Volume 48 Number 44
THE WEEKNIGHTER It opened a couple years ago at this point. Someone had said to me, “Hey man you been to Southern Pacific Brewing yet?” I hadn’t even heard of it, “What the fuck is a Southern Pacific Brewing?” I asked. A giant, 10,000-square-foot brewpub had just opened almost directly behind my regular bar, The Homestead, and, like, two blocks from my apartment — and I hadn’t even heard of it. Well maybe it’s because it’s not my apartment anymore, I thought to myself. I’d recently moved out of the neighborhood after breaking up with my long-term girlfriend and was sleeping on my cousin’s couch… for a few months.
You know, just some SF shit.
It seemed like my life, my neighborhood, and my city were all spiraling, not exactly out of control, but past mere comprehension. Besides the upheaval of my personal life, San Francisco was just beginning to swell with some kind of sickness, one that it had somehow survived a decade before. And my neighborhood, the Mission, seemed to be the place on San Francisco’s body where the sores of the Money Virus were showing the most. Restaurants were opening on Valencia faster than zippers at the (soon-to-be-closed) Lusty Lady, and little shops and bookstores that had been around for decades were getting tossed out with the trash.
But the thing that worried me the most was that I, Broke-Ass Stuart, the guy who likes to think he knows this city better than anyone, hadn’t even heard of Southern Pacific Brewing. “Have I lost a step?” I wondered. I knew I had to check it out.
All anyone had really said about Southern Pacific Brewing (620 Treat Ave, SF. www.southernpacificbrewing.com) was that it was HUGE! The ceiling is probably 2.5 stories high and the old warehouse space holds not just the bar-restaurant but also the entire brewing operation as well. I noticed all this when I walked in that first night, despite the fact that I was pretty trashed. I’d downed some booze at Dear Mom, banged a few back at Bender’s, hoovered some shots at the Homestead, and then sauntered into Southern Pacific. I was drowning in heartbreak and — that friend’s couch — numbing backache.
“It is huge,” I said to whichever of my no-goodnik friends I was with that night. We took in the environs. There was a sizable crowd, lots of good-looking people who probably would’ve been terrified to go that deep into the Mission a few years before. Thrillist or something like that had just blown the place up that day so all the Chads and Madisons from other parts of the city were there to explore a “hot new neighborhood spot,” I figured.
And then I looked around some more and saw plenty of Mission locals and natives whom I’d spent my twenties running around the neighborhood dive bars with. It was a good mix of everything the Mission was at the moment, for better and for worse. I liked the place immediately.
A bit later I ran into a girl I hadn’t seen in awhile and we talked about the city and its changes and about all the things that happen to you while you’re trying to grow up. And then it was last call and my friends were gone so the girl took me home with her. I hadn’t slept in a bed in a long time, so for at least that night my heartache and my backache were put to rest.
Stuart Schuffman aka Broke-Ass Stuart is a travel writer, poet, and TV host. You can find his online shenanigans at www.brokeassstuart.com
THEATER From a certain angle, democracy is just one big bout of audience participation. So when playwright Aaron Landsman, director Mallory Catlett, and designer Jim Findlay started kicking around the idea of somehow staging a city council meeting, of all things, the notion that the audience itself should enact it must have come as a eureka moment.
It is indeed the charm and challenge of City Council Meeting that, while conceived and instigated by the New York–based artistic trio, the show is ultimately a collaboration with whoever shows up, plus a few semi-rehearsed locals in on the running of the thing. These latter include a group of “staffers” who help guide participants through an actual city council meeting — or more precisely, a seamless composite of public transcripts of such meetings held around the US in the past couple of years, plus an artistic flourish or two. For the San Francisco premiere (running this weekend at local co-presenter Z Space), the staffers include Claudia Anderson, Awele, Dwayne Calizo, Jennifer Chien, Sarah Curran, and me.
Moreover, the piece always concludes with an original ending crafted specifically for the locale in which it plays (that, so far, has been Houston, Texas; Tempe, Ariz.; and New York City). This time, the play’s unique final movement, a creative response to what has preceded it, was built in partnership with Bay Area director-choreographer Erika Chong Shuch.
As a staffer, your job is to help facilitate the encounter between the play and its audience. Since that’s kind of what a critic does anyway, I reasoned, and given that everyone in the audience is already at least minimally involved in the production, I signed on for a more inside track on City Council Meeting‘s three-day San Francisco run. At the first rehearsal, director Catlett introduced us to our binders, which contained things we’d need, including something like the script of the performance.
(There is no definitive script. The play is an un-distillable architecture of discrete dialogue, directions on note cards, live and recorded video feeds, and whispered cues, not to mention the unforeseeable but pretty much guaranteed contingency. And perspectives and experiences will vary pretty widely depending on the physical and dramatic space one chooses to occupy: council member, speaker, bystander.)
It was a little confusing, frankly. But halfway through a swift two weeks of rehearsal, I’m seeing more clearly the shape of the show as well as appreciating the subtleties in its construction. Like much contemporary participatory performance, or what’s sometimes called “social practice” art, City Council Meeting moves the bulk of the action and agency onto its audience as a way to simultaneously investigate and manifest our social circumstances and potentialities. It is therefore purposely unsettled — participants are always themselves and yet tasked with enacting the words of other real people like, or more often not like, themselves.
The sheer awkwardness of it is really the point. Is this a study, a parody, an incitement, an invocation? In enacting the form, does the piece share in some of its power? A strange combination of sincerity and dry humor runs throughout it all, as the double-consciousness built into the piece throws everything gleefully up in the air, suspended somewhere between the rehearsal of dead forms (whether political or aesthetic) and the activation of new ones.
That’s a salubrious position, encouraged by the context at large. Or so I couldn’t help thinking. Was it merely coincidence that after leaving rehearsal one night I walked directly into road blocks, sirens, and hundreds of cops — the wake left by a president and secretary of state on political shopping sprees? Is the power that creates such disruption, traffic, and annoyance wherever it goes, like some heedless B-movie giant, even related to the power invested in local government? Was it just coincidence that after leaving another rehearsal a few days later, the Chronicle building was papered over in posters reading, “the media lies as Gaza dies,” this time the unsanctioned wake of a protest on behalf of the powerless?
For a moment there, Occupy took back government from representative bodies and held it in the bodies of real people, acting on their own behalf. It was wild, unexpected, and startlingly easy. It was also strikingly creative — and art was everywhere in the movement. It’s become clearer since then that the relationship between art and politics is a much more serious question than many of us had realized. We can’t afford a paucity of imagination in either. We need the room and wherewithal to ask questions. If nothing else, City Council Meeting asks questions. Including these:
“Are we working together? Are we capable of it? Is that why this structure is here? Or is that what the structure prevents?” *
CITY COUNCIL MEETING
Fri/1-Sat/2, 7pm; Sun/3, 2pm, $20
450 Florida, SF
The next time you’re in North Beach and you — or your guests from out of town — are craving some classic San Francisco seafood, head on over to the new location of Ferry Plaza Seafood (653 Union, SF. www.ferryplazaseafood.com), right off Washington Square. While the original location at the Ferry Building Marketplace is no longer with us, this iteration has an actual kitchen, so you’ll find an expanded menu with all kinds of hot dishes, not just oysters on the half shell. Dinner service is kicking off first, with plenty of tables in this light-filled spot, and there’s a long counter where you can sit and enjoy a variety of quality wines and beers too. In a few weeks, you’ll be able to return for happy hour specials and lunch. For now, hours are Mon–Thu 5:30pm–10pm and Fri–Sat 5:30pm–11pm.
This coming weekend (Fri/1 through Sun/3) is Eat Drink SF (www.eatdrink-sf.com), with a variety of tasting events, demos, workshops, dinners, and more. A bunch of the city’s better chefs will be there, along with fab bartenders, too. The Grand Tasting Pavilion at Fort Mason will feature busy tastings throughout the weekend, and yours truly is moderating a demo with Fabio Viviani, Sat/2 at 10:30am. Fabio will be preparing orecchiette pasta with pesto, why don’t you join us for some sassy Italian banter? Tickets start at $30 for single events, but lots of packages for events and pavilion tastings are available. And here’s a special offer for all tablehopper friends (that would be you, darling): receive 15 percent off all Lexus Grand Tasting events with the code TABLEHOPPER. Sweet!
BALLIN’ ON A BUDGET
Anyone who loves fried chicken is going to want to check out this new pop-up on Tuesday evenings at The Residence (718 14th St., SF.) called Uncle Brother’s Chicken (www.facebook.com/unclebrotherchicken). Wes Rowe, of WesBurger fame, and his brother Walker Rowe are frying up different regional styles of fried chicken — from around the world! — each week. Last week’s Southern fried chicken with pimento mac and cheese and fried okra was $12. There are some other items too, like chicken on a biscuit with pepper jelly and honey butter ($6). Bwok bwok gobble gobble. 6pm–10pm.
The charming Biondivino (1415 Green, SF. www.biondivino.com) wine shop in Russian Hill is hosting a fun wine bar and bruschetta pop-up for the next month, Troëggi a Biondivino, and trust, you’ll want to check it out. Owner Ceri Smith is hosting Emanuele Fromento of Ai Troëggi of Genova, a well-known natural wine bar that is also famous for its menu of bruschette. For the next month, Biondivino is going to be offering 15 classic kinds of Genovese bruschette, all on Josey Baker bread, with toppings like Taleggio, zucchini, and prosciutto cotto, or the “spussona,” with Gorgonzola, onion, and spicy arugula.
