g The Film Panel Notetaker: "Off and Running" Opening Weekend Q&A - Jan. 30, 2010

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Off and Running" Opening Weekend Q&A - Jan. 30, 2010

Opening Weekend Theatrical Release
Q&A after 4:05pm screening with Director Nicole Opper and others
January 30, 2010
New York, NY

(L to R: Rita Taddonio, Nicole Opper & Sharese Bullock. Photo by Brian Geldin.)

It has been over a year since Nicole Opper’s documentary “Off and Running" was brought to my attention. I had first learned of it through DocuClub, where Opper screened a work-in-progress version, but I couldn’t make it to that screening. A few months later, I was excited to learn that it would premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, but because of my own publicist duties on another film, Danae Elon’s “Partly Private” (which also coincidentally showed a work-in-progress at DocuClub) that was premiering there, my schedule was full, and therefore I missed “Off and Running” again. Now with the theatrical release of the film at IFC Center this week, I finally got my chance to watch this wonderful film. I asked Opper after the screening how much her film had changed since she screened her rough cut at DocuClub. She told me that the changes were pretty radical. “Being there that evening felt a little messy, loud and complicated,” she said. Fernanda Rossi was the moderator asking a lot of questions asking for their vote, which was split 50/50.  Where it became really useful for Opper was when people would call or write to her independently with notes and feedback, which was worked into future cuts. There were entire scenes that were cut and the chronology changed quite a bit, focusing it more with Avery’s voiceover. And by the way, Opper's new fantastic boots she wore to the screening yesterday only cost $50, marked down from $165. I love it when filmmakers reveal these things, ie. “Burma VJ” co-editor Thomas Papapetros’ reason for the film’s lucky winning streak as revealed to me after this year’s Cinema Eye Honors…Keep’em coming :)

In "Off and Running," Opper shows a complex and layered story of Avery, an African-American high school student and track & field champion in Brooklyn, adopted by two white Jewish lesbian moms with two other adopted multi-ethnic brothers. Avery seems to have a very happy life, but wants to meet her biological mother. When she finally discovers her roots, her attempts to reach out to her birth mother don't go as planned, and Opper sensitively shows Avery's heartbreak and struggle as she comes of age.

The Q&A with Opper along with producer Sharese Bullock was moderated by Rita Taddonio, Director of Spence-Chapin's Adoption Resource Center, one of the many organizations that "Off and Running" has teamed up with to bring awareness of adoption.  Avery, who was at a track meet that day, couldn’t make it to the Q&A, but was there at the sold-out Opening Night screening the night before. Before asking questions, Taddanio said the reason she loved the film is that it shows how a group of people who aren’t biologically related can be a family, being bonded by love and commitment, growing pains, laughter and sadness and have that intimate relationship that makes a family. It was also realistic to her in its portrayal of struggle for identity and showing other people’s stories, not just Avery’s, but her brother and her friends, too. She added that those who are adopted cannot be classified, as some people search for their biological families, and some do not.  Some who search have a great reunion, and some are disappointed. Some relationships are rocky, and others are great. Every adoptee she knows wants to know information on where they came from.

Taddonio’s first question to Opper was, what made her choose this topic and what challenges, if any, were there in making the film? Opper said she didn’t begin with the topic of adoption. When she met Avery a few years earlier, she was teaching a class in filmmaking that Avery was in. They had talked a lot, and she was struck by Avery’s charisma and willingness to open up. Bullock answered, saying that working around a 16-year-old’s schedule that every parent of a teenager can understand is keeping up with the changes. One of the incidental changes was how Avery’s hair kept changing, which was a challenge in the editing process, but more seriously, a bigger challenge as a producer was sticking to the collaboration in the toughest times listening to some really painful moments for everybody involved, sitting inside and outside of that experience.  “We think it’s challenging, but it’s her (Avery’s) life,” Bullock said.

From the audience, the questions of what the timeframe of shooting was, and what exactly did Opper envision the story would become, were asked. Opper said she filmed Avery from the ages of 16 through 19, and she was surprised at every turn. When she began filming, she saw that things weren’t all peachy and they talked a lot. At the same time, she was just getting to know about Avery’s family background. In the beginning, she saw a portrait of a multi-ethnic family and didn’t quite know what the conflict would be, but she imagined that it would be about the discrimination they would face as a family, but that didn’t become the focus.  It turned into something more complicated.

In the film, there’s a long stretch of time between filming where we don’t see some of Avery's personal struggles and isolation, so a question posed by someone in the audience was, what happened to Avery during that time? Bullock said they relied on their practice as media educators, and not just filmmakers, to tell Avery’s story and to be aware of all boundaries and sensitivities. While Avery wasn’t there at this screening to speak for herself, Bullock said that Avery has said in many screenings before that her involvement in the project is part of her development. This journey of telling her story is part of getting through those tougher times. The question for any teenager coming of age is, how does the filmmaker play the support role, but also respect the journey? Opper added that while they didn’t film during that break, she had been in touch with Avery by phone every once in a while, and Avery also had a huge support network from her friends to her track team members and others.

Taddanio asked if they could elaborate on what some of things that might have got Avery through her journey? Bullock said it was due in fact to Opper’s existing relationship with Avery, because she was her teacher first before she documented her life, and there was a trust. Avery’s vulnerability and sense of self unfolded for all of them.

The final question that was more of a comment and opinion rather than a question raised by a man in the audience that caused a bit of a stir from the rest of the audience. He said he was troubled with the issue of privacy, and how could Avery who was only a teenager at the time, give her consent to allow them to intrude on her intimate family life? Doesn’t this present an ethical question, he asked. Opper said it was a conversation she had with Avery all the time, because it mattered deeply to her. Bullock said she appreciated this man’s comments and his point of view, but from their perspective as filmmakers as well as Avery and her family, this film was made to help other families like their own.  The audience clapped. “That’s the greater value of this opportunity,” Bullock said. Taddanio added that this is a very thoughtful film and there are a lot of courageous people out there who are willing to tell their stories so younger adopted people who are going through this search for identity will be able to discuss it. “We’re grateful to you and to the family and their courage,” Taddonio said.

“Off & Running” continues to play at IFC Center throughout the rest of this week, and is slated to air on the PBS Series, “POV” later this year.

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