Omaha native goes where his film passion leads him: James Duff and filmmaker wife Julia Morrison shot debut feature ‘Hank and Asha’ on two continents
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine)
Couple’s film played to hometown crowd in Omaha Omaha native James E. Duff goes to extreme lengths feeding his film passion. He once went across the country by scooter to make a documentary. He’s directed films and taught filmmaking in Africa and Europe. His latest travels resulted in his debut narrative feature, Hank and Asha, a micro indie flick he co-wrote with his wife, Julia Morrison.
He directed and she produced the picture shot in the Czech Republic and on the Lower East Side of New York City, where the couple reside.
The film’s been well received at art houses and festivals, winning audience favorite awards. It’s now available on DVD,
Duff’s cinema journey wend its way here in May when he and Julia presented their movie at Film Streams. The Omaha premiere played to a warm, enthusiastic crowd, including his folks. It marked a special homecoming for Duff, who’s followed a long road pursuing his art.
“It was fantastic. I have such a home team here. Omaha supports their own. It’s a really special feeling to see friends and family in the theater,” he says, adding the celebratory turnout “felt like a wedding.”
It was a full circle moment for the filmmaker, whose love of cinema was stoked watching classic movies with his father, Dr. Wally Duff, as a child and habituating the Dundee Theater as a teen.
The filmmaker joins a select group of Nebraskans (Joan Micklin Silver, Dan Mirvish, Alexander Payne) who’ve directed widely seen features.
James Duff and Julia Morrison
This prodigal son spent 20 years honing his craft in far-flung places: Indiana University; the USC School of Cinematic Arts (his thesis film Life is a Sweet played festivals worldwide); New York City, plus those directing and teaching adventures oceans away.
As a kid he collected stamps from foreign countries and now he’s made it to some of the same spots he imagined visiting.
“I’ve always kind of had a wanderlust. When I was 5 and I first knew what a globe was I looked at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and declared, ‘I’m going to go there.’ At 19 I studied my junior year abroad and actually backpacked down into the Cape.”
Following his intrepid spirit he captured a 1994 coast-to-coast bicycle trek from the back of a scooter. Feeling his Generation X was unfairly stereotyped as slackers he joined fellow recent college graduates for the fundraising bike trip from California to North Carolina to document “people’s opinions about our generation.”
“We cut right across middle America, biking 80-90 miles a day, staying in these really small towns. We spent some nights at campsites. Churches and families put us up other nights.”
He did the 35-days on a Honda Elite. His roommate, who’d never operated a scooter, drove with Duff on the back holding the camera.
By journey’s end the scooter was beat up after several wipeouts. “When we’d go down it’d be like slow motion because all I was thinking about was the camera. I was 21 and I didn’t think I could get killed.” The fragile Ricoh Hi-8 camera was another matter. “A couple times it broke and I thought the trip was over, but I found this amazing repair shop in a little town that fixed it.”
The trek complete, Duff found himself in unfamiliar territory with no place to edit. Then he got a grant from a film support group and permission to use a corporate editing suite in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle Park.
“I had 75 hours (of footage) to get down to one.”
Working under severe time constraints he endured panic attacks and exhaustion, often laboring through the night.
“I’d go there and lock myself in with a peanut butter sandwich.”
When he previewed the film for backers, he says, “I couldn’t watch it, but they really liked it. They put on a big screening for the community.” Much to his surprise the film, The Cycle Also Rises, sold to PBS and aired nationwide on the POV series. It confirmed for the Westside High grad his boyhood fascination with film could become a career.
Though documentaries became his forte, he longed to make dramatic films. He tested the waters in L.A. “I wrote a couple scripts that were close to getting made but I got frustrated not working as a director.” He relocated to New York to direct theater. When an opportunity arose to go back to Africa, this time to make development documentaries in Senegal for nongovernmental organizations, he took it.
“The work was very West Africa. You’d show up on time and nobody else would come for another hour. Then the equipment wouldn’t work. Constant frustration. But when we’d show up to these little villages people would welcome us so warmly. They’re beautiful, kind people.”
His docs covered such topics as HIV prevention and circumcision. He independently made a film about Senegal’s lost 20-something generation. He cherishes his two years there.
