FAMILY AFFAIR, Interview With Chico Colvard

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.I think there’s something about what I was witnessing taking place with my family where I really felt alone. I felt like this must be this thing that’s only happening to us- because I didn’t see it playing out that way in the media anywhere.
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Chico Colvard’s Family Affair, has accomplished a great deal since the premiere at Sundance in the beginning of this year. It was there his first film, 9 years in the making, was picked up by Oprah Winfrey’s soon to launch OWN Network as their first acquisition for documentary programming.  Showing in over 30 festivals across the US, and numerous university and community screenings- Family Affair has touched audiences, becoming a point of conversation around the issues raised by the film.  An independent theatrical release is also in the works while awaiting broadcast and wide-spread release in 2011.
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Achieving an inspiring level of success for the personal documentary, its an unlikely film with a difficult subject. At 10 years old, Chico Colvard shot his older sister in the leg. This seemingly random act detonated a chain reaction that exposed unspeakable realities and shattered his family. Thirty years later, Colvard ruptures veils of secrecy and silence again. A deeply personal story that unfolds by searching for answers in an unresolved relationship with family, and the past.
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A devoted educator, Chico has resumed teaching Race, Law and Media related courses at the University of Massachusetts Boston this fall and looks forward to beginning a new film soon. Recently we caught up with Chico between Family Affair’s run in the Oscar qualifying IDA DocuWeeks and an appearance at the Camden Intl Film Festival to chat about the origins of the film, the experience of making a personal story public, and the OWN Network.

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Take us back to when you began shooting video of your family. How did this project develop to become the film it is now?

I didn’t set out to actually make a film. It just sort of evolved into that and I think maybe in some ways it became the safest way I could make sense of my past. By shaping it into a story it helped me to make sense of it. I’ve never actually said this before, but I think there’s something about what I was witnessing taking place with my family where I really felt alone. I felt like this must be this thing that’s only happening to us. Because I didn’t see it playing out that way in the media anywhere, I thought it was something that was sort of exclusive to us. But there was part of me intellectually that knew that couldn’t be true. So in some ways, using this means was also really an effort to see if there were other people who shared in this story. And I sort of trusted that was the case, but I didn’t really know whether it was or not. What really seems to be resonating with people is, what does it mean for us to go back and confront and deal with our past? I’m not saying that the issue of sexual assault is doesn’t come up- certainly it does, but this is a broader story. Because the film isn’t just one dimensional, and its not just focusing on or sensationalizing the shooting and the incest- I’ve worked really hard to try to go beyond that. To try to make sense of what would make my sisters, now grown women with their own kids, willingly go back to this man. It’s trying to understand those motivations that have resonated with a lot of people. And I think if there’s some way that I can use those more general themes as an access point to raise awareness, and get people talking about these other issues of child molestation. Thinking about this in terms of a public policy, or educational and healthcare vantage point- that would be really rewarding for me.

For something you started as a personal investigation, how did the process of telling this story evolve? When did it become a film?

It became like an assignment that I had given myself. Each filming would naturally lead to something else- to more questions or wanting a deeper understanding from another vantage point on the same topic or issue. So it just developed that way. There’s a point at which you’re applying for grants early on- there’s something public about that process. I also thought of that process as an effort to get me to think deeper about the story itself- how to craft and shape it into a story. In some ways it became an exercise, because at the same time I’m thinking there’s a very real possibility that I am just making this for myself and I had to always be ok with that. Its how I started out- I never intended to make a film for public consumption. I just intended to basically string together some of what I was witnessing and play it back for myself and my sisters and that was it. But the whole time, even when you’re getting support from the film community- I’m still thinking there’s a very good chance this is never going to make out there into the world. And you have to be okay with it and not. You have to be ok with the very real possibility that it may never happen. But you can’t be defeated before you’ve tried every possible thing to try and get it out there into the world.

