Film: Critic's Choice: 'San Francisco's Broken Promise'

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Thurs/29, Delancey Street Screening Room

WHEN A GROUP  of Modesto Junior College students began looking into what Bay Guardian editor and publisher Bruce B. Brugmann calls "the biggest scandal in American history involving a city," most of them knew nothing about Hetch Hetchy Valley, and none of them had ever heard of the Raker Act. But spurred by a series of Bay Guardian stories and led by their instructor, Carol Lancaster Mingus, a veteran public television producer, they spent 17 weeks researching the story, doing interviews, and putting together archival footage. The result, San Francisco's Broken Promise, is a remarkably clear, cogent account of how Pacific Gas and Electric Co. kept public power out of San Francisco. In just half an hour, the documentary summarizes one of the great stories in the city's history, hitting all the major points. It describes how the fight over the damming of Hetch Hetchy Valley was the first major nationwide environmental battle, how the Sierra Club and John Muir fought to save the spectacular twin of Yosemite Valley twin, and how Congress agreed to let San Francisco build the dam, but only with a very specific condition: The dam had to generate electricity, and that cheap, public power had to be used to keep PG&E's monopoly out of town. Obviously, the Bay Guardian (and its editor-publisher) play a key role in the doc. But the real star is Joe Neilands, the retired UC Berkeley biochemistry professor who first got onto the story in 1969. Neilands describes in his calm, soft-spoken way how the entire premise behind the Raker Act has been actively violated for more than 80 years. In the end, the film is a bit soft on the "restore Hetch Hetchy" movement, which wants to tear down the dam (a move that would be a deadly blow to public power in the city). And I would have loved to see some Michael Moore-style confrontations of PG&E executives and key public officials (like US senator, and former SF mayor, Dianne Feinstein, who figures prominently in the story but gets away with simply "declining comment." But Mingus and the student crew do a fine job of telling a complex tale without the use of a narrator, just splicing together a series of interviews. The film provides a wonderful public service: It gives a solid primer on the immensely complicated story of a scandal involving hundreds of millions of dollars – and does it in a way that's entertaining, understandable, and wrapped up in a 30-minute package. Screening this week as part of the San Francisco World Film Festival, San Francisco's Broken Promise ought to be aired on KQED, on local cable, and in classrooms and meeting rooms all over the city, and it ought be considered a mandatory part of any local activist's basic political education. Thurs/29, 5 p.m., 600 Embarcadero, SF. $10. Festival runs Thurs/29-Sun/2; call (415) 725-0009 or go to www.sfworldfilmfestival.com/festival.html for a complete schedule. (Tim Redmond)

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