“It was a really fantastic experience. The food and music is amazing. There’s a lot of artists with a lot to say. My memories are not so much of the work but of these most intense friendships.””
In 2007 he went back to another old stomping ground, Kenya, for a UNESCO project working with aspiring filmmakers.
“I’ve never taught students so passionate. They all wanted so badly to do this. I found it so inspiring to teach them just simple things. “
In 2010 he went to a refugee camp in the Sahara to teach filmmaking to the displaced and oppressed Saharawian people.
“The camp had no electricity or running water. They’d put up a screen in the bed of a truck and project movies. That was their film festival. They also had a ‘film school’ where I taught. We were training the people to make films so that the world could know their plight. Some students did make films but they’re not getting out.”
From Prague to New York with love
Duff then taught at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. Julia joined him on the faculty. Their students were an international lot. Just as in Africa, Duff learned how film cuts across all barriers.
“The gift of cinema is universal,” he says. “To put that tool in people’s hands is so empowering. Giving them a camera is such a potent thing.”
In 2011-12 the couple enlisted some of their students as crew for Hank and Asha, a story about two aspiring filmmakers, Hank in New York and Asha in Prague, whose relationship plays out entirely by video letters. Inspiration came from the disconnection Duff, Morrison and their students felt far from home and from a friend who courted his wife via video love letters. Watching the friend’s videos, Duff says, “felt like we were on the inside of this relationship watching it grow.” That intimate glimpse at budding romance and the anticipation that attends it, is what the filmmakers were after in their own project.
To their delight, Duff and Morrison found they make an effective team.
“It’s really worked out well in our partnership because we have two different skill sets,” Duff says. “Julia came from producing and is a killer producer and I come from a directing background and that’s kind of how we blended together. I think that helps in the partnership because we’re not looking over each other’s shoulder.”
“We’ve had a great experience doing this together as our first film collaboration as a couple,” says Morrison, who’s produced historical documentaries for the PBS series American Experience and current affairs docs for New York Time Television. “We’ve learned a lot and we’ve gone on this great adventure. We’ve traveled the country and the world with the film. All these things have been terrific. But it’s also really hard work to make a movie.”
And to get it seen. They feel fortunate the Hank and Asha found both theatrical and video distributors.
For as low budget as the all-digital movie is, the filmmakers are proud of how good it looks. Duff credits cinematographer Bianca Butti for that. Because it’s a two-character piece, it needed actors who could carry the film and reviewers credit Andrew Pastides as Hank and Mahira Kakkar as Asha with engaging performances. His letters were shot in New York and hers in Prague. The actors never met. The filmmakers say for the storyline’s high concept conceit to work the videos had to be as natural as possible. Therefore, no rehearsals were held and the actors improvised from an outline highlighting the arc of each scene. Some found locations were utilized and some shots were stolen.
Duff and Morrison enjoyed great freedom on the project.
“We were blessed to have that. Nobody told us what to do,” he says.
“We’re looking forward to the next project having a larger budget but still retaining our autonomy,” says Morrison.
They hope a new script they’re developing attracts name actors.
The couple say whatever films they make will reflect their shared interest in humanist stories that move audiences.
Meanwhile, they’re always up for a new far-off adventure.
As Duff explains, “We’re on the lookout for opportunities like that because we want to continue to expand our world. It informs everything we do. We’ll go anywhere.”
Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’
A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War. Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25. This is my Reader (www.thereader.com) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires. The film has been airing on PBS.
NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.
Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.
An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.
In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.
“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”
Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.
“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”
Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.
“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”
Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”
From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.
“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”
To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.
“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.
As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. “
The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.
“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.
“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”
Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.
“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”
She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..
See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.
For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.
Drive-By Delight: House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents
Alexander Payne’s cinematic imprint on his hometown and homestate is by now well documented. With four of his six features made here he’s covered a wide swath of the city and the state. When a few months ago I got the assignment to do a piece about the family that resides in a house that posed as the home to Jack Nicholson’s character of Warren Schmidt in the Payne film About Schmidt I have to admit I didn’t entirely understand the point, especially in a year dominated by the buzz around the writer-director’s latest film, Nebraska. But then I got to thinking how Payne’s films have created these artifacts of where he’s filmed, many of which are actual locations that people do business in and live in and interact with every day. Thus, the following story for Omaha Magazine about the family that lives in the Schmidt house.
