In July, acclaimed Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, Mississippi Masala) unveiled her latest project: a film lab for aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters from East Africa and South Asia. Built on the Sundance Film Institute model, MAISHA—which means “zest for life” in Kiswahili—will hold its first session in August 2005 in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda in northeast Africa.
For Nair, who has split her time between Kampala and New York City since 1989, MAISHA represents a dream-come-true. “I began thinking of the project in a latent way many years ago,” she says, adding that she was inspired by her own experience as a mentor at the Sundance Institute. And she knew from the beginning that Kampala would be the lab’s home base. “There’s an extremely vibrant theater tradition and a refined writing tradition here, but there are no opportunities for filmmakers,” she says. “This will be the first time in the entire [history of the] continent when something like this exists.” Nair chose to include South Asia for what she sees as a burgeoning dialog between the two regions. “There is a very exciting synergy between East Africa and South Asia,” she says. “And that synergy is something we are hoping to build upon.”
Nair envisions the lab as a kind of artists’ colony and has chosen as its site her own land in Kampala, which sits on the northwest side of Lake Victoria, the second largest body of fresh water in the world, just north of the equator. While the first lab will focus exclusively on screenwriting, subsequent sessions will include directing in the curriculum as well. Still, MAISHA will not be a production studio: “We’re not going to produce movies,” she says, “but we want to develop a community.”
Twelve screenwriters, twelve directors, and eight mentors will comprise the annual two-three week sessions, which are to be held in August each year. To be admitted, applicants must submit a first draft of either a screenplay or a treatment, which will then be reviewed by professional filmmakers, writers, and teachers from Africa, Asia, and New York. Accepted students will attend the lab for free. Of selecting the mentors—also professional filmmakers and writers—Nair says the only trouble she’s had so far is the high demand: “Everyone is keen to come,” she says. “We just have to make sure we space them out well.”
Nair and her husband are funding the lab’s construction independently, while other expenses will be covered by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Soros Open Society Institute, and a few private donors. Additionally, HBO will offer a $10,000 cash prize for the best screenplay to come out of the lab each year.
For Nair, who has juggled MAISHA’s development with the much-anticipated release of her latest film, Vanity Fair (in September), the film lab is more than an opportunity to give something back. “Within five years I hope to make at least one brilliantly told story that’s ready for the world to see,” she says. “Because [if people in Africa and South Asia] don’t tell their own stories, no one else will. We all know the power of seeing our dreams and our struggles on the screen, but we also know the cultural imperialism of Hollywood and seeing the same tales again and again. [MAISHA] is a way to counteract that and tell the stories that might not get told otherwise. And maybe then George Bush will know that Africa is a continent, and not a country.”
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John Kerry Doc Hits US Theaters
John Kerry’s campaign gets a boost this month with the release of Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry, a feature-length documentary directed by the presidential candidate’s longtime friend George Butler. The film, which premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, tracks Kerry’s life from his Naval tour in Vietnam, through his efforts to help the peace movement, and up to the present day.
Butler’s previous work includes Pumping Iron (1977), a quasi-doc about bodybuilders, and Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (2000), a retelling of an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1914. “George Butler is a master storyteller and nobody creates cinematic portraits of daring men at pivotal points in their lives like he can,” said Mark Urman, head of US theatrical distribution for THINKfilm, in a prepared statement.
Going Upriver will be released in select theaters in the US on October 1.
Independent doc airs on NBC
Deadline, an independently produced documentary that premiered for the public on NBC in July, will screen this month and next at select festivals, theaters, and other venues in the US and abroad. A joint project by New York filmmakers Kirsten Johnson and Katy Chevigny, Deadline takes viewers inside hearings held in January 2003 by the former governor of Illinois, George Ryan, during his final three days in office, at which he granted clemency to the 167 inmates then facing execution in that state. What’s more, Deadline became the first independent documentary the network has ever aired when it showed the film on Dateline, thanks to a fortuitous encounter between the film’s directors and Bob Wright, chairman and CEO of NBC Universal.
