the traveler's resource guide to festivals & filmsa FestivalTravelNetwork.com site part of Insider Media llc.
At CraicFest 2023, director Sean Claffey debuted his powerful doc “Americonned.” It offers commentary by various political and sociological experts and an examination of ordinary citizens’ lives in order to address the impact that super-capitalists — the one percenters — have on the world at large and on America in particular.
According to “Americonned,” pernicious power junkies and the super rich suck the economic life out of the middle and working classes — while contributing little in return. The movie shows the struggles of American families to balance out the inequities through various means such as union organizing. With sympathy for middle-class workers, the film explores the outrageous attempt to color them as lazy. It addresses the notion that we must make sure workers are paid what they’re worth instead of being paid what’s minimally possible.
With more than 25 years in the film industry during which Claffey made features, industrial documentaries and commercials, he employs his experience to make a film which grapples with compelling and controversial issues. As Claffey explains in the following Q&A, he is drawn to emotionally challenging projects and embraces the rigors of getting the story right, even under the most arduous circumstances.
Q: What made you crazy enough to make a movie like this?
SC: I come from an immigrant Irish family that landed here in extreme poverty. There was a path to the middle class that existed then. It was helped greatly by unions. As I see that path erode more and more, it's really important that we fight back to keep it open. We need to keep people in the middle class from falling out of it. That's what made this country so amazing. America used to be the number one [home for the] middle class in the world. Now we're at number 12 and falling rapidly.
Q: When you make a movie like this, do you consider what kind of an audience you're going after? Who do you think is the audience?
SC: We were really focused on getting our message out to everyone, not one political party or the other. We looked at it and could see that both political parties really contributed to this fall. Maybe one more than the other. Certainly, one is now moving into an authoritarian position. So we called up both parties and we showed where they failed the working and middle class in this country.
Q: When you planned this film, did you have an idea of how you were going to structure it and where you were going to go with it? Or did you just start shooting, figuring that you would tap into some lucky moments as we see in the film?
SC: We definitely had a structure. We wanted to interweave several families who were suffering with the activists who are carrying on the fight. The experts basically tell the tale of how we got here and how we might get out of it. It did take left and right turns and U turns, though. Stories that we thought would work out led to dead ends. Others that we didn’t know would be anything actually became some of the major points of the film.
Q: Was this planned before the 2020 election or during it? Did you decide to make it after?
SC: We came up with this idea in 2009. I had three companies in the film business and lost all of them. We definitely saw that banks got bailed out and people didn't. So we started then, but had a false start and ran out of money. Making these things is very difficult. But we started again in earnest about three and a half years ago.
Q: Before the election, and before COVID, did you think that Trump was going to lose? Or was that a lucky break for you?
SC: When he was first running a year before we were doing this, a friend of mine, a producer, bet me that he was going to win. She's from Italy. I was like, “No way. Absolutely not Not in a million years. From a native New Yorker: we know his shenanigans here.” Yet he won. I was hoping that he wouldn't, but he did. Then by 2020, I was hoping again that he wouldn't win. The reason we got Trump is because we let down swaths of this country. They've been trying over and over again to make it but can't. When you try everything and still can't pay the mortgage — you lose your house, you lose everything — you start to get this mindset. I've spoken to many of those people who want to burn it all down.
Q: One of the great lucky turns in this film is the situation with unionizing at Amazon. You had no idea how that was going to work out but it really did work out in your favor. At what point did you know, you wanted to try and follow it? At what point did you know, “Wow, we really hit a home run.”
SC: I met Chris Smalls who organized the Amazon labor union in Staten Island before he ever thought of unionizing. They protested. Basically [Amazon] was making employees work without masks. People were getting sick and dying, so he stood up, He was a supervisor there and people were getting sick in the building and passing out. They’d just move them aside and put a new person in their place. So he started a protest long before the union. They thought about making a union. I was like, “Oh, there's a union thing going on in Bessemer. Let's all drive down.” We drove down with his whole team and we're in an Airbnb but the local union wouldn't even meet with us. They snubbed us. When the team got snubbed, I was like, “Just start your own union.” I could see that it kind of clicked with them. But, I want to say right here, that I didn't do it. They made the decision on their own. I might have been a spark but they worked like 300, almost 400 days straight –– seven days a week, three shifts. It was a huge effort.
Q: There's always a challenge in making a documentary. There's an enormous amount of competition and, certainly, a lot of films that deal with left-of-center issues. I don't even like the term left and right or progressive. Progress is not about standing still. Everything else is either standing still or going backwards. You have the challenge of convincing people that this is an initiative that concerns them without rubbing them the wrong way. Maybe it doesn't address the issues the way people think they should be addressed. How did you know that you want to continue this?
SC: I was going to finish this film no matter what. COVID hit and it got really hard to make this film. We went around, risked our lives in the beginning of COVID not knowing what the outcome could have been. So the movie was getting made to the point where I was like, “If nobody picks it up, I will put it on YouTube.” Now, of course, you need to recoup your money; otherwise you'll go broke. But yeah -- nothing was going to stop us from finishing the film.
Q: Now that you’ve finished, what’s been the response? People seem to be getting attracted but you still want to get it into the biggest festival. What happened there?
SC: The big festivals just flat out turned us down. You know, we take on Amazon in a negative way -- it becomes the villain standing in for many other corporations. But you go around to the festivals and it's the Amazon documentary award, right? So do you think we even have a shot at that? Whether it's on purpose, or is subconscious or there subliminally. But we got very lucky and have gotten limited theatrical distribution. We're going to be in New York, DC, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. There's additional theaters that are asking us right now as we speak, for New Hampshire and Florida. After that, we're going to be streaming on many different platforms.
Q: You've been getting good responses at festivals. The crowds come up to you. What do people want to do? Are they ready to finance the next film?
