Rahsaan Thomas wrote, directed and produced a film while incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison. His documentary, “Friendly Signs,” places viewers in the world of those who are deaf and incarcerated.
Thomas, co-host and co-producer of the podcast Ear Hustle, is one of 20 independent filmmakers and five student filmmakers who received this year’s Berkeley Film Foundation, or BFF, grant.
“This year’s recipients stood out to us for several reasons. They are telling a brand new story or give a unique angle on a well-known premise, and they tell this story with innovation and creativity using new or interesting filmmaking techniques,” BFF Program Director Isabella Miller said in an email.
Thomas emphasized that his ability to create the film while he was incarcerated “demonstrates the potential of empowering incarcerated people with access to media training and equipment use and suggests that other prisons should follow suit.”
Courtney Quirin, director of “GUARDIAN” and fellow BFF grant awardee, will have spent a total of 11 weeks in South Africa for her documentary “Tracker.”
Expecting to finish in 2025, Quirin filmed a group of students at Tracker Academy, a wildlife tracking and knowledge school for disadvantaged people in South Africa.
According to Miller, 2023’s winning films vary in subject matter, style and length. She added that awards are given to full length documentaries and animated, documentary or narrative short films.
“Some are personal stories and others are investigative pieces that uncover shocking truths,” Miller said in the email.
All films recognized by the program are produced by East Bay filmmakers from Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Emeryville or El Cerrito, noted Miller.
The largest award categories, the Saul Zaentz Award and the 4th annual Jonathan Logan Elevate Award, granted $25,000 each to the films “Tracker” and “Finding Ma”.
“Finding Ma” is the story of a family that spent 20 years apart due to foster care and prison systems, eventually reuniting “to heal old wounds and rebuild their family, starting with finding their mom who is houseless in the streets of Sacramento,” according to the film’s website.
Since 2009, the BFF has awarded nearly $2.6 million to 265 film projects and more than $200,000 to student filmmakers.
That money is spent by grant recipients to finish their projects or promote completed films, Miller said.
Thomas is planning on using his $7K award, which he said he was surprised to have won after a last minute application, on an impact tour to promote the film.
For Quirin, the money will recoup costs of previous trips to Tracker Academy and fund a final trip in November to film the students’ graduation.
Among student filmmakers who won this year’s awards were “ARTificial Intelligence” by Tanay Gokhale and Zhiwei Feng, “That Kid from Oakland” by Pablo Hernandez and Ciella Sfirri and “Jardines” by Alfredo Torres.
“All films we support have a deep connection to significant cultural or political issues of our time and are looking to shift the narrative or inspire real policy changes,” Miller said in the email.