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If you’re making the documentary festival rounds this fall, we hope you’ll catch some Cinereach supported films to take your global travels even further:
November 14 – 21 in New York, NY
November 7 – 17 in Copenhagen, Denmark
Cinereach Production Screening:
In this guest post, Cinereach grantee Laurie Collyer puts her latest film, Sunlight Jr., into the context of her body of work, and shares how she crafts fictional stories inspired by real injustice.
Sunlight Jr. is available on iTunes and other VOD platforms now. It opens in theaters November 15th.
Sunlight in My Eyes
a guest post by Laurie Collyer
I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed somewhere around the time Sherrybaby was in distribution. It fired me up. A journalist went “undercover” as a minimum wage worker in America and discovered first-hand that you cannot live (and can barely survive) on a minimum wage income. Her stories reminded me of Tati from my film Nuyorican Dream. She worked in a Dunkin Donuts and lived in a motel. I got it. You can work full time and still be homeless.
I learned the term “working poor” and went on to read David K. Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America, as well as Dale Maharidge’s Someplace Like America. Dale and I made friends, drank some beer, talked about saving the world, drank more beer. Writers, filmmakers, social workers, journalists, doctors, poets, lawyers – can any of us save the world? I don’t know. I just wanted to call bullshit on the injustice of working for nothing. I started writing the script in 2009 thanks to Cinereach.
My first film was the documentary Nuyorican Dream which Ernest Hardy in the LA Weekly described as “a film about the construction of identity, public and private, and about how all our source material — family, sexuality, race, class, the government’s role in our private lives — can collapse on top of us. At its core it’s about how we respond to that collapse.” I could say the same for Sunlight Jr.
I was lucky to have the opportunity to direct Naomi Watts, Matt Dillon, Norman Reedus and Tess Harper in this film. To watch talent of this caliber descend into their roles with such all encompassing, fearless dedication was humbling and profound. Naomi plays Melissa, a convenience store worker in her late 30’s who’s been around the block a couple of times. At this point in life, she’s not looking for trouble. All she wants is to be a good worker, a good girlfriend, and maybe some day she’d like to go back to school and better herself.
Matt plays Melissa’s boyfriend Richie, a paraplegic with a heart of gold and a drinking problem. He’s magnetic and smart, but prefers to avoid reality instead of commit to some kind of self-improvement plan which may or may not lead to making a decent living anyway. Their only escape is the love they make.
Melissa’s mother Kathleen is played by Tess Harper. Her backstory is that she was a teenage mom who raised her children on a welfare check. She now raises foster children for a living. And like Richie, she drinks too damn much. It seems that no matter how far Melissa tries to go in life, she keeps finding the same people with the same problems.
Norman plays Melissa’s ex. The “bad guy” who, in the end, turns out to be the only one who can help Melissa. When I first started writing the script and pitched it to one of my friends the only characters were the hard luck couple living in the motel. This particular friend grew up in Florida and said, “listen, I know this girl and there’s always an ex lurking around. You have to write the ex.” She was right!
The whole script came alive with the introduction of Norman’s character, Justin. He is sprinkled throughout the film like a wonderful spice, but his role is pivotal. He loves Melissa but when he gets angry, he can’t help but hit her. It’s his sickness and, sadly, he’s not looking for a cure.
Florida is the state where drug dealers from all over the East Coast flocked for years to buy Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin in “pain clinics” you find all over the state. A pain clinic is where you get a medical doctor to write you a prescription for hundreds of painkillers at the point of entry. You basically walk in the door, complain of an injury, fork over the cash and they write you a scrip. I’m not sure if they’ve cracked down on these places yet, but when we were shooting there, they were everywhere. I gave that detail to Norman’s character. He sells blackmarket Oxy’s. And buys cheap real estate with his profit. It’s the American Dream.
Some people have asked, “where is the hope?” But in its essence Sunlight Jr. is a love story. And there is no greater hope than love. Love can exist anywhere and under any circumstance. It can grow even when everything around us falls apart. Love is hope and love is a miracle. That is also the story I wanted to tell.