SC: We've gotten great responses interestingly enough, from both sides of the aisle -- conservatives as well as liberals and everything in between. Everyone knows something is wrong and we really expose it and dig down into the history. Once people see through it, you can't unsee it. There's a meticulous way it's being done. We expose that completely. Everyone wants the same thing — to have a house, a good job, and have their children do better than they're doing. The division is on purpose. But we're talking about somebody in a dress that's drinking a beer that they don't even like — that's becoming a divisive thing. When so much money is being stolen from the middle class, it’s all done on purpose. They pull it off -- the think tanks -- they think about it and push it out there. The talking points go out every Sunday night or Monday morning and you just hear it. They regurgitate stuff just to divide us against our own economic best interests. And they've been doing it for a while. They're really, really good at it.
Q: Do you think it's part of your Irish experience or Irish tradition that you make a film like this and support the causes it supports?
SC: I’ve always been a little rebellious. I don't have a problem standing up against powerful people for things my family has been doing for probably a lot longer than I even know, hundreds and hundreds of years. I grew up with that instilled in me: if something's not right, we need to stand up to it, no matter what. Because if we don't, then everyone else suffers.
Q: You grew up here in New York? Have you been back to Ireland? Have you tapped into a lot of your Irish community?
SC: I grew up in New York my whole life. I have definitely been to Ireland a bunch of times. I have family there. I'm part of that Irish American community and this year I got to help lead the parade as a New York City aide to the Grand Marshal. It's been an epic year for me personally.
Q What county are you from?
SC My family is from mainly Donegal but also the Midlands.
Q You’ve built up some new bonds with different people. You've continued with your relationships with the Amazon people. What new relationships were built for you?
SC: Finding the experts was challenging. But once we started getting a few of them, like Nick Hanna, they were amazing. He's a billionaire but he’s fighting for the middle class. He's really aligned on the whole thing. Once we got him, it was much easier to get the rest of them like Kurt Anderson and Jake Packer. We knew that we had to get the interview. So we hopped in my car, filled it up with camera gear and looked at the weather report. We have to get over the Rockies but there's a massive storm coming in Brooklyn. We drove 70 hours straight, only stopping to fill up for fuel and to eat, usually done at the same time. And we made it. We hit the Rockies just as snow started falling. Snow everywhere but we were able to get to Seattle where he was and it really started the journey [of the film.] We drove 3,400 miles across the country traveling through 23 states. We really got a sense of people that are suffering and what’s actually on the ground. I don't think I quite understood that just being a New Yorker.
Q: Was this the biggest challenge you've had in your life?
SC: Biggest long-term challenge? When we started filming, we filmed a few people in New York but then my mom passed away right in the beginning. I was like, “Well, I'm either going to go into depression or we're going to finish this thing.” We drove up to Seattle and dedicated it to her and a couple of other people we lost during the filming. We ran out of money a bunch of times, burned up the credit cards multiple times and I almost missed my mortgage payment. It was intense with some really low lows. But it's getting out there. So it was well worth it.
Q: Have you always meant to be a filmmaker or were there other things? Or did you just fall into this?
SC: I started out in theater behind the scenes, as a technical director, set design. Then I switched over to film and got to work with some really great directors like Spike Lee, the Coen Brothers and many, many others. I worked with some really bad directors, as well. Then I started doing TV pilots and whatever.
Q: This type of film is really a calling — to expose injustice and shine a light on problems like this. Is this what makes you tick? Once you make a film like this though, does it mean that you’re either going to go further mad or you're going to change the course of the world?
SC: I think you have a little of both. I have an idea for the next one. It's going to be about democracy and if you have a tool right now or whatever you can do [to maintain it]. The authoritarians are on the rise if we don't stop them. And we can't wait for someone else to do it because no one's going to do it. It's got to be all of us.
Q You've done the festivals and met some people. What is the best or most interesting experience you've had as a result of touring the festival circuit?
SC: Having a full house, watching them cry, get angry, have hope and stand up and applaud. That made me think that it was all worthwhile.
Q What was the most interesting question you've had so far?
SC: People don't really comprehend that this was all done on purpose — it was planned. I'm talking about the financial organizations [extraction of money] from the middle class. They're looked upon by a few tens of thousands of people as just something to extract from. Audiences are blown away by that. They want to know more about how we all let this happen and how do we not know about this.
Q: It risks making them and you cynical, because capitalism isn't going away. Can we fix capitalism?
SC: The most important thing is democracy. We get confused with capitalism and democracy and when these are just economic systems. I think there should be a blending of them. If just extreme examples -- if there's a depression, there should be more socialism. If there's a natural disaster, then we should turn the socialism up. If it's boom times, you raise taxes. There needs to be this constant balance. But most importantly, it needs to be a democracy for the path to the middle class that’s maintained. It will change with technology if we don't make it more fair. We talk about this in the film. Curt Anderson says, if we don't make it fairer now, with AI and robotics which is slated to take place, about 46 to 47% of all American jobs are at high risk. We're talking about doctors, accountants, radiologists. I mean, this is like the white collar thing. What happened with NAFTA to the blue collar [workers] — it's still happening now. The CEO of IBM said that he's going to get rid of every single human job he can this year.
Q: They can't get rid of film journalists. I'm sure of that anyhow. On that note, how do you envision things moving forward for you and for the future of America?
SC: About half of Americans between 18 and 65 medium wage is $10.35 an hour. That’s insane. With most places in the country, you have to drive to work. How do you afford a car, rent and food on $10.35 an hour? You can't even buy a burrito. It's insane. The price of eggs is more than that. I’m going to keep fighting and exposing injustice wherever I can. And for America, we're at a turning point, we may swing authoritarian or fascist with these high levels of income inequality.
