Part 1 in our Filmmaker "Spotlight" Series
The Moving Picture Institute has supported hundreds of filmmakers via fellowships, internships, masterclasses, and productions since our founding in 2005. This year, we are beginning an interview series that checks in with our filmmakers.
We begin our “Spotlight” series with MPI filmmaker Landon Van Soest, an Emmy Award-winning director, Fulbright Scholar, and two-time Sundance Fellow. Catch his latest film, For Akheem, here. And learn more about his Emmy-winning, MPI-supported documentary, Good Fortune, here.
Lana Link (MPI): You’ve had wonderful success with your recent documentary feature For Akheem. Can you tell us a little about this project and where we can see the film?
LVS: Absolutely. For Ahkeem is a coming-of-age story about a Black teenage girl in North St. Louis who everyone calls Boonie. We followed her life through about two and a half years at an experimental high school for kids who had been expelled from the public school system, many of whom faced criminal charges and juvenile detention. We started the film as an exploration of the school-to-prison pipeline and a particular school that’s intent on breaking it, but after some unexpected developments along the way, specifically the uprising in Ferguson a few miles up the road, Boonie’s story took on a much broader context for the implications of inequality across racial and economic lines in America.
We just released the film on iTunes and across most digital platforms, it will screen on public television in February and we’re still doing a handful of festival and theatrical screenings that we keep up to date on our website.
MPI: We are currently running our documentary storytelling seminar, in which five documentarians are workshopping their rough cuts. Can you talk about your own documentary storytelling process?
LVS: I try to build my documentaries around strong characters and narrative principles, so I probably look to fiction films more than documentaries as models. My goal is to create an immersive experience, so people can really get lost in the story and characters. It’s definitely not the easiest or fastest way to make a doc, but there are a few things that I learn over and over in the process.
First, trust from the characters is absolutely essential, especially when you’re building relationships that span several years. I often feel like I spend more of my time in production doing diplomacy than actually shooting. Usually it’s just hanging out and really listening to the goals of my characters and being as upfront as possible about my own ideas.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the kind of documentaries I make is that they are strictly observational, or that the film was made by simply observing people like a “fly-on-the-wall,” which is a term I really hate. This couldn’t be further from the truth in my experience, I am actively involved in the lives of my characters and really engaged when we’re shooting. I want them to feel as invested in the project as anyone else on the production team and I really want their voice to come through. In the case of For Ahkeem, we handled this pretty overtly having Boonie writing and performing narration, which I really think is the soul of the movie.
The films really come together in the edit though, since you’re really writing and editing at the same time with docs—I can really get lost trying to winnow down hundreds of hours of footage into one cohesive story. I am a big advocate of looking at narrative story structure, archetypal character journeys, and general screenwriting principles though—I’m a big advocate of Robert McKee and Blake Snyder’s beat sheets. We had a big breakthrough in the writing and editing process on For Ahkeem when we really broke down the "coming-of-age" story model and re-structured the film to play according to those principals. I never would have thought the film would have so much in common with a film like Stand By Me, but it was hugely helpful to look at that film’s structure. Once we had that frame, it was much easier to position our most compelling footage and develop the style of the film.
MPI: For Akheem has won seven best documentary awards and screened at major film festivals, including Tribeca, HotDocs, Berlin, and AFI Docs. What advice do you have for filmmakers, who are in or about to enter the festival circuit?
LVS: The festival circuit can be really political so having a clear strategy is pretty vital to getting your film seen. Acknowledge that premieres really do matter. The top festivals simply won’t play your film if it’s already screened somewhere else and most festivals really champion their premieres through their own publicity and positioning within the festival. So I think you really need to start targeting the higher profile festivals and branch out from there.
That said, I don’t think huge international film festivals are the best launching point for every film. I know several films that got lost in Sundance and had a hard time getting traction after that. Ultimately, I think having a festival that is really excited to show your film is important. You can be in the best festival in the world, but if they show your film at 10am in a remote location, no one is going to notice it. Most of us are thrilled to be included in a festival at all, but you can get a lot more out of the experience if you get in touch with the programmers and advocate for being in the festival’s competition line up, getting a good screening time and venue, being mentioned in their own press outreach, etc. On that note, festival programmers are generally more accessible than I tend to think. If you can connect with them at other festivals or film markets, it’s great to make an introduction.
Of course everything depends on your goals for the film. My last film, Good Fortune, was rejected by all of the premiere festivals in the US, but ultimately found really passionate audiences at Human Rights festivals around the world. Having that kind of energy around the film ultimately landed us a coveted slot on POV which lead to an Emmy Award and the attention of international organizations like the UN, USAID, and the World Bank.
MPI: For Akheem has also been featured in major news outlets, like the Hollywood Reporter, and in top ten lists for People magazine and Entertainment Weekly. IndieWire put For Akheem on its list of films that "helped to define documentary cinema in 2017.” Were you expecting the great press coverage? Did it come organically from festivals and so forth, or were you pitching stories yourself?
LVS: I really need to credit our phenomenal producers for all of the press. Through a lot of hustle they were able to bring on an incredible PR team (who’d just finished working on Moonlight) for a fraction of what they typically charge.
