Border lines: Kenji Yamamoto and Nancy Kelly view the screen in making the as-yet-untitled documentary following Chicago's Albany Park Theater Project, a theater company that creates original plays based on the life experiences of the actors, mostly immigrant teenagers.

Final Chapter in Kelly and Yamamoto's Art Trilogy

Michael Fox February 16, 2010

Transformation, of any kind, is one of the most ephemeral, elusive things to capture on film. Indeed, one advisor to veteran Marin filmmaker Nancy Kelly told her that it was too subtle for the camera to record, and she’d never be able to do it. Difficult, OK, but impossible? “Well, that certainly got Nancy going.” chuckles Kenji Yamamoto, Kelly’s partner and a respected editor. At long last in the homestretch of the final piece of their trilogy on the power of art, the duo’s enjoying the last laugh.

Downside Up (2002) documented the opportunity that the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art represented to a desperate blue-collar rust belt town, while Smitten (2005) spotlighted Napa Valley vintner Rene di Rosa and his enormous collection of whimsical and wonderful Northern California art. The new film, as yet untitled even as the filmmakers near picture lock, shapes up as the most arduous and ambitious of the three.

At a 2002 screening of Downside Up, Kelly confided to Chicago foundation and arts heavyweight Nick Rabkin that she wanted to do a piece about immigration, teenagers and theater. “He said, ‘You’ve got to meet these people at the Albany Park Theater Project,’” Kelly vividly recalls. Married and in their mid-30s, Laura Wiley and David Feiner had taken their master’s degrees from the Yale School of Drama and founded in 1997 an ensemble of Chitown teens that presented original productions based on the kids’ personal experiences. They chose Albany Park, where families from all over the globe had settled for decades and more than 50 languages were spoken in the neighborhood high school.

“I was interested in this very well educated couple making a theater company in a working-class neighborhood of immigrants,” Kelly explains. “I was interested in the quality of the work they were doing, and that almost all the kids graduate from high school or get their GED and are encouraged to go to college. That’s a big move for the individual and the family.”

In the first of several setbacks, Wiley was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, postponing the filmmakers’ initial face-to-face meeting with their potential subjects until early 2004. The company had often been approached by filmmakers, but two factors worked in Kelly and Yamamoto’s favor. “It didn’t seem like we were trying to build our careers [with this project],” Kelly says. “And they liked that everyone in our films was treated sympathetically.”

The first shoot took place that November, coinciding with George Bush winning a second term and the election of a Chicagoan named Obama to the U.S. Senate. But Kelly had to undergo spinal cord surgery, and was out of work for all of 2005. She resumed shooting APTP in the summer of 2006, only to get more bad news in the fall. Wiley had become so ill that Feiner asked the filmmakers to stop.

“Really, as a documentary filmmaker, what can you do in that situation?” Kelly says. “You just step back. I thought the day would come when they would open their doors to us again.”

When Wiley died in June 2007, Kelly and Yamamoto were stymied. “We had 40 hours and we did not have a film,” she says. “We had tried twice and didn’t have anywhere near a complete arc.” When they arrived in 2004, a new show was opening, marking the end of the process, while the production they documented in 2006 was derailed by Wiley’s illness.

“We had done maybe a dozen edits of that 40 hours,” Yamamoto reveals, “and even acquired 40 hours of additional footage from [Chicago PBS affiliate] WTTW of a portrait of Laura with other artists in the Chicago area.” In fact, Yamamoto had persistently generated more than 100 structurally different edits, though only a dozen were deemed worthy of being committed to DVD. And none were satisfactory.

“Very shortly after Laura died, David was back at APTP working with the company members,” Kelly relates. “They put up a new show that was sort of a revival of a show they had done before. When the company seemed less grief-stricken and more moving toward the future, David invited us to come back.” (No wonder that fellow doc maker Amanda Micheli, upon hearing this litany, told Kelly, “You really know how to wait for the story to appear.”)

The filmmakers resumed shooting in May of 2008, and applied for and received a matching grant from Chicago’s Driehaus Foundation to document APTP’s first original play after Wiley’s death. Kelly and Yamamoto had received several small grants along the way that allowed them to pay their crews. And a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation enabled them to pay themselves for the first time—last summer.

More important, Kelly was filming an APTP summer camp where a Honduran immigrant, a new ensemble member, told her story to the company. “I called Kenji that night and said everything that we shot up until now, we’re going to throw out,” she says. Hallelujah, Yamamoto said, or something like it. “The burden of trying to weave in everything that had happened before was gone,” he notes.

Just about finished, the feature-length, soon-to-be-christened documentary will likely make its debut on the fall festival circuit. Then the only drama will be onscreen.

Notes from the Underground
“Relocating Ozu: The Question of an Asian Cinematic Aesthetic,” a conference and symposium, takes place this Sat, