While the Bay Area has long served as an oasis of creativity for the film industry, Northern California is currently experiencing nothing short of a renaissance when it comes to impressively talented local filmmakers. In 2018 alone, three films focused on Oakland (and conceived by Oakland natives) earned critical acclaim: the Marvel blockbuster Black Panther, the subversive corporate satire Sorry to Bother You, and socially-aware comedy-drama Blindspotting.
As the movie-going public continues to thirst for authentic stories, Bay Area filmmakers are rising to the call. From big-scale documentaries tackling the realities of climate change to short films focused on underrepresented members of our communities, the days of the Bay Area’s cinematic legacy consisting mostly of disaster movies destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, or the cinematic work of Alfred Hitchcock, are fading. Instead, a new generation of directors, producers, and visionaries are leading the charge to make a difference on the silver screen.
Below, here are filmmakers to watch presented in alphabetical order:
1. Soumyaa Kapil Behrens, DocFilm Institute Director
Soumyaa Behrens is an award-winning director and producer, as well as the director of the DocFilm Institute at San Francisco State University. Her films regularly engage with issues of the human condition as well as how political landscapes shape identity and power structures within marginalized communities. At present, she is in post-production on the documentary film, 780 Abbreviated, which depicts how gentrification forced the closure of a community recycling center in San Francisco. Behrens has also produced and directed DocFilm projects like Veteran Documentary Corps, Madame Mars, The Love Boat, The Life of a String Quartet, and Abina and The Important Men.
2. Bonni Cohen, Co-Director of An Inconvenient Sequel
San Francisco filmmaking couple Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk have produced and directed an array of award-winning films. Most recently, they co-directed the 2017 documentary An Inconvenient Sequel, which profiled former Vice President Al Gore and his efforts to bring attention to dire consequences of climate change. They previously teamed to direct the 2016 Peabody Award-winning film Audrie & Daisy, which chronicled the stories of two U.S. high school students and explored questions surrounding sexual assault and the role of cyber-bullying in the lives of teenagers. In 2011, their film The Island President received the Toronto International Film Festival Best Documentary Award. Cohen and Shenk continue to create documentaries that dig deep into today’s pressing issues.
3. Ryan Coogler, Writer/Director of Black Panther
Oakland native Ryan Coogler was already making waves before he directed Black Panther — now the highest-grossing film of all-time from an African-American director. His first feature, Fruitvale Station, told the story of Oscar Grant, who was killed by police officers at an Oakland BART station in 2009. The picture took the 2013 Sundance Film Festival by storm, winning both the Grand Jury Award as well as the Audience Award. That led to Coogler taking on Creed — a Rocky spin-off that reunited the director with his Fruitvale star, Michael B. Jordan. Now his biggest achievement is Black Panther, the first film to put the Wakanda superhero from the Marvel universe front and center. At 32-years-old, Coogler may have accomplished a life’s worth of film feats already, but the future is bright for the Bay Area auteur.
4. Blye Faust, Co-Producer of Spotlight
Marin County resident and Santa Clara University alum Blye Faust took home Oscar gold for her role as a co-producer on the 2015 Best Picture winner, Spotlight. Even more impressive than her win is the fact that Spotlight served as Faust’s first film credit as a producer. Following a time spent pursuing acting in Los Angles, Faust worked as an entertainment lawyer before she partnered with producer Nicole Rocklin. When they heard the true story at the heart of Spotlight — a Boston Globe investigative team that uncovered a systematic cover-up of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the area — they sold the reporters who’d broken the story on a film adaptation. The pair is now currently at work on a film that addresses the role governments and corporations play in providing or denying basic resources like water and food to residents of third-world countries.
5. Don Hardy, Director/Cinematographer
Local filmmaker Don Hardy has played many roles. He served as the director of photography on the 2015 documentary Batkid Begins, which followed cancer survivor Miles Scott as he enjoyed a surreal day (per his Make-A-Wish request) to experience a day in San Francisco as the masked comic book superhero Batman. Hardy worked as co-director with his frequent collaborator Dana Nachman on the 2018 documentary Pick of the Litter, which chronicles a group of puppies being considered for Guide Dogs for the Blind. Hardy’s career — which includes six Emmy wins — has been punctuated with a desire to tell Bay Area stories with a global appeal.
6. Marielle Heller, Director of Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Alameda director Marielle Heller is a former St. Joseph Notre Dame graduate and exceptionally talented filmmaker. Her 2016 directorial debut, Diary of a Teenage Girl, was filmed largely in San Francisco and received widespread acclaim. Her second picture, Can You Ever Forgive Me, was released last year and earned star Melissa McCarthy her first Oscar nomination in the Leading Actress category. At present, Heller is directing beloved Hollywood heavyweight Tom Hanks in a biopic of children’s television star Fred Rogers. As the film industry continues to take heat for a severe lack of diversity when it comes to the director’s chair, everyone should be thrilled to know that Heller is up for all challenges.
7. Anthony Lucero, Writer/Director of East Side Sushi
Born and raised in Oakland, Lucero is a director who harnesses his Mexican-American roots to create multicultural films. Early in his career, he directed three award-winning short films — Angels & Wheelchairs, I Need My Mocha, and San Francisco Is… — before working for a decade as a visual effects editor at Industrial Light & Magic. Lucero’s feature length directorial debut was 2015’s East Side Sushi, which San Francisco Weekly listed as one of the year’s top ten films. In 2017, Lucero accepted a role as a U.S. Envoy with the U.S. State Department to participate in the American Film Showcase. Now active in television, Lucero brings his Oakland roots to a wide range of important and timely projects.
