With a name like “Getting Naked,” interests are bound to be piqued. But according to director James Lester, the title is just the opening act.
“The name is provocative, but it’s not a very sexy movie,” Lester says. “[It’s] a little more raw and humorous. This world is something that once you pull back the curtain, there’s a lot more to it than you might think.”
This world of intrigue Lester alludes to is that of New York City’s burlesque scene. A formally trained pianist-turned-filmmaker, Lester’s home life set the stage for this directorial debut.
“I was born and raised in New York, and I wanted to tell a New York story,” says Lester. “My dad was a jazz musician who used to play burlesque shows, and my mom is a painter, so there were always naked people all around.”
His creative influences, love of movies, and years of experience working in production have led Lester to this point. However, his first feature had its own unique challenges.
“To make a feature doc is its own unique mess because it seems easy in terms of the technical aspect--you have a camera, you can shoot on your own--but it’s very challenging,” says Lester. “A couple years into it, what I was going for originally had changed. I started making it about burlesque--sexy, fun, with a history element to it. Ultimately it was not that. It was a character study of these women in NYC. I wanted to arc these stories in such a way that you were watching a movie and not a history lesson on burlesque.”
Unlike the scripted, organized nature of the short films and television episodes to which he was accustomed, the documentary style was open-ended and indefinite.
“[There was the] storytelling challenge--hanging around long enough to see if something would happen to these women that had a story element, if they as people changed, or anything happened in their lives that was a turning point.”
Fortunately, these women’s stories are already resonating with film audiences and finding success in the theater. While the burlesque community may feel unknown to the general population, Lester feels these stories are relatable now more than ever.
“[The film] gives people a certain freedom they may not have experienced before the film, Lester says. “I see in screenings now how it’s connected to the women’s movement. This tells a story about women and what they’re going through, and how tough it is--aging, health issues, and being a woman who wants to be sexy but taken seriously.”
April 06, 2018 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
“The spelling bee,” says director Sam Rega, “is one of the most iconic American traditions.”
Most of us remember participating in school spelling bees, maybe even competing in grander spelling events. However, “Breaking the Bee” doesn’t just explore spelling bees, it follows four Indian-American students, ages 7-14, on their quest to win the biggest bee prize at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
What’s especially interesting about this story are the statistics. According to the film’s website: “Since 1999, 18 of the last 22 winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee have been Indian-American, making the incredible trend one of the longest in sports history.”
Spelling bees are like a competitive sport for kids, both mentally and physically. They train and study and train some more in order to compete at an incredibly high level of intellectual prowess. “These are children no older than high school competing in something at times more rigorous than a physical sport,” Rega explains. “It shows if you dedicate yourself to something, anything is possible.”
“I was intrigued that this was a story that people hadn't heard of, yet it was happening right before our eyes,” Rega continues. In November 2015, while working at the Business Insider news publication, he was approached by his colleague and now producer, Chris Weller, with an idea.
“He (Weller) has followed the Scripps National Spelling Bee for years and had come to notice a greater number of Indian-American participants and winners,” says Rega. “He hit me with some stats and explained we were in the midst of a two decade spelling bee dynasty. I was instantly hooked.”
Why this story? He explained, “This is a group of people who have found immense success in a short period of time. These families are first- and second-generation Americans who are competing in something that's not necessarily their first language.”
One might assume that winning a national championship might be the parent’s dream but Rega explains that it’s a family activity within these “spelling families,” as in everyone works together. “From the minute we walked into the homes, you knew these children had such a passion for spelling, and the motivation came from within.” The competitors are well-rounded and participate in multiple activities inside and outside of school; they are able to talk about sports and politics. Rega says, “They were so multi-faceted that I would laugh and ask myself, ‘What was I doing when I was their age?’”
“Breaking the Bee” is making its world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival and Rega is thrilled. “It's a true filmmakers’ film festival," he says. "To premiere at a festival where everyone cares about your film is very special, and we couldn't think of a better place to debut.”
Photo: Sam Rega directed “Breaking the Bee,” his third documentary feature film.
April 06, 2018 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
Santiago Rizzo spent time in juvenile hall, lived on the streets, and graduated from prestigious Stanford University.
As a kid, he was trying to survive, he says. “As an adult, I’m just trying to heal.”
Rizzo was abused by his stepfather, and had a sad, lonely childhood. It was his loving teacher, Tim Moellering, who took him in and gave him hope.
“Quest,” is Rizzo’s directorial debut and the story is based on his life and his friendship with his teacher. Making the film “forced me to face my shadows and bring them to light,” he says. “Stanford and all the success I’ve had was purely a function of covering up my pain.”
After Rizzo graduated from college, Moellering suggested they write a book about their story. “I was deep in my pain and ego then, so I suggested we make a movie instead,” says Rizzo.
So a script was written, and he made the promise to Moellering, right before he died, that he “would make this movie in his honor.” That was a promise Rizzo was not willing to break.
“Tim always said that if I ever got lost to make the movie ... a few years after he died, I felt lost,” Rizzo explains. “So I knew it was time.”
Not only did Rizzo have to relive his sad and abusive childhood while making the film, he also had to relive the loss of Tim, who died from cancer in 2011.
“It was one of the most painful paths I think I could take,” he says. To make matters worse, in order to fund his project, he had to sell the house he and Moellering had bought together.
