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VOCES: Tales of Masked Men – A Q&A with Filmmaker Carlos Avila

September 28th, 2012

“Lucha libre,” famous for its masked wrestlers, provides a sense of “home” for new immigrants in the United States. Photo courtesy of Cuauhtemoc Garcia and Echo Park Films.

Tales of Masked Men explores the sport of “lucha libre” and its role in Latino communities in the United States and Mexico. Here, VOCES talks with filmmaker Carlos Avila about his inspiration for the film and gaining the trust of the “lucha libre” community.

Tales of Masked Men airs Sunday, September 30 at 7 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of VOCES 2012. For more interviews and other VOCES film content, visit the VOCES 2012 site.

How did you come to make “Tales of Masked Men?”

The film has been in my life a long time. I loved lucha libre when I was a boy. I have very vivid memories of Friday nights when my mother and stepfather would drive my brothers, sisters and me, as well as some friends of the family, across town to the Olympic Auditorium in Downtown Los Angeles. The great Mexican wrestler Mil Mascaras (the “man of a thousand masks”) would regularly wrestle there and he was our favorite. The times when he would wrestle on television, was a special event. In the 1970s – and it’s often the case today – it was rare to see a Mexican man or any Latino on American television who was heroic, charismatic and victorious. Mil Mascaras had those qualities on a massive scale. Perhaps there was a larger-than-life aspect to what I was experiencing but for a ten year old kid, which I was at the time, it was an amazing revelation.

Because those images stayed with me for so long, as they did with many people from my generation, I thought that a documentary that explored the roots and history of lucha libre would be an important undertaking. I do feel that in some ways lucha libre has been dismissed as a “kitschy” sideshow but knowing how long it has endured it felt right to give it it’s due and examine its place in Mexican and Latino culture.

What were some of the challenges you faced?

As with so many of these “passion” projects, the biggest challenge was getting the funding together. Latino Public Broadcasting was on board from the outset but I was surprised by how little interest there was from other funding sources to make the film. In Mexico, there’s some people who call lucha libre, “el patito feo de los deportes” (i.e. the ugly duckling of sports) because it mixes theatre, sports and spectacle. I was starting to feel as if my documentary was becoming the “ugly duckling of documentary film projects.” But we forged ahead and on the most of modest budgets, we made an ambitious film.

From the beginning of the process, I wanted to film the documentary in Mexico and to include people with first hand knowledge of the sport. I wanted to film in the great “lucha” arenas – large and small – in Mexico. Because of this, gaining entrée into the lucha libre world was a challenge. Your expectations are that people are going to be instantly supportive of such a project but it took some effort for this to happen. Mascarita Sagrada was the first to agree to participate and then others started to support the project. Solar and Solar Jr.’s support made a big impact on the film and opened a lot of doors. El Hijo del Santo was reluctant at first but once he saw a cut of the segment on his father, he also lent his support.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zHfP86xs0NU&w=560&h=315]

How did you gain trust of the lucha libre community?

I try to be straightforward in my dealings with people and I think the “luchadores” (wrestlers) appreciated that. I am also big on following through on things and that was also something that they and other participants responded to. I think that I was fortunate to have met the right people along the way and I could ask for their help in leveraging certain favours. Mascarita would speak to a promoter at an event he was going to wrestle at and they’d give the okay to let us film. It was that classic technique of building relationships and then leaning on them from time to time. Having the right people vouch for me and the project made all the difference in the world.

Did anything happen during the filming that was unexpected?

The biggest surprise had to do with a wrestler that we were working with early on. He couldn’t have been more generous and welcoming and then he decided he no longer wanted to be involved with the project unless he was paid a substantial amount of money – which I didn’t feel was appropriate. We had filmed with him for two full days and then he backed out. That was a big blow to a project with such a small budget as ours. But I wish him well. He’s done some incredible things in his career and with his life but for some reason things didn’t work out with our project.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the subjects seen it, and if so, what did they think?

I wish I could answer this question but given the tight delivery schedule for the film we are literally still finishing a few final touches to it. The film screens for the first time with an audience later this week. So far Solar, Solar Jr. and Mascarita Sagrada haven’t seen the film. El Hijo del Santo saw the segment on his father and was very complimentary. I’ll try to update this reply in a couple of weeks after we’ve had a few screenings.

Making independent films can be tough.  What keeps you motivated?

I’ve worked in the commercial world and in the independent world. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. On the indie side of things, there is that sense of “authorship,” that sense that the work that you’re doing expresses something vital and personal to you. Perhaps that’s an odd thing to say about a lucha libre documentary but I think it’s important to tell the story of Mexicans and Latinos that were entrepreneurial and that bet on themselves to build something – be it a business or an identity. To be able to tell that story in a creative and unfettered way is why you undertake these independent projects.

The other thing that keeps you motivated is your collaborators. Solar used to always tell me, “Carlitos, todos somos luchadores” (Carlos, we’re all in the struggle). It’s true, we were undertaking a sizeable project with limited resources – we were definitely luchando (i.e. in the struggle). My editor and co-producer, Thom Calderón, was also a huge motivator. His great enthusiasm for the project and his love of filmmaking was extremely motivating.

VOCES explores the amazing variety of Latino arts and culture – is there another aspect of the Latino experience that you’d like to make a film about?

