Berkeley grad looks to Burma to complete film on ‘art as a weapon’

Jeff Durkin was a Berkeley architecture student in 1999 when “it all came together in a spark of light,” and his life was forever changed. He fell in love with film.

Fast-forward to 2011, when following his bliss leads Durkin, now a San Diego-based filmmaker, to the Burmese border to finish shooting a documentary on how art can change the world. At least that’s the ending he has in mind.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, some backstory.

The San Jose native knew nothing about filmmaking in 1999, and less about Burma. “I wanted to be an architect,” he says, looking out at the campus from the patio of Caffe Strada. “My dream, my whole life, was to be an architect.”

Now comes the plot twist. With graduation fast approaching, he took an elective “just to get three units.” Instead, the interdisciplinary class, “Word and Image,” gave Durkin a whole new perspective. Architecture was history.

“It hit me so hard,” he remembers. Using friends as actors, he was soon directing his debut movie, an autobiographical short he describes as “Good Will Hunting in Berkeley.” Before long he moved to L.A., where he landed a job in post-production for movies like Fight Club and The Grinch.

Money for art?

To make a pledge to Art as a Weapon, visit Durkin’s page on Kickstarter.

He was fired after six months.

“My heart just wasn’t in technical support,” he admits. “They knew it. They said, ‘Jeff, this is wrong for you, you don’t belong in post-production. You belong on set, filming.’ They cut me loose for my own good.”

In true Hollywood fashion, a “friend of a friend” got him a TV gig in San Diego, where he spent the next two years as an assistant director on what he calls “B-level sci-fi shows.” It wasn’t art, but the experience taught him the ins and outs of directing. “That was my film school, right there,” he says.

Invisible Man to Aung San Suu Kyi

Still, The Invisible Man is a far cry from Art as a Weapon, a documentary-in-progress exploring “the connection between street art, Buddhism and democracy” in Burma, among the least democratic regimes on earth.

Art, his second independent feature, grew out of his first, Working Class, a self-financed look at a pair of street artists, one in San Francisco and the other San Diego. During the filming, artist Shepard Fairey, known for his 2008 Obama “Hope” poster, was in San Diego to create a 30-foot mural of a Burmese monk. Durkin shot him for three days, and in the process hatched an idea for a new documentary on Buddhism, art and Burma.

Then, “out of the blue,” he learned of an extraordinary telephone call between a Berkeley class and Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, recently released from seven years under house arrest.

He obtained an audio copy of the phone call from the event’s organizers, and — with help from Min Zin, a Burmese activist at the School of Journalism, Berkeley lecturer Darren Zook and the U.S. Campaign for Burma — learned as much as he could about Burma and the so-called Saffron Revolution.

For Durkin, who says “politics is not my nature,” politics was now central to his vision of the new film. As with his change of career, he attributes the shape of the documentary to a large measure of serendipity.

“One thing led to another,” he says. “Signs of the cosmos came together.” After listening to Suu Kyi’s campus talk, he conducted an interview with a monk about Buddhism. By coincidence, the monk turned out to be Burmese.

“I was like, jeez, this film’s telling me to make it,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about Burma, but I had all this material. I had a monk talking about his escape from Burma, I had Aung San Suu Kyi calling UC Berkeley and I had Shepard Fairey painting a huge Burmese monk. So I had these three pieces of the puzzle — Buddhism, human rights and art.

“This is a story that’s been happening for 40 years,” he adds, referring to the brutal repression of the Burmese junta, which has given way to what the U.S. State Department terms a “nominally civilian regime” dominated by former senior military officers. “My angle, to make it fresh and to make it new, is to bring in the idea of how artists, and creative expression, are coming and creating a new type of resistance that hasn’t been there before.”

Durkin likens these Burmese refugees to punk and hiphop artists here in the U.S. “Once they get to Thailand they have freedom, they have democracy, and the first thing they do is start to express themselves creatively — poetry, writing, filmmaking, graphic design, street art,” he says.

In order to film them, however, the director needs to get to Thailand. He’s turned to a crowdfunding site, Kickstarter, in hopes of raising $30,000 by Friday, Dec. 9. And though he’s nearly a quarter of the way to the goal, an element of suspense hangs over the project: According to Kickstarter’s terms, pledges count only if the target is reached by the deadline. Should the film pull in anything less than $30,000 in pledges, “we won’t see a cent of it.”

Meanwhile, Durkin continues to make the rent with a day job at an architectural firm, and considers his time as an undergrad in the College of Environmental Design a fine foundation for a film career.

Architecture “kind of taught me how to think,” he says. “It set up a framework for me of how to solve problems creatively, to look at the world in an observational manner, absorb all the information, remix it and come up with a building that’s perfect for that neighborhood. And I’ve definitely applied that to my filmmaking.”