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Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
Another Day in Paradise
Worn down by the endless frustrations of getting films funded and shown, Academy Award winner Steven Okazaki (1991's Days of Waiting) was about ready to quit making documentaries. He'd always dealt with historical material, however, and before leaving the field he decided there was one last test he needed to submit to. So he spent two years in San Francisco's heroin subculture, tracking the downward spiral of five smart young addicts and coming away with Black Tar Heroin: The Dark End of the Street.

"I had never put myself on the line as a journalist," the 46-year-old East Bay filmmaker explains, "where you are affecting people's lives by filming them. This was the hardest thing I could think of, and it was painful every day."

The unflinching 75-minute doc, premiering tonight [April 14] on HBO (and repeating April 19, 24, 27, and 30), wrings any possible glamour out of hard drugs -- and lifts a grimy curtain on Oz by the Bay. Black tar (which arrived from Mexico in the mid-'90s), says Okazaki, is to powder heroin as crack is to powder cocaine: badly refined, but cheaper and massively more potent.

Okazaki enlisted Jason Cohen, who was closer in age to the people they were filming, as associate producer and sound recordist. They hung out in Tenderloin hotel rooms and Polk Street alleys, filming five subjects, all between 18 and 25. ("There are plenty of 14- and 15-year-olds out there, too," Okazaki notes. "But for legal reasons the youngest in the film is 18.") Likable kids, their eyes are clear at the beginning of the film. But two years later "they're different people," Okazaki laments. "They've pretty much lost interest in everything else but heroin."

The film contains moments of offhand humor but there's no happy ending. (Big surprise, eh?) And though HBO didn't edit the documentary, the filmmakers decided not to show the needle-phobic public too many graphic scenes of its subjects injecting themselves. "One thing that is missing from the film," Okazaki confides with a hint of regret, "is the repetition and endless frustration of getting the needles in. We once followed two kids who spent four hours trying to shoot up. We don't quite show how horrible and laborious the process is."

Okazaki, a low-key guy who lived and worked in the city until the last few years, confesses disgust with the non-response of the mayor and the police. "San Francisco is arguably the heroin capital of the nation," he asserts. "The city's in collusion. Fourteen-year-old boys prostitute themselves on Polk Street and never get arrested. Kids ruin their lives with so little help from anybody."

The Night of the Hunter
Belated congrats to local auteur Matthew Leutwyler, whose dark action comedy Road Kill nabbed the Audience Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last month. ... The Bridge reignites its midnight series in June with a John Waters classic. ... And keep your antenna up for Who Owns the Streets?, Ted White's nearly completed doc about Critical Mass and the Bay Area's hardy, radical champions of bike ecology. ... I'm not superstitious, but isn't it a tad creepy (not to mention sacrilegious) that the S.F. International Film Festival's opening night shindig, following the world premiere of The Winslow Boy, will be at the renovated Regency Building, former home of the Regency I Theater? Sorry, I'm just having a Jeremiah Johnson flashback.

By Michael Fox

About The Author

Michael Fox


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