A lot of people will say to me, things like “I want to tell you, you’re brave and courageous for making the film,” and that’s hard for me to accept. In part because I know I made the film not from a place of courage or bravery, but really from a place of fear. I don’t know if a lot of those people who stand up in a crowd of however many strangers and tell their story- I don’t know if I would have been able to do that when I first started. It was very difficult for me to even talk about it. I spent so many years running away from my past, denying it and trying to distance myself. It was very hard for me. At first when I would talk about the film, I would watch people sort of distance themselves from me. So I think that organizations like the CID or like the LEF Foundation, those are the real courageous people and organizations to take on a project like this one- that potentially could be so explosive. That deals with some taboo issues, when they don’t have to. That to me is courageous. Standing up in front of 500 strangers and telling your story when you don’t have to is courageous. A film festival like Sundance, to take on my project, when you don’t have to. When you’ve got 18,000 other great films to choose from, that’s courageous to me. And that continues to happen. I think even about Oprah, to take on this project and make your first acquisition my film- this film that deals with issues of incest. I mean that could potentially be a disaster, but she did it anyway.

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Was there a moment where you felt you became a filmmaker in the process? Did you start to see yourself that way in relation to the story and the things that were happening.

Its all for the story and everything you do is about driving the story forward. Everybody that you bring on board, everyone that you talk to, everything you pursue- it’s all about pushing the story forward. Everything else sort of builds on that. There were a couple moments where I had interest from a broadcaster- and sort of rushing in trying to get them a polished or refined rough cut it went through a couple of iterations. And I found that I was getting drawn into making a film for them and not the one I wanted to make. That was a point at which I really took back the reigns in a much more deliberate and conscious manner. Prior to that it was all for the art and all the relationships were collaborative. But it’s like I’ve given too much to turn it over to someone because their dangling this shiny brass ring in front of me- and have them do something that’s just not true and authentic and raw in the way that I know it should and can be. So I pulled back, and it was scary- just really scary. Not only am I thinking well.. this could be the one and only opportunity I get to tell this story in a public way, but you really start to question yourself. The audacity for me to stand up and talk about artistic integrity and stuff like that- when I should be so lucky to have any aspect of this story out there. You really start to think about those sort of things. And then there are bills to pay, and people who have deferred their services and all that.. stuff. Then Sundance comes along and the playing field shifts again. Then another broadcast thing comes along. I sort of passed on the second offer, but for very different reasons. The second broadcaster was really incredible. Letting me walk away from them and keeping the door open if anything shouldn’t pan out at Sundance, which was huge, just huge. I’m forever indebted to this person for doing that. Then the Oprah thing came through. But you know, the whole process- at this point you’ve got a team around you. Folks, who have been in the business for a while telling you, “you’re crazy.. take the deal.” To step away from all that and get back to why you started telling this story is really important- but frightening, really difficult to do. That’s when you really know you’re a filmmaker. For me that’s when I really knew I was in the business of filmmaking. Its frightening, isn’t it?

With Sundance as a world premiere and a high profile stage to introduce the film- how was this experience as your first festival appearance?

I remember trying to talk to people, like Bestor Cram and Robb Moss “what was it like.. the whole Sundance thing. What should I do, what should I not do?” And I remember Robb telling me, “even though you’ve seen the film a lot of times, its going to be different for you. You’re seeing it with an audience and its finished. You have to let go of some of that control that you’ve had for so long now.” I remember he talked about showing The Same River Twice, and said something like he was hallucinating in the back. He was imagining that the film was melting off of the screen and he was sweating. I just thought holy shit, if he went down like that I’m in trouble! (laughs) Luckily the film stayed in place- I cringed and was doing a lot of that stuff. But my sisters were there for the first two screenings and that was really intense and magical for everybody.  As public as I’ve made our very personal, sensitive and volatile story- I’m also extremely protective of them. I’ve spent a lot of time with the programmers on things we can do to ensure that they were moving through that environment in a way that they felt safe and comfortable. And weren’t going to be exposed to anything that they didn’t want to be.

With the numerous festivals you’ve been to at this point, and introducing the film to the world. Has it been what you expected?