Prices range from $4 to $12, which will pair well with a variety of natural wines that will be poured in tandem (two sparkling choices, three to five whites, three to five reds, plus a rosé), all for just $10 a glass. Best of all, come by 5pm–7pm to experience Italian aperitivo, which means you get a complimentary mini bruschetta with pesto, tomato, garlic, and olive oil with your first glass. If you want to hang out some more, you can also order cheese and salumi plates, and tiramisù for dessert. Hours are Wed–Sun 5pm until closing (probably 11pm or so), through Aug. 31. Cin cin!
Marcia Gagliardi is the founder of the weekly tablehopper e-column; subscribe for more at www.tablehopper.com. Get her app: Tablehopper’s Top Late-Night Eats. On Twitter: @tablehopper.
I Never Learn (LL/Atlantic)
Lykke Li is a pop star who surrounds herself in clouds of reverb, so the obvious reference point for her music is Phil Spector’s ’60s girl-group productions. But strip away the layers of sound and her third album I Never Learn is essentially a set of adult-contemporary ballads that would slot nicely into any KOIT lineup. These songs are personal rather than universal, introverted rather than extroverted, subtle and slight rather than big and dumb — though there are some pretty shameless hooks on this album, readymade for festival sing-a-longs.
Li and her production team took a gamble on taking the brutally-short approach to this album; it’s only nine songs over 33 minutes, and music this fluid usually needs more room to splash around. But these songs are rich enough in content that each one feels like an event. “Just Like A Dream” and “Silver Line” have great choruses, while “Gunshot” and “Heart of Steel” feature neat production touches (slinky organ and twangy Morricone guitar, respectively). The album’s highlight is undoubtedly “Love Me Like I’m Not Made Of Stone,” a great acoustic ballad that could make it onto the charts with a bit more exposure.
Angel Guts: Red Classroom (Polyvinyl)
Xiu Xiu has always been a bit silly. Though Jamie Stewart’s long-running project is often brutal in its emotional honesty, there’s no denying how over-the-top Stewart’s gasping vocals are, how absurd their lyrics can be are. Angel Guts: Red Classroom continues this trend, and it’s more theatrical than ever. And while this is the first Xiu Xiu album in about ten years that still might have the power to shock people, it also has more ill-advised moments than usual.
The main edge Angel Guts has musically over past Xiu Xiu albums is the change in Stewart’s voice. The vulnerability and hurt remains, but it’s overshadowed by a commanding deepness. The porn ode “Black Dick” wouldn’t be effective if he didn’t sing it with such power. But then we have him screeching “IT TASTES LIKE A COOKIE” for no reason, opening and closing the album with shameless noise, delivering monologues that scan as melodramatic even by Xiu Xiu standards. Though Angel Guts is flawed, it’s their most engaging listen in a decade, and it also features two of their best songs to date: the Michael Jackson-like “Stupid In The Dark” and “Adult Friends,” the most terrifying aging ballad I’ve ever heard.
RICKY EAT ACID
Three Love Songs (Orchid Tapes)
There are 12 songs on this album, none of them are really about love, and if you put this on during an acid trip you’d probably be in ultimate entrapment by track four. Sam Ray’s ironic streak has always been pretty obvious — he’s got a folk project called Julia Brown (he’s not really a girl, haha) and previously performed under the name Teen Suicide. But as annoying as indie-rock irony can be, Ray can get away with it simply on the virtue of how sincere his music is. As on his wonderful Julia Brown debut To Be Close To You, Three Love Songs evokes the mundane but beautiful — empty rooms, road crews working late at night, light filtering through curtains.
As such, it’s a great all-purpose ambient album. Just about any situation could easily be soundtracked by a track on this album; while the first half of the record is a bit melancholy and might ruin your day in the wrong context, the second half is playful and almost goofy. There are better ambient albums for specific situations, but if I can’t think of the proper music pairing for a certain environment, I’d feel safe turning to Three Love Songs.
LEFT OF THE DIAL The way in which Diana Gameros first came to America is a world away from the heart-wrenching images we’re currently seeing in the news media of children who’ve been sent, on their own, to the U.S. border from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. At 13, she arrived on an airplane from her home city of Juarez, Mexico; the plan was to stay with an aunt who lived in Michigan for the summer. When Gameros visited her cousin’s school there, and saw that it had a swimming pool, among other luxurious-seeming facilities, her aunt asked if she wanted to go to that school and learn English. Gameros couldn’t say yes fast enough. She wound up staying three years, returning to Mexico for the second half of high school, and then moving back to the U.S. for college.
So no, no one ever sent her out on foot for the border, hoping that on the other side lay someone or something that could mean a brighter future.
And yet: “I’m kind of a fanatic when it comes to following this country’s immigration system and its history,” says Gameros, a fixture in San Francisco’s singer-songwriter scene for her thoughtful, melodic story-songs that contain both English and Spanish (she’s been referred to as the Latin Feist).
“I think there’s a lot that most American people don’t know. You hear people judging, calling these parents irresponsible…it’s so much more complicated than that,” she says. “People don’t know how the U.S.’s actions have affected these countries. People are risking their children’s lives because they need to be here. It’s not for the American dream, they’re not here to buy a nice car, a big house. They’re here because they want to eat, have a roof over their heads, fulfill basic necessities. It’s frustrating. There’s so much ignorance.”
Her unique perspective on border issues is one reason Gameros was selected to perform at MEX I AM: Live It to Believe It, a nearly weeklong festival organized by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in conjunction with SF’s Consulate General of Mexico. Bringing together musicians, actors, visual artists, and academics from throughout Mexico from July 31 through Aug. 5, the festival includes classical, indie, and pop music and dance, lectures and discussion of Mexico’s achievements and challenges, and a meeting of minds around border issues.
The program in which Gameros will perform, on the evening of Friday, Aug. 1, is called “Ideas: North and South of the Border,” and aims to explore innovation in the sciences, arts, and culture in Mexico. Among the other speakers: astronaut Jose Hernandez, who grew up in the Central Valley as the son of immigrant farmers; he’ll discuss his journey from childhood (he didn’t learn to read or speak in English until he was 12) through getting a degree in electrical engineering and eventually being tapped by NASA. Rosario Marin, the first Mexican-American woman to serve as Treasurer of the United States, will also be present, along with Favianna Rodriguez, a transnational visual artist whose work “depicts how women, migrants and outsiders are affected by global politics, economic inequality, patriarchy and interdependence” and the director of CultureStrike, an arts organization that works to organize artists, writers, and performers around migrant rights.
On the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 2, actress-dancer Vicky Araico will perform her award-winning monologue Juana In a Million, which chronicles an undocumented immigrant’s quest to find home.
The other musical performances throughout the week run the gamut from Natalia Lafourcade, a two-time Latin Grammy winning pop singer, to Murcof + Simon Geilfus, an electronic audio-visual collaboration, the award-winning percussion ensemble Tambuco, renowned composer and jazz musician Hector Infanzon, and more.
Gameros, whose 2013 album Eterno Retorno (Eternal Return) features a song called “SB 1070” (after the racist Arizona law designed to prosecute undocumented immigrants), says she thinks her music can be a subtle form of education, an artistic entry point for people who might not know or think much about immigration issues.
“It’s a topic that touches me deeply, so my protest music is my offering, my way to say I’m with you and I stand with you,” she says. “Though if you listen to my lyrics you might think many [songs] are love songs, or written to a lover who didn’t treat me right.”
Gameros adds that she hopes the Latino community in San Francisco will embrace the festival and show up, a sentiment that carries a particular weight as housing prices in areas like the Mission are changing the local face of the local Latino population. “Unless its the symphony doing something with a Mexican artist, we don’t really have access to events like this that are mainstream cultural celebrations, normally,” she says. “And there’s such a fascinating group of people all here for it — I just hope as many people as possible take advantage of it, that they come and hear these stories we have to tell.”
MEX I AM: LIVE IT TO BELIEVE IT
July 31 through Aug. 5, prices and times vary
Most events at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
FILM “The First World War holds the distinction of being America’s most popular conflict while it lasted, and the most hated as soon as it was over,” writes Russell Merritt in the intro to his guest-curated Pacific Film Archive series “Over the Top and Into the Wire: WWI on Film.” Though World War I is a much less popular cinematic subject than WWII, or even the Vietnam War, its complexities mean that the films it did inspire continue to fascinate.
The PFA series kicks off Sat/2 with Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms (1918), in which the Little Tramp heads “over there” and becomes a most unlikely hero. Included in that same program are Disney short Great Guns (1927), and Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918), a fiery argument in favor of America going to war, as well as one of the first animated documentaries.
“Over the Top” also includes two silent epics (D.W. Griffith’s 1918 Hearts of the World, and Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1929 Arsenal); three certified classics (Jean Renoir’s 1937 POW saga Grand Illusion; Lewis Milestone’s harrowing 1930 All Quiet on the Western Front; and Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 Paths of Glory, starring an impeccably furious Kirk Douglas); and a Washington-set oddity: Gregory La Cava’s 1933 Gabriel Over the White House.
