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In the Works: Doc-A-Month Sparrow Songs, Asexuality Movement, Volcano Life, & Sierra Leone Civil War

In the Works: Doc-A-Month Sparrow Songs, Asexuality Movement, Volcano Life, & Sierra Leone Civil War

This week’s in production column takes a look at Sparrow Songs, a project where two filmmakers, Alex Jablonski and Michael Totten, make a short documentary each month. Also profiled are two projects from Kickstarter: Angela Tucker’s documentary on the American asexuality movement and a profile of a town living at the base of a dangerous volcano. Finally, we profile a documentary project that was a part of the Independent Filmmakers Project lab set in the aftermath of the civil war in Sierra Leone.

EDITOR’S NOTE: “In the Works” is a weekly column taking a look at upcoming films, in addition to projects in production. It spotlights films in development, as well completed films that are taking creative paths towards distribution and occasionally ventures away from films to look at other types of projects, such as interesting new film distribution, funding, or exhibition mechanisms.

“Sparrow Songs”
Director/Editor: Alex Jablonski
Director of Photography: Michael Totten

Director Alex Jablonski and D.P. Michael Totten are currently in the middle of an ambitious year-long project. Jablonski, who has worked as an editor for Spike Lee and various docs, met Totten, a cinematographer whose work includes “Rize” and “The Tillman Story,” through a mutual friend, after Totten returned from a shoot in Afghanistan. The twice-removed friend was sure Totten would be the perfect partner for a project that had been floating in Jablonski’s head.

Jablonski said that he was “looking for a way to be able to make work, to give myself deadlines, and to do something where [I] didn’t have to ask someone to make it.” The “Sparrow Songs” project, as Jablonski imagined it, would force him (and a collaborator) to make a new short documentary film every month for a year. The two met in Los Angeles’s Echo Park neighborhood and began shooting their first film almost immediately. Now 10 months into their year-long challenge, their subjects have ranged from 9/11 truthers to porn star karaoke. indieWIRE spoke with the filmmaking duo about their project.

“Even submitting to film festivals, an act of saying ‘Is this good enough to show?’ I kind of got frustrated by that. I wanted a way where the full onus to make full work and get it seen was on me,” Jablonski noted, emphasizing that the project allowed the team to forgo the machinations of the industry. “It was an idea, but it was an idea that wouldn’t have come to fruition were it not for Michael’s involvement.”

“From our perspective, there’s been so many projects in the past that have been worth doing,” Totten added. “But it’s been difficult to raise the financing for it. Alex, when he approached me, seemed like a guy who would simply follow through. I’ve got a camera, and a little editing equipment. You almost get the funding and it fizzles away.” Even with their weariness of the industry, the two have picked up one shining official endorsement – a spot on Filmmaker magazine’s list of 25 new faces in independent film.

Despite their optimistic outlook, the pair have – unsurprisingly – had a challenging time completing a new film every month.

“I think that stylistically, we’re lucky because there’s a synthesis between the two of us. There’s no script – you have an idea – but after the first interview, that plan kind of goes out the window.” When asked how they’ve been affected by the film-a-month process, Jablonski joked, “This whole project could just as easily been called learning filmmaking. There’s a lot of emotional learning. Every month, I’m like, ‘People are gonna be really disappointed, this is gonna be really bad.’ And my wife makes fun of me. What I’ve learned is to make decisions intuitively. I think there’s a tendency to intellectualize the creative decisions, and my decisions feel so much more intuitive [doing “Sparrow Songs”]. … For me also, it’s about letting go, being in the moment. … Regardless of the content, we always come through. Because of the time constraints, there are a lot of times when there’s a piece missing where I wish I had time to get whatever it is … an establishing shot or a quote. And you learn how to make a coherent piece without what you thought was essential.”

Working with their (self-imposed deadline) has also forced them to find subjects they never would have profiled. At least twice, the filmmakers had to change a film’s subject (once, when the footage just wasn’t panning out; another time, when an organization’s publicity department got in the way). Feeling a bit dejected from one of the first of these experiences, the team drove away and found themselves below a billboard for Bob Baker Marionette Theater – the subject for their February 2010 film. The production schedule is made all the more difficult for the team because, as Jablonski said, “All of this producing and everything is happening when we’re not working. The day before I wrap a job shooting and the very next day, we’re working on finishing up a film for the month. It’s kind of squeezing it in on top of it all. Staying up til 4 a.m.”

Jablonski and Totten have set up a Kickstarter campaign ($7,000 to be reached by Sept.r 3, 2010) for their final three projects because, as they told me, “we’re trying to make them bigger. The one we want to do for the last one requires us to travel and spend a week and a half in an isolated place. Our creative reach is starting to succeed our financial bounds.” The two, who have proven themselves adept at documenting communities, individuals and unique phenomena around them, have their sights set on a feature-length documentary. They’ve decided on a subject, but have not yet received permission to shoot.

More projects in the works:

“Asexuality: The Making of a Movement”

A publicity photo for Angela Tucker’s “Asexuality: The Making of a Movement.” [Image courtesy of filmmaker]

Logline: “Asexuality: The Making of a Movement” (working title) is a feature length documentary that explores a community that experiences no sexual attraction. Asexuality is a lens into a larger issue to look at how movements are created and legitimized through four characters. How do you deal with life as an outsider? The film’s characters grapple with this universal question and, over the course of the three-year production process, we see how they deal with it. The outcomes might surprise you.

