San Francisco filmmaker Anne Flatté remembers when physical location was everything to an aspiring director, when there were just a few cities where one could pursue her vision.
“Los Angeles, New York, Boston and San Francisco were the places you could go to make films,” said Flatté who was raised in Santa Cruz and has called The City home since the early ‘90s. It was a time here when independent filmmaking resources were thriving, from BAVC, Film Arts Foundation, ATA and the Roxie’s revivals, to the San Francisco International Film Festival.
“I attended the film festival and was excited every time it would come along, wishing I could have a film in it,” said Flatté who ultimately did: “Serenade For Haiti,” about a music school destroyed by the 2010 earthquake, screened at the festival in 2017. Her latest music documentary, “River City Drumbeat,” was accepted for the 2020 festival and nominated for its prestigious Golden Gate Award: It’s now streaming through the Roxie’s virtual cinema.
Set in Louisville, “River City Drumbeat” unravels the story of a youth drum corps and its charismatic leaders. Flatté and co-director Marlon Johnson made the film as residents of SFFilm’s FilmHouse and were on the festival circuit, completing successful New York screenings, when it became clear live showings would have to be curtailed due to the seriousness of the coronavirus.
“South by Southwest was the first festival to announce the cancellation and the dominoes started to fall,” said Flatté. As theaters around the world began to shut down in early March, “River City Drumbeat” was set to run at the Miami Film Festival; soon after, the 63rd annual San Francisco International Film Festival also announced its cancellation. Johnson remained in Miami and Flatté returned to Glen Park and the home she shares with her husband and two teenage boys.
“Watching what New York went through was so hard and now we’re watching Florida,” said Flatté. “Marlon’s wife Linda is a first responder and he also has children and they’re dealing with everything just like we’re dealing with everything,” she said. The filmmakers have remained in close touch with their friends in the Louisville drum corps who are surviving not only the pandemic, but the trauma and uprising following the police murder of emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor there in March.
“We talk almost every week and we’re fortunate that Mr. White, Albert, Jailen, Imani and Emily are all well,” said Flatté of the film’s key subjects.
“River City Drumbeat” tracks a year in the life of the drum corp’s devoted founder, Edward “Nardie” White, the memory of his wife Zambia Nkrumah, and the work of several corps members, including Albert Shumake, the person most destined to receive the baton and carry on the unique combination of musical training and competition, community building and cultural education the organization provides to Louisville youth.
“There are so many potential stories in any documentary film. Documentaries are fortuitous events. A lot has to go right for them to happen,” explained Flatté. Early in the process, Johnson embedded with the River City Drum Corps; in addition to its founder, some of its members were preparing for their own exits from the corps as they graduated from high school. The film features plenty of their impressive drumming, but at its heart are the fates of Louisville’s children.
“Jailen is a junior in college now, studying broadcast journalism, reporting from the protests. Mr. White is staying strong. Albert is leading the drum corps virtually, setting up the kids with virtual education, after school programs. Albert is an artist, and a DJ and makes things with his hands. He was making masks from very early on in the pandemic,” said Flatté. “It’s just really hard, as everybody knows.”
She remains concerned not only about her subjects, but about the post-pandemic environment for film, globally and locally.
“We knew there would be no live screenings for a while, but then I learned about virtual release with independent cinemas. The Roxie was one of the first ones to do it,” she said. It’s a way for viewers to support indie film and small theaters during the closures.
“The Roxie is special to me and to a lot of indie filmmakers in The City. It’s a very important cultural institution. If you care about independent cinema, you care about the Roxie.”
One of the oldest movie houses in the U.S. to continually screen films since its founding in 1912, The Roxie is also among the handful of local theaters , and countless nationwide, struggling to outlast the wider public’s preference for streaming. The added burden of the pandemic season has put these beloved cinemas in further peril but they are adapting.
“In the same way we love having great independent bookstores instead of buying from Amazon, you need to learn how to do it a couple of times to get used to how it happens,” she said of the click on a theater and stream option. “When you think about it, it’s kinda amazing how many theaters we still have: The Castro, the Roxie, Balboa, Alamo Drafthouse…I really hope they‘re going to make it through the next while,” said Flatté whose first student film played at the Roxie more than 20 years ago.
“I hope that people will watch the film and connect with the people in the film, that’s kinda why I got into film in the first place. I do believe we are all connected,” said Flatté. “That’s what film and music can offer to people right now: hope.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.