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Queens filmmaker seeks to redefine identity of African Americans through positive imagery

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What we know as the American film industry got its start in Queens, at the Kaufman Studios 100 years ago. Since then, the movie business has gradually developed its major location in Hollywood. That name is now synonymous with multi-billion dollar profits and celebrities.

However, for many aspiring filmmakers and film historians, Queens is still the source of inspiration and community. This is the third and final in a series about them.

The attack on the World Trade Center has caused an up-and-coming filmmaker to re-evaluate his goals. Jason Bolling is a graduate of the film program at New York University. Born and bred in Hollis, Bolling wondered if his life-long ambition was valid.

Q: Do you think that the attack will influence the way you make film?

A: Yes. Making film has been what I have always wanted to do. The question is (after the tragedy) will I be able to? I don’t know. Also, making a living at it, to me, means enough money so that when I open my bills, I won’t break down in tears.

Q: Why did you choose filmmaking? You have a minor in psychology don’t you?

A: Basically, because I think it’s the most honest way for me to express a lot of what I feel. It’s a visual medium as well as a written medium. It kind of mixes and melds both.

Q: Do you also write?

A: I try to write my own films. I don’t always have the luxury and I know I won’t always have the luxury of being able to write what I’d love to see on film. But, again, if I want to say something, I feel the way to do it is to write it down. And then to photograph it. Or to get it down visually. And film is a great medium to express two voices. I guess two visions, one voice.

Q: There seems to be a definite sensibility to films from certain regions of the country. For example, the films of John Cassavetes were quintessential Manhattan. Do you think there is a sensibility for Queens’ filmmakers and films made in Queens?

A: The thing with Queens is that it is such a diverse region. And in a way the sensibility hasn’t been established yet. You have people who are from different parts of the world. You have people from Asia. You have people from Jamaica. You have people from Africa. So, I think that’s why when you see the work of filmmakers from Queens, like Ed Burns, (I think he grew up in Queens), you don’t get this real Queens feeling. You just get this melting pot kind of ethnic feel. I just think that’s because Queens is so diverse. I think that’s reflected in the films or in the art. Now, Brooklyn - Spike Lee’s films and the films of other filmmakers from Brooklyn - has a lot of the sensibility that is a little more well-developed in terms of its culture and community. Queens is like a hodgepodge.

Q: What do you plan to say in your films?

A: My goal is to really get a positive image of African Americans across. I mean whatever story it is. Whatever context it’s in. It’s really to get this positive image across. I think for a long, long time, we have been mishandled and misrepresented in the media. Watch “Bamboozle,” (Spike Lee’s film) that’s a good example of how our image has kind of been mutilated and destroyed. Regardless of the subject being tackled, whether it’s the youth or it’s low-income families - the whole point of my films is to improve our image. I hope to show people that we are intelligent.

Q: Did you write your latest film, “Asylum”?

A: Yes, I wrote and directed the film. And actually co-produced it. It took about four years to get together from paper to screen.

Q: This film was started while you were still at New York University. Did you have a mentor there?

A: No. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have a mentor. I had teachers that I was fond of. I can point out a specific person who helped me to evolve creatively. Donna Cameron really helped me a lot. She’s a filmmaker who resides in Brooklyn. She was my video professor. She really helped me a lot. She steered me towards film in general and just to be honest in my expression. No matter what it is, just to be really open. Even if you feel that you don’t like it at the time, or you’re second-guessing yourself. She really just taught me to speak - to let that out.

Q: You prefer narrative film to documentaries?

A: Yes, I do. Documentaries have their place, but I just think my strength lies in narrative. I think it lies in planning and organization, deciding where to put a camera and aiming at a specific place to get a specific message across. Documentary can too, but it’s really free form. A lot of (documentary) is. And since what I want to try to do is so specific, in terms of improving our image and getting this voice across, I think it’s necessary to tackle the narrative first.

Q: Would films like that make black people seem one dimensional? Would it be better to portray the human side of us.

A: I can respect the fact that you question the role of the narrative film. I think that it’s just been in the wrong hands. I think that certain filmmakers have used it in a way that is very narrow because their vision is narrow. They actually want to present a close-minded outlook. I think when you have open-minded filmmakers, you have open-minded films. I don’t think that open-mindedness is a problem of narrative film or that form of storytelling. I think it’s a problem of the way commercial film has been represented in America and the way a lot of filmmakers have chosen to present it.

Q: In terms of the nuts and bolts of doing “Asylum,” you were the writer and co-producer. Baakari Wilder was the executive producer and the cinematographer was John Hazard. Who else was on the crew?