8. James Redford, Writer/Director
It never hurts to have your father be one of the most respected actors in the world, but Marin County’s James Redford has never relied on connections to make the work he cares about. After receiving a liver transplant in 1993, he produced the documentary The Kindness of Strangers in 1999. Through his work as the chair of The Redford Center, he’s continued to support rising filmmakers while also pursuing his own passion projects. His directorial credits include The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, Paper Tigers, and Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock. His efforts have led to numerous honors, including the 2014 WildCare Environmental Award.
9. Boots Riley, Writer/Director of Sorry to Bother You
Up until 2018, Boots Riley was known for his role as the lead vocalist of the legendary Oakland hip hop crew The Coup. Then came Sorry to Bother You, a film Riley wrote and directed that follows a young African-American telemarketer in Oakland who enjoys professional success by using a “white” voice when speaking to customers. A darkly humorous work of satire that offers keen insight into the power dynamics of corporate America, Riley’s film garnered heaps of praise and serves as proof of his status as a true multi-hyphenate talent. If Black Panther setting some of its action in Oakland offered a rare chance for residents to see their city onscreen, Sorry to Bother You was a pitch-perfect reflection of the all-too-real damages inflicted by gentrification.
10. Annie Roney, Founder/CEO of ro*co films
Annie Roney’s Sausalito distribution company, ro*co films, has played in role in over 200 documentary releases in its 16 year career. Big titles like Born Into Brothels, Hoop Dreams, Jesus Camp, and Life Animated all benefitted from Roney and ro*co’s help. The recipient of a Career Achievement Award from the Women’s International Film Festival, Roney has cultivated a small but loyal team that works alongside her to distribute documentaries that tell the kind of stories that resonate with ro*co — and hopefully with viewers across the globe. With a new generation of documentary fans rising from the efforts of streaming services like Netflix, Roney is now ideally situated to continue ensuring that these important films find their desired audience.
11. Jay Rosenblatt, Independent Filmmaker
Jay Rosenblatt’s pedigree as a filmmaker is astounding. Over the course of his career, he’s been a recipient of a Guggenheim and a Rockefeller Fellowship. A resident of San Francisco for many years, Rosenblatt is currently serving as the Program Director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. His work as a director is prolific — of the more than 30 short films he’s helmed, highlights include 1998’s Human Remains (an examination of 20th-century dictators) and Nine Lives (featuring the dreams of a house cat). Collectively, Rosenblatt’s work has received over 100 awards, solidifying his place as one of the Bay Area’s most accomplished filmmakers.
12. Joe Talbot, Writer/Director of The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Earlier this year, director Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco was honored with the U.S. Dramatic Directing Award and the Special Jury Award at the Sundance Film Festival. The recognition is a well-deserved accolade for Talbot, a fifth-generation San Franciscan. Focused on a skateboarder who attempts to reclaim the Fillmore district home his grandfather built, The Last Black Man in San Francisco is yet another example of local filmmakers engaging in the discourse of gentrification. Starring Talbot’s longtime friend, Jimmy Fails, the feature is likely to expanded Talbot’s opportunities to continue making films that utilize honest emotion to question problematic aspects of society.
13. Justin Tipping, Writer/Director of Kicks
Born and raised in Oakland, Justin Tipping’s directorial debut came with 2016’s Kicks. Set in Oakland, the film follows 15-year-old Brandon as he secures a coveted pair of Air Jordans and later attempts to retrieve them after they’re stolen by a local bully. Featuring a performance by current Oscar nominee Mahershala Ali, Kicks has led to numerous other opportunities for Tipping. As a director, he’s helmed episodes of acclaimed television series like Dear White People and the currently airing Black Monday. Next on the docket is Twenties — a series created by Master of None breakout actor Lena Waithe.
14. Dawn Valadez, Co-Director/Producer of Going on 13
A member of the SF-Bay Area Film Fatales and the Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Dawn Valadez is a Bay Area filmmaker through and through. After spending 20 years working in the nonprofit sector, Valadez pivoted to film with the 2008 documentary Going on 30, which follows four preteen girls of color on their journey to adulthood. Valadez is currently producing a pair of documentaries — The Pushouts and Teacher Like Me — devoted to issues of race, class, education, and coming of age in America. She also been recognized for her advocacy for underserved populations, making her films not only compelling viewing but vital reminders of needed change.
15. Denise Zmekhol, Documentary Filmmaker
Denise Zmekhol is a Brazilian-American journalist and an award-winning producer and director of documentary films that span the globe. Now living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Zmekhol has directed and produced commercials, feature documentaries, and transmedia projects for nonprofit organizations. Her 2008 film, Children of the Amazon, follows Zmekhol as she returns to the Amazon rainforest for the first time in 15 years to discover alarming environmental degradation and widespread poverty. She was later a co-producer and co-director for the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Digital Journey. She is now currently working on Skin of Glass — a film that explores how a Sao Paulo high-rise built by her celebrated architect father became the city’s largest slum.