When the Oakland International Film Festival launched in the fall of 2002, one of the intentions of its organizers was to honor the diversity that made Oakland a breeding ground for artistic talent and cultural movements. Twenty years later, its mission remains the same. So it’s no surprise that this year’s film lineup includes We Were Hyphy, a documentary directed by Larry Madrigal and produced by Jason O’Mahony. The film chronicles the Oakland origins of the hyphy movement—a scene that came to dominate the sound and culture of Bay Area hip hop in the late-90s and 2000s—as told by those who were directly involved or came of age during that era.
“We look at Oakland as a city that represents culture, freedom, and justice,” said festival co-founder and director, David Roach. “We carry that theme, and films that come to us oftentimes are in that particular space.”
For Madrigal, having the film shown at the Grand Lake is a dream come true.
“In retrospect, when we first started as a team, I thought about it as this whimsical fantasy: How cool would it be to play at the Grand Lake Theater?” Madrigal said. “That was the goal from the beginning.”
For Roach, showcasing the documentary at this year’s festival was a no-brainer. “We’re feeling hyphy right now, the more we talk about it. There’s so much culture in Oakland, and it’s oftentimes not celebrated,” he said. “We’re excited to celebrate the culture and be a platform for letting the world know that Oakland is unique.”
Madrigal came of age during the hyphy era and grew up as a fan of the music and culture around it. But it was O’Mahony, who Madrigal had worked with on past video projects, who first suggested making a film about the movement.
“I would always tell Jason stories, and he was fascinated by it. I would send him Mac Dre songs and clips from sideshows when we were at work,” Madrigal said. “Then he approached me one day and said, ‘You should make a little short film about the hyphy movement. If you want to direct, I’ll produce it.’ And I said, yes, that sounds great.”
The duo began work on the project in 2018, often putting in hours on weeknights and weekends. What began as a short film snowballed into a full-length documentary featuring heavy hitters from the era like producers Rick Rock, Trackademicks, Droop-E, and Oakland rapper Mistah FAB. The filmmakers also sought out the cultural and academic perspectives of KQED journalist Pendarvis Harshaw and Sacramento State University scholar-activist Dr. Andrea L. Moore.
“It’s 100% a function of what a brilliant storyteller Larry is. I think he’s done an amazing job of capturing the hyphy movement,” O’Mahony said. “We’re lucky because he was so embedded, and I wasn’t at all. The film does a good job of bridging that gap between people who know what hyphy is and people who don’t—there’s sort of a wonderful universality to it.”
The pandemic slowed the project, and as a result, post-production wasn’t completed until this past spring. It debuted shortly after at the Cinequest Film Festival in the South Bay in April.
Madrigal and O’Mahony said they have over 80 hours of footage that wasn’t used in the film that they hope the public will see at some point, possibly in future productions.
“I hope this inspires more people to make more hyphy movies,” Madrigal said. “You can have a series where every episode is about a different part of the culture. There’s so much that we weren’t able to fit in.”
Over his two decades running the festival, Roach has seen how advances in technology have helped democratize the filmmaking process, resulting in more content than ever before.
“In the past, we had to shoot film, and you had to have someone who specialized in being an editor to cut the film,” Roach said. “Now people have nonlinear systems like Premiere and Adobe and other kinds of software out there that’s affordable for folks. There’s such an abundance of stories that are being told, so now you have the problem of access to so much content. What are we going to do with it? We’re trying to figure that out.”
In addition to stories about culture, Roach has seen a rise in short films and features that focus on pressing social justice issues like climate change, food justice, and Indigenous land rights. This is one of the reasons he chose to have a screening at the Freedom Farmers Market in Temescal, a non-traditional location for a film festival but one that encapsulates the social justice values embedded in many of this year’s films.
“We’re also trying to bring some awareness to the market. It hosts African American farmers and other minority farmers,” Roach said. “We’re hoping people come out to support the films and connect to the people who provide the food.”
Roach plans to use the festival’s 10-day run as an opportunity for greater community engagement among residents and small businesses in the film venues’ neighborhoods. On opening night, social gatherings are planned along Grand Avenue in partnership with the festival. “People can expect Lakeshore and Grand Avenue to become a film hub,” he said. “Also, a real central part of our festival is the Q&A sessions afterward.”