In the course of a semester, Jan Hendrik Hinzel and Valentine Pasquesoone produced a short documentary film, “Bronx Stage”, an idea that stemmed from two simple words: youth and South Bronx. Those two words led the duo to find the only professional theater group in the South Bronx that would serve as their inspiration. The film follows 15-year-old Stephen to the New York State Speech and Debate Championship. This Saturday evening, “Bronx Stage” will be screen at the New York Denouement Film Festival.
The team shared their ups and down for students producing their first films.
CV: Can you talk about how you found your story?
Hendrik: Valentine and I both covered the South Bronx during our Reporting and Writing course at Columbia Journalism School. Once we joined the doc class, we teamed up because we both wanted to do a story from the Bronx.
Valentine: We were both interested in developing a story about young people in the South Bronx — their dreams, but mostly their struggles in pursuing their dreams, because of the stereotypes attached to where they live. After talking with our Reporting and Writing professor, LynNell Hancock, about the project, we started researching youth and cultural programs starting in the South Bronx. Hendrik and I knew The Point community center, located in Hunts Point, was very dynamic for these kinds of programs. We found out that they were hosting a brand new professional theater company — the first in the Bronx –, Open Hydrant. We met with them and that’s how the story started.
CV: Tell us how your project developed from a J-school project to screening at doc festival.
Hendrik: We just did some additional editing and then submitted it to a bunch of festivals. I heard of this festival via a friend and then gathered all the supporting material I needed and submitted it.
CV: What where some of the struggles you encountered while shooting and editing?
Hendrik: A lot of times we were shooting with two cameras. Especially in the beginning, I thought we were overshooting and getting drowned in material. You don’t really know yet what the story is, or who your main character will be, at the same time you want to capture as much as possible. So sometimes you feel as if you just film random action. But now I’m glad we have so much footage because we used much of that footage for our transitions and location changes.
Valentine: Another challenge was to be able to shoot as much as possible while coordinating with each others’ schedules. We were lucky that many rehearsals and the competitions happened over weekends!
Hendrik: A lot of time we were just waiting for things to happen. Sometimes we waited three hours just to get an interview for ten minutes. That’s sometimes a bit exhausting.
Valentine: Technical issues were quite a struggle too. But you learn while practicing!
CV: What lessons have you learned from completing this project?
Hendrik: Get good sound, otherwise postproduction will be painful.
Valentine: Always take as many memory cards, chargers and batteries as you can. Try to keep your camera with you and always be ready to shoot when you’re with your characters — you never know what can happen.
Hendrik: Choose your team partner carefully and work with somebody you don’t mind spending a lot of time with.
Valentine: I know we’re Europeans, but I’m sure this appeals to everyone: Nutella, cheese and baguette are your best friends when it comes to late night editing.
Hendrik: We had to kick out two of our main characters. It was hard to let go, especially because we had edited complete scenes with them. We didn’t want to disappoint them either. But it made the film better eventually.
Valentine: It takes time to make your characters trust you but I think this is the most rewarding part of a project like that — being able to access the lives of people and talk, through their stories, about issues you’re fascinated with.
CV: What advice would you give to journalists in school, thinking about creating a short doc?
Hendrik: Follow your interests, no matter how big the topic might seem at first. Our initial theme was “Youth in the South Bronx.” Then keep asking, “How do I show that?” Our story had a natural process. We followed a teenager working his way up in theater competitions. In that frame, setbacks and successes are bound to happen at some point. Such a natural process definitely helps creating a narrative arc.
Valentine: Write on a sheet of paper all the issues that interest you the most, and try to find connections between them. As Hendrik said, we started off with only ‘youth’ and ‘South Bronx’. Talk with your professors, your friends and your family about these ideas and brainstorm as much as you can. Then, think of local examples, of stories that could show what you’re trying to say. Local papers and local initiatives are very helpful to start your research. And make sure you work on something you’re fascinated with — it will make the experience great.