Production team: Director: Angela Tucker (producer of “Pushing the Elephant,” “Deadline,” “Election Day”); Producer: Katy Chevigny (“Deadline”), Beth Davenport (“Pushing the Elephant”), Jolene Pinder (“Bismillah”); Editor: Michelle Chang (“Camp Victory Afghanistan”)

About the film: “I learned about asexuality through an article on Salon.com years ago, which was a profile of David Jay – the leader of the movement – and talked about asexuality as a growing identity. I started talking about the article and about asexuality to friends and I was really struck by what a conversation starter it was and also how divided people were about it. I thought it was interesting that the idea of a community of people who experience no sexual attraction blew so many people’s minds and how some people who are typically extremely progressive and open were really dismissive of it. David Jay and I actually went to the same college, not at the same time, and we got together over a slice of pizza to talk about it. That was three and a half years ago, so we’ve been talking and filming ever since. Issues surrounding inclusion and belonging have always been an interest of mine. This is what drew me to an article in The New York Times about asexuality, which in turn led me to conversations about asexuality and its growing social movement. I soon realized what a button-pushing topic this is and knew that this was the genesis of a fascinating film.” – Angela Tucker

Current status: The team has completed production and is raising money to finish editing in time for 2011 festivals.

For more information and to support the film: Visit the film’s Kickstarter page. As with all Kickstarter projects, the filmmakers will only receive donated funds if they reach their target goal of $10,000 by the end of the campaign on August 21.

“The Volcano People”

A pre-production still from Alexander Berman’s “The Volcano People.” [Image courtesy of filmmakers]

Logline: The story of a life shattered by the fall of the Soviet Union, and one man’s attempt to make sense of himself and his family in the shadows of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes.

Production team: Alexander Berman (co-creator, director, editor), Elizabeth Rose (co-creator, producer, editor), Ben Berman (animator)

About the film: “Individuals, cultures, and environments on the cusp is what fascinates and drives us in creating this film and exploring this story. How people make sense of lives and contexts in an ever-globalizing world becomes even more complex in such a remote place as eastern Siberia – so what really excites us here is the universality and humanness of the story, and the extraordinariness of the setting. We hope to examine a life, and circumstances that will seem completely divorced from the world we live in, and to show the universalities of humankind, adversity, and strength.” – Elizabeth Rose

Current status: The film is currently in pre-production, gathering funds to travel to Siberia, buy equipment and create animations of scientific data from, and myths about, the volcanoes of the Kamchatka peninsula.

For more information and to support the film: Visit the film’s Kickstarter page. As with all Kickstarter projects, the filmmakers will only receive (tax-deductible) donated funds if they reach their target goal of $10,000 by the end of the campaign on September 7.

“Fambul Tok”

An image from Sara Terry’s “Fambul Tok.” [Image courtesy of filmmaker]

Logline: Victims and perpetrators of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war come together for the first time in an unprecedented program of tradition-based truth-telling and forgiveness ceremonies. Through reviving their ancient practice of fambul tok (family talk), Sierra Leoneans are building sustainable peace at the grass-roots level – succeeding where the international community’s post-conflict efforts failed. Filled with lessons for the West, this film explores the depths of a culture that believes that true justice lies in redemption and healing for individuals – and that forgiveness is the surest path to restoring dignity and building strong communities.

Production team: Producer/Director: Sara Terry; Producer: Rory Kennedy; Executive Producer/Producer: Libby Hoffman; Editor: Brian Singbiel; Consulting Editor: Kate Amend; Director of Photography: Henry Jacobson

About the film: “I was drawn to the story of Fambul Tok because I think it can help us: one, consider the power of forgiveness in their own lives; two, see Africa in a different light – not as a place that needs to be “saved” by the West, but as a place that has answers to its problems, and lessons that the West can learn from.

“On a more specific level, I hope the film continues to be part of a conversation that it has already been part of in the post-conflict international policy community – which is having to address its failures in helping create sustainable peace in many post-conflict countries, particularly in Africa. I hope the film helps inspire humility in a community that all too often seems to think it has all the answers, and that only the Western way of doing things is the right one. I bring more than 20 years of experience as a journalist – in newspapers, magazines, and public radio – to the story-telling aspect of the film. The narrative reflects my own conviction as a journalist that great stories move deep beneath the surface of traditional ‘conflict-driven’ approaches, and that deeply moving, engaging story-telling evolves through exploring layers of emotions and ideas as felt, articulated and experienced by the story’s characters.” — Sara Terry

Current status: The film is working on finishing up post-production by early September.

Also in the works:

Another week, another Sean Penn-biopic announcement. The Hollywood Reporter reports that the “Milk” star is in talks with River Road producer-financier David Pohlad to portray literary agent Max Perkins in the biopic “Genius” Perkins is famous for publishing F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway for Scribner. The script, an adaptation of the A. Scott Berg biography, focuses on Perkins’s relationship with a young Thomas Wolfe.

Finally, please, hold back your excitement, tween sensation Justin Bieber is set to star in a 3-D (!) biopic depicting himself (!). To make matters worse, “The Inconvenient Truth” director Davis Guggenheim is reportedly set to direct, according to Deadline.com. [Update: Deadline.com is now saying Guggenheim has pulled out of the project.]

Bryce J. Renninger, an indieWIRE contributor in the New York office, is also the shorts programmer for Newfest and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Media Studies at Rutgers University. He can be reached via Twitter.

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