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How Sundance Phenom ‘Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma’ and Other NYT Op-Docs Found Their Inspiration

Filmmakers behind four New York Times Op-Docs share how they found inspiration for their short films.

How 'Don’t Go Tellin' Your Momma'

The filmmakers featured in the International Documentary Association’s screening of four New York Times Op-Docs — the publication’s Emmy-winning documentary series — all focused on very different topics for their shorts. But there are plenty of commonalities between the short films, as they told IndieWire Executive Editor Eric Kohn in a virtual Q&A, beginning with the inspiration that many drew from their personal lives.

Sean Wang said his “H.A.G.S.” — which stands for “have a good summer” in middle school yearbook-speak — came about as he was looking at his eighth-grade yearbook while researching a feature film that takes place in that time period, the late 2000s.

“As I was flipping through that yearbook I was 25, turning 26, and I was thinking a lot about my future and coming to terms with the fact that I’m the child of immigrants,” he said. “My parents came to America when they were 26. And I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m about to turn that age. What does that mean for me? What is the path that I’m walking that they couldn’t walk?'”

As he contemplated what it means to grow older, and what his younger self would make of his present self, he decided to interview his friends from that time period to understand their experiences.

“When did we grow out of those kind of kids who were so innocent and wide-eyed? Am I the person that I thought I was going to be when I was 13? I wanted to be a filmmaker. Am I that person? Who am I now versus who I thought I was going to be? And so it just kind of like dawned on me, like, I wonder if my friends are kind having a similar journey through adulthood, or maybe they have everything figured out, I don’t know.”

The inspiration for “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma,” directed by Topaz Jones and the directing duo rubberband (Jason Filmore Sondock and Simon Davis), also came from Jones’ own life. As the hip-hop artist was reviewing images that had languished on his hard drive for a long time, he began to think about his next artistic project, an album of the same name as the film.

“In multiple different collections of images, I flagged things from the Black ABCs [flash cards created by Chicago teachers in the 1970s], which I thought were amazing, but didn’t really look past the surface,” he said. “Eventually, we started to formulate an idea around putting visuals to this music that wasn’t exclusively tied to the idea of a music video. It just was something that shined a little light at us and said, ‘Here, look at me,’ and it was really at that moment that we began to do more looking into the history of the cards. Jason actually tracked down a print of the original cards and we just studied them. Well, we started as maybe trying to make one card, and make a couple of cards, and do something a lot less ambitious. It turned very ambitious very quickly and before we knew it, we had made a whole short film.”

“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma” turned into a musical film inspired by the Black ABCs that chronicles Jones’ own life and his education on his own Black identity.

The inspiration for Ben Proudfoot’s “The Queen of Basketball,” on the other hand, was slightly less personal. In his work on a series for Op-Docs called “Almost Famous,” which profiles people who could’ve been household names if history had gone slightly differently, he was introduced to Louisa Harris. You’ve likely never heard of her, but she’s one of the greatest living women’s basketball players.

“As soon as I read what little information I could find about Lucy and her incredible career of three national championships, and being the first to score a basket in women’s Olympic [basketball] in 1976, and then being the first and only woman to be officially drafted to the NBA — I’m Canadian, I know nothing about basketball. So if I am on the floor with this story, certainly there are more people that will be very interested in this. I just tracked her down and gave her a call and explained who I was. And she said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got a story to tell.’ And that sort of kicked the whole thing off.”

Emma Francis-Snyder’s “Takeover” is about an event that happened before she was born, but that aligned with her own passions. A longtime activist for healthcare rights, Francis-Snyder learned a group that inspired her own activism, and she didn’t know anything about: the Young Lords Party. In July 1970, 50 members of the group took over the dilapidated Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx to advocate for the right to accessible, quality healthcare.

“It’s actually through a rather unsuccessful occupation that I was part of at an unnamed public school that I felt that I had to learn more in order to do better, and especially when it comes to successful modes of direct action,” she said. “So I started studying the civil rights and the Black Power movement, and I came across the Young Lords. At that point, I realized that the organizing I had been doing was largely influenced by them, and yet I had not heard of them. I started digging, learning and researching more. At that point, I was also trying to find how I could best serve movements at large. AI found my way into filming, and learning, and sharing what I had learned. Ten years later, here’s ‘Takeover.'”

Check out the full conversation above.

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