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New Bernal Journal

by Gareth Barken

An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 people turned out May 3rd to be a part of the Bernaltown film premiere. The community based project, created by Bernal Heights artist Gregory Gavin, with the help of talent culled from the neighborhood's vast resources, attracted so large a crowd to the Bernal Playground that many onlookers described the event as the "Woodstock" of Bernal Heights. In attendance were many of the films' stars, much of the crew that helped Gavin to make the film a reality. Also drawn to the vibrant event were various political figures, including Mayor Brown, and Supervisor Tom Ammiano.

Reminiscent of a TV pilot for an action adventure series, Bernaltown is structured around the Powerbuilders, a foursome of pre-teen superheroes who fight evil without guns. Instead they build fantastic crime fighting gadgets in a secret underground clubhouse where they also launch their homemade soap box cars through a secret tunnel. The plot of the film revolves around their resistance to an evil scheme to build a gigantic casino on top of the communities' sacred resource — Bernal Hill.

The undertaking began not as a video, but rather a carpentry project. Gavin realized that the trust generated in his soap box car building program could take him and his diverse group of students out of the wood shop and into the realm of Hollywood fantasy. After displaying the cars in local stores, racing them, and showing them in parades, Gavin invited his 10-13 year old carpenters to watch reruns of action adventure shows from the 60's, especially the Batman television series. The group mused that there had to be a way to combine the kitsch quality of these old shows with the idiosyncratic soap box cars, and to set the story in their village-like neighborhood, Bernal Heights.

Armed only with a Hi-8 format camcorder, first time filmmaker Gavin and his young students managed to make a funny, fast paced narrative video featuring more than 75 members of the community. Notable local (non) actors are Jerry Neitz the real Bernal beat cop who plays the Chief of Police, Tommy Chin, a 72 year old fixture in the neighborhood who plays the wise and mysterious Toolmaster, and powerhouse Nic Griffin, a Social Service Assistant at the BHNC, as the eccentric villain ‘Dealer Dan.'

Gavin also employed the talents of Bernal Heights acting teacher (and this author's best friend) Sheila Balter, and neighborhood composer J. Raoul Brody, whose original musical score captures the melodramatic spirit of TV action adventure with uncanny accuracy.

But unlike television, this project brought together a neighborhood in a way that even Gavin himself had not anticipated. Expecting a crowd of only three to six hundred, all were stunned by the standing room only audience which poured into the playground, all but filling it completely.

The debt which Gavin personally incurred while bringing the project to life, estimated at nearly ten thousand dollars, was partially offset by two to three thousand dollars in income which the event generated. All Bernaltown related merchandise being retailed at the event was sold out, including fifty tapes of the movie, and countless shirts and caps. Inundated with requests for more merchandise, Gavin has acquired more of the popular items which are currently being sold at Heartfelt, on Cortland avenue. The film itself is available for rent at 4 Star Video.

Mayor Brown's visit to the premiere went unnoticed by most residents, as he left before the end of the film and did not address the crowd. Ironically, the Mayor departed on his way the now infamous Jack Davis party, which featured controversial performance art involving urination and an unexpected use of a whiskey bottle. Gavin noted the irony of Brown's appearance, given that the film centers around preventing exploitation of development of a San Francisco neighborhood, while the Mayor was in the midst of this campaign for the now defeated 49ers stadium initiative—a project which bore a striking resemblance to Bernaltown's fictional hilltop casino.

What's next for the talented Gavin? "I'd like to use this momentum to build my organization, Will Power Arts, into a self-supporting, non-profit educational organization with earned income from Bernaltown, soap box car kits, and related products."

As for a sequel, Gavin is considering "a documentary about Bernal Heights, and the whole series of public art events that led up to Bernaltown."