Notes from the Underground

2011 Oakland Underground Film Festival

“You are the underground,” declared the emcee of the 2011 Oakland Underground Film Festival to a small audience of film lovers, performers and a few canine friends intimately huddled in an East Oakland warehouse. In its third year, the festival has become not only a place to celebrate offbeat cinema, but a meeting point for countercultures of all stripes. From fetish to hip-hop, the festival catered to the Bay Area’s many social niches.

Kicking off Thursday night at the Grand Lake Theater and continuing Friday and Saturday at the D.I.Y. art space NIMBY (where many of the Bay Area’s sculptural contributions to Burning Man are made), OakUFF played host to a variety of film genres, food trucks and musical performances. With documentaries, full-length features and shorts made in Oakland and as far as Guatemala and India, the diverse program was united by its spirit of unabashed individuality.

­— Nastia Voynovskaya

Devious, Inc.

With a narrator that speaks only in rhyme and fetish costumes galore, “Devious, Inc.” brings together the tackiest of elements in an orgy of camp. Filmed in different parts of the Bay Area and directed by Oakland’s xuxE, the so-bad-it’s-good musical flaunts what it’s got, and what it’s got is a whole lot of corniness. Like its awkwardly kinky protagonists, the film is loud and proud, and surprisingly engrossing.

Before “Devious, Inc.” began, the burlesque performer Kitten on the Keys serenaded audience members with songs about genitalia as her bare breasts (adorned with pig snout-shaped pasties) flopped out of her sequined leotard. The performance served as a gateway into a world of infinite pleather outfits and layers of lip-liner. But despite the film’s overwhelmingly deviant sexuality (for a non-fetishist, that is), it unfolds a tale of self-discovery relatable to anyone alienated by their surroundings.

Dressed in a brown and yellow zoot suit, Ron escapes his family’s shoe farm (yes, this is a farm where Timberlands grow on cornstalks) to pursue his passion for glamour in New Cityville. After a big-time CEO named Bitch rejects him from her shoe business run by an office of drag queens, our hero rounds up a band of wayward misfits to face Bitch at the Wheel of Fetish Competition. The ridiculous characters and musical numbers accessorize Ron’s emotional plight, which is the statement piece of the whole outfit.

— Nastia Voynovskaya

The Furious Force of Rhymes

It’s often said, by Hallmark cards mostly, that music is a universal language. But, with director Joshua Atesh Litle’s feature documentary, “The Furious Force of Rhymes,” it becomes clear that rap, in particular, is becoming the international mode of musical expression. From the inaugural streets of 1970s New York to the contemporary projects of Paris, Litle traces the culturally explosive and geographically extensive influence of hip-hop from its most passionate patrons — the musicians themselves. In Germany, we witness the potent and proud rhymes of white East Berliners. In Africa, we hear the feminist anthems of Senegal. Over the span of four continents and six nations, Bay Area-native Litle has crafted a diverse and complex testimony to the raw power of rap.

Though it began in the Bronx, with the likes of Busy Bee Starski and DJ Afrika Bambaataa, the subjects of “Furious Force” were just as instrumental. Tyron Ricketts, an Afro-German from Berlin, helped form a collective of black German rappers in protest against the violent hate crimes of a turbulent post-wall Berlin. Les Nubians, a Parisian R&B duo, soulfully sing the troubles of a culturally confused France. Whether it be race, poverty, politics or pride, Litle’s documentary is profound and provocative in its message of rap’s transcendence. Though there are occasional sound snafus (with the music often overpowering dialogue), “The Furious Force of Rhymes” remains as illuminating and compelling as the hip-hop music it features.

