Essential SF Q&A: Peter Bratt

By Pam Grady

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Peter Bratt’s Essential SF interview starts late. With good reason. It is the same morning that he receives a call from the Sundance Film Festival. His new documentary, Dolores, about activist and United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, will make its world premiere at January’s festival in the US documentary competition. His two narrative features, Follow Me Home (1996) and La Mission (2009) also debuted in Park City.

Bratt and his actor brother Ben (his producing partner and star of both Follow Me Home and La Mission) are San Francisco natives who were raised as social justice activists from childhood. Bratt and his work have been embraced by the Film Society and his hometown. Both Follow Me Home—the 1996 SFIFF audience award winner—and La Mission—2009’s SFIFF Opening Night film—packed the 1,400-seat Castro Theatre to the rafters. More recently, Bratt was the recipient of a $15,000 SF Film Society Documentary Film Fund Award to go toward Dolores’ postproduction costs. It is clear, looking at his history with the Film Society, Bratt has been Essential SF since long before this official title.

Q: I’d like to start with something I’ve always wanted to ask you or your brother about, which is your childhood and the part of it that you spent on Alcatraz. That’s always fascinated me.

Peter Bratt: Especially with what’s going on now at Standing Rock, right? It was 1969. Civil rights was going on. Dolores and Cesar were leading the farm workers union in marches through the Mission District. It was the first time that Natives and Chicanos were embracing who they were. There’s a great line in the Dolores film that Luis Valdez says. He says, ‘Revolution begins with self-love,’ the recognition that you matter.

I think that’s what was happening. And my mom, who was a single mother at the time, a businesswoman, she got caught up in that and was inspired by it and packed up her children and went out to the island and just became super-involved in the movement.

Q: What do you remember about that time? You and your brother were so small.

PB: I was seven years old when I first went to Alcatraz. Actually, I remember a lot. There are impressions. There was an Indian school. We started growing our hair long, taking pride in who we were, taking pride culturally, meeting other Natives from around the country from urban areas and from reservations. I remember taking a certain pride, for a seven-year-old, of being proud of who we were as people, being proud of who I am as an indigenous person.

I remember Johnny Cash coming through the island at one point. I remember Jane Fonda coming. The press. We didn’t understand who those people were; we just knew it was a big deal. I remember the Black Panthers coming and bringing clothes and food. I remember running around and just feeling like I belonged to this bigger community. Everybody had each other’s back. And change was happening. Things were never going to be the same again.

Also, my mom, it was a family affair. She went to not just Alcatraz, but like I said, the farmworkers were marching in the Mission District. There were protests happening in different areas of California and different states and my mom would just pack everyone in the station wagon and we would go there. Our house became the mainland crash pad. It just became a way of life. You don’t realize that as a kid, but as you get older, you look back and you look at the lives of your friends and your peers, you realize, ‘Oh wow, it wasn’t like this for everybody.’

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: Having that experience at Alcatraz, having a mother who was so involved with activism, talking about how that impacted you and your career. There’s such a huge social justice stamp on your work.

PB: I think if you grow up in that milieu and around that kind of activism—my mom’s friends and the kids that I played with and their parents, you’re hanging out at the Indian Center, you’re going to this march or this protest—I think it just becomes part of your cultural DNA. Whatever it is that you end up falling into, it can’t help but come out. Certainly, it helps form your perception of the world. It becomes your lens. In telling stories and becoming a filmmaker, yeah, that’s kind of the lens I see things through.

Q: What led you to filmmaking?

PB: I grew up going to the movies at the New Mission Theater and the Granada Theater on Mission Street, seeing double features. And when I was a kid, too, my mother would pile everybody into the station wagon with our sleeping bags. There were several drive-in theaters in San Francisco at the time: the Spruce, the El Rancho, and the Geneva. As a family, that was more economical, so we would pack everyone in, and we would pull our mattresses out by the car, and watch these movies.

I always loved movies. I loved films. I think as a kid I found them pure entertainment. It wasn’t until I was a teenager, it was at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco and they screened Little Big Man, Arthur Penn’s film and they brought Chief Dan George to the screening. I was just rocked by it. There’s a massacre scene where the Calvary comes in and they shoot every man, woman, and child. I was devastated. I sobbed. I was so angry. I just got rocked by the power of the medium, how it could stir up those emotions and reactions. I started getting drawn more to films that had that resonant power.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I actually took a film course. It was with Professor Vivian Sobchack. She was doing a class on the American musical, which I took just to kick back and watch films. But I ended up having to write a paper a week, and she critiqued film from a feminist Marxist perspective, so we analyzed American musicals through that lens. It dawned on me that so many of my perceptions about women, about myself, about the world, had been informed by television and film. At that point, I was just, ‘Wow! I want to explore this. Can I do this?’