I’ve been really naive about getting press—I want to believe that if you make a great film it will garner attention organically, but I really underestimated the constant flood of content most reviewers are faced with, especially at festivals with hundreds of films or in theaters where you’re up against the latest Marvel movie. Having a strong advocate and building relationships with the relatively small cohort of journalists and critics that write about movies is just another one of those elements of filmmaking that has nothing to do with actual filmmaking. You have to wear so many hats to be an independent filmmaker.
MPI: Along those lines, how would you recommend others draw attention to their films?
LVS: If at all possible, try to bring on a press agent. People who do this professionally are always going to be better than those of us who spend all our time making films. I think this is especially important around your premiere, since a few good articles can really help build buzz and generate interest from other press outlets, audiences, distributors, etc.
Social media is a really important tool as well and another thing I’m not very good at. I’m jealous of filmmakers who have the foresight to work on building an audience before the film is finished. I’ve also been recognizing the value of doing things like Kickstarter, going to film markets, and applying for documentary grants—besides raising money, it helps get other people invested in the film and starts building a community to support it.
MPI: Is there anything you learned on this journey that you wish you’d known at the beginning? Or something particularly valuable that will inform your next project?
LVS: So many things, I wouldn't know where to start. It’s an evolving process for sure.
MPI: How has your Moving Picture Institute fellowship and participation in MPI programs like screenwriting workshops helped develop your career?
LVS: I really can’t imagine trying to make a film without a supportive community around me. Independent filmmaking can be so isolating and making a film is such a monumental task, that knowing that you’re connected to people who share your passion and want to see you succeed is really huge. Workshopping in particular is a huge part of the process for me. It’s really easy for me to lose perspective, sort of lose the forest for the trees, when I’m writing and editing, and getting fresh perspectives and feedback from people I respect is usually the main thing that helps me surge forward. I’m proud to have been part of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective for ten years now, which exists solely for those reasons, and I don’t think I would be making films without that community.
MPI: As you know, our mission is to promote freedom through film. How do you navigate telling authentic stories that deal with current events and big ideas?
LVS: I think the emphasis really has to be on good storytelling. I care deeply about social justice, and it’s been the mission behind just about all of the work I’ve done, but I see that as a backdrop or a frame for what I’m putting on screen. It would be daunting for me to take on a film that tries to lay out a comprehensive argument about education reform or criminal justice or immigration, and it would probably be equally as exhausting to watch if I tried.
I like films that draw me in through shared human experience and make me feel something for the characters. Making audiences care about people who are caught up in an unjust system or policy is a more powerful goal for me than presenting a litany of facts and opinions. So I always look for specific, relatable, human stories that are emblematic of the larger issues I want to explore. When films succeed in creating real empathy and compassion, they can be a real equalizer for polarized viewpoints, and that sets the table for deeper conversations and hopefully positive action on social problems that otherwise feel unapproachable.
MPI: For fun, share a film that you love that everyone else seems to hate. (Or a film you hate that everyone else loves).
LVS: Wow, that’s a tough one.. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like it, but I just saw that Lixin Fan’s incredible documentary Last Train Home is streaming for free on the POV website. That’s a really aspirational film for me and one we referenced a lot in making For Ahkeem. I always recommend it.
Oh, and I loved I, Tonya.
MPI: Any final advice for our filmmakers?
LVS: Just to remind yourself why you do what you do. I get bogged down pretty easily thinking about all of the logistics of funding films and getting them seen, so I just need to consciously come back to how lucky I am to be doing what I love to do and remember to enjoy the process each step of the way.
More about Landon Van Soest:
Landon Van Soest is an Emmy Award-winning director, Fulbright Scholar, and two-time Sundance Fellow. His work strives to present social commentary through rich characters and immersive narratives. His work has been screened in dozens of film festivals around the world, broadcast nationally in seven countries, and recognized with several awards for production, reporting, and human rights. His most recent documentary, For Ahkeem, features a Black teenage girl fighting to make a better life for herself and her son in North St. Louis during the Ferguson uprising. The film had its premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Glashütte Original Documentary Award, and premiered in the United States at the Tribeca Film Festival. For Ahkeem has since won seven Best Documentary awards at festivals across the county and opened theatrically in ten cities.
His previous Moving Picture Institute-supported documentary, Good Fortune, about how efforts to aid Africa may be undermining the very communities they aim to serve, was broadcast on the award-winning PBS series, POV, where it won a 2010 Emmy. The film was also awarded the Witness Award for Human Rights and the 2010 Overseas Press Club Carl Spielvogel Award for international reporting. He also directed and produced Walking the Line, a feature documentary about vigilantes along the U.S.-Mexico border, and produced Five Star and Evaporating Borders, which screened at the Venice, Rotterdam, SXSW, and Tribeca Film Festivals.
Landon is currently directing Light Darkness Light, a feature documentary that tracks the life-altering experience of a blind man who receives a bionic eye and learns to see again after thirty years of blindness.
Landon received a degree in Non-Fiction Cinema Production from the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, where his work was nominated for a Student Academy Award. He lives in Brooklyn, NY where he founded the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective, a not-for-profit organization that hosts community driven peer-review to independent filmmakers in New York City. His professional directing credits include spots for Facebook, Toyota, Capital One and many more. He launched Transient Pictures with Jeremy Levine in 2005, which produces a range of original content for non-profits like the Lincoln Center, the Dramatists Guild, and United States Artists, international companies like 23andMe, Brooklyn Brewery, and Ben & Jerry’s, and major broadcasters like ABC, National Geographic, and PBS.