NICOLE OPPER. PHOTO BY SHRAVAN VIDYARTHI.
A dedicated educator beyond her work as a filmmaker, Philadelphia-based documentarian Nicole Opper sees her teaching as the key to refreshing her own vision of the medium and its potential. Trained at NYU's undergraduate film program at Tisch, after graduating she quickly leapt into film education herself, teaching film courses at both public and private schools across New York City at a variety of age levels. "It's important to have your perspectives challenged by young people," she said. "They're intuitive. They're always challenging my way of doing things and my preconceived notions of how to construct stories."
While teaching a class at a Brooklyn public school nine years ago, Opper met Avery Klein-Cloud, the spunky, opinionated youth at the center of Opper's acclaimed documentary Off and Running. Avery is the black adopted daughter of white Jewish lesbians, and the film is an alternately wistful, touching and challenging portrait of her rocky coming-of-age. "She was a student in my very first class," says Opper. "We kept in touch through the years, and we first started talking about the possibility of making this film when she was 16, halfway through high school."
Probing deep into the nature of constructed identity, Opper's film follows this young woman and her extraordinary family over the course of several years. Avery, who is a gifted young runner, approaches the end of high school with trepidation as fissures begin to appear in her relationship with her adoptive parents and the ethnic/religious identity she's been given by them. She attends a high school that is largely black, yet knows little to nothing about African-American culture. Hoping to gain some knowledge of her background, she writes a letter to her birth mother that goes unreturned for more than a year. Her older brother, Rafi, a calming influence on the strong-willed women he's caught between and whose lighter skin lessens the burdens of black essentialism that Avery, who is very dark, seems to be grappling with, goes away to Princeton, and Avery's home life only unravels further. Avery's boyfriend and track mates slowly initiate her into some of the trappings of African-American life, be it boisterous language or trips to the salon for a weave, eventually leading to Avery quitting high school (and, by extension, her family). When her parents drive to Canada to be married, Avery doesn't attend, and Opper's camera doesn't follow either. "I was committed to telling a story from her point of view," she says. After stops at Tribeca, NewFest, Silverdocs and Frameline, Off and Running will be broadcast on PBS' doc series POV.
Opper, who is at work on a film about a home for abandoned boys in Mexico, sees the nature of constructed families as her perennial subject. "I grew up in a very traditional family, with a mom and dad and brother, but I'm a Jewish lesbian who imagines adopting one day, so when I met Avery and discovered her background, I felt that could be my future." — Brandon Harris
ASIEL NORTON. PHOTO BY ZDZISLAW ZYZAK.
There's an orthodoxy arising in the independent film world regarding how one should make a first feature. Think small. Shoot on video. Define your audience up front, and pick subject matter that will allow for a viral marketing approach. Forget theatrical. Think Webisodes. But don't tell all that to Redland director Asiel Norton. "I think it was Bergman who said he made every film as if it was his last one, and that's what I did," he says. "My idea was, and still is, that if I'm a good filmmaker, and I make an honest film from the heart, and I work my ass off and it's a good film, then it'll get noticed. I don't want to live in a world where I can't make the exact film I want to make, so I'm going to test the world and see what happens."
Premiering this year at CineVegas, Norton's debut feature Redland (written by Norton and the film's producer, Magdalena Zyzak) is set in the Great Depression and tells parallel stories involving a poor, desperate, starving family in a rural California outpost. The family's young daughter aborts her own child to keep an affair a secret while later, her father and her lover set out in the wilderness to hunt for food. The film is both tough and lyrical, and while it's as attuned to the natural world as any Terrence Malick picture, it also possesses a muscular beauty reminiscent of early Tarkovsky or, more recently, early Carlos Reygadas. The cinematography is bold, even radical at times — Rembrandt-like images with grain and light flares. Shooting on 35mm, Norton and d.p. Zoran Popovic used multiple filters, special lenses and a complicated postproduction process to craft a film that looks as if it's been carved out of the earth itself.
While Redland is set in the past, there's nothing remote about its story for Norton. "Redland was written as my father was dying of cancer, and he perished right before filming began," says the USC graduate. "The film is dedicated to him. As he was dying all my emotions, all my questions about life and death, my struggles to come to terms with life, my struggle with its ultimate mystery, were put into the film. Life is brutal and painful, everything dies, and death isn't pretty. But you have to find the beauty of pain, the beauty of death. Redland was the way in which I was able to do that." After touring the festival circuit with his film, Norton says he'll embark on one of two new projects: "a western about an outlaw and a child prostitute that I really want to shoot in the Rockies, and the other is about a Jewish woman and her child trying to hide and survive in the Polish forest during Nazi occupation in WWII. Whichever one I can get a budget for I'll shoot." — S.M.
ANDREW T. BETZER. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK.
Andrew T. Betzer
A big man with a pleasant, disarming face beneath a balding crown, Andrew T. Betzer has a wistful introspectiveness in his voice that is never pretentious but contains a genuine searching; although he's often very funny in a mostly deadpan sort of way, you get the sense that as he approaches mid-life while budding into a terrific filmmaker, he thinks deeply about things. He grows on you almost immediately.
Betzer worked on Ronald Bronstein's Frownland ('07 25 New Faces) with his friend and fellow Maryland native Sean Williams, who has shot each of Betzer's last two pictures. They include Small Apartment, which deals, in fairly naturalistic terms, with the sexual malaise of a lonely old man who lives in the same apartment with his more sexually gratified son and his girlfriend. After filming them having intercourse, they all share a brief, wordless lunch; the couple leaves and the old man masturbates to the tape, only to stop, blinking at tears. The film, despite what I just described, is deeply funny and quite moving, shot by Williams with some of the low-fi 16mm immediacy he brought to Frownland. It was a favorite at Slamdance '08 and won the shorts prize at South By Southwest.
