Independent Documentary Films in Focus Our series on blacks in film continues with a look at independent documentaries and what it takes to get them in theatres. Farai Chideya talks with journalist and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda — whose documentary is titled Bling: A Planet Rock — and producer/director Byron Hurt, who created the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.
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Independent Documentary Films in Focus

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Independent Documentary Films in Focus

Independent Documentary Films in Focus

Independent Documentary Films in Focus

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Our series on blacks in film continues with a look at independent documentaries and what it takes to get them in theatres. Farai Chideya talks with journalist and filmmaker Raquel Cepeda — whose documentary is titled Bling: A Planet Rock — and producer/director Byron Hurt, who created the documentary Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes.


This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

With digital technology, shooting video footage is easier and cheaper than ever. But making something of it and reaching the right audience is still a huge challenge. Today, we continue our series on African-Americans in film with a look at independent documentaries. We've got two filmmakers who chose hip hop as their focus.

Raquel Cepeda is an award-winning editor and multimedia journalist. Her documentary is "Bling: A Planet Rock."

(Soundbite of movie, "Bling: A Planet Rock")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: I got my mouth, little bit of somethin' I could think about. I got the diamonds and the ice (unintelligible). I might cause a cold front is I take a deep breath.

Unidentified Man #2: I mean, diamonds affect a lot of people in a lot of different ways. A lot of people that I grew up around, you know, the hustlers, they all wore the diamonds. All the gangsters had the gold teeth, you know what I'm saying? So that's just naturally, that's what I always wanted.

CHIDEYA: Byron Hurt is an activist and filmmaker. He produced and directed the documentary, "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes."

(Soundbite of movie, "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes")

Unidentified Man #3: Through rap music, I think there's an identification with some of the most stereotypical masculine standards. Every black man that goes in the studio, he's always got two people in his head: Him in terms of who he really is, and the thug that he feels he has to project. It's a prison for us.

CHIDEYA: One of the things we've been doing with our film series is talking about what we see onscreen and what it takes to get it there. Raquel told us about the inspiration for her movie.

Ms. RAQUEL CEPEDA (Filmmaker): Well, I've been interested in the international hip hop scene, and I always wanted to bring a fresh approach to the way hip hop was being covered. And actually, I don't see "Bling: A Planet Rock" as being an independent film, but more of a mainstream film, 'cause it's hip hop and hip hop is mainstream. And you know, it happened from there. It took about seven years.

CHIDEYA: Raquel, if you had to sum up what your doc is about in casual conversation with someone who knew nothing about hip hop, what would you say?

Ms. CEPEDA: I would say that "Bling: A Planet Rock" is a feature documentary about hip hop's obsession with bling and diamonds and materialism and how that affected another group of generation hip hop-ites - if that's a right, if that's even a word - in Sierra Leone, West Africa during a war.

(Soundbite of movie, "Bling: A Planet Rock")

Unidentified Man #4: A lot of people say there's more important things you could be rapping about. There's more substance. You know, there's no substance in diamonds. But I look at it the exact opposite, you know? There's a lot of substance in diamonds. Because, you know, when you're overcoming a struggle being from poverty to success, some people it's, you know, it's a lot of girls, but for me, you know what I'm saying, my substance growing up was always just to have diamonds around my neck and some diamonds in my mouth and a family. And have my family with some diamonds.

CHIDEYA: Byron, let me turn to you. In your film, you're not just talking about hip hop, you're also talking about the construction of masculinity. How did you come to approach that way?

Mr. BYRON HURT (Filmmaker): Well, for years, I had done a lot of work working with boys and men, educating them around sexism and men's violence against women. And also just doing a lot of introspective work about myself and my own ideas and my own construction of masculinity. And so learning about those issues made me think a lot more critically about the music that I was listening to and the music that was quickly becoming youth culture.

And so I decided that I wanted to make a film that focused on masculinity in hip hop, and sort of deconstructed the gender representations of manhood and the music and in the music videos.

(Soundbite of movie, "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes")

Unidentified Man #5: Before hip hop, men were seen in R&B, they was like very docile, you know what I mean? But when hip hop came around, it brought masculinity back into the game. Now, some of it is a little misguided.

Unidentified Man #6: One second, we're killing each other. The next minute, we're pimping hoes. We're doing everything wrong (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: What was the hardest sequence for you to film?

Mr. HURT: I went down to Daytona Beach to shoot the BET's Annual Spring Bling, or it's also known as Black College Weekend. And I was denied press credentials to get backstage access. And so I had to figure out something else to shoot. And so I decided to focus on hip hop fans who came down to attend the event. And, you know, it was just a really crazy scene where a lot of the, you know, the young men who came down were really treating women in very, you know, very objectified ways, disrespectful ways. And it was just a real crazy scene, what it showed, what it revealed about black masculinity and what it also may have reinforced about some negative and stereotypical images of black men.

CHIDEYA: You know, what you raise is something that a lot of people say, it's just like, do I show the whole truth or do I hide the dirty laundry? Did you ever feel like, you know what? I'm betraying people by showing them - even just doing what they're doing. It sounds like you had some conflict about that.

