Great documentary filmmakers know how to roll with the punches, how to incorporate real-life changes into their films’ narratives. But perhaps no other filmmaker has ever faced two such monumental, devastating hurdles as did Oakland’s Peter Nicks.
“Homeroom” — which opens Aug. 12 at the AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco and the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland (and streams on Hulu) — faced its first challenge early on.
It was going to tell the story of a year in the lives of the graduating class of 2020 at Oakland High School.
“When I originally conceived of the movie, because of our experiences trying to navigate a broken mental health system with our daughter, I wanted to look at the mental health aspect,” Nicks said in a Zoom chat.
But just after filming began, his teen daughter Karina, to whom the film is dedicated, died from a drug overdose related to her battles with anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Devastated, Nicks was forced to decide whether to continue. As he took time off, his crew kept working, while he occasionally guided them. The more time went on, the more he contributed, and, eventually, he felt he was ready to return to work.
He was also inspired by Karina. “She was a social justice warrior. She was out there marching. She was reflective of young people today… a lot of young people are struggling with anxiety, with depression, and with trying to figure out how they fit into this world.”
A main focus of the film was going to be Shop 55, a wellness center Oakland High students could visit if they needed a therapist or any kind of help with mental health. Several of the film’s subjects were discovered there.
“We spent a lot of time there, and none of that footage made it into the movie,” says Nicks.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was the second hurdle the film faced.
“We had to stop filming. We couldn’t land the plane, so to speak, with these other kids,” he continues.
Fortunately, there was another way in. Nicks had been following Denilson Garibo, a student on the Oakland Unified School District board who was trying to get the police removed from Oakland High.
“I wasn’t sure about him,” Nicks admits. “He didn’t super jump out as this amazing character, but I was fascinated by the fact that he was on the school board. We figured if we just follow him, we could see him come of age. That’s verite filmmaking. That’s when the film shifted from a more general ensemble cast (a la ‘The Breakfast Club’) to this more focused journey of Denilson.”
As a portrait of the first several months of the pandemic, “Homeroom” is powerful, as Denilson’s fight coincides with the George Floyd murder, Black Lives Matter marches and the defund the police movement.
“What’s so remarkable about these kids, is that their senior year was canceled, all that stuff was taken away from them, and they found their voice in the wake of that loss,” says Nicks. “And it also reveals their strength and their tenacity. They’re still kids. They’re still vulnerable, but they have a power that I don’t think kids of my generation had.”
“Homeroom” is the third in Nicks’ trilogy of documentaries exploring Oakland institutions. The San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle-award winner “The Waiting Room” from 2013 was set at an Oakland hospital. “The Force” from 2017 took place inside the Oakland Police Department.
All are filmed in the verite style. Like legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman — whose documentaries include “Titicut Follies,” “High School,” “At Berkeley” and 2020’s “City Hall” — Nicks’ films include no narration or talking heads. Each scene is intended to mirror its moment in real life.
“I don’t know how Wiseman does it, but when people are in crisis or have decisions to make, who have concerns that go beyond the camera, the camera tends to melt away,” says Nicks. “I think that’s part of the art of presenting people in their natural state, where it feels like you’re there.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Denilson Garibo
Written by: Sean Havey, Kristina Motwani, Peter Nicks
Directed by: Peter Nicks
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes