Michèle Stephenson & Joe Brewster

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Joe Brewster & Michèle Stephenson

CEFF’s version of the Proust questionnaire

1. What is your favorite movie theater and why?
Joe Brewster: My favorite one is BAM, Brooklyn Academy of Music, because its right down the street and it’s my local independent cinema. They have the best popcorn and it is a 5 minute walk from home. We don’t go to the cinema anymore that much, we’ve got Netflix in the house.
Michèle Stephenson: Yeah, I think BAM is a good choice, I can’t really think of anything else…

2. Your favorite movie rant.
 I saw it really recently, it’s a scene in a barber shop from the 1966 documentary “A Time for Burning”, by Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell, where a black barber is arguing to a white episcopal preacher about the toxic nature of religion. He’s cutting a child’s hair, so while he talks the scissors are flying around the boy’s head, in a very quiet and peaceful way but the white man is just sweating, there is a lot of intensity.
JB: Every movie worth watching has a rant, I think, a confrontation where the protagonist tries to speak the truth.

3. The death scene you will never forget.
 We watch a lot of television so I’ll go with the Red Wedding in “Game of Thrones”, I like that one.
MS: Can I get back to you on that one? I’m trying to think of scenes where I cried.

 4. The first movie poster that you hung on your walls.
 I don’t know about the first, but I can tell you the one I’m most proud of, a poster of “Mother India”. I got it in a secluded place in a bazaar in Mumbai. I still have it in my bedroom.
JB: It was a film that I made, called “The Keeper”. It’s twenty years old, but for me it kind of meant that I was with the big boys, even though we’ve never been with the big boys. it was exciting to see my name on a movie poster.

5. What movie character do you identify with the most?
 I think “Mookie”, the part played by Spike Lee in his own film “Do The Right Thing”.
MS: While I can’t say I identify with her – she is too much of an icon for me to even dare think that – I admire Angela Davis, her character, her eloquence, her life-experience and her world view. And it came out most recently while watching the documentary “Black Power Mixtape” by Göran Olsson. There’s never-seen before footage of her that just adds layers to her personality that made me be even more in awe of her courage.


6. Which look to camera struck you the most?
 I love Spike Lee’s interstitials like in “She’s Gotta Have It”, there is an interstitial between scenes and the guys just talk to the camera, one after the other about women, with one or two liners. It was so fresh and creative at the time for Black voices in film. Now it’s really common on TV with “The Office”, “Modern Family” or “Parks And Recreation”.


7. What movie made you travel the most?



8. If you had to live in a film, you would choose…
 That’s the more interesting question of them all because to make a good film, you don’t make them an oasis. The oasis becomes horrific, a horror movie. Great movies have great obstacles: do I want to deal with these obstacles in my life? Not really. Listen, I’m staying right here. You want to go somewhere?
MS: I’m thinking if there’s any futuristic world I would want to explore but those are always dystopic.
JB: Some movies reveal the characters in interesting ways though, and the main character dies but the world is not so bad. I remember “Paris Is Burning”, a documentary about voguing. That’s not a world that’s going to hurt you. I wouldn’t mind being there.
MS: The “Black Orpheus” world, I wouldn’t mind living in that one – even though you can’t escape death.


9. The movie that scared you the most.
 I think “Carrie” really stuck with me the most. With “Halloween” coming second.
JB: You’re young, I remember going to the movies as a kid and seeing “The Exorcist”.
MS: I wasn’t allowed to see it, I saw it really later. “Rosemary’s Baby” also really got under my skin. I won’t watch the remake just to avoid being in that space and atmosphere.
JB: I saw an interesting film by Luis Buñuel once, called “The Exterminating Angel” and it really scared me: it was a dinner party and the guests are having a conversation, living their lives and they realize they cannot leave the room. I used to like the “Twilight Zone” when it came out, but I can’t watch it anymore, it’s no longer plausible.
MS: One of the first movies by M. Night Shyamalan, the “Sixth Sense” was a masterpiece.