I’m still catching my breathe on this one. I’ll get back in touch with you on this.

What advice would you give young Latino filmmakers just starting out?

My advice is practical, I’d encourage young filmmakers to learn a craft in addition to having projects they’d like to direct or produce. Learn how to be a visual effects artist, a dialogue editor, a camera operator or a re-recording mixer. Learn a craft at which you can make a living at while you’re trying to get your projects made.

What’s your next project?

I’m writing something. There’s also a documentary I’m exploring.

Wonder Women: A Q&A with 'Half the Sky' Executive Producer Maro Chermayeff

September 26th, 2012

Maro Chermayeff, executive producer and director of "Half the Sky, Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide."

“The role and rights of women, their freedom and equality and dignity, is the unfinished business of the 21st century,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says in Half the Sky, Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, a four-hour television event and trans-media project premiering this month on THIRTEEN. Inspired by the bestselling book by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the series – a special presentation of Independent Lens — examines the oppression of women and girls around the world.

Actresses Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Gabrielle Union, Diane Lane, America Ferrera, and Olivia Wilde join Kristof as he travels to Asia and Africa to meet courageous individuals in six countries who are living under some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable – and fighting bravely to change them.

THIRTEEN spoke with with executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff
about the groundbreaking series from Show of Force, her company with partner and fellow executive producer Jeff Dupre.

Q: Why did you decide to do a series about women’s oppression around the world?

A: Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn came to me with fellow executive producers Mikaela Beardsley and Jamie Gordon very early on when the project first landed in the hands of public broadcasting. Pat Harrison, President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), has a genuine, longstanding interest in the development of women and girls on a global level, is deeply committed to the project, and knows my work from past projects. Nick and Sheryl wanted their book to be the beginning of a ripple effect engaging people in the movement to end the oppression of women and girls. They knew the project would have to exist on multiple platforms to reach new audiences, so it isn’t just a four-hour series. It also includes a social impact Facebook game and mobile games, two linked websites, massive amounts of educational content we’re distributing in partnership with the Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Women and Girls Lead, and much more. I couldn’t wait to be a part of it.

Q: What was it like working with Nicholas Kristof on location in Asia and Africa?

A: It was really quite amazing. He’s phenomenally smart, incredibly focused, and he cares very, very deeply. He cares about reporting, he cares about journalism, he cares about what’s happening in the world, he cares about the people whose stories we’re telling, and he doesn’t hesitate to put himself at the center of dangerous and potentially life-threatening situations for the sake of the story and the people involved in it. In the first episode, Sierra Leone, we follow a story where a pastor has just been arrested for rape and the police had not searched his room. Nick absolutely can’t believe the level of th investigating techniques and the next thing I know he’s saying, “Alright, so you haven’t gone to the Pastor’s house. We’re going to join the investigator from the FSU (Family Services Unit ) who is going to the Pastor’s house and we’re going to search his room.” This kind of thing happened throughout the filming of the series. We would follow Nick anywhere.  Amazingly, I never felt like my life was in danger. You feel safe because his confidence begins to rub off on you.  And what is so remarkable about Nick in these situations — one of the many remarkable things and what sets him apart from other reporters you see on television — is his authenticity. He’s not acting – there is no script — he’s doing what he’s doing and you’re along for the ride and he’s not paying attention to you or the cameras because what he’s doing is more important than the fact that you’re following him – and that is always what makes the best subject. So ultimately, working with Nick was like having the opportunity to get a PhD with a brilliant professor for four years whose sole focus and attention you’re allowed to absorb by either directly trying to help him or riding his coattails.

Q: What inspired Eva Mendes and the other actresses to participate in the series?

A: We approached these actresses because they’re substantive, significant women who are passionate about women’s rights and doing meaningful work around these issues. I cannot say enough wonderful things about these women! There wasn’t one diva in the group and they really rolled up their sleeves and immersed themselves in every aspect of this incredible and incredibly intense journey. They were familiar with Nick’s work and the issues, so they were really excited to be a part of the project. And they were especially proud to be connected with a series that was going to air on public television.

Nicholas Kristof in Somaliland. Photo courtesy of David Smoler.

Q: As a filmmaker, how do you find the balance between “getting the story” and building a level of trust with the people whose stories you’re filming?

A: First I have to say that as documentarians, we’re not always objective. We get involved in the action, we have a point of view, there’s a specific story we’re telling. At the same time, Nick and I both knew it was our job to try to tell the full story and we were always mindful of that. For example, in the Sierra Leone episode, we knew we had to interview the pastor who was accused of rape. We knew we wouldn’t be telling the whole story if we didn’t give him a chance to say he didn’t do it.  Whether you believe him or not is up to you, but we had to give him a chance to speak. Otherwise you’re kind of railroading somebody on a television in front of millions of people. So we were very conscious of those kinds of decisions and giving people their fair chance to speak.

Regarding the issue of trust, I actually think it was harder to earn our subjects’ trust in Circus — Jeff and my last series for PBS, which followed the daily lives of members of The Big Apple Circus — because as performers they were very sensitive about the way they looked and were perceived. In Half the Sky, Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the trust was harder to build but it was won faster because the women knew we were supporting them and trying to protect them. They knew we were there to tell their story and that was very valuable to them. It was empowering for them to talk and actually have people listen, especially westerners with cameras.

