Pittsburgh and Sundance Part I

Saturday, 18 January 2014 12:14 PM Written by 

Pittsburgh and Sundance: Pt. 1

The Immaculate Reception, the Dock Ellis “No No Dockumentary” and

why you must watch last year’s Sundance winner “Blood Brother”which  

premieres on Independent Lens Jan. 20th

I am heading to Sundance where Pittsburgh is represented in several different ways this year:    The short film “The Immaculate Reception” about young love and a play which changed Pittsburgh’s destiny, made by the very talented Pittsburgh native Charlotte Glynn, with a great Pittsburgh cast and crew.   The “No No Dockumentary” about Dock Ellis made by a team in Austin about the legend of Dock pitching a no-hitter on LSD, but dealing with deeper themes of addiction and recovery and issues beyond baseball focusing on the man.    And on a personal note, a former Pitt student of mine, John Paul Horstmann edited the film “Cold In July” starring Michael C. Hall (Dexter) and Sam Shepard, which like “No, no….”    Both "Cold in July" and "No No" are listed on the Hollywood Reporter's Sundance Hot List.  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sundance-hot-list-15-coveted-670770?mobile_redirect=false

I will be writing about all these films in the days to come, as well as attending a party through by CMU and its Masters of Entertainment Industry Management Entertainment Program which has a growing reputation in the film industry and an ummatchable track record of placing students with top studios and production companies.   

As Pittsburgh’s buzz continues and we witness our growing film community just from our Steeltown Film Factory which continues to discover the burgeoning and original creative voices in this city, one cannot help but wonder if at some point, Pittsburgh could have its own Sundance or Southwest scene.   But also, personally, I have to think back on the events of the last year, and one of the most remarkable and still in my mind underreported stories I have ever come across.    In short, it is the story of two friends from Pittsburgh who went to the Art Institute, and how the decided to document their friend who worked in an AIDS orphanage in India.    That film, “Blood Brother” won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and you can see it yourself at on Monday Jan. 20th on Independent Lens which for those in Pittsburgh is on at 10 pm.. on WQED. 


But the way I first encountered this epic story was far less dramatic.   Three years or so ago, I was visiting Michael Killen, who like myself, had spent some time in LA before moving back to Pittsburgh where he co-founded a media company Animal which made its name giving voice to animals in commercials like the talking Taco Bell Chiauhua and the smiling California Cows.   Michael and his partner Kathy Dzuibek introduced me to Steve Hoover and Danny Yourd men who worked for him on commercials and videos (such as Owl City’s Firefly video) who were packing their bags for India.  Michael and Kathy explained that they were going to India as their friend Rocky had gone their to help these kids who had HIV and were living in an orphanage.   Animal was supporting them following their passion and they were very humble where all this might lead.

Cut to a year or so later when I was visiting Animal again in the new downtown office space and stopped by the office where Steve was cutting some footage together.  I was struck by how compelling and the beautiful the short snippets I saw were.  A little while later, a trailer emerged and my Steeltown colleague Lisa Smith Reed insisted that we show the trailer at one of our Steeltown Film Factory events.   The reaction there again signaled there was something special.  Steeltown along with many others joined the Kickstarter crowdsourcing support for the film as the momentum grew. 

But then there was a private screening and I let my students at Pitt where I was teaching a documentary class go as a learning experience.   In the class, I showed them another film “Born Into Brothels” which also took place in India about a woman who teaches the children of prostitutes photography.  I should have known something was up when my students kept insisting they preferred “Blood Brother” which at this point had evolved into a story of Rocky finding his calling with the young people in India and his friendship with Steve, the director.   It was the kind of inspiring story which those who grew up with the film Rocky could get behind—except this was real—with life or death consequences for these kids.  You’d have to watch it to  get the sense of the film as it is a highly personal story for everuone involved where Rocky’s devotion to these kids becomes a life and death battle and it gets one to think about what each of our purposes here on the planet, and what are we all doing with our lives.  Ultimately, it is a story of self-doubt and finding oneself and love and friendship   

After that screening, I asked Danny and Steve what they were planning on doing with the film.   They modestly said they would apply to Sundance, but they knew what a long shot it was.  Whatever happened, one thing was certain.  They planned to donate all the money from the film to helping Rocky’s kids and the mission.

