‘Keeper of the Fire’ matches words with pictures


“I think it’s important that the people of California and the southwest, whether they are of Latino descent or not, understand that they are part of Latin America, its history, its roots, of its development and even the names of their cities, ”says Alejandro Murguía in“ Keeper of the Fire ”, the new documentary on his life and his art, co-directed by David L. Brown, Raymond Telles and Lou Dematteis.

“Identifying is so crucial for Alejandro and for his work,” said photojournalist and filmmaker Dematteis, “You can’t separate them.”

The challenge for the team of filmmakers, including cinematographer Vincente Franco, was “how to present a film of ideas that connects with the visual language of the film,” said Dematteis. The result is a brief poetic look at the words, themes, and arc of her subject’s life.

“Who am I… what is my country… where do I belong,” Murguía says of questions writers usually ask themselves. For Murguía, born to a New Mexico mother and Mexican father, his call was answered as he came of age as a poet in the Mission District of the early 1970s.

“This is where I live, function and recreate memory… I can’t go back to where… I am from here,” he says. The Chicano movement was on the rise and the Mission was “the artistic center of the universe”.

San Francisco poet Alejandro Murguía is the subject of “Keeper of the Fire”.  (Kevin N. Hume / SF Examiner File)

San Francisco poet Alejandro Murguía is the subject of “Keeper of the Fire”. (Kevin N. Hume / SF Examiner File)

Dematteis was also immersed in the artistic and cultural scene of the Mission of the time. Raised in Redwood City to a family of Italian-American descent in The City, he said, “I first moved to the Mission in 1973.” He remembers when the area was still populated by Italian Americans, including his own great aunts.

“There were still vestiges of its Italian-American history. Ricci, on the 24th, was producing some of his own Italian-American products. And Lucca Ravioli, that area had a great concentration of Italians and Italian Americans, ”said Dematteis of the blocks around 23rd and Valencia. “And there was the Dianda bakery”, located in the Mission since 1962.

Although the paths of Demattais and Murguía crossed and shared the experience of time spent in Nicaragua – Murguía as a rebel fighter and Demattais as a photographer – they only really got to know each other later in life.

It was Brown who approached Dematteis in 2013 with the idea of ​​making a film about Murguía, although at the time, Dematteis was on his knees in the production and distribution of the film noir “The Other Barrio”. Based on a story by Murguía, directed by Dante Matteo and set in a gentrifying mission district, the film chronicles how a trail of suspicious fires leads to civic corruption as people’s passions refuse to let the spirit of their neighborhood. Some of his themes would naturally overlap with “Keeper of the Fire”.

“I covered gentrification in North Beach in the ’70s and early’ 80s,” said Dematteis, who lived for a time in the late 1970s in North Beach. Following the life and changing face of the Italian-American community, he also traveled frequently to Italy for photography assignments and showed work at the Museo Italo Americano while still in North Beach.

“The developers were trying to transform a residential space near the city center full of Italians into commercial space. Later it would happen in Chinatown and there was no law at the time to stop it, ”he said of the gentrification wars waged decades ago.

When I spoke to Murguía for this column in 2018, he had just written a play about Mexican-American dancer Maclovia Ruiz, her roots in North Beach, and her history as The City’s Latin Quarter.

“I hope we will be able to spark memories, not only of North Beach and The Mission, but also other rapidly changing neighborhoods and encourage people to discover their neighborhoods and the people who have contributed so much. to The City, ”said Murguía, who has also chronicled changes in poems like“ 16th and Valencia ”and“ Mission Vision ”.

“Keeper of the Fire” establishes additional links between the creative and political movements that have historically been based in North Beach and the Mission.

“It was just natural for the movement in the American Beat poetry tradition to ally itself with what was going on in the Mission District,” Lawrence Ferlinghetti says in the film. Other poets with local ties, such as Roberto Vargas, Juan Felipe Herrera and Nina Serrano, are interviewed for “Keeper of the Fire”, as is the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, with whom Murguía met while wrestling. to overthrow the dictatorship of the Samoza family. .

??  Keeper of the fire, ??  as part of the 20th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, connects the creative and political movements historically based in North Beach and the Mission.  (Courtesy photo)

“Keeper of the Fire,” which is part of the 20th San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, makes connections between the creative and political movements historically based in North Beach and the Mission. (Courtesy photo)

Murguía’s deep feeling that it was “the time to act” for the people of Central America is inspired by poets like Roque Dalton and Federico García Lorca: in 1978-79 he organized in the name of the Sandinistas , then left with Vargas for the front lines.

“There have been many protests here to support the Sandinistas,” Dematteis said. “This is where I was concentrating, so I returned to the mission. Even when I lived in North Beach, I covered all the protests. He was also in Nicaragua, covering the uprising.

“The photos of the conflict are mine when I was there. We filmed a lot of it ourselves and got the archive footage of David, ”he said. Dematteis would return to Central America over the years to report on elections between other assignments for global news offices Reuters and UPI. In 2016, Dematteis, Murguía, and the film crew returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival, then spent the following years seeking funds for the finish. A few days before San Francisco was shut down due to the pandemic last March, the film wrapped up filming on Market Street. It springs from From June 3 to 20 as part of this year’s SF Docfest.

“One thing we’re really proud of with the film is that people are talking about the link between poetry and social justice, social reform,” Dematteis said.

The unique ability to compress complex information networks and send strong messages through imagery is often overlooked by poetry, photojournalism, and documentary filmmaking.

“Change and resistance,” Dematteis said. “They are part of the deal.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions”. Bird & Beckett Books SF Lives Livestreams on the second Sunday of each month at 10 a.m. Join the conversation on June 13 with guest artist Anna Lisa Escobedo. More than denisesullivan.com and @ 4DeniseSullivan.

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