Sunlight Jr. is my third film after Nuyorican Dream (2000) and Sherrybaby (2006). I see these as a kind of trilogy exploring the American Dream and its underside, the nightmare. I grew up protesting nukes and going to Dead shows, shaving my head and camping out with anarchists outside a cruise missile base. These films come from that place. That activist place. So now I’m talking to my friend’s uncle who founded this little operation known as Greenpeace. We’ll see where that leads…
Penny Lane and Brian L Frye’s Our Nixon, a Cinereach grantee film, opens this Friday at New York’s IFC Center, at Orange County, CA’s New Port Theater, and in select Canadian cities, before adding more locations in the coming weeks.
For this guest post, the filmmakers took a break from discussing the film with the public to interview each other.
Penny asked Brian:
Penny Lane: When you look way back to when Bill Brand, the film professor at Hampshire College who preserved the Nixon Staff Super 8 films for the National Archives, first told you about the collection, what made you excited about the idea of making something with them?
Brian L. Frye : I’ve always been a fan of amateur films, but their anonymity often makes it difficult to shape them into a coherent whole. The rich context surrounding the Nixon Super-8 films suggested that they would be capable of telling a story, even before I had seen them or had any idea what kind of story they would be able to tell. Of course, the story of the Nixon administration has such an archetypal dramatic arc that it wasn’t hard to imagine some of what would emerge.
PL: Have any of the ideas you had back then remained in the project, or is Our Nixon just nothing like what you imagined?
BLF: I don’t think I ever had a fully formed idea of what the final film would look like, other than that it would be all archival. And it is! Initially, I did expect Our Nixon to be more minimal, in the tradition of avant-garde cinema, like my previous films Oona’s Veil, Across the Rappahannock, or A Reasonable Man. In other words, a movie that would show at art museums or microcinemas. But as soon as we launched our first Kickstarter project, it quickly became clear that Our Nixon had the potential to reach a much larger, general audience. However, in order to do so, it was going to need more context. We were going to have to figure out how to use the home movies to illuminate the story of the Nixon administration, rather than just as curious historical artifacts. I wanted the film to be good, and the initial cuts were far too opaque to be successful. While there was a certain pleasure in the purity of just using the Super 8 films and the secret White House tapes, it was ultimately unsatisfying, because the material had the potential to provide a much richer portrait of the Nixon White House. Still, I do think that impulse to keep Our Nixon as minimal as possible helped shape the final film, because we thought very carefully about what kinds of materials to incorporate, and avoided bringing in new elements unless there was a strong narrative reason to use them. I think my idea of what the film should be evolved along with the film itself, and I’m really happy with the results.
PL: There were some times throughout this process when we got some negative feedback. Sometimes it felt like a LOT of negative feedback. I always took that way harder than you did. Why were you so able to remain confident about the movie, even when others weren’t?
BLF: I didn’t think that most of the negative feedback was substantively very interesting, so it was easy for me to ignore. As you’ve said many times, the point of a test screening is to identify problems, not learn how to fix them. When people were confused, we added context. But when they insisted we make a more conventional film, I just ignored them. And when they complained that they couldn’t identify the filmmakers’ point of view, I knew we were doing something right. There’s nothing interesting about a pro-Nixon or anti-Nixon film. We tried to capture the experience of working for Nixon, in order to help people understand Nixon’s relationship to Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Chapin. People say you can learn a lot about a person by how they talk to a waiter. Maybe you can learn something about a president by how he interacts with his staff.
PL: What is your favorite reaction to the film that you’ve seen or heard or read so far?
BLF: I was really happy when Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter who broke the Watergate story with Bob Woodward, complimented the film’s ability to humanize Haldeman. We struggled to convey a sense of his personality and motivations, and I’m glad we succeeded. My favorite comment about the film came from the SXSW usher who said, “It was so much better than I thought it would be!” Really, what more can you ask for?
PL: What advice would you give someone who is just about to make their first feature documentary?
