Alameda film fest to feature the acclaimed ‘Jack Has a Plan’
By Lou Fancher
Films from around the globe line up like a United Nations of cinematic allies at international film festivals. Allegiance to the art and craft of independent filmmaking and immersive storytelling results most often in interwoven, cross-cultural portrayals of the world. From full-length features to short films to documentaries, the creators lean into historic and contemporary world history, personal narratives, investigative, geopolitical, cause-related topics or entertainment-oriented explorations of fascinating people, places, and subjects.
The 2023 Alameda International Film Festival (alamedafilmfest.com) picks up on these traditions and through Sunday this week is presenting 45 films, special appearances by filmmakers and four days of activities that include screenings, panels and parties. The films arrive from the United States, United Kingdom, Portugal, Taiwan, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Ireland, Sweden, Argentina, Spain, Australia and Austria. Among the special events are a James Bond-themed cocktail kickoff, a Saturday-morning MiniGolf & Mimosas warmup and a panel discussion following the showing of “Klondike,” Ukraine’s entry for Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards.
The Alameda International Film Festival (AIFF), co-founded in 2016 by Mark Farrell and Colin Blake, is an outgrowth of the Long Day Short Film Festival that the two men produced in Alameda from 2011 to 2015. The AIFF is funded by submission fees, tickets, merchandise, concessions, and local business sponsorships. Farrell and Blake make plain on the festival’s website that it couldn’t happen without local support from the community.
Appreciation for presenters, sponsors and audiences extends beyond the festival founders to the filmmakers, says cinematographer and documentarian Bradley Berman. The Berkeley-based filmmaker’s “Jack Has a Plan” will be shown Saturday at the festival and tells the story of Berman’s close friend, Jack Tuller, who lived for 25 years with a terminal brain tumor that began to grow and destroy his cognition in his last three years of life.
Tuller chose to die with dignity, as he saw it, and the documentary not only focuses on themes of death and dying but celebrates the abundant joy and complex love the ever-exuberant Tuller experienced from friends and family as he made a tremendously difficult choice.
“When the lights come up, I can see firsthand the impact of Jack’s life,” Berman said. “Kudos to the AIFF for creating a forum for stories you don’t typically see on a streaming or broadcast service. There’s a one-to-one exchange between the filmmaker and the audience at festivals. There are no gatekeepers, and especially with a film about death, it’s difficult to find opportunities. It won’t play at cineplexes across the country. Now, with interest snowballing, the film might have a long life.”
In 2022, “Jack Has A Plan” was shown in more than a dozen film festivals, winning several awards for best documentary and from audiences and contest juries. Berman’s 2017 feature documentary, “Nat Bates for Mayor” (about the candidate in nearby Richmond), screened at film festivals across America and aired on PBS television’s “Truly CA” series. Berman says the making of “Jack” was an entirely different experience and spanned a six-year period, including two one-year gaps during which he stepped away from the project entirely.
“Jack wanted it made, and for a couple of years he asked me to do it. I didn’t want to do it from the start. Who wants to experience up-close and personal the demise of their best friend? The reason I finally gave in was saying, ‘OK, I’ll go hang out with Jack, have jokes, spend time together.’ It was that way for a couple of years. But then he started to decline. He persuaded me to continue. He used his personality and my devotion to him.”
Berman said a “documentary ethos” says a filmmaker is bearing witness to something that is now or never.
“I stopped for a year, but the situation changed. They were calling hospice, making arrangements to use the end-of-life option. It’s your friend calling: You show up. Filmmakers scour the earth for powerful, moving stories, and sometimes it’s right next to you.”
Showing up for Tuller meant filming while grieving. Even so, the result is anything but grim. Berman, as he did in ‘Nat Bates,’ excels at finding the funny in awful circumstances.
“That’s what makes life. My humor can’t be explained, other than by going back to Jewish traditions or jazz funerals and the blues. You take the hardest parts of life and find the humor, the joy in them. That’s the gold. Finding humor in slapstick is obvious. But finding it in the pharmacist bringing Jack the cocktail that would kill him and he said, ‘I’ve never done this before’ and thanked him? To me, that’s funny.”
Berman said most remarkable about Tuller was his friend’s satisfaction with his life.
“He had been given six months to live and lived for 25 years. He said he had no bucket list. It allowed me to see you can have two thoughts about death at the same time. You can not want to die while accepting you are impermanent and mortal. You can take joy in the worst thing, which is to die. Making this film will empower me to confront my death one day and any obstacle or hardship. I witnessed a Grade-A, gold-standard model for gratitude for life that we all could have.”
The film does include intensely painful scenes, such as one in which Tuller attempts to reunite with his mother, from whom he has been estranged for decades. Rejected, denied the mother’s love that Berman says we all crave, Tuller moves on with courage.
“As a filmmaker, I’m not trying to create a glowing saint, but I felt respect that he could survive that and be so good. I knew he had strong moral substance. But at the root of that is a mother who never hugged him or threw a birthday party for him when he was a kid. It was inspiring to see him bounce back.”
He says it was Tuller’s incredible, extraordinary charisma and enthusiasm for life that propelled Berman forward and today causes him to reflect on why he will continue to “scour the earth” for powerful stories. It all circles back to that moment when the lights come up and he sees on the faces how a story about one man and his courageous life, when shared, is universal and transformative.