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Four-day film festival champions ‘brave’ stories that elevate new or overlooked voices

BraveMaker founder wants the Bay Area to become a hub of film and art, starting with Redwood City

In 2019, a three-day film festival made its humble debut in Redwood City. 

Popping up in venues throughout downtown, the BraveMaker Film Festival brought dozens of filmmakers to the city, hosting workshops, networking events and, of course, screening films. It was a success, and the organizers had every intention of making it an annual event.

Then, the pandemic hit. 

“In 2020, like everybody, we ended up putting everything online,” said Executive Director Tony Gapastione. Embracing the remote model, he and his partner launched a podcast and a YouTube channel. “So now, two years later, we've been online for these two years, and we have built a really national community of BraveMaker artists.”

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Tony Gapastione, founder and executive director of Bravemaker. Richard Shiu

An actor-cum-filmmaker-cum-entrepreneur, Gapastione grew up in Chicago but has lived in the Bay Area since 1998. He founded BraveMaker in 2018 to create opportunities for emerging, ambitious, or in his words “brave,” storytellers. 

In 2019, the BraveMaker Film Festival hosted several thousand attendees throughout the weekend. On Thursday, the media organization will kick off its fourth annual film festival—the second in person—and Gapastione hopes to see even bigger numbers.

“We want to move people. We want to grow our reach. We want to have fun,” he said. “We want people to feel like they leave super inspired.”

The Pulse spoke with Gapastione about this year’s festival and his hopes for the future. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little about the origins of your nonprofit, BraveMaker.

I had been acting for quite some time, and then I became a filmmaker, and I really wanted to find a way to catalyze our city in a way that I've experienced in things like Sundance Film Festival, which is really one of my main inspirations. So I started BraveMaker to really elevate brave stories for justice, diversity and inclusion. We've been hosting a summer film festival and then monthly film screenings in community spaces, partnering with different organizations, nonprofits, churches, schools—any community centric org that really wants to make our Redwood City area better.

We always do a sit down panel discussion after each film, which is kind of rare. At Sundance, they basically stand at the end for 15 minutes, and they don't sit down but we want to go, ‘hey, take a breath, ask questions, share how you were impacted emotionally.’ Because we're always picking films that are elevating stories about racial justice, or disability representation or the LGBTQ+ community.

How was the seed of the idea first planted? And how did it come to reality?

I had been working for another nonprofit, in the faith community for a lot of time, for 20 years. 

I don't know if you've heard of Street Life Ministries? It's an organization. So I started that in 2001, in Menlo Park, and then I passed it off in 2009.

I kind of found myself feeling a little a little stuck in that community. I was doing a lot of creative work, but I didn't feel as if my skills were being used to the max. And I also felt like there were some roadblocks to be able to do some of the inclusive work that I felt needed to be done. So I had to get my stuff together and talk to my wife and go, ‘I can't stay with this job. I'm feeling like it's time to jump, you know, like, jump out into the unknown and start something.’ 

I like starting things. I like being able to, you know, pave the way and then find the right people who can take it to a place that I can't. I like the entrepreneurial life; I like taking risks and trying new things. That keeps me satisfied. 

What kinds of challenges have you encountered running BraveMaker?

It's a lot of work. This is my third job. So I have two other jobs: I am finding ways to raise money through corporate partnerships, and we also do production for small businesses and nonprofits. And I do a lot of creative direction—writing, digital storytelling, that kind of thing. A lot of my work is how can I find partners to really underwrite all this work and do the things. Like, we're renting the Fox Theater in Redwood City for opening night and that's a pretty penny, right? So we have to find people that believe in these visions and want to support. So really, it's just been about expanding our reach and expanding our partners. 

I feel good about this year, but, if I'm honest, next year we need a whole heck of a lot more support because it's just getting so big. But I love it. I am a filmmaker myself, as is all of my team. And we want to do it because we know how much people need a space to exhibit their films, right? We want to support filmmakers; we want to have film screenings and do workshops because we know ourselves we need that support and training.

You really champion diversity in your organization and the artists it seeks to uplift. Can you tell me a little about your team? 

One of the things I'm really proud of is the diversity of the people. I know, as a white man, I needed to make sure that I was being an ally, I wanted to make sure that we were creating space that reflected, inclusively, the Redwood City community. And so, if you look on our page on the team page, Krystina Wray Jackson is my go-to partner. She is a Black woman who uses a wheelchair, and she's LGBT. She moderates all of our panels, and she also advocates for disability representation. And then we've got Rhobertino, a Latino programmer. He watches films, programs films, finds films, and he's actually a Redwood City native. And then Jessica Musgrave—I won’t name everybody—but she's been with us from the very beginning. And she's our producer. And we just bought in Marcellus and Kristen [Adams-Metayer] to be our festival coordinator and volunteer coordinator. And they are just awesome.