BLF: Be ambitious and don’t compromise. A lot of people will push you to make your movie more conventional, more familiar. But that is boring and we can do better. Challenge yourself to challenge your audience. It’s easy to make movies that people already want to see, but it’s not very interesting. Make the movies that people don’t know they want yet. And train yourself to recognize bad advice. There’s no one way to make a movie. To borrow an old saw, there are two kinds of movies: good ones and the rest. There’s no way to guarantee you’ll make a good movie, but it’s easy to guarantee you won’t. When someone says you can’t do something in a movie, it usually means you’re on the right track.
Brian asked Penny:
BLF: When I first told you about the Nixon Staff Super-8 Collection, what made you interested in collaborating on a film? Did you see a connection to your previous films?
PL: Well, at first I thought you would do something with it, and I think I encouraged you. I was drawn in by the mystery; I really couldn’t imagine what those films looked like and I just wanted to see them. I don’t remember at what point we decided to do it together. I know that I felt we were a really good team and could work well together. You and I make such different films… yours more minimal and mysterious, mine more concerned with storytelling and clarity. But this project seemed like one where we could bring our different skills and sensibilities together. I did see some connections to my previous films, in that I’ve worked with a lot of found footage, but the whole thing felt very, very new, and it felt like an adventure. I had no idea where it would go.
BLF: What was your reaction when you saw the Super-8 films for the first time?
PL: At first, every single thing about them was fascinating. I couldn’t get enough of the long shots of Nixon supporters at rallies and things like that. I just had never seen anything like it; it showed a side of America in that era that most films set in that period don’t show. Without realizing it, I think I had always thought all of America was out burning their draft cards and growing out their hair. Looking at this footage made me realize in a very visceral way that most of America at that time was what we might now call Square America. That the counterculture was the minority of people.
But on a more “what was life like working for Nixon?” level, I also loved the motorcade footage, the pomp and circumstance of head of state welcoming ceremonies, and the travelogue footage of Iran, Guam, Russia and so on. Overall, there was a sense of joyfulness, playfulness and awe that I think we both really responded to.
Then it got kind of boring and tedious, because it really is a lot of repetition: Nixon gives a speech, Nixon gets off an airplane, Nixon gets on an airplane, staff stand around while something important is happening (but we don’t know what’s happening) off-camera. So there was this fascinating balance of feeling the awe of being present at these world-changing events and also experiencing the total boredom of being at work all the time.
BLF: What was it like working with Francisco Bello to edit the film?
PL: It was amazing!!! Of course I had never worked with an editor before, and I was scared. I was scared we would choose the wrong person who wouldn’t understand our vision, and it would turn into a disaster. We had been working on the film for over a year by the time we hired Francisco, so it took a little time to achieve the total mind-meld where he just instinctively knew what I was looking for. But the primary feeling I experienced the minute he entered the process was relief. I was relieved to see the film racing forward, whereas previously it had been only inching forward. I was relieved that Francisco was fast and professional and unbelievably smart and creative, and a lot of fun to be around, too. He brought so much to the film, and truly more than anyone else allowed us to make this film, and for that I am beyond grateful.
BLF: What were the biggest technical challenges in making the film?
PL: The biggest nightmare was going through the process of replacing every frame of the film, by eye, with the new 4K scans after we got to picture lock. It was a step in the online edit which was very unique to this film. (In general, our online edit was pretty intense and time consuming, because we were working with all these different formats.) It was such a nightmare that it is truly not worth going into. All I can say is thank God for Francisco and for our able assistant editors, Kat Hunt and Alison Kobayashi. It was weeks and weeks of just mind-meltingly complex stuff. To any editors out there rolling their eyes: no, trust me; what we had to do was insane!
BLF: How did making Our Nixon affect your approach to Nuts, your new film project?
PL: Well, first of all it gave me a lot more confidence that I could trust my own vision and not need other people’s approval and blessing quite so much. I guess a little bit of success should translate into some amount of self confidence, right? But also having gone through the process of putting together a feature-length film once has helped me make better choices about story structure and also workflow. Nuts is actually a much more ambitious film than Our Nixon in terms of all the different things I’m trying to do with it, but now I feel like I know enough to pull it off. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
For all upcoming screenings of Our Nixon, click here.