[This award-winning documentary opens theatrically in New York (Cinema Village), Los Angeles (Laemmle Monica Film Center) and major cities this June with a VOD release in the US and Canada on major platforms to follow. Not Rated/ 96 Minutes/ Feature Documentary/ USA]
It’s disarming to encounter gentle giant Kenny Hargrove for the first time. Sender of cheery “Happy Monday” and “exciting news” greetings, retweeter of film industry feeds to his @peaseblossom7 22.4K Twitter followers, popping up all over L.A. film openings, multi-hyphenate title bearer of filmmaker/producer/director/screenwriter/playwright—it’s a wonder that he has the time to focus on politics. Under his calm, humble, and genial manner, there is a thoughtful scholar (Princeton undergraduate, Columbia Masters in International Affairs) and a sincere emerging filmmaker. His ongoing film project is Snow, a woman’s journey toward love, destiny, and self-knowledge. “33 Minutes to Live” is his second project, a webisode with a pilot already shot that will hopefully turn into a television series about how people cope with the threat of nuclear war. FilmFestivalTraveler.com interviewed Hargrove when he crowdfunded on Indiegogo for his first project. We are back three years later to catch up on his dramatic arc toward his own film destiny.
If you’d like more information, please contact him at
Follow him on Facebook (www.Facebook.com/33MinutesToLive/) and on Twitter (@33MinutesToLive). Subscribe to his YouTube channel 33 Minutes to Live Webseries https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6AwI_CShuO_SZw98GTu2vA.
So what's the good news, Kenny?
“33 Minutes To Live” just had its second public screening [after the Silicon Beach Film Festival] at the closing night event of the Broadway International Film Festival at the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles on October 25. It was a standing room only event with a nice reception. (Our project features actors from Argentina and Mexico and crew from Ecuador, Colombia, and Argentina, among other parts of the world.) I was honored to receive a Certificate of Recognition there from the U.S. Congress. That was a nice surprise!
To go back, what happened to your Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign for your previous film project, Snow, since FilmFestivalTraveler.com last interviewed you three years ago?
We didn't get anywhere near what we needed, but it was great for building a social media presence of the project online. The results of the Indiegogo campaign: We were trying to raise a minimum of twenty-five thousand. We got to just over $9,000 from about 115 unique contributors. After fees and campaign expenses we netted about $6,000. We did well on many levels. Successful campaigns average about $75 per person and we did that. We just had far fewer people than we needed. The campaign was very successful in rebranding me as a filmmaker and letting the world know about Snow.
You know, there's never been a better time to make Snow because of all the push for diversity in Hollywood, with a lot of female-centric projects. As producers of film projects about women now say, their pitch hasn't changed. What's changed is the reception. People actually listen and there are more and more female-centric films being made. It's a good environment to be in compared to five years ago when people would react to Snow by saying “Oh, a chick flick!” and lose interest. Now people take me seriously. It's really a wonderful change.
What it's like to be a black filmmaker, and do you use that identity as a filmmaker?
I think it’s fantastic and long overdue that the ranks of directors of color are rising. I’m very excited about the work of black directors like Barry Jenkins, Ava DuVernay, Antoine Fuqua, Tim Storey, and Steve McQueen. So much has changed in the last few years that benefits us all!
As for me, I just want to make films. Some will have subject matter and cast related to the African Diaspora but some will just have that sensibility of an “other” and an awareness that the world traditionally shown in Hollywood films may not represent the real world in which we live or that we want to live in. That would impact hiring on both sides of the camera but would not exclude or marginalize anyone.
There are so many great stories that cross cultures that have yet to be told which I think that many people can relate to. Great examples would be the films of Hong Kong director Clara Law about the Chinese Diaspora in the run-up to the 1997 Hong Kong Handover, films by Mira Nair, novels by VS Naipaul, or Jennifer Kent’s new film The Nightingale about the brutal conquest of Australia in the early 19th Century and the unlikely alliance of an Aboriginal man and an Irish convict woman in that dangerous world (my favorite film of 2019 so far). However, my personal role model is Ang Lee, who excels at telling stories that cross cultures and races and geographic boundaries.
I definitely have black stories to tell (some of which may be somewhat autobiographical or historical) but maybe they are best set on the stage where a smaller more engaged audience can enjoy them and explore their ideas and concerns, and I won’t have to worry about the commercial pressures of making an expensive film that might appeal to a mass audience. That said, I’m thrilled that Denzel Washington is filming the plays of August Wilson and finding a wide audience to enjoy them so I guess anything is possible.
Kenny, can you talk about what your pilot is about? Why you chose a webisode format?
I was taking a class at Chapman University, and it was called the Advanced Video Production Workshop. It was geared more toward the internet, more towards YouTube and YouTubers, which I'm not. I really wanted to take it to practice more on narrative filmmaking so I got an okay to do a web series pilot, so that's what I did.
At the time, the summer of 2017, Washington and Pyongyang were going at it, talking about who had the bigger button in terms of nuclear weapons. North Korea was launching intercontinental ballistic missiles, and so the whole world was on edge. I thought well, I loved all the old nuclear war feature films like Dr. Strangelove, On the Beach, and Hiroshima Mon Amour so I thought that maybe it's time to go back to that and do it in the web series form. So I created “33 Minutes to Live” because I read online that that's how long it takes for a missile to get from Pyongyang to the American heartland (which is not a lot of time).
Is your film set here in Los Angeles?
It was just because we were here and that's what we could afford. We actually shot in Malibu, because one of my classmates, Brian Nahas, who became an actor and producer for the project, offered his relative’s compound. So it is an L.A. story, but a very international story at its heart. It's got a lesbian relationship between the daughter of the South Korean ambassador to the UN, a wonderful actress, Kat Kim (whose parents are from Korea but she's actually from New York) and a wonderful Argentinian actress, Marina Bakica, who plays her lesbian lover who is also a poetess. We had an international cast and crew. We had a good representation of the world on both sides of the camera.
