Che town: Benjamin Bratt, who co-produced and stars in the film his brother, Peter, directed, brings intensity to his single-father Muni-driver character in "La Mission."

SFIFF52: Peter Bratt's "La Mission"

Susan Gerhard April 23, 2009

San Francisco is a city of neighborhoods—and an argument can be made that there is no more lively and fascinating neighborhood in the city than the Mission. It’s a place where stories intersect: Historic murals depicting Latin American indigenous struggles butt up against well-worn Irish bars, which have themselves been transformed into trendy nightspots for a whole new demographic. Street vendors, workers for hire and school kids waiting for Muni buses share small strips of sidewalk just inches away from the slope of sunbathers at Dolores Park who offer an entry to another world altogether in the Castro.

Diverse populations, dense city: conflict naturally will occur. What’s challenging for city planners can be wonderful for film writers—especially when conflict leads as thoughtfully and passionately to resolution as it does in Peter Bratt’s opening night feature for the San Francisco International Film Festival, La Mission. Focusing on conflict within a family and a neighborhood, La Mission explores what happens when a single father named Che learns a secret about his son that tests his love for his family and his community’s love for him.

"Che is at the threshold of great change," writer-director Peter Bratt has written. "As a filmmaker living in an increasingly violent and dangerous world, I was drawn to the idea of transformation and the pain that often goes with it."

When I spoke to Bratt recently on a misty morning in Noe Valley, transformation was on his mind—not just the changes characters go through, but the radical changes in the city of San Francisco itself. Peter, who wrote and directed La Mission and Benjamin, who co-produced and stars in the film, both grew up here. One was born at UCSF hospital in the Inner Sunset, the other at Kaiser on Geary and Divisadero. They lived up in Glen Park, spent time in the Mission, Bernal and Potrero neighborhoods, attended schools ranging from James Lick and McAteer (Peter) to Lowell (Benjamin) and have, by now, experienced their home town from a variety of perspectives.

They were children of the movement, first and foremost the American Indian Movement, Peter said—a fact that recalls a very different time in S.F. Their mother was an organizer, and their home a nerve center of sorts during the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969-1971. "Our house was the unofficial mainland crash pad," Peter remembered. "Wake up in the morning, and there were 40 or 50 Indians on the floor, in the yard. Likewise, when we would travel, Mom would pack all of us into the station wagon. We’d go to a reservation, fishing rights protest, or march—land in Modesto, or Washington, and throw our mats on the ground of some family’s home."

"It’s a different city today," he noted. "The very thing that made San Francisco interesting—its diverse ethnic makeup—is one of the main things we’re losing because of the high cost of living. It’s sad to see. But we’re always evolving and changing. Who knows where we’re going to end up—maybe we’re headed somewhere better."

Peter Bratt’s awareness of place saturates every frame of La Mission. It’s in the Aztec dancing, the gorgeously rebuilt-and-painted low-riders, the vivid murals, the sounds of a Latin/soul/hip-hop continuum that stretches from the late ’60s to present day.

"We grew up around real Mission boys," explained Peter. "I love the way they talk. I love the way they interact with each other. I grew up looking up to the real Che, and older boys and men like him. They could dance. They had the low riders. They had the ladies. They were good athletes. They could fight. They had all those alpha male qualities that as a young man you look up to."

His challenge was to make those characters as real on the page as they were in his mind. " I remember having really tense and intellectual conversations with homies—but not in an intellectual language. I think a lot of times when you see urban films, you miss the humor and the nuances of the way people communicate. We really wanted to show what we knew."

Some of the Mission men and boys in the film are people they knew—literally. Many friends made cameos appearances. The project had been in the works with the Bratt brothers for more than a decade, from the time that Peter and Benjamin did research at a Low Rider expo at the Cow Palace in the mid ’90s. (Benjamin purchased a 1964 Impala on the spot.)

While Benjamin Bratt had been busy acting in films since then, Peter Bratt worked as a carpenter to make ends meet while making his debut feature Follow Me Home (1996). The film played Sundance and enjoyed a theatrical run. Peter was accepted into the NYU film school and sold his toolbox en route to beginning a new life, but soon returned to his Bay Area home and took up the trade again.

He told me he’s not planning on selling his tools this time. "A month after Sundance," he said, "I built a laundry room [points to the distance] right over here in Noe Valley."

He learned a lot from his debut outing, but it was a simpler story to commit to celluloid (one that appears prophetic now—it involved taking people of color on a journey to the White House). Follow Me Home was shot with a small group in the desert, but La Mission was filmed in a major urban area, with hundreds of extras.

Bratt got excellent help from master cinematographer Hiro Narita. And his professional actors (Jesse Borrego, Benjamin Bratt, Erika Alexander and others) mentored the non-professionals plucked from the neighborhood.

The community itself lent the project a hand. In one case, a friend, Paul Orr, found some local teens had vandalized his garage. Instead of just confronting them and leaving it at that, he invited them to take part in the Bratts’ project.

For locations, the producers tapped friends to engage the neighborhood in dialogue while the script was being shot. "There’s a real practical reason when you’re a low-budget film, for reaching out to the community," said Peter. "You need to get help from your friends and relatives, because basically, we didn’t have the money to hire the goods and services we needed to execute."

Longtime friend Warren Spicer’s unique Mission house was one location, said Bratt. "The ‘hero apartment’ is on York Street," he noted. "The opening shot is a perspective from Bernal Hill, and later on in the film, when Che is sulking, he goes up to Bernal Hill in his low rider and has this contemplative moment." It’s a place Bratt said he had rock fights and built forts on as a kid.. "Then on Potrero Hill, we used to run around up there," he said, "drink rum and Coke," he joked. "There are places locals will definitely recognize."

"But also," he added, "growing up in and around the Mission, to actually incorporate people from there just made it fun. You know what I mean? There was an excitement about the film from within the community and from us as well in front of the camera. ‘I need you to be yourself.’"

Che, the film’s protagonist, is a Muni driver and a survivor both of prison and alcohol addiction. As it turns out, the character was loosely based on a real person the Bratts have known since childhood. The real Che is an ex Muni driver with demons, tattoos, car expertise and children he raised by himself. He was consulted in the draft-process on the film—and was initially uncomfortable with the story. But, as Peter Bratt relayed during a Sundance panel, when they shared the final script with him, "He wept. He’s grown in the process."

Apparently, audiences are reacting the same way. In its Park City Library screening, the first "question" after the lights went up was, in fact, a statement: "This is not a movie, this is a masterpiece."

Benjamin Bratt’s voice broke as he reacted to the overwhelming warmth in the room, saying, "Being here today has reminded me that our stories are worth being told."

La Mission screens Thursday, April 23, at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It’s followed by a party at Bruno’s and the remains of the El Capitan Theatre next door. The festival runs at a variety of venues, including the Sundance Kabuki, until May 7. More at SFIFF.

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