Q: What is the series’ connection to the Women and Girls Lead initiative?

A: Women and Girls Lead is a public media outreach and audience engagement campaign launched by ITVS and strongly supported by CPB and Pat Harrison. The goal is to focus, educate, and connect people around the world in support of the issues facing women and girls. It includes a collection of approximately 50 independent films made available via public television broadcasts and free community screenings, and Half the Sky is one of the centerpiece films. Women, War & Peace, the wonderful series Abigail Disney, Ginny Reticker and Pam Hogan produced for THIRTEEN, started the train last year, we’re in the middle of that train, and David Sutherland’s Kind Hearted Woman, about an extraordinary Native American woman in North Dakota, will be at the other end.

Q: How would your career and body of work be different if you didn’t have a relationship with public television?

A: Well, I certainly wouldn’t be able to get the things that I care about to an audience, because what public television believes is important and what they will back and what they think is substantial and what they will try to bring to their audience is really on another level from what you see elsewhere. I’ve worked quite extensively at HBO, who also does wonderful documentaries. But they don’t do series or events in the same way. PBS allows documentary filmmakers like Ken Burns or David Grubin to take four, six, eight hours to tell a story. When you have that kind of broadcast real estate, the story is able to evolve in a way it can’t in a one or two-hour film.

And on a more personal note, I feel like I’ve grown up at PBS. I’ve worked there for many, many years. I’ve produced and directed Frontier House, Carrier, Circus, and the American Masters’ film Juilliard. So for me, PBS is family. PBS is home.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: My longtime production partner Jeff Dupre and I are hoping to do more with Half the Sky, and we have an extensive outreach planned as well as two short films under the Half the Sky banner. On a personal level, of course I hope and plan to work more Nick and Sheryl and we are putting that together now. At Show of Force we are talking about a whole bunch of new shows and one-off documentaries and we are presently in development on a music series for PBS. It’s another huge multiple eight-part series, so Jeff and I will be deeply ensconced at our home away from home for many more years.

Only A Number: A Q&A with Filmmaker Steven Besserman

September 17th, 2012

Steven Besserman (r) and Director of Photography Gerardo Puglia (l) filming in Atkar, Hungary. Photo courtesy of AriJoe Productions, LLC.

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with filmmaker Steven Besserman, whose documentary Only A Number tells the story of his mother’s experience as a Holocaust survivor through her own words. Initially a diary, Besserman was compelled to make the story into a film when his mother developed dementia and began to lose her memory.

Here, Besserman discusses visiting the sites where his parents grew up, first met and ultimately escaped, and the lasting impact the Holocaust continues to have on survivors’ families, generations later.

Only A Number premieres Sunday, September 23 at 7 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Mr. Besserman answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: How old were you when you first made the connection between your family and the Holocaust?

Steven Besserman: I learned about the Holocaust at a very early age, probably beginning at age 5 or 6. My mother would tell my sister and I about her experiences growing up in Hungary, things that occurred following the Nazi invasion, and what happened to her and her family during the Holocaust. It was the explanation for many things about my family; why my parents had numbers tattooed on their arms, why I didn’t have grandparents like many of my friends did, why my mother had such horrible nightmares, often screaming herself awake and calling for her mother, and so on.

IT: Was there anything you were surprised by on your visit to Hungary, Poland, and Germany for the film? Were these places from your parents’ past what you expected?

SB: I had a lot of trepidations about going to these countries, particularly Germany, and making a film on this subject matter. I made contacts in each country, kept the crew very small and wanted to keep a very low profile about what I was doing. I think what surprised me the most was the degree of compassion, support and cooperation that I received from the people I was working with in each country, especially Germany.

In terms of the physical places from my parents’ past, I had hoped to find visuals that unearthed remnants of that past in the present, and I found more than I could have hoped for in almost every location.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fy2Pta2IxD4&w=560&h=315]

IT: What was the most challenging part of making Only A Number?

SB: I didn’t think I would be able to start production on this film. About two weeks before I was leaving for Poland, there was a plane crash in Russia that killed the Polish President, his wife and high-ranking military advisers, and the country went into a period of national mourning. Then, the volcano eruption in Iceland spewed ash into the skies, grounding all flights to and from Europe. And, one week before I was to leave home, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer. I just looked up to the heavens and said, “Okay, I get it. I’m not supposed to go and do this.”

But, I would say the most challenging aspect was the emotional one. I had never been to Europe or any of these locations before. When I was literally walking in my parents’ footsteps with my mother’s words rolling around in my head, the rush of emotions was so intense, there were many times when I found it difficult to focus on making the film.

There were issues back home that added to the emotional challenges. My mother was at home beginning hospice care for colon cancer and, on the day that I was shooting in the area of the concentration camp where my parents met, my father had a heart attack and needed an emergency stent. My wife and sister rushed down to Florida to be with my parents, but it wasn’t until I spoke with my father on the phone following his surgery that I was able to continue and complete the filming in Germany.

Steven Besserman and Gerardo Puglia filming in Waldlager (a forest camp used during the Holocaust) in Germany. Photo courtesy of AriJoe Productions, LLC.