10. The movie that made you laugh the most.
JB: We’re a bit ashamed to admit it but we like the old buddy movies. There was a French one recently made, “The Untouchables”. The old Richard Pryor movies, but I would say “Blazing Saddles” by Mel Brooks. It really made me laugh out loud. And “Young Frankenstein” spoke to me also.

Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster are married and have two kids, Idris and Miles. Stephenson grew up in Haiti before fleeing the dictatorship of Papa Doc with her parents and coming to New York, then Quebec. She returned to New York, after graduating from McGill, to study Law at Columbia where she met Brewster, a Harvard- and Stanford-graduate in Psychiatry, who was studying Media. Stephenson had first worked in international development, a world she soon found did not correspond to her ideals of positive and concrete change. Both of them kept their day jobs, to pay for rent, groceries and tuition, all the while making films over the course of the following 20 years.

Their first two feature films were fiction, before they made a permanent move towards documentary. Their influences include such names as Raoul Peck, Mira Nair, Marlon Riggs, Claire Denis and Werner Herzog, from whom Brewster likes to borrow the quote “we can’t make films without living life”. Ken Loach, as well as Steve James, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, and the Dardenne brothers feature amongst their favorite filmmakers. The discrimination they had to face as young kids, Stephenson’s family in New York City and Canada and Brewster in Los Angeles, led them to a very specific documentary style. Their passion for vérité, observational filmmaking, requires, as Brewster says, “being comfortable with being uncomfortable”.

Their film “American Promise” is a documentary they spent 13 years shooting, documenting their eldest son’s (Idris) and his best friend’s (Seun) path from kindergarten to college in one of New York’s most prestigious private schools. For the directors, filmmaking is a way to push against stereotypes and assumptions about race, color and class. At some point in the movie the then young Idris asks his father, who’s holding the camera: “Wouldn’t I be better off if I were white?” Their film has fulfilled its mission, igniting conversations across the US and beyond, in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom that have long proclaimed the race issue was an American one. Now about to present the film in France, they intend to challenge the French on the subject of the “law that prevents you from ever having that conversation”, referring to France’s ban on statistics involving race or skin color on the basis of preventing racism.

Their film is as much about parenting as it is a coming of age story. Audiences perceive it in vastly different ways, depending on their personal baggage. Stephenson compares their creation to “a Rorschach test: people interpret it according to their personal experiences”. The backlash they’ve encountered with some spectators that find the filmmakers are putting the kids under too much scrutiny never ceases to baffle them. “When you show black kids in Africa or India it is OK, but when you move to American middle class it becomes an issue? Life in the projects is not the only reality of African-Americans” notes Brewster. They welcome criticism and perceive it as success: their goal was always for the audience to root for the boys, even if it meant turning themselves into the bad guys. “What people don’t seem to realize is that every image is there because we chose it to be, after lengthy conversations and a first cut that lasted 33 hours.” explains Stephenson.

“We knew from early on that we would have to be in the film”, explains Brewster, “but at first we did mostly interviews of ourselves. When the boys turned 12 we realized we had to go full vérité. And once we started focusing on the small things, letting the shooters film on their own with a loose framework of what we wanted, the results were amazing.” They credit this change in style with their sudden success with artistic grants and sponsorships that allowed the film to keep on being made. This change also meant playing a larger part in the film as characters: they decided to hire young male DPs that could easily connect with the boys in order for them to open up more easily on camera.

Their relation with the other starring family, the Summers, has evolved over the years of the making of the film: today they consider each other family, having been together through some very challenging life moments. This trust and love had to be gained though: they worked really hard to reassure the Summers, that the movie was not going to portray their son in a negative way or use him as a stooge. Over the 13 years, Stephenson and Brewster have a lot to remember: as parents they find themselves face to face with a constant reminder of how they raised their children. “Editing was hard”, admits Stephenson, “we had to come to terms with the fact that recording something meant it could not be altered by our selective memory.” The most fond memory she keeps from all this time, even though it didn’t make the final cut, is the graduation of her son.

Today Michèle Stephenson and Joe Brewster both live in Brooklyn, where they continue developing projects under their label “Rada Film Group”.


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