I spoke with Merritt, an adjunct professor in UC Berkeley’s Film and Media Studies Department, just days before the 100-year anniversary of the war’s outbreak on July 28, 1914.
SF Bay Guardian How did you become interested in World War I films?
Russell Merritt For me, World War I is the event that shaped the 20th century, more than the Depression or World War II — and to see how films contributed is one of those endlessly interesting kinds of problems. They were mainly part of the war hysteria that gripped the country starting in 1917, and that in itself is of interest, because we were so opposed to the war just a few years before that, and we became even more opposed to the war after it was all over. The movies reflect that. Trying to account for these dramatic mood swings is part of the fascination.
SFBG How did you select the films in the series?
RM I tried to find both classics and some off-center ones. I suspect nobody who does a series on the First World War is going to forget All Quiet on the Western Front, Grand Illusion, or Paths of Glory, but few would think of Dovzhenko’s Arsenal or Gabriel Over the White House — though those enable us to get to some hidden aspects, or lesser-known aspects, of the ways in which the war was considered.
Of the war films that were made during the war, the only two that anybody remembers are a cartoon [The Sinking of the Lusitania] and a comedy featurette [Shoulder Arms]. Meanwhile, the most popular war film made during the war, D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World, with Lillian Gish, is all but forgotten.
SFBG World War I coincided with the early days of cinema. What bearing do you think the two had on each other?
RM In the case of Hearts of the World, it has a direct bearing. This production was unique in that Griffith is the only filmmaker — the only American filmmaker, the only fiction filmmaker — to be allowed onto battlefields, and onto the training grounds in England, to use the armies more or less as extras. It represents this great effort at trying to use motion picture fiction films as what would have been called “informational films” back then — today, we would call them war propaganda films. It reflects this fascination with movies as the latest medium with which to try to influence public opinion.
One of the most fascinating things about this film is Griffith is an American, world-famous for [1915’s] Birth of a Nation. He is invited by the British to make a feature film that will encourage Americans to join the war, or at least to be sympathetic to the Allied side of the war.
But by the time he arrived in Europe, the war had already come to America. So the project changed, and he created an American story about the war. I’m shortening a story that goes on even longer, but this kind of crazy wandering from one project to another reflects the difficulty of trying to find an image for the war other than making the Germans hideous, lustful barbarians. How do you portray the battles, the French, the Americans? That’s all being changed as he’s making the film, and he starts falling back on the patterns that he used when trying to sell the Civil War [in Nation].
All of this relates to your question, because today we have a quite pronounced way of selling government, or more frequently anti-government documentaries. Back then were the very beginnings of this effort to use film for these types of social purposes.
SFBG Hearts used real soldiers, and some of the films, like Grand Illusion, don’t depict any battles, but some of the special effects in the other films are surprisingly impressive. Disembodied hands gripping the barbed wire in All Quiet on the Western Front…
RM That is an unforgettable image, even all these years later. There was also a silent version made of that, with that same shot in it. In some ways, Paths of Glory is the most shocking of the films in the series, because it’s so angry. But the sheer horror of the war, I think, has never been better illustrated [than in All Quiet].
This leads to a subtext in this series: In some ways, you could regard this as a kind of cross-section of the kinds of films that represent the war. But I have a particular argument to make, which is that the films help perpetuate the illusion that the war that Americans fought was interchangeable with the war that Europeans fought. All Quiet is a great example of that. To this day, we think the Americans fought in trenches, that our cause was as confused and as hopeless to understand as was the European cause, and so on.
But in fact, we fought quite a different war. Our reasons for going into the war were quite different, and the experiences we had in the war were quite different. You can ask a class, as I do, “How many of you had relatives that were killed in the First World War?”, and just a sprinkling of hands will go up. Ask the same question in Europe, and it doesn’t matter if it’s France, England, or Germany — all the hands will go up. That gets blurred over in these films, and I’d like [audiences] to reconsider that.
The other thing I want to do is show how the war was used as the teens gave way to the 1920s, and into the 1930s. It had different functions, especially during the Depression, [when it was] interpreted so that it was appropriate to this great economic disaster. That’s the reason I’m including Gabriel Over the White House. And it has a much different purpose when it’s being incorporated into Soviet history; that’s why I’m showing the Ukranian film, Arsenal.
SFBG Perhaps it’s due to those complexities, but World War I hasn’t become a part of pop culture, for lack of a better phrase, the way World War II has.
RM I can’t think of a modern film about America’s involvement in the First World War. I suspect with the American centennial coming up in 2017, that will change. But even documentary filmmakers haven’t touched it. There was a 10-part British documentary series that was made 10 years ago, but we have nothing like that; Ken Burns isn’t going to do something on World War I. The strange part is, it may be as influential as any war we ever fought, certainly more than World War II, in shaping what kind of country we became.
SFBG Why did you only choose one film that was made after World War II? Is it because there just aren’t very many?
RM That’s one reason. And they’re not as interesting, since they more or less recycle the party line on World War I: it was terrible, it was unfair. There’s no new news coming out about the First World War after Kubrick’s movie, as far as I can tell.
SFBG Do you have a favorite among the movies you’re showing?
RM No, I love all my children [laughs]. When you see Grand Illusion, how can you not respond to Renoir’s humane view? This is the most generous view of the war, of officers, and of POWs, that you’ll ever see. It’s not exactly a comedy, but it’s this remarkable way of reconciling enemies, and officers and enlisted men.
Paths of Glory never gets old. It’s based on a historic event that took place in 1914, and kept on taking place; soldiers were frequently being executed for mutiny or cowardice when a military operation became a disaster.
I haven’t seen All Quiet on the Western Front in a long time, and yet for me it’s unforgettable. The big battle scene comes toward the beginning of the film, rather than where it usually comes at the end, and that makes all the difference. *
OVER THE TOP AND INTO THE WIRE: WWI ON FILM
Aug 2-27, $5.50-$9.50
Pacific Film Archive
2575 Bancroft, Berk
FILM It is a conundrum of modern life that we encourage aggression in our heroes of the battlefield and playing field, then are shocked when they fail to act like gentlemen. The comparison may be forced in some ways — especially in the wildly unequal compensation given people who risk their lives in uniform, versus those who risk a broken bone or concussion at worst. But both arenas are last bastions in which we celebrate unabashed machismo, physical strength, and daring in real-life as opposed to fictive form.
Dan Krauss’ documentary The Kill Team is a vivid worst-case-scenario illustration of that general issue. It’s unabashedly for the defense in the military-court case of US Army Pvt. Adam Winfield, who during the Afghanistan service he’d volunteered for became seriously disturbed by the deliberate murder of locals carried out by his squad commander, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs. The latter purportedly told another grunt, “Afghanistan is a warrior’s paradise,” and was willing to make it so by planting grenades and other weapons after the fact on locals they’d “killed for sport.”
It was a big scandal when it broke in 2010, but The Kill Team‘s focus is more scandalized by the fact that the military justice system tried to scapegoat Winfield as reward for his whistle-blowing. The film follows his months of legal counsel (after nearly a year in lockup) as he and his parents orchestrate their battle against a military court clearly determined to silence, if not outright kill, the messenger.
Pint-sized Floridian Winfield defied his parents’ wishes when he enlisted during post-9/11 wartime before his 18th birthday. Still, they figured opposing him would only stir resentment when he’d always been so determined to follow in his Marine veteran father’s boot steps. But on-the-ground duty wasn’t what he, or anyone else, expected. As one of his ex-platoon mates says here, their Top Gun-inspired dreams of “kickin’ ass” nonstop crashed against the “boring as fuck” reality of Afghanistan, where “instead we’re forced to help ’em build a well, or a school, or whatever.”
“It was nothing like everyone hyped it up to be … and that is probably partly why, uh, things happened,” continues Pvt. First Class Justin Stoner, who ironically later busted the whole business open by complaining about someone else’s hash smoking. The less overtly mindless Cpl. Jeremy Morlock explains the milieu in different terms: “It’s like your whole existence is a series of tests. Are you man enough? Are you tough enough? Can you pull a trigger? Can you kill?”
Thirsting for any brief burst of adrenaline among overwhelming tedium, “bullshit,” and “hating life,” these raw recruits — they still all look like college freshmen — became susceptible to the siren song of Iraq veteran Gibbs, a Sgt. Rock type who’d create excitement if real life refused to provide it. According to the soldiers interviewed here (Gibbs himself isn’t heard from), their immediate superior regularly planned thrill-kills of presumably innocent locals, planting weapons on them afterward to “prove” they were insurgents or at least Taliban sympathizers.
Gibbs was so gonzo he was apparently assembling a finger-bone necklace from the remains of his accumulated kills. “They’re all savages, they’re all pieces of shit,” Winfield recalls Gibbs saying, trying to convince him their civilian casualties were less than human. But Winfield’s unease attracted attention even before he reached out to the company chaplain, or began begging his stateside father to inform authorities about “killing innocent people” via Facebook chats. While it was (honorably discharged) Stoner’s trivial complaint that ultimately opened the whole can of worms in public, the threat Winfield’s queasy conscience posed caused him to get myriad thinly veiled death threats within his unit.
