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Friday, September 4, 2015

Alexandra Pelosi's HBO Documentary San Francisco 2.0 Neglects Tech

Posted By on Fri, Sep 4, 2015 at 3:00 PM

click to enlarge Cranes in SOMA - PETER LAWRENCE KANE
  • Peter Lawrence Kane
  • Cranes in SOMA

Alexandra Pelosi’s ninth HBO documentary, San Francisco 2.0, premiered at the Kabuki last evening. It was, as such events go, pretty heavy with politicos: the director’s mother (Rep. Nancy Pelosi) was there, as were fellow Bay Area Democrats Rep. Anna Eshoo and former 20-term Rep. George Miller, along with Supervisor Malia Cohen and former Supervisor Aaron Peskin.

With all those heavy-hitters, and the access that comes with having them in your life — the 40-minute film includes interviews with Mayor Ed Lee, Gov. Jerry Brown at his most gnomic, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and former mayors Art Agnos and Willie Brown — it’s too bad that San Francisco 2.0 is so light on substance. Pretty much anyone with a passing familiarity of what’s going on in the Bay Area right now will already know virtually everything Pelosi talks about — although it was surprising to hear Newsom speak with such vehemence about how tech needs to step up.

The film’s main weakness is the fact that, apart from a few personal acquaintances, virtually no one in tech would speak on the record. She gets a few minutes with Ron Conway, who disavows any real influence and deflects any credit for San Francisco’s fortunes to Ed Lee (while staying that San Francisco is “six square miles”), and Michael Birch of odious private club The Battery. She also devotes some camera time to a techie who’s so starry-eyed about the boom that he claims San Francisco is responsible for one-fourth of all construction in the world. But as for Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Salesforce, or even the loquacious Marc Andreessen, apparently nobody would talk. That to me is a near-fatal flaw, and not just because the film is so short.

The other problem is the gosh-wow quality. I’m not knocking Pelosi for speaking with admiration for her hometown or noting its global influence, but her sing-song narration and reliance on using onscreen Google searches to underscore her points can be grating even when the camera isn’t trained on a tech break room Lego pile. At one point, Pelosi prefaces a question to a personal friend, Sean Gourley of, with “Sean, you’re the smartest techie I know…,” and at another, marvels at how Yahoo has taken over three floors of the Chronicle building. (Amusingly, some Chronicle reporters spoke up during the Q-and-A session after the film and noted that Yahoo — surely a tech boom 1.0 company if there ever was one — doesn’t own any part of 901 Mission, and the wheezing tech giant will shortly be moving out as a tenant.)

click to enlarge City Hall during its centennial celebration - PETER LAWRENCE KANE
  • Peter Lawrence Kane
  • City Hall during its centennial celebration

This isn’t to say the film lacks strengths. Pelosi cruised around the Mission with activist Roberto Hernandez, visited a Hunter’s Point construction site with a longtime African-American resident — which Sup. Cohen later pointed out is not a market-rate development — and looked into the fight over the site of the Flower Mart in SOMA. A peek inside the cramped SRO belonging to Allen Zebrowski, an unemployed, then-60-year-old former executive assistant at an investment banking firm is the film’s most tender moment by far, although as a swipe against ageism in tech, it’s oblique. (I approached Zebrowski at the reception. Two years after that scene was shot, he’s still looking for part-time work to supplement his Social Security benefits, although his business card says “Executive Assistant.”)

I asked Pelosi what else she would have put into San Francisco 2.0, if she’d had more resources. She responded with a point about television’s allergy to complex issues.

“If Honey Boo Boo can have her own show…” she began, adding, “Look, television doesn’t do complicated. I wish I could have a nightly series! Every single person had their own perspective.”

I asked what Pelosi’s next project was. She’s digging into how we fund our presidential elections, she said, noting that she was able to speak with Haim Saban. It turned out that the 70-year-old billionaire producer of Inspector Gadget was the only person in all 10 documentaries she’s made who demanded makeup. (Pelosi is a one-woman crew, so presumably that was a logistical hurdle.)

We shared a laugh, but I was struck with the contrast between how easy it was for her to speak with a Democratic mega-donor at a time when such people are vilified by the left, but not with anyone from Silicon Valley.

I asked Rep. Nancy Pelosi for her opinion. Although I expected little beyond maternal pride, the Minority Leader’s response was sunnier than I would have expected.

“I loved seeing it for the first time,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect … If we want to make progress, we have to do it together. Progress is wonderful, and growth is important. So I congratulate the mayor.”

When the neoliberal Business Times accused Pelosi’s film of biting the hands that feed the city, they went way overboard. San Francisco 2.0’s bite, if it even has one, doesn’t break the skin. (Even lefties like Salon founder David Talbot and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich are quite measured in their critiques.) Pelosi’s reluctance to be seen as demonizing anybody drives her to the anodyne conclusion that the issues at hand are thorny indeed. Unfortunately, there’s no better place for power to hide unmolested than behind zen-lite, hey-life’s-complicated truisms.

In the end, the film-and-reception left me feeling pretty dour that we’re ever going to solve anything. We are, as Allen Zebrowski believes, approaching Venezuelan levels of wealth inequality. Just as elaborate banquets to end hunger produce more in the way of assuaged consciences than structural fixes to social ills, San Francisco 2.0 avoids pointing fingers. And a roomful of elites nodding in agreement at a mediocre film made by the daughter of one of their own is the last thing San Francisco’s crisis needs.

San Francisco 2.0 premieres Monday, Sept. 28 on HBO.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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