A: As you know, films have a huge cast and crew (laughs) I can’t name everybody. But the key players were the other producer, Stella Yeh, the composer, Hayes Greenfield and the editor, Mary Torres. They were great. They all brought something different to the film.

Q: Did you do the casting yourself?

A: Yes, I did. There’s a service called Breakdown Services that I was introduced to at NYU. Basically, it’s a wire that’s sent out by agents. They try to tap in to the community to see who’s making films at the schools. The student directors respond by giving a synopsis of what their film is about. Agents then send their actors or actresses to audition. It’s a great service. That’s a function of the film program at NYU. Also there’s Backstage. That went okay. I got a few responses. They called my home phone and left a voice mail. Then, I called them back.

Q: In terms of your process for auditioning; it looks like hard work. For actors it seems like one leaves one’s normal life for 20 minutes and pretends to be Joe Doaks (a character from the film) in front of total strangers. It seems hard enough for them. What’s the audition process like for directors?

A: I think it’s not really fair - I mean to actors. They think it’s a chance to show off their skills. A lot of the time, it’s biased because directors look for a certain attitude. You (the director) already know what you want before it comes. Sometimes there’s an element of surprise because it’s something different that you see. Or maybe somebody brings something to the character that you didn’t see, which is great. Those are the chances - and that also means that actor is really talented.

As a director sitting through auditions, waiting for that person who you envision and will know when you see him or her - and you know when you don’t - is not fair to a lot of actors. It doesn’t give them the opportunity to be judged objectively. So, it’s time-consuming. After a while it gets a little tedious. I do forget who I see. So, directors videotape the auditions. This way they can watch the tapes for the actor with the presence that you want.

Q: How did you finance the film?

A: Baakari Wilder was the executive producer. He gave me most of the funding. And independent filmmakers have access to grants. There are programs or mentorships that one can become part of. However, for this (my first film) it was difficult for me to get grants or get funding. Also, because it is a narrative film and has specific content and an objective and a certain target audience to reach. So, I didn’t really get as much backing. Baakari saw the script and because of the content knew what I was trying to do and was willing to donate the money to do the production. I was basically lucky.

(Baakari Wilder was the stand-in for Savion Glover in “Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk.” He also played Sambo, the character who got hanged in the play.)

Q: How long did it take to complete the film?

A: The actual shooting took 10 weeks. It was shot entirely in Queens.

Q: Do you plan to show the film at festivals?

A: I hope that the more people who see it at festivals the more exposure I’ll have. The more of a name I’ll be able to establish, and the easier it’ll be for me to make future projects. And if I’m really lucky, I’ll get an agent from the process. But that’s pretty rare. So, I hope just to get people to know the name Jason Bolling and Dark Matter Creative (his production company).

Q: Do you have a full-time job right now?

A: Yes, I’m a segment producer for Nickelodeon News. It’s that news magazine hosted by Linda Ellerbee. It airs every Saturday at 8:30 a.m. It’s audience is 8- to 14-year-olds. The show is about the state of the world and how to empower your community. As segment producer I organize shoots, research film material, return to the studio and re-edit the material. So, it’s really video and TV and not film.

Q: Do you get a lot of ideas for films from your job?

A: The job is mainly documenting news. Because I am focusing on specific issues, I don’t find material for my work.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: I am writing a two-hour film on the way some misguided young people in the African-American community disrespect institutionalized education. To them, education and intelligence are not things to be proud of. Often African-American youths who are interested in bettering their lives through education are faced with obstacles in their communities. Their peers are critical of their goals

Plus, African-American students who place a high value on education are pitted against their peers in the black and white communities. The idea for them is that the education system is white-oriented. They don’t see education as a way to solve some of the problems in our community or as ways to excel in their lives.

Q: How will your film address this issue?

A: My film will show people that they have choices about education. Too many young African-Americans feel that they don’t have a choice, and that the only way is through negative images and stereotypes. I want them to know that they can make choices and go the academic route and not necessarily be somebody who doesn’t represent your community.

Q: What has been the reaction of your family to your filmmaking?

A: I used to love watching TV, so they knew that I’d do something in the visual medium. They weren’t too surprised about my career choice. They didn’t think it would be possible. It didn’t seem like a good idea to them. But after I was accepted into NYU, it became a reality to them - then they supported me. I screened my films for them, and they have given me honest feedback, which is great.

Q: Your mother and father are co-producers of “Asylum.” How did that come about?

A: In terms of location, I shot at the homes of relatives. My dad helped with production. The fact that I was raised by both parents made a huge difference in the support system in my life.

Queens continues to be a nexus for filmmakers where they can create innovative work and build communities. Whether it’s Long Island City or Astoria, in some respects they are returning to where it all began.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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