Cinematic journeys with the Matatu Film Festival
FILM As one of the Bay Area's largest film festivals prepares for its opening (that'd be the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which runs July 24-Aug. 10), this weekend heralds several smaller fests with unique approaches to programming, including the San Francisco Frozen Film Festival at the Roxie, and Oakland's outdoor Brainwash Drive-In/Bike-In/Walk-In Movie Festival. Also in Oakland: the second annual Matatu Film Festival, which takes its name from colorfully decorated mini-buses found in Kenya and other East African countries.
The reference suggests a focus on films from that region of the world. But while it is an international festival, it's more interested in "matatu" as metaphor, presenting films as a way to transport the viewer to new places or points of view. Amid an overall strong program, one of the most timely entries is Mala Mala, a gritty yet joyful exploration of Puerto Rico's trans community that makes great use of neon-lit streetscapes, a retro-synth score, and the oversized personalities of its subjects. Among them are drag queens, including recent RuPaul's Drag Race contestant April Carrión, and transgender activists like Ivana Fred, who cuts a striking figure whether she's raising awareness on TV talk shows, handing out condoms to sex workers, patiently enduring the opinions of a homophobic priest, or modeling her carefully sculpted assets ("I was born in Puerto Rico, but I was made in Ecuador," she jokes).
The less-glamorous figures are also compelling, including prostitute Sandy, who's refreshingly candid about all aspects of her life, and Paxx, the sole transman interviewed, who faces what he sees as a "harder transition than trans girls," since his hormone therapy is far less accessible, and his social support system is far more limited. With trans issues in the spotlight more than ever — see: TV actress Laverne Cox's Time magazine cover and Emmy nomination — Mala Mala directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles do an admirable job showing how diverse the community is, and how complex each individual's struggles and triumphs can be. Speaking of triumphs, once the dance moves of future drag superstar Queen Bee Ho command the screen, it's pretty clear who should star in the filmmakers' next project — or at least season seven of Drag Race.
Elsewhere among Matatu's docs is Evolution of a Criminal, Darius Clark Moore's deeply personal film about his detour from standout Houston, Texas, high school student to bank robber, and from prisoner back to school — this time, at NYU's esteemed film school. Criminal benefits from the sheen of executive producer Spike Lee, but Moore's story would be gripping even with less polished production. He frames the film as a series of interviews with family members — mom, step dad, grandma, assorted aunts and uncles, etc. — and others (former teachers, the district attorney who prosecuted him) who reflect on the family history and financial circumstances that nudged Moore down the wrong path.
He was a bright kid from a close-knit, hardworking family that couldn't seem to dig its way out of debt. One night, he was watching America's Most Wanted and got the bright idea to plan a crime so flawless there'd be no way he'd get caught. He and his fellow teenage accomplices even had the perfect alibi: They'd show up at school, fake illness so they could slip out for the heist, do the deed, and then return to class several thousand dollars richer.