A film about childhood

When I think about it, Let the Fire Burn has always been about childhood. I was an eleven-year-old growing up in Philadelphia when the fire happened.

Childhood—for those of us lucky enough to have one—is really all about your parents sheltering you and protecting you. In order to better protect you, they tell a little white lie. The nature of that lie is that it’s all going to be okay, that the world is a fair place, that if you do good and play by the rules, everything will turn out alright.

So, childhood has an expiration date. There is a point in everyone’s life—often a traumatic event—when the bubble created by that white lie bursts. There is a moment when we all realize the harsh truth: the world is not a fair place.

At eleven, the events of May 13, 1985, scared me. It was impossible to avoid the images on TV, the smoke on the skyline, the tension everywhere. As a child, I was unprepared with the ready-made frames that adults use to help explain and thus emotionally negotiate public tragedies—and this was tragedy, destruction, and injustice on an epic scale. It happened in the place where I lived, and it was perpetrated on children. As a child, I could not comfortably put this event in a box and label it as an example of racism, or police brutality, or even war. In my childhood bubble, I did not yet have a context for these things. However, I knew intrinsically that the children were not to blame and that a fundamental injustice had occurred.

The world is not a fair place.

I think that art is all about making something out of the things that really bother us, frighten us, upset us, make us mad, make us sad…. Rationally, we know that we cannot fix these things. A movie is not going to fundamentally change the nature of reality. But art is not rational. We have an overwhelming need to understand. So we tell stories, paint pictures, and make films to digest, to grapple, and to remember.

A film cannot bring justice to the deaths of eleven people, but an additional injustice is done when this history goes unremembered. This is too powerful and important a story to be forgotten.

* * *

In memory of Michael Moses Ward 1971–2013.

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Hot Docs: The Fest

What a great festival, what a great city. My eyes have been opened to a new level of urban coolness and engagement with documentary. I mean, this place has the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema – a gigantic year-round all-doc theater. On the last day of the festival, there was a line around the block to pack the place on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema - a year-round docs-only theater (photo from http://www.hotdocs.ca/)

AND there is the TIFF Lightbox. This is like an art house and a Cineplex had a kid, then fed it steroids, and then sent it to boarding school at MoMA. When they are not hosting film festivals, they are doing stuff like this.

The University Toronto is like a city unto itself and the interplay of old and new architecture here is endlessly entertaining. In general, I found the mixtures and juxtapositions of this city extremely endearing. On the last Saturday of the film festival, there was a giant pot festival in Queen’s Park. Hundreds upon hundreds of tokers, puffing away with alacrity. On Sunday, in the exact same place, dozens of bagpipe players were honoring a fallen police officer in an intricate memorial ceremony.

I got to really spend some time in all parts of the festival, pitching at the forum, and hanging around to catch a bunch of films and parties, talking with a lot of filmmakers and delegates. It was a great show. Bravo to Programmer Charlotte Cook, who programmed her first festival and wrote a great piece about it, Forum Director Elizabeth Radshaw, who made the impossible look effortless, and everyone who helped put on this extraordinary festival.

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Hot Docs: The Pitch

The reason I got to go to Hot Docs in the first place was to pitch in the Hot Docs Forum.

Basil Tsiokos summed up the event better than I could for IndieWire (including a very flattering pre-review of LET THE FIRE BURN – Thank You Basil, glad I got a chance to meet you on our way out of town).

A few thoughts on the pitching at the Forum:

1. It is a pretty intense environment. This is really the big stage. I had to follow a pitch of a filmmaker who covered a subject for 12 years, and the producer of BEING ELMO, pitching a project that has already won best pitch awards. Intimated much?

2. It is SO important to have an experienced team. I could not have navigated this event nearly so well without backing from my EP Andrew Herwitz and Sundance representative Rahdi Taylor.  Having Sundance on your side does not suck at all, especially if you are pitching a non-traditional approach.

