Dolissa Medina maps San Francisco's collective memory in 'Crow Furnace.'

Medina Stokes SF-set ‘Furnace’

Michael Fox August 25, 2010

Dolissa Medina, who made the 2006 poetic/experimental documentary Cartography of Ashes, about the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, sticks her feet back in the fire, so to speak, with Crow Furnace. The earlier film explored the 1906 quake and blaze through seven vignettes, each focused on a different intersection and narrated by a current firefighter. The found-footage piece was projected directly on Fire Station No. 7 in the Mission on the 100th anniversary of the temblor, with 250 viewers taking in the experience during the 2006 San Francisco International Film Festival. “Intermittently, a fire engine would come out of the station on a call,” Medina recalls, adding wailing sound design to the site-specific screening.

You may know that the phoenix graces the city flag, but it does not refer to our forebears’ indomitable response to the ’06 disaster. The banner predates that event by a few years, and the mythological bird is actually saluting the hardy breed who, back in the Gold Rush days, rebuilt (or rebooted, in contemporary film vernacular) San Francisco after every one of the six times it burned between 1849 and 1851. It is the long view that Crow Furnace is concerned with.

“The film will focus on the psychography of San Francisco and fire throughout its history since its founding in 1776,” explains Medina. “It’s a mapping of collective memory, and the myth of San Francisco: the Western myth, the search for gold, American expansionism, the frontier, the notion of remaking yourself. It’s sort of the romantic side of SF, but there’s also the dark side—displacement, redevelopment, gentrification.”

Along with appropriating sequences from 1970s fire training and fire safety films in Crow Furnace, Medina references a couple of vintage Hollywood movies—Vertigo and The Towering Inferno—that comment on our burg’s image.

“In Vertigo, of course, Scottie goes from place to place like a ghost,” Medina notes. “Which filmmaker isn’t obsessed with Vertigo? The Towering Inferno [is about] putting the biggest building in the world in San Francisco. It’s a lot about the hubris of progress.”

The Texas native lived here from 1991 to 2007, earning degrees in journalism and history from San Francisco State. She also discovered filmmaking, aided by a grant from Film Arts Foundation. As it happens, another supportive institution in her artistic development, Galeria de la Raza, hosts Medina Wednesday, August 25 [please note: this date has been corrected], for a program of her short works and a discussion. (All the details are at Galeria de la Raza's site.)

“I respond to journalism as source footage, but as a journalist I was too limited in telling stories,” Medina says. “I like the realm of myth; I like the realm of movies.”

The half-hour Crow Furnace, which embraces factual, historical, and journalistic themes through a fictional time-travel love story, marks the first time Medina is working with actors, and integrating live action with found footage. She’s been shooting this week in San Francisco, on a brief geographical hiatus between San Diego (where she’s pursuing her MFA in visual arts at UCSD) and Berlin, where she’s about to spend 10 months on a Fulbright Fellowship on what she describes as an R&D expedition to “a frontier city that’s always becoming.”

“I’ll probably come out of Berlin with a trailer, and seek additional investment to turn it into a full-on documentary,” Medina anticipates. She’ll also devote a chunk of her time in Germany to editing Crow Furnace. “I would love to premiere it in San Francisco, of course, at the end of 2011 or early 2012,” she says. “I think a year from now I’ll be coming back [here] to do sound design and sound mix.”

Regardless of her location at any given juncture, Medina adamantly identifies herself as a San Franciscan. “Cartography of Ashes was my love letter to San Francisco,” she says, “and Crow Furnace is like my goodbye love letter, at least for a while.”

Notes from the Underground
The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) has hired one-time San Francisco International Asian American Festival intern, volunteer and operations staffer Masashi Niwano as the Festival and Exhibitions Director for the SFIAAFF. Niwano had been Executive Director of the Austin Asian American Film Festival. … The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that Landmark Theatres will no longer operate the Clay Theatre after this Sunday, August 29. The landlord’s plans for the single-screen venue are yet to be determined, and its existence as a movie house is plainly in doubt.

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