Director / Producer Penny Lane has been making award-winning documentaries and essay films since 2002. Her films have screened at Rotterdam, AFI FEST, The Media That Matters Film Festival, Rooftop Films, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight and many other venues. She has been awarded grants from Cinereach, TFI Documentary Fund, LEF Foundation, NYSCA, Experimental Television Center, IFP and the Puffin Foundation. Our Nixon is her first feature documentary, for which she was awarded several grants and a residency at Yaddo. She is a Creative Capital grantee and was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012. Penny teaches video and media art at Colgate University. And yes, that is her real name.
Producer Brian L. Frye is a filmmaker, writer, and professor of law. His films explore relationships between history, society, and cinema through archival and amateur images. Brian’s films have been shown by The Whitney Museum, New York Film Festival, Pacific Film Archive, New York Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, The Warhol Museum, Media City and Images Festival. His films are in the permanent collection of The Whitney Museum. His writing on film has appeared in October, The New Republic, Film Comment and the Village Voice. A Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky, his legal scholarship concerns interactions between the law and the arts, focusing on issues relating to nonprofit organizations and intellectual property. Brian is a Creative Capital grantee and was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2012.
Cinereach production Teenage had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, its international debut at HotDocs in May, and opened Moscow’s Beat Film Festival earlier this month.
Next up are AFI Silverdocs (June 19 – 23), The Melbourne International Film Festival (July 25 – August 11), and a special screening July 31 in Cleveland Ohio as part of the Bellwhether Summer Film Series.
Writer and director Matt Wolf, punk author Jon Savage, who lives in Wales and wrote the film with Wolf, and actor and musician Jason Schwartzman, an executive producer of Teenage, were reunited during Tribeca (photo below).
During the festival the BBC’s Anglophenia interviewed Jon at the Cinereach offices for this video, which also includes an early glimpse of scenes from the film:
Matt, Jon and Jason also had this conversation with Interview about their own Teenage years and the parallels to the youth depicted in the film (among many other things).
To join the Teenage team in an ongoing dialogue about youth culture in all forms, decades and locations, visit the Teenage blog. The blog has been feeding the youth culture conversation for the past two years, while the film was in production. Director Matt Wolf saw it as a contract with his audience that he would someday complete the film, and now that he has, it remains a growing hub of imagery, video, and commentary on the teenage experience.
In this guest post, Cinereach grantees Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright describe the feelings and decisions surrounding finishing their film, Call Me Kuchu, after the murder of its protagonist, David Kato, with whom they had been filming for a year.
Call Me Kuchu takes place in Uganda, where a new bill threatens to make homosexuality punishable by death. David Kato, Uganda’s first openly gay man and retired Anglican Bishop Christopher Senyonjo work against the clock to defeat state-sanctioned homophobia while combatting vicious persecution in their daily lives. But no one is prepared for the brutal murder that shakes their movement to its core and sends shock waves around the world.
Call Me Kuchu opens today in New York City, and on June 21st in Los Angeles. Click here for info and tickets.
A guest post by Malika Zouhali-Worrall & Katherine Fairfax Wright
There’s something very peculiar about watching footage of someone you know after they’ve passed away. It’s a sensation we experienced in abundance as we first sat down to edit our documentary Call Me Kuchu in 2011. David Kato, the Ugandan gay rights activist whom we had been following over the course of a year had been brutally murdered back in January, and we had just returned from an emotionally exhausting seven-week shoot documenting the immediate aftermath of his death among his friends, family and fellow activists.
We had found out about David’s death almost in real time, when Naome Ruzindana, a close friend and Rwandan activist who appears in the film, sent us an urgent text message from Kampala to say that David’s neighbors were claiming they had seen an ambulance leaving his home that afternoon. It was January, and we were in New York between shoots, in the middle of a whiteout blizzard. One hour, and many frantic communications later, we received confirmation that David had been killed—bludgeoned to death with a hammer in his home.