The full BraveMaker team on the red carpet. Evan Ajuria

For you, why was Redwood City the right place to launch this kind of film festival?

I just love Redwood City so much. My wife and I met here. We have our kids here. And in 2018 when I was launching [BraveMaker] and kind of getting ready to take a leap of faith, I thought: ‘Maybe I need to go to LA. Maybe I need to do it now.’ And it just didn't seem like the right time.

I said, ‘I think entrepreneurs can make things happen anywhere.’ And I love the Bay Area so much. We need to make production and film festivals and art elevated to a place that's just as important as it is in LA or New York or Chicago or wherever.

I will give huge kudos to the Redwood City Parks and Recreation crew, as well as the Redwood City Parks and Art Foundation. Those two organizations were super crucial to helping me build the foundations.

In terms of actually putting on the festival, what goes into that?

I kind of joke, it's like planning a wedding. So I have a lot of people that are helping, but I have to find caterers, I have to find venues, I have to write checks, I have to find swag, I have to find volunteers. We have over 40 different volunteers coming to oversee the event. 

Then we have to watch films. We had 130 submissions of films from all over the world. And we could only choose 40 to screen in person. We had to get a streaming company to work with us, we had to create our own little Netflix, we had to get producers and cinematographers to be able to film stuff, social media team. It's like so much work. But I know it's worth it. 

A panel discussion during the 2019 Film Festival. Ryan Gunnarson

So how do you select the films for your festival?

We have a team of people, so they’re our jury. And we'd like all of our films to be watched and rated at least two times but we prefer three times. We have about 25 people who watch the films, and then there's a 10-point rating system. And we don't take any films that get under a seven. So we ask: Does it have a brave original voice? What is the direction like? How would you rate the writing? Is there good dialogue? What's the cinematography? How are the performances of the actors? Does it have good production value? How’s the pacing and the story structure? What's the sound and music like? Is there a diverse cast and crew? That's important to us.

About 80% of them are submitted. And 20% are sourced by our lead programmer Rhobertino who travels a lot and goes to different film festivals.

Do you watch all of them yourself?

I watch almost all of them. When they’re a two or three, I don't go in there to watch them because we have a team of people who are filtering them out. But I watch all of the ones that we choose. 

We had 40 this year. And that's really just because of limitations in our space. You know, we're going to be showing things outside in the Courthouse Square, Fox Theater, Century 20, the Redwood City Library. So we try to squeeze in as much as we can, and sometimes it's heartbreaking, but we just can't take them—even the best ones.

You named your organization, and film festival, BraveMaker. In your mind, what is a brave film?

When we see a story that is tackling difficult issues, that is expressing empathy or showing grace from an underrepresented voice, or when we come across a film that is shedding some light… Like, we have an amazing filmmaker, Damien Smith, who did a film in St. Louis, Missouri, about this toxic spill that was basically hidden from the residents of St. Louis. And he got to uncover all of these just evil practices that were impacting the Black community in St. Louis, Missouri. That’s a brave film. Exposing darkness and bringing light. 

And then a brave film could just be someone taking a risk. We really care about mental health and suicide prevention. We're partnering with StarVista this year, because we have two films that deal with suicide prevention and awareness. And those are brave films. One of the films is called Continue, it’s just called Continue, and the filmmaker is ​​Nadine Crocker. She wrote it, she directed it, she stars in it. And it’s based on the true story of her almost dying by suicide and how she reflects back, and she's so grateful she didn’t. 

We love when fear is confronted. We love when we can laugh about important issues, and you know, take the air out a little bit. Like, after a film ends, we just love being able to be like, ‘Okay, take a deep breath. Let's talk. Let's go in there. Let's share our thoughts and questions.’

Do you ever have to take risks to do that? Is there some risk involved in some of the films you select?

Definitely. I'm sure we'll get some pushback on some of the things we're programming for this year.

The poster for "Mama Bears," a 2022 featured film. courtesy of BraveMaker

There's a film called Mama Bears that is going to be in the Fox Theater, and it is about parents who decided to not reject their children because of religious pressure. And they created a movement to embrace LGBT kids and trans kids and non-binary kids. And it's just a really beautiful story. But I know there are some people who will scoff at that. In fact, one year we were renting a building downtown that was owned by a church, and when they found out about one of the films we were screening, they said we couldn't screen or use the building anymore.

