Sunday, April 4, 2010

NY African Film Fest: BURNING IN THE SUN makes NY debut; filmmaker Q&A; helpful marketing timeline for DIY docs

When the FSLC's 17th New York African Film Festival begins this coming Wednesday, April 7, for its week-long run, there'll be a number of good films to see. None of them, however, quite has the impact for TrustMovies as that of a very small DIY documentary titled BURNING IN THE SUN. In fact, BITS, as it will now be known here, is the single film most often covered on this particular blog over its 19-month history.

I first saw a 20-minute portion of this film in September of 2008, during the IFP Independent Film Week, which then became on of my first blog posts (here).  So timely and fascinating seemed this subject and how it was handled that I did a follow-up post, just to learn what was happening with the film a few months later. Then, nearly one year after my first viewing, the documentary, was given its first showing here in NYC at a Rooftop screening this past summer.  The feedback was very good, and sure enough, a number of festivals -- Santa Barbara, Sedona, Indie Spirit, Santa Cruz -- were soon offering the little movie a berth in their program. In fact, the current NYC screenings are a joint effort of the FSLC's African festival and its Green Screens program.

The reason for FSLC's dual programming effort is that BITS has two important themes:  the betterment of Africa -- specifically Mali, the home of the film's protagonist -- and ecology/solar energy.  Directors Cambria Matlow (above, left) and Morgan Robinson (above, right) tell this story succinctly with no unnecessary frou-frou.  And the characters we meet, all helping to make one young man's dream (doing something good for his country) a reality, are an odd but fascinating mix.

And while the setting is Africa, what should ring all kind of bells in the mind of Western viewers is how easily and inexpensively this fellow, Daniel Dembele (above, center), is finally able to do this. If a mud-hut village in Africa can use solar energy to power water flow and electricity, what the hell is going on here in America that we can't seem to manage something similar and bigger. (The movie of course does not begin to answer that, but its very existence raises the question -- and a good one it is.)

Prior to the African festival (BITS screens on opening day, April 7th at 5:45pm at the Walter Reade Theater and then at 3pm on Tuesday, April 13, also at the WRT), Trust Movies met with the film's co-director Cambria Matlow and with its co-producer Claire Weingarten to get a sense of how things had developed over the past three years.  At the end of the short interview, there is a time-line shown here that I asked Ms Matlow to provide regarding how the film, both during the editing process and after its completion, has been marketed. It offers a look at the film's progress, from it first partial screening until it's full festival screenings. DIY filmmakers will probably want to take note and perhaps apply some of this to their own projects....

We're walking along 27th Street in Manhattan toward a small and charming eatery/drinkery, the Antique Cafe, just east of 6th Avenue on 26th Street, as the film's producer notes:

Claire Weingarten (CW): It's funny, but each time the film screens, this seems somehow to lead to the next screening.

TrustMovies: That’s probably how it should be.

Cambria Matlow (CM) We’ve been doing this so long now that the first place we actually screened a part of the film – Magnetic Fields in Brooklyn -- has now closed down!

Earlier you mentioned that the rough cut was 96 minutes

CM: Yes -- maybe even 120 minutes long.

That’s longer than the movie itself, which is only – what, 82 minutes?  What were the first responses to the film like?

CM: They were all over the map. Certain viewers liked certain characters and wanted to know more about them but cared less about certain other characters. Our general reaction to this response was: We need to focus in on what is most important in the story and then run with it.

CW: Certain elements of the story confused people. How the project worked or how a character did certain things.

CM: By the time we showed it at Solar One, it was 82 minutes, but then, by the time of the Santa Barbara showing, though we had changed a number of small things, the film was still 82 minutes. The changes made the film run more smoothly and more understandably. It always seemed to function fine, from the rooftop Solar 1 showing onwards, and people have responded to it and understood its message. But its just flows better now.

I first saw a portion of BITS during its fourth go-round screening, a 20 minutes segment.  What was the response like to those early screenings?

