Independent Lens Filmmaker Q&A: More Than a Month

February 17th, 2012

Shukree Tlighman saw Morgan Freeman on 60 Minutes in 2006 say that he believed Black History Month shouldn’t exist, because it was insulting to relegate an entire race’s history to just one month. It resonated with the young man, so much so that after film school, Tilghman was determined to set out to find out the truth about Black History Month, even if it meant fielding and considering the inevitable questions such as “Why isn’t there a White History Month?” Independent Lens asked him about the resulting film More Than a Month and how he managed to take a controversial racial topic and make it funny and accessible to such a large audience.

More Than a Month airs Sunday, February 19 at 11 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope More Than a Month will have?

That Americans will question why black history is taught as if it is somehow separate from American history. I hope as a country, we can imagine an America where Black History Month isn’t necessary.

What led you to make this film?

A growing feeling that African Americans continue to be seen as “Other Americans.” Watching how folks were treated during Hurricane Katrina and listening to pundits refer to those victims as refugees intensified that notion. I thought that this ideal of “other” is reinforced in society by things like Black History Month. That, combined with the new idea that we live in a “post-racial” America, led to an interest in exploring these themes.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?

The biggest challenge was deciding on tone, and then executing that balance of comedy and serious, tongue-in-cheek and sincere. Getting people to speak candidly about race-related issues is a challenge. Crafting a film that addressed these issues and making it entertaining as well as informative was a constant challenge.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film, get them to take you seriously, and also not become defensive?

We developed a dialogue sometimes over several months and — in some cases — years through phone calls and, emails as well as through in-person visits as we developed the film.

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What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

We covered many stories that we just didn’t have time to put in the film. We spent a great deal of time with high school students. We could have made a great film just talking to the youngsters.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

The final scene (with out revealing a spoiler here) is a conversation that was a surprise for me. It wasn’t until we got to editing that I realized this conversation completed the journey of the film.

What has the audience response been so far?

It is not a film without some controversy. At screenings, More Than a Month has created a lot of vigorous dialogue, which, of course, it is designed to do.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?

Money. I hope to be rich. But since documentary filmmaking doesn’t promise, or even suggest, the road to riches beyond measure, I must rely on my core motivation: a love of storytelling. The great thing about documentary is that it allows one to combine storytelling with the exploration of social issues. I love that. It can be difficult to work in any creative field, so I think the people who do it and stick with it just can’t imagine doing anything else.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

The film found some public television support in the early development stages. As the film grew in stages over the years, we were lucky that our support also increased. We were very fortunate to get on public television’s radar early on in the process, as they truly provide the best audience for the film.

What’s this about an app?

In working on the film we developed a mobile app that helps record and preserve the often invisible African American history that surrounds us all the time, everywhere. I hope people will consider downloading More Than a Map(p).

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What are your three favorite films?

Documentary: The Agronomist, Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line

Narrative: To Kill a Mocking Bird, Malcolm X, Annie Hall

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Do something different. Not for the sake of being different, but because all filmmakers (and artists in general) have a unique voice and, in my opinion, finding that voice can only come from embracing difference: what’s different about you, what makes you laugh, what makes you angry, how do you think, how do you approach issues? When you can find that, and start creating from that place, then you’re on to something.

Live from the Artists Den features Death Cab for Cutie on Feb. 17

February 16th, 2012

This week, Live from the Artists Den features indie rock favorite, Death Cab for Cutie, performing from The Brooklyn Museum in New York City. The concert features songs from their new release, Codes and Keys, along with past hits like “I Will Possess Your Heart.”