What was the film?

It was actually a fictional film that was written by a guy from Florida questioning his theology, as well, on LGBT issues. And so he wrote a story—a fictional, funny, funny film—about a straight guy who gets involved in an LGBT support group and learns that they’re real people, and he has to confess his judgment. And basically, goes, ‘I want to be better, I want to be different, I want to embrace you.’ Kind of the same concept, you know? So there are conservative communities that just will not embrace that and did not want to partner with us.

For people who attend the festival, what is your hope for their experience? What do you want them to come away with?

It's gonna be different for everybody. I always say, ‘I just hope you are moved in some way—moved to action, move to emotion, moved to connect with a filmmaker, moved to maybe even become a donor or supporter of these filmmakers. These are all independent artists that depend on the generosity of the greater community. And so I really want to create a movement of people who support these artists and who look forward to this every single year because they see people that they want to have conversations with, and it's impacting their life. 

The end result is going to be different for everybody. But if we just say, we're making space for you to learn something, and you walk away learning something, or maybe you want to take action in some way, then I think we've succeeded.

From your perspective, what is unique about what films can communicate?

I think stories are this universal medium for people to find themselves within. So, you might never have had to lose someone to death by suicide. But as you're watching a film, maybe you are moved because you're seeing a character on the screen who's trying to navigate grief, and you go, ‘Oh, my gosh, that's how I felt coming out of COVID. I felt like I didn't know what to do with myself. I didn't know where to go.’ Grief is in many forms. And so I think, for me, that's why I was so drawn to storytelling. Because we tell stories every day. We tell stories about how our day was. We tell stories while we're at Starbucks getting coffee. 

Those are ways that we connect with one another. So I think ultimately, it brings us together as human beings—it grounds us together. Films do something that I think nothing else can do. 

You sit in a theater for an hour and a half or two hours, and you're sharing this collective experience in the dark. You know, that’s why some people say it's like church. It's so meaningful, if you're open to it.

Do you think that there's something for everyone at this film festival?

Yes, for sure. We have really cool educational documentaries about migrant farmworkers. We have a whole student program block at the Redwood City Library that is free, that will be led by a celebrity named Jesse Garcia—who ironically is going to be next year coming out as the actor who plays the inventor of Hot Cheetos in Eva Longoria’s film called Flaming Hot. He's going to facilitate a panel with some of our student filmmakers. 

The poster for "Being Michelle," a 2022 featured film. courtesy of BraveMaker

We're going to show a bunch of short films of all different genres, all different stories, all different media—like animation, stop motion. And then you've got your fun films: We've got some horror comedy, we've got the fictional narratives, we've got just a smattering of all different types.

One of my favorite films that is coming is called Being Michelle. And this is a growth edge for us. We're really hoping to connect with the ASL community because Michelle is a documentary about a woman who went to jail without an ASL interpreter. She's deaf and autistic, and she was stuck in jail for five years. And now there's a documentary about her life and how she created art to heal and advocate for others. 

What are you most excited for this year?

We have some really cool LA people that are getting me excited. We have these four special guests. I told you already about Jesse Garcia. We have Alley Mills. She's this iconic actress from The Wonder Years. She was actually in my feature film called Last Chance Charlene. And then we've got a showrunner and screenwriter named Jeff Lieber. He's known for co-creating the show called Lost on ABC. And he also was the showrunner of the CW show called Charmed. And another woman named Angela Harvey, who wrote on 100 episodes of MTV’s Teen Wolf, as well as Shonda Rhimes’ Station 19. So some really cool movers and shakers in the entertainment industry who are going to spend time, all four days, doing workshops and doing some mentoring with our attending filmmakers.

For someone who maybe doesn't really know that much about film, what would be your invitation to them?

BraveMaker is for film lovers and filmmakers. So if you feel as if I don't want to make a film, but love films, don’t you think it's so powerful to sit with a creator and listen to the whys behind the what that they created? So I encourage all film lovers, come out, come meet face-to-face the people who are making these films. And get more information, get more connection than you would have had if you went on your iPad or laptop and watched it from home. 

The BraveMaker Film Festival takes place Thursday, July 7 thru Sunday, July 10 in downtown Redwood City. For more information and the full schedule of events, including films, workshops and receptions visit the digital program. The film festival will also be available online for those unable to attend in person.


Leah Worthington

About the Author: Leah Worthington

Leah, a Menlo Park native, joined the Redwood City Pulse in 2021. She covers everything from education and climate to housing and city government. Previously she worked as the online editor for California magazine in Berkeley and co-hosts a podcast.
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