Overall the festival experience is a very positive one. It certainly does a lot to help put it on people’s radar, and make them aware about the issues that are relevant to the film. Some festivals are better than others at not reducing it to an “incest film.”  And I really appreciate and respect those festivals and programmers- there’s a real difference. It’s been a real honor to be in the company of great films, great filmmakers, and some really great film festivals. Silverdocs is a great example of that, its really one of the smartest film festivals. Both in how they take care of you as a filmmaker and present your work- also with a lot of the supporting workshops and programs that are happening around the festival itself. I think the Independent Film Festival in Boston and the work that Adam Roffman has done. I’ve been in a lot of festivals and I’m not just saying this just because I got the Audience Award or I live here- he just did a really good job. He was so responsive and that’s a really good sign. When the programmers, directors, people organizing the film festival don’t make you feel like you’re getting in the way, or that you’re a burden. But to create a really inviting, engaging and smart environment- centered around a real appreciation for film, he did that. I think that makes the difference. Part of what you see when you’re out there on the festival circuit, is you know which directors from various film festivals are out there working. And by that I mean going out there and really learning the business, really learning what works and doesn’t work at various festivals.  Ben Fowlie (CIFF) is another person that’s out there. I don’t think there’s a festival I haven’t seen him at, from Silverdocs to Hot Docs, he’s there.

How would you describe the experience of speaking for the film at festivals and screenings with Q&As. What are some of the memorable things that happen?

The Sundance Q&A, because my sisters were there was certainly very memorable. In large part because it was very moving- just how moved the audience was. For that to be the premiere and to have people in the audience standing up and sort of validating that piece again. Validating by sharing their stories of betrayal and identifying with the story. That will stay with me forever. And that continues to happen at every screening that I’ve been to. I’m equally moved by each of those experiences.

Have the audience reactions become a big part of the film’s experience? How has it been to see people respond to the film and open up to you?

I’m honored and really humbled by it all. Any positive attention around the issues that are brought up in my film- I don’t take any of it for granted. I know it makes a difference. I know that it can be some obscure blog site where some kid in Wyoming will write me and tell me about their story. And how this story has given them permission to talk about it for the first time. It’s just really amazing.

I was just in San Diego- the Ford Foundation sponsored a screening as part of the National Association of Black Journalists. Afterwards this journalist from CNN is interviewing me and someone raises her hand and says “Chico, I just want to ask how you are able to be so brave and talk about your story.’ And I was getting ready to have my response about how I’ve had a lot of years to process this very intensely, and a number of months of going around with the film and so on. Then she says ‘because, I was going to walk out of this film like five times and I couldn’t do it- I wasn’t even going to be here. I didn’t even know what this film was about.” So she was at the conference to meet a friend, and the friend is running late. She wanders into my film and it unleashes all of these issues that she had around being sexually assaulted, and never having dealt with it. So for the first time she comes clean about that in this very public context. As she’s telling me this she’s starting to cry. And my whole prepared response about how I’ve had all these years to deal with it and I’m okay- just fell apart. I’m getting very emotional because of what she’s doing. This is the sort of thing I’m talking about because this is what it’s all about for me. This sort of thing happens over and over and over again. Each time it can take a little something out of you in different ways. When I witness those kinds of things happening, then suddenly the statistics become very real for me- they come alive. That one-in-four women are sexually assaulted by the time they’re 18, by someone that they know. So fathers, people that we trust are often times implicated- and that’s a conservative number. What I find strange and what I find rare is when people come up to me and state that they had no idea this was happening. They know nobody that has been affected by this. That to me is rare. Its happened a couple of times and I’m like “really, are you sure? Have you talked to everyone in your family that you know.” But generally that’s not my experience when screening the film- that’s generally not what people say to me.. unfortunately.

How has the dialogue around the issues raised in the film developed. With people writing or contacting you- how do you respond to that?

It can be a little bit time consuming. And I feel a deep, deep sense of obligation really to respond to everyone. I usually preface those exchanges by saying I’m not an expert. That’s why for me the educational outreach piece, where there are experts involved in the screening, or where I can have the film out there knowing that there are experts and professionals who are using the film as an educational tool to be part of a larger discussion. It’s really important to me to push that. But more often than not I just have a conversation with them. Sometimes about my experience around the issues that come up in the film- but also just have a conversation with them about regular daily life. I’m always encouraging them to take advantage of whatever resources are available where they live. They also want to be heard by someone that they trust. With a film like mine, I think it really does give them permission to talk about their own stuff. And I’m the last guy on the planet that’s going to turn around and be judgmental of you or ostracize you, and they know that.

