Filmmaker’s instinct led to Academy Award nominations
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?”