When Winfield finally flew home to anticipated protection as a whistle-blower, he was instead thrown into jail and accused of the crimes he’d exposed, with the initial charges against him carrying a life-sentence “minimum.” None-too-subtle message: You coulda shut up, you didn’t, now eat it.
The Kill Team feels over-slick at times, in that nonfiction advocacy-cinema mode where the filmmakers get so close to their subjects they can shoot them like actors. (Did Winfield’s parents really have such soul-searching moments in front of the camera? I wish I didn’t even wonder.) Still, its extraordinary story can hardly help but involve and outrage.
Speaking of an Afghan farmer who barely looks adolescent in the photo we see — where grinning US soldiers pose with his corpse — Cpl. Morlock says “He didn’t register as a person, he was just, you know, there.” Yes, the US troops were dealing with a situation in which they were heavily regulated from interfering with a foreign culture, leaving them wide open to lethal attacks from people they hadn’t previously been able to divide between civilians and terrorists. “Nobody’s innocent … so fuck ’em,” Morlock recalls as his attitude. He blames this largely on the absent, macabre Gibbs, saying, “It was impossible not to surrender to the insanity of it all.”
A more sober, perhaps less self-serving perspective is offered by Stoner, who shrugs, “This goes on more than just us [i.e., the Kill Team unit]. We’re just the ones who got caught.” — and who alone among the central Army personnel here got honorably discharged, re-enlisting a few months later. Then there’s Winfield himself, who looks like he’ll possibly never get over his post-traumatic depression and disillusionment. “It’s not how they portray it in movies, where it’s a bunch of honorable men with unshakable patriotism,” he says, pimply and pallid amid his long pre-military trial incarceration. “It’s just a bunch of guys with guns.” *
THE KILL TEAM opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.
SFJFF The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival opens July 24 with The Green Prince, a documentary based on the memoir of Mosab Hassan Yousef. The son of a founding member of Hamas, he worked as an undercover agent for the Israeli secret service for 10 years, sharing a profound trust with his Shin Bet handler. The closing night film is also a documentary about a conflicted childhood that paves the way for tough choices later in life — but if Little White Lie is also a personal story, it’s a far less political one.
It’s a thoroughly American story, telling the tale of filmmaker Lacey Schwartz, who was raised by her parents — both products of “a long line of New York Jews” — in the decidedly homogeneous town of Woodstock. All of Schwartz’s grade-school friends had light skin and straight hair, while Schwartz was dark, with coarse curls. Lovingly recorded snapshots and home movies of her Bat Mitzvah and other occasions suggest a happy young life, but the “600-pound gorilla in the room,” as one relative puts it, was that Schwartz did not look white, despite ostensibly having white parents. Once she reached her teenage years — and particularly after she enrolled in a high school that had African American kids among its population — she began to realize the go-to family explanation (yeah … that one Sicilian way back in the family tree …) was nothing but a flimsy excuse holding back a mountain of denial.
Now in her 30s, Schwartz has overcome years of identity confusion and is self-confidently assertive in a manner that suggests years of therapy (and indeed, we see footage of sessions she filmed for a student project at Georgetown, where she found a supportive community among the Black Student Alliance). Her parents, however, are not quite as psychologically evolved, although her mother — a pleasant woman who has nonetheless been content to spend her life surfing the waves of passive-aggression — eventually opens up about the Schwartz family’s worst-kept secret. The aptly-titled Little White Lie clocks in at just over an hour, but it packs in a miniseries’ worth of emotional complexity and honesty. Schwartz will be on hand at the film’s San Francisco and Berkeley screenings — the Q&As are sure to be lively.
Another, rather different tale of women using cameras in pursuit of the truth surfaces in Judith Montell and Emily Scharlatt’s In the Image, a doc about Palestinian women who work with Israeli human-rights NGO B’Tselem. Group members, who include high school girls and middle-aged mothers, are given small video cameras to keep an eye on protests, harassment, and anti-Palestinian violence perpetrated by Israeli soldiers and settlers. (In one disturbing clip, we see a small child launch a giant spitball at the lens.) Able to capture footage in areas deemed off-limits to mainstream journalists, In the Image shows how B’Tselem brings investigative reporting to the front lines, and then to the world (thanks, YouTube). It’s also an empowering outlet for the camerawomen-activists, for whom career opportunities are otherwise as rare as are opportunities for artistic expression.
Women are also front and center in a number of SFJFF’s stronger narrative entries. Writer-director Talya Lavie won Best Narrative Feature and the Nora Ephron Prize at Tribeca for Zero Motivation, a pitch-black comedy about female frenemies jammed into close quarters while doin’ time in the Israeli Defense Forces. Most movies prefer to show soldiers in combat, and Zero Motivation does just that — if “combat” means fighting to avoid boring admin work, to achieve the highest score at Minesweeper, to fuck up the most extravagantly, or with staple guns. “There’s a war going on — get a grip!” a superior officer reminds self-centered slacker Daffi (Nelly Tager), and that’s more or less the only current-affairs statement uttered in a film that’s mostly concerned with the agonizing task of achieving responsible young adulthood.
Another coming-of-age tale unfolds in Hanna’s Journey, director and co-writer Julia von Heinz’s drama about a Berlin business-school student (Karoline Schuch) whose résumé is lacking in the sort of warm-fuzzy community service that’ll elevate her in the cutthroat job market. Her estranged mother, who works with a German group placing volunteers in Israel, proves unexpectedly helpful, and Hanna is soon winging her way to work with developmentally disabled adults in Tel Aviv, leaving her sleek wardrobe and yuppie boyfriend behind.
Hanna’s Journey has all the potential to be a pat story about a German woman coming to terms not just with her own life choices, but with complicated family history (hint: it involves World War II) only a trip to Israel can unearth. There’s also a conveniently hunky Israeli (Doron Amit) in the mix. But! Schuch, who resembles Jessica Chastain, brings authenticity to a character who morphs from superficial to soulful in what might otherwise seem like too-rapid time. She also benefits from a subtle, nicely detailed script, which avoids stereotypes and oversimplification, and is not without moments of wicked humor (“German girls are easy — it’s the guilt complex!”)
Less successful at achieving subtelty is For a Woman, writer-director Diane Kurys’ latest autobiographical drama. Here, she explores her parents’ troubled marriage, inspired by a photograph of an uncle nobody in the family wanted to discuss. The fictionalized version begins as Kurys stand-in Anne (Sylvie Testud) and older sister Tania (Julie Ferrier) have just buried their mother, who was long-divorced from the girls’ ailing father.
For a Woman takes place mostly in flashbacks to post-war Lyon, where young Jewish couple Léna (Mélanie Thierry) and Michel (Benoit Magimel) settle and have Tania soon after. Russia-born Michel is a devoted Communist, and he’s overjoyed — yet understandably suspicious — when long-lost brother Jean (Nicolas Duvauchelle) suddenly appears in France, having somehow escaped the USSR. Michel’s political paranoia blinds him to the fact that Léna — who married him to escape a death camp (he didn’t know her, but couldn’t resist her icy blond beauty) — is bored with her stay-at-home-mom life, and has taken an unwholesome interest in his mysterious little bro.
There’s more to the story than that, of course, but For a Woman never goes much deeper than a made-for-TV melodrama: entertaining in the moment, but ultimately forgettable. And even gorgeous period details (Michel’s car is to die for) can’t make up for a frame story that feels rather wan next to the film’s cloak-and-dagger main plotline. 2
SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL
July 24-Aug. 10, most shows $10-$14
Various Bay Area venues
SUPER EGO Tired of dead kids in your news feed? Totally over arguing about who has the right to bomb whom? Sick of Ebola outbreaks, aching over the latest insurgency, exhausted from endless eco-snafus?
Ready to throw your hand up over this whole stupid humanity thing in general?
There is a place where you can, in fact, throw up your hands! It is called the dance floor, duh. And if you’re feeling so depressed you can hardly leave the house, I tell you this: Force yourself to go dancing somewhere, anywhere. You won’t regret it. That was basically me last weekend (even little fairies get the blues) and, seriously, the healing power of nightlife — and daylife, for there’s much canoodling to be had in the bright sun — really rebooted my outlook. No longer was I terrified of life itself, or even the Internet.
Bonus: People tend to shut up on the dance floor, too, unless they’re singing along. Sweet, sweet consensus at last.
Known here mostly for his wonderfully freaky work as Bushwacka, Matthew B’s Just Be guise digs a little deeper into global electronic textures — while still retaining all the funky joy we love. He’s heading up the weekly Base party, now moved to Monarch.
Thu/31, 9:30, $10. Monarch, 101 Sixth St, SF. www.monarchsf.com
Temple nightclub is closing for major renovations — bid it a brief adieu at this powerhouse nu-disco night with Carlos Alfonzo and Infusion, Tobin Ellsworth, Trever Pearson, Neon Neo, and Imani aka Guardian coverboy Nebakaneza.
Thu/31, 10pm, $5, 18+. Temple, 540 Howard, SF. www.templesf.com
Detroit homegirl (and Berlin superstar) Magda is a true artist on the decks, expanding everyone’s musical ear — techno is treated like a canvas, with rave-y effects, goofy soundtrack excerpts, and classic house surprises spattered across it with a jazz-like improvisatory aesthetic. Great, fun stuff.