How important is networking to produce a budget pilot? How did the cast and crew work for free or exchange for favors?
With any film project, there's a whole web of relationships. I had really good producers and a producer brings in their people with them. So it's really important to have a network, actually a bunch of networks. Some of these people might be working with me on future projects, so I wanted to test them out and maybe they wanted to test me out as well.
When you are an unknown with no budget you have to call in some favors. Being a student project at a top film school helped. Being a SAG New Media project helped. Shooting only on weekends helped, as some people have day jobs and could come out to help for fun in their leisure time. Having a rising star cinematographer, Pietro Villani, who’d just shot a feature film starring Oscar winner JK Simmons, helped.
Having in-demand actors like Genia Michaela, Alexandra Hellquist and Abe Martell helped. Unfortunately, it was difficult to schedule additional shooting dates for Alexandra and Abe because they were both involved with plays. So, I had to rewrite a key scene (the opening pool scene) with new characters. Fortunately, Zuri Alexander and Michael Joseph Carr, wonderful actors who’ve participated in several of my play and screenplay readings, were available.
Having four amazing producers helped, including two friends from Filmmakers Alliance (Emily Beach and Todd Howard) who are calm and efficient and quite familiar with putting together and managing quality crews for no and low budget projects. Kimberli Wong, who attended the filmmaking program at Santa Barbara City College (the top junior college film program in the entire country), brought an amazing crew and worked tirelessly to dress the set and buy all of the props. Brian Nahas, an actor who was new to producing, was amazing. He got us the free location in Malibu as well as discounted and free meals from his restaurant-owning friends in the area. These four phenomenal people collectively made my job much easier.
You have to work it to get the money to rent the lights and to rent the camera. Our sound guy, editor, post-production re-recording mixer, and sound editor were paid. However, they offered discounts.
Fortunately, our award-winning cinematographer brought almost everything, and the location had a two-story glass wall that maximized natural light so that’s primarily how people were lit. He and the actors and the crew volunteered their time. Hopefully, that begins a good long collaboration on a variety of projects.
Still, we needed extra money for things like food, computer drives, props, and incidentals. The problem with Malibu is that it isn’t cheap, and you can’t get people to deliver there because it’s so far. Still, I was hoping to shoot everything in one long day but costs kept creeping higher.
I was thinking of either postponing or canceling. Four days before the shoot, I went to bed depressed thinking that I was going to have to make a big announcement about either postponing or canceling the shoot.
“I was thinking of either postponing or canceling. Four days before the shoot, I went to bed depressed thinking that I was going to have to make a big announcement about either postponing or canceling the shoot.”
I understand that you then got some funding from previous donors to your Indiegogo campaign social media? The big lesson is that the people that actually gave, give again because you asked them to.
Yes. I woke up the next morning and said, “Hey, we had a big crowdfunding campaign last year and people gave me money. Why don’t we go back to a few of them, and say, if you give me $200 at least by Friday, I’ll give you co-producer credit?” I think I sent out emails to 16 people and 4 people did respond, so we got a $1,000 bucks. The rest came from me. The total budget, excluding festival submissions and appearances, was about $4,500 (including tuition).
Can you tell me about your LGBTQ couple and your success with that audience?
After I finished the Intensive Directing Workshop at NYU in 2004, I was at the Los Angeles Film Festival closing night party, and I met a couple of actresses from Denmark. They asked if I could come up with a film idea that featured a lesbian couple. That’s how Snow was born. As “33 Minutes To Live” was practice for Snow, it also features a lesbian relationship at its center.
Snow has a lesbian subplot, but it's really about a woman's journey toward love and destiny. It’s about her trying to recreate her life and having a personal epiphany. She's pregnant with the child that her husband may not want. She's a struggling artist trying to find her voice, trying to find herself. She meets this woman who becomes a champion and her lover, who's a poet. That kind of helps her to completely change her belief system about herself so that she's suddenly able to move on, try new things, and break out of her comfort zone.
You've had some success on YouTube, with “33 Minutes to Live” featured on an LGBTQ YouTube channel, OML (One More Lesbian).
I've had a lot more success with “33 Minutes to Live” there, even though I've been posting like mad for over a year on the @33MinutesToLive Twitter handle and the “33 Minutes To Live Webseries Pilot” Page on Facebook to get views on my own YouTube channel. Yet, I’ve had fewer views, about 1,500 compared to about 13,000 on OML.
Thanks to a friend, I was able to get in touch with some lesbian media for the Snow campaign. One of the people that I contacted has her own lesbian media site called One More Lesbian with about 500,000 subscribers that are very enthusiastic about watching lesbian-related short-form stories and documentaries. She said that even though “33 Minutes To Live” isn’t really about romance (like much of the media on that channel) it features a lesbian couple at the center so they were enthusiastic about having the webseries pilot on the channel. When Snow comes out I will definitely approach them again.
Congratulations. So what are your plans for the future of the Snow feature film and the “33 Minutes to Live” webseries pilot?
I want to turn the webseries into a television pilot. It's a one-hour TV pilot scripted drama which contains most of what you saw in the pilot (and a lot more). Some of the characters are gone. There are some interesting new situations, some really good scenes at this point. It kind of centers around the three main characters: the two lesbian lovers, and the crazy next-door neighbor. One of the many characters gets killed off in the first season. I won't say who. Also, we've changed the military buff who tells exactly how long it takes for the missile to arrive from being an American of Middle Eastern descent to being a Russian.
