Director Barry Jenkins comments on race in San Francisco-based film

IFC Films/Courtesy

San Francisco has a hard time finding representation in cinema. It’s too expensive to film here, and besides, New York is cinema’s favorite city. We have LA-transplant Barry Jenkins to thank for writing and directing “Medicine for Melancholy,” the quintessential San Francisco film because it wouldn’t work any place else. This D.I.Y. mumblecore-by-way-of-Nouvelle-Vague indie traveled the festival circuit in 2008, and premiered theatrically in early 2009. I first watched this quiet little movie that year, late at night on TV. Watching it again last Thursday at the Pacific Film Archive — a screening that kicked off the 2012 African Film Festival — I realized how big, loud and important the film really is.

In a Q&A session after the screening, Jenkins, an affable early-thirty-something with hip glasses and dapper dress, described his as “a very fast film.” He wrote the 80-page script over the course of a few weeks and quickly went into production. Was it Godard who said that all you need to make a movie is $13,000 and a five-man crew?

A la Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2005), “Medicine for Melancholy” is a walking-and-talking film about two people who spend the day together after a one-night-stand. Both are African American but have different views of what that means. Micah (Wyatt Cenac) says he is “black” before he is “a man,” but Joanne (Tracey Heggins) doesn’t share his values.

Over the course of a day and a night, Micah and Joanne get to know each other through discursive discussions that ultimately expose their ideologies and bring these two bruised souls together. They are as infatuated with each other as Barry Jenkins is with cinema.

With an intense dedication to character and dialogue akin to Eric Rohmer, and the visual exuberance of Jean-Luc Godard, “Medicine” possesses the vitality of ‘60s French film. Like a fresh city newcomer, the camera eagerly goes wherever it pleases. Shot on location in areas like the Tenderloin and Mission District, the film basks in the solarized cityscape. Sepias and beiges saturate every street, park, museum, bar and apartment. It feels like discovering San Francisco, and cinema, for the first time.

For Jenkins, whose memory of making “Medicine” is fuzzy, this was a collaborative effort. “I’d love to say I made every decision, but sometimes it just came together.” The film sticks to the script, though Jenkins said that Cenac occasionally ad-libbed. With naturalistic dialogue, the whole film feels improvised, which is a testament to Jenkins’s skills as both a director and a screenwriter.

“Medicine For Melancholy” is that rarity: a plotless slice-of-life that actually has something to say. The film is frank about its political position (and better for it) but ambivalent in its attitude toward San Francisco. “Medicine” is both a cinematic ode to the City by the Bay and interrogation of the city’s disjointed social strata and increased gentrification. These issues have marginalized minority groups and subcultures. In response, “Medicine” yearns for the city without such prejudice and subjugation, the one that crooners leave their hearts in.

“I hate this city but I love this city,” Micah says to Joanne. It’s a telling quote about the ambivalence of youth and the film’s themes of transition and transience. Micah and Joanne are self-defining upstream, against the current of a place ever-changing and fast-moving.

Micah and Joanne are lonely in their struggles. They have the double duty of belonging to both a minority and a subculture. Micah describes himself as “indie” (the 2008 iteration of “hipster”). When he rants about race and urban identity, Joanne is disinterested. But this is who they are, and Jenkins remains true to his crushingly earnest characters. Their chemistry transcends philosophical difference, which is the most hopeful message of the film.

Jenkins said that “coming out of an interracial relationship” inspired the film. “I pretty much was Micah [except] I did not have a one-night stand,” Jenkins said. “When this relationship was over, I didn’t have any friends in the city.” “Medicine” came from his own heartbreak and geographic alienation.

Jenkins is a progressive filmmaker. One of his great moments of joy, he said, was seeing the movie posted on BitTorrent. “It’s like when you’re on the subway and someone tries to sell you a bootleg of your own movie,” he said.  Any other filmmaker might berate his illegally downloading public, but Jenkins only cares that people see the film. He doesn’t care about profit, something that’s virtually impossible in the independent film circuit anyway.

“I’m not getting paid for any of this,” Jenkins said of the night’s screening, “but I think [PFA] had to pay IFC for the print. That’s how it works.” He laughed. He’s a guy who gets the working class slump.

After completing “Medicine,” Jenkins did not immediately return to filmmaking. He worked at the Local 16, stapling plywood. He says now that he’s writing “two indie films about Oakland,” where he now lives because SF became unaffordable, giving his film a belated autobiographical twist. Before the Q&A, Jenkins did not watch the film. “It’s too embarrassing,” he said in an introduction, before the lights went down.

We’re lucky to have a film like “Medicine for Melancholy” and a director like Barry Jenkins to call our own. No film has understood San Francisco better. It’s about preserving a sense of place in the city you love that’s beating you down.