A post by Nadia Hallgren
My RFF short documentary, Love Lockdown, was inspired by a radio show on Power 105.1, New York’s hip hop station. On Sunday nights from 10pm to 2am, DJ Cherry Martinez turns her show over to New York’s prison population, offering an opportunity for loved ones of prisoners to profess love and support through radio shout-outs. I wanted to tell a story about one or more couples and their love and commitment during this type of separation, and began my search by sitting with Cherry during the radio show on several occasions.
After the women gave their shout-outs, the DJ would transfer the call to me and I’d explain the documentary I was working on. While pre-screening women over the phone, I was looking for someone who sounded open and friendly and who was sincere and passionate about her relationship with her loved one. I was looking for a good love story, so when a girl would talk about her partner in a sincere and loving way, I felt I had a good character.
I found many compelling potential subjects in the women who called into the show, and when the I started the Reach Film Fellowship, I was in the process of trying to narrow my options down and make a choice. I was very excited to meet my mentor Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback). I hoped she could help me sort out this and a few other big-picture decisions I was facing with my film.
Annie is a very busy woman (working on many of her own film projects), and I know her time is valuable, so I wanted to present my ideas to her in a clear, concise manner and be very focused when discussing the difficulties I was having. At our ﬁrst meeting I found Annie to be very nice and truly interested in my project, and I liked her practical way of thinking. She advised me on the budgeting of my ﬁlm and encouraged me to save as much money for post-production as I could, given that I work in production (as a documentary DP) and can do a lot of that labor myself.
One of the first things we addressed together was the struggle I was having choosing who my main characters would be. I know how important it is to chose characters your audience will feel a connection with, and that they are likable and expressive enough to carry an entire story. I was leaning towards one woman in particular, Shashonna, because she had a great personality and an interesting story, but I was afraid to commit. I could have searched forever in uncertainty, but Annie reassured me that my ﬁrst instincts were correct and to stick with the woman to whom I felt most connected. I took her advice and it has helped greatly.
The more I began to focus on Shashonna, the more confident I was that I had made the right decision. I had only 7 days to shoot my previous documentary, Sanza Hanza (about a group of young men who are train surfers in Soweto, South Africa), and following teenagers that were being chased by cops was very difficult. In Shashonna I had found a local story where I could shoot as much as I needed and develop a real relationship with the person in my ﬁlm over time. She actually lives across the street from me so I can shoot her any time a situation arises, and it is also easy just to hang out as friends. We have developed a great relationship this way, and I have also been able to capture intimate moments with her and her children. By sharing an inside look into her life and how she struggles to keep her family together, I hope to make my film stronger and develop a deeper connection with the audience.
Similar to the struggle Anthony described in his earlier blog post, I was also having trouble narrowing down and focusing on a limited number of story/thematic threads to follow. When telling a story on relationships and prison there are many potential angles of focus: the amount of effort, time and money it takes to be in contact with a prisoner or the long-term effects of family contact and how it can help a prisoner through his bid. I could also pose the larger question of why so many young men in America are in prison. All these things are interesting but were not necessarily the story I wanted to tell. Talking with Annie (as well as observing Shashonna’s life closely) helped me hone in on the emotional center of my story, and it became very clear that rather than looking to larger sociological questions, I would focus on the communication between loved ones and prisoners, especially through the radio show itself.
I also found RFF’s workshop on Post-Production with editor Jeff Marcello (Planet B-Boy) to be particularly helpful. We got into the details of how different editors approach documentary storytelling, which helped me think through and identify some of the qualities I could search for in my own editor. For example, I learned that some editors like to work from transcripts while others don’t. To me, because my film is so focused on communication, using transcripts seems to be the most thorough way of putting a story together, so that was one work habit I wanted in my editor. I was also introduced to a ﬁlm called October Country by Cinereach grantees Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher. The editing in this film was emotional and very stylized, and I decided I wanted my ﬁlm to achieve a similar tone.
Looking ahead, I’m focusing on telling my story in the best way possible. Getting access to courts and prisons will be essential for me to document the prisoners’ perspectives in contrast to that of women on the outside. This is likely to be very challenging because courts and prisons usually shoot you down right away; never taking “no” for an answer will be key.
RFF 2010 Fellow Nadia Hallgren (mentored by Annie Sundberg) is a director and cinematographer from the Bronx, NY. Her camera credits include the Academy Award nominated and 2008 Sundance Grand Jury prize winner, Trouble the Water. Hallgren has shot for a variety of directors, including Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, and she has traveled over five continents making films and working with prominent figures such as Dan Rather, Desmond Tutu, Britney Spears and Cameron Diaz. Her first short, Sanza Hanza, screened last year at Slamdance and SilverDocs.