AFS Mexico — THE INTERRUPTERS arrives in Monterrey
AFS filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters) and film expert Claire Aguilar (ITVS) attended the Monterrey International Film Festival on Sunday, August 19th for a screening of The Interrupters. They were accompanied by USC School of Cinematic Arts Director of Programming, Alex Ago, as well as Public Affairs Officer Courtney Beale and Cultural Specialist Laura Garza from the U.S. Consulate in Monterrey. The screening took place in a beautiful 168-seat theater inside the Centro de las Artes – CONARTE building, located in a very picturesque green space called the Parque Fundidora, which houses playgrounds, hotels, museums and restaurants, with a dramatic view of the surrounding Sierra Madre mountain range. James introduced the film, alongside the Festival Director, Juan Manuel González, in front of a full house of enthusiastic local cinephiles. During the screening, James, Aguilar and Ago joined the festival staff for a dinner at the nearby Holiday Inn, where a lively discussion followed about the history of the festival, the jury selection process, past participants and the importance of film culture in Mexico. At the close of the credits, James engaged the audience with a discussion of the production process, answering questions about how he gained access to the community documented by the film, and drawing comparisons to the dramatic increase in violent crime within Monterrey.
On Monday, August 20th and Tuesday, August 21st, Claire Aguilar began a two-day workshop at the Escuela Adolfo Prieto (Taller de Experimentación Plástica), with a morning session for local university students and an evening master-class with local filmmakers, each comprised of about 20 participants, ranging from 18 – 25 for the students and 25 – 50 year-olds for the filmmakers. Both groups were given an in-depth analysis of financing mechanisms for documentary films, including accessing public funds, crowd-source funding through online platforms such as IndieGoGo, plus film festival labs and funding sources, from Sundance and Tribeca. As a case study, Claire highlighted the funding and distribution of the recent documentary feature Detropia, which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Following the festival circuit, the filmmakers decided to weigh several distribution options, from sales agents to educational distributors. This was especially important for their film, given its poetic exploration of Detroit, a non-commercial approach that was unlikely to produce a lucrative sales deal with more traditional documentary distribution companies. They ultimately used an innovative self-distribution strategy by raising $50,000 in funds through Kickstater, which gave the filmmakers the freedom to place their film in advantageous venues across the U.S., including theatrical, educational and video-on-demand platforms, whilst maintaining complete control over the Publicity & Advertising (P&A) expenses. Some festival resources highlighted included Rotterdam, Toronto, Venice and Cannes, as well as the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam (IDFA) and the International Documentary Association’s “DocuWeeks” held in August/September, which allows selected documentary titles to screen theatrically for a limited run in Hollywood and New York, making them eligible for Academy Award consideration. Aguilar also highlighted the sales agent company Films Transit International, based in New York and Montreal, which can help with mid-production film completion funds. She also explained the role of her organization, ITVS, which works on engagement campaigns to help target groups who don’t have access to the festival market, considering demographics specific to region, gender, cultural identity and beyond. In exchange for their services, ITVS typically retains television broadcast rights to the films.
Concurrently, on Monday, August 20th, Steve James and Alex Ago participated in a screening of The Interrupters at the Monterrey Bi-National Center, hosted by a local NGO called “Nacidos para Triunfar” (Born to Triumph) for about 20 participants in their 20s, mostly male, who have been involved or affected by gangs, narcotics cartels and street violence in the Monterrey region over the past several years. After the screening, James participated in a panel discussion with Juan Pablo Garcia, the founder and driving force behind the establishment and success of Born to Triumph, whose work mirrors the social intervention and violence prevention programs that drive much of the field work engaged by CeaseFire (now re-named Cure Violence) on the streets of South Chicago. As an organization dedicated to promoting non-violent conflict resolution, and as a haven for former gang members to engage with their communities and give back to endangered youth, Born to Triumph is a powerful voice in the resistance against the climate of terror and insidious nihilism currently overwhelming the daily lives of many Mexican citizens, particularly in areas like Monterrey, where the great economic prosperity of local industries couldn’t safeguard the infiltration of brutal cartel warfare that has claimed hundred of lives in recent years. Also participating on the panel was Israel, a 20-something man who successfully abandoned his gang affiliation and now speaks out on behalf of Born to Triumph as a beacon of hope for those who have lost faith in the ability to escape the clutches of cartel initiation. The discussion highlighted revealing similarities between Mexican and U.S. problems relating to violent conflict and spontaneous street violence. The audience was especially impressed with the intervention or “interruption” approach, with expanded knowledge of the approaches used abroad for addressing problems specific to their communities. Following the panel discussion, Juan Pablo, Israel and several Born to Triumph members joined everyone for lunch to continue the dialogue in a more private setting about the prevalence of violence in the region.
