Ari Atken, left, and Robert Matas appear in “Summer Sacrament.” (Courtesy Lionel Desai)

Ari Atken, left, and Robert Matas appear in “Summer Sacrament.” (Courtesy Lionel Desai)

Mission comes to life in Latino film fest’s ‘Summer Sacrament’

Filmmaker Lionel Desai set his first feature-length movie in San Francisco’s Mission because it reminded him of where he lived when he was a youngster.

“The Mission takes me back to places in India and Kenya,” says the San Francisco-based writer-director of “Summer Sacrament,” which gets its world premiere Sunday in The City. The poignant movie is part of Cine+Más SF, the eighth annual San Francisco Latino Film Festival featuring some 40 programs – features, documentaries and shorts — running Friday through Oct. 1 in The City, Berkeley and Oakland.

“I walked the Mission, enjoyed its murals, noise and ambience,” he adds, mentioning that he came to the film’s theme when he was working on another project, going through a tough time personally, and when TV’s “Mad Men” was at its height of popularity.

After seeing the superficial Don Draper figuratively stripped, he began to consider the idea of “what remains of a man.”

“I started writing from that, and got to the time when a boy becomes a man,” he says, and added in aspects of his own background, growing up Catholic.

At that point, he knew that the atmospheric Mission and the Latino community would be a perfect fit for his story about a teen, Richie, who wants to prepare for his first Holy Communion while living with a loving adoptive family.

Wanting to do “something a little cruel” to his character, he wrote that Richie’s mom had been deported and was unlikely to return.

Desai also plays a young priest at the family’s church, a character inspired by “amazing” priests and brothers from his own youth “who didn’t stay long enough to be role models.”

He calls an evocative scene where the priest answers Richie’s query about why he entered the clergy his “guesswork” about a dynamic, funny father he knew: “I couldn’t figure out why he became a priest and never had the courage to ask him.”

Figuring out logistics was biggest challenge Desai encountered in making the full-length movie, a self-funded, three-year project from start to finish which was shot in nine days around Christmas 2014.

“The sun was setting behind the buildings really quickly, the kids were getting cold walking on the streets, and I shut down creatively,” he admits.

But things have worked out for the filmmaker, whose formal training was a “few night courses” at De Anza College.

Friends and family have responded positively to the movie, as did the cast’s kids: experienced professional actors Ari Atken, who plays Richie, and Robert Matas, as his younger friend Joey.

The project also is bolstered by folks in the neighborhood. Luis Gutierrez, owner of La Reyna Bakery on 24th Street, kindly closed his shop to accommodate filming, and appears in the most tantalizing scenes.

Desai thinks his presence gave the movie a bit of an Italian neo realistic or French new wave flair: “I just loved him,” he says.

San Francisco Latino Film Festival
Where: San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland
When: Sept. 16 through Oct. 1
Tickets: $12 most screenings
Contact: (415) 754-9580,,

Select highlights

Alma: The opening night film, a 2015 Chilean romantic comedy directed by Diego Rougier, screens at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 16 and 10 p.m. Sept. 18 at Alamo Drafthouse, 2550 Mission St.., tickets are $15 to $25.

Summer Sacrament: The film screens at 1 p.m. Sept. 18 at Alamo Drafthouse, with the filmmaker and cast attending.

Ari AtkenCine+Más SFLionel DesaiLuis GutierrezMovies and TVRobert MatasSan Francisco Latino Film FestivalSummer Sacrament

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