CM: Some of our most important feedback came from our second editor Emily Paine, whom we brought on during the summer of 2009, before our rooftop screening. Her first comment -- and the most important feedback -- was for us to trust our material and not try to make anything fancy or to toss any big “drama thing” into it that did not otherwise naturally emerge from our story.

Had you done this -- I mean about the "big drama" thing?

CM: Yes, there were moments of “drama” we had in there that we then realized were not moving the story forward.

Your story is not terribly dramatic. But it is important; it’s different and it’s interesting. And it very au courant in its ecology and solar thing -- although Obama doesn’t seem to be leaning far enough in the solar direction.  So what else do you need?   You have it all, I think.

CW: Yeah—what is going on with Obama?!

CM: There were natural elements of drama within the context of the story and so we tried to give them their due.

Have you changed it at all since you began showing it in festivals?


Could you do that, if you suddenly wanted to?

We don’t even want to think about that! It’s changed already so many times, we just sort of have to let it go!

Earlier on, there was a question about Daniel’s not being able to get those pieces of solar panels at a cheaper price? Has that sorted itself out?

Basically, there is a wait-list to get these solar cells – because there is more demand than supply.

I would think this is true.

It is. And you have to have the right contacts to do this. He’s been working to solidify these contacts, and he has been making trips to Europe and meeting with the right people to get this done.

Because he has been trying to use these solar cells to help his village and his country, as well as to earn a living himself, this makes it easier for some people to deal with him, I would think.

Yes, this does help. Also I believe he has been manufacturing less but installing more. He can now buy some already-manufactured panels, and this allows him to concentrate on installation. The details of all this right now are fuzzy, so we can’t really say for sure. Daniel was actually invited to come to the African festival and be here for Q&As about the film. But then, at the last minute, two really big contracts for installation were solidified, and he simply could not give those up or postpone them to come over here. He had been working on these contracts for years and they finally came to fruition, and he hand to handle them in a timely fashion. He might come later in the year, if we have another New York screening. But he is definitely busier than ever right now.

This question – about what Daniel is doing currently – must come up every time you screen the film, I would imagine?

Yes, it does. So we have to keep up with what is going on with him.

When I first saw the film, I was so taken with the idea of how easy it was to install these solar panels, and consequently why, given this ease and general affordability, our country has not embraced solar energy in a much bigger way? Do you get this reaction from others, as well?

CM: I love it when people say that and get inspired by something that is happening in a mud-hut village in West Africa. And then they ask, Why are we not doing this?!   Also it has to do with the fact the Daniel is getting these broken cells and that this is being done on a very small scale: for instance two panels powering four light bulbs in a village.  And yet those light bulbs do amazing things for the people.

CW: We are hoping that Obama and his administration will look toward these green technologies. Because it will be harder, otherwise. This is not lucrative right now for large companies to invest in, so it needs to be pushed. Daniel can get all the other supplies – from the aluminum to the glass and the silicon and wiring easily enough, but the solar cells are the hardest to get and the most expensive part. People here see this as so complicated and difficult, but it really is not.

CM: Also, I think that people over here see solar as something remote rather than accessible, and something for people who are really well-off. Which is rather ironic.

CW: Yes, given the scope of the movie, and what is accomplished in the way of solar energy in the film I think solar energy needs to be worked on in both places -- the first world and the third world. .

Your film makes it seem like it is actually easier to accomplish in the third world!

Yes -- it’s like how cell phone technology has been accepted in the third world. Here are people who have no electricity but they have cell phones. And they go to charge them via batteries that are miles and miles away!

When was the last time you were there and did any filming?

 (Photo above is of Ronen Landa, left, and musician Yacouba Sissoko, 
flanking director Cambria Matlow.)

We did all of our filming in 2005.

Wow—five year ago! But Daniel is still in business and still doing that work!

CW: With these developing countries, they have so little that any innovation there can be really exciting. Whereas here in the first world, we are harder to get moving. It’s hard to get us to change.

It’s funny: that we are the model for the rest of the world in some ways, yet we can be so lazy and destructive in other ways. What characters in your film, besides Daniel and his mom, are most popular?