The U.S. and Russia have the two biggest nuclear arsenals in the world. We want people in the room to be able to react to what's happening when the missiles get launched because we won't have government officials there. So a Russian to give a Russian perspective, just as we have South Korea to give the South Korean perspective, and Americans with the American’s perspective. So we don't have to cut to the U.N. or cut to this government or that government. All the key countries are represented there in the room through ordinary people.
I’ll apply to a few more festivals but this may have been the last opportunity to see it on the big screen with an audience. As it’s a webseries pilot, my focus has been getting people to watch it online. So far it has received about 15,000 views on the two different YouTube channels. Hopefully, it’s brought more people into the conversation about nuclear war and the new Arms Race. As we head into an election year, I hope that’s something that voters will ask candidates about.
Now it’s time to pitch the “33 Minutes To Live” television series and to get the “Snow” feature film project moving. Snow is still my main project. I’m very excited that Snow finally has found a lawyer who doesn’t need to be paid until all funds are raised. That means that we can now structure investor agreements and finally move forward without having to worry about paying a retainer or the high hourly wages (at least not immediately) that many entertainment lawyers require. He simply wants to help get the film made, as he did for a friend’s feature film project.
I wish I’d found him before embarking on the Indiegogo donor crowdfunding campaign in late 2015/early 2016. That would have made that less-than-successful campaign unnecessary, as paying legal fees was to have been a major use of funds from that campaign. Nevertheless, the campaign very successfully created an awareness of “Snow” and forced me into the social media world, which is an important skill for a director to have.
Now I have to find equity investors and decide how to structure their participation, whether it’s using fiscal sponsorship or an SEC-registered equity crowdfunding campaign or a more traditional approach. Hopefully, we can get that started before year-end and finally raise funds and shoot the feature film next year. It’s an exciting moment. Everything should be finalized by year-end.
One of the first uses of funds will be to cast a “name” actor or two to increase the chances for commercial visibility and success of the project. Hopefully, having a “name” actor will make the indie film a much more exciting opportunity for potential equity investors too.
Well, good luck, Kenny. We'll check back in a year or two and see what's happening with your progress. It's been a long road, but you've kept at it.
Director Raoul Peck is not your typical filmmaker. Even though he has established a solid set of credits such as making the 2000 documentary “Lumumba” or his fictional 2005 narrative, “Sometimes in April,” the Port-au-Prince, Haiti, born Peck has had his share of political experience as well.
From March 1996 to September 1997, he was Haiti's Minister of Culture. He’s currently also chairman of the French National Film School. A citizen of the world, Peck has lived in the United States, Berlin, Paris and elsewhere. At eight years-old, Peck’s family fled Haiti’s Duvalier dictatorship and moved to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where his agronomist father worked for the United Nations.
Born in 1953, this director and writer (Seven Stories Press published “Stolen Images,” Peck’s 2012 book of screenplays and images from his four major features and documentary films) lends his experience and gravitas to make “I Am Not Your Negro,” his award-winning, Oscar-nominated documentary, worthy of the many accolades being bestowed on it.
The film premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the People's Choice Award in the documentary category. And now, it's a nominee for 2017's Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, shared with Rémi Grellety and Hébert Peck. Based on groundbreaking Black author James Baldwin's unfinished manuscript “Remember This House,” it explores the history of racism in the United States through Baldwin's recollection of murdered civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Through actor Samuel L. Jackson sonorous voice, Baldwin’s words come alive as Peck illustrates the interconnection of these important historic figures. An American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, the late scribe established his fiery views through such works as the non-fictional 1955’s “Notes of a Native Son,” and “The Fire Next Time,” and the novels “Go Tell It on the Mountain”, “Giovanni's Room”, “Another Country” and “Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone.”
Peck intends to continue his exploration of political thinking with “The Young Karl Marx (Le jeune Karl Marx),” his long-planned narrative feature Starring August Diehlm, the film explores the relationship between Marx and Frederick Engels as they develop their ideas about communism. It will premiere at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
The following is an edit of this exclusive Q&A — recorded earlier this January.
Q: What was the rationale in the timing of this film? It certainly coincides with a very interesting set of events in this country.
RP: I was fortunate that I was able to make the film I wanted to make. Even those [that were] brought to me, I made sure that they were exactly what I wanted to make. You don't [just] go into film.
You don't even know if it's going to take three years or 10 years [so the timing might be coincidental]. The only thing you know, is, it better be fundamental. It better be strong. It better be original and whenever it comes out, so be it. [As long as] you are right in the way you do it, whatever the time... I'm not a journalist, so I'm not after whatever is the color of the day.
Q: What's a journalist to you?
RP: Well, a journalist has to report whatever or reflect whatever is in the actuality. Of course, you have some journalists who can sit back a little bit more and have a bigger picture which is rare. [Nowadays], it’s about the tweet.
Q: In essence, you're giving life to this Baldwin test. You can still be a journalist because you're finding all this footage and other material and at the same time, your responsibility is ultimately to his words.
RP: Of course, but I’m also an artist. If I make a work, I want to make sure that 30 years from now, somebody will watch the film and be able to get the same emotion. That's why I have to tell a story. I have to create characters. It's not deducted. It's not just that I choose the words and put them out there and when you read them, you say, "Oh my God, it's incredible." I create a complex system where I play with you as well. As a filmmaker, we are great manipulators.
I choose to manipulate you, but to make sure that you understand how I manipulate you. I just bring you the story. I just get you into the story. Why would not I do that when Hollywood does that the whole time for other purposes?
I don't sell popcorn. Hollywood does. But it's fair game. I make sure that I give you something that you will carry with you and that, again, 30 years from now, it's a whole story with its own beginning, middle and end. I need to create that reflection.
Q: You've just figured out a way to have us experience it because we never experienced the actual book. Not that I'm over-emphasizing Baldwin over your own creativity. It's your dialogue with Baldwin.
