Two films feature narratives based in the East Bay
Watching Kyung Lee’s documentary We R Here, East Bay residents will experience a feeling of disorientation as they begin to recognize familiar streets and landmarks. But We R Here is told from the point of view of the unhoused looking at us as we pass them by. The director, who edited the film, didn’t compose a single shot of footage. While volunteering at a homeless encampment in her East Oakland neighborhood, Lee got to know several residents there who were looking for work.
We R Here opens from the inside of James “DJ Nyce” Goodwin’s car. All of the stories are difficult to watch, but Goodwin also battled with addiction while filming. He’s brutally honest with the camera. At one point, he returns to the house he lost and takes responsibility for it. As he struggles with finding a safe place to park and sleep, his mother continues to call him. She provides food for him and lets him bathe at her apartment. Although she never appears on screen, his mother’s voice and support is the most hopeful part of his segment.
Goodwin and another participant named Billy Pearce, a Southern transplant, don’t always come across as reliable or credible narrators, but that didn’t deter Lee from making We R Here. “As I got to know them as neighbors, I felt bad, in general,” she said. While helping them tell the stories of how they came to be unhoused, Lee didn’t necessarily believe 100% of what they had to say. “We R Here is more about the system, how it penalizes the poor so harshly. I think the system is unfair and that was my motivation,” she said.
Oakland resident and musician Xavier Dphrepaulezz is the subject of Francisco Núñez Capriles and Yvan Iturriaga’s biographical documentary Fantastic Negrito: Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?
The subtitle is a reference to the name of Dphrepaulezz’s third album in his current incarnation as Fantastic Negrito. But the film delves into Dphrepaulezz’s psyche and origin story as much as it shows the making of the album. From the very start, he’s described by friends and extended members of his family as a chameleon.
On camera, his friend Malcom Spellman tells the filmmakers that one aspect of Dphrepaulezz’s character demands to be the center of attention. Iturriaga’s first in-person meeting with the performer confirmed that: Dphrepaulezz, the flamboyant showman, showed up in a gold puffy coat. As the interviews continued, the more introspective human being who talks about the challenges of his life story began to emerge. “He’s amazingly vulnerable and raw,” Iturriaga said. “He changed with the process of making this film. It was definitely like peeling the layers of an onion.”
Iturriaga credits Capriles with developing that amount of trust with their subject. Capriles had worked as an intern for Fantastic Negrito, documenting early sessions of the album to share on social media. After collecting hours of footage, he reached out to Iturriaga to see about shaping the material into a documentary. “We weren’t just creating something; we wanted to create something real,” Iturriaga said. Dphrepaulezz responded to the purity of the filmmakers’ intentions. They weren’t going to impose an agenda on his story—they just wanted to understand it.
Both Iturriaga and Capriles are immigrants who found commonality with Dphrepaulezz. “As an immigrant who grew up in Oakland, he could see that we identified with him,” Iturriaga said. “This immigrant point of view that he speaks a lot about in his story, Francisco and I also share in how we see the world.” He added that he also went to the same high school as Dphrepaulezz, Berkeley High, though years later.
They didn’t start the filmmaking process by thinking it would follow the typical structure of a biography; the ups and downs of Dphrepaulezz’s life just started to match up with the songs on the album. “Xavier’s a good storyteller and how he tells it is just so vibrant,” Iturriaga said. Having the rights to use the audio tracks to supplement the narrative arc was a huge plus.
“Our goal is for the viewer to feel the song being made,” Iturriaga said. “It starts with the bass line, then the guitar hits, then the keyboard.” He explained that in most docs filmmakers can usually use one song in the finale. “But we were able to access each instrument individually and that was a huge privilege.”
22nd San Francisco DocFest, June 1–11, 2023, sfindie.com.
‘Fantastic Negrito: Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?’ Thursday, June 1 at 8:45pm, and ‘We R Here,’ Sunday, June 4 at 12pm; both at Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., San Francisco.