The news left us reeling. It was difficult to conceive of how this was possible. Malika had spoken with David just the day before to check in about the shoot we were planning with him for the following month, the goal of which was to document David’s day-to-day life as an activist, from bailing out members of the LGBT community from jail, to filing lawsuits against homophobic newspapers. It had been a brief, but warm conversation. In the year that we had known him, David had transitioned from our first point-of-contact within the “kuchu” or LGBT community, to the protagonist of our film and a dear friend. And now he was gone.
It took only moments to realize what we had to do—in fact, there was no question. Having spent this much time filming David, we felt a profound responsibility to continue documenting his life and legacy, and to make a film that showed the David we had come to know—in all his intricacies. David had always been a passionate believer in the power of documentation, and we knew he would want this moment to be filmed. We knew we had to get back to Uganda as soon as possible to do just that.
The weeks following David’s death were among the most challenging we have ever faced. Uganda’s kuchus had lost the man known as the “Grandfather of the Kuchus,” a crucial community leader and a loved one.
In a particularly difficult moment, we visited David’s mother for the first time since his death, with Naome and Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a retired bishop and staunch supporter of the LGBT community. We had spent time filming with David’s mother before, so she was comfortable with our presence, but it was nevertheless a tough experience. The pain of her loss was so raw, and our memories of David so fresh, that within moments tears were streaming down our faces, and our hands trembled as we fumbled with cameras and sound gear.
But in many ways we distracted ourselves with the immediate tasks of filmmaking for those seven weeks, thereby postponing our grief. It wasn’t until months after David was killed, as we began parsing footage, that we really had to face the profound tragedy of what had happened.
During the time since his murder, David had understandably been somewhat mythologized by the international community and media. Vigils were held in his name around the globe, and world leaders, including President Barack Obama, had called on the government to investigate his death. While it was encouraging to see such widespread outrage about his murder, it was also bizarre to see David reduced to a martyr for a cause, summed up in a single photo on an online petition or a name on a placard.
We’d had the opportunity to capture a more intimate side of David. He was a courageous human rights activist, certainly, but he was also incredibly charismatic, comically foul-mouthed, and at times, so fearful for his safety that he was afraid to sleep alone at night. We were compelled to share what we had seen of his quotidian life so that people could understand that David wasn’t a superhuman hero, but rather a normal man who went to astounding lengths in his work to liberate Uganda’s LGBT community. And for those who might question the legitimacy of his rights as an LGBT individual, we realized it was essential to convey David’s humanity. And so with all of this in mind, we began to tease out his day-to-day life, the in between moments: David cooking at home, David on the bus, David digging for yams on his mother’s farm, David drinking beer in the dark because his home had no electricity.
At times, we also asked ourselves if we might need to scale back the apparent “emotional tsunami” of the story, in order to avoid melodrama, or appearing to overly exploit the viewer’s emotions. But we also couldn’t escape the facts of what we’d filmed.
As we sifted through the material, we were hit hard by eerie moments that seemed to presage the murder, such as David telling us where he wanted to be buried, and where he didn’t (which is in fact the very place where he now rests), or David listening to a colleague describe the crucial role of martyrs in human rights movements. At the time of filming, these moments had only slightly stood out, yet given everything that had come to pass, they now took on a whole new significance.
Further along in the edit, we also debated whether or not it was too cruel to cut from one very joyful communal scene—perhaps the happiest moment in the film—straight to the news of David’s murder. This rather sudden transition seemed to accurately reflect the sudden shock of his death. But might it be too steep a plunge for the viewer? What kept haunting us was the fact that this jubilant scene was in fact the last time that we had seen David alive. Ultimately, we decided, it seemed exactly right for the viewer to experience the final moments with David as we had: happy.
Malika Zouhali-Worrall is the co-director and the producer of Call Me Kuchu. Katherine Fairfax Wright is the co-director, editor and cinematographer.
