The White Picket Fence Project, an inspiring South African-US documentary coproduction in which two young men from different continents filmed their own coming-of-age story over seven years, has won the RIIFF International Ambassador Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival 2012.

White Picket Fence Project

The film, which had its world premiere as part of the festival’s official selection list, was also chosen for the conference Future Filmmaking: Digital Documentary Bridging Cultures, with the filmmakers in attendance.

Gathered Moss Productions co-produced the film with Lynette Howell of US-based Silverwood Films (Blue Valentine, Half Nelson) and Marla Altschuler of the UK’s T for 2 Films. Seven years in the making, the project was directed by Altschuler and local director-producer Tamarin Kaplan.

The White Picket Fence Project follows the lives of two young men, both striving for a better future: Valon, of Roma Gypsy descent, living in post-war Kosovo and Loyiso, a student in the South African township of Gugulethu.

Although they live worlds apart, they share the experience of growing up in countries that have endured turbulent histories of racial and ethnic conflict and oppression. Despite the cards they were dealt, they are connected by ambition, hope and a quest for an education that will open doors to the opportunities others take for granted. They document their own journey via video diaries, interviews and slice-of-life portrayals. Full of unexpected and inspiring moments, the film tells the story, in their own words, of their journey to manhood.

Filmmakers Altschuler and Kaplan came together from different creative backgrounds. Altschuler has South African roots, but was born and bred in London before moving to LA. She graduated from the Los Angeles Film School, majoring in production design, and went on to become the youngest member of the Art Directors Guild. She has designed many independent features, including 12 Dogs of Christmas and The Passage, as well as directing HIV/Aids documentaries for PATA and the One To One Children’s Fund.

Kaplan grew up in South Africa and graduated from the University of Cape Town with a degree in film and media. She produced and co-directed the successful South African TV show, Behind the Name, for ETV and co-created and produced the SAFTA-nominated reality TV series Way of the Warrior, for M-Net. She also produced and directed the festival-acclaimed documentary feature Breaking the Line.

Inspiration

Soon after Altschuler graduated from film school, and inspired by the work her parents had done with the One to One Children’s Fund, she initiated The White Picket Fence Project with American producer Lynette Howell.

“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,” she says. “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 African-based field director and production manager for the project but was later appointed as co-director.

“The relationship she and I had built over the years had already led to an understanding of style and message so eventually coming together as directing partners was a natural transition,” says Altschuler. “Creatively it just kind of worked, I think we inspired each other to look deeper inside the stories.”

A long vignette

A project filmed and edited over seven years across three continents is not without its challenges. Both filmmakers say one of the biggest problems was knowing when to stop filming.

“The filming process was completely organic,” says Kaplan. “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.”

Altschuler adds: “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.”

While 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,” says Kaplan. “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.” To which 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 are two of most inspiring people I have ever met.”

Award and opportunity

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,” says Kaplan. “I am also so proud that film 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.”

Altschuler: “The festival was a great showcase opportunity for film. It is fast becoming a key documentary festival in the US and it highlights the themes of films such as ours. For us, the festival was a big launch pad and we’re thrilled that it was recognised for an award.”

For more, go to www.thewhitepicketfenceproject.com.