Joining us in The Green Room today is Joeann Calabrese.
Social issues are so important and run through all of your films, I’m guessing that you could have decided to make narrative films but what made you want to choose to make documentaries; was there a tipping point?
I find it a challenge to take real life stories/social issues and bring them into a construct people may enjoy watching/learning about and discussing with others – to hear other perspectives on an issue.
For “Gala’s Story” the opening line of your synopsis reads “Immigrants are welcome here”, I love that, and in particular in relation to the comments that we are all sadly familiar with from President Trump, how are you honestly feeling about the state of US politics leading to the end of next year’s election?
Trump’s rhetoric seems like an alternative universe to most Americans. (And remember he did not win the popular vote.) What concerns me, is how he is using his POTUS platform to spew hatred and some of his followers may see his words as an endorsement of racist and bullying behavior. For the election, I am confident people will go out and vote and not listen to the pundits this time. The shift in Congress during the mid-terms was very impactful -and inspiring! I honestly believe he will be a one-term POTUS.
How did the making of “Gala’s Story” film come about?
I met Gala at a social gathering and when I learned about her journey, I asked her if she wouldn’t mind talking into my camera. She agreed because she had been thinking about writing her story to share with her children in a way that would pass her story to future generations. She talked for 4 hours on camera. During post –production I realized I had captured something special and created the 56 minute version of the film which screened at the NYC Independent Film Festival in 2017. The documentary curator there was very supportive and therefore I decided to refine the film and create a shorter version in order to introduce Gala to a broader audience. The 31-minute film I submitted to your festival is a result of that effort.
The music is once again amazing for “Gala’s Story”, with the soundtrack by the legendary guitarist Gerry Leonard. Can you tell us how you present your film to Gerry and how he then builds the music around the film?
Gerry and I have been collaborating for years and we know each other’s styles. When I told him my plans for the film, he offered his Spooky Ghost (his solo act) songs, and given the subject of the film we both thought it would be worth a try. His guitar playing is beautiful – ambient, moody, spooky, hopeful. These attributes fit perfectly with Gala’s stories in the film.
When I listened to Gala I was struck by her strength which was so uplifting and also by her humour, is it hard not to be affected when you hear a story like this?
When Gala first shared her stories with me I laughed, I cried, I laughed. I wanted this film to be all about Gala. So, I asked her questions throughout the four-hour shoot to guide the conversation and probe…but I cut my voice out during post. It was the range of emotions in her stories that makes this a special film. Everyone who has seen it can remember at least one story that moved them.
The film runs to just over 30 minutes and I was wondering how much footage was actually shot, Gala was magnetic to listen to so how on earth did you hone this down (sorry that’s 2 questions!)
Ha ha, yes that is correct! I have 4 hours of footage which means I could turn this into a series at some point. As I mentioned, I first got it to 56 minutes, then 31. It was not easy but I needed to start somewhere and tried to prioritize the stories that I thought would resonate with most people yet show the diverse set of challenges she turned into opportunities.
With “This is Not The Time (Be A Human)” I just wanted to come back to the musical soundtrack again, because like “Gala’s Story” the music by Paul L. Mills aka Poez is fantastic, but here it’s different because the music is almost poetic in the way it tells the story, is that a fair way to describe it?
Yes, indeed. Paul started his career reciting poetry on the street and in cafes in Greenwich Village, NYC, in the late 1970s. He is a spoken-word artist and therefore his words are carefully chosen to tell a story, sometimes direct such as this song, and sometimes pure poetry. I love working with his material and we have made some interesting (and crazy!) films based on his spoken-word songs and compositions.
Can you explain what you were hoping to show with “This is Not The Time (Be A Human)”?
For this shorter version, honestly, I wanted to show the demonstrations on the street and encourage people to take part in our election because we can do better. We started change with the mid-terms because citizens got involved and now we have more balance in our political system than we had the first two years. We need to learn from our past, not revisit it, and some of the images in my film I hope, reinforce that message.
Did your background at MTV help to bring in Paul & Gerry to help collaborate?
Perhaps in an indirect way. Music was the core at everything I did while at MTV and has always been a character in my independent films – sometimes the lead character. Visual arts is my passion and when I met Gerry I started putting visual art objects together based on his music and worked very hard to learn how to put what I was seeing in my mind – inspired by his music – on the screen, as I had only worked briefly on the AVID at MTV before going to graduate school. I had a lot of catching up to do and wanted to make sure I was creating visuals at a professional level. Years later when I met Paul, I had some good examples to show him but it took a lot of hard work and it is something I work on every day.
For “This is Not The Time (Be A Human)” I believe that this is new cut, can you please let us know why it was decided to re-edit?
The first version was made during a time of acceptance that Trump won the election. I had some rough protest footage that was very anti-Trump but decided not to include it because, although I did not vote for him, I thought he deserved a chance to do great things as POTUS. As time when on, and things got much worse with his racist rhetoric – especially against our congresswomen- I felt I needed to go back to that footage and bring it into the film in a more direct and focused way. So, I asked Paul to edit the song to 4 minutes and I edited the visuals to be more direct/impactful.
I think we’ve spoken about this before, but how did you feel when you realised Trump had actually won the Presidential election, how did it affect those close to you?
It took some time for people to accept it because it was not only the fact that Trump was now POTUS, but also everyone was concerned about the election process – the electoral college, potential manipulation by social media bots, etc. Most people were thinking…how did that happen? I don’t think people trust this was a legit election. There were one or two extended family members who voted for him and we don’t talk about it, although my mother gave my cousin a very hard time about it. People deal with it their own way but at the end of the day we have to respect each other’s points of view because that is what our country is about, although TRUMP is trying to change that by publicly lashing anyone who disagrees with him.
You must be inundated with ideas, how do you choose which story to tell?
I have many ideas and I try to keep a sense of timing. Is this the right time for this topic? Does it feel like the right time? I also build things in objects and then put them on the shelf if the timing isn’t right, but I seem to always use them at some point.
Expanding on This Is Not The Time, I finished my first online storyboard and rough script for my film about the ethics of AI and hoping to bring on a team to help me produce the film/web series – of course all this depending on funding. I’m talking to a few publishers about turning Gala’s Story into a book. Also, the New York State Film Festival has transcribed by my two films discussed here into Chinese for our screening at the Beijing film festival, which we are very excited about.