Live from the Artists Den featuring Death Cab for Cutie airs Friday, February 17 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch a video featurette about the episode and check out the full song list below:

Song list:

“Crooked Teeth”
“Long Division”
“I Will Possess Your Heart”
“Tourist”
“The New Year”
“Stay Young, Go Dancing”
“Cath…”
“Marching Bands of Manhattan”
“Home is a Fire”
“Transatlanticism”

Independent Lens Q&A: Contextualizing the Black Power Movement for a New Generation

February 10th, 2012

When Göran Olssen unearthed reels of footage from Swedish television crews in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, he stumbled on a unique perspective of a controversial period in American history. The FBI’s war on the Black Power Movement helped skew public perception of the cause inside America’s borders, but these outsiders managed to chronicle the period without preconceptions. Olssen felt compelled to share the footage with the world, and created a film which illuminates this historic time from the past and through interviews with activists and cultural icons of today. Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 premieres this Sunday, Feb. 12 at 11 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

Change the world for the better, forever.

But seriously, I hope this film will introduce a new generation to the Black Power Movement in a fresh and engaging manner and completely reframe and recontextualize the Black Power Movement for those who already know something about it, or who remember it. Where the earlier U.S. civil rights movement has been recognized (if somewhat sanitized), the Black Power Movement has been historically vilified on the one hand and fetishized on the other. Its legacy has not been properly contextualized, and its influence on other liberation struggles and political movements has been virtually erased.

I hope it will resonate with contemporary relevance — the beginnings of corporate media consolidation, the surveillance society, “the war on terror,” “the war on drugs,” war itself, poverty, resistance movements, racial discrimination, are all central in this film and to life in America in 2012.

We hope the film will inspire people to think critically about the world we are living in, make connections to other justice movements and transform their societies.

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What led you to make this film?

I found this material in the basement of the Swedish Broadcast Cooperation, and realized two things. First, this could make a great film. Secondly, it’s my duty to put this out.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Leaving important and great stuff out. Like a beautiful piece on Shirley Chisholm’s presidential campaign in 1972.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

How hard the FBI came down on the Black Power Movement. Killing people and destroying people’s lives.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

I have never done anything else, and it’s too late to change.

What are your three favorite films?

In the Street, by Helen Lewit
Dont Look Back, by D.A. Pennebaker
Harlan County U.S.A., by Barbara Kopple

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Do your own thing. Do not attend film schools. Work with friends.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Champagne.

The Fray Joins Live from the Artists Den on Feb. 10

February 9th, 2012

This Friday, Live from the Artists Den features The Fray at the Angel Orensanz Center in New York City. The Denver-based band played 15 songs, a mix of fan favorites like hits “How to Save a Life,” “Over My Head” and “You Found Me,” alongside new material from the forthcoming album “Scars and Stories,” including the current hit single, “Heartbeat.”

Live from the Artists Den featuring The Fray airs Friday, February 10 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch a preview and view the full song list below.

Song list:

“The Wind”
“Over My Head”
“Here We Are”
“You Found Me”
“Never Say Never”
“Turn Me On”
“The Fighter”
“Ungodly Hour”
“How to Save A Life”
“Run for Your Life”
“Syndicate”
“Heartbeat”
“Be Still”

Celebrating the Stories of Our Community

February 8th, 2012

WNET has partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to develop the Community Stories campaign, which highlights the rich cultural heritage and contributions of ordinary New Yorkers. Each month, a new video will be featured on air and on the Web highlighting individual New Yorkers’ immigrant stories. Learn more about the campaign and check out this month’s spotlight below, featuring Pastor Mullery Jean-Pierre of Beraca Baptist Church.

Pastor Mullery Jean-Pierre of Beraca Baptist Church discusses emigrating from Haiti to the U.S. as a child and his parents’ involvement with the first Haitian church in New York City:

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Independent Lens: Q&A with Filmmaker Sharon La Cruise

February 2nd, 2012

Independent Lens caught up with filmmaker Sharon La Cruise to talk about how she got involved with Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock, and why so many people have never heard of Bates – a central figure in the civil rights movement. The film kicks off Independent Lens’ Black History Month programming, and premieres on Sunday, February 5 at 11 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope the film will create a resurgence of interest in the role of women in the civil rights movement and serve as a reminder to Americans that the struggle for equal education in America continues.