The About Schmidt house
House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents
©by Leo Adam Biga
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-nominated film Nebraska is stirring the pot in his home state the way his last film made here, About Schmidt, did in 2002.
That earlier project’s superstar lead, Jack Nicholson, naturally dominated media coverage. Nicholson’s character, the dour Warren Schmidt, lived in the Dundee home at 5402 Izard St. Bess Ogborn owned the house during filming, but the Jill and Mike Bydalek family moved into the home in mid-2003.
“Even years after the movie people would drive by really slow,” says Jill. “Tour buses would pull up. There were people getting out and taking pictures.”
“Every time Payne has a successful movie there’ll be people that show an interest in the house,” says Mike, who practices technology law for Kutak Rock. “The guy has a following. Random people visiting Omaha will, on their way to the airport, detour and drive by.”
The couple, whose children Grace and Jack grew up there, fully expects the same to happen should Nebraska fare well come Oscar time.
“And it’s not just here, it’s a half dozen other places around town,” Mike says, referring to the favorite Midtown spots the filmmaker made part of his Omaha trilogy (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt).
In a city with few degrees of separation, the Bydaleks claim a connection to another Omaha Payne house. Grace attended a nearby home daycare that served as the residence of the family friend Matthew Broderick’s character hits on in Election.
But because it’s so closely associated with Nicholson’s potent cinema legacy, few other Omaha movie locations have the iconic pull as does the Izard Street house. To capitalize on this intrigue the Omaha YWCA (now the Women’s Center for Advancement) held a Home for the Holidays fundraiser at the three-story, red brick Colonial constructed in 1923.
A largely untouched interior made it the right fit when the filmmaker, location manager John Latenser V, and production designer Jane Stewart scouted it.”We’d searched for the ‘Schmidt House’ for quite some time,” says Latenser, who comes from a long line of architects that designed enduring Omaha public structures. “We knew we wanted Warren Schmidt to live in the Dundee neighborhood. We had scouted nearly 50 houses there, but nearly every one had updated-upgraded interiors. We were looking for a house that had not been updated.”
He says as soon as the team entered the home and saw its vintage wallpaper and original kitchen they knew they’d found the one.
“It was that perfect.”
Jill and Mike Bydalek
Bess Ogborn’s daughter, Susan Ogborn, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Heartland, was there for much of the shoot. She says her family “thoroughly enjoyed the experience” of their house becoming a movie artifact. Her folks moved there in 1964. After the death of her father in 1967, her widowed mother hung onto the place.
“Mother redecorated it in 1971, and other than basic maintenance, that was the way the filmmakers found it. But she would want you to know they moved her furniture out and used set furniture, and that her house was never that dirty or gloomy as it was in the movie. I don’t think she regretted letting them use her home at all. Seeing the house in the film didn’t seem strange, but walking through that set was very odd.”
The Bydaleks removed the wallpaper, redid the kitchen, and made many more renovations while retaining the five-bedroom home’s original integrity.
“It’s a great house,” says Mike. “It’s just as simple as can be, and that’s kind of nice.”
“They don’t make these houses anymore,” says Julie.
The Bydaleks know it will always link them to a slice of pop culture.
“It’s kind of fun to say we live in the About Schmidt house,” says Mike.
As things worked out, the Bydaleks’ daughter, Grace, 18, became the family’s own resident movie star. Acting on stage since childhood, she’s done voice-over work for animated television series, and she portrayed the title role in the Omaha-made film For Love of Amy (2009). During a Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) theater camp, she says she used the Schmidt tie “as my fun fact during my dorm floor ice-breaker,” adding, “People were impressed a girl from Omaha would have a connection with the movies.”
As for Jack, 15, he says “it’s cool as a movie buff to live in a house made famous” by a popular film and its legendary star.
