EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.
Director: Gabriel Noble
Cast: Priscilla Star Diaz, Jesse Diaz, Solsky Diaz
Synopsis: In the early ’80s, Jesse Diaz was a rising star in the hip-hop world. Now he’s a broke single father living in a Harlem shelter with two children to support. But Jesse finally finds a shot at redemption in his nine-year-old daughter Priscilla, a precocious and immensely talented rapper. With older daughter Solsky the family’s quiet cheerleader, Jesse and Priscilla look to parlay “P-Star’s” talent into victory for the whole family. And that means long rehearsals, late nights, and home schooling for the growing girl. But as Priscilla’s star really begins to rise, it’ll tax all the relationships in her life and test Jesse in ways he never expected.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Gabriel Noble, the director of the feature documentary, “P-Star Rising.” I am a theater and film director, cinematographer, and teacher.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I was directing a theater production in Cuba with youth from the Los Angeles and Havana, and though the performance was powerful and phenomenal, it did not reflect the groundbreaking process we had all been through throughout the rehearsal process and historical cultural exchange. It was on the following production, with youth from Johannesburg and Soweto, that I decided to pick up the camera and produce a short documentary throughout the creation process, and fell in love with the potential of capturing real life and character transformations. Upon moving to New York, I worked under filmmaker Marc Levin and Michael Skolnik on several documentaries, until I immersed completely into the genre as a director.
What prompted the idea for your film?
I first saw Priscilla, aka P-Star, perform at a nightclub in lower Manhattan. She was 9 years old. The bouncer had snuck her in the backdoor, and given her 5 minutes to rap on stage to a packed audience twice her size and three times her height. Her perfect storm of charisma, raw talent, charm and street smarts won over the crowd. I spent the next day filming Priscilla and her single-father, Jesse, as the duo hit the Harlem streets to continue to build P-Star’s name in the game by rapping on corners for crowds of locals and tourists alike. At nightfall we returned to their one-room shelter for Priscilla to nap and for Jesse to assist his older daughter with her homework-before heading back out to the club. This was their routine. Jesse was back in the music business he had left to raise his daughters on this own, and Priscilla was carrying her family on her back with her fierce promise of becoming a star. As a filmmaker I was immediately struck by these complex and dynamic characters, the unique family relationship, and a little girl’s mission to make her daddy proud by redeeming his deferred dream.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.
Once I began shooting, I brought the story over to MTV and they featured her several times as “the youngest voice in rap.” The obvious choice was to continue on this theme and their slick/quick cutting aesthetic. However, my producer, Marjan Tehrani, and I made the intentional decision to open up the story to tell the complexity of this family drama, not simply follow her rising career. Because of our commitment to creating an authentic verité film, it demanded a trust and respect from all the characters I would be following. In the four years, I spent about 60% of my time with the Diaz family as a confidant, mentor, and friend, and 40% of my time shooting in the corner of rooms/street corners/nightclubs and subways with wireless mics and a small format camera. Alone.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
There were several challenges that are constant in the making of all documentaries: How to capture key emotional scenes without altering them with your presence, How to know when to shoot and when not to shoot, How to not lose your own personal life when enveloping yourself in another’s, and splitting your focus between your passion project (which this was) and paid work that pays the bills. All these were very relevant. However the biggest challenge was to know when to stop shooting. As this is real life, and a very complex family and business relationship, it potentially had no end. For that reason I was searching for a sign of transformation- and as Priscilla grew from a little girl to a self-expressed teenager, I was confident it would come.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
As a documentary filmmaker, one major sign of success is when the characters you have filmed, often at vulnerable times in their lives, validate the completed film. A colleague of mine said he recently showed his character the finished film and they said “you drove my life off a cliff backwards!” No matter how good the film is, that is NOT success. The three documentaries I have made, “Autumn’s Eyes,” “I Won’t Love You to Death,” and “P-Star Rising,” the response from my characters has been resoundingly the same: “That shit was f’real. That is my life. Thank you.” I cannot deny that selling a film worldwide, paying back credit card debt, and getting offers for your next funded film also qualifies as success.
My personal goal as a filmmaker is to provide a voice to sub-cultures, youth in extreme circumstances, and cultural phenomenas. I do not limit this to documentary. I direct fiction film and theater as well.
What are your future projects?
A documentary about young gypsies in Eastern Europe, both a fiction film and theatrical adaptation of “P-Star Rising,” producing film/PSA’s for the Black Caucus for the Education is a Civil Right National initiative, and staying open to new opportunities with a variety of creative teams. Making a film can get lonely and it is nice to mix it up. I also have to mention I am expecting a baby the same week as our Tribeca Premier, so that is definitely my most prevalent co-production!