His most recent effort, John Wayne Hated Horses, which recently screened at the Cannes Directors' Fortnight, also details the insidious aspects of a father/son relationship, this time in a rural setting, with a young child and an incredibly inarticulate father. "It's kind of instinctual. I don't set out to make films about fathers and sons. It just kind of ends up that way," Betzer said.
After dabbling in writing, Betzer was bitten by the film bug later than most. He studied film at a "state school in Maryland" and he began to hone his skills by "trial and error," making several short films that he financed piecemeal by himself before the successes he's had with his last couple. Betzer, who works at a Manhattan film laboratory, a job that affords him the freedom to work, at least so far, solely on film without the stifling costs of processing, is planning a feature that departs from his usual subject matter. "The film I'm planning is more about a daughter/parent relationship. I always stick with my instincts. I just want to make something that I would want to see. Something that gratifies me in the end, that I would enjoy seeing." — B.H.
Contact: [email protected]; (410) 274-3868
SEBASTIAN SILVA. PHOTO BY MARIANA GONZALEZ.
Blame it on The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and the countless Hollywood domestic thrillers that followed it, but halfway through Sebastián Silva's The Maid, I was pretty sure I knew what was going to happen. Silva's story is about a wealthy family whose live-in maid starts becoming unhinged. Awkward moments lead to spontaneous pettiness lead to low-level vandalism. We just wait for night to come and the maid to pull out the kitchen knives.
But where Silva takes his film is indicative of the 30-year-old Chilean's sensitivity and originality as a director. The film takes a left turn, refusing to objectify the maid. It watches the lonely woman develop an unexpected friendship and then grope toward an awkward moment of intimacy. It ends on a beautifully open-ended note, giving us just enough information to make us think that the maid can reverse her slide toward villainy. It is a kind film.
Says Silva, "The Maid is based on a real character, and even though I know why people expect that she will kill everyone, as I was writing it that was never a possibility. [In real life] she was so far from someone who would do that, so the tension in the film is entirely unintentional."
For Silva, whose family had a live-in maid as he grew up, the film was a chance to ponder feelings he had as a child. "It felt weird to see her cooking for hours, bringing us meals, and then going back alone," he says. "It was Christmas and we would exchange presents in the living room and she would wait in the kitchen. It felt weird, like a little injustice. It's a strange but understandable heritage of colonialism."
Digitially shot on a 16-day schedule, The Maid screened as a work-in-progress at the San Sebastian Film Festival and then premiered at Sundance, where it won the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize. Silva, now based in New York City, travels between Montreal, Santiago and L.A., and has several projects he's hoping to follow The Maid with. There's the U.S.-set drama Second Child, being produced by Open City's Jason Kliot and Joana Vicente and executive produced by Lee Daniels; a long-planned L.A.-set movie, May I Speak to Steven Spielberg?, which he says is based on a true incident in his life; and then a strange project that's both art piece and infomercial. Entitled Complete Body and Identity Surveillance, it involves Silva using both a Red camera and psychologist to capture for people on film a complete record of their physical and mental states. — S.M.
Contact: [email protected]
TINA MABRY. PHOTO BY SCOTT PASFIELD.
Tina Mabry doesn't lack ambition. The 31-year-old Tulepo, Miss., native, who set out from the Hospitality state to Los Angeles with $1,200 and a dream to become a filmmaker after seeing Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry and Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball as an undergrad at Ole Miss, wants to address underrepresented communities in mainstream narrative films. This goal has always proven trickier than it might at first seem, but on the basis of her first feature, you can't help but believe she may have the talent and savvy to do just that. "We're trying to take stories that have been marginalized in American Cinema and help craft them in order to redefine what mainstream cinema is," Mabry says.
As her admittedly autobiographical debut feature film Mississippi Damned indicates in so many ways, from its performances to its art direction, from its elegantly lit, color-saturated cinematography to its keen ear for Southern Negro dialect, Mabry's a director who's capable of immersing her audience into the type of milieu most American moviegoers have never been to and rarely get to visit onscreen. A narrative of great complexity, one that takes place over two time periods (the mid '80s and the late '90s) with more than a dozen intimately intertwined characters involved in key relationships, Mississippi Damned recounts the story of five black working-class couples, their progeny and extended families, and meditates on the attempts of the younger generation to escape and transcend the prejudices and failings of their families and their own victimizations within a dead-end existence.
"I grew up pretty poor in the South," Mabry says. "We didn't have a lot of opportunities presented to us. I wanted to tell a story that would look at my family's struggles in the South and how our community, the landscape and the politics of that community would define our lives. It was a very cathartic experience for me." Mabry spent a year writing it and after hooking up with producer Morgan R. Stiff, who took the project to Film Independent's Producers Lab, raised the money to shoot it in 35mm for an extremely low budget. A significant film stock grant from Kodak certainly helped.
The film, which went on to bow at Slamdance before winning prizes at the Atlanta, Newfest, Philadelphia and the American Black Film Festivals, is currently seeking domestic distribution as Mabry plots her next project. Her next script, currently titled County Line, is a Southern drama about "the aftermath of two murders" in a setting not all that dissimilar from her first film. — B.H.
Contact: [email protected]