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Front-line documentaries hit high, hit low as Hip Hop Film Fest hits Durham

At one point in Straight Outta Hunters Point, a group of bored teenagers in cars do a series of doughnuts in the middle of a busy street. Partly an expression of youthful exuberance, partly a pointless waste of rubber, gasoline and engine life, the scene captures the enormous energy being uselessly expended in a nihilistic, no-future Bay Area slum.

Filmmaker Kevin Epps' bleak and brutal documentary is one of the highlights of this week's inaugural Hip Hop Film Fest in Durham. Epps, a 33-year-old making his feature debut, is actually a resident of Hunters Point, and he uses his access to provide an almost unmediated view of life on the inside.

His film opens somewhat conventionally, with maps and a voiceover describing just why this prime bit of Bay Area real estate has been left to fester and decay. Originally a naval port and shipyard, the region was also home to a toxin-spewing power plant after the maritime economy slowed. Today, both are Superfund sites, and a large, mostly African-American community, lives between them.

Epps' film, shot on digital video, chronicles an especially violent time in the life of this community, a period marked by turf warfare and blood feuds between two neighborhood gangs and a group of loosely affiliated rap artists. In the midst of an economy seemingly based on illicit drug trade and the legal retailing of malt liquor, small hip-hop record labels record and market neighborhood artists.

Given the bleak context, it's a relief to see these young men creating anything. Even as their incendiary lyrics singe the ears of liberal defenders, it's obvious that, here at least, they're the authentic expression of an underworld, not a cynically marketed set of manufactured ghetto fantasies.

Still, such voicings aren't enough to bring the community together. Conflicts between rival rap/gang factions often turn horribly violent. In one scene, Epps' camera captures a teenaged boy writhing on the sidewalk, his leg shattered by a round fired moments before from an AK-47.

Such scenes make Straight Outta Hunters Point a gut-wrenching film, one that poses no easy solutions. Though religious figures try to generate community dialogue, and neighborhood leaders appeal for calm, the film ends with a shot of a little boy in his mother's arms. He appears to be gazing blankly at a future too heartbreaking for words.

The touring road show Epps' film headlines is the central mission of the Center for Hip-Hop Education, a new nonprofit collective of California filmmakers trying to document hip-hop culture. The Durham dates mark the group's first venture east of the Mississippi, with a series of events this weekend at the Durham Armory, Duke and N.C. Central University.

"We wanted to cut through the drudge, the lack of funding for films," notes Todd Hickey, one of the group's founding filmmakers. "We're creating a network of artists, and eventually we'll have enough to better ourselves and help others." Though still in its infancy, the center has already held a film benefit to help save the last black-owned newspaper in northern California, the SF Bayview.

The group also claims they want to guard the expressions of traditionally voiceless people from exploitation. "Hollywood comes in and tries to take over our culture," says the 31-year-old Hickey, "but these are our stories, and we want to keep control--of the films, the money they make and who is presenting them."

In recent months, the center's seven members have been focused on getting their work out. The Hip Hop Film Fest has been to San Francisco, Albuquerque and El Paso. After North Carolina, trips to the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii are planned between now and December.

It's no accident that Durham was their first East Coast excursion. Though Durham Association for Downtown Arts (DADA) leaders Jenn Duerr and Randall Gilbert never met center member Mike Martzke while they lived in San Francisco, they knew his reputation in that city's art scene. It was enough to get a conversation started during the summer months about bringing the festival across the continent.

It's testimony to DADA's formidable energy that in a few short weeks they managed to put together a six-day program of films, music, dance, painting, conferences and after-parties. The project hasn't come without snags. As late as the first week of September, not all venues were confirmed. After negotiations with the Carolina Theatre broke down, organizers managed to secure the Durham Armory across the street.

Though Epps' film is an undeniable festival highlight, another strong, award-winning film called Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme is well worth seeing. This 90-minute documentary takes viewers on a guided tour of hip-hop history, with particular emphasis on its roots in black extemporaneous speaking traditions like church oratory and playing "the dozens."

Directed by L.A. filmmaker Kevin Fitzgerald (with camera work from Hickey), this project was a decade in the making, and it boasts wonderful archival footage. One clip shows a chubby 17-year-old rapping on a Bedford-Stuyvesant sidewalk. His name? Christopher Wallace, later known as Notorious B.I.G., a celebrated rapper who would die in a murder that remains unsolved.

Much of Freestyle is devoted to giving legendary underground performers overdue attention. The roster includes DJ Kool Herc, Mos Def, Craig G. and especially, a genial, dreadlocked cult figure named Supernatural (who shows off his dictionaries in one clip). Many of these performers were ill-suited for success as recording artists because their métiers were live, improvised performances virtually impossible to capture in a studio (though the Notorious B.I.G. was a significant exception).

Where Kevin Epps' Straight Outta Hunters Point documents hip-hop's tortured embrace with violence and despair, Freestylin' puts the focus on the music, the creativity and the words. There's not even a smoldering blunt to be seen anywhere in this buoyant, sunny and informative film.

Most of the filmmakers will be in attendance throughout the week, and after-parties will be happening every night at Ringside. Wednesday night, performers and filmmakers will convene at the Duke Coffeehouse at 8 p.m. for a free evening of poetry and music. Before Thursday's screenings begin, the public can meet the directors at 4 p.m. for an early dinner at The Know Bookstore.

Thursday night's Armory screenings include Graffiti Verite, an award-winning work about the graffiti art movement, Nobody Knows My Name, an hour-long documentary about women in hip hop and Scratch, a history of turntable scratching New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell called "vibrant."

Friday at the Armory, Breathcontrol--The History of Human Beatboxing opens before screenings of Straight Outta Hunters Point and Freestylin'.

Then the festival moves Saturday to N.C. Central University for afternoon showings of Tony Greer's Word, a piece about the independent New York hip-hop scene, and Cubamore, an exploration of the Cuban hip-hop underground, before the festival closes with a nighttime screening of Freestylin'.

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For more information, go online to

www.durhamdada.org.

  • Front-line documentaries hit high, hit low as Hip Hop Film Fest hits Durham.

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