IT: Have you witnessed a difference in individual survivors’ willingness to speak about their experiences (even among your parents)? Why do you think your mother was so open to discussing her difficult past?

SB: I have known of many Holocaust survivors who did not want to talk about their experiences. My father was one of them. He had endured almost five years of hard labor, starvation and torture, lost his family and witnessed a lot of death and murder. He could not bring himself to talk about it. In fact, it wasn’t until I began pre-production research for the film that my dad began to open up and share some details of his story.

My mom was much more open about her experiences. I think part of the reason was her own need to tell the truth about what happened to her, even to us as young children. The diary that she wrote 35 years ago was the result of a writing exercise she created for herself to improve her English vocabulary. I encouraged her to capture her memories of growing up in Hungary, what happened to her during the Holocaust, and how she met my father and came to America. I think it was a cathartic experience for her, and she was doing what her son asked her to do, knowing it was important to me. She filled four notebooks in about six weeks, and those became the manuscript and the inspiration for the documentary.

IT: What was your family’s reaction to your decision to make a film based on your parents’ story?

SB: My family was extremely supportive of my decision to make Only A Number into a documentary. I had typed the manuscript of my mother’s diary many years before and shared that with my extended family since, for many of them, it is their story, too. They knew that I had the professional experience and ambition, but I don’t think they realized the effort involved in making an independent documentary. When it was completed and they saw the film, they were overwhelmed with emotion and pride. And, I made sure that all of my cousins and their children have their own copy of Only A Number to pass on to future members of our family.

IT: You produced Only A Number to preserve your mother’s memories for future generations. With so few survivors alive today, is there a side of the Holocaust or voice associated with it that you think has yet to be heard/seen?

SB: There have been a number of studies and writings on the impact of the Holocaust on second generation survivors and the psychological effects that has had on them. I always felt the need and obligation to help tell my parents’ story, and my journey in making this documentary brought me much closer to that and allowed me to share some of my own thoughts and feelings. I see more and more coming from other second generation survivors, and now even third generation survivors who are curious about their families’ pasts and how that helped shape who they are. I think those are the voices we will continue to hear and see and make contributions to fighting hatred wherever and whenever it occurs.

Celebrating the Stories of Our Community: Marica and Dr. Jan Vilcek

August 21st, 2012

This month, our Community Stories campaign highlights Slovak Americans Marica and Dr. Jan Vilcek. Here, the Vilceks discuss arriving in New York from Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia), and the unique experiences and opportunities their new life in America provided them.

Learn more about the campaign and view previous videos here.

Check out related stories on THIRTEEN’s local news and culture site, MetroFocus.

Filmmaker JL Aronson on Last Summer at Coney Island

August 15th, 2012

JL Aronson. Photo courtesy of Bailey Photo (2008).

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with filmmaker JL Aronson, whose documentary Last Summer at Coney Island explores the transformation of one of New York’s favorite playgrounds and the controversial proposals to redevelop the area in recent years. Here, Aronson explains what led him to make the film and how Coney Island has become a quintessential part of New York City history.

Last Summer at Coney Island airs August 19 at 10 p.m., August 22 at 4 a.m., August 24 at 2 a.m., and August 25 at 3 p.m. on WLIW21.

Mr. Aronson answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make Last Summer at Coney Island?

JL Aronson: I’d been going out to Coney Island and shooting there for a long time. I always loved piecing together the history with the reality of the present day. When I heard that a developer had bought out most of the amusement zone and that there would be massive changes coming, I felt it was important to document the way things had been. What I didn’t realize at first was how much push back the city and the developer would get. I don’t think they realized that either. Many people saw a complete makeover as a mortal threat to this place that meant so much to them.

IT: With a history very much tied to New York City, what do you think makes Coney Island so unique and distinct from other amusement parks and beach side attractions in the country?

JA: Well, first of all, most seaside amusement areas are wholly owned or subsidized by municipalities. But aside from the construction and occasional maintenance of the actual boardwalk, Coney Island was never that way. In fact, it seems like Coney Island survived all these years in spite of the city’s attitude towards it. Coney Island has sometimes been known as “the people’s playground” and that sense of egalitarianism is also reflected in the independent businesses that have comprised the amusement area. But more generally, Coney Island has its own feel that is distinctly New York City even though it doesn’t look, feel, smell or taste like any other part of New York City.

IT: How do you think Coney Island’s role in the city has changed over the years? Has it become less relevant to New Yorkers?

JA: If you compare the Coney Island of today with what it was during the first half of the 20th century, then it is less relevant. Before everyone had access to air conditioning, cable TV, cheap car rentals and cheap airfare, most New Yorkers had a lot fewer options for summertime recreation. Fortunately, what they did have was known to be the greatest collection of rides and attractions on the planet, not to mention a very nice beach. Now Coney Island doesn’t have the biggest collection of anything. And the beach has gotten a lot better, but according to a widely circulated report on American beaches, that too is lagging behind. However, Coney Island is still vital to the millions of New Yorkers who either can’t afford to go elsewhere or who simply prefer the convenience of going to a seaside park in their backyard (only a subway ride away!), and that describes a majority of New Yorkers. Also, I think New York is a place that few of its inhabitants take for granted. People know that there is an important history and legacy here, connected to the city’s larger history. And they also see the potential to make it a world class destination, once again.

