Berkeley-based filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi releases new film about Cuban musicians, presents Fist Up Film Festival
by The People’s Minister of Information JR
Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi is one of the most prolific filmmakers in the Bay Area when it comes to working with working class people in different nations, most times on different continents, and telling their stories.
The type of documentary filmmaking that he does is important because his films help people to see outside of the media programming that is created for us by the lame-stream corporate media bosses.
Most of the images that are brought to people in the U.S., and for that matter to the world, serve economic, political, cultural or military objectives that further white power and capitalism in some way, shape or form. Eli’s films deviate from that path.
All of his films that I have seen give voice to people in so-called third world countries who have no voice on the international stage. His films deal with music and social movements in Cuba, Colombia and Ghana. If you are not hip to what he has going on, make sure you check out this interview and check him out at the Fist Up Film Festival. Here is Eli in his own words.
M.O.I. JR: When was the moment that you decided to make filmmaking your occupation? What inspired your decision?
Eli: It wasn’t really a decision; it was something that kinda fell in my lap. My mom bought her first video camera when I was in high school and I took it as my own. I started documenting everything that interested me, which were usually hip hop shows, protests and the organizing that went behind them.
When I went to college, I didn’t really know what I wanted to study. It wasn’t until my senior year that I took my first official film class where I made my first film – and from there I started calling myself a filmmaker. It was because of that class I saw filmmaking as an occupation and began the path of creating documentaries about music, culture and activism around the world.
M.O.I. JR: Can you talk a little bit about your last Cuban film, “Inventos”? What was the purpose behind you making this film when you did?
Eli: I had just taken the film class at UC Berkeley and was invited to go to Cuba by my brother Kahlil Jacobs-Fantauzzi. He had already been and told me about the hip hop movement out there. I was in Jamaica at the time with my mentor, Dr. Pedro Noguera, and I decided to meet Kahlil in Cuba.
From the moment I landed, he picked me up in a taxi and we went straight to the hip hop club. Dead Prez was there, the place was packed and I put my bags behind the DJ booth. From there, I started recording everything.
I didn’t know it would turn out to be a film until I came back to the U.S. and started showing the footage to my community. They were shocked because it was nothing like what they had read or seen about Cuba. They said, “Man, people need to see this!” and I felt inspired to make the film.
Coincidentally, I found out that the musicians were coming from Cuba to New York for the first time. That was the moment I knew I needed to make a decision. If I was really going to make this film, then I needed to economically invest in this dream and in this idea. I needed to pay for a flight to New York and back to Cuba to catch this footage. That was a big journey for me, a big risk that I took. It turns out that the New York trip ends the film perfectly. I believe I made the right decision.
M.O.I. JR: What is the name of your new film about Cuba? How is it different than “Inventos”?
Eli: The new film is called “Tengo Talento,” which is about the new generation of talent in Cuba. “Inventos” was about making something from nothing and was also a reflection of what I saw happening in Cuba at the time.
In Cuba, the folks were making stuff happen with free computer programs like fruity loops. I was making stuff happen with my little digital 8 camera. Filmmakers weren’t making films with digital 8 cameras, but I was going to make it happen. That was the idea and the concept behind “Inventos,”making something happen with the little resources presented to you.
Today in Cuba things have changed and where I’m at in my career has changed, and there are more resources on both ends. People have studios in Cuba now, recording their music, and I have HD cameras and was able to hire a crew and even got funding for this project. So both Cuba and my style of work have the heart of “Inventos,” but today I am proud to say we are creating our work on a much higher level.
M.O.I. JR: Why did you decide to expand your focus beyond just hip hop?
Eli: With “Tengo Talento,” we want to show variations of art in Cuba, whether it’s dance or jazz or whatever! A lot of people have left Cuba to start their careers elsewhere. But a lot of people who could have left Cuba have stayed in Cuba – and have helped create and nurture this next generation of talent. This film is really about highlighting those artists and their mentees.
M.O.I. JR: Why is music a major part of all your films?
Eli: My dad is a musician and my mom was a light show artist when they met in Amsterdam, and later she became an educator. I feel like I have combined those three things and that’s what my work has been about. I play with light, I make films about music, and I educate people through my work, which is a reflection of my parents.
M.O.I. JR: For those who don’t know, can you tell people about your work in Ghana and Columbia? What were those films about?
Eli: My work in Ghana and Colombia follow a similar trajectory: They both are about young folks finding ways to express themselves through hip hop. Over the past decade, hip hop music has merged with High-Life, the traditional music of West Africa, and this fusion has led to the birth of a new musical genre called HipLife.
That is what my film “HomeGrown: HipLife in Ghana” is about. The film documents 10 years with the group Vision In Progress as they journey from the ghetto in Accra to their first international tour. They grow from being teenagers with a shared dream to musicians with fans around the world.
The Comuna 13 in Medellin, Colombia, is the battleground between military police and different armed neoparamilitary groups whose fighting over control of these neighborhoods resulted in 2,899 violent deaths in 2009 alone – a staggering nine people murdered every day. The youth living in this area are often recruited as a part of the war or tragically caught in the crossfire.
But the tide is changing, and many have chosen to fight back – peacefully. Today there are dozens of community organizations run by teenagers using hip hop as a strategy to empower themselves and change not only their lives but the lives of those around them.