RP: But it was also conscious for me to set myself in the background because the project was, from the beginning, to put these words in the front row. The words have helped me throughout my life, words that are urgently needed today. That was part of the problem. I didn't want any talking heads in the film. Nobody is an intermediary.
It's rare in documentary to also say, "The voice will be Baldwin's voice. We're going be inside his head." The exercise for me was always to make sure I'm inside his head. I am him. It's not about me. My job as an actor would be, “Let's go into character.” Make sure that I'm always in character every minute of this film.
Q: Was Samuel L. Jackson always your choice to voice Baldwin and was there work that needed to be done for him to get that voice down? It's far from his normal, sometimes histrionic, Sam Jackson sound.
RP: It was the result of many experiences I had, including my own films. One of my first films when I was beginning was a documentary on Patrice Lumumba where I used many voices until I decided I was going to do the voice myself. This is something I understood very early on and I never used the term "voiceover" or "narrator," because once you use them, you’ve lost one of the most brilliant instruments in a film.
What you have to create is a character. When you go to somebody and say, "I want you to be the voice,” you're not asking them to read a paper or to interpret a paper. I was asking Samuel Jackson to do his work as an actor, to be the character and that's what I asked of him. I said, "I don't want to hear your great voice. No, I want you to study the character."
Q: He embodied that voice better than ...
RP: I had a shortlist of three or four names. Of course there is, I would say, a marketing aspect in it, in the terms that if this film will have a chance, I better have a big name attached to it. I had three names of very famous black actors. At the same time, it was not a random choice. I needed people who have some sort of personal street credibility. People who take a stand in their life. People who have taken on issues in their life, in their society, in their neighborhood or whatever, and people who have the voice of a real person. Samuel Jackson is one of those people. When I asked him, he was first on the list and because you can't ask all the three, you go to number one and then go to the second, if the first one say no. He was at the my top list and said, "Yes" and that was great.
Q: He did an amazing job.
RP: I didn't have to give him much direction beside what I just told you. I want you to feel whatever you're saying every single minute of it. When we were recording, that's what happened. Sometimes he would say something and even before I say it, he say, "Okay. I know. I know I'm doing it again" because it's like music. You know when it's not the right note.
Once you understand the whole concept, you're just playing the notes. It's like jazz and you are improvising. I can't tell him, "Sam, at the end of the phrase, I want you to lower your voice in a way to show some sort of ..." How do you say it? "Some sort of emotion, so that I can use it for the next segments.” No. He has to feel it.
Q: He understood it intuitively.
RP: When you are in character, whatever you do is good.
Q: He definitely channeled Baldwin. At least he had the reference of other audio to know whether he was on the money.
RP: The words are very powerful.
Q: The fact that you chose something at the end of Baldwin's life, we have an overview of his whole universe. Even though you say it was a happy accident that it is now available to us at this point, and in light of Trump's election, it's never been more relevant.
RP: It's not just a “happy accident.” There is a story. It's mainly a political decision when 10, 11 years ago, I said, “It’s time to go back to Baldwin because of everything I've been experiencing around me.” It's about the canonization of Martin Luther King, Black History Month, the Martin Luther King Day, the new Black bourgeoisie who is looking at this from a distance.
There’s the black artists who look at this from a distance and once in awhile when the anger is too much, they say something… But where are all the powerful organizations? How come this money doesn't go to create a powerful organization? How come we still are begging for “Oscars Not So White?”
This film comes out of all this. It's not like a decision of, "I should do this." No, it's the result of many years of confrontation, of experience, of my own work. I didn't just start making political films.
Once you go into that, whenever you finish, it's not important because you know that the fundamental issues are not going to change. I knew it was not going to change because of eight years of Obama.
Q: That it’s not going to negate 400 years of…
RP: It's not the way countries change. By the way, Baldwin himself, there was a sentence in the film that we cut out but a journalist was asking, "What will it [mean] for you when this country will have its first black president?" He said, "It's not a matter of who's going to be the first negro president. The real question is what country is he going to be the president of?" That's the real question.
Q: They're not going to let it go. They're not going to let it go so easy.
RP: Exactly. What it means is you need to face the reality, not the reality you think or not the story they told you, not the image that Hollywood fabricated. You have to be able to deconstruct everything all the time. It will never finish.
Q: Do you think that your political experience makes you a better filmmaker?
RP: There are people who can... Their whole life is politics and they have a one-sided view and that's it. But so far, yes. Because politics was never dogmatic for me, politics was never about a party or being... I was never in a party. I supported certain parties. I worked with a certain party and went into politics the way we understood it, as a collective process. I didn't go in as an individual who wanted to be a politician. I was asked to participate in a collective. It was a very important moment where we were really needed, and I did it.
Most of my work is about power. It's like you have been working with sharks all your life. Then one day, someone offers you to be able to live inside the shark. So you say, “Yes.” I wanted to go there. That's what happened. I was taking notes everyday and seeing how power functioned. What I saw in Haiti as a minister, that's what I saw in Bill Clinton's cabinet, or in Sarkozy's cabinet. There was a similarity you can't even imagine. Once you have people in a position of power, you see how they can abuse [it] — that also comes with it.
Q: Do you think that what we have with Barack Obama is kind of thesis, antithesis. And then, we're going to see a synthesis? That's the Hegelian dialectic.
RP: I would hope that the world is so scientifically constructed, and that would mean the world would be without human beings, who are never predictable. I'm very curious to see how far the backlash will come from this new president, but again, we are entering a process. We're not entering a definite period of events. Every day, there will be a new item, new decision, new obstacles that will ultimately write the meaning of the whole history, including the resistance that it will provoke.
History is not a passive thing. It's whatever we will put on the table. Obama is a perfect example [of that]. If the people who elected him were half of the time also on the streets, 400,000, or one million demonstrating for healthcare, the healthcare bill would have passed in much better condition. It's because again we became consumers of our votes. We vote. Then, we go home.