Fri/1, 9pm-4am, $13–$20. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
If you’ve ever dreamed of hearing deepest disco tracks played on a hypermodern sound system by some real-deal players, pack up your sequined clutch and twirl down to Mighty to hear DJs Bus Station John, Anthony Mansfield, and Steve Fabus. Open bar 9pm-10pm!
Fri/1, 9pm-2:30am, free before 11:30 with RSVP at discothequemighty.eventbrite.com, $10 after. Mighty, 119 Utah, SF.
Oakland’s Mr. Jackson isn’t afraid to pull the house rug out from under you and send you on a trip up the stars. Gorgeous grooves delivered with an up-to-the-minute sensibility, at the ever-awesome Push The Feeling monthly.
Sat/2, 9pm, $5. Underground SF, 424 Haight, SF.
Disco-mania! One of the sweetest crate-diggers on the scene, Kenneth L. Kemp, joins Eddie House and Go Bang residents Sergio and Steve Fabus for this spangly monthly get-down full of fabulous peeps and “atomic action.”
Sat/2, 9pm-3am, $7. The Stud, 399 Ninth St, SF. www.facebook.com/gobangsf
Those crazy kids of the Lights Down Low party are at it again with this essential Bristol, UK musicmaker, who helped redefine “deep house” in a tech-pop sense. As a DJ, Bashmore knows his real deep stuff, and this will be a party. Local lover Nick Monaco opens.
Sat/2, 9pm-late, $15-$20. Mezzanine, 444 jessie, SF. www.mezzaninesf.com
MADE IN SF
Local stuff writ large: a smorgasbord of food vendors (hello Alicia’s Tamales!), tons of entertainment, and DJs including classic house wiz Mark Farina, Latin funkateers Senor Oz and Pleasuremaker of Afrolicious, and chill beatmaster Theory.
Sat/2, 6pm-3:30am, $10 until 9:30pm, $15–$20 after. Public Works, 161 Erie, SF. www.publicsf.com
A cosmic garage-bass-techno colony roots itself in Lower Haight one Sunday every month: August sees Dr. Sleep at the controls, with DJs CZ, Nackt, and CM-4 backing up on the bridge.
Sun/3, 9pm, free. Underground SF, 424 Haight, SF.
DANCE If you have attended any ODC Theater presentations in the last couple of years, chances are you’ll recognize Christy Bolingbroke. Until recently, she was the ODC Theater director, and the one who welcomed audiences with unmatched enthusiasm. Now that she has added ODC deputy director for advancement to her title, she will be able to pour even more energy into two of her passions: performance and connecting audiences with it.
One of her initiatives, the Walking Distance Dance Festival, has offered double bills on two different ODC stages and allowed audiences to discuss the performances while navigating between the venues. During the festival’s late May run, the 300 block of Shotwell Street never looked more alive. Bolingbroke’s latest project is the ambitious, almost month-long Music Moves Festival (July 31-Aug. 24), which looks at the relationship between dance and music.
The timing of the festival, Bolingbroke explains, is tied to ODC’s first Next Moves Summer Intensive, a two-week residency program for professional and budding dancers which ODC hopes to expand into something larger, not unlike the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts. Music Moves is a way to expose these students — and the audience — to different ways of thinking about looking and listening.
Music and dance, of course, have been connected since time immemorial. Many culturally specific genres, such as African, Hawaiian, Indian, and flamenco, are still unthinkable without this symbiotic relationship. Concert dance, ballet included, however, has developed a more ambiguous association with musical compositions. Think of Merce Cunningham’s works, where the sound simply ran along a parallel track to the dance. Today’s choreographers may choose an existing score, commission one, work in tandem with a composer, forego music entirely, or use it solely in the background like wallpaper.
As marketing director for the Mark Morris Dance Group, Bolingbroke became intimately aware of how dance and music inform each other. But she also realized that dance audiences are much smaller than those for music. “So if I can pull in a few more people to see dance because of the music that was used, that is exciting for me,” she says. “We’re not booking the super stars of contemporary dance. This is really for audiences interested in the creative process, and in being able to think about performance in a different way.”
The festival opens with ODC/Dance’s highly popular “Summer Sampler,” which this year includes Brenda Way’s Breathing Underwater, a collaboration with cellist Zoe Keating; Way’s Life Saving Maneuvers, set to a commissioned score by Jay Cloidt; and KT Nelson’s Scramble, her take on a couple dancing to a Bach cello suite.
The festival’s closing night program highlights alumni of ODC’s Pilot program: deaf dancer Antoine Hunter and ballet-trained Milissa Payne Bradley. Says Bolingbroke, “Antoine has interesting things to say about the fact that we hear music, while he feels it. Milissa challenges herself not to start choreography with music, as she had been trained to do.”
Other programs include “Tuesday is Tunesday” setups, with choreographers like Eric Kupers — who started out in modern dance, but with his Dandelion Dance Theater’s Bandelion Ensemble has increasingly blurred lines between dance, music, and community action (Aug 5). There’s also body music pioneer Keith Terry, making a rare local appearance on his home turf with his Corposonic ensemble (Aug 12).
Bolingbroke is also intrigued by the intersection of concert performance and pop culture, so the idea of having a culturally-rooted form like taiko collaborating with a DJ proved irresistible. So for one night it will be San Jose Taiko x The Bangerz in what the program calls “a musical conversation between taiko and hip-hop” (Aug 17).
Also on the pop side of this festival will be Napita Kappor’s Hindu Swing, her fusion of Bollywood and jazz; she shares an evening with Cuba’s salsa band Rueda Con Ritmo (Aug 22-23). Pearl Marill, who likes to meld theater, modern dance, and comedy, will premiere Some Bodies Confessional (Aug 10-11). Irresistibly Drawn, Joe Goode’s evening of song and dance (Aug 3-4), includes former company member Marit Brook-Kothlow and singer-songwriter Holcombe Waller, who will also have his own show (Aug 19).
Kate Weare is returning one more time to set work on ODC’s dancers. Drop Down is her take on the tango, and Still Life with Avalanche is a collaboration with Brenda Way. The evening also features Rande Paufve’s recent Soil, her musing on aging, set to a live cello and piano score (Aug 14-16).
Finally, the young but already much acclaimed Dance Heginbotham will present three works, including one of the late Remy Charlip’s Air Mail Dances (Aug 7-9). Says Bolingbroke, “I have been interested in them for a while, particularly as a 21st century version [of] Mark Morris,” with whom John Heginbotham danced for 14 years. “So it’s exciting to be able to present the company’s West Coast debut.” *
MUSIC MOVES FESTIVAL
July 31-Aug 24, $25-45
3153 17th St, SF
It’s expensive being poor. Families of inmates often live on the edge of insolvency.
I know a mother of two, married to a man doing time in the San Francisco jail, who is trapped between the domino effect of poverty and the desire to maintain her children’s relationship with their father. The trouble began when her credit rating dropped due to late bill payments, which triggered the repossession of her car, which put her job at risk because public transit couldn’t get her to work on-time.
Now she relies on loan centers that charge high interest rates or paying the rent on her dilapidated apartment late, all while trying to stave off eviction. She says she contemplates leaving San Francisco on a daily basis. To do so would improve her financial situation, but would reduce her children’s already limited access to their father.
Depending if they can afford the time it takes to take transit to County Jail 5 in San Bruno for a weekly visit, or the unreasonable cost of a phone call, this family must literally choose between putting food on the table or connecting with their loved one.
Research shows that inmates who preserve ties with their families, especially their spouses and children, have a much better chance of staying out of jail once released. Keeping in touch is almost an impossible reality considering the jolting cost of making a $1 per minute in-state, long-distance or pre-paid collect call.
Until a cap on interstate calling rates was introduced earlier this year by the Federal Communications Commission, the telephone companies providing inmate phone services were largely unregulated. As a result, correctional facilities allowed inmate phone service providers to charge jacked-up calling rates in exchange for a cut of the revenue, paid to the facility in the form of a phone commission. Because these commissions are used to fund services for inmates, this decades-old practice created a paradoxical relationship between inmates, inmate phone service companies, prisons, and county jails.
In the San Francisco Sheriff Department’s most recent contract with its phone service provider, Global Tel*Link (GTL), we broke this counterproductive cycle and changed the way we do business. We’ve dramatically reduced calling rates and surcharges for inmate phone calls, including a 70 percent reduction for a 15-minute collect or pre-paid collect, in-state, long-distance call, from $13.35 to $4.05, and a 32 percent reduction for a 15-minute debit, in-state, long-distance call, from $5.98 to $4.05.
Given the city’s longtime dependence on phone commissions to fund rehabilitative programs, like Resolve to Stop the Violence and the One Family visitation program, reducing inmate calling rates endangers program stability while spotlighting an addiction that’s shared by almost every prison and jail in the country: balancing incarceration budgets on the backs of people who can afford it least. According to the US Department of Justice, 80 percent of families who have a member incarcerated live at or below poverty levels.
