant film community. The pandemic has made connecting with the New Orleans film scene difficult, to say the least, which has meant they’ve continued to rely on “our Bay Area production family,” Abby said. 

“There’s such a strong filmmaking community,” Jeremey added. “We were always working with people in the neighborhood. There’s not this competitive thing. Everybody wants to help each other out and lift each other up.” 

Writer and director JP Allen tapped into the Mission’s talent pool on his nerve-racking feature Girl In Golden Gate Park, an all-too-topical film about one woman’s desperate measures to stay in San Francisco after being evicted. While the narrative is cautionary tale, the visuals serve as a love letter to the city, courtesy of Mission-based cinematographer Daniel Teixeira-Gomes.

One of the film’s central characters, Joni, is played by Erin Mei-Ling Stuart, a decades-long Missionite. Joni is “a lightweight grifter,” she said. “Maybe that’s not her inclination, but it’s her survival tactic. The film shows a little bit of the struggle surviving in this extremely gentrified city.”

While Girl In Golden Gate Park marks Stuart’s feature film debut, she’s been a regular presence on the Bay Area arts scene for decades as a dancer, choreographer, and theatrical performer in movement-based works. Regularly cast in productions at Shotgun Players in Berkeley, she tends to find theater work in the East Bay while dancing closer to home. 

“For the past 25 years, a lot of my artistic life has rotated around the neighborhood,” Stuart said. “I actually was part of two site-specific dances that took place in the Mission, Detour Dance’s ‘Fugue’ and Amara Tabor-Smith’s He Moved Swiftly but Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street. It’s such a different way of interacting with my own neighborhood. With ‘Fugue,’ I got to wear this incredible red and blue sequined coat while playing a ukulele. It turns out a lot of people want to interact with you, dressed like that.” 

At its best, film helps us see the world through a different lens. SF IndieFest offers numerous arresting views, like the short documentary Dennis: The Man Who Legalized Cannabis. Brandon Moore’s film celebrates the ultimately successful campaign waged by Dennis Peron, whose experienced an epiphany about providing medical cannabis to HIV/AIDS patients in 1990 while lying on a concrete slab in the Mission District police station. 

Films can also allow us to see familiar sights anew. With early calls during the filming of Girl In Golden Gate Park, Stuart was often struck by the peacefulness of the deserted streets. “It was like seeing an almost pastoral side to the city,” she said. “San Francisco really is a character in the film, and it feels very meaningful to have it screen here, even if it’s all online.  Now my parents in Fresno will be able to see the premiere.”

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