Berkeley’s rich tradition of documentaries finds support

"Sweet Dreams", a documentary by Lisa Fruchtman and her brother Rob, won the Berkeley Film Foundation's Saul Zaentz Award this year

Lisa Fruchtman was at the Sundance Film Festival when she heard a story she knew she wanted to tell through film. It involved a remarkable group of women in Rwanda who, despite having their lives torn apart by a devastating genocide, had decided to relearn to be happy. The women, who came from both sides of the conflict, formed the country’s first all-female drumming circle and set about opening an ice-cream parlor with the help of two Brooklyn ice cream makers.

The trouble was that Fruchtman, a veteran film editor with features such as Apocalypse Now and The Godfather Part III under her belt, had never made a film. So the Berkeley resident called her brother, Rob Fruchtman, an award-winning documentary maker, and they agreed to work on the project together.

The result is Sweet Dreams, which has been almost two years in the making and is now in the final stages of production.

“It’s a film about how to heal the broken spirit,” says Fruchtman, who has traveled with her brother four times to Rwanda to amass more than 200 hours of footage. “One woman, Odile “Kiki” Katese, a playwright and theater director — but really the generator of many dreams — made this happen and empowered all these women,” she says. “The film is about healing through art and enterprise.”

The Berkeley Film Foundation has just selected Sweet Dreams as its 2011 Saul Zaentz award winner, which comes with a $20,000 grant. Abby Ginzberg, a Berkeley-based independent filmmaker and president of the BFF board, says the judges were hugely impressed by the trailer submitted to the panel. “We hope the grant will go some way to helping the filmmakers finish the movie,” she says.

"Barber of Birmingham", one of the films to receive a Berkeley Film Foundation award this year

The Berkeley Film Foundation has awarded a total of $162,000 this year to 16 local documentarians, including four student filmmakers (see Berkeleyside’s story about one of those winnersNo One But Lydia by Rob Richert). This is up from $140,000 last year, and $100,000 in 2009, the year the foundation was launched.

The organization was founded by three bodies: the City of Berkeley, the Saul Zaentz Company and Wareham Development, with the aim of supporting the new generation of documentary filmmakers.

Berkeley has a rich tradition of documentary filmmaking. Recent movies such as Inside Job by Berkeleyan Charles Ferguson, and Between Two Worlds by Berkeley filmmakers Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman, bear testament to the talent within the city’s boundaries. And Saul Zaentz, and the company he developed from Fantasy Records in the early 1970s, has played a major role in nurturing documentary makers here.

For many years the Fantasy Building on 10th Street was a magnet for all types of filmmakers, says David Bergad, a sound editor and feature filmmaker at Saul Zaentz Company, who is also vice-president of the BFF. “Many documentarians would take space there below market rate,” he says. When Wareham took over the building in 2008, the rents were brought in line with market prices and the idea for the BFF and its annual awards was born.

Filmmakers need to either live or work in Berkeley to apply for a BFF grant. They may need the funds to help with production, editing or distribution and they submit a short trailer in order to be considered for a grant. Other winners this year include An Imagined Country, which tells the story of Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center; The Barber of Birmingham, which explores the impact of the first African American president on aging Civil Rights activists in the South; and The Laurel Burch Project, a film about Berkeley artist Laurel Birch by her daughter Aarin.

Wareham founder Rich Robbins says he thinks documentaries are becoming a lost art, particularly if they are not commercial, and that it’s important to help people who will “dive in and get to the truth”. He cites films such as Food Inc, Inside Job and The Cove as examples. “The new generation of documentary makers have to grovel, and there’s often no money available,” he says.

Robbins says the three founding organizations recently committed to supporting the BFF for another three years, and that the organization may extend its geographical scope. “We need to help these filmmakers find a sustainable way to make a career,” he says.

As for Lisa Fruchtman, she says she still needs to raise money for Sweet Dreams, and is actively searching for a third executive producer, but receiving the BFF grant helped her to feel more confident about her film. “This grant is a great validation for me, as well as a welcome financial boost.”

The Berkeley Film Foundation is holding its annual Fundraising Gala on Thursday November 10th, 6-9 pm, at the Zaentz Media Center at 2600 Tenth Street. Wine and hors d’oeuvres will be served and there’s the chance to meet many of the award-winning filmmakers. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased through Events Brite. More information is available on the BFF’s Facebook page.

Related:
Berkeley filmmaker’s movie on Latino legal pioneer to air [09.19.11]
Berkeley filmmaker makes comedy about teenage angst [09.12.11] 

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  • Anonymous

    I wish we had a theater in Berkeley or some venue that showed these kinds of documentary films! Maybe someone can get something going at the Gaia Building theater or the one in the Brower Center.