That afternoon, James and Ago attended the Facultad de Trabajo Social y Desarrollo Humano (Social Work and Human Development) at the Universidad Autonomo de Nuevo Leon, with a full house of 100 students, almost entirely comprised of early 20-something women pursuing social work degrees. Many students found the film inspiring, despite the violence presented, given the individual care and attention employed by the CeaseFire Interrupters and their specific approach they use to diffuse conflict. Their response to the film included comments about the power of the individual to create change and that taking initiative in your community doesn’t require an advanced degree – anyone with the drive and compassion for this work can affect positive change.
That evening, James and Ago returned to the Bi-National Center for another screening of the film, this time for a heavily male-dominated audience of about 70 young students and residents, many of whom were under 16 years old. The group, invited through USAID and representing youth from the Istituto de la Juventud Regia, gathered for an encounter entitled “Proyección y Diálogo” (Protection and Dialogue). The audience was particularly alarmed by the violence statistics that affect American cities and helped them to relate the American experience to their own. Their most prevalent response to the film was focused on the universality of violent conflict and they professed learning new strategies for addressing the conflicts at home. Many seemed especially interested in documentary cinema and some seemed committed to pursuing documentaries as a potential creative and political outlet in the future.
On Tuesday, August 21st, James and Ago attended the second day of Claire Aguilar’s master-class with students and filmmakers at the Centro de las Artes – CONARTE. James prepared a selection of clips from his work in order to discuss documentary production technique, including scenes from his award-winning features Hoop Dreams and Stevie. By highlighting the length of the production process, which for James often spans several years, he was able to discuss the trust that can be established between filmmaker and subject, allowing the director to gain access to a more complicated, fuller view of their daily lives. Since James’ films are not overtly polemical, he approaches the subjects free of any pre-determined agenda, instead preferring the narrative to unfold naturally, granting POV to the characters that he follows. This observational style is commonly associated with a French documentary process called Cinéma vérité (cinema truth) and its American counterpart – Direct Cinema, which privileges the unfolding lives of ordinary people over the traditional structure of on-camera interviews employed by many traditional documentary filmmakers. Referring to the camera as a “fly-on-the-wall”, the vérité practice hopes that the subjects will completely forget about the presence of the camera – something that James hopes to simplify by filming his subjects immediately (forgoing a traditional period of getting to know them first), so that they understand that the camera is “no big deal”, telling them that “we’re your home-movie crew”. However, the vérité process presents several challenges for the documentary filmmaker, including finding the structure and ending for a satisfying narrative experience that also remains truthful to the lives of the subjects. In particular, James stressed the importance of filming “through the dramatic moments” and that the filmmaker will inevitably be challenged by having to capture the misfortunate moments in the lives of their subjects. To exemplify this dilemma, James screened sequences from Stevie, in which the subject James had been following is arrested on child molestation charges after the cameras had started rolling. Other issues that James addressed included the affectation of the camera and its influence on unfolding events, the difficulties of capturing spontaneous moments and hiring a skilled camera operator, his preference for single camera shooting, keeping his crews small and allowing his curiosity to determine the course of his future projects. The response from the students and filmmakers at the conclusion of the master-classes highlighted a great deal of enthusiasm for new-found knowledge in the film financing & distribution and documentary production fields. They were unanimously anxious to share the information they had gleaned from both Aguilar and James, particularly with emphasis on funding and promoting their own work.
That evening, Courtney Beale invited James and Ago to a special reception hosted by the Consulate of Spain in Monterrey in honor of the Monterrey International Film Festival, and attended by the Mayor of Monterrey, as well as Spanish actress and frequent Almodovar cast-member Cecilia Roth.
The next morning, Claire Aguilar returned to Los Angeles as James and Ago proceeded to Nuevo Laredo, just across the Rio Grande from the Texas border.