Films on farms, fatalities and the French

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The fifth annual Oakland Underground Film Festival brought local and international films to Bay Area audiences. From documentaries to shorts to full-length features, OakUFF demonstrated what it means to be truly underground in an age when that title is so loosely applied. The festival provided local beer from Drake’s Brewing Company in San Leandro and a selection of free barbecued treats between showings to keep festival-goers happy and engaged, though the movies themselves were enough to do just that.

“The Dirties”

Written and directed by rising filmmaker Matt Johnson, who also stars, “The Dirties” is an endearing, striking and ultimately heartbreaking portrayal of bullying in a Toronto public high school. The movie traces the lives of “uncool” kids Matt and Owen who make a film in which they kill off the members of the ruling high school crew, The Dirties, for making their lives a living hell. This pipe dream slowly transforms into a looming horror as we watch Matt slip into the delusion of mistaking the fake for the real, finally becoming a character in his own tragic plot.

Backed by iconic indie filmmaker Kevin Smith, who claims, “You’ve never seen it done the way Matt Johnson has pulled it all together,” “The Dirties” moves quickly from being a film depicting the brutal effects of bullying to being one that asks questions about what it means to be normal and where to draw the line between fantasy and reality. Johnson essentially plays himself throughout the film — a charismatic and lovable jokester whose comic originality has the audience waiting to see what he comes up with next. But when his next idea is a Columbine-inspired mass killing, the audience comes to the tragic realization that their hero is en route to becoming the bad guy in the film. In a climactic moment of Matt’s loss of self-control, he stares into the camera and asks: “Do you think I’m crazy?” Either answer is too difficult to consider.

“The Dirties” seems to unintentionally shed light on everything controversial and interesting in the life of an adolescent high school kid trying to be cool, get girls and have friends. With this film, Johnson has made his mark not only as a pioneer in the world of DIY alternative filmmaking but also as a unique and brilliant voice in the lengthy discourse on bullying, mental illness and practically everything else that matters to youth growing up in this country.

“Le Bonheur: Terre Promise”

If you haven’t really suffered, you can’t be good at happiness.” This maxim speaks to the overarching significance of the humble documentary “Le Bonheur: Terre Promise.” The film chronicles the 82-day journey of the film’s director, Laurent Hasse, as he treks across France in search of an answer to the question, “What is happiness?”

Hasse interviews a range of French citizens, from suburban teens to elderly couples living in isolation, and portrays the lower classes and peasantry as struggling but surviving. Emmanuel, a young man who lives in solitude, sees happiness as “a quest for peace within you.” Elsewhere, a young housewife manages a smile as she clutches her child. “What keeps me happy? Being in love,” she says. Her husband, Stephane, seems to have a different idea. “Happiness is self-sufficiency,” he says. English subtitles flash across the screen.

The fleeting nature of happiness becomes apparent over the course of Hasse’s pilgrimage as he finds that, during an interview with a German expatriate, “(people) tend to go after happiness that pops like soap bubbles.”

The film’s dialogue of solemn, pensive conversations is broken up with instrumental music accompanying scenes of dreary winter roads, empty fields and scenic forests. Locals warn Hasse of the “French Bermuda Triangle,” a lifeless region through which he must travel. A melancholy tone throughout the film maintains a sense of grounded realism.

“Le Bonheur” presents a strong connection between the French people and their landscape. Some find that it nourishes them, while others find it depressing.

“(My land is) my little acre of happiness,” a farmer says.

“Living here is no longer worth living,” another inhabitant explains.

“Look at the landscape,” a baker says. “That’s what happiness is.”

The screen cuts to fog rolling through a silent meadow.

When Hasse reaches the icy waters of the Atlantic Ocean, he completes his journey and heals a part of his aching soul. The film proves itself to be incredibly relevant, touching and artfully composed. We learn not only about the meaning of nationality but also about the meaning of life.

Filmmaker mingle

Midway down San Pablo Avenue, my cab driver glanced back at me in his rearview mirror.

“Let me tell you something about Oakland. There are druggies on these corners. And a lot of hookers.” He stopped at a light. “This is real life, honey.”

Unexpectedly — albeit pleasantly — the films shown at the Oakland Underground Film Festival’s filmmaker barbecue resonated with a similar frankness. Somewhere between grimy and sexy, Thursday’s audience gathered for a screening of five local shorts in the only illuminated building on the block. The event was followed by a post-show schmooze with producers. As an organization with growing notoriety for “keeping it real,” the Oakland Underground Film Festival strives to unite local filmmakers who highlight issues pertaining to the Bay Area. When programmer Shawn Taylor spoke about the event’s selection process, he emphasized that he sought material that rang true to a meaningful objective.

“So nothing overly artsy?” I asked.

Taylor grinned. “Not even if Jesus made it.”

Generally, the films were true to their intent and accented the je ne sais quoi that makes the Bay Area so unique. Most remarkable was Melinda James’ “16 Seeds.” A short, the documentary comments on contemporary food inequality by following three black farmers in Oakland’s inner city.

“Where there’s more alcohol than fresh fruit, there’s a … need for intervention,” said Gail Myers of Farms to Grow, who was featured in the film.

Myers’ identification of societal disconnect as a leading obstacle to food justice resonated with the objective of the festival; each film explored the penetrating issue of how to instill change in any community, demonstrating the central idea that collaboration is integral to a revolution’s success.

Indeed, the entire event seemed like a sort of meeting of mutineers — angst-ridden yuppies seeking company in their efforts to rebuild the decaying world. Although the festival was well intentioned, it might benefit from narrowing the scope of its zeal. Taylor said it best: The Oakland Underground Film Festival doesn’t pose.