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Tribeca ’09 Interview | “Off and Running” Director Nicole Opper (Discovery section)

Tribeca '09 Interview | "Off and Running" Director Nicole Opper (Discovery section)

Off and Running
(Discovery section) Feature Documentary, 2009, 78 min., U.S.

Director: Nicole Opper
Screenwriter: Nicole Opper, Avery Klein-Cloud
Producer: Sharese Bullock, Nicole Opper
Executive Producers: Macky Alston, Sandra Itkoff
Director of Photography: Jacob Okada
Editor: Cheree Dillon
Music: Daniel Bernard Roumain
(Documentary, World Premiere)

Synopsis: With white Jewish lesbians for parents and two adopted brothers—one mixed-race and one Korean—Brooklyn teen Avery grew up in a unique and loving household. Even so, she can’t quell her curiosity about her biological African-American roots and decides to contact her birth mother. This choice propels Avery into her own complicated exploration of race, identity, and family that threatens to distance her from the parents she’s always known. (Description provided by Tribeca Film Festival)

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Nicole Opper, and I directed and produced the documentary “Off and Running: An American Coming of Age Story.” I was born on Guam and grew up in San Diego, where I first started making films in high school.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

Growing up, I didn’t feel reflected in the films about my generation – and I learned that the way to change this was to pick up a camera and create the images I wanted to see.

What prompted the idea for “Off and Running” and what excited you to undertake it?

When I met Avery, the main character in my film, I was immediately drawn to her. She was only ten years old at the time, and seemed to embrace every person who walked into her life without hesitation. Then I met the rest of her family – her two moms and her adopted brothers – and felt I was given a glimpse my own future, as a gay person who wants to adopt. The love in their household is overwhelming, and I knew that in a time when people were voting to ban gay marriage and gay adoption, we needed this story more than ever. Avery’s family is also an interracial one, and with so much of America increasingly identifying as multiracial or multicultural, I knew that in many ways this would be a story about the new American family, from inside their home.

Elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

From the beginning, my goal was to bring Avery into the filmmaking process, to ensure that the film truly emanated from her own voice. My entire team has experience working with youth filmmakers, and this informed our collective approach to the storytelling. I also knew that I wanted this documentary to have a warm, cinematic feel that would draw viewers into its intimate subject matter, so simply handing Avery a camera didn’t seem like the right approach.

Instead, Avery and I regularly got together to review clips of the film and discuss what a viewer may or may not understand from the footage alone. Then Avery would sit and write her own voice over that would help to externalize the film’s deeply internal conflict. Her writing gave the film its spirit, and along the way these opportunities to reflect with pen and paper and ultimately a camera also helped her to make clear decisions and climb out of the hole she had found herself in. In the end, Avery was given a writing credit on the film.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

None of us were prepared for the sweeping journey Avery would soon undertake as she began to question her own identity and in connection with that, reach out to her birth family for the first time. Coming of age is always painful, but it can be especially challenging for a trans-racial adoptee growing up in a society still wrestling with the racial barriers that divide us. Maintaining Avery’s trust during a time when she felt utterly alone and distrustful of the world was the biggest challenge of all, but it also brought us closer in the end, and affirmed my instinct to leave the doors between my life and my work wide open. Ultimately, following Avery through her adolescence led me to think very differently about myself as a daughter, a prospective parent, a filmmaker and a member of society.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

When the people I film feel they’ve been portrayed with honesty and integrity, and when a story raises questions that viewers feel compelled to discuss, I feel successful. My goal as a filmmaker is to search for the deepest emotional truth in every story I tell and present that truth in all its messy complexity.

What are your future projects?

I want to continue to make films with and about young people, because it’s such an exciting way to learn about the world. I have a few projects in development and look forward to finding out which one demands to be told.

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