The White Picket Fence Project, a feature documentary co-produced by South African company Gathered Moss Productions, US-based Silverwood Films (Blue Valentine, Half Nelson) and UK-based T for 2 Films, has won the RIIFF International Ambassador Award at the 2012 Rhode Island International Film Festival in the US.
The film, which was part of the official selection list, was also chosen to be included in the conference FUTURE FILMMAKING: Digital Documentary Bridging Cultures, with the filmmakers in attendance. The project was seven years in the making and was directed by Marla Altschuler (T for 2 Films) and local director/producer Tamarin Kaplan (Gathered Moss Productions).
The White Picket Fence Project is a coming of age documentary that follows the lives of two young men striving for a brighter future – Valon, of Roma (“Gypsy’) descent, living in post-war Kosovo and Loyiso, a student living in Gugulethu, a township in South Africa. Although they live worlds apart, Loyiso and Valon share the experience of growing up in countries that have endured turbulent histories of racial and ethnic conflict and oppression. They are connected by ambition, hope and a quest for an education that will open doors to opportunities that we all take for granted, despite the cards they were dealt. Filmed over seven years, they document their own journey through video diaries, interviews and “slice of life’ portrayals. Full of unexpected and inspiring moments, this is their story, in their own words, of their journey into manhood.
The filmmakers, Marla Altschuler and Tamarin Kaplan, came together from different creative backgrounds. Altschuler, soon after she graduated from The Los Angeles Film School and inspired by the work her parents did with The One to One Children’s Fund, initiated The White Picket Fence Project with American producer Lynette Howell (Silverwood Films). Says Altschuler: “Neither of us had embarked on a documentary before, but we were both passionate about telling this story, and having the people featured in the film, filming themselves. We cast in New Mexico, New York, LA, Cape Town, Kosovo and Israel and eventually found Valon and Loyiso, and then started rolling camera. This was before iPhones, 4G, Internet, cheap HD cameras and memory cards. The subjects shot most of the film themselves on Mini DV tape, supported by slice-of-life interviews and coverage.’
Kaplan was initially brought on board as the South Africa based field director and production manager for the project but was later appointed as co-director. In the words of Altschuler: “The relationship Tamarin and I had built over the years had already lead to an understanding of style and message so eventually coming together as directing partners was a natural transition. Creatively it just kind of worked, I think we inspired each other to look deeper inside the stories.’
A project such as this – filmed and edited over seven years across three continents – is, understandably, not without its challenges. Both filmmakers agree that one of the biggest problems was knowing when to stop filming. “The filming process was completely organic. The documentary is essentially a long vignette, and so we spent a considerable amount of time determining at which point we should tie up their stories and end the film. That’s one of the reasons why the documentary was shot over such a long period – every time we were about to stop filming, something incredible would happen to either Loyiso or Valon and we felt compelled to keep going in order to capture all these important moments on film’, says Kaplan.
“This whole project was a challenge from start to finish. But one that I can say I am glad to have gone through and glad to have gone through with such an amazing directing partner and producing team’, says Altschuler.
The film sees two inspiring young men, with the odds stacked against them, strive against adversity and, although the filmmakers endeavoured to maintain a certain amount of objectivity and distance, they were not unaffected by their subjects. “This process gave me an acute understanding and empathy for how much people like Loyiso and Valon have to endure on a daily basis. This is something that has stuck with me and continues to govern how I react to events in my own life. I have definitely become much more appreciative of what I have’, says Kaplan.
Altschuler adds: “I have learnt through watching the guys, how they fall and pick themselves up again and again. How they never gave up. Valon and Loyiso, the two guys featured in the film, for me, are the two of most inspiring people I have ever met.’
This award is the first for the documentary and both filmmakers are thrilled about it. “Winning an award at an international festival such as RIFF truly validates the film. I am also so proud that The White Picket Fence Project was chosen to be included in the conference FUTURE FILMMAKING: Digital Documentary Bridging Cultures at the festival – it means that the film and its subject matter will continue to be a talking point, which is important for any documentary,’ says Kaplan.
Altschuler says: “Flickers: The Rhode Island Film Festival, was a great showcase opportunity for The White Picket Fence Project. It’s fast becoming a key documentary festival in the states, and the festival highlights the themes of films such as ours. For us, RIIFF was a big launch pad and we’re thrilled that it was recognized for an award.’
For more information on the film, visit www.thewhitepicketfenceproject.com.