IT: What do you see as the biggest challenge to the redevelopment of the area? Do you see any way of making the existing model more sustainable?

JA: A lot of people think that Coney Island was forever doomed by the placement of large housing projects in the vicinity of the amusements. I think that’s one challenge but it’s by far not the only one. Right now, the City of New York owns a majority stake in the amusement area, having bought much of the land from a speculative developer. Since 2010, the city has really focused on sprucing up the area in order to attract more investment: specifically national retailers and market rate housing developers for the adjacent land. They also need to improve the infrastructure of the whole island before any major development projects can get under way. But in the meantime, the Bloomberg administration has brought in new ride operators and set a high bar for being a vendor on the boardwalk and in other locations where the city is now the landlord. The cosmetic aspects are a step in the right direction although there’s been a lot of trial and error and a number of long time business owners were forced out. I personally feel that change should happen gradually and that the kind of oversized ambitions in evidence with many of the development plans going forward are probably not sustainable. But, at least for now, things have been improving.

IT: In the film it is said that “a single owner is a dangerous concept,” with regard to a private developer taking over Coney Island. Do you agree?

JL Aronson filming Astroland's closing. Photo courtesy of Bailey Photo.

JA: For sure. One of the things that has made Coney Island distinct all these years is the variety of styles and themes amongst the various businesses, and there’s a healthy competition there, too. However, the ideal situation is one in which the city owns or at least subsidizes the amusement park as an investment, with an ongoing commitment that can withstand the vacillating attentions of various administrations.

A thriving Coney Island makes New York a more livable space and also brings in money from tourists. We’re at a pretty good stage now, but there are plans to develop market rate high-rise housing in the area to subsidize the investment in amusements. Many of those people who pushed back against development asserted that there should be more amusements on that property and that a greater capacity for amusements and recreational uses would pay for itself. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I think that if there’s anything Coney Island does not need more of, it’s high-rises.

IT: Both Last Summer at Coney Island and your 2008 film Up on the Roof (about the last remaining pigeon keepers in Williamsburg) explore how time and gentrification have changed neighborhoods and pastimes in Brooklyn. Do you think these films are representative of what is happening in the city as a whole? What attracted you to this topic?

JA: I won’t be the first to assert that New York has been undergoing a process of homogenization and corporatization for some time. Those things are a result of all the money that gets generated here and having a very pro-business and pro-development mayor. An independently organized amusement area doesn’t fit in with that kind of climate, nor does an old-time hobby like pigeon raising. I made Up on the Roof for similar reasons as Last Summer at Coney Island, which was to document and celebrate something that thrived when New York was a more adventurous place. Pigeon keeping hasn’t died out because of any specific policy changes or campaigns, but because people sort of fall in line with the general track that society is running on. As you see in the film, landlords and building tenants who used to accept pigeon flyers as a part of city life, adapt to a new reality. Suddenly you turn around and what used to appear to you as your neighborhood now looks like an investment. Everything appears sanitized and digital. People don’t want reminders of the old country or the pastimes that were brought over. They want to keep up with the ever-evolving American dream.

So, these films are about a collective experience of living in New York that used to be more the norm. The changes are symptomatic, I think, of our closing ourselves off from everyone else, aside from our small circles. The city is arguably more diverse than it ever has been (overall) but we’re losing the naturalness of interaction and the attendant sense of community that has long distinguished NYC from other metropolises. Still, we’ll always have the subway.

Independent Lens Filmmaker Q&A: We Were Here

June 20th, 2012

Independent Lens resumes their schedule with the broadcast premiere of We Were Here, a documentary that was short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar and directed by David Weissman, whose earlier films include The Cockettes. Here, Weissman discusses his inspiration for the film and why he chose to make it at this point in time.

We Were Here premieres June 20 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

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

What led you to make this film at this point in time?

A younger boyfriend who had heard me speak many times about my experiences living in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic suggested that I make a film.  I realized that there hadn’t yet been a film that explored the enormity of that history in a reflective way, and felt that it should be done by someone who had actually lived through it.

What impact do you hope We Were Here will have?

I hope that We Were Here offers a cathartic validation for the generation that suffered through, and responded to, the onset of AIDS; that it opens a window of understanding to those who have only the vaguest notions of what transpired in those years; and that it provides insight into what society could, and should, offer its citizens in the way of medical care, social services, and community support.

What challenges did you face in making the film?

We Were Here attempts to evoke an epic history through the voices of only five people, and accompanying archival material.  Because of the enormity of the subject matter, my choice was to try to evoke a sense of time, place, and circumstance from a very human vantage point, rather than to attempt an encyclopedic factual history.  The biggest challenge there is that the history itself needs to be adequately documented, the opportunity is to capture the human experience in a way that a simply informational film can’t adequately do.

Who do you think this film will most resonate with?

We Were Here, though it deals with how a specific historical experience played out in a particular city, speaks to basic human experiences that transcend the AIDS story itself.  It speaks to how individuals, and how a community, responded to an unimaginable crisis.  This is something that almost everyone will face at some point in their life, in one form or another.  But more specifically, the film certainly will speak to the generation that was most directly affected by the onset of AIDS, and the current generation – particularly of young gay men – who remain at high risk, and know little of the history of AIDS, and how we got to where we are today.

