Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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Deborah Kaufman, Alan Snitow: Company Town (2016)--Mill Valley Film Festival

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JOE RODRIGUEZ, MURAL SHOWING SAN FRANCISCO EVICTIONS IN COMPANY TOWN

A politician's campaign around the tech invasion of San Francisco

It begins with these three statements on screen: "San Francisco is the new global capital of high tech and home of 'sharing economy' companies like Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft. . .The tech boom has displaced ethnic communities and driven the middle class out of the once free-spirited city. . .A grassroots backlash against the tech invasion could swing an upcoming election, sending a powerful message." This defines this documentary's focus and its bias. It concentrates on two politicians waging opposing campaigns concerned -- or not -- with the tech invasion. They are former Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin and current appointed supervisor Julie Christensen, campaigning for supervisor of District Three of the city. We know which side this film is on - and it converted me. (Well, I probably didn't need converting.) And as a matter of fact, as we learn, the public went along too. Peskin, the grassroots, anti-corporate hero of Company Town, indeed wound up beating tech development friend Ms. Christensen in the election.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez is a San Francisco Examiner correspondent covering the fight for political control in the Mission district, Ground Zero for the conflict of local natives vs. tech billionaires wishing to buy political power in the city. Young Rodriguez, a local native and the film's main non-political talking head, laughs as he points out the dramatic recent gentrification of Valencia Street a minute away from the slummy colorfulness of Mission streets, but he doesn't exactly laugh at the map showing hundreds of evictions in the city, one of which was of his grandfather. The fact his granddad had to die of cancer shortly after being forced to move to a place not his own makes him angry and sad.

The Mission District has tech invasion Ground Zero status because it's being rapidly invaded. But the key segment of the city is District Three, which Peskin and Christensen are contending for. This is a small district comprising the city's most iconic places. They include the elegant heart of the downtown, Union Square; the Financial District and the eastern waterfront, Fisherman's Wharf; Polk Gulch (where I lived for 16 years); the iconic hills, Telegraph, Russian, and Nob Hill; and the tourist magnets Chinatown and North Beach. All in all, that is the city, traditionally.

Julie Christensen, the District Three incumbent, says she doesn't even mention the word "tech" in her campaign. She is strongly supported by the laissez-faire present San Francisco city mayor who appointed her, Ed Lee, who wants to let development go as it has been and encourage more of it. Peskin wants to protect traditional properties and traditional populations of the city, and is supported by labor, taxi drivers, artists, and moderate income residents and the other grass roots groups who are now endangered species.

We see that Christensen spends time in every speech attacking Peskin, her opponent, tarring him with the "bad boy" brush, making him out to be a loud, macho tough guy and a spoiler who misrepresents her. She gets a kick out of herself; she laughs warmly at her own jokes. The film doesn't want us to like her, and we don't. Her slogan is "Julie Christensen gets things done," and she would obviously represent Peskin as an obstructionist wanting to stand in the way of progress and economic development beneficial tot all -- or all who remain after the evictions, at least. (Her heart bleeds for the evicted, she tells Joe Rodriguez, it really does. . . We must find land and space for them, somewhere. . . )

Airbnb in San Francisco, it turns out, has become a cover for low-overhead hotels, multiple units taken over to use exclusively for day-rentals, pushing out moderate income residents. Peskin points this out; Christensen and tech billionaires deny it, claiming Airbnb is just a way of helping strapped locals survive in the more expensive economic environment. Peskin points out that "the sharing economy" is nonsense. Sharing, he argues, is not something you pay for. Uber drivers are not "sharing" their cars. They are using them as taxis at their own expense and getting paid below minimum wage to do so. Each "sharing" branch is a mass of peons with a few mega-rich at the top of it.

Chinatown is an endangered site. Jeffrey Kwong, who grew up in ultra-crowded Chinatown conditions, is a young Peskin campaign volunteer (Peskin says he's known Kwong since he was 13), who acts as his interpreter to venerable members of Chinatown family societies. Kwong explains, and shows, conducting his own interview with a young Chinese tenement dweller, how the tech invasion is driving out poor Chinese immigrants - no place for them to stay anymore. Kwong must have been an ace campaigning tool for Peskin in Chinatown and illustrates Peskin's political savvy.

(Though not mentioned here, the Castro, the longtime gay district adjoining the Mission, has also seen an invasion of tech wealth.) This film shows crowds of ill-dressed Silicon Valley employees disappearing into ominous, sleek, white double-decker buses with black windows that whisk them away to work and whisk them back to their San Francisco residences so they have no interaction with the city.

The film shows Christensen casting the crucial vote for a proposition protecting Airbnb's corporation and big renters from regulation or restriction in San Francisco. Uber and Lyft are obviously ways of exploiting workers according to a "business model" far more profitable at the top than traditional taxi companies, whose employees they now greatly outnumber. They mounted a multimillion dollar campaign in the city to protect their interests. Evidently they didn't work as hard to help Christensen - whose last minute vote-getting efforts this film doesn't cover, only Peskin's -- because Peskin won -- a victory for the little guy, or so it would seem.

Kaufman and Snitow have made a clear and engaging little documentary, which avoids muddle by not questioning Peskin's points. Clearly the global "sharing economy" industry is worth a wider-ranging film - which might take in changes in other cities with different dynamics, such as the gentrification of Manhattan (and other boroughs of New York City) and the "Disney-fication" of Times Square; corporate rebuilding of large tracts of London, and so on.

Company Town, 75 mins., has its world premiere at the Mill Valley 9 & 15 Oct. 2016. It was screened as part of coverage of this festival. Held over at the Roxie, San Francisco Wed., Nov. 2– 9. Berkeley Premiere at the Elmwood Theater Oct. 28-Nov. 3; San Rafael Nov.6.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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