Fortunately, our department recently won a settlement against GTL’s predecessor, enabling us to fund programs for several years without taking a hit. But, in the long run, City Hall must realize that gouging poor people doesn’t improve public safety. It punishes innocent children by limiting their communication with their family, subordinates the healing value of family reunification to profit, and strengthens the inter-generational resentment that is laced between impoverished communities and the justice system that is supposed to protect them.
Gratified with the unanimous support of our phone rate reform by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is proud to be one of the first county jail systems in the nation to dramatically reduce its telecom rates.
Our next policy reform will be the unregulated, exorbitant cost of inmate commissary fees and commissions.
Ross Mirkarimi is elected Sheriff of San Francisco
“I am a survivor of the AIDS epidemic,” Daniel volunteered, beginning to tell us his very San Francisco story.
He was diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. Working in fine dining rooms of San Francisco hotels at the time, he had health insurance, and had gone to Kaiser for an unrelated procedure. That led to a blood test — and then wham.
“They just bluntly, without any compassion, just told me: You have it,” Daniel said. “Like telling you that you have a pimple on your nose or something.”
All around him, friends were dying from the disease. “I didn’t freak out, because that’s just my personality,” he recalled. “I know a lot of people who have been diagnosed, and they want to take their lives or whatever.”
Today, he’s unemployed and living on a fixed income. He lost his left eye years ago to an infection linked to HIV; he now has a prosthetic eye.
“I’m single, disabled, and low-income,” reflected Daniel, who didn’t want his last name printed due to privacy concerns. Originally from El Salvador, his family came to the U.S. when he was 10 and Daniel has permanent resident status. But despite the disadvantages he faces, Daniel still isn’t freaking out. His medical needs are met.
He got on MediCal after having to drop Kaiser. “And then I ended up at SF General,” he said, “with some of the most professional staff, doctors rated worldwide. It has some of the most professional health care providers for HIV, all in one place.”
Daniel is one satisfied San Francisco General Hospital patient, and he might as well be a poster child for how public health is supposed to work in big cities. Rather than being deprived of primary care and then showing up at the emergency room with preventable complications stemming from his disease, he’s keeping everything in check with regular doctor’s visits — and he can access this high level of care even though he’s on a very tight budget.
There’s a concerted effort underway in the San Francisco Department of Public Health to give more patients precisely the kind of experience Daniel has had, while also expanding its role as the region’s go-to trauma center.
But a difficult and uncertain road lies ahead of that destination, shaped in part by federal health care reform. The new course is being charted amid looming financial uncertainty and with more patients expected to enter the system and the doors of SF General.
Not every General Hospital patient is as lucky as Daniel. For scores of others, SF General is the last stop after a long, rough ride.
Craig Gordon and Dan Goepel drive an ambulance for the San Francisco Fire Department, regularly charging through congested city streets with sirens blaring as they rush patients to SF General and other care facilities. They see it all: Patients who are violent and psychotic and need to be restrained in the back of the ambulance, folks who’ve just suffered burns or gunshot wounds.
Sometimes, in the thick of all of this, SF General’s Emergency Department is closed to ambulances — in public safety lingo, it’s called being “on diversion” — so the medics will have to reroute to different hospitals.
SF General might go on diversion because the Emergency Department is too slammed to take on anyone new, or because it’s too short-staffed to take on new patients without pushing nurse-to-patient ratios to unsafe levels.
For serious trauma cases, strokes, heart attacks, or traumatic brain injuries, however, the doors are always open. Patients with less-serious cases are the ones to be turned away when the hospital is on diversion.
Patients who wind up en route to SF General in Gordon and Goepel’s ambulance might be living on the margins. “If you’re kind of living on the cusp … you’re not likely going to pursue getting a primary care physician,” Goepel pointed out. “When something comes up, then you find yourself in the emergency room.”
Or their patients might be getting rescued from a spectacularly awful situation, like a plane crash. In this densely populated, earthquake-prone region, there is only one top-level trauma center between Highway 92 and the Golden Gate Bridge: SF General. Anyone in the city or northern San Mateo County unfortunate enough to experience a life-threatening incident — a car wreck, shooting, nasty fall, boating accident — winds up there, regardless of whether they’re rich or poor, indigent or insured. Ranked as a Level 1 trauma center, SF General is equipped to provide the highest level of care.
“In the summer, when school is out, we have a high season of gunshot wounds and stab wounds,” explained Chief Nursing Officer Terri Dentoni, who recently led the Guardian on a tour of the Emergency Department. “When it’s really nice outside, you have a lot of people who get into bike accidents, car accidents. … Last week, we were just inundated with critical care patients.”
Around 100,000 patients flow through SF General’s doors each year, and more than 3,900 need trauma care. On July 6, 2013, when Asiana Airlines’ Flight 214 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, more than 60 crash victims were rushed to SF General with critical issues ranging from organ damage to spinal injuries.
“It was a very big tragedy,” Dentoni said. “But it was amazing how many people we took care of, and how well we took care of them.”
Aside from being the sole trauma center, SF General is also designated as the county’s safety-net hospital, making it the only healthcare option for thousands who are uninsured, poor, undocumented, homeless, or some combination thereof. This makes for complex cases. Patients might require translators, be locked in psychiatric episodes, or need a social worker to help them get to a medical respite facility after being discharged if they’re too weak to fend for themselves and don’t have anyplace to go. There isn’t always a place to send them off to.
“We’re seeing people who are dealing with poverty, and often homelessness, in addition to mental health issues,” explained Jason Negron, a registered nurse in the Emergency Department. “You’re seeing patients who often have a number of things going on. Someone who has multiple illnesses — HIV, heart failure, Hepatitis C — even under the best of circumstances, they would be juggling medications. So what happens when they’re out on the streets?”
San Francisco ranks high on the list of health-conscious cities, a haven for organic food aficionados, yoga addicts, and marathon runners. It’s also a world of high stakes struggles and mounting economic pressures. With the city’s skyrocketing cost of living, sudden job loss can spell disaster for someone without a financial cushion. SF General is the catchall medical care facility for anyone who’s slipped through the cracks.
But while rank-and-file hospital staff must tackle grueling day-to-day problems, like how to juggle multiple patients with complex health issues when all the beds are full and the hospital is understaffed, hospital administrators face an altogether different challenge.
For the past several years, the city’s Department of Public Health has been preparing for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, the federal policy that is reshaping the health care landscape. Since public hospitals are mandated to provide safety-net care, they are uniquely impacted by the ACA.
Even with a sweeping new rule mandating health insurance for all, some segment of the population will nevertheless remain uninsured. But they’ll still need medical care — and when health crises come up, they’ll turn to SF General. Trouble is, no one knows exactly how much funding will be available to meet that need as the financial picture shifts.
FUNDING CUTS LOOM
Even as ACA aims to increase access to medical care, it’s also going to trigger major funding cuts at the local level. With both state and federal funding being slashed, San Francisco’s county health system stands to lose $131 million in financial support over the next five years, a budgetary hit totaling around 16 percent.
That’s a significant shortfall that will directly impact SF General — but the cuts are being made with the expectation that these gaps will be filled by reimbursements riding in on the waves of newly insured patients enrolled in ACA. Before federal health care reform took effect, around 84,000 San Franciscans lacked health insurance. At the start of this year, 56,000 became eligible to enroll in a health insurance plan.
SF General serves most of the area’s MediCal patients, the subsidized plan for people living on less than $16,000 a year. And since the county gets reimbursed a flat rate for each patient, the expansion of MediCal under federal health care reform will presumably help San Francisco absorb the state and federal funding losses.
“There’s a certain set of patients who previously were not paid for, who now will have MediCal,” explained Ken Jacobs, an expert in health care policy and professor at the UC Berkeley Labor Center.
But there’s a catch. Since MediCal and insured patients will be able to choose between San Francisco’s public system (called the San Francisco Health Plan) and a private medical provider, SF General also runs the risk of losing patients. If too many decide to go with Anthem Blue Cross instead, the system could veer into the red.
“There’s some question of what share of those we’ll keep,” Jacobs noted.
Asked about this, hospital CEO Sue Currin sounded a note of confidence. “Because our outcomes and our quality of care has been so high…75 percent of everyone who’s enrolled in MediCal managed care default to the Department of Public Health,” she told us.
But the journey toward ACA has only just begun, and things are still falling into place. Costs are projected to rise if nothing is done to improve efficiency, while at the same time, the pending state and federal funding shortfalls could take a toll.
Retaining and attracting insured patients is the only way to avoid a resource crunch — but patients could always walk away if they’re dissatisfied. This uncertainty “makes financial planning and management of risk even more challenging,” according to a report issued by the City Controller.
“We don’t know yet today how the Affordable Care Act will impact the safety net,” acknowledged Erica Murray, CEO of the California Association of Public Hospitals, which represents 21 public safety-net institutions throughout the state. “How are these health care systems evolving to be competitive? How do we continue to fulfill our core mission of being the safety net? That is the fundamental challenge. And we don’t know today, and we can’t be certain, that these public health systems will have sufficient funding.”
It’s all “very dynamic,” Murray said. “We don’t have sufficient data to be able to draw any definitive conclusions. It’s just too short of a time to be able to make any predictions. It will take several years.”
