In progress: Amanda Micheli (left), Jeff Zimbalist (center) and Richard Levien (right, photo by Pat Mazzera) received SFFS/KRF Filmmaking grants in 2009 and are busy building their new social-issue feature films.

New Social Issue Dramas from Rainin Grant-Winners

Michael Fox November 24, 2009

For the great majority of the public, documentaries are still educational films while narrative features are "the movies."  It’s the rare fiction feature film that handles social justice themes without condescension and oversimplification. The San Francisco Film Society/Kenneth Rainin Foundation Filmmaking Grants were created to support the local development of lively and intelligent social-issue narrative films, with the hope of strengthening the San Francisco filmmaking community—and bringing more forward-thinking films by talented makers into general release. The grants, which run 2009-13, will be awarded in the spring and fall of each year and the total amount disbursed over these five years will be more than $3 million. The inaugural class for the $35,000 grants consists of Amanda Micheli and Jeff Zimbalist, Fall 2009, Richard Levien, Spring 2009. Here’s the scoop on their projects.

Richard Levien

La Migra
is the story of a 12-year-old girl whose mother has been arrested by the INS and designated for deportation. Alone and desperate, Alondra solicits the help of her prejudiced Caucasian teacher.  "She absolutely despises him initially," director Richard Levien explains.  "Through twists and turns he becomes the only person who can help her find her mom."

A white American character isn’t essential for box-office success, as Maria Full of Grace and Sin Nombre demonstrated, but Levien hopes to reach moviegoers outside the indie-film niche. "The teacher is hopefully the portal through which we can bring in a lot of that audience, especially the audience that may not be aware of the immigration detentions and deportations that are going on—and the effect that has on the families involved," he says. A New Zealand native with a PhD in theoretical physics, the East Bay filmmaker is nonetheless acutely aware of the pitfall of focusing too much on the teacher’s journey. "Part of my homework is watching a lot of movies about immigration, and there are some falling into that trap where immigration characters end up feeling like victims. An even worse thing is when the gringo character becomes the savior."

The SFFS/KRF grant enabled Malin Alegria, who grew up in the Mission and writes teen fiction with strong heroines, to devote a couple of months to penning two drafts of a screenplay based on her original idea. While the movie will be aimed primarily at adults, Alegria is simultaneously turning the story into a novel for her teenage readers. Levien is enjoying the rare pleasure of working with a professional writer, even if Alegria’s latest draft clocked in at 150 pages. "I think writing is by far the most important part of filmmaking," Levien asserts, "and probably my least favorite part.

Levien hopes to have the screenplay in a form by the end of January where he can bring in local script consultant Adam Keker, and sufficiently honed by the middle of 2010 to start raising money and attracting talent. Immigration is expected to be the focus of national debate next year, which should help the project’s prospects, presumably.

Levien’s haste, however, is fueled by a desire to be part of the conversation. "Without the grant we’d still be making this movie, but we’d be where we are now in six months’ time. We’ve accelerated our timeline, and that’s vital in a project like this."

Amanda Micheli

marks the first foray into fiction for award-winning doc maker Amanda Micheli (La Corona, Double Dare). "This all started while I was pitching nonfiction women’s sports stories to ESPN, and it just wasn’t clicking," Micheli recounted in a typically candid email.
"Everything I pitched them was too ‘fringe’ for their slate, but I also wasn’t quite ready to jump in and start shooting any of those projects on my own. Sometimes, with documentary development, you have a theme you want to explore but you aren’t able to access the perfect story out in the world. So I woke up one morning from a wacky dream and just started free-writing. I eventually puked out a treatment and received an honorable mention in the first application round for this grant. To know that people responded to that first treatment meant a lot, and I got a lot of good feedback."

centers on a 16-year-old who joins an all-girl rugby team over the objections of her father, a former pro linebacker struggling with debt and painkillers. Ruby’s pursuit of her own path tests their relationship in this San Francisco-set tale.

Micheli did a lot of work on the story, with help from screenwriter Tom Rickman (Coal Miner’s Daughter) at the Squaw Valley screenwriters’ workshop and support from producer Danielle Renfrew (Groove). “Now I have the luxury of going back to the screenplay form and taking it really seriously, like a job," Micheli writes.  "I need to cultivate more discipline as a writer, to be able to wrestle with the blank page. I swear, the last time I wrote fiction was probably in 6th grade, so these creative muscles are pretty atrophied."

"There are two communities that I’m trying to get to know better; retired NFL guys who struggle with life-long injuries—especially head injuries—and the Samoan community here, which is the backdrop to Ruby’s coming-of-age story," Micheli writes.  "Ruby comes to live with her father and is a fish out of water in a big urban high school. She finds this rugby team, which is mostly Pacific Islanders. Her dad doesn’t want her to play rugby because he’s terrified she’ll ‘go gay’ on him and he doesn’t want her to get hurt, as he did."