What led you to make Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock?

I fell in love with Daisy Bates’s story and wanted to share her story with Americans, thereby returning her to her rightful place in our history.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

One of the main challenges in producing this film was that my main subject had passed away and there were parts of her life that she never spoke or wrote about. Another challenge was that Daisy Bates became famous in 1957 and her autobiography ends in 1960, so there is very little archival material on her before and after that time period. In some instances I was forced to use personal letters to piece together the timeline of her life post-1957.

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How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

I truly believe the measure of a person’s life is the friends they left behind. Daisy Bates left behind a wonderful group of friends who loved her for all she was and wasn’t. The instance I reached out to these friends and told them I wanted to do a film on Daisy Bates, they gladly opened their homes and lives to me.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

I would have liked to include Daisy’s activism in the 1960s. She worked for both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to register black voters, and she supported the college students in Little Rock during their sit-ins. On a lighter note, I would have loved to include a hilarious story about Daisy cheating at poker.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

There are several but my favorites would be the moment Daisy realizes that her life is a lie and she is an orphan; another scene is when the Little Rock Nine describe the abuses they suffered inside Central High School.

What do you remember most from the process of making the film?

One of my earliest interviews was with one of the white students from Central High who participated in burning and stabbing an effigy outside Central when the Little Rock Nine were locked out. We were introduced by a third party, so we had never met. The day of the interview he arrived and realized much to his surprise that I was black! His first words were a bit belligerent “Are you the one doing this interview??” I said, “Yes.” He responded, “Well, I’m going to tell you a few things you might not like.” I told him to be honest throughout the interview and that would be fine with me. It was a very complex interview because unbeknownst to me, he was hard of hearing. We had to devise a system so he read the questions in advance of my asking them. He was very honest throughout and although I didn’t agree with many of his comments at the end of the interview I really respected his honesty. Since then we’ve become pen pals. Every now and again he would write me to see how I’m doing and find out if I was able to find funding and give me ideas of where to look in Arkansas. He didn’t end up in the film because there wasn’t enough time. But that interview always stayed with me.

The only time I remember ever crying during an interview was when I interviewed Jefferson Thomas, who was the first of the Little Rock Nine to die. When he described the pain he suffered at the hands of the white students in Central High and the day he begged God to just give him the strength to endure it. I started to cry for the loss of his childhood and innocence. Yet he wasn’t bitter; he found a way to make jokes about his predicament. He was inspirational.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

I’ve screened various versions of the film over the years and the response has always been enthusiastic. Adults and teenagers are always baffled as to why they’ve never heard of Daisy Bates before. The people in the film have seen portions of the film. They love the film and are always amazed at depth and richness of the archival material. Most have either never seen Daisy Bates when she was young or remember her then. They are all very excited to see the final version of the film and can’t wait for a premiere in Arkansas.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?

It is extremely difficult, and I must confess that although I had worked in it for many years before beginning my own film, I was still unprepared for how difficult it could be. What keeps me motivated is love of the subject and the commitment I made to both Daisy Bates and her supporters that I would finish this film. Also, I compare working on this film to jumping off a cliff — once you jump there’s no going back.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

I grew up watching PBS and fell in love with documentaries because of their exceptional programming in the ’70s. The PBS audience is very loyal and unique in their love of documentary films. It’s a dream come true to have my film join the impressive list of films that have showcased on PBS in the past.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Personally or professional? I rarely had any vacations and since I’ve had to spend so much time going to Arkansas I haven’t been able to return to my former hometown Atlanta.

What are your three favorite films?

My Lai Massacre; Eyes on the Prize; and Going Up River: The Long War of John Kerry

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

I would recommend that aspiring filmmakers find a film community to join before starting their own film. No one can make this journey alone and the people who complete the journey tend to have developed an extensive network of supporters along the way.