3. I decided to go a little outside the box with my pitch, by standing up (no one else did this) and by addressing the audience directly and asking for a response. I felt that if these things were effective, I would stand out, but that they could also fall flat, or (worse) I could come off as arrogant. In the end, I was very pleased with how it worked out. More than a dozen people came up to me and commented just that I stood up. Really? Such a small thing makes such a big difference? Yes!

4. All this stuff adds up. Regardless of the details, there is something about just being in the room consistently with this small community. Regardless of who you talk to or what the results are, it is important to get your name and work out there and do it consistently.

It was a pretty big thrill to step onto the big stage and I’m pleased that the project is being so well-received.

Me with Executive Prodcuer Andrew Herwitz of The FIlm Sales Company, right after the pitch.

The three Sundance Institute teams pitching at the Forum. The other films are THESE BIRDS WALK, a beautifully shot film "about Pakistani males, but with no guns" and LEONE STARS, a story about an amputee soccer team that is not what you expect. Centered with the big smile is Rahdi Taylor, our SDF rep on the scene. She is a dedicated community-builder and a great partner to have.

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Hot Docs: The Films

I’m just back from Toronto for Hot Docs, the largest documentary film festival in North America. This was my first time to this festival and in fact my first time visiting Toronto, and I must say, I am smitten with both.

Some of my favorite films and filmmakers of the festival also took home prizes:

THE BOXING GIRLS OF KABUL is highly recommended. It won the “Inspirit Foundation Pluralism Prize.” I don’t know what that is, but the prize was $10K. I may be biased on this one, as the filmmaker is a friend of a friend. However, I hung out with a group after that included civilians (IE. not doc geeks) who had been dragged along. It was interesting to hear these folks talk about how emotional the viewing experience was for them. In my filmmaker head, I thought “wow, that was well done,” but hearing these folks who rarely watch docs at all talk, it really validated it.

THE WORLD BEFORE HER won best doc at Tibeca and best Canadian doc at Hot Docs, and this praise is well-earned. The film explores the role of women in modern India through the parallel stories of two groups of women: one training for the Miss India beauty pageant, the other training as Hindi militants. The result is an excruciating emotional complexity that I found genius.

Then there is the winner of best international feature, CALL ME KUCHU. Again, I am biased, as this film has previously received a Garrett Scott award, and so I was tracking it and had an easy in to connect with the filmmakers and they were generous enough to share a portion of their Hot Docs experience with me.

With that said, CALL ME KUCHU is one of those unique, magical, devastating moments in documentary. This film is something very, very special, and talking to people here, there is the feeling that despite it’s serious subject matter and African locale, it could really be seen widely in the U.S. This would be so good on so many levels. I don’t want to say too much, except see the film if you can, and maybe don’t even watch the trailer, gives away too much of the story IMO.

I don’t think I have ever been to a festival where I agreed so thoroughly with the award winners.

I wanted to mention one other film that made me happy:

BEAUTY IS EMBARRASSING was a great way to end the festival. It is the story of Wayne White, the set designer and puppeteer who broke out with Pee Wee’s Playhouse, has been a creative force behind all kinds of funky TV, and now has re-invented himself as a fine artist.

I was hoping to finally really love a film at Hot Docs that was not cut-to-the-bone serious, and this was that film. Funny thing is, I rode the airport shuttle at Full Frame with this guy. He mentioned he was the subject of a film, but he didn’t really go into it. We were about to get coffee at the airport, and then got separated. I feel like a boob for not knowing who he was at the time – he’s a genius.

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Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant and HotDocs Forum Announcement for LET THE FIRE BURN

Building on last year’s good news for LET THE FIRE BURN, this month, two big announcements have me pretty excited. We’ve been awarded one of two 2012 Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grants,  and will be pitching at HotDocs Forum.

I should probably be preparing my pitch or studying buyer profiles or something, but instead I just keep watching this video over and over. I just can’t enough of it.

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