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With ‘Back to Basics,’ Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema continues unbroken 19-year run

Audience members enjoy Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema in Precita Park, 2021. | Courtesy of Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema

Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema is poised to open its 19th season with a festival that spotlights the work of 31 local filmmakers over three evenings of free screenings. 

This year’s theme, “Back to Basics,” underscores that the festival is once again entirely outdoors after Covid led the organization to shift to a drive-in format, in which people flashed their headlights in place of applause. “Back to Basics” also speaks to the films themselves, which revolve around timeless subjects like ancestry, familial relationships and identity. 

The season kickoff takes place Friday, Sept. 9 on Bernal Plaza behind the Bernal Public library with short films such as “Sorry I’m Adopted” and “Murder in the Desert, the Killing of James Wakasa,” followed by an evening of music and screenings in Precita Park on Saturday. The festival concludes on Friday, Sept. 16, with a “Best of Bernal” finale atop the neighborhood’s famous hill to highlight the four award-winning films of the 2022 season.   

“I’ve lived in Bernal for 40 years now, and I have to say this event is truly and authentically Bernal,” said Valerie Reichert, the festival’s director of media relations. The award categories echo the hyper-local nature of the festival: Best of Bernal, Spirit of Bernal and Bernal Bright Star. (There is also an audience favorite award.) “People will be sitting on the hill watching, and it’ll be pretty spectacular because up and over from the screen is the city and this amazing view,” Reichert said. 

Still from "When Mama and Me Slept Outside" that shows a mother and a daughter sleeping together under a blanket. | Courtesy of the Filmmaker

Peter Menchini’s “When Mama and Me Lived Outside,” which won the Best of Bernal award, tells the true story of Lisa “Tiny” Gray-Garcia’s mother losing her job and being forced onto the streets with her young daughter. 

“It was one more little murder of the soul,” Gray-Garcia said, who wrote a children’s book with the same title. “I do this week to create a different herstory.”

Documentary filmmakers Joshua Izenberg and Brett Marty first became fascinated with Shawn Hayes and his love of falconry back in 2005, when they made a short film about Hayes titled “Perfect Flight.” The film ended up winning multiple accolades. 

“We were sort of surprised,” Izenberg said. “We didn’t have any expectations.” 

The accolades—and the increased attention of birding while Black in light of the Central Park incident with Christian Cooper—led to a longer, 25-minute version of the film titled “Game Hawker,” which won the Spirit of Bernal award and which also screens on Sept. 16. 

Still from short film "Diner Discord" with a robot taking an order at a diner. | Courtesy of the Filmmaker

Director Alan Rosenfeld has two short animations in the festival, “Diner Discord” and “Touch the Sky.” Rosenfeld draws his inspiration from everyday life: the former “tumbled out of him,” when he was listening to a piece of music, while “Touch the Sky” draws from childhood memories of home. 

“When I was a child and my mother would hang sheets on the clothesline outside, I would envision myself flying through the sheets, the drying clouds,” he said. 

The festival has included films by Academy Award winners such as Lourdes Portillo, Pat Jackson and Jay Rosenblatt. It has also seen such luminaries as Jimmie Fails and Joe Talbot, childhood friends from Bernal Heights who screened a trailer for The Last Black Man in San Francisco at the festival back when the film had a different working title. 

“Within five seconds we were out of our seats,” Reichert said of seeing the trailer. “I’m a San Franciscan, and I said, ‘This film looks like San Francisco.’” 

Talbot and Fails returned to the festival last year for a screening of the finished product.

“It highlights the magic that can happen in a local festival, because there’s so much talent,” Reichert said. “It’s a pretty special place we live in.”