Mr. HURT: Well, I did, but I talked to a lot of really good people who I get advice from and support, and just told that I was doing the right thing by revealing something that really doesn't get enough discussion. But from my perspective, as somebody who has done anti-sexist work and worked to educate boys and men about sexism and violence against women, to me it was critical to cover that scene.

CHIDEYA: Raquel, when you think about your audience for the film, you talk about it as a mainstream film that is still finding all of its, the different parts of its audience. What do people say to you once they've seen your film? How do they process what you've done?

Ms. CEPEDA: You know, it's really interesting to see just how different and how, like, wide range my demographic is, because, you know, there's so many different topics that I'm dealing with in the film. It's not only hip hop, but really, it's about a lot of other things - about you know, global empathy, about child soldiers, about the way, you know, the weight that hip hop lyrics have around the world, and just exposing, you know, rappers to that.

CHIDEYA: What was the most interesting part of filming Americans in Sierra Leone, famous Americans? What did you get out of, you know, from your perspective as a filmmaker, out of watching the scene not just through the lens, but overall as you took that trip?

Ms. CEPEDA: When I first started it, I figured that, you know, I want everything to be very neat, like, you know, Tego Calderon, he's Puerto Rican, and I wanted him to represent - you know, 'cause I'm from the Dominican Republic, I wanted him to represent, you know, the Latinos that really embrace their, you know, Pan-Africanism and that side of their heritage.

You know, Ray Kwan, I figured that he would've had like a very personal homecoming. And I thought that Paul Wall maybe because - not only because, you know, he was a white guy, but he also was in the diamond business, that he wouldn't find himself, he wouldn't see himself in, you know, in Sierra Leone. But I just found it, from a personal perspective, to have come out so differently than what I went in thinking.

CHIDEYA: Let me move on to you, Byron. How was your film lived after the production, after the airings on television, where does it live now in terms of using it for outreach or education? What are you doing with it?

Mr. HURT: It's been phenomenal. The film has had a lot of legs. I've been traveling with the film on the road for the last two years. There have been screenings at colleges and high schools. And the film has been used and is being used all over the country and all over the world as an educational resource and a tool of - its' being used by local and national organizations that deal with the multiple, myriad issues that I address in the film.

I see myself as more than a filmmaker. I see myself as an activist and somebody who uses film to push people's awareness and consciousness.

CHIDEYA: Raquel, how do you see yourself?

Ms. CEPEDA: I'm just a writer, filmmaker, editor just trying to make, you know, produce content that's going to challenge people and challenge stereotypes and just, you know, maybe bring the gap between hip hop heads all over the world and America.

CHIDEYA: Byron, how do you think that digital nature of filming today has changed what you were able to do?

Mr. HURT: Well, I think it has changed it drastically. And I'm still learning, you know, what it means for me as a filmmaker and what it's going to mean for me and other filmmakers in the future. But I just, I think that now we're at a point where pretty much anybody can make a film. I mean you've got kids who can make a film using iMovie or iDVD or, you know, whatever computer software programs that they have.

You know, the real big question, though, is, you know, how do you get a large audience? How do you sustain a large audience? How do you bring people to, you know, your Web site or wherever you house your content to get people to watch and pay attention? But I think that for me, it seems like it makes making films easier.

But I think the thing is, you still have to have a really strong story and a strong sense of story telling in order for, you know, anybody to really seriously consider your film.

CHIDEYA: Raquel, you and Byron both have streaming video or imbedded video available on the Web sites, and that alone seems to change the way that people can immediately access what you do. What's been the most important thing for you about shooting and distributing in the digital age?

Ms. CEPEDA: Well, I'm still learning, you know, about it myself. And I totally agree and second everything that Byron said. And I think it's great that, you know, that now we're empowering a lot of - you know, anybody can tell a story. And it's really interesting, 'cause it's making the world smaller. And we're learning more, and we're learning more about different cultures around the world because of this, because of this access.

And I'm still, you know, learning about digital filmmaking myself. But, you know, I kind of like the old-fashioned way. I like going with my cameras, and I like, you know, sifting through and logging and, you know, really discussing every single clip with my editor. You know, I like the pain. I don't know what it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CEPEDA: I don't know what it is about the pain. I like it.

Mr. HURT: I do, too, Raquel. I don't know what that is. You must be crazy.

Ms. CEPEDA: Yes, yes. I'm a little scared of the digital stuff, you know, but I think it's really cool. It's really cool to be able to go online any day, any time, and just learn about people and learn about cultures and just see stuff. You know, it's great.

CHIDEYA: Well, what would you guys say, and I'm going to start with you, Raquel, there are a lot of people who are out there shooting in an ad-hoc basis. That is not going to produce a documentary necessarily, even though it might give you the seed of it. So for somebody who, say, has gone and shot one interview and was like, you know, I can make something of this, what would you tell them to do as a next step?

Ms. CEPEDA: Well, it depends on what the interview's about, but really research. Research, research, research. Think about it, you know, see how other people have covered, you know, the same subject. You know, like I'm doing right now - my next film is on Vietnam and Iraq through a hip-hop lens, going to the past to, you know, really see where we're going to be at in the future with this - because you know, with this invasion that we did in Iraq. And I'm using Vietnam as an example, but I have to sit here, and I've been doing months and months of research of how everybody else has covered the Vietnam War and has covered Iraq and has covered all these other things.

