San Diego Jewish Film Festival preview: ‘Off and Running’
Following is an interview with Nicole Opper about her film Off and Running, to be shown at The San Diego Jewish Film Festival’s Joyce Forum –A Day of Emerging Filmmakers
By Yvonne Greenberg
LA JOLLA, California–Nicole Opper, selected as one of the top 25 independent filmmakers to watch in the United States by Filmmaker Magazine, grew up in San Diego, graduated with honors from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
She will have her critically acclaimed first documentary feature film, Off And Running, which she directed, co-wrote and co-produced, shown at the AMC La Jolla on Monday, February 15 at 8:00 PM as part of the 20th Annual San Diego Jewish Film Festival’s Joyce Forum –A Day of Emerging Filmmakers. Off and Running will be the Main Feature of the Joyce Forum and Opper is scheduled to appear in person.
The main character in the film, Avery, a black teenager, is adopted by two Jewish lesbians from Brooklyn along with an Asian younger brother and a mixed race older one and raised Jewish. She is a talented runner who is closing in on being awarded a college scholarship. Avery’s re-connecting with her birth mother prompted by the search for her identity causes her to rebel against her family by skipping school, staying away from home, and looking for new peers. This rebelling in order to connect with her black roots also causes Avery to put at risk the loss of the college scholarship. But for the first time, she feels she is exploring her identity and deciding to make sense of her upbringing and realizes the genuine love her adopted parents have given her.
In a recent phone interview from New York, Opper enthusiastically talked about Off and Running and other subjects.
1. Why are you in New York and why are you so excited?
The film Off and Running is playing theatrically right now at the IFC Center. I am deep in the midst of press interviews and promoting the film and making sure that audiences come see it here in New York. And today we just found out it has been held over for at least one more week. So it will have a nice long run here.
2. Did you write the script and do all the filmmaking?
It isn’t exactly a script because it is a documentary, but we did write in the sense that we were shaping the film constantly in the edit room and creating outlines. I actually collaborated with my teenage subject of the film, Avery, on the writing. And she has been awarded for her work by the Writers Guild of America, so there is a degree of writing that goes on in a documentary.
3. What is Avery doing now?
She is doing very, very well running track on a full scholarship at Delaware State University and most recently she has been here in New York participating in question and answer sessions for audiences at the IFC Center. So that’s been really fun because we are always very excited to hear from her.
4. Do you decide where the film will run?
We are working with a distributor, First Rate Features. They are also based here. We collectively decide what makes the most sense, but the San Diego Jewish Film Festival committed to showing the film quite a long time ago, I think even before we had distribution, I’m not sure, but I am a long-time fan of the festival in San Diego. I love everybody who runs it. I grew up there, I’ve known the festival, and have been close to it for a long time. I grew up watching films at the San Diego Jewish Film Festival as a kid.
5. Where did you go to high school here?
I went to Point Loma High School.
6. Did any teacher have an impact on you in filmmaking and writing?
Absolutely. I would say that Priscilla Allen, who passed away recently and taught the acting program at Point Loma High School, had a very deep and meaningful impact on me as an artist. She was really the person who taught me to listen to my creative impulses and follow them and believe in my own vision, And also Larry Zeiger, who recently retired, gave me wonderful support, and he’s busy writing people to come to The San Diego Jewish Film Festival right now.
7. What about the story made you think it would work well as a feature film?
It all came down to Avery, the charisma that she exuded and her willingness to speak so openly about even the most vulnerable and private parts of her life. I really felt very compelled by what she had to share so early in life and I sensed that other young people were going to benefit from hearing her story and, in fact, we hear from teenagers all the time who thank Avery for participating in this film because they see themselves reflected in her and it is helpful to see yourself reflected in the media when you’re growing up, especially particularly when you are growing up in a kind of non-traditional family.
8. What are Avery and you up to now?
Avery is majoring in criminal justice and really just likes to be somebody on Law and Order. So she’s busy with that and still racing very regularly and doing quite well as a distance runner.
I’m traveling with the film and gearing up for my trip to Mexico where I’ll be headed in a month to begin my next documentary film about three teenage boys growing up in a home full of abandoned children in Mexico, a coming of age in a different kind of family. It’s a really special home, it’s self-sustainable, and the boys all work right there on the premises in order to support themselves and they also attend school nearby and most of them graduate and go on to lead successful lives. So we are going to explore what it is that they are doing right and why this place has created such a beautiful family.
9. Has Off and Running led to more film opportunities for you?
Yes, actually I’m developing a fiction film, a narrative film about a young African-American Jewish woman who goes to Mexico to study abroad for a semester after losing her mother in a car accident and she develops a powerful relationship with her home stay mom. And I think you will see a lot of Avery in this character.
10. Which award had the greatest impact on you?
The most important award that we have been honored with is the Writer’s Guild of America Award simply because they recognized the value of Avery’s contribution as a teenager. I got to stand there as her former teacher, because our relationship began as student and teacher, and to see her come full circle, enjoy the fruits of her labor, and watch people appreciate what she has given.
Yvonne Greenberg is a freelance writer based in San Diego.