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Meet the 2015 Tribeca Filmmakers #21: Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg Build a Sense of Trust in ‘In My Father’s House’

Meet the 2015 Tribeca Filmmakers #21: Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg Build a Sense of Trust in 'In My Father's House'

READ MORE: Meet the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmakers

After moving into his childhood home on Chicago’s South Side, Grammy Award–winning rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith hesitantly sets out to reconnect with his estranged father, the man who abandoned him over twenty years ago. In My Father’s House is a stirring, multigenerational chronicle of Che’s sincere but often-fraught journey to build a future for his own family by reconnecting with his traumatic past. [Synopsis Courtesy of Tribeca]

Co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg share the challenges they faced in making a verite film, and what they hope audiences will take away from Che “Rhymfest” Smith’s journey.

READ MORE: New Films Starring James Franco, Richard Gere and Dakota Fanning to Premiere at 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

“In My Father’s House” follows Grammy winning rap artist Che “Rhymfest” Smith on his journey of self-discovery and redemption as he reunites with his homeless father.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

It’s about a rapper, who has lived the bad boy life, but is now settling down trying to be a good father and husband to his family. Through a set of remarkable circumstances, Che bought the childhood home of his father, who he had not seen for 25 years. After moving in, Che began to feel a real sense of loss; he was haunted by the ghost of a man he never really had a chance to know. He goes on this journey to find his father and after they reconnect they share a brief honeymoon period, but it quickly becomes a very real and not particularly easy relationship. Che and his dad Brian have to peel back a lot of layers of hurt and regret in order to shape something new as father and son. While the film is an intimate look at how two people make sense of a fractured past, the impact of fatherlessness reverberates throughout their story, and we also see how Che turns his personal sense of abandonment into a means of connecting with and helping the young people growing up around him in the south side of Chicago.

Tell us briefly about yourselves.

I (Ricki) grew up in New York City and have been making films that focus on inner-city stories since college. Family is very important to me and I see how familial relationships color so much of how we live our lives. From the beginning I felt Che and Brian’s story to know each other as father and son held the promise of a universal message identifiable to all audiences. 
I’m (Annie) from Minnesota but at this point could qualify as a New Yorker, I’ve been here for so many years. Family is profoundly important to me and a lot of Che’s struggles spoke to me — in particular the demands we put on those who are closest to us — and they also cut to the quick of what it means to create a meaningful life and how family is part of that.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

The greatest challenge was that the story was unfolding from the minute we started filming. It was hard to determine when we would get to a place where the story would have resolution and at the same time, we were scrambling to keep up with fundraising. Also as a verite film, we had no control over the timeframe. We thought we would film for a year but we ended up extending the shoots in order to cover various life events. Brian, Che’s father, had led a transient life as a homeless person so it was also a bit of a challenge to piece together his past life and we had very limited archival to help illustrate Brian and Che’s family histories.

What do you want the Tribeca audience to take away from your film?

Because this is a verite film, the film does not have an overt agenda. Audiences will bring to it their own personal experiences and take away something that speaks to these experiences. Some people will connect to Brian’s story of isolation as he lived homeless on the street and to his struggles as an alcoholic. He suffered a lot of regret, and struggled to simply survive. Other audience members might relate to Che, who despite accomplishing much on his own, still felt a deep sense of loss and suffered as a son who did not know his father. For most of Che’s life, he felt fractured and incomplete. We also hope people will appreciate the profound resiliency in both Che, for growing up on his own, and in Brian, for surviving on the street for most of his life. Ultimately, we believe the film speaks to the importance of playing a role in a young person’s life, whether you are a role model, mentor, friend –- kids need a consistent adult who can guide them.

Any films inspire you?

Many films inspire us — and while we don’t always agree or respond similarly to films, collectively we are inspired by films with strong characters and a sense of risk taking. Recently we were discussing how Al Maysles’ work and films inspired us -– especially “Grey Gardens.” While the film is observational, you really feel that emotional connection, the intimate relationship between the characters and the camera. There is a sense of trust on screen that doesn’t make the viewer feel voyeuristic but instead a part of the scene. This sense of trust and mutual respect with our subjects is what we aspire to express in all of our films, no matter what the journey. 

What’s next?

We are working on a two new feature documentary projects soon to announce and have spent the last couple of years moving into television as well. It’s a tricky balance as the films are often very needy children and it’s also hard to put a production timeline on some of our verite documentary projects, but we’re figuring out a balance that works for us.

What cameras did you shoot on?

The Canon C300 and 7D.

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?

We did not crowdfund. We get asked to help fund many projects, many films, many things, and we always feel a little guilty when we can’t contribute to all of them so it felt strange to make a blanket ask for people to give to ours. We went the old school way and applied for grants.

Did you go to film school? If so, which one? 

No film school per se. We both went to Dartmouth College but actually met each other working on a narrative film in the Northeast Kingdom (Vermont). Ricki studied Film, Theater and English, Annie studied English, American History and Drama. I (Ricki) went to graduate school in Theater and began to make films as an undergrad. My experience in the theater has translated into my love of character. I made my first documentary in my early 20’s for PBS about a youth program in Harlem. My education was really trial by fire. Then I worked in-house for HBO for 6 years, producing for television under Sheila Nevins which allowed me to learn all aspects of the business. For me (Annie) I made docs in college with but I also had an early job as an associate producer on a ten part PBS series about the history of American cinema. I spent a lot of time researching, screening films, and helping with interviews for the series; it was a great education. Early on, I also worked several years at the Telluride Film Festival — another amazing place to learn about film — alongside Pax Wassermann who has become a close friend of ours and an incredible collaborator/editor.

READ MORE: ‘Goodfellas’ 25th Anniversary Reunion to Close 2015 Tribeca Film Festival

Indiewire invited Tribeca Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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