Director Dante Betteo On His Noir Love Letter to S.F.’s Disappearing Barrio, the Mission

Adapted from a short story written by Alejandro Murguía, poet laureate of San Francisco, about a fire that raged at a residential hotel in San Francisco in 1975, the film, The Other Barrio, brings the story to the present as housing inspector Bob Morales investigates a possible arson and unravels a web of corruption at City Hall. Emblematic settings like mural-drenched alleys, the now defunct Esta Noche queer nightclub, Radio Habana Social Club, and the Galeria de la Raza make The Other Barrio an ode to the Mission, a San Francisco neighborhood that claims an identity that seems to be fading away.

Using the elements of film noir — voice over, night scenes, witty dialogue, jazz music — it addresses the issue of gentrification in the current context of economic boom and a merciless real estate market that is pushing working class people out of San Francisco. But above all, the film is a testimony about the Mission for its people, and an example of a grassroots community effort that resulted in a bold film, that cost only about $200,000.

Adapted and directed by Dante Betteo, in his narrative feature debut; he wore many hats to get it made and ended up co-producing and editing the film. It also includes the participation of a myriad of local luminaries: Louis F. Dematteis, renowned photojournalist and documentary filmmaker, is the other co-producer of the film; music/video producer and educator Greg Landau worked as the sound designer and music supervisor with the help Latin jazz musicians Jerry Gonzalez and Omar Sosa, as well as Chicano musician Jose Cuellar ‘Dr. Loco’; René Yañez, co-founder of Galeria de la Raza, worked as the production designer; Richard Montoya, founding member of the performance troupe Culture Clash, played the lead role; Sean San Jose, founding member of the performance group Campo Santo, also acted in it, plus many other Mission staples that contributed to this local project.

The film is a mix of political treatise and film noir thriller that, for someone who’s lived in the Mission for years and is aware of the radical changes it is undergoing, is an invaluable testimony. A testimony, with a message of hope: the two Missions, the old and the new, can coexist. A message that there is no need for a one way ticket to the other barrio in the Colma cemetery, but a commitment to stay alive and struggle to keep the identity of the neighborhood alive.

Ahead of the screenings at SF IndieFest, we got the chance to talk with Dante Betteo about making an ode to the Mission, gentrification, and what he is working on next.

How was your passion for cinema born?

I was born in a family of cinema. My grandfather, also Dante Betteo, owned 55 theaters throughout Chile. He brought the first talkies to Chile and produced several films. My father inherited my grandfather’s company and continued the film business, importing films from Europe and the US for distribution. Cinema is in my blood since I was little.

And how was The Other Barrio born?

I like San Francisco a lot, and one day I was at City Lights Bookstore in North Beach and I found the book San Francisco Noir. It contains a series of short stories and each takes place in a different neighborhood. The one that takes place in the Mission is by Alejandro Murguía. I said to myself, “That’s interesting, why don’t I pick three of the stories and do three interwoven stories like in Amores perros?”

Lou Dematteis — whom I met working on his documentary CrimeBuster — came one day to the editing studio I have at my house to work on a project and I showed him the book. “I wrote to the author, but he has not answered me,” I told him. And he said, “I know him.” I asked Lou to work with me on the project and he said yes, and then we both went to talk to Alejandro Murguia, at his home, over a bottle of wine.

But in the end you only made the Mission story, not three…

The idea was to do 30 minutes on each of the three stories and to interweave them, so the end product would be 90 minutes. The adaptation I did of the story of Murguia ended up being 38 pages or so, and after filming, the first rough cut was 55 minutes. At that point we realized that raising funds for the other two stories was being very difficult, and we decided to focus our efforts only on the Mission story. We extended it to fill up the 90 minutes, abandoning the idea of the three stories.

Did you want to make a movie against gentrification?

The theme of the film is very current but it was not on purpose. The story was written in 2005, and is based on a fire that took place in 1975. But it so happened that at the same time that I found the book this whole issue about gentrification and displacement was happening. I did the adaptation of the novel for the screen, and then for the added material we worked with Richard Montoya, the lead actor, and updated it with the current issue of displacement.

The places where you filmed are emblematic. I imagine that you payed a lot of attention to the locations?

Yes, it was very important. But many locations are already in the original story. Radio Habana was in the story, Esta Noche also came out of the story. I also shot several scenes in alleys — Balmy, Lilac, Cypress. I have always been attracted towards the alleyways of the Mission, especially now that are so picturesque.

Plenty of night scenes too…

The large majority. The cinematographer, Andrew Crighton, did a spectacular job. I know him, the assistant director and several of the production assistants since they were little, because they went to school with my children. As I worked in television and made documentaries, when they’d came to the house to play with my kids they’d always ask me, “Mr. Betteo when are gonna make a movie?” And I used to tell them, “One of these days, one of these days.” Over the years, several of them studied cinema, and after graduating they told me, “Mr. Betteo, we are ready.” And it so happened that I had this project in my hands at the time, so I hired them.

I loved the scene on the Mexican Bus…

That scene was a pain in the ass. Not so much for being complicated, but because we were rushing. And the driver insisted on driving over the rails so the camera was shaking, and even though we told him over and over again not to drive over them, he’d do it again. It was like a shaker, and the rush, and the sound… But in the end it came out well.

Do you think The Other Barrio will be seen as a historical document of the Mission?

If we contribute or not it will just be because things occurred that way, since we did not start with that idea. My intention when we began filming was to awaken in people a little sensitivity. Sometimes we kill ourselves for trivial things as we lose our capacity of what is important and what isn’t. That is my message with this film. Yes, money is important, but is it important enough to set fire to a building and kill people? I want people to think and look inward. Not only paying intention to what is outside and trying to do what everyone says you have to do following the herd.

As the protagonist says, “It used to be a city of poets.”

Exactly, we were a city of poets and now all we’re looking for is the dollar.

What do you like most about making movies?

Creativity. I worked in news for 20 years, and they are very rigid. Things are true, or they are true—you need to attribute your arguments, check the facts several times. In cinema there is an incredible freedom, you invent things and do not have to prove anything to anyone, do not need to ask for anyone’s permission, nor check if it’s true or not… The creative freedom of narrative cinema fascinates me. And during the process of making a movie, what I like most is post-production, editing. It’s when the history comes alive. At first, it’s paper and photographic impressions, but when you put it all together, put music and sound design, it is magical.

Are you working on anything new?

I’m finishing the adaptation of another novel, Strike House by Californian writer Bonnie Hearn Hill. It is the story of a crime that occurs within a wealthy Anglo family that grows grapes in the Central Valley of California in 1965, during the times of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. I am also writing an original story that takes place in the Mission, a character development in the style of Woody Allen, but more Latino, touching the subject of immigration.

The Other Barrio is playing on February 8, at 2pm and 7pm, as part of SF IndieFest.