So, you know, it's really, really about research and interviewing people, and you know, even if you don't shoot them. Just really, really trying to like build a file so that, you know, you're really well-equipped to tell your story, you know, with confidence.

CHIDEYA: What about you, Byron? Advice?

Mr. HURT: Well, I'm a big proponent of, you know, making sure that you commit your ideas to paper and, you know, just really follow through on your ideas. And if you have an interview, if you're starting out with one interview in the can, one interview doesn't make a film. You know, you have to build, you know, a group of storytellers or characters in your film, and you have to figure out a way that you're going to tell the story in a way that flows and that has a structure and that makes sense and that is engaging and that is intelligent and smart - if you want to make an intelligent and smart film.

So, you know, I just - I think that the biggest thing to being a successful filmmaker is to really sort of stick with it and to be very, very persistent and, you know, just follow through, you know, because there are a lot of different things that come up in your personal life, and even in your professional life, that will deter you if you allow it to.

So I think you have to be very focused. You have to be very clear on what you want. You have to be single-minded, and you have to be determined. You have to have a dog - you have to be doggedly determined to make your film.

And so, you know, I was listening to Raquel. She said it took her seven years to make her film. It took me six years to make my film. So these things don't happen overnight if you want to do them well, and, you know, it really takes a lot of commitment.

And one of the things my father told me before he passed away, he said if you want to be a filmmaker, then you have to be committed to it, and those words really stuck in my mind whenever I faced a challenge or whenever I was getting a little disappointed or down on myself or doubtful or lacked confidence or whatever. You know, being committed is what kind of brought me through.

CHIDEYA: Well, Raquel, because of the kind of audience that you have or reach to and because of the kind of people you're able to get from the hip-hop world, there's - a lot of people debate, well, how much should I partner with corporations? Would you ever consider partnering with a big music company or something like that in order to reach more people? Or do you have possible ethical conflicts with that? How does that play out in what you do?

Ms. CEPEDA: No, I mean, I would definitely - I mean, I wouldn't go with Monsanto, you know, but I would definitely go - or with Halliburton, but you know, with a music company or you know - I mean, it depends on who the corporation is. I mean you know, I want to get the story out there, and if they're not going to get involved - you know, it would really, really depend on who the corporation was.

And like, for example, somebody who co-starred in my film, Ishmael Beah, he has a book called, you know, "A Long Way Gone." It's an international best-seller, and it's an important story that he told, that he shared with us. But I don't think that it would've done so well if Starbucks hadn't backed it.


Ms. CEPEDA: And now it's become an international best-seller, and it's being translated into every - you know, into so many different languages. And, you know, that's the greater good, even though you can criticize Starbucks for all - you know, I'm sure, for a number of things.

I think that, you know, that outweighed - but now, if Halliburton came and wanted to give me money or, you know, Blackwater or somebody, of course I'd say no. So it really depends on the situation. But I don't see, you know, generally speaking - I think that a lot of production companies are doing that.

CHIDEYA: Byron, when you think about the future projects that you might undertake, how do you make that calculation? You know, a lot of people, when they discuss what's real and what's not real, make judgments about, well, how underground is it? You know, who's putting money into it? How do you make those decisions?

Mr. HURT: Well, I have to admit, I want to reach the largest audience that I possibly can, you know, as a filmmaker. You know, I want as many people to see my film as humanly possible. I see my audience as being the world, you know, not one particular target audience or that sort of thing.

So I think if it sits right with me, if it feels to good to me, if I feel like I'm not making any strong, moral or ethical compromises, then I will be interested in doing it, as long as I had the type of creative control that I desired I could really flex my muscles as a filmmaker and deliver the content that I want to deliver.

It's very difficult to escape the fact that, you know, we live in a world where only a handful of media conglomerates control the media. And so I think that you have to sort of invade the media with content that resembles what everybody sees on a daily basis, but is subversive in terms of the message or at least is something that, you know, pushes people's awareness and makes people think critically. That's what I'm about as a filmmaker. That's how I want to be as a filmmaker.

You know, I was inspired by filmmakers like Marlon Riggs and, you know, Orlando Bagwell and Henry Hampton and Kathy Sandler, you know, people who made films, documentary films, that pushed my awareness and made me see social issues from a different perspective.

So that's how I want to be as a filmmaker, and I want to be very smart and very sophisticated and very crafty at how I reach my audience.

CHIDEYA: Raquel and Byron, thanks a lot.

Ms. CEPEDA: Thank you. It's nice to talk to you again, Farai. I haven't seen you in a long time, so I miss you.

CHIDEYA: I know. Yeah, it's good to talk to you, too.

Mr. HURT: Much love. Much love and respect. All right, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

CHIDEYA: That was filmmaker and activist Byron Hurt. His latest documentary is "Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes." And editor and multimedia journalist Raquel Cepeda. Her documentary is "Bling: A Planet Rock."

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