Earlier this year I stumbled across a site though one of the major design-related portals. It was for a movie called “Quality of Life” – a movie about two graffiti writers who grew up in the Mission District of San Francisco. It was an amazing site that felt true to the art of graffiti and was immediately engaging. As I began to absorb the content, what intrigued me was the fact that this wasn’t a strict documentation of the art form as many graffiti movies are – it had heart, an actual narrative and actors. Upon closer inspection I realized that one of the two main actors was a guy I’d grown up with in Santa Cruz and then in San Francisco. Brian Burnham (who plays Curtis “VAIN” Smith) has the most raw acting talent of any person I’ve met. It was good to see that he’d taken a shot at acting after so many years.
Over the course of the next six months I was constantly revisiting the site to see when the film would open in San Francisco. After receiving critical acclaim at the the Hawaii Cinema Paradise Festival, Seattle 2004 International Film Festival, Stockholm International Film Festival, Cinequest Film Festival (San Jose, CA) and Berlin International Film Festival (where it was honored with a prestigious “Special Mention” award), Quality of Life finally made it’s first hometown public screening on November 12 at the Roxie Theatre in the Mission District as part of the community-based Film Arts Festival. Since so many of the film crew came up through the Film Arts Foundation, they wanted to have a special preview screening with the community that supported it. The Roxie Theatre was especially relevant to the film since one of the scenes was actually filmed in the theatre and most all other scenes were filmed within a few blocks of it.
Directed by Benjamin Morgan (also a one-time Santa Cruz resident) and co-written by Burnham, Quality of Life tells the story of Michael “Heir” Rosario (played by Lane Garrison) and Curtis “Vain” Smith, the most talented graffiti writers in the Mission District of San Francisco. In the midst of their reign, Heir and Vain are arrested for graffiti. Faced with jail time, Heir and Vain struggle creatively and emotionally to make decisions about what their next steps will be and whether they will be made together or alone. At the core of the film, the narrative questions the “quality of life” laws which exist in much of America and that lump graffiti in with drugs and prostitution. Morgan points out in the film’s synopsis, “Anti-gang task forces do not address the lack of community resources and opportunities commonly found in areas where gangs are prevalent. Likewise, painting walls blank does not eradicate the innate desire to express oneself and assert individuality, especially in a country that was founded upon rebellion and free speech.”
While this film did resonate on a political level, the narrative was just as important and captivating. Burnham, Morgan, and the actors who play their respective girlfriend and father played amazing portrayals of their characters. Being a resident of the Mission for 5 years myself, I felt their characters were true to life in attitude and outlook as struggling people in their community.
Up next for the Quality of Life team, the film will be heading back overseas to Stockholm and then to Spain’s Gijon International Film Festival, where tickets have already sold out. While the film has had much success on the film festival circuit, they are still in need of monetary support for distribution. You can help them achieve this by contributing on their website in the “contact” section.
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Quality of Life – Independent graffiti film
Cast: Michael “HEIR” Rosario (Lane Garrison), Curtis “VAIN” Smith (Brian Burnham), Joel “POPS” Rosario (Luis Saguar), Lisa (Mackenzie Firgens)