For all the newly insured patients under ACA, a certain segment will continue to rely on the safety net. Undocumented immigrants who don’t qualify will be left outside the system. Some individuals can be expected to outright refuse ACA enrollment, or be too incapacitated to do so. Others will opt out of Covered California, the ACA plan for people who make more than about $29,000 a year, because their budgets won’t stretch far enough to afford monthly payments even though they technically qualify. They’ll need safety-net care, too.
Yet under the new regime, “We can’t, as a safety net, go forward only with uninsured patients — because there won’t be funding to sustain the whole organization,” explained hospital spokesperson Rachael Kagan. “We will still have uninsured patients, always. But it won’t be sufficient to serve only them.”
Mike Wylie, a project manager in the Controller’s Office, worked on the city’s Health Reform Readiness project, an in-depth assessment performed in tandem with DPH and consultants. “The million dollar question is: Are we going to be on target with the projections?” Wylie asked.
Instead of standing still, San Francisco’s health system must transform itself, the Health Reform Readiness study determined. Ask anyone who works in health care management in the city, and they’ll tell you that DPH has been working on just that. The idea is to focus on network-wide, integrated care that runs more efficiently.
“We need to switch from being the provider of last resort, to the provider of choice,” Wylie noted, voicing an oft-repeated mantra.
This could mean fielding more patient calls with nursing hotlines, or using integrated databases to improve communication. There’s also emphasis on increasing the number of patients seen by a care provider in a given day. The report urged the department to ramp up its productivity level from 1.5 patient visits per hour, where it currently stands, to 2.25 patient visits per hour. Currin noted that the hospital has also been looking into group patient visits.
“Part of getting ready for health care reform was creating more medical home capacity,” Currin said, referring to a system where multiple forms of care are integrated into a single visit, “so we knew we needed to have better access to primary care.”
If no changes are made, the Health Reform Readiness study found, the city’s General Fund contribution to DPH is projected to rise substantially — to $831 million by 2019, up from $554 million in 2014-15.
“We’re a little concerned about this rising General Fund support,” Wylie noted. And even though staffing represents a major expenditure, “They didn’t assume cuts in staff,” while performing the assessment, he said. “What they’re trying to get is more outputs, more efficiency. The managers went over this and said: in order for us to survive, we’ve got to get more out of our system. We may have to cut money — we may have to cut later, if city leaders don’t commit to this rising General Fund. We’ve got to do all these best practices.”
Throughout crafting this road map, he added, “There were some uncomfortable meetings and uncomfortable moments. But I think [DPH Director] Barbara Garcia got everyone to agree to these strategies.”
Talk to rank-and-file hospital staff, however, and some will tell you that getting more out of the system is a tall order — especially when the system already feels like it’s busting at the seams.
SPACE CRUNCH, STRESSED STAFF
“We hit capacity every single day,” said Negron, the RN in the Emergency Department. Patients are regularly placed on beds in the hallways, he said. Wait times for the Emergency Department can last four to six hours, or even longer. The hospital is working on limiting those waits, not just because it’s better in practice, but because timely patient care is mandated under ACA.
“Now, we have 26 or 27 licensed beds in our Emergency Department,” Negron said. But in reality, on a regular basis, “We function with 45 to 50 patients.”
A nurse who works in the Psychiatric Emergency Services unit described her work environment as “a traffic jam with all lanes blocked. This is totally business as usual.”
The workload is on the rise, she added. “The psych emergency room used to see 500 patients a month,” she said. “Now we see 600 patients a month, sometimes more. People are moving faster and faster through the system.”
Her unit is the receiving facility for anyone who is placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold, known as a 5150, for individuals who are a danger to themselves or others or gravely disabled.
“It doesn’t matter who they are,” she said. “We get homeless and destitute. We get CEOs. And we have had CEOs — it’s an experience for everyone involved.” Some patients have been involved in criminal activity. “I’ve had high profile people in my unit; people who have done things that, if I tell you what they did, you would easily be able to Google them.”
Patients who come to her wing need to be evaluated, because someone has determined that they are dangerous. It could be that they are “eating rotten food, or running naked in the street, or suicidal, or want to jump off Golden Gate Bridge, or their family thinks they’re out of control.” Sometimes, patients have to be let go once they’re no longer deemed to be a threat, but they still aren’t altogether recovered, she said.
In the psychiatric inpatient unit, meanwhile, the total number of beds has declined from 87 to 44 in the past five years — leading some staff members to voice concerns.
“There is more to do, and there’s less time to do it,” said another staff member who did not want to be named. This person said one psych unit was essentially shut down and another left open — “but then … a patient climbed up into the ceiling, broke some pipes, and flooded the room” in the open unit, so everything was shifted back to the closed unit.
In part, the daily patient crunch is due to a vacancy rate in the hospital nursing staff that hovers around 18 percent — but steps are being taken to address this problem, caused in part by the city’s Byzantine hiring process.
“The nurses are concerned about how, on a day-to-day basis, they don’t feel they have the support and resources they need,” said Nato Green, who represented the nurses’ union, SEIU Local 1021, in recent contract negotiations. “Staff was expected to do more with less. SF General chronically operates at a higher capacity than what it is budgeted for.”
Currin, the hospital CEO — who started out as a nurse herself — rejected this assertion, saying it is not the norm for the hospital to operate over budget. She added that she would like to reduce the nursing staff vacancy rate down to just 5 percent.
“We have had a fairly significant vacancy rate,” she acknowledged. “But just like any other hospital in the city and the country, you have countermeasures that you put in place to address staffing shortages. And so we use nurse travelers. We use as-needed staff, who work here part-time. We’ve been able to fill those gaps with these other staffing measures. We do want to have a more permanent workforce. We’re working with the city and [DPH] to bring in new hires.”
Roland Pickens, director of the San Francisco Health Network (the patient-care division of the Department of Public Health), said he was working with the city’s Human Resources Department to further streamline operations and get a jump on filling vacancies.
“[Chief Financial Officer] Greg Wagner is working with City Controller’s office and the Mayor’s Office, so everyone is addressing the issue of having a more expedited hiring process,” he said.
Negron, the RN, seemed to think it couldn’t happen soon enough. “For us, at the end of the day, who do we actually have that’s on the schedule, that’s on the floor?” he said. Being fully staffed is important, he added, “so we don’t have any more shortages. So we don’t close beds, or go on divert unnecessarily.”
Staff members, who deal hands-on with a vulnerable patient population, lament that there doesn’t seem to be enough resources flowing into the system to care for people who are at the mercy of the public safety net. After all, San Francisco is a city of incredible wealth — shouldn’t there be adequate funding to care for the people who are the most in need?
“Poor people are not profitable,” Green said. “Without regulatory intervention, poor people would not have adequate health care.”
EVOLVING INTO THE FUTURE
For all the concerns about staffing and the financial uncertainty caused by ACA, SF General still has plenty to brag about. For one, it’s moving into a brand new, nine-story facility in December 2015, which will be equipped with a seventh-floor disaster preparedness center and nearly twice as much space in the Emergency Department.
It will have 283 acute care beds, 31 more than there are now. Most of the patient rooms will be private, and the new hospital will be seismically sound — a critical upgrade in a city prone to earthquakes. The hospital construction was funded with an $887.4 million bond approved by voters in 2008.
“In a new care environment, it will be more comfortable for the patients and the staff,” Currin said. “It’s just a much better environment. We’re hoping with the expansion … the wait times [in the Emergency Department], instead of taking four to six hours, we’re hoping to decrease that by 50 percent,” she said. “There will be more nurses, physicians, housekeepers.”
Pickens, the Health Network director, said he felt that “the stars had aligned” to have the hospital rebuild nearing completion just as ACA gets into full swing, since the new facility can help attract the patients needed to make sure the health system is fully funded.
The hospital has also launched an initiative to reduce patient mortality linked to a deadly infection. “Sepsis is a reaction the body has to a severe infection,” explained Joe Clement, a medical surgical unit clinical nurse specialist. “It causes organ dysfunction, and in some cases death. It’s very common, it’s growing, there’s more and more of it every year, and about a third of hospital deaths have been associated with sepsis in some way.”
In 2011, SF General began implementing new practices — and successfully reduced the hospital mortality rate from 20 percent in 2010 to 8.8 percent in 2014.
SF General was also recently lauded in The New York Times for being a top performer in quality and safety scores for childbirth. In San Francisco, low-income women who may be uninsured and dealing with harsh life circumstances can nevertheless get full access to multilingual doctors, midwives, lactation consultants, and doulas. The World Health Organization has even designated it as “Baby Friendly,” because of practices that support breastfeeding.
As things move ahead, management is projecting a sense of confidence that SF General’s high-quality care will allow the hospital to attract patients and maintain a healthy system that can continue to support the insured and uninsured alike.
“Value, we usually define as improving health outcomes, and optimizing the resources we have, for as many people as we can,” said William Huen, associate chief medical officer.
Speaking about the sepsis initiative, he said, “This is kind of our model program of, how do you focus on one area where you know you can improve health outcomes, with integration throughout the system, education at every level … and then having the data and perfecting the care. That can be applied to anything. So as a system, I think we’ve developed infrastructure to support that type of work.”
But for the staff members who are actively involved in the union, it continues to be a waiting game to see if the promises of new staffing levels are realized. Until then, many have said that the low staffing levels are a threat to patient safety. “They are waiting to see if DPH lives up to its commitment to hire the people they said they were going to hire, and staff it at the level they were going to staff at,” Green said.
