Eritrea has only been an independent nation for 25 years, but the ax-shaped East African country has a capital city (Asmara) filled with Italian Futurist architecture, and a diasporic community that’s but one of many that make up the liveliest, most misunderstood neighborhood in San Francisco: the Tenderloin.
Eritrean-American filmmaker Sephora Woldu spent four years making Life Is Fare, a feature-length production in English and Tigrinya that follows a homesick man named Haile as he lives and works in the TL. (There’s another character named Sephora, an idealistic young filmmaker.) The title, which seems to play on a phrase pertaining to eating, pertains to Haile’s job as a cab driver, an occupation that has attracted many immigrants over the decades.
“This is what these people do: work day and night, isolate themselves and deal with the problems and the trauma from their journey independently. For him, life is work. Life is cab fare,” Woldu says. Taking on her protagonist’s inner voice, she adds, “I can’t control where I am, I can’t control my status — but here, I can control how much money I make by working all the time.”
Putting in long shifts as a cabbie is a job that already feels slightly anachronistic in the age of Uber. Indeed, it reflects the ways in which the city and the neighborhood have changed far beyond the introduction of a controversial bike lane on Turk Street.
“We shot in a Yellow Cab before they went bankrupt,” Woldu tells SF Weekly. “And we filmed in The Gangway when they were talking about closing.”
By casting non-actors and using a crew largely drawn from the neighborhood, Woldu imbued Life Is Fare with verisimilitude, but people in the Tenderloin have a way of suddenly moving away or changing their phone number. At least one individual passed away. Woldu screened the film at festivals all over the world, from Oakland to New Orleans to Ghana to Marfa, Texas — and even started her own, the traveling Asmara Indie Film Festival — but people back home can be the hardest to reach. One character who “played a customer in the cab and stole the scene” left S.F. during post-production — so she hasn’t seen the film yet, although Woldu holds out hope they might yet get in touch.
The general public will have several opportunities to see Life Is Fare this fall, largely through the Tenderloin Museum. On Thursday, Sept. 6, a making-of exhibit called “The Shoots” opens. It’ll be on view for the remainder of the calendar month, with a screening of the film on Thursday, Sept. 27 with Woldu in attendance. (The Museum of the African Diaspora will screen the film in November, as well.) A nod to the hard work required to shoot, re-shoot, and hone the film, “The Shoots” includes a number of artifacts generated by the production, such as roller skates and a photo essay. Having blurred any lingering distinction between “neighborhood characters” and cinematic characters, Life Is Fare has effectively woven itself into the Tenderloin — with the help of the San Francisco Arts Commission, the Film Commission, and a dedicated museum that always punches above its weight.
“It’s a love letter to the neighborhood,” Woldu says of the film. “If you pay attention, you can see some operas going on.”