Oakland’s vibrant cultural scene now on film

Oakland's Grand Lake Theatre will host a new series of short films, Oakland Originals, next week. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre will host a new series of short films, Oakland Originals, next week. (Photo: Elliot Owen)

By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter

Oakland Originals, a highly-anticipated new set of short documentaries intended to highlight Oakland’s cultural scene through compelling vignettes of the city’s residents, is set to premiere next week at the historic Grand Lake Theater.

The first four “originals” of the series are people the local filmmakers, Jim McSilver and Erin Palmquist, feel are “pushing boundaries, countering stereotypes, and exploring territories singular to this dynamic city,” according to the project’s mission.

“Anyone can be an Oakland Original,” Palmquist told the Bay Area Reporter. “It’s more a state of mind rather than a resume of accomplishments or regional affiliation. Selection was hard. There are thousands of people in Oakland doing amazing things but we had to stick with four people due to a limited budget. All of the first four had, of course, some strong connection to Oakland.”

Both filmmakers feel a strong connection to Oakland, too. McSilver has lived there for 22 years and Palmquist for 15 years, and when McSilver approached Palmquist about joining the project, she was thrilled.

“He’s an amazing filmmaker and very passionate about the Oakland Originals project,” Palmquist, 37, said. “Like him, I too am constantly in awe of this amazing city we live in.”

Palmquist, who rejects categories by identifying as “human,” has previously worked on projects with LGBT undertones. In 2008, Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival, screened her film, BDSM: It’s Not What You Think!, a documentary designed to counter misconceptions around BDSM culture. That same year, another film she shot called Out on the Dance Floor, which explores healing in gay country culture, was also screened at the festival.

Additionally, for the past six years Palmquist has been chronicling the journey of Ghazwan Alsharif, an Iraqi man who worked as a translator for the U.S. military during the Iraq War.

“While working as a translator,” Palmquist said, “Alsharif was wrongfully accused of being a double agent, arrested, and tortured for 75 days in an American-run Iraqi prison. In 2008, he came to the U.S. as a refugee, and he is also gay. While the film, From Baghdad to the Bay, is not a comprehensive look at the cultural dilemmas that Arab and Muslim LGBTQ people face, it does expose some of those struggles.”

While the first four Originals represent diversity in different ways, none of them are LGBT. But, Palmquist said, that doesn’t mean the next round of Originals won’t include someone who is.

McSilver and Palmquist found the first batch of Originals through online research and community networking. The compelling group – Asiya Wadud, Michael Christian, Vanessa Solari Espinoza, and Tim Monroe – will be present at the premiere for a question and answer session.

Wadud is the founder of Forage Oakland, a fruit barter network founded in 2008 that organizes the harvesting and redistribution of fruit growing in the yards of North Oakland residents.

Christian creates large sculptures out of metal. Using large vacant warehouse spaces, he erects pieces designed to be transportable. While his sculptures seldom stay put for very long, they’re distinct, the most recent of which can be found in Oakland’s Uptown Art Park.

Espinoza, also known as Agana, is a graffiti artist. She’s also a deejay, jewelry maker, educator, clothing designer, and 3D animator, a “true Renaissance woman” and “Jane-of-all-trades” as Palmquist called her. Nurtured by an Oakland culture that fosters community engagement through art initiatives, Espinoza uses her graffiti art to transform public spaces into sites of transformation.

Monroe, the oldest of the four Originals , is an inline skater who may or may not have, according to the Oakland Originals website, skated all 837 miles of Oakland’s city streets. A software engineer during the day, Monroe explores each district on skates in his free time.

The premiere is also serving as the kickoff to the Grand Lake Theatre’s plan to screen the short documentaries before showing feature films. The event’s after party will be at nearby Ordinaire Wine Shop and Bar and Panorama Framing at 7 p.m.

The first four shorts were made possible by the city of Oakland’s Cultural Funding Program ($5,000 in 2010) and independent contributions. Palmquist and McSilver hope to continue expanding the Oakland Original series and are already looking at who to feature next.

“We’re always looking for eye-catching people but with the release we’re hoping that people will be inspired to suggest their friends, family, and colleagues,” Palmquist said.

People can send their suggestions to contact@oaklandoriginals.com.

Oakland Originals premieres Thursday, May 29 at 6 p.m. the Grand Lake Theatre, 3200 Grand Avenue. Tickets are $10.

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