Omaha’s film culture is radically improved over even a decade ago. One of the reasons for that is the Omaha Film Festival, an annual film orgy now in its ninth year. It’s the city’s single largest and most intense concentration of film and even though the actual festival only happens once a year the organization sponsors special screenings and events throughout the year to keep the cinema embers burning. Taken together with the metro’s lone full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, which operates year-round, locals and visitors alike have a huge selection of films and film events to choose from. Less than an hour away another great art cinema, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, operates in Lincoln, Neb. The state also boasts a robust film community made up industry professionals who reside here, including three Oscar winners (writer-director Alexander Payne, editor Mike Hill, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore) and several others who’ve distinguished themselves in film (Sandy Venziano, John Beasley, Nik Fackler, Lew Hunter, Mark Hoeger, Dana Altman, Richard Dooling). A recent addition to that community is Timothy Christian, whose Night Fox Entertainment is a film financing and producing company. Payne brings a steady diet of Hollywood with him courtesy of the features he makes here, most recently Nebraska, and the film figures he invites here (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderberg, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb).
The 2014 Omaha Film Festival is underway as I write this. It runs March 5-9 at the Marcus Village Pointe Cinema. On this same blog see my companion feature story on Omaha native James Marshall Crotty, who has two documentaries in the fest, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids.
Omaha Film Festival turns nine
by Leo Adam Biga
The March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival has gone all digital with its move from Regal Omaha Stadium 16 to Marcus Village Pointe Cinema at 304 No. 174th Street.
Besides the sharper projection offered, OFF Program director Marc Longbrake says the new site is near a higher density population area and the cineplex gets more traffic than the Regal. This marks the fourth venue change in the nine-year history of the little little festival that could, whose growth has been steady if not spectacular.
Ninety-two films from around the nation and the world (20 countries), including several from Neb. and surrounding states, will be screened.
Among the narrative features with a trail of buzz behind them are the opening night selection Obvious Child with its cast of bright newcomers and veteran character actors, the Friday night special Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the closing night entry Fading Gigolo with Sofia Vergara, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Live Schreiber and John Turturro, who wrote-directed it.
Documentary filmmakers from here who have work represented in the fest include James Marshall Crotty (Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids), Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette (Growing Cities) and Elizabeth Bohart (Watchers of the Sky). Theo Love, whose family is from Neb., directed Little Hope was Arson.
The live-action shorts include one, Afronauts, co-starring Omaha native Yolonda Ross, who’s drawing raves for her work in the new John Sayles film Go for Sisters (March 25 at Film Streams).
Longbrake says the five-day event is not only an opportunity for filmgoers to see loads of new work but for filmmakers to get their blood, sweat and tears seen by a live audience.
“As a filmmaker you work so hard to get your film made, then you sit in an editing room for a year to finish it, and it’s one thing to send it out to have people review it but it’s another thing to sit in a room with 200 people and have them react to the film and then do a Q&A afterwards.”
For the second year Writer’s Theatre, under the direction of Aaron Zavitz, will showcase live readings of the 16 finalist scripts in the OFF screenplay competition. Several of the scripts are by locals.
The fest’s annual conference will as usual feature guests with serious industry chops. This year’s lineup includes screenwriters Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire) and Steve Faber (Wedding Crashers).
For schedule and ticket info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.
Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’
The longer I do this the more I happen upon folks from Neb. doing really interesting things. The subject of the following story, James Marshall Crotty, is a good example. He created a career and brand for himself out of whole cloth when he co-conceived and executed a magazine and lifestyle, Monk, and authored city guides predicated on the freedom of the open road and the exploration of all things alternative, fringe, off-the-beaten path, iconoclastic, and, idiosyncratic. After this gonzo period in his life he’s “gone straight” to report on education for Forbes and to weigh in on the cultural stream for the Huffington Post. More recently he’s turned filmmaker by producing-directing two documentaries, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids, that marry his subculture leanings with his love for speech and debate, which he excelled in at Omaha Creighton Prep and coached at New York City high schools. His experiences observing and coaching debate in inner city environments are captured in his films, both of which are playing the Omaha Film Festival. See my companion story about the festival on this blog.
Ex-gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films ‘Crotty’s Kids’ and ‘Master Debaters’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on display in two documentaries he’s produced-directed showing at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival.
Both films focus on a subculture subject close to his heart, competitive debate. This once itinerant gonzo journalist now based in Los Angeles was a champion debater at Omaha Creighton Prep in the mid 1970s. This self-described “evangelist for debate” passionately portrays the hyper intense activity’s transformational power in his own life and in the lives of South Bronx kids of color.
