CHRISTINA VOROS. PHOTO BY: SERGEI KARASIKAU
It‘s hard to comprehend Christina Voros‘s life from her résumé alone. Asked to confirm what looks to be three feature documentaries in production, an in-progress graduate degree in film at NYU, a simultaneous stint as a videographer for the John Edwards campaign, d.p. credits on a dozen other people‘s films and, finally, listing as a national-ranked saber fencer, she just laughs.
“Well, I love roller coasters, ghost stories and things that knock the wind out of you,” she says. “I guess that‘s what I love about filmmaking: I‘m constantly conquering fear.” The Cambridge, Mass., native was five years out of Harvard and committed to a life in the theater when she decided to go to New York City for a graduate degree in acting. A friend recommended she apply to film school, a shocking concept to Voros, who “didn‘t think you could apply to grad school for something you‘d never done.” She got into the theater program she wanted, paid her deposit, and then got the call from NYU Film School. “It was so unexpected that I knew if I didn‘t try it I‘d always wonder what could have been.”
“I showed up my first day of class without barely having touched a camera,” she continues. “I knew nothing. I was a complete technophobe.” Tasked to make a documentary project for class, she pointed the camera close to home. Recounts Voros, “I couldn‘t handle the cost of living in New York, so I moved in with my grandmother‘s sisters. Immediately we drove each other mad.” Vali and Mimi, 89 and 93 years old respectively, have shared one apartment since their teenage years. The bawdy, messy, stubborn ladies have lived far beyond the point of apologizing or even censoring their own behavior. Wearing their nightgowns, they talk like truck drivers and don‘t hesitate to tell Christina how to live her life, especially on camera. “The things that drove me so crazy to live with became the most wonderful moments of the film.”
The resulting short, The Ladies, was nominated for a Student Academy Award and won Best Short at the Chicago International Film Festival and the Gen Art Film Festival. “It‘s so reassuring to know there‘s appreciation for intimate stories and honest personal filmmaking,” she says. “I didn‘t have a budget or even another crew member.”
Recently she has made the move into narrative with a short film, Rosy. Reached at the Nantucket Film Festival, where Rosy was programmed, the young director had perspective on the fear keeping her going through her overloaded slate of projects (one, Garden in Transit, follows the largest public-art initiative in New York City as it is nearly derailed by municipal politics; another, Sweepers, will take her to India this fall to examine the country‘s caste system). Pondering the “amount of footage I can‘t even begin to talk about” piling up between all the films, she starts to think out loud: “I think if I had known what I was getting into...”
But Voros doesn‘t finish the sentence. One expects the fear in that elipse is one she‘s on her way to conquering. — Alicia Van Couvering
BENT-JORGEN PERLMUTT. PHOTO BY: MING KAI LEUNG
A product of Columbia University‘s graduate film program, Bent-Jorgen (or just BJ) Perlmutt came to filmmaking fairly late. Well into his undergraduate years at Brown University, BJ was on the fast track to medical school. “My senior thesis adviser asked me what I was going to do with the screenplay I had just written for my honors thesis,” he says. “I hadn‘t given it much thought until she suggested that I use it to apply to film school. I then went to the Congo to work in a hospital there for six months and forgot that I had even applied until my mother called me up angrily one day saying that I had interviews with Columbia and NYU film schools. I told her not to worry and that even if I went to film school, it would only be for a couple of years and then I‘d start med school.”
We should all be glad he chose otherwise. A Westerner who is right at home documenting the tales of forsaken sub-Saharan Africans, Perlmutt, whose remarkable films of the last few years, both of which were shot in the volatile Democratic Republic of Congo, is quickly establishing himself as one of the most versatile emerging filmmakers. With his pair of stunning works, the short narrative Les Vulnerables, a coming-of-age tale about a young man who must smuggle illegal goods and his ex-boxing champ father across the ever dangerous Congo/Rwanda border, and the feature documentary Lumo, a heartbreaking look at the fate of young Congolese rape victims in a culture which essentially exiles them, Perlmutt is on the vanguard of filmmakers who increasingly work within both the documentary and narrative tradition. “I see my documentaries having many similarities to my narrative films,” he says. “My docs have always been character driven and don‘t contain many voiceovers or interviews. On the flip side, when shooting narratives, I frequently work with non-actors and write their characters based on who they are in real life.”
Both films have enjoyed remarkable runs on the festival circuit. Les Vulnerables, the closing night short selection at last year‘s New York Film Festival, has screened at nearly a dozen fests including Berlin, Atlanta, Munich and AFI Dallas, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. Lumo, which has screened at more than 20 festivals and a slew of universities, received the Student Academy Award for Best Documentary, was honored by the National Board of Review and is currently airing on PBS as part of their POV series.
Not surprisingly, Purlmutt is currently juggling projects. While working on a script for his first narrative feature, he‘s editing his new documentary. It‘s a bit of a departure — it takes place in his hometown: “It‘s about two vegetarian professors from New York City who decide to go on a deer-hunting trip in Wisconsin and eat what they kill.” — Brandon Harris
Contact: Jennifer Konawal at Gersh: (212) 634-8135
JENNIFER PHANG. PHOTO BY: CHUIN PHANG
Displaying an imaginatively hybridized visual style, Jennifer Phang‘s debut feature Half-Life, which premiered this year at Sundance in the New Frontiers section, is an absorbing, often mesmerizing pre-apocalyptic drama with paranormal plot developments and buffeted by mysterious natural events that push the storyline toward the realm of speculative fiction. Rather than relying on that genre‘s fantastical elements, however, Phang externalizes her characters‘ apprehensions and convoluted dream lives through striking animated sequences inserted at critical points in the narrative.