Rizzo began as the project’s producer, and ended up as its director. “Never in a million years did I think I would direct it,” he says. “In fact, Tim told me not to.”
But it was the only way. None of the major agencies and producers he gave the script to were interested. “They didn’t see money in it,” Rizzo says. “So I produced and directed and casted.”
His inexperience made it difficult, he admits, but it came together out of love. The cast’s “humanity and talent made it easier.”
What would Moellering say if he were here and was asked to introduce the film to an audience?
“Here’s a film from one of the most capable people I know,” Rizzo speculates. “I always told Santi he could do anything he put his mind to. ... Now, I am asking for your help to get this movie out. I left Santiago with my Rules to Live By before I died and I asked him to share them with you.
“My life has been wonderful, and if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. Santiago is one of the things I am most proud of. It’s time we heal and shift humanity toward what Santiago now calls ‘love.’ Follow my rules—and if you have any questions, ask Santi. He knows how to find me.”
Rizzo concludes, “More than anyone in the world, I wish Tim were here right now to see it.”
April 06, 2018 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
Ever since Christian Sonderegger was 12 years old watching Alfred Hitchcock movies, he knew he wanted to grow up to create his own. After three decades working in the film industry, Sonderegger brings us “Coby,” his first feature-length film from the director’s chair.
Born in France, Sonderegger was given up for adoption. Years later after finding his birth mother, he discovered he also had a 12-year-old half-sister, Suzanna, living in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The siblings would see each other every few years, and when Suzanna asked Sonderegger to create a film about her desire to transition from female to male, using the transitional name Coby, Sonderegger had reservations.
“I thought it was a bad idea,” recalls Sonderegger. “I was more [of a] narrative [storyteller], and I didn’t want a reality show showing all the dramatic parts of [the transition]. I wanted to talk about the Coby I saw in front of me.”
For this reason, Sonderegger chose to shoot the film five years after Coby’s transition was complete to capture his life as he’s leading it now.
Although the director envisioned where the film would lead when he began, the story went beyond Coby’s personal experience to include the interactions with his close family and friends.
“In France, it’s harder to get a new identity,” says Sonderegger, “and it’s very different to see families helping out. This topic is very exotic to them.”
Given the film’s presumed exotic nature, however, Sonderegger was determined to “get intimate without getting voyeuristic.”
“Editing had to be very careful,” Sonderegger says. “I wanted to talk to a broad audience, not just the LGBT community, and not be too overwhelming or intrusive. I wanted to change the way people see this, by not just focusing on the suffering, but instead focusing on the positive.”
A welcome approach to a unique storyline, indeed. Sonderegger insists that although “Coby” is an American story, the film is unmistakably French from the way it was shot and edited, making European audiences feel right at home. American reactions, however, are more of a mystery.
“I’m really French,” says Sonderegger. “I don’t really know at all. This is a very big American premiere for us, and it’s going to be interesting. I’m very excited to see, I have no idea [how they will react].”
Ultimately, Sonderegger hopes to portray the same message to audiences, no matter on which side of the Atlantic they reside.
“The idea of the film is that we’re the same, and that nothing is wrong with Coby,” Sonderegger says. “Normality is a wider range of behaving and acting than we think.”
April 05, 2018 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
Priscilla Galvez always knew she wanted to be part of the film industry. She just wasn’t sure which part.
“I struggled for a while to figure out my path in,” she admits, “since there really isn’t one way to make it as a filmmaker.” On her way, she wore a lot of hats, initially expecting to work as an editor before discovering that the producer’s hat fit even better.
She had already worked with director Naledi Jackson on a science fiction short film called "The Emissary." When Jackson brought her a new script, called "The Drop-In," Galvez “was immediately excited by the idea of making an action film with women of colour at the forefront.”
"The Drop-In" short film mixes genres, blending action, sci fi, and some very timely social commentary into a riveting story about a young woman, seemingly an ordinary hairdresser, who finds herself confronted by the life she thought she had left behind in another part of the world.
“I am generally drawn to projects that involve dark and unconventional themes,” she observes. “I also enjoy working with bold creators who take risks and who are interested in straying from formulaic storytelling. I do have a soft spot for working on projects that involve horror, sci fi, and fantasy elements–it’s just more fun!”
To that end, she loves this year’s CIFF theme: “Embrace Curiosity.”
“Right now, especially, seems like a time for creators to be exploring the possibilities of storytelling outside of conventional models,” Galvez points out, citing the development of new media like virtual reality. “It is a really exciting time for storytellers to be . . . innovating the ways that narratives can be experienced, while being entertaining at the same time.”
Galvez has a number of innovative projects in the pipeline, herself, including a web series called “Off-Kilter” that she describes as “a comedy set in the world of professional ballet,” as well as working with Naledi Jackson on the development of a feature-length film based on "The Drop-In."
“My hope is that I can continue financing and producing projects in Canada,” she says, “and introduce new voices to global audiences, with stories and perspectives that speak to a more substantial range of experiences. I’m also itching to get some of my directorial projects out there, too, so stay tuned for that!”
Last call for CIFF gifts this holiday season! In order to guarantee USPS delivery by Saturday, December 22nd, all orders need to be in by Friday, December 14th at 4:00 PM. Think outside the box and Give the Gift of Film! Get all the festive details here: https://www.clevelandfilm.org/