SF DocFest: 13th Annual San Francisco Documentary Festival, June 5-19

by Wanda Sabir

This year at the SF Indiefest’s 13th Anual Docfest, June 5-19, at multiple venues on both sides of the Bay, quite a number of films look at sexual exploitation of youth, crimes of poverty and profiles of superheroes – ordinary citizens with tenacity and inner fortitude and great love for their community, like the Honorable Michael Tubbs, central character in Kevin Gordon’s “True Son.”

True-Son-22-year-old-Michael-Tubbs-campaign-for-Stockton-City-Council, SF DocFest: 13th Annual San Francisco Documentary Festival, June 5-19, Culture Currents
“True Son” is the story of 22-year-old Michael Tubbs’ campaign for Stockton City Council.

In “True Son,” Tubbs shines as just one of many youth like himself whose family held him close and thankfully random circumstances did not cut short his life just as it was beginning, as has happened to so many others in Stockton, Calif., the first major U.S. city to file bankruptcy. We see the child of a teen mother and incarcerated father – whom he meets for the first time behind bars at 12 – talk about how much he loves to read.

His mother would not let him play outside; she kept him busy indoors. A bag of books was like Christmas to her son, who graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees and now works at University of the Pacific and teaches social studies at a Stockton middle school.

In “True Son,” Tubbs says when he told his high school teachers he wanted to go to Stanford, they were discouraging and said his high GPA at his high school would not be enough for him to land academically competitive there, that their star student would be at the bottom of the heap at the prestigious university. Nonetheless Tubbs was not deterred then or on other occasions as we see him in archival clips addressing Stockton City Council on several pertinent issues as a child.

“True Son” follows Tubbs when he returns home to run for City Council against an incumbent, whose track record has not addressed the systemic problems facing the poorer population located on Stockton’s south side – funny how south continues to be a geographic euphemism for poverty. (East Oakland is geographically the southern part of the city.)

“True Son” showcases Tubbs’s political campaign as a grassroots movement for the people. Tubbs is clearly in the race for his folks; his very presence at 22 years old models alternatives to choices which lead to risky, life-threatening behavior. Granted, many times desperate people do not think clearly or realize there are choices, but “True Son” speaks to these circumstances and the opportunity Tubbs was prepared to step into.

There are celebrity appearances by Oprah Winfrey and MC Hammer, just when Tubbs seemed unable to pay for campaign materials. The interaction between Tubbs and his campaign manager, Nicholas Hatten, also a native Stocktonian, who believes in the kid who sometimes tries his patience, and his right hand man, Lange Luntao, who grew up in an entirely different Stockton, the gated community where those with higher incomes reside, makes for dicey moments as Tubbs steps into civic leadership – and point to how Tubbs is ultimately successful.

I was reminded as I watched “True Son” of Chinaka Hodge’s Watts character in “Searching for Mehserle,” who fearfully stays indoors for 17 years and when he finally steps out of his home, pushed by mom to get a job, he finds Oscar Grant’s memorial instead, which triggers his descent into a tailspin, life again off balance and out of control.

This is where First Fridays in Oakland could have gone were it not for the organizers’ plan to not let tragedy eliminate a social good, which is what First Fridays were since inception. Director-producers N’Jeri Eaton and Mario Furlon’s debut feature length film, “First Friday,” is also a treatment honoring the lives of Oakland youth, like Kiante Campbell, 18-year-old Oakland Technical High senior, expected to enter UC Berkeley that fall, who was killed Feb. 1, 2013, a year ago.

The film honors his memory and screens at Oakland School for the Arts (OSA) Saturday, June 14, at 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, June 14, at the Roxie in San Francisco, just after what would have been Kiante Campbell’s 20th birthday, June 12, 2014.

Doc Fest 13 has many titles that look at child exploitation, especially sexual exploitation, from “A Man Called God,” directed by Christopher St. John, screening at the Roxie, June 15, 4:45 p.m., and June 18, 9:15 p.m.; to “Who Took Johnny,” a mother’s search for her kidnapped son, directed by D. Belinson, M. Galinsky and S. Hawley, at the Roxie June 13, 7 p.m., and at OSA June 7, 2:45 p.m.; and “The Engineer,” former victim turned champion, directed by Juan Luis Passarelli and Matthew Charles, screening June 7, 9:15 p.m., and June 12, 9:15 p.m.; and “Love Me,” a look at the “mail order bride” industry, directed by Jonathon Narducci, at the Roxie on Sunday, June 8, 9:15 p.m., and Monday, June 9, 7 p.m.

In these films, especially “A Man Called God” and “Who Took Johnny,” viewers take epic journeys into landscapes where one does not expect children to disappear or saints to do wrong. What attracted me to “A Man Called God” was its director, Oscar winning cinematographer Christopher St. John, and also the photo of Sathya Sai Baba, Afro wearing Indian saint. However, I quickly came under the spell of the storytelling of narrator Kristoff, a child at that time who uncovers a secret.

“God” starts innocently enough: St. John Sr. and his wife at that time, British actress Maria St. John, travel to India for enlightenment, Maria captivated by Sai Baba’s charm and sleight of hand miracles, i.e., tricks. St. John is invited to make a film about Sai Baba.

The film father and son eventually make 30 years later shows how easy it is to fall under a charismatic spell and get carried away despite one’s better judgment. Sai Baba is not unique in this respect, and other popular cult leaders are referenced in the work.

More importantly, “God” shows a father’s belief in his son and his love. With footage shot on 16mm film in 1980, the completed work is a healing gesture from father to son, whom I suspect never completely forgave himself for what transpired.

In “Who Took Johnny,” the world of child sexual exploitation is revealed, showing how in the course of Johnny Gosch’s abduction in Iowa (a 30-year-old cold case), how laws have changed to help recover these children, as well as keep other children from harm. It is once again thanks to his mother, who never stopped pushing lawmakers to find her son.

The film takes multiple twists and turns as other newspaper boys are also abducted under similar circumstances, national and international rings are uncovered, perpetrators are revealed and high powered political pedophiles whose taste for young flesh keeps the trade going, are tried and dismissed. We meet other parents who form coalitions to support one another. Just as in “God,” power trumps justice and the guilty walk free while the children suffer.

Both films reveal stories about horrific circumstances that are allowed to continue because the villains have power. The reason child sexual trafficking continues to date is that there is a market for it. The operations Johnny’s mother uncovers succeed because its clientele is held sacrosanct or above the law. The villains and victims cross all racial lines; we should all be concerned.

On the lighter side, other titles that look like fun are “Urban Fruit,” directed by Roman Zenz, screening at the Roxie on Saturday, June 7, 2:30, at OSA on Wednesday, June 11, 7 p.m., and on Sunday, June 15, 2:45 p.m.; “Oh Snap! The ‘90s Sing-a-long Show” at the Roxie on Friday, June 6, 9:15 p.m.; and “Vessel,” directed by Diana Whitten, at the Roxie on Saturday, June 14, 4:45 p.m., at OSA on Wednesday, June 18, 7 p.m., and again at OSA on Saturday, June 7, 12:30 p.m. The Roller Disco Party is Friday, June 13, at the Women’s Building, 3543 18th St. at York in San Francisco. Visit www.sfindie.com.

Bay View Arts Editor Wanda Sabir can be reached at wanda@wandaspicks.com. Visit her website at www.wandaspicks.com throughout the month for updates to Wanda’s Picks, her blog, photos and Wanda’s Picks Radio. Her shows are streamed live Wednesdays at 7 a.m. and Fridays at 8 a.m., can be heard by phone at 347-237-4610 and are archived at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/wandas-picks.