Well Carolina Barreto Cajina -- everybody loves her! We were trying to get her to come here, too. She is the Nicaraguan woman who has impressed so many viewers by the fact that she knows more than most of the men in the movie.  She has spent a lot of time in the US and elsewhere, although Central America is her official home.

And the gray-haired fellow, Dr. Richard Komp.

Richard really lives in a different world. His house is entirely solar, and he powers his TV by riding a bicycle. He is traveling constantly. He's in Rwanda now, I think, and going to Mali soon.

Wow -- how old is he?

CW: In his 70s, I think. And he pushes himself very hard. But he really enjoys what he does.

CM: One thing I’d like to say: regarding the characters in the movie. Between Carolina and Daniel’s mother, and one other woman who is a teacher in the village, I think there is a kind of secret feminist statement to the film. Our main character is a guy, but there is an extraordinarily strong woman standing behind him

Yes, his mother is clearly very important to him. You can certainly see from where Daniel gets his abilities and energy!  While I've got you, is there anything else you’d like to say.

CM: Well, the film is showing now at an African festival, and it has also been shown in Sedona as part of a "green" series. It is also now part of the FSLC Green Screens. In fact, with the FSLC, this was a joint presentation between the African fest and Green Screens.

Either way the film can be labeled as an African film or as an enviromental film; I’d like it to see both demographics come together in some way. I think FSLC did a good job of this.

Well, this is first of all a documentary. And for people who love documentaries, this is a very good one to see. I view so many more docs now that I have my blog, and I feel I am being educated in a way I have not been before. I am aware that every filmmaker wants to get at “the truth” in these docs. But yours really does this. And without any special pleading or preaching.  I think you were wise to leave out the "drama" part and just concentrate on the story at hand. And I can’t see how anyone could accuse you of not getting at the truth here, because you have.

We hope so. Just going with the simple story and allowing viewers to take what they want from it and try not to be too dogmatic or try to tell you what to think. At the beginning we wanted to make a movie about every character: they were all so interesting. But finally we had to focus on Daniel's journey as our main event.

Daniel and his work are certainly the main story.   
(The above photo shows Yacouba Sissoko, who did the 
kora -- the instrument pictured --solos for the film's score.)

Following is a kind of marketing time-line of 
where-and-when for Cambria's, Morgan's and Claire's movie. 
TrustMovies thinks that this might be of special interest 
to other DIY documentary filmmakers.  You'll see 
from the below info that all angles to the documentary 
were explored from a marketing aspect: 
the  environment, ecology, solar, business
Black entrepreneurship and -- of course -- Africa.

October 2007
Private Rough Cut (96 min) Feedback screening for 30 friends at Magnetic Fields (now defunct) in Brooklyn, NY

December 2007
Private Rough Cut (96 min) Feedback screening for 10 industry professionals

May 2008
IFP Documentary Rough Cut Lab
10 min. Scene Selections for a group of Doc Lab mentors and participants

September 2008
IFP Independent Film Week, ‘Spotlight on Docs’
20 min Scene Selections for a 20-person industry and peer group
3 min Scene for a public screening of Doc Lab participants at Solar One
3 min Scene for an industry group at Chelsea Clearview Theaters

December 2008
‘Story Leads to Action’ screening at 92Y Tribeca with Chicken & Egg Pictures and Working Films
20 min. Scene Selections for a public audience

Spring 2009
National Black Programming Consortium launches The Black Masculinity Project, which features a 10 min online version called Remix:Burning in the Sun

September 2009
WORLD PREMIERE at Rooftop Films Summer Series at Solar One, in conjunction with IFP Indendent Film Week, Featured IFP Lab Alumni screening
400 audience members attended (The cut was 82 min long)

February 2010
Official Selection, Santa Barbara Int’l Film Festival
Official Selection, Sedona Int’l Film Festival

April 2010
Official Selection, New York African Film Festival at Lincoln Center (co-presentation with Green Screens)

Upcoming Festivals:
Indie Spirit Film Festival, Santa Cruz Int’l Film Festival (NOMINATED for EarthVision Environmental Film Jury Award)

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