“I‘m really interested in conflicted, flawed characters and in creating a distinct tone,” Phang says, citing Kieslowski, Ozu, Todd Haynes and early Ang Lee as creative influences.
Raised in a Northern California family of mixed Chinese-Malaysian and Vietnamese heritage, Phang obtained a BA in media studies at Pomona College before completing the MFA directing program at the American Film Institute.
After workshopping the Half-Life script at AFI, where she also wrote and directed the award-winning short Love Ltd., Phang further developed the project at Film Independent‘s Directors‘ Lab and Project:Involve, where she was mentored by filmmaker Tony Bui (Three Seasons) and the IFP‘s Rough Cut Lab.
Following a Sundance world premiere, Half-Life went on to screen at South By Southwest and the Gen Art Film Festival, where it received the Narrative Grand Jury Prize. Phang is currently working on a variety of scripts with different collaborators and recently participated in the prestigious Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab with co-writer Dominic Mah, developing their feature Look for Water, a dark fable that Phang will direct as an adaptation of Mah‘s original stage play.
Looking back on her experience completing Half-Life, Phang says, “What I really learned was how you‘re creating a community around a concept. That‘s probably the most enjoyable part of the process — that fever everyone gets when they‘re all trying to make the same thing work.” — Justin Lowe
BARRY JENKINS. PHOTO BY: DAVID BORNFRIEND
Leave it to a Florida-by-way-of-L.A. transplant to make arguably the definitive film about contemporary San Francisco. Director Barry Jenkins may have been raised in Miami‘s rough-hewn Liberty City neighborhood, earned his film degree at the Florida State Film School and paid his dues in Hollywood as a development associate at Oprah Winfrey‘s Harpo Films, but his marvelous feature debut Medicine for Melancholy decisively captures San Francisco‘s particular blend of hope, beauty and unease through a strikingly universal, timeless aesthetic. Chronicling two young hipsters‘ uncertain day after a one-night stand as they bike and banter their way around the city, M4M bears token narrative resemblances to the “mumblecore” movement, but its airy, seemingly casual B&W visual aesthetic recalls an entirely different era: the French New Wave, specifically Eric Rohmer‘s Six Moral Tales, with its similar focus on urbane city dwellers trying to sway (or lay) one another through verbal seduction (and destruction).
“I wrote the film with the intent of making it ‘makeable‘ by myself and a few friends, with very little time, money and equipment,” writes Jenkins. “The aesthetic is a direct result of the film‘s modest means; the action and recourse arise from the interplay of the characters because that was essentially the breadth of our control at these two characters and what they say to one another against the backdrop of a specific place, San Francisco.”
The film‘s reclamation of the definition of “urban African American,” usually pictured either gang-related (in Hollywood) or not at all (in the mumblecore scene), is a further statement, especially in relation to urban (and cinematic) gentrification. “M4M illustrates how the effects of gentrification make it virtually impossible for minority urbanites to just ‘be,‘ and explores the resulting process of negotiating one‘s identity,” notes the director. “[The leads] represent two sides of a conversation heretofore absent from cinema‘s representation of the black experience.”
Combing the romantic, the ethereal and the political (all under a fabulous soundtrack that combines indie rock, classical music and even Claire Denis‘s Vendredi soir), M4M recently picked up a distribution deal with IFC after an impressive festival circuit run nabbing the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and screening at SXSW, Sarasota, Philadelphia, Boston and L.A. Expect more to come. “There are scripts in my goody bag that are more suited for the studio system, and because of the success of this film there may actually be an opportunity to pursue that avenue,” concludes Jenkins. “It‘s a great feeling.” — Jason Sanders
Contact : strikeanywherefilms.com
SHANA FESTE. PHOTO BY: ERIK FREELAND
Of her decision to enroll in the producing program at AFI, Shana Feste, who is days away from production of her first feature, The Greatest, laughs, “You have to do things to figure out that they are wrong for you, and producing was so wrong for my personality.” She produced more than 20 short student films there, many of which she also wrote. “I‘d be in the background sweeping the floors, cleaning the toilets and watching the directors direct my material, work with actors, and do all the things that I wanted to do. [At the time] I never really thought I could be a director. I didn‘t have many female directors who were role models — I could barely count female directors on one hand. But I realized at AFI that [the directors] and I all knew the exact same things.”
So, Feste, who acted as part of the Young Professionals Actors program from the age of 11 to 18, set her sights on writing and directing, a journey that was aided by a couple of significant postgraduation jobs. She worked as a researcher for writer-director Robert Towne on a World War II project and also as an executive assistant to CAA‘s Richard Lovett, who read her script Love Easy and championed it at the agency. But Love Easy, a film inspired by her roguish father, is not the film she‘s about to make. “I spent two years trying to get it of the ground,” she says. “It‘s been fully cast and ready to go, and each time it would fall apart. It was devastating. I wrote The Greatest in order to have something else out there.”
The Greatest tells the story of a teenage girl who inserts herself in the lives of a grief-stricken family recovering from the death of their son. Being produced by Lynette Howell and Beau St. Claire, financed by Barbarian Films and starring Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon, The Greatest is one of a number of recent and upcoming films dealing with death and loss. But Feste, who cites Kramer vs. Kramer and Hal Ashby‘s films as her favorites, says that it‘s important for her that the film not be immersed in sadness. “I recently went to a meeting of the Compassionate Friends Network, where you have to have lost a child to get in,” Feste says. “The thing you notice is that there is a lot of laughter in the room. When you are grieving, you are not crying for 100 percent of your day. And with The Greatest, I didn‘t want to show a marriage falling apart — I wanted to show a family that comes out of this alive and together. It‘s all about finding the hope and the laughter in this journey.” — Scott Macaulay
Contact: Sarah Lemkin and Susan Solomon at Endeavor: (310) 248-2000