Film­maker’s in­stinct led to Academy Award nom­i­na­tions

The Canadian Jewish News (Toronto) - - Film - JOR­DAN ADLER SPE­CIAL TO THE CJN

In 2009, a bud­ding film­maker en­tered the of­fices of Kan­doo Films, a Sher­man Oaks-based com­pany that spe­cial­ized in we­bisodes and promo cam­paigns for tele­vi­sion net­works. She came with a screen­play, and her name was Ava Du­ver­nay.

As Howard Bar­ish, the founder and pres­i­dent of Kan­doo Films, re­calls, Du­ver­nay was pas­sion­ate and ar­tic­u­late in their meet­ing. “She walked into my of­fice, say­ing, ‘I’ve seen that you own trucks and cam­eras and lights. You have ev­ery­thing to make a movie.’

“I wrote a script that I want to di­rect. Would you like to col­lab­o­rate and help me pro­duce it?”

Bar­ish, who grew up in Toronto and had not worked on fea­ture films since var­i­ous as­sis­tant di­rec­tor jobs in the 1980s and early 1990s, says he ini­tially hes­i­tated. Then, he read the script. It was a stir­ring drama about a black wo­man deal­ing with her hus­band’s in­car­cer­a­tion, called Mid­dle of Nowhere.

Four years later, Mid­dle of Nowhere had its world pre­miere at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val. Du­ver­nay won the fes­ti­val’s di­rect­ing award – and soon be­came one of the most in-de­mand film­mak­ers in Hol­ly­wood.

Du­ver­nay and Bar­ish’s long­time col­lab­o­ra­tion could reach a peak on Os­car night, Feb. 26, if they tri­umph in the Best Doc­u­men­tary Fea­ture cat­e­gory for 13th. Both re­ceived their first Academy Award nom­i­na­tions for the film, along­side co-pro­ducer and edi­tor Spencer Av­er­ick.

The 100-minute film, re­leased on Net­flix in Oc­to­ber, ex­am­ines the U.S. prison-in­dus­trial com­plex and the in­sti­tu­tional racism that has led to an ex­cep­tion­ally high in­car­cer­a­tion rate for black Amer­i­cans. The film ex­plores the fact that one in three African-amer­i­can men will go to prison in his life­time.

Its ti­tle refers to the Thir­teenth Amend­ment, which abol­ished slav­ery – un­less it is a pun­ish­ment for crime. The doc­u­men­tary makes con­nec­tions be­tween that dark time in Amer­i­can his­tory and con­tem­po­rary race re­la­tions.

Bar­ish says that work­ing on the film was a stag­ger­ing learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. He re­calls one of the more shock­ing sta­tis­tics 13th presents: 97 per cent of in­car­cer­ated Amer­i­cans with fed­eral cases never went to trial. Due to plea bar­gains, a large num­ber of in­no­cent peo­ple gave away the right for a trial and are stuck be­hind bars.

“The num­bers are crazy,” he tells The CJN. “We’ve got 2.3 mil­lion peo­ple lit­er­ally liv­ing in cages. There’s hun­dreds and hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple that are wrongly im­pris­oned for long pe­ri­ods of time.”

The doc­u­men­tary struck a chord with crit­ics and au­di­ences. In Septem­ber, it be­came the first non-fic­tion film in his­tory to open the New York Film Fes­ti­val. Re­cently, Oprah Win­frey sat down with Du­ver­nay for a half-hour in­ter­view about the film, which one can also see on Net­flix.

Mean­while, a se­quence from 13th that shows black Amer­i­cans be­ing kicked out of Don­ald Trump ral­lies, along with archival footage of sim­i­lar ha­rass­ments dur­ing the civil rights era, has spread widely across the In­ter­net.

Bar­ish says the film should en­dure be­cause of its strik­ing rel­e­vancy in the 21st cen­tury as well as its ed­u­ca­tional con­tent. Since 13th’s pre­miere, he says he has re­ceived dozens of emails ev­ery week from schools and or­ga­ni­za­tions ask­ing to screen the film.

“Col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties… have em­braced this [film], and some of them are putting it into their cur­ricu­lum now,” Bar­ish says. “I would like to see it as manda­tory view­ing for ev­ery stu­dent in this coun­try.”

To­day, when they aren’t pro­mot­ing 13th or pre­par­ing for the 89th an­nual Academy Awards, Du­ver­nay and Bar­ish are busy with new projects.

Du­ver­nay is cur­rently di­rect­ing an adap­ta­tion of Madeleine L’en­gle’s A Wrin­kle in Time for Dis­ney, which is due in theatres in April 2018. (With that film, she be­came the third wo­man in his­tory to helm a fea­ture with a bud­get of at least $100 mil­lion.)

Mean­while, Bar­ish and his creative team at Kan­doo Films are do­ing what they can to sup­port emerg­ing film­mak­ers – not un­like the chance Bar­ish took with Mid­dle of Nowhere.

The Kan­doo Films Fund is try­ing to make six to eight low-bud­get films from rookie directors, over a two-year pe­riod. Two of those projects – Skin in the Game, which is about hu­man traf­fick­ing, and Lit­tle Star – are cur­rently in post-pro­duc­tion, and a third is slated to be­gin film­ing in the spring.

“We’re tack­ling sub­ject mat­ters that need to be brought to light,” Bar­ish says. “I think the most ex­cit­ing part for me is that these are new voices.

“I was very lucky. There were a hand­ful of peo­ple who helped me along the way. Now I have the op­por­tu­nity to help younger artists and pas­sion­ate film­mak­ers, and why not?”

Howard Bar­ish

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