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

I selected interviewees who were emotionally open and deeply thoughtful.  The fact that I’d also lived through many of the same experiences allowed for a very deep conversation which I don’t think would have been possible if the interviewer was looking in as an outsider.  Also my cinematographer Marsha Kahm and sound recordist Lauretta Molitor also lived through those years, and helped create a safe and compassionate environment for the interviewees.

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

I’m sure if I looked back at the original interviews there would be plenty that I’d wish were still in the film.  And there are certainly countless aspects of this complex history that the film isn’t able to address in 90 minutes.  But I feel we were very successful in using creating an epic sense of history in a very intimate, personal way, which is exactly what I wanted to do.

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

Oh, there are so many … There’s a section in the pre-AIDS part of the film where Paul Boneberg is talking about a 1979 rally on Castro Street for Harvey Milk’s birthday the night after the White Night Riots.  There are some beautiful photos of the crowd by Danny Nicoletta, and as the camera pans across the faces, Paul says, “We had no way of knowing that already AIDS was among us, probably 10 percent of the men in that crowd were already infected…”  That section always makes me cry.

What has the audience response been so far?

What’s been most gratifying for me is that across the board, audiences and critics are expressing surprise that ultimately the film isn’t depressing, that it’s hugely inspiring and filled with love and compassion.  For the interviewees, it’s been hugely validating to gain perspective on who they were in those years, who they’ve become because of their experiences.

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

I’m not always motivated – sometimes I dread getting inspired because the process is so daunting.  But like all doc makers, I can get overtaken by the sense that there’s a story that MUST be told, that if I don’t tell it maybe no one else will … and that I’m the right person to tell that particular story.

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

It’s the perfect venue – freely accessible to anyone, presented without commercial interruption, and with integrity.

Every Day Is a Holiday: Q&A with Filmmaker Theresa Loong

May 24th, 2012

After finding her father’s secret diary from the time he was a P.O.W., Theresa Loong knew she had a story to tell.  In Every Day Is a Holiday, she documents her father’s path from being a Chinese Malaysian teenager serving in the British Royal Air Force, to being held as a P.O.W. in Japan during World War II, and his long, complicated path to U.S. citizenship that followed.

ITVS‘s Kate Sullivan Green had the opportunity to sit down with Theresa and talk about making her first film, the ups and downs of documenting a family member, and what she learned about the challenges so many Chinese faced immigrating to America.

Every Day Is a Holiday airs Sunday, May 27 at 2:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of ITVS.

What stood out to you about your dad while making Every Day Is a Holiday?

His fierce, fierce, fierce determination.  I always had a sense he had a really interesting life, but one of the things I’ve taken away is how much struggle he went through to become a citizen.  That gives me more appreciation for him and for people in general who go through hardship.  I consider myself an empathetic person, but this really puts things in perspective when I am feeling down.  I have a deep respect for what he went through.

One other thing is that I didn’t realize how difficult it would be for him to relive the past.  I guess I thought he was ready to share his story, but there were times when he would say, “Oh, that’s enough” or get up and walk away.  Sometimes it was just because he was tired, but other times I’d see his eyes go to a far away place as he was actually reliving the moment.  Especially with first person narrative, we have to balance wanting to know history with sensitivity.

Does he like the film?

I was afraid to show him for a long time.  When he finally saw a fine cut of it, he laughed about certain things – nodding and laughing.  After one screening he said, “It’s the truth.”  I couldn’t quite figure it out, it seems like veiled praise, but yeah, I think he likes it.

Your dad’s story is inspiring on so many levels as we see his perseverance, charisma, optimism, and ultimate success.  More broadly, this is also a story about the immigration system in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. What’s one particularly interesting thing you learned about while making this film?

I didn’t know much about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the fact is, that after that, from 1943-1965, only 105 Chinese people were allowed to become U.S. citizens, no matter where you lived.  That was a great deterrent to getting to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion act of 1882 halted Chinese immigration and prohibited Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens.  This law was replaced with others barring Chinese immigration, until the Magnuson Act in 1943, which permitted a national quota of only 105 Chinese immigrants per year.   That was finally replaced by the Immigration Act of 1965.

The other takeaway was that during World War II, the Japanese did not sign the Geneva Convention, so even though my dad had some Red Cross packages at the camp, there were a bunch of packages they were not able to distribute.  They did have a Red Cross person visit once, but it was only meant to seem very nice.  I show those propaganda photos in the film.  

What do you hope viewers takeaway after watching?

One is to gain a greater appreciation from people who may look a certain way in everyday life.  My dad could be seen as some older fellow, a non-descript Asian guy, but if one is to perhaps take the time to listen and ask, who knows what kind of stories they have.  It can be an enlightening thing to do.

I also hope people see that Chinese-American or Asian-American identity can be complex.  My dad is ethnically Chinese but comes from Malaysia and my mom comes from Taiwan.  In the mass media, we tend to have very stereotypical viewpoints of ethnicities and religion.

The other is for viewers to walk away with a bit more knowledge about the struggle of Asian-Americans and a greater understanding of the history in the far east. It’s a politically charged issue but it’s this idea that, for instance, in Japanese textbooks they downplay the significance of what happened in World War II.  One goal with this film was to open that dialog and explain that these things actually did happen.