Sure enough, a few months later, Steve and Danny and the team at Animal discovered their film had been accepted into Sundance.  But getting their was a problem, and Steeltown was happy to join the crowdfunding that got them to the Festival.   There was buzz about many movies before the festival, but I guess we new something was up when on Danny’s facebook post, it said something about a standing ovation after the first screening.   I asked friends who had had films there if that was common, and they said it was not unheard of.   But no one expected what happened next.   When they announced the Grand Jury prize for best documentary, it  was “Blood Brother.”  And the again when they announced the audience award.  Rocky, Danny,and Steve accepted in the same t-shirts it seemed that they were wearing when I first met them.

Now winning Sundance is often the beginning and not the end of the journey.  And the film got big Hollywood representation.   There were discussions with various notable distributors, but Danny and Steve decided to go with PBS feeling that would benefit the film and the kids the most.   Theatrically, they also blazed a new trail, using a new company called “Tugg” where if a certain number of folks request screenings, theaters agree to book the film.   “Blood Brother” managed to play over 50 cities, with rave reviews coming from the New York and LA Times.

I don’t mean to  make this seem like there has not been bumps along the way. Rumors and piece on the internet began to appear that there may be another agenda to “Blood Brother.”  That Rocky may have been trying to convert these kids to Christianity.   Apparently, this had something to do with the church Steve went to, and perhaps it is best to let Steve’s open letter dispel what to me, are unfounded and cynical accusations.  http://www.bloodbrotherfilm.com/blog-post/open-letter-from-blood-brother-director-steve-hoover/

All I can tell you, is that each step along the way, I have found Steve and Danny, who I have gotten to know, and their backers at Animal, Michael and Kathy, who have shelled out over $130,000 to get this film made to be exactly what you hoped they would be.  Doing things for the right reasons—to express themselves and make a difference.  

We ourselves just did a documentary on Jonas Salk and his team at the University of Pittsburgh developing the first polio vaccine, and many today would probably be skeptical of Dr. Salk who did not patent his “vaccine” because he said “it belonged to the people.”    Yes, one could argue it was that because it was publically funded by the “March of Dimes” or because of some people’s POV of his research or that this pre-dated University’s patenting things, but the fact is Jonas Salk did not get rich off of his vaccine and I can tell you that Steve, Danny, and Rocky from all appearances did this film for exactly the reasons one would hope—and in the end, are humbled by its success.   Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Pittsburgh is also the town that a minister named Fred Rogers used television to talk about what it meant to “love”—all the while never overtly preaching any doctrine.

Yes, it would have been nice if it got an Oscar nomination last week, but Steve and Danny have come upon a new story—which is also compelling—an ex-Soviet firefighter who conducts raids for lost kids in “the ruins of an empire.”  You can watch the trailer here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/dannyyourd/gennadiy-our-new-documentary which again is being funded by both Animal and crowd-sourcing.   The good news is that despite that being another international story, and all their big-time success, Steve and Danny seemed determined to stay in Pittsburgh as their home base.

For what “Blood Brother” is in addition to being just a remarkable film you should watch, is that wonderful, beautifully made films can come from places outside of just New York and L.A.  And while it is tremendously exciting that the producers of the new Russell Crowe movie are looking to have that movie join the parade of great Hollywood films which are coming here, we should also pay attention an celebrate the great original voices which continue to come out of Pittsburgh.   For the town where both George Romero and Fred Rogers did their work is producing a new generation of talent that could just be a big part of this city’s future.  

And now, I have to go off and watch a few other “Pittsburgh-related films” which have made their way to Park City.   Who knows what will happen this year.. stay tuned.   

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