by Charles Kruger
In only six years, the literary reading series Quiet Lightning has become a San Francisco tradition. Founded by a college dropout transplant from Savannah (Evan Karp), the now-locally-famous “literary mixtape” has struck over ninety times in an impressive variety of San Francisco locales, from the caves at Sutro Baths, to the dive bars of the mission, to the elegance of the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park.
First a reading series, then a literary non-profit, Quiet Lightning has branched out (under the influence of Karp’s whirling dervish energy) into literary contests, the publication of chap books, and now the production of a feature length documentary, by filmmakers Katie Wheeler-Dubin and Mila Puccini.
Billed as an “experimental portrait of San Francisco,” the film is similar in format to the reading series. Quiet Lightning performances typically include a set of readings by writers presented back-to-back with no commentary or supporting material of any sort — just one person after another speaking and departing.
For the film, a series of interviews is presented in a similar back-to-back fashion. Each interviewee (or an occasional small group) speaks about their lives in San Francisco for a few minutes. The stories reveal each interviewee’s personal relationship with the city. As with the reading series, the performers were sought out by a submission process. Rather than decide in advance who they would interview (e.g., politicians, celebrities, community leaders, particular professions), the filmmakers cast a wide net for potential interviewees via Craigslist, postcards left around town, solicitations at Quiet Lightning events, and random encounters.
The resulting interviews range from a Russian barber in his shop in the Richmond to a Mission bookstore owner to a young worker with an interest in “cleaning up the homeless,” and a homeless couple. Each interview is conducted in a different city locale, appropriate to the theme of the interview.
We find ourselves inside many iconic images from the interior of an upscale Victorian, to a trolley car, to a mural-decorated alley in the Mission, to a parking lot that is home to the homeless.
In each case, the focus of the interview reveals how the speakers have been formed by their experience of San Francisco. Thus, each participant reveals not only themselves, but the city under whose influence they have blossomed as unique human flowers. The implication (very persuasive) is that the city makes its people as much as its people make the city. City and citizens are one.
Dubin-Wheeler and Puccini avoid the pitfall of creating nothing more than a series of talking heads by using a variety of visual variation for each interview. First are the interesting and iconic San Francisco settings. But there is more than that. Often the interview is heard in voice over while the interviewee is filmed doing something quite different: giving a haircut, staring out a hospital window, riding a bus. They never just sit and talk into the camera. They might be eating a family meal, or examining books in a warehouse.
Also influential is the unseen and unheard presence of the two filmmakers, who conducted the interviews while filming. Although their voices are not heard, clearly they were engaged and engaging, as each of the subjects seems completely relaxed and voluble.
All of the folks hold our interest, but a few stand out, especially Andrew McKinley, the charismatic and reflective founder of Adobe Books, who is interviewed in his book warehouse as he recalls years of leadership and engagement with the city’s literary community. This sequence also incorporates archival footage of events at Adobe Books over the years, helping to give the film a strong sense of history. Also thought provoking is an interview with a young native San Franciscan who means well but seems clueless in her ambition to “clean up the homeless,” contrasted with that of a homeless couple struggling to survive on the streets. In a very moving sequence, filmmaker Katie Dubin-Wheeler becomes an interviewee, recalling the passing of her mother while she was a student at San Francisco State. The interview is filmed in the hospital where her mother died, and includes images of corridors and windows and hospital which are deeply evocative of sorrow, and the passage of time, and the fragility of life.
An interesting, unobtrusive, droning score by Raphael Villet helps to tie everything together. There is also a quite lovely montage of city locations featuring dancer Jose Abad which is particularly effective.
Overall, this is a timely, moving, and engaging film about San Francisco and San Franciscans that beautifully reflects the spirit of our city, its citizens, and the phenomenon that is Quiet Lightning.
“Water Under the Bridge,” a film by Katie Wheeler-Dubin and Mila Puccini, produced by Quiet Lightning, Evan Karp, and Katie Wheeler-Dubin. Director of Photography: Mila Puccini. Drone Camera: Elliot Ortiz. Music by: Raphael Villet. Sound Post Production: Jamie Whalen. 1991 footage by Eric Ernest Johnson. NY footage by Shaun Wagner. Artwork by: Otis Mahach.
Interviewees and Performers In Order of Appearance:
Roy Pitts, Vivian Fu, Siavash Fahimi, Andrew McKinley, Edissa Nicolas, Alison Dennis, Tiana Giacalone, Melissa and Jason Goodman, Winnie Chang, Mason Jairo Olaya-Smith, Mickey Costello, Dieudonne Brou, Jonathan Villet, Fiona McDougall, Raphael Villet, Katie Wheeler-Dubin, Jose Abad, Vladimir Steyenberg.