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A Space to Speak Up

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Tamara Walker, left, and Sophie Constantinou of Citizen Film are seen in San Francisco’s Fillmore District on Dec. 29, 2017. (Jessica Christian/2017 S.F. Examiner)

For years, the area surrounding the four-block greenbelt in the center of the Fillmore District was some of the toughest and most desolate turf in town. These days, you’re more likely to see strands of twinkle lights and multigenerational African-American families picnicking and barbecuing amidst interactive, sculptural art and organic gardening plots.

The transformation of the Buchanan Mall was conceived by Fillmore residents and a youth team and facilitated and documented by Sophie Constantinou and Tamara Walker of Citizen Film, a production company with an office on Fillmore Street.

“Our collaboration has inspired different kinds of work. We don’t always have a roadmap,” explained Constantinou, a co-founder of Citizen Film who was raised in the Bay Area. “The kinds of work Tamara does means the kind of work I do is possible.”

The work, as they see it, is not only filmmaking but engaging their neighbors in storytelling — the sharing and preservation of their own life stories. But asking people to open up on camera, particularly in a district hit hard by the eviction crisis, poverty, violence and the disappearance of its historically black population is another task entirely.

“I spent a lot of time over here and know a lot of people here, and there’s nothing that’s the same as even 10 years ago,” Walker said. “It’s changed that dramatically.” The former hospital administration worker knows a bit about lives being upended: Her beloved partner and the father of her three small children was murdered in the 2000s, during a dark time in The City’s history, when a series of unsolved homicides of young black men beset a small patch of the Bayview, where she has remained a lifelong resident.

“What’s unique to the Fillmore is that wherever you go, from block to block, people have their own way of doing things,” Walker said.

Walker and Constantinou first worked on a short film about Green Streets, the Fillmore’s own community recycling and composting business. With the Buchanan Mall, the neighborhood’s stories were told with audio and visual art installations featuring the area’s elders. The ongoing conversations with residents has since led to their latest project, “Chop Shop.”

A collaboration with social service organization Young Community Developers, which helped with organizing participants, “Chop Shop” is based on a series of necessary barbershop and beauty salon conversations in San Francisco’s Fillmore, Mission and Bayview districts about the impact brutality and structural racism has on relations between people of color and the police. Constantinou and Walker admit it’s a big idea, but conversations in the public space of the barber and beauty shops, where African Americans have traditionally found their voices and shared openly, offered a rare intimacy and opportunity for the inflamed groups to wage peace.

“Plus, my mom does hair,” said Walker, noting the salon setting was a little like being at home away from home.

“That’s the thing with Tamara,” added Constantinou, “she knows everyone. Walking down Third and Palou, we were stopped constantly so people could talk to Tamara. Everyone knows her or her grandparents. When you pause to notice, there’s all of these layers of interconnectivity.”

Walker smiled in agreement. “If you stay here long enough, you’ll meet everybody,” she said. “Somehow, you’re going to connect.”

From left, Sophie Constantinou, Widya Batin, Jazmine Thomas and Tamara Walker. Batin and Thomas are two youth members of the design task force at the Buchanan Mall, highlighted in Citizen Film’s “Bounce Back.” (Jessica Christian/2017 S.F. Examiner)

Constantinou founded Citizen Film in 2001 with partners Sam Ball and Kate Stilley Steiner; their work has screened on PBS and cable, and in museums and film festivals. She and Walker were introduced by a mutual friend.

“I grew up in a small family with immigrant optimism, that anything is possible, the American Dream,” Constantinou said. Her father, who is Cypriot, met her mother in England before emigrating to the US to study and teach at Stanford. “Both my parents really just said, ‘Stretch your wings and fly where you want to go.’ That’s the beauty of them leaving a structured, traditional culture, you’re not bound by those things. But you’re bound by other weird things in the United States,” she said.

When Constantinou announced her intentions to become a documentary filmmaker, it took a minute to convince those with her best interests at heart that she was making the right move.

“Everyone I met said, ‘You’ll never make it. If you don’t have a trust fund, it’s impossible.’ So I worked in the film industry and got all kinds of jobs,” she said. “At some point, I realized they were wrong and I was right. It was important when I made that mental leap, that I just had to figure it out, that I should follow my passion. The filmmaking is just a part of it.”

Walker’s touch for community engagement was modeled to her by her grandfather: He persistently resisted the powerplant in Hunters Point and the toxic conditions that came with it. That he was a Texas barbecue man and her grandparents home was a place where people naturally gravitated informed Walker’s own ability to start conversations. Her firsthand nightmare of losing a loved one gives her a natural empathy for the myriad losses laid at the feet of the The City’s black neighborhoods.

“We are a community,” Walker said. “We do matter as a whole.”

Biking to work each day from Bernal Heights, Constantinou passes through the Buchanan Mall, checking on its progress and tending to the needs of the grounds, taking suggestions from residents and talking to friends.

“People know us and our youth … we see each other’s faces,” she said. “You make connections and become a part of the community.” Her growing sense of accomplishment in the Fillmore fostered an idea: “If I give all this to a community that’s not in my neighborhood, what would it look like if I did something like this on my own?”

Constantinou has since taken on initiating and maintaining an acre at the Bernal Cut Path and has found community there among her neighbors. Walker has also experienced the unexpected through her association with Citizen Film and Buchanan Mall.

“I went hiking for the first time last year at the Presidio,” said Walker, who usually relaxes with her family at Pier 39, on The City’s northeast shore. “I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated the beauty of San Francisco until working on this project. I hadn’t seen what my grandparents coming from Texas saw. Busy dealing with the hustle and bustle of surviving, you forget to stop to look around and see what’s here.”

The losses remain undeniable, and yet there are still signs that black culture remains at the Fillmore’s core.

“We miss the food that used to be here, but we also enjoy some of the new things, even though my budget doesn’t allow me to enjoy them everyday,” Walker said. “But when I step outside this door, I know I’m going to see the stone man, and he’s going to want me to give him a hug. Matter of fact, I was out there today, and there was a man — I didn’t know him, but I said good morning like I always do to people and he said, ‘Black sister, I love you.’

“There’s still a connection here,” she added, “it’s just broken, a little bit fractured.”

IF YOU GO: Chop Shop
Film screenings: Feb. 28, 6 to 8 p.m., African American Arts and Culture Complex; March 8, 7 to 9 p.m., Bayview Opera House
Info: www.citizenfilm.org

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.

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