I hope people see that this is an American story too.

Do you have any advice for others who are making a film with a parent as the main subject?

One is perseverance and two is sensitivity.  The perseverance is that you want to tell the story, and know you should.  But you have to be sensitive to whatever they are going through, and whether they feel like talking or not.  Remember, first and foremost, that it is a family member and be loyal to that.  It’s perseverance combined with sensitivity.

Maybe three is to learn when to ask for help.  Since things can be extra personal with a family member, if you are going to be protective then you have to find the crew that you trust, or develop the skills to do it yourself.  It was great to have another camera person but it also does change the dynamic, sometimes for the better, but occasionally I would see my dad being more guarded in a moment than if it were only me.

As a new filmmaker, what are some important lessons you learned while making Every Day Is a Holiday?

I didn’t have much of a budget, but I didn’t let not having a skill or saying I cannot afford something stop me.  Money is a factor, but you have to figure out a way.  For instance, I couldn’t really shoot that well, so I learned.  I didn’t have much money for archival footage and research, so I went to the national archives myself.   It was a great chance to learn about how the archives work.  Once I even went with my family and found a board from one of the camps showing what the prisoners were assigned to do.  So I was able to make that part happen.

Another is to prepare and plan as much as possible, even though things crop up unexpectedly.  I don’t always follow this rule, but the more you do the easier it is.

And always follow your curiosity.

Independent Lens Filmmaker Q&A: Aaron Schock on Circo

May 4th, 2012

Ringmaster Tino Ponce with 'Circo' director Aaron Schock

Aaron Schock wanted to make a documentary about Mexico that wasn’t about immigration, for a change. While scouting for subjects in the rural communities off the beaten path, he happened upon a traveling circus. The intimate, pastoral, and lyrical Circo tells the story of a circus family desperately trying to carry on a centuries-old tradition against difficult odds.

Circo premieres Sunday, May 6 on THIRTEEN.

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

What led you to make Circo?

The inspiration for Circo was a desire to reverse the direction of the documentary lens that has typically looked at Mexico only from the border up and singularly through the subject of immigration. Instead, I wanted to go deep into the Mexican countryside and find a story that could communicate both the richness and the complexities of a vast culture and social order unfamiliar to most Americans.

My original plan was to make a film about corn farmers. But one night while I was in a small village doing field research, a traveling circus came to town. That night I went to the circus. The plan changed.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I want the audience to walk away with a heightened awareness of the difficult choices faced by rural Mexicans, for whom a way of life that has sustained them for generations in increasingly unviable, and alternatives are few.

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

Probably my biggest challenge was also one of my greatest assets. During production I worked completely alone, enabling me to achieve the intimacy that I want with my subjects, and combining direction with cinematography to achieve the visual filmmaking I aspire to. But this approach does not come without certain difficulties and liabilities. When you are lost in not knowing what you should film next, or when you need someone to look over your shoulder and offer advice, or when you just need some reassurance you are doing something of value, it can be a challenge when in the field.

How did you gain the trust of the Ponce family?

I believe that from the start, the Ponces were honored to have someone take so much interest in their life and tradition. Of course, when I started, neither the Ponces nor I knew the story would center on a family conflict and a marital crisis. This only emerged later, but at that point the trust and mutual respect had been established, and we made the decision together that this material would make it into the film.

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

We had a scene with the circus’ patriarch Don Gilberto negotiating with an official of a small town over the amount that they would charge the circus to set up. While surely adept at shaking people down, the official was no match for Don Gil, and the scene is both telling about small town corruption in Mexico and the adept skills of individuals to circumvent them. It’s also full of Beckett-like humor.

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

There is a scene in the film when the Ponce family children take a break from the circus and wander around an empty tourist site, eventually finding their way into an uncompleted mansion. Their poignant response to the experience, witnessing their discovery of Mexico’s keen social inequality in such a naturalistic way, and the sheer surrealistic Last Year in Marienbad-like setting makes it perhaps my favorite.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the Ponces seen it, and if so, what did they think?

Circo has been both a critical and commercial success, finding distribution in several countries and a robust theatrical release here in the U.S. But the most meaningful screening for me was in Mexico at the Morelia International Film Festival, with the Ponce family in attendance. I wanted the family to experience what I had experienced from audiences in other screenings: love and respect for their tradition and their struggle. We did a outdoor screening of the film in Morelia’s central plaza before about 800 people, and it was so beautiful — they were so warmly embraced by an audience of their compatriots. For all of us, it was a very emotional night.

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

For me, first of all it is about being behind the camera while in the field. That immediate moment is where it all begins, capturing a moment that has both aesthetic and symbolic meaning — and the conviction that it is worth all the bother it takes to bring it to the screen.

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

For its large and engaged audiences, public television is hands-down the best venue for showcasing independent documentary on television.

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

Ten other films I would have loved to make.

What are your three favorite films?

In documentary, San Soleil (1983) for its ideas, The Gleaners and I (2000) for its heart, and Rain (1929) for its pure visual storytelling.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Your most precious and important commodity is your passion for your subject and your ideas.

There are no craft services on an indie doc set — what sustains you?

Mexican taquitos: like documentaries, best made with local ingredients, must be spicy, and always messy.

