As Berkeley residents revel in their own eccentricities, annually asking each other “how Berkeley can you be,” the same question can be posed to neighbors in Livermore. A new documentary film about the weirdness over the hill premieres this weekend at the Film Arts Festival in Berkeley.
The weirdness is documented beginning in 1969 when Livermore residents put a few poignant objects into a time capsule and buried it in its Centennial Park. Twenty-five years later, city officials embarrassed themselves by forgetting where they put it. “Livermore,” the movie, finds the surviving contributors to help find the time capsule and tells the story of a city with a small-town attitude and a big-time nuclear weapons laboratory.
The film, which screens Saturday, Nov. 16th, is part of the Berkeley leg of the film festival put on by the San Francisco-based Film Arts Foundation. The festival, now in its 18th year, showcases new works from the Bay Area’s rich film community from Nov. 13 - 17 in San Francisco at the Brava and Castro Theaters, and in Berkeley at Wheeler Hall on the UC campus.
The makers of “Livermore,” Berkeley-based filmmakers Rachel Raney and David Murray, slowly meander through Livermore’s citizens and civic skirmishes. In 1969 a Native American was commissioned to carve a totem pole for the parking lot of a shopping center even though the native tribes historically associated with the Livermore area did not make totem poles. When the artist was not paid by the owners of the shopping center he donated the pole to the people of Livermore; but city officials saw fit to shorten the pole by six feet.
So the artist, Adam Nordwall, incensed by the defamation of the totem pole, put a curse on Livermore’s sewer system. When the sewers backed up, the city quickly restored the pole and erected it in Centennial Park.
That is only a fragment of the town’s odd history. Along with still-simmering problems of urban sprawl and controversies at Livermore’s high-profile nuclear lab, the film spotlights Ed and Olga Pfeiffer – shell collectors and amateur filmmakers who went to every Centennial event in 1969 with their 16mm camera – and photographer Bill Owens’ and his shots of middle-class Livermore in homes and backyards. Owen’s book “Suburbia” was perceived as unflattering by many people in Livermore when it was published in 1969.
Like Owens and his still photography, filmmakers Raney and Murray don’t have to make jokes to present a warmly amusing portrait of Livermore. Making light of the suburbs is like hitting the side of a barn, and “Livermore” is in league with other suburban films like “Wonderland” and David Byrne’s “True Stories.” The images alone are funny: interviews were shot using a wide-angle lens to capture the tables, lamps, carpeting and walls surrounding the people. These shots are as much about tastefully bland furniture as they are about the subjects themselves.
After getting to know the town, the film eventually gets around to the business of the time capsule. The city officials’ casual disorganization regarding the missing capsule becomes an organic extension of the town’s quirky history.
A different film about a more radical history will also be shown in the Film Arts Festival. The scope of “Radical Harmonies”, a film about the grassroots development of the Women’s Music Cultural Movement, is not so broad to cover the development of women’s music. This is really the story of lesbian music, specifically, and it gives a terrific history of the origins of lesbian folk music and its festivals.
In the late 1960’s, when using the word “lesbian” could get you thrown off stage at college campuses, a small group of women began creating their own concerts for lesbian folk singer/songwriters like Meg Christian and Cris Williamson. Through interviews, the film shows how songs about lesbian-specific subjects brought disenfranchised women together and how they realized that with a little organization they could create a bona fide community.
The film, screening Saturday, Nov. 16 at Wheeler Auditorium, shows women making their own way in the music business by making their own industry. Lesbian folk music festivals, however insular, trained women not only to make music but to engineer music, produce music concerts, and to make and distribute their own records.
The film features iconic lesbian performers such as the Indigo Girls and Holly Near, and also musicians not directly associated with lesbians but who nonetheless have a strong lesbian following, such as Ani DiFranco and Sweet Honey in the Rock. It gives an impressive history of an essential subculture of lesbian folk music, but “Radical Harmonies” stops short of adequately showing the broader range of women’s music.
The Women’s Music Cultural Movement, according to the film, made efforts to open up to a more diverse range of women’s music, including Hispanic and African-American music. There were internal arguments about whether or not to include non-lesbians and men in their festivals. Relatively unknown acts like Sexpod and Bitch and Animal are featured, but glaring omissions in this film about women’s music festivals are any references to the women’s pop music festival Lilith Fair and Riot Grrl punk rock.
While not a definitive document on the impact of lesbian music on the culture at large, “Radical Harmonies” provides a seldom-seen look into a niche music community that is both insular and nurturing.