March 31, 2017 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
On his first trip to Cleveland, Steve James found himself asking just what was in the water that turned people into such avid film fans, because his experience was so magical.
He was bringing 2002’s “Stevie,” a documentary about the troubled life of a young man he had once mentored, to CIFF. “It’s a difficult film, a tortuous story,” he admits. “It’s a film I’m proud of, but it’s not a film that a lot of people choose to see because of its subject matter.”
He wasn’t expecting CIFF audiences to embrace it, but “it not only sold out the theater that it was in—which was not a small theater, by my recollection—but they actually had it in another theater at the same time, playing simultaneously. I was just blown away.”
The “terrific Q&A” session afterward amazed him, too, especially because his experience at most festivals had been that documentaries were often ignored in favor of narrative films.
Initially, James thought he would be a narrative filmmaker. However, he developed an inclination toward nonfiction after working at a Virginia NPR station. While attending graduate school at Southern Illinois University, he took film classes with Mike Covell, which further “stoked my interests in documentary,” he says.
“It was in grad school that I got the idea for what became ‘Hoop Dreams,’” he reflects.
The narrative films he actually did afterwards were all sports biopics “because that’s what ‘Hoop Dreams’ made possible.”
While he still may do more narrative filmmaking in the future, his heart remains tied to the documentary form. As with “Stevie,” he began work on “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” because of personal connections: In this case, his friend and colleague, Mark Mitten, already knew the Sung family. After meeting them and doing some initial filmmaking, James was hooked, and realized just how important their story was.
“This is one of those stories that, in my view, is about the unequal applications of justice in America,” he explains. Abacus Federal Savings and Loan had actively rooted out and reported the petty fraud they uncovered—“and they also, as it turns out, have one of the lowest default rates of any banking institution in America on their mortgage loans,” he adds—but they were the one bank that was indicted even as much larger banks were cutting deals and dodging charges. Bringing their ordeal to light became a mission, and that mission is at the heart of his body of work.
“I think you have to humbly go about your job of telling the story,” he explains, “with the idea that you are here, yourself, to be illuminated. Because no matter how much you think you know—and there have been times when I’d think I know quite a bit about a subject, going into it—you really don’t know much of anything once you get into the middle of it, if you’ve truly given yourself over to it.”
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