Paulina drives around Santa Monica in a car that always seems ready to conk out. She is making a film about the Pico neighborhood in which she grew up. She hires a young cameraman, interviews people about their lives and remembers her own childhood. She keeps running into a poet who wants to be involved in her film, to give her tips on who to speak to “or the story will not get told.” Although she suspects he may be a flake, she finally lets him share with her his real, as well as mystical, experiences in the Pico area.
The woman is Paulina Sahagun, writer, teacher, actor and co-producer of 90404 Changing, a unique docu-drama about an often-overlooked area of Santa Monica. The director is Michael Barnard, a film industry veteran and resident of the 18th Street Arts Center. 90404 also features actor Barry Shabaka Henley (Paulina’s real-life husband) as the mysterious poet.
But 90404 Changing’s real star is the Pico community itself. Among those who bear witness to the area’s changes are Amelia Diaz Casillas, owner of the (now vanished) Casillas grocery; Terry Gomez, co-owner of Gallegos Mexican Deli; artist/muralist Daniel Alonzo; former Santa Monica Mayor Nat Trives; and Paulina Sahagun’s own father.
The building of the 10 freeway is pinpointed by many of those interviewed as the beginning of the change. The homes of many Mexican, Mexican-American and African-American families were bulldozed to make way for the freeway. Displaced residents moved to Venice, West LA or beyond. More recently, the creation of the “media district” – with the offices of Sony, MTV and the Water Garden complex – has violated the sense of a small-town area where everyone knew everyone.
The film offers up some surprising facts: the east end of the Pico neighborhood was once home to many Japanese families who owned small farms; there is a natural spring in an area sacred to the Tongva tribe on the campus of University High in nearby West LA; the humble Broadway barber shop has had visitors from around the globe.
At a recent benefit screening of 90404, Barnard, Sahagun and artist Michelle Berne, who contributed her larger-than-life puppets to a special sequence in the film, were interviewed by NPR’s Renee Montagne and by audience members.
Barnard said 90404 was a project some 13 years in the making. “I lived in the [Pico] neighborhood from 1972 to ’74,” he said. Years later, in 1994, he met a woman who was a longtime resident of the area, and what she told him about the changes that had occurred “stirred” him so much that he began work on a film that would capture the transitions and their impact.
“I didn’t want to do the same old kind of regular documentary,” Barnard added. He created a film-within-a-film story line and developed a female character to be the narrator and fictional filmmaker. When he had drawn Berne into the project, she suggested Sahagun as a real-life person who seemed to embody the character in the script.
Barnard is hoping that funds from benefit screenings and sales of the DVD will help him with a project to get the City to establish a database of the film’s unused footage – there are many more hours worth of valuable interviews. And in answer to an audience question, he said, “Yes, I would like for all the members of the City Council to see the film. They have busy schedules – but I hope they will all see it eventually.”