In January this year Wright approached Johnson and Chevigny after seeing the film at the Sundance documentary competition, shocking everyone involved in making the film. “The project has definitely exceeded my wildest dreams from when we started it [three years ago],” says Angela Tucker, Deadline’s associate producer and the outreach coordinator for New York-based Big Mouth Productions. Johnson agrees, adding that the network did not try to hamper their vision. “We were remarkably pleased with how smoothly it went collaborating with NBC. We had control over the presentation of the film, and it still functions as a film within the television context.”
While showing the film on NBC was a great boon, it does not change the filmmakers’ original distribution plans. Between now and late November Deadline is slated for the International Film Festival of Human Rights in Barcelona, a UN-sponsored film festival at Stanford University, and the Stockholm International Film Festival, to name just a few. Tucker also says they intend to target colleges and theaters in New York, North Carolina, Illinois, New Mexico, Tennessee, New Jersey, and Maryland, key swing states, in which legislation regarding the death penalty is currently pending. Second tier target states include Texas and Florida, where Tucker says the death penalty has “existed for a very long time.”
The film’s inspiration goes back to 1972, when the Supreme Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional. Four years later, in 1976, the ruling was reversed, letting state governments decide for themselves whether to allow the death penalty or not. And when journalism students at Northwestern University proved in 1999 that an Illinois man had been wrongfully convicted, thus freeing him from death row, the death penalty once again became a hot topic.
“We’re interested in the complexity of the criminal justice system,” Johnson says. “And the high stakes of the death penalty make [that issue] one that inspires people to pay more attention than they might to other issues. It’s a good way to get into matters of race, class, misconduct of police, etcetera.” She adds that the former governor proved to be an ideal subject. “We structured the film around putting the spectator in Governor Ryan’s shoes, and that’s certainly not where we started out.” (Ryan had supported the death penalty until this last-minute decision to grant clemency.) “He’s an unlikely protagonist,” Johnson says, “but he was open minded about what was happening in his state, and I’m personally very impressed with his decision to step up to the plate. He really did something that was remarkably significant.”
Other initiatives to create a buzz around the film include an interactive website and viewing parties around the country sponsored by The Ford and JET Foundations, both of which are helping to fund the project, augmenting the film’s largest production grant, from the National Endowment for the Arts.
MoMA presents “Music and Media: Laurie Anderson, Michel Gondry, and Brian Eno”
The Museum of Modern Art partners with the CUNY Graduate Center and NYU in September and October to present “Music and Media,” a three-part performance and discussion series between six world-renowned media artists and writers. Multi-media performance artist Laurie Anderson kicked off the event on September 23 with playwright/actor Wallace Shawn at the Graduate Center’s Proshansky Auditorium, at Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan. September 30 featured music video and film director Michel Gondry (Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Village Voice film critic Ed Halter. Experimental sound rock denizen Brian Eno and filmmaker/writer Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine, Far From Heaven) will close the series on October 7.
Each evening follows the same format: the artists either perform or screen a sample of their work, followed by a discussion with whomever they are paired. “The idea was to get a dialog going between [media art] pioneers and writers who are also artists,” says Laurence Kardish, senior curator, department of film and video at MoMA. The event was conceived and planned by Barbara London, MoMA’s associate curator of film and video, with help from Kardish and other staff members. Because London could not be reached for an interview, Kardish speaks on her behalf. “I think she chose pioneers from the field,” he says, adding that she wanted the artists to be at once accomplished and on the vanguard of their respective media. The writers were chosen both for their artistic inclinations and their literary prowess.
“Music and Media” was funded entirely by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1999 for a program about digital technology and music. London postponed the project when the museum moved to its temporary location in Queens in June 2002, because that space did not feature a sufficient theater for the event. As such, MoMA has used the Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan for many of its film and video exhibitions since 2002. Because MoMA QNS, as the interim space is known, closes on September 20 and the new Manhattan space will not open until November 27, “Music and Media” helps bridge what Kardish calls the “dark period” between those dates. Still, the museum does not have other film and video projects slated until after it opens its new doors on 57th Street next month.