It all comes down to providing care for people who really have nowhere else to turn, Negron told us in the Emergency Department. “I’m sure we see the highest portion of uninsured patients in the city,” he said. “We’re doing that in many different languages, with people from all over the world. I feel like it’s a real honor to be able to work there in that context. I feel honored to meet a need — that’s not always able to be met.”
For most people, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system’s stations are just that: transitory. Walk into Powell Station, zip down the escalator and glide out on a train, destination somewhere. But for homeless people drawn to BART stations, the agency is a place to be stationary, a home and safe haven from the elements, muggings, and other hazards of sleeping on streets.
But now, BART intends to reclaim the T in its name. It wants the homeless to be transitory and get out of the stations.
Last week, the agency announced new enforcement of existing safety regulations that ensure people can evacuate a BART station in an emergency. BART argues homeless people sleeping or sitting in BART station hallways are in the way of a swift evacuation.
This legal interpretation gave BART carte blanche to scoop the homeless up and out. On the first day of the new rules, 17 homeless people were removed from Powell Station, which the agency justified to news media by repeatedly showing a video of a smokey accident that sent passengers fleeing.
“We had places where a big puff of smoke would fill the station very quickly,” Jeffrey Jennings, BART Police’s deputy chief, told the Guardian. “People were running not knowing what happened, very fearful. Other people were lying down, tripping folks. We could have had significant injuries occur because of that.”
First time offenders get a verbal warning, the second offense garners a citation, and the third offense jail time, all in the name of safety.
But the idea that homeless sleepers in all parts of a BART station may be trampled seems a little silly. Sure, there are sections of BART that are narrow and should be kept clear, but a walk through Powell Station shows 20-foot wide hallways throughout. This is where the homeless often sleep and sit.
At 8pm on a Wednesday, Powell Station is quiet and mostly empty, except for Charles T. He’s sitting in a chair right by the Powell Street entrance, strumming a guitar (skillfully), singing Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay.”
His voice is a dead ringer for Redding’s: “Sitting on the dock of the Bay, wasting my good time… I have nothing to live for, looks like nothing’s going to come my way. So I’m just going to sit on the dock of the Bay.”
Some still sat in Powell Station that night, flouting the new ban. A woman in baggy clothes sat by the Fourth and Market streets stairwell, cuddling her very big, very droopy-faced Rottweiler. A bald man in soiled gray pants sat along the hallway to the next exit. Slightly past him lay a man with long black hair snoring next to the wall. And at the end of that hallway, two men stayed in each other’s orbit: a slender one in a red jacket and blue jeans slept with his dirt-caked hands folded over his stomach, while a portly man sat nearby on cardboard boxes, tapping his fingers to a silent tune.
The last man we saw sat with his feet pulled under his knees by the entrance to the Westfield Centre, studiously reading his Bible as he underlined passages from Revelations. The would-be scholar, Henry Terry, 59, greeted us with a smile.
Terry was born in Los Angeles, a child of Watts who was a kid during the violent 1965 riots when 34 people died, over 1,000 people were injured, and the neighborhood burned. Terry’s mother sent him to Alabama with his father.
Terry fondly recalls growing corn, peas, watermelon, okra, squash, and sugar cane. That’s food he doesn’t have ready access to nowadays.
After bouts with the bottle and drugs, Terry cleaned himself up and got a place to live at the Hotel Essex, part of the city’s Community Housing Partnership. But alcohol lured Terry back. While in rehab, he missed an important court date, and he was evicted.
Now he spends his nights holding his Bible sitting in a BART station, seeking guidance and shelter. “The only thing getting me back to functioning is reading God’s word,” he said.
Terry’s already been ousted due to BART’s new rules. But on this day, some of the officers were more lenient. “[The officer] told me to cross my legs the entire time I’m here,” he said, “so people walking don’t trip over you.”
They also asked him to leave the commuters be. “I don’t ask for food or money,” Terry said. He just wants shelter until he can appeal his eviction.
Counterintuitively, BART Police officers who already threw Terry out once are the reason he stays there. He said the streets are dangerous, and muggings by other homeless people are common. The gates to the station go down at 12:30am, and Terry sleeps next to them because he knows the BART police will keep the muggers away.
BART argues the new rule is about safety of the passengers. California Building Code 418.104.22.168 states, “There shall be sufficient means of exit to evacuate the station occupant load from the station platforms in four minutes or less.”
Though Terry was glad the officers left him alone to sit, the Guardian saw BART police apply the law to other homeless people: usually the ones mumbling to themselves, or, frankly, the dirtiest ones.
The two men in each other’s orbit were ousted. One tall and broad-shouldered officer woke the man sleeping in the red jacket.
“Excuse me sir, excuse me. Do you know about the new rules at BART?” he asked. After explaining the ban, he said “This is the first time, so I’ll give you a warning, the second time I will cite you. The third time, you go to jail.”
The officer recommended services they could call, together. He spoke kindly, even sweetly, but the result was the same as if he had been cruel: The man in the red jacket picked up his cardboard and went out into the streets.
We told Deputy Chief Jennings about the apparent selective enforcement, questioning the law had anything to do with safety. From our four hours of observation at Powell Station, it seemed to be applied only to the dirtiest or rowdiest people, or the ones specifically sleeping, we told him.
“Our policy is someone needs to be conscious, awake, and aware of their surroundings,” Jennings told us. “There’s no selective enforcement. We only have so many officers, so officers will be drawn more to someone who is not being quiet, or having a problem.”
He also told us they had never enforced the building code before because no one had ever thought to, until the idea occurred to a newly promoted sergeant.
To its credit, BART is making inroads to help the homeless. First, transit officials went to Bevan Dufty, the director of the Mayor’s Office on Homelessness.
“I was honest and said we don’t have on demand resources and our shelters are full,” Dufty told us. The Homeless Outreach Team is stretched to the limit. Dufty suggested BART hire its own help, which it did.
Its first full time Crisis Intervention Training Coordinator, Armando Sandoval, helps pair the homeless at BART stations with housing and other services. He targets his efforts on what BART calls its 40/40 list, which tracks the 40 homeless people that generate the most service calls to BART police. A BART press release said it placed 22 people with services within the last year.
“[Sandoval] hunts them down to see if he can work his magic with these folks,” Jennings said.
Supervisor Jane Kim is working with Dufty’s office to revamp BART’s new policy. “They clearly stretched safety concerns,” Kim told us. “It’s one thing to offer services, but another to force people out.”
BART’s Quality of Life service calls doubled from 2013 to 2014, according to a BART quarterly report, generated by complaints like public urination and disturbing the peace.
A BART police officer, who did not want to be named, told us he thinks BART has a hard choice: to let riders feel harassed and unsafe, or to oust people clearly in need of compassion. He said he saw the homeless population in the station swell with “the weather and the economy.”
“We have to do what we have to do,” he told us. But on the other hand, he said, “It’s not against the law to stink.”
He’s half right. Though being homeless and dirty may not be illegal, it may get you thrown out of a BART station.
EDITORIAL Under the misleading guise of encouraging the development of more affordable housing in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Jane Kim have sponsored a pair of fall ballot measures that actually weaken existing housing policy in San Francisco. It’s a ruse that shouldn’t fool politically savvy San Franciscans.
Lee has the authority to place his Build Housing Now measure on the ballot, although he may withdraw it under his backroom deal with Kim. But the Board of Supervisors should reject Kim’s City Housing Balance measure, a once-promising proposal that she last week made toothless and counterproductive. What she called a “compromise” was actually a capitulation to developers and the Mayor’s Office [Editor’s Note: The board was scheduled to consider Kim’s measure on July 29 after Guardian press time, which is why we posted this editorial early at sfbg.com, where print readers can check for an update].[UPDATE: The board unanimously approved the amended measure.]
Kim’s original measure called for market-rate housing developers to get conditional use permits and perform additional economic studies on their projects when affordable housing production falls below 30 percent of total production. She then weakened it with several exemptions, yet it was still a check against runaway development of luxury housing.
But her new measure, much like Lee’s, is little more than a wishful policy statement calling for the city to seek the goal of 33 percent of housing affordable by moderate income San Franciscans and below (usually defined as those making 120 percent of area median income or less) and 50 percent by the more vaguely defined “working middle class.”
While neither measure includes any enforcement or funding mechanism to help reach that goal, it’s noteworthy that the goals themselves weaken those the city set for itself in the Housing Element of the General Plan, which call for 60 percent of new housing construction to be affordable to those with moderate incomes and below. The board adopted an amended version of this Housing Element just last month.
This is politics at its very worst: Politicians claiming to be doing one thing in order to score points with voters and appear responsive to their concerns, while they actually do just the opposite and try to disguise that fact with disingenuous rhetoric.
Kim’s allies in the labor and progressive political communities tell us they’re disappointed in her capitulation at such a crucial moment in determining whether San Francisco becomes a city of the rich or whether it can retain its socioeconomic diversity.
We were also disappointed, although we weren’t surprised. There’s an ugly, money-driven brand of politics being practiced at City Hall these days, and Kim has repeatedly shown herself to be more concerned with her future political prospects than living up to the progressive values she has long espoused.