BERKELEY (CBS SF) — A Berkeley non-profit recently granted hundreds of thousands of dollars to 15 East Bay independent directors currently working on film projects.

The Berkeley FILM Foundation, a nonprofit that annually awards grants to creative cinematic thought-provokers from around Berkeley, Emeryville, Richmond, El Cerrito, Albany and Oakland, awarded a total of $165,000 in grants this year. The foundation received 150 applicants this round, a record number since the group was founded in 2009, program director Isabella Miller notes.

One of the recipients was director Benjamin MulHolland, an Oakland city employee, who said he was grateful for the needed cash infusion. He’ll use it to put the finishing touches on his narrative short, “The Lake Merritt Monster,” which has already been shot but remains about “70% finished.” Costly special effects, sound and music still need to be worked out.

MulHolland describes “The Lake Merritt Monster,” shot mostly at night around Lake Merritt and in East Oakland, as reminiscent of the 1985 cult fave “The Goonies,” complete with a rite of passage scenario and a plot that covers topics germane to the city: gentrification and homelessness. But while there are messages to be had in his “Monster,” MulHolland’s main goal is to entertain and give children of color their version of “Goonies.”

“I felt that I had a duty to do both, social justice and the responsibility of giving people a break,” MulHolland said.

Concept art for the “Lake Merritt Monster” (Kickstarter)

The idea sprung from MulHolland’s childhood and the legacy of the Lake Merritt Monster, a rumored-to-be-real critter poking its head up here and there and startling visitors. The monster is also a beloved East Bay fixture at the lake in the form of a sculpture created by Robert Winston.

While MulHolland’s 15-16 minute short is nearing completion, Oakland-based Alex J. Bledsoe’s documentary “OAKLEAD” is just getting off the ground. The investigative piece peers into the topic of lead poisoning in Oakland and received one of the top grants, the $25,000 Jonathan Logan Elevate Award. Bledsoe has been researching and documenting the issue since 2017. Bledsoe says this grant is a needed boost.

“(The award) provides crucial momentum and resources to the ‘OAKLEAD’ project, which has thus far been carried by parents, grassroots organizers and Oakland artists’ dedication to our community,” Bledsoe said.

Her film intends to further explore what a 2016 Reuters article spotlighted – that there are 3,000 United States communities with higher rates of lead poisoning than in Flint, Michigan, Bledsoe said. One of those hot spots is Oakland’s Fruitvale area where Bledsoe lived.

Her film confronts the issue of environmental racism, a topic that doesn’t receive much coverage.

“The function of capitalism, and the fact that our governments are tied into the reproduction of capitalism, necessarily creates hazardous outcomes. Because Black people are considered disposable in our society, those hazardous effects disproportionately affect Black and other people of color,” she said. “The hazardous effects subsequently receive little recognition as being worthy of intervention.”

Two other top grant winners also take deep dives into meaty topics: immigration and prison reform.

The top honor – the Saul Zaentz Award for $25,000 – went to Emily Cohen Ibañez for “Fruits of Labor,” a documentary focused on a 17-year-old Central Coast farmworker facing uncertainty due to ICE raids.

UC Berkeley journalism alum Lucas Guilkey and JoeBill Muñoz were awarded the $20,000 Al Bendich Award for their untitled expose on solitary confinement in the California prison system and how that brutal practice ended due to a hunger strike led by prisoners.

Other films awarded grants include: “Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?” by Francisco Núñez Capriles, “Vivien’s Wild Ride,” by Jessica Anthony and Vivien Hillgrove, “Two Rivers” by Todd Darling, “We Still Here/Aquí Estamos” by Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi, “When You Were Young” by Tracey Quezada and “Shelter in the Palace” by John Slattery.
Five student films also received grants: “8 Days at Ware” by Meg Shutzer and Rachel Mueller, “Na Luta Delas,” by Orion Rose Kelly and Pedro Cota, “My Own Mecca” by Alba Roland Mejias, “Alpha Phi Nightmare,” by Neil Haeems and “Crow Country” by Tsanavi Spoonhunter.

All films will eventually be screened upon completion, either virtually or in person when it is deemed safe.

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