Riki Stern and Annie Sundberg are long time respected documentary film-makers and industry professionals. Together they have created such works award winning documentaries such as “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” and “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” among many others through their production company Break Thru Films. Their most recently released documentary, “In My Father’s House”, “…explores identity and legacy in the African-American family, as Grammy award-winning rapper Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith and his long-lost father reconnect and try to build a new future in Chicago’s turbulent South Side. Himself a child of a broken home, Che hasn’t seen his father, Brian, in over 20 years, and presumes him dead. But after buying his father’s childhood home, Che sets out to find him.” (Break Thru Films, 2015)
Janet Fitzgerald: How did you all get started in film-making?
Riki Stern: My background was in theater. Annie and I did go to Dartmouth at the same time, but we didn’t actually meet in college. We met working on a feature film after college. In high school and college, I did a lot of theater and went to graduate school for theater. I’d also been doing documentaries in college. I was really interested in documentary films, because it really took what I love about theater, character study, understanding motivation, and combined it with the whole aspect of filmmaking. It seemed to be the way to do both; work in a small team and tell stories about individuals that were very personal with a sense of plot line and narrative in the same way that a fiction piece might.
Annie Sundberg: I also did theater in college, but I thought I was actually leaning more towards fiction film-making. I took a documentary class at Dartmouth that really sort of changed things for me. There was sort of an awareness of the freedom in the documentary storytelling that when you’re just coming into making films is very liberating; it doesn’t often require charting out a 26 day shoot and huge financing. You can actually just begin the journey of storytelling with documentary film. It definitely feels very alive in ways that sometimes narrative film-making doesn’t.
JF: What made you decide to start your production company Breath Thru Films in 1990?
RS: I started Break Thru Films, because when I was coming back from graduate school I was going to do a film about young people in a youth program in Harlem. I knew I needed to have a company in order to rent gear, and do the things that needed to get done. In order to raise money, we needed to have an entity. There were years where we were working at HBO on different projects side by side. I think there was a critical point where we had done films while we worked in other places; at a certain point we started having films that were kind of stacking on top of each other, and there was no room or time to have the other work. It was more of the full on commitment to making the production company the thing. Now it’s grown so much that although our focus is still on feature documentaries, we’re also doing television series, television specials, branded content, some commercial stuff. It’s a whole blend of things now.
JF: How did the idea to make “In My Father’s House” come about?
RS: We have a mutual friend with Che ‘Rhymefest’ Smith. Che had gone to his friend who’s a producer in Los Angeles, and had talked about reuniting with his father and this desire to document his journey of finding his father and wanting to reunite. Che had bought his father’s childhood home, and he’d already begun filming. So this mutual friend called us and said, ‘Can you talk to Che?’ We talked with Che on the phone, and he sent us some of the footage he had begun filming. We didn’t know what the potential for a story was there. Once we saw the early footage, we realized that this journey to discover who one’s father is, was a really a universal journey of knowing your roots so that you can move forward in your life. There was this idea of what family means; how one forms a family, which seemed a very universal story for us.
JF: In the film, Che’s talking about how he felt, and that he ‘had a $2 million record deal, but he still felt an emptiness not growing up with his father’. He speaks about the desire to explore the past and try to find resolution.
RS: For Che, it was very much how he felt as he was going through this process. He started to evaluate his life and the choices he made; he started to realize that he hadn’t always made the proper choices for himself. He had become a father with three different women and had three different children, one with a wife, Donnie, and the other two out of wedlock. He was looking at the choices he even made in his career, and he felt like not having a father that there was something missing in his life and he really didn’t feel complete.
JF: What surprised you about making the film?
AS: I think we were all surprised at how quickly Brian, Che’s father, was able to sort of get sober. Also, I think what was more surprising was the nature of Donnie and Che’s relationship; there were so many kind of twists of fate along how they met and how everything happens for a reason. I think Che put fate into motion by buying his father’s house in many ways, and it was interesting to see how things unfolded. For me in particular, it was seeing Brian embrace sobriety as quickly and easily as he did initially was quite surprising.
RS: I would just add that I think the openness of Che’s wife, Donnie, brought some beautiful parallel storytelling. She scrapbooks their life for better or worse, she puts everything down in a scrapbook. It’s such a visually interesting thing for us, which you can’t make up. Her openness, honesty, and Che’s openness and honesty with everything were so great; even sharing their own struggle to have a child. They were just incredibly present and available, and I think that’s where the strength in the storytelling comes from; you really get a very intimate first-hand experience with people struggling and see how they come through it.
JF: What effect has making this film had on either of you?
RS: It’s hard to spend time with someone who has been homeless for so long and not look at homelessness in a different way. Brian, Che’s father, was homeless for over 25 years living on the streets, and alcohol addiction issues. He’s intelligent, fun to be with and funny. He is probably a person you might just walk by on the street, and not pay any attention to if you didn’t get to know him. I think just on a very everyday practical level, our view of homelessness became much more personal.
AS: I also think that the way making it changed me is I’ve never had a direct relationship with anyone who’s lived homeless before; you see people and you can have an empathetic response. All the tangible elements that really help someone transition out of homelessness makes you realize, what you need to support both in your own communities, and also on a larger social policy level.
JF: What are your hopes for the film?
AS: I think one of the things that we’ve always talked about is that this is very much of a universal story. This is not just an African American story, it’s about the nature of family and in many ways, and it’s about the power of reconciliation in all its various forms. You see Che fathering kids through his volunteer work, and how alternative families helped raise Che along the way. I think the idea is to basically help people realize there are ways to repair broken families, and that the impact of that repair can be significant in a very positive way.
RS: I think we made the film, because we found something moving about the journey. I think it’s the idea of understanding who you are and where you come from that’s fundamentally a journey worth taking. That’s the emotional response we had originally when we saw the footage that Che shared with us when he started the journey by himself. I just hope that people are open to that journey.
JF: Where can people see the film right now?
AS: It’s playing on twenty screens in AMC theaters. We also have links through our film’s website. It will be on iTunes and VOD starting December 3, 2015, and then it will be available on Showtime in February.
RS: I’d like to add that this AMC theatrical release came as a result of the Bentonville Film Festival, which is headed by Geena Davis (Academy Award winner), who has really been very vocally about wanting to increase women’s voices, in particular and minority voices in the Hollywood and film and television arenas. They were looking to reward films by women and increase the diversity of voices in mainstream theaters. It’s a great opportunity, because this film is being put into major, theaters where most people are probably going to see “The Walk” or “The Martian”; then there’s this little documentary. The reality is that these kinds of films don’t have huge support behind them; we’re hoping more people start to see and look for independent films, interesting documentaries, side by side with some of the bigger films.
JF: Any upcoming projects that you would like to touch on?
AS: Well we are doing a series right now for Amazon, a ten part half-hour blocked series on the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which is the Council of Fashion Designers of America with Vogue. It’s what people are calling the real life “Project Runway”. We follow ten young designers, who are in a competition, and being judged by industry leaders such as Anna Wintour and Diane von Furstenberg. It will start airing on Amazon in 2016. Can we say the other project?
RS: We’re working on the “Untitled Boston Project”. It’s a feature film for HBO. It’s a legacy film that looks at the impact of the Boston Marathon bombing on the survivors and the people that were there hours and days afterwards.
JF: It’s wonderful all you both have accomplished. Thank you for speaking with me.