Filmmakers find the truth working with youth
“Generation Wealth,” part of the Documentary Premieres, will screen on Saturday, Jan. 27 at 6 p.m. at the Sundance Resort. “America to Me” has finished its run of screenings.
Filmmakers Lauren Greenfield and Steve James, whose documentaries “Generation Wealth” and “America to Me” are part of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival lineup, shared their views of race, class and wealth during a Cinema Cafe panel discussion on Thursday at the Filmmaker Lodge.
The panel was moderated by the festival’s senior programmer Carline Libresco, who said the filmmakers are “keen observers of America.”
The way the two get to the roots of their stories is by interviewing the youth, said Greenfield, whose “Generation Wealth” opened the documentary premiere program. “One of the things I love … is that they are much more honest and transparent of what they see around them,” she said. “They don’t hide anything with political correctness or hide in layers of worrying how they are going to sound.”
That was part of the angle for “America to Me,” a 10-part work that debuted in the inaugural indie episodic category.
“We set about to do an extremely comprehensive documentary of a year in the life of this school, particularly of mostly kids of color, biracial kids and white kids, because we wanted to film everything,” James said.
While their filmmaking styles may differ, Greenfield and James are on missions to find the truth.
“What I try to do in my work is to deconstruct the culture and connect the dots with things we take for granted at times,” Greenfield said. “During the financial crash in 2008, I started rethinking the stories I covered with my photography before I became a filmmaker.”
Her thought drifted to gender, youth culture, cult of celebrity and the excess of the American culture.
“With the perspective of the crash, Greenfield reexamined her work, which included her films and more than 10,000 slides.
“When I went back to the outtakes, I found a picture of Kim Kardashian when she was 12 at a party,” Greenfield said. “She was somebody who was unremarkable, but had become such a cultural touchstone for my work from the aspirational side and that their family became the mode of comparison for everybody from seeing them on TV.”
The filmmaker, who won the U.S. Documentary Directing Award for her previous film “Queen of Versailles” in 2012, also began filming subjects whom she covered in the past in the course of shooting “Generation Wealth..”
“Some of the kids who I started with in the ‘90s, are now in their 40s and are parents,” she said.
That shifted Greenfield’s perspective.
“So I started looking at aging,” she said. “I became a parent, so I started taking things from the parent point of view. This was kind of growing up literally for me.”
While Greenfield’s work examines the trappings of wealth and class, James’ work digs deep to the country’s racial divide, even in a place that is seemingly diverse and accepting.
“America to Me,” which was recently acquired by STARZ, was the result of a one-year shoot at Forest High School, one of Chicago’s most progressive public high schools, located in Oak Park, Illinois.
“I had the idea of doing a film in the neighborhood where we lived,” James said. “It has interesting history from going from being a heavily, all-white Republican suburb to a very liberal, diverse suburb today.”
The filmmaker noticed the integrated neighborhood still showed some racial inequities.
“Despite its liberal community and despite its diversity and well funded high school the community has been failing its black students for decades,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting to go into a place like that.”
James, who is known for his award-winning documentaries “Hoop Dreams” and “Interrupters,” mentioned his desire to make a film about the school to a local Chicago newspaperand one of the teachers contacted him.
The teacher said there would be a way to do the film because the school board would put it to a vote.
“The school board voted over the objection of the school district superintendent and let us in for over a year,” James said.
He recruited a team of filmmakers including Rebecca Parrish, Kevin Shaw and Bing Liu to help him tell the story.
“When we do films of people of color, we often tell stories of extreme deprivation or violence,” James said. “I felt it was important for me as a filmmaker to tell different stories, because a lot of people in the black community feel [many] stories are so singular and limited.”
As a result of both films, the filmmakers feel a sense of pessimism and optimism regarding the climate of the country.
“The part that makes me pessimistic about race relations in this country is that we have a president who seems clearly to be racist and overtly so,” James said. “What I find hopeful is that it seems to me the depth of the conversation around race and terms around white privilege, that there is much more awareness. It’s not enough to be not racist, but to be anti-racist. I see hope in that. I don’t think talking about it is going to solve it. People need to put money where their mouths are.”
“I found the hope in ‘Generation Wealth’ is that when we hit rock bottom, there is a possibility for change and agency,” Greenfield said. “I feel like in the way the Trumpian era is a rock bottom of sorts. Women and people of color are waking up in a different way to what’s always been there and realize how dramatic and urgent it is, and inspiring more action.”
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