Green screen: Kristine Enea takes aim at Malik Looper, Executive Director of Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), a group constructing San Francisco's first completely off-the-grid building at Heron's Head Park in India Basin. (Photo by Pam Calvert)

Legal Eagle Eye Kristine Enea Zooms 'Off the Grid'

Michael Fox December 8, 2009

The very short list of lawyers-turned-documentary makers includes Frederick Wiseman, Abby Ginzberg and a handful of others. The tally of filmmakers elected to public office is even shorter. Now contemplate for a moment making two documentaries while running for San Francisco Supervisor and holding down your day job. It’s no exaggeration to say that Kristine Enea is charting a unique course, one that combines activism, journalism, new media and politics.  "People are craving information," she declares, "and the boom in documentary filmmaking is evidence of that." To hear someone with such deep connections outside the film community make that observation is particularly gratifying, and bodes well for independents (albeit less so for television news).

A graduate of Hastings Law School, the Los Altos native pulled the plug on her job at a software company in 2001. She wrote two books about taking time off, then bought one of the first Panasonic HVX200 cameras.  "That got me involved in a lot of other people’s productions," Enea says with a chuckle.  "People coveted me for my camera."

Enea worked with Yoav Potash’s crew on his doc-in-progress, Crime After Crime, shooting at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, and took a few classes at BAVC. When a former colleague from the software firm jumped ship to pursue amateur motorcycle racing in 2007, Enea jumped in with her HVX200. The footage for Two Wheels and a Chain has been shot and is waiting to be edited in the coming year.

Meanwhile, Enea, who is the Chair of the India Basin Neighborhood Association in southeast San Francisco, started documenting redevelopment at Hunters Point.  "I shot the opening of the EcoCenter at Heron’s Head Park," Enea relates, "and it blossomed into a fabulous story about a community bringing down a power plant and putting up the greenest building in San Francisco."

Enea is referring to the 2006 closing of the coal-burning PG&E plant in Hunters Point, which had long been viewed by nearby residents as a toxic and unjust hazard. The EcoCenter, a collaboration between Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), the port of San Francisco, San Francisco Environment and the California Coastal Conservancy, is a nearly completed environmental educational facility that treats and recycles wastewater and generates its own solar power. Hence the title of Enea’s other work in progress, Off the Grid.

"It is a really inspiring story of how a community might achieve something that others might find daunting," Enea says.  "It all starts with several people working through their organizations and expanding their reach until the whole community bought in, and that’s how activism works."

Everybody loves a success story, but Enea recognizes that a compelling documentary requires conflict and characters. To that end, she brought in story consultant (and columnist) Karen Everett to craft a character-driven fundraising trailer. The story doesn’t lack for high-stakes tension, from the race and class issues that have long been part of anything involving Hunters Point to the recent state budget freeze that threw a chill into outside funders. And the EcoCenter itself, as admirable as it seems, has not lacked controversy, Enea admits.

"The first negative of the project is it’s been fabulously, horrendously expensive," she explains.  "There’s a fairly legitimate charge that it’s been a huge boondoggle. Is it the best use of taxpayer money, especially in this time of fiscal crisis? I guess it’s debatable. And is this off-grid system going to work?"

Enea, it must be said, does not seem to harbor a lot of doubts for a largely self-taught filmmaker in the midst of two one-hour (or longer) projects. She has a clear plan, although the challenge is getting from here to there.

"I work as a lawyer to pay the bills and hire crew, but that takes time away from film and activism," she says. "Off the Grid did marry a few of my focuses, and hopefully it’s a fundable project and I can scale back on the legalese and do more films."

There’s also the small matter of her 2010 campaign for Supervisor from District 10. But Enea has the filmmaking bug, and her SFFS FilmHouse Residency only exacerbated the symptoms.

"It wasn’t that I needed the space so much as I wanted to tap into that community more intimately," she explains.  "To be able to say that filmmakers like Tiffany Shlain (The Tribe) and Marcia Jarmel (Speaking in Tongues) are my peers is tremendous for me."

Notes from the Underground
First Run Features acquired Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich’s The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. A February release is planned for the film, which made the shortlist of contenders for Academy Award nominations in the doc feature category (to be announced Feb. 2, coincidentally).  Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan’s Soldiers of Conscience will screen Mar. 21 in New York City at the Truth Commission on Conscience and War, a symposium on morality and military service.

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