Q: What this movie addresses, what Baldwin is addressing, is that kind of thing. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Have I done enough on the streets?
RP: He gives you all the necessary things you need to build an organization when you say, "I was not part of this. I wasn't part of that. I didn't do fundraising." He's giving you the layouts.
That's what you do, and organizing is not something you do for fun, it's not something you just do out of anger. Anger will just bring you so far. The rest is politics, organization and structuring.
Q: How much did you methodically follow what he wrote or how much did you edit in your own terms?
RP: Well again, as a filmmaker, it's of course, a total construction. First of all, in "Remember This House,” what I took primarily was the idea of bringing those three men together, and telling of their friendship and telling about their death, about how he felt about their deaths, about their roles and how he saw them as human beings and their family. For me, that’s the red line of the film — that structures the film. The beginning of their relationship, they fight together, they are coming closer, their assassination. Those are the four big blocks.
Within that then, I have the liberty to go to do a lot of things that were essential for me, but which are all Baldwin's. That's where I bring [in] my own choices. That's where I get that. I knew it's part of the story. My job was to put in the layers and make the film as rich as possible.
Q: Baldwin also had the dual problem of being gay and being black in America at that time. He was always dealing with the betrayals that he felt or like that scene with the Kennedys and Lorraine Hansberry. They're there but only up to a point. You brought those things to the fore. Those things were touch points. You show the dynamic, the continuum between Baldwin and all these people..
RP: That is one of the themes of the film, but it's not the only one. One of the themes is how do you break the mythology of America? I wrote in one of my introduction, when I was living in Brooklyn, going to public school and I remember in the living room where we were with a big family, [that had] a sort of velvet rug with Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Bob Kennedy [on it].
This was like, Christic, the three brothers. I did believe in that idea. I came from a Catholic family. I went to Jesuit schools and the idea [that] we are all [part of] the same human race. I grew up with that, but it's not the truth. It's not reality. Only a part of it is true, but that's not what the reality is. The film is about deconstructing that whole thing.
That's why I do it, not only through the text ,but through the film as well. When I go into images and deconstruct them, I play with it. Black and white color, 8mm, 35mm, video and photos. It's part of the construction.
Q: The construction is very elegant; you have such an aesthetic sense.
RP: That's what I was supposed to do.
Q: This film shows a kind of a diagram of doing that.
RP: What the film does, it's a mirror. I've told audiences in discussions, "Whoever of you in this room, white or black, you can't go out now and say you didn't know. You saw it, now it's your decision. You can choose to ignore it, but you can't say you didn't know because this is obvious."
When Baldwin says, "Two worlds that never crosses." This is it. This is reality. I'm not inventing it. I demonstrate to you that it's there and how it came about. Now, you can choose. I'm going to continue my life as it is or I'm going to... as Baldwin said, "I'm going to face it." We have a long life behind us. We have seen the world change.
Q: So many people have joined the struggle just at a critical point where you need to go to the next level. I think Baldwin was also affected by that as well, with people seeming to be with you and then you lose them. You seem to getting people with you with the awards and all of that.
RP: The award things, it can go both ways. Sometimes you can say, "Wow. How come I have all these accolades?" When I made this film, it was always with the intent of taking no prisoners.
The film is a personal experience. To put the image of Doris Day next to a hanging woman, a lynching, you need guts to do that today. Any producer would have said, "Don't do that." It was a huge risk, but at my age, having most of my films behind me, that's fine with me. Having all of these accolades is like, "Oh, where did I go wrong? How come everybody is..."
I'm Not Your Negro is currently playing at the Film Forum (209 W Houston St, New York, NY).
Growing up poor in Madras, India, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar earned admittance to England’s prestigious Cambridge University during WWI, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories thanks to the guidance of his professor, G.H. Hardy. Not exactly the kind of storyline that seems to offer material that would an appealing drama let alone make for award-worthy film with major stars.
Nonetheless, director Matt Brown crafted a screenplay that attracted such established stars as Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, and Toby Jones who gave his film a shot. It turned into a beautiful portrait of a mentor/student relationship that offered inspiration in a world often devoid of such inspiration.
Not only did the film win critical accolades but it's now being touted as a contender for various awards — especially since executive producer Edward R. Pressman has launched a campaign for Jeremy Irons (as the mentor Hardy) to nominated for a supporting actor Oscar. After its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and its USA debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last April, it was released during the spring. The film garnered decent box office results and critical acclaim. Besides the dynamic between Irons and Patel, it offered an insider’s look into the seemingly cold, arcane world of mathematics.
But with the right writer/director behind the production such a story can prompt an intriguing narrative. and Matt Brown seems to be that creator.
Thanks to his dogged perseverance, this project finally came to fruition after being 12 years in the making. Especially since the director didn’t have that much experience, having made two features previously and no passion for math ( though he went to an alternative school in Brookline, Massachusetts where arts were the focus he did learn some math). But Brown believed in this. As he has explained in another interview, “It’s a very personal project; I wrote it in an oncology ward taking care of my brother with his wife while he was going through terrible cancer.”
Q: What led you into doing this film - did you have much interest in the mathematics, otherwise what would lead you to do Srinivasa Ramanujan’s story?
MB: I came across Robert Kanigel’s biography, the Man Who Knew Infinity, about 12 years ago. It was never about the mathematics for me, I was fascinated by the human story between Ramanujan and the journey to England and the isolation he was going through and his relationship with GH Hardy and how the two of them had to bridge the gap.
It was never so much about the mathematics in the beginning, but I came to respect pure mathematics as an art form, but I really came to understand the passion mathematicians have for their work, like musicians have for theirs. It’s something that audiences can appreciate because it’s really the human story under the film.
