“New Mission” | Interview with Chris Giamo

| February 23, 2015

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Named for Mission Dolores, the Mission District has long been home to immigrants and communities of color, as well as a thriving art scene. It’s hardly news that the San Francisco Bay Area has seen an influx of young tech-workers and urban professionals in recent years, leading many to question where the neighborhood is headed. New Mission, a short documentary by Chris Giamo of Stanford University, examines the changes to the Mission District and expresses a commonly overheard fear that the neighborhood is slowly losing the qualities that made it unique.

We reached out to Chris via email to chat about gentrification and documentaries.

Shoes hang from wires in the Mission.

Shoes hang from wires in the documentary New Mission.

Tell us about yourself. What got you into film?

I grew up in northern Indiana and started making art / doc films when I was a teenager. I also have a background in anthropology and spent a lot of years living and working in other countries. The synthesis of art, ethnography and human rights drives my filmmaking.

A child plays in a garden in the Mission.

A child plays in a garden in the Mission.

What’s your relationship with the Mission neighborhood?

I moved out to San Francisco after [a year] living in London, where I was working with Sikhs. My cousin had a place on 23rd and Harrison Street, and I lived there during 2008 and 2009. It was a time when I started making films and music pretty much full-time. Kinda the golden age of my early twenties. I left to go to graduate school in Syracuse, and after that moved to Maine for a couple years. I came back here in 2013 and was shocked to see how rapidly things had changed in just a few years. The entire side of 23rd Street had been taken over by condos with a “Local Mission Market” built into them. These past two years, I’ve typically spent my weekends in that neighborhood. My old roommates still live at the house and it continues to be a creative space for me—part of my past and present, memory and growth.

Workers in the Mission.

Workers in the Mission.

How’d you meet your subject and narrator Louie Gutierrez?

My girlfriend and I drove out to San Francisco from Maine in August 2013. The second morning there, we walked down 24th Street to get some coffee and she wanted to go into La Reyna Bakery. I was wearing a Stanford sweatshirt that I’d found the day before, and Louie started up a conversation about “education being survival.’ We got to talking about the neighborhood and he said, “Well, here’s your first film.” A couple of weeks later, I came back and asked if he’d be willing to be the voiceover for the film and things happened from there.

Like Louie, I too remember seeing La Bamba when it first came out. It was a powerful day, seeing myself and the very people around me in that theatre represented. But it also seems like Louie’s lament for that screening – and for those very classic Mission movie theaters that no longer exist – also speaks largely to the neighborhood’s gentrification. What are your thoughts?

I agree. The movie theaters were a place for the community, and Louie’s memory of La Bamba speaks to the shared memories of yours and so many others. The decay and renovation of the theaters are a physical and metaphoric testament to the process of gentrification in the neighborhood. When filming around that area, people would often come up to me and tell me the memories they had of those places. One woman I met had even worked at the New Mission Theater.

The Old Mission theater.

The New Mission Theater.

How much of this “old” and “new” Mission played into your editing process?

This interaction between old and new was integral to the film’s narrative structure; it’s about the clash between the two, which is embodied in the film’s central metaphor of the New Mission Theater. Neighborhoods evolve, and I wanted to convey this evolution through the narrative arc of the film, which moves from past into present and shows how the two realities meet. This conflict is expressed through the juxtaposition of image and voiceover, as well as more overt cuts like when the backyard fades into the condos, or when it cuts from the “Tech is not culture” sign to the graffiti of “Adapt”.

New Mission is a very tonal piece. The film feels not so much like a funeral, but maybe a memorial. Am I heading in the right direction?

Yes, I think so. The street art in the neighborhood testifies to this as well. The film is about memory and change, and to me there’s a strong feeling of nostalgia in it. Louie told me the film reminded him of that feeling you get sometimes in the autumn.

Street art in the Mission.

Street art in the Mission.

What do you see as the future for the Mission District?

I see higher buildings and higher rents. So long as Silicon Valley and San Francisco grow, the Mission will continue to undergo a physical and demographic shift. Some say it’s a “natural process.”

Chris Giamo in San Francisco.

Chris Giamo in San Francisco.

Who are some of your influences as a filmmaker?

I like the work of Alain Resnais, James Longley, Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Werner Herzog. I also find a lot of inspiration in American avant-garde filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage.

Tell us about your Stanford experience.

I’ve learned a lot at Stanford, and the program has been a great phase for my development as a filmmaker. I’ve made four films in the past two years of the program. With Louie’s guidance, I was led to co-direct a film about the killing of Andy Lopez, a thirteen-year-old who was killed by a Sheriff’s deputy in Santa Rosa. I also made a film out in the dustbowl of Owens Lake, on the edge of the Eastern Sierras. Currently I’m editing my thesis film, Blue Star, which re-imagines a Sikh survivor’s memory of the Indian Army’s attack on the Golden Temple in 1984. The film was shot on location in Punjab, India.

Advice to student documentarians?

Make films that you find meaning in and be true to your subject. Try to push the boundaries of form as much as possible—there’s so much room for exploration and experimentation within the genre. Don’t get too caught up in the industry side of things, just make the films you want even if they don’t seem possible. Never, ever compromise your own vision.

Chris Giamo is a San Francisco-based filmmaker. He is currently in post-production on a short documentary, Blue Star, which re-imagines the eye-witness account of a Sikh pilgrim who survived the Indian Army’s massacre at the Golden Temple in 1984. 


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