Oakland filmmaker Adrian Burrell’s ‘The Game God(S)’ is a must see at the Oakland International Film Festival

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Filmmaker Adrian Burrell

by People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey

One of the most cinematically eloquent stories being told on the silver screen at this year’s Oakland International Film Festival is Oakland filmmaker Adrian Burrell’s unorthodox documentary, “Game God(s).” It is a collection of ghetto life stories tied together through very political, mystical and poetic narration that critically and artistically analyzes the state of Black life under the yoke of capitalism.  

“Game God(s)” is a must see 19-minute short documentary for people who are in love with thought provoking cinema. The filmmaker, Adrian Burrell, and I took some time to do this exclusive Q&A about his politically potent offering to OIFF, which will screen twice during the festival – once on Friday, Sept. 16, at Holy Names University at 5:30 p.m. and on Wednesday, Sept. 21, at 9:15 p.m. at the Grand Lake Theater. Check out the very intelligent filmmaker Adrian Burrell in his own words.  

JR Valrey: What inspired you to write an experimental film like “The Game God(s)”?

Adrian Burrell: I was inspired by the set of nuanced life experiences I’ve had growing up in Oakland, being in academia and traveling the world. Throughout life, I have come in contact with different moral compasses, not only within myself but in the world around me. 

Given that, I wanted to explore these ideas of right and wrong and what they had to do with capitalism, poverty and how I grew up in East Oakland; and that’s where the game gods came from. It’s an inquiry and an indictment at the same time. 

JR Valrey: What made you tell the story in the way you did, which was in a very unorthodox way?

Adrian Burrell: I chose to tell the story in a way that I felt would subvert the linear, subvert the idea of time in its natural state and what’s supposed to come next, because within the Black experience we live in this cyclical time that is repetitious and littered with catastrophe and littered with breaks within that catastrophe that allow joy, rebellion and escape. I wanted to create a film that didn’t allow for an easy ending, but rather creates more questions than answers. 

JR Valrey: What was the creative process like behind the writing of this film? Did you write daily?

Adrian Burrell: This is a hybrid film; it’s a documentary with narrative aspects. The narrative aspects are performed by Dr. Ayodele Nzinga. When I approached her regarding my idea for this film, I presented the themes and ideas that I wanted to be involved in the film. She came back with something in terms of narration, and we traded notes until we came to something we both agreed on, and that’s where the narration comes from. 

I wanted to lash out and indict a system that has been hellbent on destroying my people for hundreds of years . . .

In terms of the writing as it pertains to the baptism and all these metaphorical images that come out of me trying to find ways to represent this idea of capitalism, the Black spiritual experience and black market economies in a visual way – and putting those metaphors next to each other to see what questions get revealed. 

I was also in graduate school at the time, in Stanford’s Department of Art and Art History, and this was my thesis film. I had gone through months of writing treatments and doing pre-interviews, trying to get things down pat, and when we decided to film, we just got it done. 

JR Valrey: How did you cast for this film? Did you already know the actors?

Adrian Burrell: This is a documentary film. Some people are acting and others are just speaking about their own lives and their own experiences. I cast the film within my community; it’s friends, cousins, uncles, friends of friends, and cousins of cousins. It was just reaching out to them and seeing who would be interested in something like this and who was willing to share their story. 

JR Valrey: Where did you get the idea to use the eloquent social and political monologue of the legendary poet Ayodele Nzinga as narration throughout the film? What feelings were you trying to evoke?

Adrian Burrell: I wanted to create this idea of inquiry and indictment. I wanted to lash out and indict a system that has been hellbent on destroying my people for hundreds of years, and at the same time I wanted to inquire about dreams and nightmares, heroes and villains, and recontextualize this idea of who gets to be the hero, and who has to be the villain. 

A lot of this stuff is fiction; the system is supported by fiction.

That’s what we were doing with the monologue. At the same time, we’re working with this idea of the trickster and the goddess of the crossroads, and letting Dr. Ayodele really sit at that intersection. 

JR Valrey: What do you hope viewers walk away with after seeing this film?

Adrian Burrell: I think the cryptic nature of this film is so interesting because there are so many things people can walk away with. I’ve been called a satanic communist by some people who’ve watched it, and some people who’ve watched have come up to me and shaken my hand, hugged me and said “I feel you, I feel this.” 

I think based on where you’re coming from in life, your experiences and who you are, you’re going to walk away with totally different things. Depending on the level you are willing to go to, there is something for everyone to walk away with.

JR Valrey: Why did you take the time to make such an acute analysis of capitalism’s effect on Black Amerikkka? Why was that a major component of the story?

Adrian Burrell: As a child, I saw a lot of things I couldn’t explain, from family members who struggled with addiction, to friends being killed, to living in public housing. As I got older, I learned about these different systems, and how they were directly mapped onto the way I grew up, how people in the comunidades in Rio de Janeiro live, and how people in the Cape flats in South Africa live. 

It is changed and contorted by these systems of race difference and capital. Once I realized that, I was just like, “This is wild.” It all makes sense, and at the same time, it makes no sense at all. I felt like as an artist, it’s something I’m still trying to grapple with and dig deeper into. 

Growing up for better or worse, the ability to watch and be able to listen could be the reason why I lived another day or did not.

I wanted to share that quest and that curiosity. I think that it’s important for us all to keep asking questions and pointing to these systems that are mystified and ask these questions to demystify power. A lot of this stuff is fiction; the system is supported by fiction, and if we can demystify these fictions, and deconstruct them as a community, then maybe we can build something different. 

JR Valrey: What effect does Oakland have on you as a filmmaker?

Adrian Burrell: There’s something in the dirt here in Oakland, literally and metaphorically. I think that growing up in a place that was so heavily impacted by the great displacement of Black folks out of Louisiana in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, the Black Panthers, and my multi-generational family, Oakland taught me how to move through the world. I was able to watch, able to listen. 

Growing up for better or worse, the ability to watch and be able to listen could be the reason why I lived another day or did not. That hyper-awareness created a sensitivity to life, to people, to circumstances that I bring with me, behind the camera. 

I think had I not had some beautiful – and some very dark – experiences growing up in Oakland, I wouldn’t have had that sensitivity. I think a lot of times when people are telling Black stories from this socio-economic standpoint, because of how elitist this industry is, it’s very unlikely that somebody with that sensitivity is behind that camera. 

JR Valrey: When does your film play at the Oakland International Film Festival? Where?

Adrian Burrell: The film plays at the International Oakland Film Festival on Sept. 16 at Holy Names University at 5:30 p.m. and Sept. 21 at 9:15 p.m. at the Grand Lake Theater.  

JR Valrey: How can people keep up with your work online?

Adrian Burrell: There is a link to email me on my website, adrianburrell.art. You can find me on Instagram at @1.living.

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, heads the SF Bay View’s Oakland Bureau. He can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. Visit www.BlackNewWorldMedia.com to read more.