Live from the Artists Den: A Q&A with Mark Lieberman and Alan Light

February 1st, 2012

Mark Lieberman (l), Alan Light (r)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Live from the Artists Den‘s Executive Producer, Mark Lieberman, and Director of Programming, Alan Light to discuss the fourth season of the popular music series. Joining the Artists Den‘s lineup this season are artists Adele, The Fray, Death Cab for Cutie, Kid Rock, Iron and Wine, and Amos Lee. Here, Lieberman and Light discuss what planning a season of the show entails, and what makes Live from the Artists Den so unique.

Season four of Live from the Artists Den premieres Friday, February 3 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Enter to win an Artists Den prize package, including Adele’s hit album, 21, and a Live from the Artists Den season three compilation DVD.

Inside Thirteen: What does planning a season for the show entail, in terms of selecting artists and venues?

Alan Light: There’s not a simple equation — it’s lining up a lot of different moving parts. Certainly where we start from is trying to find the artists who are active during that time who we think are the strongest live performers that are out there. We’re in the fortunate position of not really having to worry about one genre or one style; we can really just look for excellence from whichever musician we really love out there, and that’s where the conversation starts. Simultaneously, a search is going on and venue possibilities being amassed and gathered, and then comes an elaborate jigsaw puzzle of trying to schedule when they’re free, when they can be available, where they’re most interested to play, and what’s the most perfect spot that lines up with that. It can vary – sometimes there is a break in somebody’s schedule in a city and so we try to find the best spot that’s close by. Sometimes, as with Kid Rock playing Graceland, we were in conversation with Kid Rock and the Graceland opportunity presented itself, and his team said, “We’ve gotta do that, that’s the coolest thing ever. So, we will work our schedule around that to get ourselves to Memphis for the show.”

The challenges are, who’s out there working, what’s the right timing, when can we get to them, and then, where is the right place to put them and when is that place free? So, we spin the wheel until they line up.

Mark Lieberman: Really for us the goal is to try to create a once in a lifetime experience for television viewers and for that audience. We spend a lot of time trying to put the right artist and the right place together. When we do, we end up with something really magical that has the ability to be of interest for many, many years.

Season 4 Trailer from Artists Den on Vimeo.

IT: What makes Live from the Artists Den unique, especially to public television?

ML: I think it’s a couple of things. The first is that we’re re-imagining the stage for music, and what’s important to us about finding these locations is we believe that they inspire a rare and very creatively inspired performance that you won’t see that artist provide in a traditional venue setting.  The second is that we are able to honor some of the great historic landmarks of our country and tell a local story. So, in the Tucson Amos Lee episode, there’s a real strong tie between the artist and Tucson, where he made his last album, “Mission Bell.” A band from Arizona called Calexico performed on that album and ended up playing in our episode, and we were able to tell the story of the historic Fox Theatre and the redevelopment effort around culture in Tucson, all in an hour. We think that’s really interesting for public television viewers, who care about the arts and culture and music, that we’re able to do all those things in one. There’s even a taste of architecture and the history of some of these great buildings and iconic landmarks, whether it be the Brooklyn Museum and its rich history with Death Cab for Cutie, or the Angel Orensanz Center, which used to be an old synagogue and has been part of the cultural fabric of downtown New York for the last 30 years. There are so many interesting stories to be told — we believe we do a really nice job of telling them, and they’re contextualized with a wonderful performance of music.

IT: Are there any artists or genres that haven’t yet appeared on the show that you’d like to feature?

AL: Well, I think there are lots of directions to go. With the right hip hop artist, I’d love to feature them if we could find the right way to present that on our stage. We’ve had a couple of country and R&B singers, but I think there are still lots of opportunities to do new things in those communities. I don’t think that we look at it with any kind of limit on what we would do…it’s more a matter of if we think somebody makes sense in that setting, who really can play without hiding behind anything, even we when we get the big, arena-sized stars up there. Obviously, they’re in a room in front of 300 people, no pyrotechnics, no explosions – it’s about who we think can really work that stripped down and up close.