Master Debaters shows March 6 in the 8:30-10:15 p.m. block of Neb. short docs. Crotty’s Kids shows March 8 at 12:30 p.m. in the feature-length doc block. He’ll do a Q&A after each.
He’s hoping his films inspire funding for an urban debate league he wants to start here as a way to motivate kids to excel in school.
Those familiar with Crotty may find his new gigs as Forbes.com education reporter and crusading debate advocate a departure. It’s actually a catharsis after tiring of the vagabond Kerouac thing, dealing with a protracted lawsuit and losing his intellectual guru and most influential debate mentor – his mother.
He says, Monk, “the National Geographic for freaks,” was as much a rebellion against his Catholic Republican upbringing as anything.
“I was Mr. Alternative hipster subculture guy with Monk and I had this nagging sense the whole time I was interviewing people like the founder of the school for boys who want to be girls to Kurt Cobain to just any kind of an eccentric person or place across the fruited plain that I did not grasp the dominant culture conversation.
“I just felt deep inside I was an uneducated man even though I’d gone to Northwestern. I felt like i was a fraud even though I was really good at spinning this alternative universe.”
He could no longer square his “out there” image with the Jesuit call to be a man for others instilled in him at Prep. He resolved to improve himself and to use debate – “the most profound education experience of my life” – as a means to serve kids from disadvantaged straits.
He felt the discipline of debate helped him and his Prep teammates, among them Alexander Payne (who appears in Crotty’s Kids), find success and he saw no reason it couldn’t do the same for others.
“We were this tribe of academic athletes that learned through debate the ability to speak on our feet, to persuade others about the rightness of our cause. It gives you incredible confidence to tackle any subject. When you’re at the top of your game you’re spending four to five hours a day on it in addition to your schoolwork. And you’re not just reading secondary sources you’re looking up primary sources, you’re going to law libraries, you’re reading studies, you’re really digging deep and you’re able to sort fact from fiction.
“When you have a finely-tuned debate brain the most innocuous statement can be broken apart and you’re able to see through poppycock almost instantly and it’s something really missing in the culture. People are easily bamboozled by false prophets who just because they have such a strong opinion people think they’re telling the truth. That is dangerous for Democracy.”
He says the research skills he learned have served him well.
“I’m able to look beneath the surface to find the truth. Doing Monk I was able to find these people and places that even locals didn’t know existed. That’s because debate trains you to be a geek researcher.”
The sudden death of his mother in 2002 set him on a “sea change” that led him to become a high school debate coach.
“I really felt the calling to help inner city kids.”
But first he needed to immerse himself in education.
“For years I really wanted to study the classics, the great books of civilization. I finally got the chance after we sued Tony Shalhoub and the producers of the Monk TV show in the late ’90s for stealing our brand. It took two years. In 2000 I decided to give up the Monk (mag) hat and go back to school and study the great books at a great little school called St. Johns College Santa Fe (N.M.).
“You sit around a table seminar-style and the tutors ask really good questions to help you dig deeper into the text. I really became a disciple of their method.”
He emerged from his mid-life crisis with a teaching certificate that allowed him to teach the classics and to coach debate. He began at two elite New York City schools to freshen his chops.
“I had been so long out of the game and I knew it had changed a lot. It’s like coming back to play any sport 25-30 years later. It had gotten so much faster.”
He says coaching proved emotional for him because “it gave me a way to give back during a difficult time in my life – I was mourning my mother through coaching these kids.”
After joining the newly formed Eagle Academy in the mid-2000s he made his experience there the basis for Crotty’s Kids.
He says the difference between a product of white privilege like himself and “a kid who grows up in the South Bronx is not as great as people might think,” adding, “The one thing that was really obvious to me is that a young man in the South Bronx does not just walk into a whole bunch of cultural capital just by osmosis.”
He says his growing up in a home filled with books and dinner-time conversations about current events is a far cry from what the kids he worked with experienced.
“These kids don’t have that by and large. As a result their vocabulary and basic reasoning powers are not being developed. So my job as a coach was to fill in that gap – the cultural capital piece – and the way I did that was to have adult, intellectual, fact-based conversations with them about whatever interested them. I also had my kids read the classics.”
