In the nineteen years Mel Vapour has been producing the Berkeley Video and Film Festival, he's seen the East Bay's vibrant film scene go all but unnoticed, even as San Francisco and Marin County hold innumerable high-profile festivals highlighting every demographic niche and creative genre imaginable. "There's sort of a stigma about the East Bay — we've always been in the shadow of the bridge and the Transamerica tower," he said. "But there's a real appetite for film here." Indeed, while San Francisco may always be the place for name-brand, star-studded festivals, this weekend the East Bay plays host to two full-scale film festivals of its own. Vapour's, now in its nineteenth year, is an East Bay institution, while the other, Kahlil Karn's Oakland Underground Film Festival, is a newcomer. Both present a view of East Bay cinema that's at least as interesting and quality as its counterpart across the bay, despite the absence of a red carpet. "I think there's less pomp and pretense and more delivery of content in some respects over here," Vapour said.
And Vapour is very serious about content. He has surrounded himself with movies for decades — first as a young cinephile screening Andy Warhol films wherever he could in the Midwest, and more recently as the vice president of the East Bay Media Center, an equipment-rental service and production studio. This year, he's curated a festival that includes films both award-winning and completely experimental in a wide range of genres. He can hardly contain his film-geek excitement as he ticks off some of his personal favorites out of the festival's 68 short and feature-length offerings: Turbulence, a "hyper-interactive" Israeli feature that allows viewers to dictate the plot, Choose Your Own Adventure-style; Modus Operandi, which Vapour describes as blaxploitation-meets-art-house and which stars Danny Trejo, most recently of Machete; and a full slate of documentaries about subjects including Hawaiian sovereignty, Japanese-American soldiers in WWII, and a decaying Oakland housing development. The festival also favors young filmmakers, including students from the University of Southern California's film department, as well as kids as young as twelve who made films through the Media Center's summer camps.
A few miles south, Karn's festival, now in its second year, is a bit less established and appears to be more laid-back — it will include a dance battle in addition to documentaries about Bolivian female luchadores, American exploitation film culture, and Tokyo's avant-garde music scene. Around half of the screenings will take place outdoors and have taco trucks and beer vendors on hand. But Karn, who decided to start the festival after he grew tired of searching for "Oakland" on YouTube and getting nothing but crime stories, said the festival is still serious about quality. The adjective "underground" is less about "a compromise in quality or depth of storytelling," he said, than it is about an outsider ethos — sort of like the East Bay film scene itself.
Berkeley Video and Film Festival runs Friday through Sunday, Sept. 24-26, at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas (2230 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley). $10-$27.50. BerkeleyVideoFilmFest.org. Oakland Underground Film Festival runs Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 23-Sept. 25, at the Grand Lake Theater (3200 Grand Ave., Oakland) and Linden Street Brewery (95 Linden St., Oakland). $10. OakUFF.org