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April 12, 2018 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
For Reuben Atlas, filmmaking and law were both in his blood, but neither felt like quite the right fit. “My mom was a filmmaker,” Atlas told the Montclair Local. “She had a Steenbeck in the attic. I did not go to film school. I studied political science. I did that because I didn’t have to commit too much. I ended up going to law school.”
His father, John Atlas, is a lawyer and the founder of the National Housing Institute. But law didn’t feel quite right to him, either, and he took some time off after college to travel in South America before coming back to law school. “It was not for me at all,” he admits. “At the time, I was going through the motions and really trying to do it. I did it, graduated, passed the bar, and practiced for a while.”
It was during that time that he began to get an inkling of his real calling. “I started working wth Rockefeller drug law inmates who I thought were unfairly incarcerated. I was trying to make advocacy videos to help them get released early. Guys could get caught with a gram of cocaine. It would be their third strike. They’d be in for 15 years for like nothing. That started it, I guess.”
A few years later, the ACORN scandal struck. When a heavily edited video, constructed by activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles and purporting to show the grass-roots advocacy organization assisting a prostitute and pimp in setting up an underage brothel, began circulating in 2008, it ultimately brought down an organization that had been serving underprivileged citizens for 40 years, and positioned a little-known media organization, Breitbart News, to become a major player in the political climate to come.
“I was shocked and surprised that ACORN became such a big deal in the  elections,” he recalls. “Looking back it makes sense. The film provides a good idea of why.”
His father, in fact, wrote a book about the scandal, Seeds of Change, which was published in 2010. The subsequent shutdown of ACORN would ultimately compel him to make a documentary on the subject, but first he needed to get a few other projects under the belt.
His first feature film, “Brothers Hypnotic,” was inspired when he heard the eight sons of jazz legend Phil Cohran performing on the streets of New York City. It took him a while to convince them to let him tell their story, but it ultimately paid off in an award-winning documentary spotlighting both their music and their journey as artists. From there, he turned to “Sour Grapes,” the story of a counterfeiter who infiltrated the wine connoisseur community and then began selling its members fake vintages. Both films served as preparation for the weighty subject matter he was about to take on: the targeting and destruction of an organization that, until it was suddenly thrust in the spotlight and vilified, had been quietly helping and empowering the underprivileged for decades.
Atlas “really wanted to come to understand how ACORN on the one hand could be all at once this sort of amazing progressive institution that fought for justice for 40 years, and simultaneously a chant at tea party rallies, representing everything wrong with liberalism,” he recalled. One of his big goals was “making a film that both sides would watch.”
He teamed up with veteran documentarian Samuel D. Pollard, who had previously served as a producer on “Brothers Hypnotic.” The two focused on telling the story of what happened, behind all of the hype and hysteria that swirled around the media circus.
“ACORN had 400,000 members at its peak. There were tons of devoted staff people who were all interesting characters, and fought tons of battles,” he told the Montclair Local. “I was very inspired by these 60-70-year-old women I would meet who at their age were willing to lie down in the streets for what they believed in.”
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