Monday, January 25, 2010

Indie filmmaker interview-Jennifer Grausman

Jennifer's film, Pressure Cooker, will be screening at The Little as part of our Spotlight on Black History Month Series.

Here's a bit about the film:
Three seniors at Philadelphia's Frankford High School find an unlikely champion in the kitchen of Wilma Stephenson. A legend in the school system, Mrs. Stephenson's hilariously blunt boot-camp method of teaching Culinary Arts is validated by years of scholarship success. Against the backdrop of the row homes of working-class Philadelphia, she has helped countless students reach the top culinary schools in the country. And under her fierce direction, the usual distractions of high school are swept aside as Erica, Dudley and Fatoumata prepare to achieve beyond what anyone else expects from them.

And now for Jennifer's interview:

1. Jennifer, how did you first hear about Wilma Stephenson?
In 2005-2006, I researched several public high school culinary programs in NYC for a possible documentary, and kept hearing about Wilma Stephenson from teachers who had met her, as well from personnel at the Careers through Culinary Arts Program (C-CAP), which runs the scholarship competition in the film, and was founded by my father, Richard Grausman. I finally went down to Frankford to meet her in June 2006. We had a three hour conversation and I knew right away from her passion and charisma that she was a character. It was clear how much she loved her students and that there was something special going on in her kitchen classroom.

2. What was it like to record the class and kids over time?
It was really wonderful to be able to film the kids throughout the whole year - we were able to watch them grow and change immensely. But filming in the kitchen was definitely a challenge. It's a tight space, with challenging sound issues, and we always had to be careful to stay out of the way - especially Mrs. Stephenson's way - since nothing was more important to her than teaching her students.

Spending so much time in the classroom was also valuable in that it made us a part of the class. This led to the naturalism and candid behavior of Wilma and the kids when we were around, which became a true strength of the film and allowed us to use primarily verite footage.

3. Tell us about your upcoming trip to Sundance?
I am going to Sundance for the premiere of a fiction feature film that I co-produced, 3 BACKYARDS. It was written and directed by Eric Mendelsohn and stars Edie Falco, Elias Koteas, Embeth Davidtz, Rachel Resheff, Kathryn Erbe and Danai Gurira.

4. What's the biggest thing you learned from the kids?
The kids were incredibly inspiring. They handled the stress of the competition, school, jobs and family issues with grace, maturity and a sense of humor.

5. Tell us about the Take Part campaign.
Participant Media executive produced the film and they run a social action campaign associated with PRESSURE COOKER. If you go to the website: you can learn more about C-CAP and donate to their efforts, as well as sign a petition to support the the Perkins Act, learn about ACTE - the Association of Career and Technical Education and support such programs in your own community.

6. How have you approached your participation in film festivals?
Mark and I were lucky to get to travel with the film to many film festivals all over the US and abroad. It was great to see the film with different audiences, do Q&As after screenings and especially participate in educational screenings with middle, high school, and college or culinary students.

Our very first screening was a special screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival for 1200 public high school students. They loved the film and we were lucky to have Wilma, Erica, Fatoumata and Dudley with us for the Q&A. The LA students treated them all like rock stars - asking for autographs - and also asking Mrs. Stephenson if she would move to LA and teach them! Many students said they could relate to PRESSURE COOKER because it told their story - and not many films do. It was an incredible experience.

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