It’s the piece that I feel most uneasy about. When you’re at the screenings, and people stand up and open up to you and everyone else around them. And I know that I have to get on a plane a couple hours later… is difficult.

Is there an outreach aspect of the film yet, or some extension of that dialogue for these issues? It must become a lot to manage.

The educational and community outreach piece is growing. Its developing with a lot more in place. In the places where I’ve been- mostly colleges, universities and some health care providers are buying the DVD for their library and using it in the classroom. I’m working on a teacher’s manual now to accompany the public screening DVD.  I’ve had some really positive experiences where the film screens and the university puts together an information packet that has resources available in the event there are people in attendance who have been sexually assaulted. Its in a brochure that’s attached to information around the film, so people don’t have to feel like they’re outing themselves by getting this information. Sometimes depending on the resources, we’ll assemble a panel. I’ve sat with social workers, women’s studies professors, philosophy professors, legal scholars- and we take this very comprehensive approach to responding to things that come up around the film. It’s been interesting. A lot of it comes down to resources. One of the things I’ve thought about doing, because I get a lot of these stories- I’ve been thinking about something sort of like Story Corps. The power of just telling your story. Telling your story and not having to just carry that burden with you alone. Knowing that you’re not alone again. I want to include some place on the website where people can select to anonymously or publicly tell their stories. And I hope it has some kind of healing affect. I trust that it will- if they see that there are other people who are also commenting and identifying with their experience. Then of course I need to have links and tie-ins to a number of the therapists and health care providers that I’ve come to know.

What can you tell us about the documentary club for Oprah’s OWN network? Is there some indication of their direction in programming. Will it become a new source for breaking films?

Hopefully Oprah will have an impact on bringing a more diverse audience to see independent documentaries. I think its clear from the films they’ve picked up so far- from Gabriel Byrne and Julia Roberts to Sons of Perdition and Jason Spingarn-Koff’s Life 2.0. They straddle some form of social justice issues and themes. It seems to me like they are trying to take on social justice documentaries that are contemporary and relevant. I’m pretty sure its going to reach out and get these films into households that are just off the radar for most festivals. I don’t see your average salt of the earth people at the festivals and I think that’s going to change. I think that its going to help spread across some of those class barriers that I see happening in both the audience- who the filmmakers are- of who says who the audience and filmmakers should be, and the subject should be.

They have been really supportive and encouraging. When you’re connected to something that huge, you can get swallowed up in it. But I think having access to however many millions of homes she’s going to have access to- my film will play in homes the way I’ve experienced it playing for audiences at various festivals and colleges. It’s a good thing, no matter how you slice it. It is a great thing to have the resources and infrastructure of Oprah and the Discovery Channel behind you. I don’t think a lot people have really considered the full potential and impact this is going to have. It’s sure to garner a large and diverse audience. And it’s going to command the kind of attention around these projects I don’t think they would otherwise receive, but really should. I think she’ll do what she’s always done to make her show so successful- which is to be all-inclusive, of everyone. I’d like for this to challenge the indie film industry to a fuller and truer representation of the filmmakers that are out there and the stories that are out there, that need to be seen and heard. I think there are enough compelling stories and talented artists for it to be more than just a token representation.

What we tend to celebrate, and find noteworthy and of value, begins in our home. In our immediate lives, as a community and who our friends are. We tend to value those things that reflect who we are and I think that it takes some effort to go outside of that comfort zone. Supporting people who think differently than we do- our notion of who those people are. Part of what I think my role can be, now that this film is bona-fide and I can call myself a bona-fide filmmaker. I have a couple of choices- I can go along with the program, but I think that I can also use whatever voice I have to draw some attention to the absence of diversity in film. I’m going to increasingly bring those into the conversations. The diversity of the audience that has been able to participate in the film- to inspire a more diverse community to be involved in documentaries. Having a more complex and diverse conversation about these issues that affect everyone equally. I think the Oprah network can have that same sort of effect- to heighten the profile of the documentary for the average person so they might feel included. I think it’s a win-win.

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Links:
Visit the Family Affair website: www.c-linefilms.com
Follow Family Affair: on Facebook

LEF Foundation: www.lef-foundation.org
OWN Network: www.oprah.com
RoCo Films: www.rocofilms.com

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(Video courtesy of Sundance Institute)

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