KQED's Wild West in "Truly CA"

Justin Juul November 16, 2006

As a teenager living in an oppressive Midwestern hamlet, I fantasized about California obsessively. It seemed a paradise to me. Movie stars, cultural diversity, eternal summers: It was everything that Kalamazoo, Michigan, wasn’t. California represented freedom and creativity, independence and individuality — it was my destiny. Thus, on the dawn of my 18th birthday, I boarded a Greyhound bus and pointed myself westward at an unknown horizon. That was 10 years ago. I have since lived in every one of California’s major metropolitan areas and in a few of its smaller, less glamorous locales. Over the years my obsession with California has intensified as my love for the state’s ensemble of cultural cubby holes, geographic wonders, and architectural masterpieces has grown. The creative directors at KQED share my undying reverence for the Golden State and they want others to share it too. Their weekly series “Truly CA,” a platform for independent filmmakers in California, is a nod to everything Californian. It is a multimedial ode to home, showcasing the short and full-length documentaries about the state.

In keeping with California’s reputation as a safe haven for progressive thinkers, many of the shorts featured on “Truly CA” have an openly liberal political/cultural slant. Carla Gutierrez and Marisa Pearl’s “Grease,” for example, is about America’s addiction to oil. The film analyzes the ecological cost of fossil fuel dependence and offers some creative alternatives to gasoline consumption. Then there is Kathy Huang’s “Night Visions,” an in-depth analysis of war told through the photos, home-videos, and words of a young soldier who has recently returned from Iraq. Other shorts celebrate California’s abundance of colorful personalities. One of the more notable of these “personality pieces” is Frank Suffert’s “Desert Rose,” which peeks into the life of an 85-year-old burlesque dancer whose trailer doubles as a dancing venue. Filmed on location in the Mojave Desert as part of Suffert’s full-length documentary “Desert Dreamers,” the short-film “Desert Rose” not only debunks myths concerning sexuality and aging, but also presents astonishing views of California’s oft overlooked high desert. Other shorts, such as Erin Hudson and Ben Wu’s “Unhitched” offer a much needed critique of the Golden State’s economic policies. Although Northern California is allegedly home to more billionaires than any other place on the planet, many of its residents cannot afford rent or food. “Unhitched” focuses on a group of “trailer people” who exist on the fringes of the American dream revealing that although California may very well be one of the wealthiest places on earth, its streets are not uniformly paved with gold. All of these short films are currently available for download at KQED.org.

“Truly CA” has been instrumental in producing and garnering attention to docs about California: September 2005’s feature “No Sweat,” a film about questionable work conditions in Los Angeles’ infamous garment district, just made its festival debut at the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles. Another “Truly CA” film, “24 Hours on Craigslist,” was screened at nine film festivals

The fall season of “Truly CA” is upon us, and the current selection of films is every bit as eclectic and interesting as the shorts and features mentioned above. It began in September with the full length screening of Frank Suffert’s “Desert Dreamers,” and continued in October with Will Parrinello’s “Emile Norman: By His Own Design,” a portrait of a self-taught visual artist.

Norman, an 88-year-old wood-sculptor who now lives in Big Sur, reflects upon his experiences as a homosexual in the notoriously repressive climate of the 1950s and as an uncompromising artist during an era of standardization and East Coast elitism. Norman left the New York art scene in the early 1960s and, with the help of his life partner Brooks Clement, created a stunning body of work that has come to symbolize California’s reputation as a haven for the eccentric individual. He continues to design elaborate and beautiful wood carvings today and has vowed to never stop. “When I stop working,” Norman says, “Call 911.”

“Truly CA’s” November offering is equally as enthralling. Chronicling the life of Lonnie Frisbee, leader of the “Jesus Freak” movement and co-founder of The Calvary Church in Southern California, “Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher,” is an analysis of Christianity and a celebration of California-style non-conformity. Once revered as a Jesus-like figure by both his followers and mentors, Frisbee had been all but erased from official Calvary Church history due to his homosexuality and eventual death from AIDS. Citing Christianity’s alleged dedication to accepting all humans as God’s children, there has been steady yet stifled cry from ex-Jesus freaks and open minded Christians to give credit where credit is due. The fact of the matter is that there would be no Calvary Church had it not been for the long-haired homosexual hippie. David Sabatino uses archival footage as well as interviews with ex-church members to drag Lonnie Frisbee’s memory out of the closet and hopefully into redemption. “Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher” runs from November 19th through November 23rd on all of KQED’s channels.

Justin Juul is an intern with SF360.org.