He says the process of competitive speech and debate develops critical thinking skills in youths that have “an incredible trickle down effect that enables them to excel in school at a much higher level than their peers.” He adds, “It sort of feeds on itself. Young men and women at-risk are looking to compete and win. You get them to see it as a sport and they do whatever it takes. It becomes infectious.”
Sure enough, his kids became champions. One earned a full-ride.
Yet the central focus of Crotty’s Kids is Crotty, not the kids. He comes off as charismatic, quirky, caring, driven. He didn’t intend being the “star” but the footage or lack thereof dictated it.
“It’s not the Hoop Dreams of debate I wanted to make, it’s some other film,” he says.
He’s still in touch with some of his old students, several of whom are doing well in college.
“I’m a kind of surrogate father figure but I don’t push it. I had my chance to really impart as much as I could while I was with them but they need to figure things out on their own. They always know I’m there for them if they ever get in a jam.”
Sick Birds Die Easy falls uneasily in that long lineage of films about Westerners who go to Third World nations and become part of the legacy of exploitation that happens there. Nik Fackler’s new film set mostly in the jungles of Gabon, Africa is a wonderfully strange concoction because part of his intent with it was to indict the sort of post-colonial entitlement and paternalism that finds privileged Westerners spoiling paradises, in this case ancient Bwiti culture and the use of Iboga, with their poisioned attitudes and behaviors. His other intent was to find healing for a crew member and friend. But since his film straddles the line of documentary and fictional film, with some scenes real and others fabricated, it may actually have the reverse affect of what he intended. Regardless of how you feel about what he depicts and how he depicts it, he does capture arresting, sometimes beauitfully surreal visuals and poses some profound questions. It is one of those works that will likely leave you hot or cold about it. It took me two or three viewings before I fell into its quixotic internal rhythms and logic. This weird mash-up of The Last Movie, The Emerald Forest and Apocalpyse Now is definitely worth a look. It’s been playing festivals and now it’s come to his hometown, Omaha, for a one-night only screening at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11 at Film Streams. The writer-director will do a Q&A after the show. This is my soon to appear piece about the project for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Nik Fackler’s ‘Sick Birds Die Easy’ captures a paradise lost
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Filmmaker, musician and psychedelia aficionado Nik Fackler is a millennial seeker. It’s no surprise then he followed his well-crafted made-in-Omaha feature debut Lovely, Still (2008) with documentaries exploring cultures half-a-world away.
One doc brought him to Nepal to capture the phenomenon of a boy buddha returned from remote self-exile back into civilization. That untitled film is as yet unfinished. The completed other doc, Sick Birds Die Easy, brought Fackler to Ebando Village in Gabon, Africa in 2011, to contrast ancient Bwiti culture with modern Western culture.
After a taxing shoot and edit the visually-arresting Sick Birds hit festivals last year. Now it has a one-night screening at Film Streams. Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. Fackler will do a post-show Q&A.. He’ll surely address the pic’s self-referential depiction of privileged cultural tourists, namely himself and his crew, experimenting with Iboga and its well-known hallucinogenic effects and reputed healing properties and the surreal, self-indulgent weirdness that ensued.
Fackler intentionally encouraged mayhem – from giving every crew member a camera to not securing an interpreter to bringing along two addicts to working without a structure.
“Shooting the film was a complete disaster,” he says. “I was setting up a disaster for myself because that’s what I wanted it to be.”
Mentor-producer Dana Atman reluctantly went and soon regretted it.
“He didn’t want to do it, he didn’t want to come to Africa,” Fackler says of Altman, who’s since taken a step back from filmmaking. “He had the hardest job. There’s so much behind the scenes he had to deal with, like how difficult it was to get us fed and how the Ebando were constantly renegotiating how much money we needed to give them for their help. This was happening every day and it was all on Dana’s shoulders. There were a lot of times he wouldn’t come on set.”
Several days of shooting presented Fackler, who edited alone, a daunting task once back home.
“Editing Sick Birds was hell. I had literally hundreds of hours of footage.
It was like taking a pile of chaos and making order out of it. It’s definitely a film made in the editing room.
“I didn’t know what documentary editing was going to be like. I should have known it would take a lot longer than narrative. It’s a really tough process.”