Q: Ramanujan’s mother had a strong influence on him growing up, particularly with regards to his religious education…
MB: Ramanujan’s mother? I know she was strong in Carnatic music. She was a singer, and he was surrounded by Carnatic music his whole life — it has intricate mathematical rhythms to it and that was probably a strong influence on him. She was also very invested in astrology.
Q: When he was in Madras, he got a scholarship to go to the college there, but he dropped out. It was briefly touched on in the film but can you elaborate on this...
MB: He got kicked out of two different colleges, I believe in Madras. He became to involved in his mathematics that he just didn’t concentrate on his other subjects. And at that time if you didn’t have a degree, it was a much bigger deal than it is today, probably, in that you can’t find any form of employment. He really became isolated in his own world with mathematics.
Q: Due to Ramanujan’s lack of a college education, he didn’t know the concept of a mathematical proof. After Ramanujan sent professor Hardy several of his theorems, Hardy didn’t want to push Ramanujan to prove do any mathematical proofs but did he encourage Ramanujan to allow his intuition be appled to his mathematics?
MB: You’re right, it was kind of proof versus intuition in many ways. That’s at the core of the story. If Hardy had known Ramanujan would only be alive for five years, I think there’s a strong argument that suggest he would have encouraged him to go off and write theorem after theorem.
Ramanujan did so much with mathematics that they’re still trying to understand it today. It’s tragic that we don’t have more of his mathematics. Imagine what he could have done? Because Hardy didn’t know that at the time, it was important to him to learn rigor.
Rigor is an important part of mathematics and allows people to understand how they got to certain places. It’s more than proving right or wrong, it provides understanding to a process.
Also, within the education Hardy was trying to provide, Ramanujan was rediscovering entire fields of mathematics he didn’t even know he was rediscovering. He had to be caught up on a couple centuries worth of mathematics just so he didn’t waste his time rediscovering things.
Q: What was the social dynamic between India and England — obviously when he came to England, he was the outsider — how did you balance the three elements or structure in the film — his time in Madras, his adjusting as an Indian trying to survive in England, and third, of showing his serious relationship with Hardy. How did you balance those things, and the social dynamic?
MB: In 1914 there were very few Indians that would have come to England and for Ramanujan to come to England it required him to break past. It was forbidden for a Braman to cross the sea. And there were very few Indians there at the time, it was the height of colonialism in many ways. There was a lot of racism.
On top of which, when the Great War started in 1914, you had all these students from Cambridge going off to war, there was a tremendous amount of resentment that Indian students who remained on the campus during that time were safe and guarded.
There was an increased amount of resentment, never mind that as a vegetarian by faith he wasn’t able to obtain fresh egetables because of the rationing, so that made it even more challenging. He really had incredible social obstacles to overcome. It was a real story of perseverance and bravery by Ramanujan.
Q: Hardy was a highly ranked mathematicians, John littlewood was 30, David Hilbert Hilband was an 80, and Ramanujan was 100 so Hardy showed his appreciation for the work they did together…. There was an enormous amount of cooperation between them.
MB: This was a man who had discovered trigonometry at age 13 only to find out that it was already discovered.
Q: Imagine what could have been done with their relationship — it makes you appreciate their relationship.
MB: Hardy had an enormous amount of respect for Ramanujan, I don’t think he could wrap his head around how it all came to him. And they, in talking to some of the greatest mathematicians alive today, they say there’s really no better explanation than Ramanujan’s own explanation, that Namagiri [a Hindu Goddess] put the formulas on his tongue while he slept.
We can’t explain how there’s a mind that’s this incredible in the world, but you have to wonder if there aren’t more minds in the world like this that are undiscovered today. And we don’t have universal education today, so outliers like this, we have to find this kind of talent and nurture it.
Q: What was invoved in the process of putting Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel together? Their chemistry is amazing.
MB: It’s incredible, isn’t it? They had wonderful chemistry and I think for both of the actors it was an opportunity to play roles that were very different from roles they played recently. They had a lot of passion for the subject and wanting to tell the story. We’re an independent film and it’s a challenging shoot, and these actors really came prepared and made incredible performances in difficult circumstances.
Q: How much did you feed mathematical concepts to these actors — or was it all Greek to them?
MB: They’re both very well aware of the human story, the incredible story that it is, so that’s what they were drawn to. As far as the mathematics go, we had Ken Ono as our mathematical advisor, he’s one of the top mathematicians in the world. He vetted the script with me and made sure everything was right in the art department as well as in the screenplay itself. So the actors could trust the dialogue and trust me as a director.
Q: Was that part of reason that you have some Japanese associate producers involved on this project? They are a lot of good mathematicians in Japan as well.
MB: It wasn’t. It just happened to be where Ken is from. I know his heritage is important to him and is proud of it but it had no bearing on my asking him to do the film. He’s one of the top mathematicians in the world and when he reached out to be part of the film we felt very lucky and honored to have him. He’s extremely passionate about Ramanujan and his story.
Q : What does the number 1729 mean to you — its the number that Hardy recalled when he rode the taxi to visit Ramanujan at the clinic…
MB: If I ever play a lottery ticket and it’s four numbers, those are the four numbers I will play.
Q: Didn’t they use that number sometimes in Star Trek or Futurama or anytime where numbers have meaning — they been used as a reference.
MB: It comes up in mathematics, it’s called taxicab numbers. It became a small field, Manjul Bhargava was explaining that to me. It’s incredible how his mind worked that he could recognize that.
Q: What sort of experience did you want audiences to discover through this film?
MB: I hope they take away the human story and that they find it to be an inspiring film. I hope it opens up their minds and their hearts. I hope it’s a film that… There are outliers in the world, so I hope that there are other Ramanujans out there that will be discovered.
Page 1 of 22
Sign up for our weekly newsletter!