Call Me Kuchu opens via Cinedigm June 14 in New York City, and June 21 in Los Angeles.
After premiering at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands, a Cinereach production, is making its New York debut at BAMcinemaFest on June 23rd, 2013. Tom, along with actors Silas Yelich and Peter Scanavino, will be at BAM for an audience Q&A.
For some background on the project, visit The Cold Lands blog, where Writer & Director Tom Gilroy talks about casting and working with first-time actor Silas Yelich (pictured above). Tom describes Silas, who received the Special Jury Award for Most Promising Actor at the Nashville Film Festival in April, as always having great instincts and being “very free with his impulses.” He was often “fueled by an entire box of Skittles and a Mountain Dew,” says Tom, “but every artist has his process.”
Tom also pays tribute to Lili Taylor (pictured below with Tom on the set of The Cold Lands). Lili, who plays Atticus’ mother, Nicole, received the Career Achievement in Acting Award at the Sarasota Film Festival in April.
“So she wasn’t in the movie, I wasn’t even sure yet the mother was going to be featured prominently,” Tom remembers. ”When she asked what was gonna happen in the story I said, ‘well, the kid lives off the grid with his mom–’ and Lili cut me off and said, ‘okay, that’s me, go on,’ and I just continued the story. From that point in she was the kid’s mom.”
The blog also has some stories from Tom and Composer Hahn Rowe’s about their collaboration on The Cold Lands’ original score with a sneak preview of a track from the film.
Cinereach grantee film Aquí y Allá, written and directed by Antonio Méndez Esparza, is on the tail end of its theatrical release in select US and Canadian cities. Tim Hobbs, one of the film’s producers, takes a moment to reflects on his film’s unique set of creative and financial risks, and how he and his team are identifying and navigating the challenges and opportunities in their path.
A guest post by Tim Hobbs
We always knew we were taking significant risks with Aquí y Allá (Here and There). It’s our view that taking real risks is a requirement of trying to make a really good film. From a business perspective, the idea is to fit that within a realistic framework so it can make sense.
Descriptively speaking, Aquí y Allá is a narrative feature about an immigrant who returns home to a small mountain village in Guerrero, Mexico after years of working in the US, and fights to rebuild his family and follow his dream of starting a band. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, where it won the Critics Week Grand Prize, and has been fortunate to have screened in nearly 30 countries around the world to date. None of which is to say anything in the entire process has come easy, or that we can yet rest assured.
We took significant risks making a film in a language other than English, casting only non-professional actors, filming in a remote mountain region of Mexico, and in the filmmaking approach in general.
Antonio’s directorial vision for the film was risky, as anything striving for originality must be. Aquí y Allá is peaceful, observational, and very much focused on the casual little details that accumulate into, we believe, rich characterization and a powerful overall narrative. In our approach, we embraced what we saw as the poetry of the film, and tried to create pure moments of the kind that might forever live on in the characters’ memories of home, family, childhood, and fatherhood. To do this, it was essential to allow for enough space for the seemingly insignificant to gather weight, and to allow the audience to bear witness to what is not said as much as what is, to the truth that often lies just below appearances. Similarly, although the film never actually directly shows “Allá” (referring to the US, and meaning: “over there” or “beyond”, and recalling “the other side”), we have tried to express how the presence of “Allá”, along with the absence of family and friends who have emigrated to “Allá”, is so strongly felt at home that it is practically knocking at the door.
Although the film is calm and contemplative, it seems it resonates very emotionally for certain people. To see audiences, especially Mexican audiences, engage with subtleties and layers of the film has been thrilling, as it makes us confident the film has a richness and depth that could give it a long life, if given sufficient opportunity. Antonio believed that conveying the emotional quality of time, the weight of absence, the loss of what is left behind, and the naturally restrained emotions we observed from the local Mexicans who inspired the story, required an indirect and subtle approach to the narrative. A thoroughly risky approach that we wholeheartedly believed in and helped him to realize. We all also believed that some conventional filmmaking methods often used to impress or elicit emotion from the audience would detract from, not service, the vision for the film: e.g. overamplified emotions from the actors, an emotional music score, virtuosic camera movements that would contradict the idea of bearing witness to intimacy, and so forth. The risk of the filmmaking approach, in a real sense, is that it requires the audience to “look”. By that I mean, a seemingly insignificant but pure moment can be read as either pure or insignificant, but not really both. It’s only a question of looking and seeing: looking for the meaningfulness of the everyday, and seeing what for us is the poetry of the film.