The project’s harsh realities – everyone got wasted and sick and relationships were strained – humbled Fackler. But playing God still comes with the territory. In voice-over narration and interviews he makes clear he sought to find in Gabon a lost Eden that is the antithesis of the West. From his POV America is a sick nation that destroys the indigenous cultures it touches. In this first-person, Werner Herzog-like immersion into a strange land he shows the collision of two cultures and the inevitable spoiling and corrupting of paradise.
Even though he says off-camera, “This is not the film I meant to make,” he clearly manipulates things to arrive where he intended to be.
The set-up finds Fackler enlisting two addict friends for the journey. Small farmer-actor-comedian Ross Brockley spouts paranoia, conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism. He ostensibly goes to kick his heroin habit. Musician-poet-alcoholic Sam Martin goes as the company’s resident “minstrel” and acerbic archival of Ross. In Gabon the team meets Tatayo, a French expatriate initiate in Bwiti spiritual practices whose gone jungle wild with mysticism, ritual and drugs (think Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now).
We appear to see Fackler and his on-screen crew, all playing versions of themselves, shooting a doc. Fackler is the intrepid writer-director seemingly intent on getting his film at any cost. But the film was actually lensed by Lovely, Still director of photography Sean Kirby, who’s unseen and only referred to in the credits.
Fackler acknowledges some dramatic moments in his film-within-a-film were staged. Given this odd melange, which he calls “a hyper creative” hybrid of documentary and drama, he may field some tough questions from purists who prefer more definition or transparency.
So is Sick Birds real or contrived?
“It’s all those things,” he says. “What’s real is the guts of it, the history and Bwiti, my interviews with Tatayo, the Iboga ceremony, Ross getting up in the middle of it and yelling at Tatayo. None of that was planned. When you see us all fucked up on Iboga and tired we really are fucked up and tired. That’s pretty accurate. That was part of the disaster.”
Montage of production stills from Sick Birds Die Easy
Real or not, the film indicts self-indulgent Westerners running amok in a pristine land.
Fackler says he did assemble an edit where he revealed at the end “it was all fake” but he preferred the “enigma of weirdness and questions.” That other version, he says, “didn’t spawn any questions or conversation, but when people thought it was real it spawned this wave of conversation. I loved that.”
“The lesson I learned is that the more you research the great enigmas you’re going to get more questions. There are no answers.”
Besides, he adds, “Bwiti is a trickster culture and the film itself is a trickster film. It’s not a traditional film. It’s not one that is safe in any way. What I like about the art of filmmaking is you can take people to a place and attempt to put them in a mind-altered state. I like mind-altered states. I like to show there’s more to life than just your current perception.”
With Sick Birds Fackler tried breaking from hidebound filmmaking.
“There’s different ways of doing film. I did the music video thing (for Saddle Creek Records label artists), and I did the narrative feature thing and learned about using my intuition through that. I’d go to set every day with Lovely, Still with a shot list and by the end of shooting I didn’t have anything, I was just showing up on set and looking at everything and saying, ‘OK, this is how to shoot this scene.’ This (Sick Birds) was an extreme version of that.”
Nik Fackler gone jungle wild
Even though no one’s “saved” in the end, Fackler says, “I really believe in Iboga and I’ve seen it work for people. But I learned you can’t change people. If anything, Ross has gotten even more paranoid.”
Fackler, a recreational drug user and alternative health adherent, hopes his film’s depiction of wayward Westerners doesn’t distort the path of fellow travelers seeking enlightenment and cure,
“I wouldn’t want Ebondo Village to get flooded with 18 year-olds dropping acid. though psychedelic tourism is happening. I don’t want to be promoting this type of behavior. I was trying to expose it. I don’t want to hurt Bwiti’s cause or this underground movement of trying to heal drug addicts.”
Fackler’s glad for the experience.
“Lovely, Still is very much the film of a child and Sick Birds Die Easy is the film of a rebellious teenager. This film is very much about me growing up and the harsh hit of reality, the fear, not having answers to anything, rising from that dark night. I think it was a very important step for me as a filmmaker. I feel I succeeded making a film that could have been given up on. I’m proud of it.”
As for what’s next, he says, “The art you’re making is directly connected to the searching you’re doing within yourself. As long as I don’t stop searching I will be making art. That’s my way of understanding what I’m searching for.”