American Film Showcase, Nicosia: Days 2, 3 & 4 — Screenings and Discussions
On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the AFS DocYouth Camp in Nicosia was comprised of three split days of film production and film screenings, with discussions that analyzed the films, as well as the expectations, emotional responses and interpretations of the students. In the mornings and late afternoons, the students were out in the field capturing footage, interviewing subjects and finding the stories that will soon become their short five-minute films. Meanwhile, the midday screenings and discussions led by AFS P.I. Michael Renov brought the students together for conversations that highlighted the diverse approaches and philosophies towards documentary production.
The discussion of Undefeated on Tuesday began by Renov suggesting that documentary films may at first seem to be exploring one theme then, sometimes imperceptibly, begin to develop another topic that may deepen the meaning of the first. American football is not known in Cyprus but all agreed that the film was not really about sport so much as about the developing attachment among young men who constitute a team and the role played by Coach Bill, the volunteer coach – white and upper middle class – who becomes a father figure for these young, African American men.
The participants were asked to complete this sentence: “At first I thought the film was about ______ then I realized the film was really about _______. “ Answers included “At first I thought the film was about football then I realized it was about learning to put others before yourself” or “At first I thought the film was about boys learning to become men then I realized it was about men learning to cry.” We also talked about the fact that the team was far from undefeated in that it loses the first game of its season and in the first 20 minutes of the film. We talked about the important role that metaphor can play in documentary. We also discussed the ways that the film defies expectations: set in Memphis, Tennessee with its strong history of racial segregation and violence (site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination), Undefeated is less about race than about men learning to trust and love one another.
We discussed the ways that the film combines purely observational sequences in which action plays out before the camera with interviews, mostly with Coach Bill, that allow us to learn more about motivations and context. The film is something of a hybrid in that it couples direct cinema-type observation with interspersed interviews. Observational cinema, it was noted, has frequently depended on a “crisis structure” in which subjects are fully absorbed in struggle or high drama. This notion applies to a film about football players striving to win the first playoff game in the 100 year history of the high school. The crisis helps to prevent undue attention to the filming process and helps ensure a sense of authentic behavior.
Finally we spoke of the film’s structure with its focus on three young men who are not necessarily the key figures on the team but whose stories provide the right balance of drama and emotion. One young man is a physically gifted lineman who lives during the season with a wealthy white family in preparation for the college draft, another is an overachiever who is injured and must fight his way back to playing time (and in so doing earns a full scholarship to college from an unknown benefactor) while a third struggles with anger management issues. We spoke about why a cast of three main “characters” plus Coach Bill works so well structurally.
The discussion was lively and included contributions from almost every member of the group.
On Thursday, we screened The Interrupters, directed by AFS participating filmmaker Steve James, the award-winning filmmaker of Hoop Dreams. The conversation also addressed the screening of Elevate (directed by AFS participating filmmaker Anne Buford) from Wednesday afternoon. We began by examining how the films were structured and how they worked. Renov pondered the use of the title in Elevate and how it operates both as a metaphor and as a direct reference to a line of dialog from one of the coaches during practice. The title plays upon both a physical elevation – how a player needs to elevate his body when releasing the basketball – as well as the development and transition the players experience as they leave their villages in Senegal behind with aspirations of improving their lives and those of their families.
The time frame of both films was discussed, looking specifically at the seasonal structure of The Interrupters, beginning in the summer and ending in the spring. The seasons highlight cycles of life and offer a sense of rebirth and hope in an otherwise bleak perspective on youth violence. Could this structure help inspire feelings of hope or that something could be done? The discussion revealed attitudes that the film doesn’t neatly package life and that there’s no sense of stability at any point – good things can turn bad on a dime. This ‘messiness’ of life was then contrasted with the relatively ‘neat’ packaging of reality through the storytelling in Elevate, which covers a four-year period and avoids challenging the success narratives of the protagonists.
The discussion then turned to the subject matter of The Interrupters and the students considered the ‘epidemiology’ approach to handling violence, as well as the present-tense interventions represented, opposed to the more traditional, liberal approach to identifying and altering the root causes of gang violence. The approach adopted by CeaseFire is a non-judgmental, immediate action response to violence and violence prevention in key moments of escalating conflict.
The filmmaking philosophy was also analyzed, contrasting it with the verité approach of Undefeated. Renov aligned the intervention of the camera in The Interrupters to a different tradition of French verité filmmaking, such as the works of Jean Rouch, contrasted with the style of American Direct Cinema.
To conclude the conversation, Renov challenged students with some key questions about their response to The Interrupters: Did they feel disempowered by the film? What was the take-away? Where do you wind up? Are you angry? Sad? Indifferent?
On Friday, the students will work throughout the day on post-production in anticipation of the public screening of their films on Saturday night. On Friday afternoon, they will watch Rebirth by AFS participating filmmaker and USC School of Cinematic Arts alumnus Jim Whitaker, who will discuss the film with the students via Skype video chat that evening.
Written by AFS staff member, Alex Ago.