Documentary shines spotlight on human cost of Sonoma Developmental Center closure
Once upon a time at Sonoma Developmental Center (SDC) in Eldridge, you could pass through and catch a glimpse of elderly men and women pushing their adult children in wheelchairs across the grassy grounds, or sitting in the shade of the Butler Oaks on Arnold Drive. Affectionate and forever attentive, these dedicated parents visited their children at SDC for decades.
When the state shuttered the facility in 2018, the center’s clients were relocated away from the only home many of them had ever known. Now, their story has been captured in a documentary by filmmaker Malinalli López.
“True Humans” features several lifelong residents of SDC and their parents, and details what happened to them in the aftermath of the center’s closure. The 43-minute film documents the transition for clients, families, employees and the community, one of several efforts currently underway to preserve the center’s 127-year history.
López grew up in the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa, an area which has long served as an entry point for immigrants and refugees. “My family and the people who I grew up with always had the courage to face life’s circumstances, even though things often looked dark and bleak,” López said of the upbringing that informs her filmmaking.
After graduating from UC Berkeley, while employed as both a business consultant and Adjunct Faculty in Chicano Studies at Sonoma State, López followed a lifelong ambition to become a filmmaker, earning a MFA in motion pictures and television from the Academy of Art University San Francisco. “I wanted to tell stories of courage and self-determination,” she said.
She launched XQL Media in 2015 - named after Xochitquetzal, Aztec Goddess of the Art - and made commercials for several years. Eager for a wider reach, López moved on to documentary films, selecting topics that fit under the broad umbrella of “social justice,” stories that moved her and felt important to tell.
López’s first film was “Heart of Leona,” a 12-minute profile of a talk radio host who struggled to rediscover her voice after being fired from the job she’d held for 20 years. In her second effort, “Islands of Loneliness,” López examined the link between the immigrant experience and depression, deftly tackling a sensitive, even taboo topic in 30 minutes of documentary film.
For “True Humans,” López featured an SDC client named Buck - among others - and the adult advocate/conservator who oversaw his care. Buck, or Bucky as he was known, sat at the SDC bus stop every day for years, waving enthusiastically at passers-by in his trademark yellow clothing.
Unlike most of the other SDC clients, Bucky had been left on the center’s doorstep as an infant by, one assumes, loving but overwhelmed parents. For decades, he was a recognizable figure on the SDC campus, dropping stones for hours off the bridge spanning Sonoma Creek, or flagging passing cars from his favored perch.
“We chose him because he’s so iconic,” Lopez said. “Of all the people from SDC we featured, Bucky lived there the longest. He can’t speak, so he gestures a lot. When he gets excited, he looks to be agitated, but that’s not really the case. He just gets very excited about the things he loves, like the color orange, and being in nature, for instance.”
López was surprised at the depth of feeling clients had for caregivers, and vice versa, across the board. Her assumption going in was that the medically fragile clients of SDC existed in a universe of one. “But they constantly interacted with one another,” she said. “It was a really rich community. In fact, employees reported that the residents gave a lot back to them, even though none of the clients I featured in the documentary can speak.”
For the film, López interviewed California state Senator Mike McGuire, John McCaull of the Sonoma Land Trust, and 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, all of whom have endeavored to shepherd the SDC’s people and land through the massive changes the transition demands.
Gorin’s office was one of several entities to help underwrite “True Humans,” using discretionary funds allocated to each county supervisor. “We had a little bit of (TOT) funding to support this film, and I was very gratified to do that,” Gorin said. “I think the story (López) told is a really important one, documenting the lives of the residents who were still living at the SDC. This was their home for most, if not all, of their lives. The transition was pretty jarring to the residents and their families. It’s important to remember the history of the SDC and the caregiving services they provided.”
At the suggestion of County Attorney Brian Farrell, López also worked closely with Kathleen Miller of the Parent Hospital Association, a group representing the devoted families of Eldridge clients. With Miller’s facilitation, López recorded several clients’ life stories, and the experience of transitioning them into smaller homes in the community after decades living at SDC.
In its 43 minutes, “True Humans” strives to answer large, existential questions: What does it mean to be human? To be evicted from the place you’ve called home most of your life?
The documentary is in the final stages of production and will be soon available for submission to film festivals around the country. It is scheduled to be presented at Sonoma State University in the fall, and may become part of a future museum to be erected somewhere on the former campus, if the Glen Ellen Historical Society’s plans come to pass.
On Sunday, Aug. 4, “True Humans” will screen at Sebastiani Theatre at 1 p.m. López reported that the show is already halfway sold out.
She believes “story-telling can help us heal,” and hopes her film honors the stories of the “True Humans” of Eldridge. “We are interested in shining a light on some of the most important issues facing society, and creating greater equity,” López said. “We believe stories are a bridge that connect all human beings.”
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