South to the Future

Foreign Cinema in ethnic neighborhood draws community ire

October 13, 1999

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Scott Finkel, a drama teacher at San Francisco's Mission High School, heard that a foreign cinema was opening in the city's down-and-out Mission District he was ecstatic. The 35-year-old teacher and activist, who uses film appreciation classes to encourage Latino students to "imagine a better future for themselves," had long dreamed of the day when one of the many abandoned film theaters on once grand Mission Street would reopen.

But Finkel's excitement would soon turn to disappointment and eventually to anger when he learned that the new film venue, named Foreign Cinema, was actually a luxury restaurant. "This neighborhood has no movie houses and very few cultural venues of any sort for the Latino community," bemoans Finkel. "Opening a 'foreign' cinema that no one who lives here can afford to attend is a joke in bad taste."

Opened in July by entrepreneurs Michael Hecht and Jon Varnadoe, Foreign Cinema serves high-priced French cuisine against the backdrop of classic European films. But unlike the bistros usually found downtown or in tony suburbs, Foreign Cinema sits between two burned-out stores. And according to its founders' business plan, it's just the latest installment in a series of ventures that situate entertainment for the wealthy in poor neighborhoods.

With Foreign Cinema now open for business, Varnadoe and Hecht are poised to begin their much-ballyhooed expansion into other parts of the city. Other investors have pitched their company, Variety Lights Inc., proposals to open an "immersive health bar" in San Francisco's drug-ridden Tenderloin District by late 2000, and an interactive safari-themed restaurant in the poor and largely African-American Hunters Point neighborhood by the spring of 2001.

"We're in a tight spot," explains Joe Biggs, a board member of the Hunters Point Economic Development Committee. "You want the jobs and the money these new ventures bring, but you want respect as well."

While it may sound like an improbable formula for success, partner Varnadoe has made a career out of offering high-class entertainment in sketchy locales. At the lounge-style restaurant Bruno's, located just blocks from Foreign Cinema, Varnadoe created what he calls a "satirical exaggeration of '60s middle-class values." The savvy restaurateur claims, "The patrons understood the humor and fun of the setting because they recognized and understood it as a play on their own origins."

At Foreign Cinema, where a dinner for two costs an average of $150, Varnadoe and Hecht chose Fellini's satire of the high life, La Dolce Vita, as the opening night film. But even though the dining room is booked for weeks in advance, not everyone is taking pleasure in the ironic fare.

"Inside, the crowd can afford to mock middle-class values, while outside the Mission's thousands of Latino residents are struggling to overcome their origins and become middle class," gripes Finkel. "It's called Foreign Cinema but they don't show any movies from Latin America -- that would be ethnic to them, not foreign."

Finkel, who has gone from would-be fan to staunch detractor, is now organizing Mission youth and anyone else who will listen to attend "guerrilla" teach-ins on the restaurant's premises and to publicize a patron boycott.

"If someone wanted to build a 1970s-style singles bar for straight people in the Castro, the mayor himself would block the bulldozers. I believe the communities of the Mission and the Tenderloin and Hunters Point deserve the same consideration."

South to the Future's stories contain fictional and factual elements. Except when public figures are being satirized, any use of real names is accidental and coincidental. Comments? Holler@sttf.org.

 
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