Sunday, February 10, 2013

What I learned from Agnes Varda

Baton Rouge

TRUST follows Marlin, an 18-year-old Hondureña, who joins the Albany Park Theater Project (APTP), a teen theater company in her Chicago neighborhood and shares a little bit about her childhood with the company. It is a traumatic story. Amazing things unfold as the young APTP actors transform Marlín’s story into a daring, original play. TRUST is about creativity and the unexpected resources inside people who are often discounted because they are poor, young, or of color. 

Located in one of America’s most diverse communities, APTP is a neighborhood theater project dedicated to helping young people re-imagine their experiences on stage. Marlin’s story is about resilience: she endured rape as young girl, survived a harsh and difficult journey from Honduras to the U.S., suffered further abuse at the hands of her own brother, and overcame substance addiction. Through theater, she re-claims the narrative of her life story.

My filmmaking partner and husband Kenji Yamamoto and I had never been to Louisiana, so on the ride from the Baton Rouge airport to the Louisiana State University campus we marveled at the live oaks – we have live oaks in the San Francisco Bay Area where we live, but their beauty lies in their gnarly strength. Those in Baton Rouge had broad, elegant spans.

We were blown away by the state-of-the-art 900 seat LSU Student Union Theater.  We did not expect TRUST to fill that theater – but we wondered how many people might come.  Our host Michael Derr and his technical director Deanna indicated maybe 50, maybe 15 people. 

When we did the sound and picture check, we were impressed by the high quality of the projector and lens and by how skilled Ricky, the projectionist, was at adjusting the color and contrast of the video image, so we knew TRUST would look and sound better than usual. 

At the scheduled start time for the TRUST screening in the LSU Student Union Theater, the place was absolutely empty.  The only person who had come to see the film was our friend Judi Minter, who lives in New Orleans.  I had to laugh at the contrast with the week before when a screening of another one of our films REBELS WITH A CAUSE (2012, www.krcb/ sold out a 246 seat theater.

But I also laughed because I was so glad I had learned how to separate what happens during the distribution and exhibition of one of my films from any judgment of my worth as a filmmaker, an artist, or a person.

I learned the hard way, of course.  I am a self-taught filmmaker and have been making independent films for more than 3 decades.  But during the first 15 years, of filmmaking, I didn’t take to heart that filmmaking is an art, and that as an artist, I needed a sustainable way to deal with the public’s perception of my work.  So, during those early years, when things went well, I was sure I had made (or was making) a good film and had a future in filmmaking, when they didn’t go so well, I was equally sure I had failed and had no future doing what I love to do.  Seeing me battered about by these ups and downs, Kenji, who studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and has always practiced a kind of irreverence toward those fluctuations, would remind me, “Don’t you remember when we were at Cannes with THOUSAND PIECES OF GOLD , we were sitting at a table writing out postcards and we looked up and saw Agnes Varda sitting at a table nearby, doing the same thing?  I went over to say hello to her and tell her how much I admire her work, and she said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now, I’ve got to fill out these postcards.  It’s very hard to get people to come see your film.’”  French director Agnes Varda is one of our heroes, with a long list of great films to her credit, and yet, at the Cannes Film Festival, famous as she is, she was doing the same kind of promotion we were.  And we were there with our first feature film.  Still, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the absurdity of it all.  Although I knew life as a filmmaker would never be a bed of roses, I did think it would make some kind of sense, that the day would come when I would not be the one passing out postcards to encourage people to come see my films.

In 1998 the day came when I had to get off that roller coaster - the financing fell apart on a narrative feature film that Kenji and I had thought was securely moving forward.  I closed our studio/office indefinitely and went to visit my family back in western Massachusetts.  While I was there, I was possessed by an idea for the documentary that became Downside UP (2002, 

In order to commit to making Downside UP, I had to find a different way to perceive the vicissitudes of the process.  Now, when I finish a film, I do it when I have convinced myself it is a good as I can make it and from that moment on, whether a theater is full, empty or somewhere in between, whether it is received well or tepidly, whether it is invited to, or rejected by, a film festival, I do not let it define me.

As it turned out, that night in Baton Rouge we had a remarkable screening.  Our audience was the handful of people who work for the LSU Student Union Theater, our host.  I don’t know whether they would all have stayed to see the film if there had been more of an audience from elsewhere, but they were deeply moved by TRUST. Most have a theater background and during the post-screening discussion, I could see they had taken to heart the story of the transformative work the Albany Park Theater Project does with immigrant teens. The discussion ranged from the deep work theater actors in general do around trust, fear, betrayal, anger, evil, powerlessness, and dreams; to how the actors in TRUST, despite the fact that many of them were only 13 or 14 years old, delved deeply into those issues; to the strong the community that formed around Marlín during the creation of the play.  It was a delight to show and discuss TRUST with them. 

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