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“Off and Running” Director Nicole Opper

"Off and Running" Director Nicole Opper

Nicole Opper’s documentary “Off and Running” tells the story of Avery, an Arican-American girl raised by white Jewish lesbian parents in Brooklyn, who sets out to discover her birth mother and roots. The film opens January 29 at IFC Center in New York City. indieWIRE contacted Opper via email to discuss her career and the film.

Nicole Opper on becoming a filmmaker…

It was a hot, sunny day in a high school classroom in the suburbs of San Diego around 2 PM when I discovered the beauty of documentary. A chorus of faint snoring emanated from the mouths of two dozen 16 year olds – and normally I would have been just as bored as they were – but on this particular day the teacher decided to show us a documentary about Jorge Louis Borges. Suddenly the writing I had enjoyed so much was attached to a vulnerable, aging man. I discovered his quirks, his passions, the intense way he gazes out his window with wonder at the world. It actually wasn’t the greatest film, but it somehow managed to capture the spirit of an incredible being, and I have been chasing that same elusive spirit ever since.

I feel like I’ve just started exploring, so yes, absolutely. I would like to start shooting more on my own, for starters. On location I would watch and learn from my dear friend and very talented DP, Jacob Okada. I will probably shoot more of my next film. I might also like to be a make-up artist like Joe Blasco. He’s done it all, and now he’s creating disgusting looking skin diseases for a TV show called “Mystery Diagnosis.” The other day I got to play the best friend of a girl with a nasty skin condition in a recreation scene. Joe is very cool and VERY confident. I never ever wear make-up, which makes this fantasy all the more potent.

On how “Off and Running” came about…

I’ve known Avery since she was 12 years old. We met while I was interviewing kids at her school for a short film and she jumped out of the chair to volunteer herself. I was instantly charmed. She wound up taking a film class I taught fresh out of college and we kept in touch after she moved on to high school. During her visits to the school I noticed the pressures mounting in her life and I wanted to reach out. As the black daughter of white jewish lesbians, she felt like she stood on the periphery of a lot of different communities but wasn’t truly understood by any of them. Her identity was in fragments. I quickly discovered that simply asking her questions about what she was going through helped relieve her of some stress. I knew that while she may have felt alone there were teenagers across the nation experiencing the same loneliness and alienation, so I asked if she would be interested in sharing her story with others. She was.

One of my greatest mentors is Sam Pollard. His film, “4 Little Girls,” made me view the world differently, so he’s an influence. So is Judith Helfand, particularly in the way she has helped re-imagine how films can be positioned to create social change. Off and Running will continue to screen at festivals, theatrically and semi-theatrically, and will air on POV in the fall, but what I want most of all is for it to be viewed in high school classrooms across the country, and used in adoption trainings for prospective parents, which is beginning to happen now. I want Avery’s experience to be a catalyst for conversation about the issues young people in situations like hers often face but don’t always feel comfortable talking about.

Not knowing what I was getting myself into was my saving grace. It still amazes me that so many people were willing to take a chance on me: especially the Independent Television Service (ITVS). Thank the powers that be for them. Their support allowed me to spend two years focusing my energy on creative challenges rather than fundraising and distribution, which is quite a privilege.

ITVS was the major funder. Other grants came from The Foundation for Jewish Culture, The National Black Programming Consortium, the Puffin Foundation and POV’s Diverse Voices Project.

Opper on her influences and future projects…

I grew up around art, music and photography, so I blame my family entirely for this career choice. The late great actress Priscilla Allen was one of my earliest mentors and taught me to listen to my creative impulses, to respect them, and to act on them. Jacob Okada, the director of CURTIS and an incredible DP, writer, and editor, has an artistic sensibility that I’ve learned from. Teenagers who mold this city into their personal playground and classroom have a big impact on me. They bring a totally different lens to city life. In fact they are the reason I’ve stayed in New York so long.

I’m headed to Mexico to begin my next project in March. It’s a story about three teenage boys in Mexico who have been abandoned by their families and are coming of age at a place called Ipo, where they live communally as brothers and struggle to build their identities after being left on the street to fend for themselves. I’m also developing a narrative about a young biracial Jewish college student who spends a semester abroad in Mexico and develops a powerful yet challenging relationship with her home-stay mom.

What advice she’d give to emerging filmmakers…

Stop listening to the naysayers. There are many of them and they will never go away. They will dismiss you for being daring, interesting, original. They will tell you that this industry is too competitive for you. Ignore them and carry on.

And what she’s most proud of…

My proudest achievement is the moment that my teenage subject and co-writer of “Off and Running” stands before audiences to tell them that this film has changed her life for the better.

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