— Jessica Pena

Gandu

Whether this be good or bad remains debatable, but what is known is that Indian director Kaushik Mukherjee (a.k.a. “Q”) has fashioned a film unlike any other. Part hyper-stylized music video, part abstract exercise, his feature “Gandu” follows the titular character in his meandering, sometimes volatile, journey towards rap/rock stardom. Set in the poverty-stricken streets of the Kolkata slums, we see Gandu (Anubrata) at his quotidian best ― rapping alone in his bedroom, stealing money from the clients of his prostitute mother and exchanging insults with his eccentric friend Riksha, a devout Bruce Lee fan. Given the circumstances, “Gandu” could very easily be construed as a film of youthful antics. Perhaps, a Bengali version of “The Sandlot” with less dogs and no James Earl Jones. But, that is not this film.

Quickly and without reason, “Gandu” goes awry. Shot in black and white, with an often out-of-focus camera and bizarre textual sequences, the film falls into a pit of experimental unease. The non-linear narrative darts back and forth between aggressive music videos of Gandu rapping and the more banal shots of him and Riksha calling each other “assholes.” Soon, they begin taking heroin and the entire film becomes mired in a sea of hallucinatory absurdity, including graphic, full frontal sex scenes. At one moment, Gandu declares his whole “life is a fucking fart.” And, for that matter, so is his film. Like flatulence, “Gandu” amounts to nothing more than an ephemeral stink, unpleasant and offensive.

— Jessica Pena

Marimbas from Hell

The marimba is pretty much the dorkiest musical instrument ever. Between it’s bulky wooden body and annoyingly bright percussive notes (imagine if the xylophone and steel drums had a baby), it has been left to collect dust on the fringes of traditional Guatemalan folk music. In Julio Hernandez Cordon’s tragicomedy-cum-mockumentary, “Marimbas from Hell” (2010), however, that whipping boy of instruments becomes not only part of a black metal four-piece, but a symbol of fearless originality.

Blackmailed by gangs and left behind by his family, Don Alfonso loses his gig at a desolate hotel where he jammed on his marimba for inattentive tourists. At this lowest of lows, Alfonso’s glue-sniffing, tank top-wearing godson gets him in touch with Blacko, the pioneer of Guatelama’s metal scene. The underdogs forge an alliance, embarking on an unheard-of music project where the marimba accompanies distorted guitar solos and bloodthirsty lyrics.

Hernandez Cordon’s filmmaking style is poetry in motion; his lingering shots of the goofy and somewhat pathetic characters against colorful facades and expansive skies bring out their strange beauty. Marked with a wry sense of humor, the dialogue captures each protagonist’s idiosyncrasies without turning them into caricatures. As the lines between documentary and fiction become blurred, only Hernandez Cordon’s camera work, too gorgeous to be an accident, reveal the artist’s hand behind this unlikely masterpiece.

— Nastia Voynovskaya

Yelling to the Sky

While writer/director Victoria Mahoney’s debut “Yelling to the Sky” is trite, melodramatic and uninspired in terms of narrative, the visuals are cinema heaven and the brazen performances, particularly from a plucky Zoe Kravitz, make this film an above-average pleasure.

The screening at the Grand Theater in Oakland was shown in glorious 35mm, which is rare these days for independent film. In attendance, Mahoney was genuinely warm to her Oakland public and passionate about her film, which is allegedly semi-autobiographical. Kravitz plays Sweetness O’Hara, an African American girl who is lighter-skinned than her peers at school and who lives with her sister, absent mother and abusive white father in a cramped house.

Precious Gabourey Sidibe is Latonya, large-and-in-charge and the school bully who taunts Sweetness and her friends. Sweetness soon gathers a posse of braid-flipping girls and gives Latonya a piquant taste of her own medicine, all the while finding herself embroiled in sex, drug dealing and a duplicitous female clique. Think of “Yelling” as “Thirteen,” “Kids” and a little “Rebel Without a Cause” for the black cinema, which seems to be nonexistent these days. In her rich cinematic palette — she is no doubt a knowledgeable moviegoer with a taste for cinema verite — and ability to elicit startlingly good performances (one Tim Blake Nelson stops in to play a creepy guidance counselor), Mahoney just might be the boon to black cinema we need, even if her screenwriting skills need some polish.

­— Ryan Lattanzio