My film “Revolución Sin Muertos” will go inside this inspiring non-violent revolution by following organizers from El Elite and Son Bata, two youth organizations desperately trying to save the lives of their community and sometimes even their own family.
M.O.I. JR: Why do you cover cultural movements in other countries primarily, in your filmmaking?
Eli: I feel like I have grown so much from my experiences and from what I’ve seen traveling the world, and a lot of people don’t have that opportunity. Making these films is a way to bring some of that back with me to share with my community so they can see and learn from my experiences.
When you travel outside of your own culture, that’s when you realize how much of that culture you emulate. Like a fish that doesn’t know it’s in water until you take it out. When you look at yourself on film, you get a similar experience. Whether it be HipLife or creating a peace movement in Columbia, they’re able to look at themselves on the big screen for the first time and reflect back about the impact their work has had.
M.O.I. JR: As a UC Berkeley graduate, how has the academy responded to your work?
Eli: After graduating from UC Berkeley, I taught at Berkeley High School, teaching the next generation how to create their own films. When those students got better than me at creating films, I said, man, I need to go back to school and study.
So I went to NYU, got my master’s and developed my craft. Then I continued to make films, and having that paperwork behind me really did help. Just to see “graduate of NYU and Berkeley” on my resume opens up a lot of doors for me.
At the same time, because I didn’t continue down that path, and I’m an independent filmmaker, I feel like I need to kick down a lot of those doors that have closed – and it hasn’t been easy. One opportunity that was amazing was being able to teach a summer class at UC Berkeley on “Race and Ethnicity in Contemporary American Film.” Being able to break the films down and discussing them was a dope opportunity. That could have never happened if I’d never gone through the academy.
M.O.I. JR: How have the people in the nations that you have covered in your films responded to your work?
Eli: I definitely don’t just call it my work; it’s our work. So what I love about it is they respond like, “This is mine, this is me.” They take it and run with it. Put it in festivals, show people, sell the dvds and feel a part of it. That is what I set out to do and it is one of the most rewarding experiences in filmmaking.
M.O.I. JR: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the Fist Up Film Fest? What other films are you showing? When? Where?
Eli: Fist Up Film Festival was created as an outlet for independent filmmakers to bring amazing films for communities to see them – showing different parts of the world, different types of dance and culture.
M.O.I. JR: What is the purpose of a film festival?
Eli: The Fist Up Film Festival highlights documentaries that capture the lives of underrepresented communities from around the globe. With six event screenings in May in the Bay Area alone, the festival aims to spark conversation around cultural identity, social justice and community empowerment.
Youth UpRising, Eastside Arts Alliance, New Parkway Theater and Impact Hub Oakland will all participate by hosting and outreaching to their diverse supporters.
Our films target underrepresented groups in Oakland including youth, women and communities of color. The aim is to give a voice to traditionally marginalized groups via film and community discussion.
M.O.I. JR: How can people keep up with screenings and you as a filmmaker?
Eli: Go to www.FistUp.Tv and @FistUpTv.
Fist Up Film Festival
Upcoming in the Fist Up Film Festival are the following films:
Tuesday, May 20, 7 p.m., “Inside Out: The People’s Art Project” at the New Parkway Theater, 474 24th St., Oakland: This fascinating documentary tracks the evolution of the biggest participatory art project in the world, the wildly popular “Inside Out.” Travel the globe with French artist JR as he motivates entire communities to define their most important causes with incredibly passionate displays of giant black and white portraits pasted in the street. We witness young and old taking ownership of walls that were previously restricted and in doing so testing the limits of what they thought was possible. In capturing the process, Alastair Siddons creates a glowing testament to the power of image and the role that art can play in transforming communities.
Thursday, May 22, 6:30 p.m., “Flex Is King,” with Turf performance and after-screening discussion, at Youth UpRising, 8711 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland: “Flex Is King” is a feature length social and cultural documentary about the community behind the contemporary urban dance movement called “Flexing” in Brooklyn, New York. The film explores the hopes and realities of this under-acknowledged and totally unfunded group of do-it-yourself urban artists.
Friday, May 30, 7 p.m., “Electro Chaabi,” co-presented by The Eastside Arts Alliance, 2277 International Blvd, Oakland: While Egypt has traditionally been the beating heart of classical Arabic music, with legendary singers such as Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez, a new craze is taking over the Arab world’s most populous nation: Electro Chaabi. Inspired by the down-and-dirty music played at street parties and weddings, this new populist dance form combines a punk spirit with a hip hop attitude set against a furious cascade of drums, bass and electronic vocals.
If feature-length documentaries such as Buena Vista Social Club helped introduce world audiences to the lost golden melodies of Cuban music, director Hind Meddeb is bringing the furious, sweaty rhythms of downtown Cairo to global ears with “Electro Chaabi.” While the beats are designed to get your feet moving, the lyrics, often laced with revolutionary fervor, offer insights into the mindset of today’s restless Egyptian youth. Unlike anything you’ve seen – or heard – before.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey is associate editor of the Bay View, author of “Block Reportin’“ and the newly released “Unfinished Business: Block Reportin’ 2“ and filmmaker of “Operation Small Axe“ and “Block Reportin’ 101,” available, along with many more interviews, at www.blockreportradio.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.