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May 7, 2001

San Jose Journal: Filming Another Side of Silicon Valley


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SAN JOSE, Calif., May 5 In the old days of the New Economy say, one long year ago the only story in Silicon Valley was about all that money.

The legends of the high-tech boom were paper millionaires yet to reach their 30's, start-up companies financed by more venture capital than they knew what to do with (open-bar parties were common in those days) and houses for sale with 30 bidders offering six figures over the asking price.

But Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, filmmakers from Berkeley, were determined to document the other side of that life. They knew people who rode buses all night because they could not afford housing, and who scraped by working in plants for some of the wealthiest corporations in the world.

Ms. Kaufman and Mr. Snitow, who had produced one documentary, "Blacks and Jews," delved into the unglamorous side of the Valley, the people struggling to get by.

Their timing was impeccable. With laid-off dot-comers re-evaluating their short stints as masters of the world, forming support groups and going back to school to be teachers, a documentary about the dark side of the valley has struck a nerve.

"Secrets of Silicon Valley," shot on videotape for $300,000, is a hit.

The film, which focuses on a young temporary worker at a San Jose plant that assembles and packages Hewlett-Packard printers and on the director of a nonprofit computer training center in East Palo Alto, the poorest town in the richest region in the country, played to sold-out audiences in its limited release in three independent theaters in the Bay Area.

And to the surprise of the filmmakers, who conceived of "Secrets" with schools and perhaps public television in mind, the film on Friday began a run at a commercial triplex, the Towne Theater here in San Jose, the unofficial capital of Silicon Valley.

Ron Regalia, the advertising director for the Towne, said the 60-minute film sold out the three days it played in the theater last month, and interest was so high that people kept calling and sending e-mail to ask whether it would play again.

Ms. Kaufman, the founding director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and Mr. Snitow, a former news producer for the Bay Area Fox station, are delighted. The talk about the film, which appears to appeal to dot-comers as well as to those who were left out of the boom, is catching the attention of distributors in New York, the Midwest and New England.

"We really wanted the film to get people thinking and talking about the downside of the New Economy," Ms. Kaufman said, "so it's great that the film has the chance to reach the broadest audience possible."

The film chronicles a year in the life of Magda Escobar, the director of Plugged In, a community organization designed to acquaint unskilled poor people, mostly local members of minorities, with the digital world, and Raj Jayadev, an activist who takes a job packaging Hewlett-Packard printers as a temporary worker with Manpower Services Inc.

Ms. Escobar's story begins with Plugged In winning the Sandhill Challenge, a soapbox derby for charity that Silicon Valley venture capitalists take as seriously as the World Series. The film follows the eviction of Plugged In from its building to make way for a shopping mall, and a visit from President Bill Clinton and Jesse Jackson last year.

Mr. Jayadev's story, which uses stock footage of the plant because Hewlett-Packard would not allow the filmmakers inside, shows his efforts to organize workers to call attention to ergonomic hazards and concerns that paychecks may have been shortchanged.

Ms. Escobar, who is still trying to raise money for a new headquarters for Plugged In Hewlett-Packard is one of its sponsors sounded relieved about the film. "When people are making documentaries, you're not exactly sure what the perspective might be," she said. "It was kind of cool to see it."

Mr. Jayadev, who runs a collective called De-bug to organize temporary workers, was equally pleased.

"I'm happy that the film is getting looked at by a lot of people," he said, "because I think it's important to show all aspects of the New Economy."

Outside the Towne Theater on Friday night, people waiting to see the film said much the same thing. "The media never focused on the other side of the equation," said Bill Ferguson, who works at a job training center.

Those who have seen the film have said the protagonists have star potential. "I loved his line about how we should think about how machines just don't materialize how they come from human hands," said Sheila MacMurray, a part-time liberal arts student at San Jose State University, referring to Mr. Jayadev. "He seems like a real leader for the post-New Economy."

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