The SF Urban Film Festival has extended its submissions deadline through the end of the month. What can this eye-opening festival tell us about community and culture?
Fay Darmawi knows a thing or two about audiences. It may seem unusual for an affordable housing finance consultant to moonlight as a film festival organizer, but it’s the sheer artistry of politics that gets this storyteller talking about San Francisco.
Now gearing up for its sixth year, the San Francisco Urban Film Festival is a unique confluence of workshops, film screenings, and interactive media happenings seeking to tell the story of human cities. It was this active, participatory element of the festival that Darmawi felt was lacking in 2012, at the height of recession austerity, when Governor Jerry Brown ended California’s redevelopment agencies.
“I was appalled that there was hardly any discussion around it, especially with respect to how redevelopment had reformed themselves in many places, including San Francisco,” Darmawi said. “I had an epiphany and realized I needed to do something about that. The general public needed to have a vocabulary around what affordable housing is, and the best way to do that was with the help of filmmakers who I felt were the best communicators in the world—not urban planners, not politicians. I wanted people who could distill complex issues into a narrative.”
Buoyed with a background in screenwriting and the inspiration of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Darmawi sought to “create a culture” around affordable housing, much in the same way Gore’s documentary brought climate change into the public eye.
Just last year, SFUFF screened films about transportation equity, public protests, and hosted a panel talk on zoning enforcement. Darmawi explained that these presentations make more of an emotional impact when paired with a film screening.
“You can see the difference between how our discussions go and how brown bag panel discussions go. Our discussions are like, ‘wow, this is really affecting people—how do we help?’”
Though Darmawi is hesitant to take any credit for concrete political outcomes, her tone remains hopeful, insisting that this work has only just begun.
“We screened a film about the Ghost Ship fire, and we invited a community activist from MEDA who was doing a workshop on how to save artists’ housing. Those kinds of connections were made—and who knows what happened with that?”
While the housing crisis is in the public consciousness more than ever, its complexity has yet to be unraveled in the culture at large. There is little discussion in the media, for example, on a bill from Asm. David Chiu (D-San Francisco) to revive redevelopment agencies. And while it is generally understood that public investment in affordable housing has lagged for decades, the private sector financing underlying US affordable housing efforts since the introduction of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) under the Reagan administration, and the HOPE VI program under Clinton, remains in the realm of the esoteric policy wonk.
But Darmawi thinks that is finally starting to change.
“What’s become apparent is the contradiction between housing as a human right and housing as a real estate asset. Those two concepts are becoming really, really clear for folks. And that is through the conversations that we’re having around land use,” Darmawi said, citing the controversial Yes In My Back Yard (YIMBY) movement as an example.
“The YIMBY movement, for all of its shortcomings, I thank them for forcing the issue on housing,” Darmawi said. “Extreme market urbanism on one side, and the other side coming closer to the community development movement—talking about rent control, tenants rights—we weren’t having that conversation in 2012. Supply-side neoliberalism on one side, housing as a human right on the other, that’s all on the table now.”
With the SFUFF 2019 submission deadline extended through April, Darmawi asks that aspiring urbanist filmmakers drive the conversation forward with a strong dose of professionalism. Darmawi has brought her A-game to the affordable housing finance world, consulting with major global banks along with nonprofit developers such as BRIDGE Housing, Eden Housing, and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation (TNDC). The political stakes are high, and so are her expectations.
“The messenger is also the message—you want compelling high quality storylines, where personal stories illuminate larger policy issues, so the audience can connect between public policy and how that impacts human beings directly. And that’s why we do film—like literature, the humanities are about human beings. About how we are, how we relate to each other as mothers, or neighbors, or communities.”
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