Celebrating the Stories of Our Community: Wellington Z. Chen

April 26th, 2012

This month, our Community Stories campaign highlights Chinese American, Wellington Z. Chen. Here, Chen discusses how he started studying architecture and the diversity of New York City.

Learn more about the campaign and view previous videos here.

Independent Lens Filmmaker Q&A: Chris Paine on Revenge of the Electric Car

April 20th, 2012

Chris Paine’s 2006 film Who Killed the Electric Car was, he thought, an elegy for an idea that wasn’t so much ahead of its time, but rather ahead of Detroit’s willingness to break free from the fossil fuel interests to which it had willingly enslaved itself. Independent Lens spoke with him about the unexpected opportunity to make a hopeful sequel to that film, and his hopes for the future of electric vehicles in a world still heavily addicted to oil.

Revenge of the Electric Car airs Sunday, April 22 at 11:30 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 viewers will feel energized to persevere in their own passions no matter how difficult. The film offers a unique personal view of entrepreneurship in America today  in terms of one of the biggest industries in the world, the automobile. Within that microcosm you can see how the system works and as usual – individual leadership is a big part of it.

In terms of the electric car revolution, I hope it inspires peoples to test drive or buy the new generation plug-in cars.  Change is so difficult and it takes a lot of early adopters to make the leap.  They’ll be really glad they did.  This is a leap worth taking, I can say wholeheartedly.  If the film inspires that, I’ll be happy.

What led you to make this film?

Last time, we made a film about how vested interests can disrupt or destroy innovation and why we need to fight to change the system from the outside.  This time we wanted to make a film about how very different kinds of personalities worked within the system to bring innovation to market even with huge obstacles.  The electric car of course is the subject to both stories.

The electric car is a symbol of innovation. So when everyone started coming back to the table after the 1990s debacle, we already had the experience and connections that might allow us to tell a very different kind of story then the first one – and to inspire hope instead of anger. Both of these emotions are important in activating change. That would be a nice bookend, especially since our film plays not just in the mainstream, but in schools and a lot of places where you are influencing people about what society is capable of.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film, after you skewered many of its subject in your first film?

At the end of 2008 markets collapsed and all the characters we were following hit the wall.  We had to rethink our film, find its center again, and keep moving. For awhile the film’s title in our editing room was Curse of the Electric Car.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film? It’s a competitive industry in a race to dominate a potentially extremely lucrative market. That’s a lot of intellectual property.

One step at a time.  It’s a process.  We were completely independently financed and it took time for them to understand what we wanted to document and for us to film enough to get behind the corporate veil and find our story.  We had very strict agreements not to share content with other car companies or with anyone for that matter.  Consider, two companies went public during our three years, and one went bankrupt.

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

We decided not to make an issue movie, because we had done that in the prior film.  To do it well again, we would have to make a miniseries rather then a 90 minute documentary.  However, there are many issues that we would have liked to address on behalf of the electric car. For example, one of the biggest users of electricity in the world is the oil industry — simply to refine gasoline from crude oil. We could save so many resources by simply putting that electricity directly into our cars and bypassing the middle man.

When Gadget uncovers a small operating part from an electric car in the vast ruins of his garage and says he can build a new car from this part. That symbolizes the perseverance all our characters shared in terms of dealing with setbacks.

What has the audience response been so far?

Audiences are shocked by our level of access given the confrontational position we took with the first film, and surprised by our tone.  I see the two films as kind of inverse mirrors of each other – both talking about the perils of getting anything truly revolutionary done.

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

It comes down to passion for your subject and the challenge of telling good stories with a team.  I’m on the board of a group called Impro Theater. They do long-form unscripted theater and I see documentary making as somewhat like that. You never know quite where you are headed and that’s part of the fun for the filmmakers and the audience.

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

We wanted to reach the largest amount of people possible and PBS really responded positively to the film. We know the film will be celebrated here.

What are your characters like in real life?

Probably our most-asked question from audiences is that:  What are Bob, Elon, Carlos, and Gadget like in “real life.” I have to say, almost exactly like they are in the film.  They are bigger-than-life characters because they live so deeply in their passions and ambitions.

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

At least another two hours of storytelling. Keeping things to 90 minutes or less is always a challenge but asking your audiences to stay longer isn’t fair.

What are your three favorite films?

The answer really depends on the day, the year, the venue, and the quality of the popcorn.  I don’t like films with guns in them except maybe the Guns of Navarone, Naked Gun, and Naked Gun 2 ½.  I really liked Sleeper and Shine when they came out.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit? inspired the name Who Killed the Electric Car? and the topic wasn’t too far off either, if you recall.  This is Spinal Tap is my favorite mockumentary about the decline of a rockband in the 1970s.  A great double feature for that film is the 2009 doc Anvil, about the travails of a Canadian metal band. Other terrific documentaries include Gasland; Inside Job; Waste Land; Why We Fight; Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room; Brother’s Keeper; Truck Farm; Genghis Blues, and classics like Hearts and Minds, which made me rethink everything I thought I knew about military power.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Get a great team together to work with. Filmmaking to me is a community experience, from financing to filming, from the music to the editing, from the press to the distribution.  At every level, find amazing people, build trust, then let them tell their stories without interrupting. Ask hard questions, listen.

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