Micheli was a collegiate All-American and U.S. National Team player in rugby, though Tomboy draws more on her experience coaching Berkeley High’s girls team last year. "I think there’s a lot of commonality to what girls go through in high school—with their bodies, their sexuality, their confidence—and we see very little in the media that shows the experience of young female athletes in that situation. It’s been a long time since I was there, so I need to spend some time hanging with teenage girls, trying to understand what their world is like."

When Michele Turnure-Salleo, Director of Filmmaker Services at SFFS, called with the news that she’d won a Rainin award, Micheli blurted out, "F*** off! Are you serious?" (Rugby players wear their emotions on their sleeves.) After the initial excitement, Micheli refocused pretty quickly.

"The grant is a real confidence builder, both metaphorically and logistically," she writes. "I’m hoping to work with an experienced screenwriter as a consultant, to help me get a solid story outline, and then I’ll dive back into dialogue."

Jeff Zimbalist

The Scribe of Urab
å connects and contrasts the First World and the Third World through two women of different generations and resources but unexpectedly similar backgrounds. Spanish actress Ivana Baquero (the girl in Pan’s Labyrinth) is attached to play a rural Colombian teenager whose father, a union leader at the Coca-Cola plant, is murdered. Viola Davis (Oscar-nominated for Doubt) has signed on to play a PR exec at Coke’s Atlanta HQ.

Davis’ character came out of Atlanta’s slums with a single-minded drive to succeed, Zimbalist explains on the phone.  "Then she collides with a community put in great danger through oppression cont by her corporation. It reminds her of her own community and the social responsibility she’s been denying in order to rise through the ranks."

Like Micheli, Zimbalist made his name in documentaries (Favela Rising). In fact, he called during a layover in the Houston airport en route to Miami to film an interview for The Two Escobars, a doc commissioned by ESPN Films’ "30 for 30" series about the hidden relationship between Pablo’s Medellin drug cartel and Andres, a defenseman on the Colombian national soccer team who was murdered a week after the team lost a 1994 World Cup match on his crucial error.

The Scribe of Urab
å, which Zimbalist is writing and directing with his brother Michael, is an exceedingly ambitious picture. With higher stakes, though, it’s more important to cross over to a wider audience.

"This is a multi-million dollar movie," Zimbalist says. "We’re not going to get by on grants alone. We have to appeal to equity investors and the market, but we don’t have to compromise the political and social message. Instead, we create real emotional arcs for the characters and an emotional connection for the audience. A complex social or political idea becomes widely accessible and commercially viable when you show it through a character’s personal journey."

That doesn’t mean that the filmmakers plan to spoon-feed the audience. The Latin American sections, which begin filming next summer in Mexico or (believe it or not) Colombia, will be subtitled. Those sequences will be shot in documentary style, strictly limited to the camera angles and access that a crew would have had if it were present when the events happened. "This is as far to the documentary side as you can get with fiction," Zimbalist declares. 'Is this a documentary or is this fiction?' audiences will be asking during these sections of the movie. (If this sounds like the work of a certain British director, Zimbalist concurs that the approach is "very Michael Winterbottom.")

This is not grit for grit’s sake, for the filmmakers have thought out the Atlanta scenes just as thoroughly. "On the U.S. side we would have more access, and the production values will be higher and the aesthetic a little cleaner," Zimbalist explains. "The collision of the two worlds will also be a collision of two distinct aesthetics."

If you’re wondering how a $35,000 award can help The Scribe of Urabå, or why a project with access and appeal to international funding sources should receive a SFFS/KRG grant, Zimbalist has your answer.

The contribution of a grant is sometimes better measured by timing than quantity," he says. In this case, money has been promised from several corners but is not available until the entire budget has been raised. Along with credibility, the grant "represents money we’ll have available to travel to markets in Europe and South America and meet with partners."

Bringing us full circle, Zimbalist acknowledges both the integrity of indie films and the desire to make films about matters of substance that will be widely seen. "This shows that the Rainin awards aren’t just for daring projects but for projects that have a real potential to rise above the pack and reach a mass audience."

Notes from the Underground

The Bay Area documentary film community is unusually though deservedly well-represented with three titles on the shortlist of 15 for the Academy Award nominations for Best Feature Documentary—Andy Abraham Wilson’s Under Our Skin, Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich’s The Most Dangerous Man in the World: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, and Bill Guttentag’s Soundtrack for a Revolution. ... In the category of Animated Short, Pixar’s Partly Cloudy, directed by Peter Sohn, made the shortlist of 10. ... Esteemed local critic David Thomson has been tapped to program a 40-film retrospective at the Berlinale in February marking the Berlin Film Festival’s 60th anniversary.

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