I should also address the risk of producing and distributing a Spanish-language film. There are nearly 500 million Spanish-speakers worldwide, and 50 million in the US — more, in fact, than in Spain, and second only to Mexico. The Hispanic demographic in the US is also the strongest filmgoing audience per capita in the US.
All of this notwithstanding, the industry in the US is far behind the curve in creating and distributing quality content that will speak directly to the Hispanic audience. There are lots of reasons why, but they have little to do with supply and demand. For starters, there’s the mainstream approach in filmmaking and the wide-release mentality of distribution. This has been getting worse for some time, and is actually getting even worse now despite the promise of digital cinema, because of some thing called Virtual Print Fee (VPF) programs. Then there’s the star system, the celebrity system, that the industry operates on though various reputable studies have shown there may be no correlation between star participation and profitability. What is obvious is that most celebrities are white and speak English. They were elevated to service a mainstream system.
A lot of this quite clearly adds up to institutionalized discrimination; de facto discrimination but discrimination nonetheless. The institutionalized discrimination simply crowds most minority films and non-English films out of the marketplace, creating an initial problem of easy access. It can even flow all the way through to distribution output deals or licenses, which sometimes categorize all non-English content together as “foreign” and apply steep discounts to deal prices. It amounts to Spanish-language films all effectively being treated as “foreign” by the US industry, in more or less the same way as films in every other non-English language. This also brings me back to the point. Many of the powerful forces behind the status quo have more to do with the power structure than they do with markets optimizing according to supply and demand. This is one reason we ourselves have been building a business involved in production, sales, and distribution for the past five years, because we see this as an opportunity.
We believed some meaningful theatrical release of Aquí y Allá was necessary to generate press coverage and help build word of mouth, which could drive revenues going forward. Our theatrical release has focused in particular on the largest Mexican-American population centers (i.e. California, Texas, Arizona, Illinois, and Colorado). One could argue that, although it’s becoming harder in the digital age for smaller films to get real access to the theatrical market, they are in greater need of access to it as a primary way of being marketed and elevated from the chaotic manifold of content online. There is demand for good films of diverse stripes. The problem is largely about enabling discovery, and getting audiences to look beyond what is being so heavily marketed to them by the mainstream system. It’s again a question of “looking”, not unlike with our film.
Time will tell how the dust settles for Aquí y Allá. What I can say for sure is that we’re in the middle of it all fighting for the film, fighting for the spirit of risk-taking, creativity, and imagination, and fighting for a better way forward.
Tim Hobbs founded Torch Films along with Ori Dov Gratch in 2008 to produce and distribute independent films. Torch was the only film company selected for New York City’s first entrepreneurship incubator initiative, created in 2009 by Mayor Bloomberg. Prior to Torch, Tim worked as an Associate at The Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles, and in general management in other industries. He was raised in Pittsburgh, and holds an MBA in Finance and Media from New York University and a BA from Emory University. His additional interests include poetry and philosophy, and he was fortunate enough to study with luminary philosophers Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel.
Cinereach grantee Rebecca Richman Cohen released her latest film, Code of the West, on iTunes and other VOD platforms last week. In this guest post, she describes the rather harrowing process of opening her finished film back up to include new events in the lives of her subjects after the film’s festival run, before making it available to digital audiences.
One of my mentors recently offered a chilling metaphor. He compared the process of re-editing a finished film to the act of necrophilia. It may sound comically extreme, but his point was that in the filmmaking world, there may be nothing more taboo than unlocking a ‘finished’ film and disassembling it at its seams. After having survived the ordeal, I am inclined to agree with his insight.