ML: We try to celebrate both the greats in music — the Robert Plants, the Elvis Costellos — and also provide an element of discovery where we’re introducing a public television viewer to an Amos Lee or an Iron and Wine. So that opens us up. We’re always able to have flexibility to just put what we think would be exciting from a television standpoint and from a music standpoint on the stage, being genre agnostic.

IT: What are you most excited about this coming season on Live from the Artists Den?

Grammy nominee Adele kicks off the fourth season of Live from the Artists Den from Santa Monica.

ML: Adele was an artist that we’ve been following for quite a while, from her album “Nineteen” back in 2009. When we had the opportunity to be a part of her week of release in the United States, we really had no idea what the year ahead was going to entail. I think what that episode presents of her and her music is a real innocence, and a real preview of things to come, and obviously honors the greatness of her music. We’re very excited about that episode.

AL: Adele very quickly became the absolute biggest star music has seen in recent years in the months that followed our shoot with her, so it’s an incredible thrill that we got to her just immediately before she really took over the world. And certainly shooting Kid Rock – no one has ever done a shoot inside of Graceland, with a performance inside Elvis’s home, and it took a lot of disparate pieces aligning to enable us to do that. For Kid Rock, he approached it as a highlight of his career and a real landmark appearance for him. So, the fact that we could enable something like that and take a multi-platinum artist and get them access to something that they couldn’t otherwise do, I think that’s always what’s most exciting for us. They have a lot of choices about the things that they could do – the shows that they could play, the stages they could appear on; we have the ability to do something that they can’t do, which is to get them into these really unique spaces and otherwise inaccessible spaces. So when we can do that on that kind of scale, that’s a new level of accomplishment for us.

ML: Overall, I think this season takes us to the most cities that we’ve ever been in a season. The majority of season four is outside of New York – whether it be Santa Monica, Tucson, Memphis, Atlanta – and what we’re seeing as we go into pre-production on these shows is a real excitement from the local arts community about the Artists Den coming to town. People know the show, they like the way we’re honoring their city, their connection to music, their connection to the arts, and they’re very proud of their own Artists Den that we jointly selected. Many times the selection process now comes with the Mayor’s Office and the film office and people locally who help us define what’s special in their city and what would be a great place to showcase music. We think that is a unique piece of this for public television, in that public television is about the local community and the arts community, and we involve public television in these shows, their guests are in the audience, and obviously they get to celebrate when the show comes on to television. We’re told that for most of the season four episodes, they’re actually doing premiere parties in the venues where we did the taping.

IT: What’s your favorite part and the most challenging part of your job?

ML: The favorite part is being able to make very big artists really excited and inspired in a unique way that no one has done for them before, and to translate that into making a local, national and a global audience excited about that artist’s music in a way that no other vehicle may provide. The fact that we’re able to deliver an hour-long performance of that artist really separates the show from what has become a world of clips. We think we can help create new fans. So that is the most important part I think of what we do at the Artists Den – it’s very creative, it’s dynamic – we’re constantly trying to push the envelope of what adventure we can come up with next. It’s no fun to plateau, so we’re just going to keep on hunting for more exciting, more creative venues that inspire even better performances. All of that is also all the challenges we have in front of us. We set the bar high, and the artists that we’re now working with are looking back at past seasons and saying, “I want something even more interesting. I want something even more special than what you’ve done.” The creative challenge that presents makes our jobs very hard, because we can’t just show up with a good idea, it just isn’t going to cut it.

AL: I think the most rewarding and the most challenging are pretty much the same thing – continuing to find ways to spin that wheel and to line up artists and locations and timing, and to get bigger and better artists, better and cooler and more unique spaces, and produce more frequently. Any one of those you could compromise to make it easier, but we’re still at a place where we want to keep making each of them more interesting and more exciting. So, that’s the greatest reward, but also the most difficult task.

For more information and Web extras, visit the Artists Den site for behind-the-scenes photos of each show, check them out on Facebook for “Inside the Den” videos about the venues featured each week, and watch previews of all the episodes on Hulu.