[EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview coincides with the New York opening of Sascha Paladino’s doc “Throw Down Your Heart” this weekend at IFC Center. The film will open additional cities including Los Angeles June 5 – 11 at Laemmle’s Music Hall. The film opens in other cities through out the country. For more information, visit the film’s website.]
Screening at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, “Throw Down Your Heart” follows American banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck on his journey to Africa to explore the little known African roots of the banjo and record an album. Béla’s musical adventure takes him to Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali, as he transcends barriers of language and culture, finding common ground and forging connections with musicians form very different backgrounds. The film opens at the IFC Center in New York tonight. Director Sascha Paladino, who also happens to be Béla Fleck’s brother, gave indieWIRE a snapshot interview via email about his doc…
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Sascha Paladino, I’m the director and co-producer of “Throw Down Your Heart,” which is my first feature documentary. I grew up in New York City. For the past few years I’ve been balancing two sometimes parallel, sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory paths: making documentaries, and writing/producing children’s television, most often animation. They have a lot in common – at their heart, both are about telling stories. It’s all about being creative in different ways, and using different muscles to tell different kinds of stories.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved?
I’ve always been interested in storytelling. When I was a kid I wanted to be a special effects artist, because I wanted to figure out how the most magical things happened in movies. As I got older I got more into writing. After I had been writing for television for a few years, I started making short documentaries. I moved towards documentaries because I saw how compelling real-world stories could be – sometimes more magical than the ones I could make up. Also, there’s that famous saying: “If you want to learn about something, write a book about it,” and similarly, I feel like making a documentary is an excuse to immerse yourself in a new world and learn all about it, and hopefully share what your learn with others.
How did the idea for “Throw Down Your Heart” came about?
“Throw Down Your Heart” started with the music. Béla Fleck is a well-known banjo player, and this film grew out of his voracious musical appetite, and his desire to explore the little-known African roots of the banjo.
Béla is renowned for bringing the banjo into all sorts of unexpected settings: jazz, rock, pop, classical, world music, and more. He’s won a bunch of Grammys and has a popular band called Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. He’s also my brother. Well technically, he’s my half-brother (we have the same mom, different dads) but we call each other brothers. It’s easier that way. We didn’t grow up together – he’s 18 years older than me, so when I was born, he was just moving out of the house. When I was a kid, he was this guy who was around at the holidays who I didn’t know very well. When I was a teenager we started to hang out a little more. A few years back, after having made a few short films, I had the opportunity to make a film about Béla and the bass virtuoso Edgar Meyer. It was called “Obstinato: Making Music for Two,” and it had a nice life at festivals and was bought by Sony Records and released on DVD.
For many years Béla had wanted to make an album that explored the connection between the modern banjo and its musical ancestors in West Africa. Not a lot of people know that the banjo is originally an African instrument – we associate it with a white Southern hillbilly stereotype, but in fact a precursor of the banjo came to the U.S. with slaves that were taken from West Africa. They played their instruments on plantations in the South, and white Southerners copied them – that’s how the banjo found its way into American popular music. So the banjo has a complicated past, tied up with race and slavery and some very troubling parts of the history of the U.S. And Béla wanted to make an album that explored the musical side of that.
Béla went to Sony Classical with the idea for the album, and the president of the label at the time was Peter Gelb. He was the executive producer of my film “Obstinato” and was very supportive of my work. Peter had worked with the Maysles brothers on a number of documentaries, and really understood cinema verite. He told Béla that he should not only make the album, but that there should be a documentary, and that I should be the one to make it. I had to agree. I had experience shooting in Africa – that year I worked as a DP on a music film that we shot in Senegal and Morocco. That trip had made me aware of the logistical challenges – and joys – of making a movie in Africa, and I felt ready to and excited to take on my own project there.
It was really nice that the documentary came about through Peter, because of course with Béla being my brother and all, I sometimes worry about my family connection being the reason for our working together. So it was cool that the suggestion came from someone else who we both really respected. Béla and I like the idea of working on the film together, so I finished up a writing job, and a few months later we were off to Africa.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
Before we went to Africa, I knew it would be difficult to find the story of the film. We spent months in preproduction, searching for musicians that Béla could hear himself playing with, and came up with an itinerary that was really based around the music – we’d spend five weeks traveling through four countries: Uganda, Tanzania, the Gambia, and Mali.
As we shot, I thought of the project as having different threads – the “origin of the banjo” thread, the “music as communication” thread, the “cultural exchange” thread. But it was difficult to know how they would all fit together when we got home. I tried not to worry about it, as there’s enough to worry about while traveling through Africa with a crew of five and 15 large cases of video and audio equipment (not to mention two very expensive banjos).
We were working 18 hour days, just trying to catch all the great music and amazing people that we met. Luckily we had a wonderful crew: Director of Photography Kirsten Johnson, and Production Sound Mixers Wellington Bowler and Dave Sinko.
After we returned home with about 250 hours of footage, there was a period of over a year where we tried to raise money and figure out what the film was really about.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
As we tried to raise funds to complete the project, I found that potential funders were very interested in knowing what Béla’s “journey” was. How had he changed during the trip? What was his “transformation?” I thought about it a lot…and realized that actually, Béla DIDN’T change. There WASN’T a huge transformation that took place. He went to Africa with the goal of making great music with great musicians, and he did.
It all got me thinking about what I DIDN’T want the film to be: another story about a white guy who goes to a foreign country and is somehow changed by the experience. There are just so many stereotypes and pitfalls inherent in that approach, and my biggest hope was that the film would present a view of Africa that was anything but stereotypical.
In a way, all those inquiries about the “transformation” pushed me to realize what the film really needed to be. And while Béla is the glue that holds it all together, the film isn’t really ABOUT him. I came to see the film as a collection of portraits – it’s really about the amazing musicians that we were lucky enough to work with, and letting the audience spend some time with these people that they otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to. Béla is our vehicle: he brings us along on this exciting musical adventure, and hopefully opens our eyes and ears to some new experiences.
Luckily, I didn’t have to listen to those funding folks who wanted the traditional “transformative” version of the film. We ended up with private financing, and I was able to make the movie I wanted to make.
One theme that emerged early on, and that became a major goal for the film, was to show a positive perspective on Africa. As one of the musicians in Uganda said to us: “There is this negative thinking about Africa. There is nothing good in Africa. They are beggars, there is HIV/AIDS, they are at war all the time. But that is just a very small bit of what Africa is.” Indeed, on our trip I saw and heard some of the most beautiful things I could have ever imagined, and I wanted the film to express that.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I’m really interested in continuing to explore stories that make connections between different cultures. I’ve started to do that in “Throw Down Your Heart,” and also in the Nickelodeon show that I helped to develop, and currently produce and head write: “Ni Hao, Kai-lan,” which tells stories that weave together strands of Chinese and American culture.
Also, I’m working on finding ways to bridge my double life as someone who makes documentaries and someone who writes television shows for children. I’m developing a number of projects that combine the best of both worlds.