I write this post because I am reeling from the effects of having violated this powerful taboo with my own film. My team and I originally “finished” Code of the West in time for SXSW 2012, not anticipating that there would be any more major developments in the story. A few months after our premiere, two of our main characters were indicted on federal marijuana charges, and prohibited from using the defense that producing medical marijuana was legal in their home state of Montana. One of them faced a minimum mandatory sentence of more than 80 years in prison. We were determined to document the effects of this injustice on our protagonists and their families so we started filming again, launched a Kickstarter campaign, raised enough money to re-edit, and went back in to update the film.
Not only did we add a new ending, we also changed much of the narration, added a new scene in the middle, and generally rendered the film more compelling, more character-driven, and more relevant to national issues. Nonetheless, the process of diving back into the material was painful for many reasons.
First, we were documenting some of the darkest moments in our characters’ lives. It was an emotionally taxing process to contemplate how most effectively to “represent” the suffering of others. This was true when we were editing the original version of the film, which included a dark scene of a DEA raid on our main character’s medical marijuana growhouse (our main characters in handcuffs, federal officials in hazmat suits, and sirens blaring). But there was something even more challenging about filming our subjects again after they had seen the film and become involved in our outreach campaign. During the original edit, we never screened cuts for any of our subjects – but after the premiere, they had the opportunities to screen the film many times over and were now deeply invested in the update.
It also opened a Pandora’s box into the creative process. It made me sensitive to the musings of critics and audience members – and it made me doubt my original instincts. Where before the film was a thing that simply existed in the world, now it was something over which I once again had control. Criticism wasn’t just about something I had done. It was about something I was doing.
And finally, I had enormous anxiety that broadcasters wouldn’t take the second version seriously – that the film’s fate was sealed in our original version and that no one would see the new version.
Luckily, two remarkable editors guided the process. We brought on a new editor, Lindsay Utz, to structure the new version. Lindsay brought fresh eyes and a keen sense of possibility to the process. And Francisco Bello, the film’s original editor, writer, and producer generously offered useful consultation on the edit. In the end, a process that was at times beset with anguish proved to be worthwhile. The Kickstarter campaign helped to build an engaged audience for the film leading up to its official release. And the new version is simply a more powerful story than its predecessor.
But the experience also left me with questions. Did we do enough? Should we have radically reassembled the film instead of simply revising the narration and adding new scenes? Which critics were right? Did we make it more or less marketable? These questions provoke anxiety at any stage in the creative process. It was unfortunate for us that we had to ask ourselves those questions upon not one – but two different releases.
Historically, it was impossible to re-edit a finished film. In order to create the final master print, filmmakers destroyed the original stock in the process – so “tinkering” after a première was not an option. Once a film was done, it was done. That’s clearly no longer the case (as evidenced by the significant numbers of filmmakers who go back to the edit room after festival premieres) – so maybe it’s no longer quite as taboo as it was once considered to be. And I imagine that there are many filmmakers in my place, who are telling stories about current events and who are involved in ongoing campaigns to make change happen around those stories. These filmmakers have even more reason to consider updating their films when there is a turn of events that changes the stakes.
That said, just because it is a technical possibility, and sometimes a narrative necessity, if you’re considering this path yourself, this filmmaker urges you to proceed with caution, and not without first setting some boundaries for how much change is healthy to make.
Rebecca Richman Cohen is an Emmy Award nominated filmmaker and a lecturer on law at Harvard Law School. War Don Don, her first film, won the Special Jury Prize at the SXSW Film Festival and was nominated for two Emmy awards: Outstanding Continuing Coverage Of A News Story (Long Form) and Outstanding Editing. Rebecca has been adjunct faculty at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and American University’s Human Rights Institute. She graduated from Brown University with a B.A. in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and with a Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School, where she now teaches two classes on law and film. In 2010 Rebecca was profiled in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces in Independent Film as an “up-and-comer poised to shape the next generation of independent film.” She is a 2012-2013 Soros Justice Fellow.