That was kind of the beginning of my film career. I was a political science major in college, so I had no intention of making films, but my course got re-routed.

Q: What college did you go to?

PB:  I went to UC Santa Cruz.

Q: Tell me about the new doc.

PB: The new doc—it’s going to four years this coming April—is a labor of love. I got a call from Carlos Santana one day. It was his idea to do a film on Dolores. I kind of felt like it wasn’t so much a request if Carlos asked you. There was an urgency to his request saying, ‘She’s still with us, one of the most important figures in our cultural history. We have to do this.’

At first, I was hesitant. I’d never made a documentary film. Maybe I’m not the right guy. But then as I sat with it, it dawned on me whether it’s a documentary or a feature, you’re still telling a story. You’re plying the same tools, as a craft, drawing in the audience, finding the character arc, finding the challenges that test the hero, and so I kind of got swept up into the challenge of it. There was also the challenge of trying to—how am I going to make this entertaining? How am I going to make this visually dynamic? How am I going to make it appeal to a younger audience? Why are younger people going to want to be interested in this? Those challenges really drew me in. You have to call on all your powers to find the answers to those questions.

Also, Dolores and her work had a huge impact on me and my family and the community. I felt what an honor to be able to tell this person’s story, someone who has impacted my life. And then to collaborate with another person who impacted my life, Carlos Santana, I grew up listening to his music and he’s from the Mission District, he’s a San Franciscan, a local boy who made good—it was a no-brainer for me.

Photo by Tommy Lau

Photo by Tommy Lau

Q: Talk about your relationship with the Film Society. I remember being way up high in the balcony at the Castro when Follow Me Home screened at the Festival. The house was just packed.

PB: You’re dating yourself! (Laughs) Peter [Scarlet] was the director then, and the Film Society I always felt like embraced my brother and I, not so much because we were local boys, that’s certainly part of it, but they were offering a platform for alternative voices. With Follow Me Home that was kind of a hard thing to do, a film starring all brown people, it was hard to get a film like that picked up. We never got distribution, we did self-distribution for that film. But Peter and the Society really welcomed us and I felt gave it a place of importance, because of San Francisco and because we were born and raised in San Francisco and the community just—I remember Peter saying, ‘Oh my God! We levitated tonight. I’ve never seen anything like it.’ I think it sold out in a day, the tickets.

Similarly, years later, I met Graham [Leggat]. I just loved Graham. I felt Graham was really committed to bringing in other communities that didn’t traditionally patronize the Society or attend the Festival. He was really trying to create a bridge for young people in San Francisco communities that oftentimes are marginalized. He was trying to bring in and get involvement from those communities. I think he saw La Mission as a way to foster that. He gave us opening night. I remember him telling me, ‘Peter, let’s have the party in the Mission.’ I so appreciated that.

There’s a little story, nobody really knows this, but La Mission was based on a true-life person who I went to school with, whose name is Che and who started one of the first lowrider clubs. He was at the after-party. I think he had a little too much to drink and a security guard said something to him. And Graham came up to him and gave him another glass of wine and he said, ‘Tonight, we’re in your world. You do anything you want.’ I could tell Che, it meant a lot to him, to hear the head of the Film Society and the Festival show him respect that way.

I thought Graham was a visionary. I miss him as a friend, as well. But the Film Society I’ve always felt has tried to connect with people in the city, communities in the city that we don’t necessarily always hear from. That’s been great.

Then, as a film commissioner, I got to work quite a bit with Michele [Turnure-Salleo], who I learned just recently has left, but who has been an incredible advocate for incubating and nurturing independent filmmakers in San Francisco to tell the stories that come out of here.

So, my history with the Film Society goes back a little bit, and it’s been incredible. It’s a great honor for me that they want to recognize the work and call it Essential SF.

Essential SF is the San Francisco Film Society's ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions. This year's inductees—filmmaker Peter Bratt, film organization Center for Asian American Media, festival photographer Pamela Gentile, documentary filmmaker Carrie Lozano, entertainment attorney George Rush, and film programmer Joel Shepard—were honored at the annual celebration. A key event in the Film Society's year-round appreciation of local talent, this tribute shines a light on the region's most unique and creative personalities and their invaluable contributions to the film world.