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Do the Right Thing 

Everything we know we've learned from documentaries

Wednesday, Apr 23 2003
Sometime between now and June, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to reach decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the crucial affirmative action cases challenging the University of Michigan's admissions policy. Paying particularly close attention to the news out of Washington is East Bay independent filmmaker Vivian Kleiman, deep in production on Promises to Keep, a documentary about race and education centering on a black high school in Louisville, Ky. "The film reconsiders what was accomplished and what was lost through school desegregation, especially with an eye towards reviewing the inherent assumption of desegregation -- that an all-black institution is, by definition, an inferior institution," Kleiman explains. "Despite the poor facilities and lack of materials, many of the black schools under Jim Crow provided excellent education, because the educated black had limited options for employment." Hence, many of them returned to their alma maters to teach.

Kleiman produced the late Marlon Riggs' Color Adjustment, the essential 1991 documentary about the portrayal of African-Americans on television, and is involved with California Newsreel's project to transfer his work to DVD. The group is aiming to release the multiple-disc set next spring, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Riggs' death on April 5. On a lighter note, this summer Kleiman begins shooting her portion of The Meaning of Food, a three-part PBS series with an anthropological and humorous slant. "In Japan, it's an insult to leave a grain of rice on your plate," Kleiman points out. "But in India, if you finish all your rice it's an insult -- it means they didn't feed you enough." As I've said many times, everything I know I learned from documentaries.

Children of a Lesser God "There's definitely a transformation that goes on," says Executive Director Devora Kanter of Bay Kids, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides filmmaking tools to sick and disabled children. "They go from being the recipient of care and not being able to control their environment to being the boss. They get to call the shots." While the gear is limited to camcorders and iMac editing software, and any adult who's read the manual qualifies as a de facto adviser, the children get value from both the process and the result. "It gives kids the opportunity to not be so isolated," Kanter says.

"Creative self-expression" is the catchall phrase you find on the "Mission" page of the Bay Kids site (, but the Poates sisters went a step further. Sherrie, who has sickle cell anemia, and Diamond, who donated bone marrow to her, interviewed hospital staff on-camera and demystified the whole procedure. "That movie has been shown to another family that has the same thing," Kanter relates. "The mom, of all people, was the most comforted watching it."

Bay Kids works with patients at Children's Hospital in Oakland and UCSF Medical Center, and expands next month to Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at the Stanford University Medical Center. Although the organization isn't about to open a video workshop -- "It's video therapy, not vocational training," Kanter says -- it'd welcome film pros of all stripes to help the kids push their work up a notch. "It would be great to have people who did a professional-quality editing job and made the movies look slick." If you're interested, drop a note to or call 561-6262.

The Crowd Roars The world premiere of The Olive Harvest is shaping up as the S.F. International Film Festival event. The scheduled screenings of the Palestinian feature sold out so quickly that shows were added to the April 25 and 28 lineups. ... Director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) will conduct the onstage interview at the Castro on Thursday, April 24, with Dustin Hoffman, the fest's Peter J. Owens Award recipient. It's not a random choice; Forster directed the actor in J.M. Barrie's Neverland, slated for release in spring 2004.

About The Author

Michael Fox


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