A song of the Mission District, Have You Seen Her, La Missón? is a series of short films about a neighborhood that is woefully underrepresented in movies about San Francisco. Films made here celebrate our steeply pitched hills, iconic skyline, and the kitsch of Fisherman’s Wharf. When James Stewart mentions that a client’s wife has been haunting the Mission in Vertigo (1958), his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) says, “That’s Skid Row, isn’t it?
And yet, if I were permanently barred from San Francisco, the Mission is the part I’d miss most — with its myriad watering holes, beat up Victorians, and some of the best food the city has to offer. Particularly cherished: the very small and very old Roxie Theater, unrolling this virtual screening, which was previously programmed at the SF Latino Film Festival. Have You Seen Her, La Missión? is a past-tense sort of look, about the neighborhood as it was before it was smacked by a tsunami of money, and encircled by smoke-belching Google buses.
The late Nora I. Cadena’s 1998 shot-on-tape Ni Qui, Ni Alla (“Neither One Place or the Other”) is an invaluable document about those who went north to survive. It takes as its intro and exit music a song Jorge Negrete made popular: “Mexico Lindo y Querido” — a patriotic lament for a people subject to diaspora. We see Jose Luis y Los Bandoleros making a dollar at Cafe Picaro and the two Puerto Alegre restaurants playing ranchero music for tips. On Mission Street, near 24th, an unnamed chewing gum vendor, disabled by polio in her youth, flags down customers. A pair of young girls, selling flowers from plastic buckets, look for buyers (one complains that the police would rather go after flower merchants than the narcotics peddlers). And a former teacher from Nicaragua sells corn on the cob and mangos from a pushcart above the 16th Street BART station. The chicle vendor says that where she comes from every one talks about the money to be made in America, but nobody tells you about the suffering. The business of making a living keeps husbands, wives and childrens separated. That’s why, as Octavio Paz said, what we have is not a border, but a scar.
Pepe Urquijo’s “pepelicula,” Algun Dia, is about another white-knuckle time for immigrants. In the mid 1990s, the mediocre California governor Pete Wilson threw his support behind Proposition 187, a law to block immigrants from using non-emergency hospital services and schools. What Wilson actually achieved was to dig the grave for the Republican party in California by ignoring the demographics. As in Charles Burnett films like Killer of Sheep, Urquijo contrasts between the political noose tightening and the story of a father and a son negotiating anxious times.
In the black and white That Mission Rising!, Alfred Hernandez juxtaposes the boulders of Corona Heights Park and its overlook of the scurrying city with views of the trees of Yosemite, to a soundtrack of the Eagle Mountain Singers of the Oglala Nation. Hernandez’s repeated study of the exterior of the old Mission church, its doorway as dark as a tunnel, makes one realize an odd fact. The most politically revolutionary neighborhood in the city took its name from a tool of colonialism.
Calle Chula’s soundtrack has some of the sweet soul music the low-riders loved — an example is the Chi-Lites tune that gives this retrospective its title. Lydia M. Celis, the star of Vero Majano’s short, plays Xochila, the embodiment of Calle Lane, that startlingly pretty walk that goes along the side of the Mission Cemetery. This living thoroughfare is sort of a female Rip van Winkle, whose historical memory is becoming more slippery even as she tries to make it speak. Of Ohlone and Salvadoran background, Xochila tries to put her finger on the elements that make up the Mission — the enslaved natives forced into amnesia by the padres; the multicolored roses in bloom in the old church’s graveyard, the rusty debris, the hieroglyphics of graffiti.
Majano follows this with an evocative short called “I Reminisce,” in which the decades from 1961 fold seamlessly into the present — the then-new 1960s coaches are caught in telephoto lens. All of the boulevard’s dead theaters are brought back to life, and then they vanish into scenes of contemporary street life.
The impressive finish is Armand Emamjumeh’s “New Mission,” a live action and still photo montage illustrating “In Twenty Years,” Marcella Ortiz’s poem of blessing. Ortiz celebrates the smell of grilled carne asada and fresh paint, the bus shelters and the bystanders. The poet asks for a future for “Botanicas with broken down doors and dusted over windows, a hundred candles lit with our prayers.” She prays that the neighborhood will forever shelter people with “slicked back hair and golden skin.”
One image in Emamjumeh’s film is a scene of some young men walking their big bad dogs. On Disney+, which everyone added so they could see Hamilton, note one more short that could have fit in with this program from Pixar: Rosana Sullivans’ “Kitbull” (2019) was an Oscar-nominated 2-D animation about the friendship between a wide-eyed, rodent-sized kitten and a pitbull used for dogfights. It’s dialogue free, but wise in studying the way animals move, and hurt, and learn to trust one another. Not many Disney movies have painted alleys and concertina wire in them. It’s happy ending is in Dolores Park, giving a sense of what a refuge the area can be at times.
What’s been said of New Orleans can be said of San Francisco: “It sells what it used to give away.” Yet these shorts celebrate the yeast, sweetness, depths and squalor of this beloved city within a city.
Have You Seen Her, La Missión begins screening on July 10. For more info and to order tickets, click here.