[EDITOR’S NOTE: indieWIRE is profiling the Narrative and Documentary Competition filmmakers who are screening their films at the Los Angeles Film Festival as world premieres.]
Screening in the Documentary Competition at the Los Angeles Film Festival, directors Justine Jacob and Alex D. da Silva‘s “Paper or Plastic?” follows eight state champions heading to the National Grocers Association’s annual bagging competition in Las Vegas. The contestants, ranging from rural housewives to ambitious immigrants to awkward teens, each have significant motivations to claim the “Best Bagger” title. Both of the film’s directors talked to indieWIRE about their experience and the film’s screening at LAFF.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking?
Justine Jacob: I’ve always loved watching movies and especially in theaters – I love the feeling of being immersed in and transported to another world for a few hours. And I’ve always loved good stories whether told, read or watched. In fourth grade, when schools still had resources, I had the opportunity to learn how to make videos and made my own. It left a huge impact on me and I can still remember the details of the shooting, the editing and how it felt to show what I had created. But, I never thought I could make a living making films so I became an attorney. Although I soon realized this was not the career for me, what I did like about it was the challenge of communicating ideas effectively and efficiently and the ability to make a difference in people’s lives. I discovered that filmmaking would allow me to do this to an even greater extent as well as develop a creative side I had ignored. So, eight years ago, with an incredibly supportive and collaborative husband behind me, I took the plunge and hope to continue this wonderful journey.
Alex D. da Silva: My father was a painter and journalist, so I grew up surrounded by artists. I remember spending hours listening to him talking about art. As a young man, I became interested in photography and obsessed by cinema. I used to watch 2 movies a day during my summer vacation. It was the way I found to expand my world. From there to starting a career was more about making ends meet than the opportunities presented. I spent some time in France assisting professional photographers, but back in Brazil this kind of work didn’t pay much so I got involved with filmmaking. After film school I worked for 10 years with commercials, music videos and short films and in 1999 I moved to the US looking for work on documentaries.
What was the inspiration for this film?
JJ: “Paper or Plastic?” started with a casual conversation with our executive producer, Oren Jacob and a co-worker about their first jobs and he became aware of the National Grocery Bagging competition. He called me on the way home and said, “I know what our next film is about.” Taking something as mundane and pervasive as grocery bagging and turning it into a competition intrigued me – there must be more to it. A few months later I won the best pitch award at the Sundance Producers Conference and we jumped into production.
Please elaborate on your approach to making the film…
JJ: We knew we didn’t want to make just another competition film and after filming a couple of the competitions, meeting the contestants and learning more about the supermarket industry, we knew we had much more.
ADS: We traveled to 21 states visiting local champions and their supporters and ended up selecting 8 characters. We want to tell a contemporary American story and show how a trivial and very common part of everyday life can become the celebration of achievement and courtesy.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film?
ADS: Our characters all have a natural spontaneity and were thrilled to be part of the film, so our job was made easy during filming. Editing was way more challenging: there’s a very delicate balance between having fun with our subjects and not at their expense. The baggers knew why they were doing this contest and the importance of this pursuit in their lives. They were not obsessed with bagging. This is what they do at work. It’s a crucial part of their job to be courteous and efficient so why not be the best at it. We were also presented with a lot more elements that we originally expected so our narrative became more complex. There were regional flavors, age differences, mom & pop stores, the history of the supermarket, summer jobs vs lifetime careers, sexism and much more. Following our instincts we constantly experimented and were supported by the collaborations of two great editors always trying to keep our film honest and entertaining.
What are your goals for the Los Angeles Film Festival?
JJ: To be there! With baby #3 due 5 days after our premiere, we moved the kids and us down to LA for the festival. How could I miss the delivery of my other “baby”? We are thrilled and honored to be a part of this special festival and know this will be a great launching pad for our film. Most importantly, we hope people are entertained, enjoy the film and recommend it to others.
ADS: It’s a privilege and a honor to premiere the film at the LA Film Festival. They have a very good balance between the industry and the audience. Hopefully we’ll get full screenings and be well received and if we can strike a deal with a distributor, that will be an extra award for our efforts. I want our films to be seen by the widest possible audience and festivals like this give filmmakers the best opportunity to keep working.
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