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By Jill Stewart
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Local is a word that often comes up in conversation with filmmaker Sanaa Hamri. She had to temporarily relocate to the East Coast to shoot the recently released Just Wright, a "Cinderella story in the NBA" starring Common and Queen Latifah, but her heart remained in her home hood of Rancho Park.
Sitting in Food on Pico one brisk spring morning, the self-described slow-food devotee waxes rhapsodic on her many neighborhood haunts, located more or less within walking distance: Buttermilk Bakery, John O'Groats, the Landmark Theatre, Laser Blazer. "I wander around a lot," Hamri says. "I really like supporting local boutique stores, because that's what builds community."
Born in Morocco, Hamri moved to New York at 17 to study acting at Sarah Lawrence. She edited, then directed music videos, and after seven years, work brought her out West, never to return. "I'm a super-duper L.A. fan," she says. "I wouldn't live anywhere else."
Hamri's adopted city served as the third major character in her 2006 feature directorial debut, Something New, in which a well-off, uptight African-American career woman (Sanaa Lathan) cautiously falls for the boho white guy (Simon Baker) whom she's hired to landscape her Baldwin Hills home. As the new couple's very different worlds collide, Hamri leads us through off-the-beaten-path L.A. locations rarely seen on film, training her camera on geographic, architectural and social manifestations of racial and economic diversity, as well as the "aspirational realities," as Hamri puts it, which can keep people apart or bring them together.
"L.A. is not just Wilshire and Rodeo and the Hollywood club scene," the director points out. "I like showing a place that everyone has seen over and over again, and highlighting it with my point of view."
Hamri also brings a unique point of view to the genre of romantic comedy. "It feels like you see that same movie 20 million times," she says. "But I'm interested in giving a slice-of-life of supposed outsiders."
Like Something New, Just Wright is about a 30-something working woman (Latifah) who has devoted herself to work, to the detriment of her personal life. "I love the story about the woman who just bought her first house, who loves her work — but doesn't fit into the box of traditional gender roles," Hamri says.
Her passion for keeping it local has been thwarted somewhat by changes in film financing. "I really want to shoot here again. Unfortunately, all the production companies and studios are going outside of L.A., because we're getting better tax breaks in other cities and states," Hamri laments. "It costs us more to work here. I hope that changes."
In the meantime, she will continue to fight to make the world of romantic comedy a better place.
"Since that genre reaches so many people, it's almost, like, better to give them a home-cooked meal rather than fast food," the filmmaker says, smiling slyly. "You can reach the masses, so why not give them something to think about?"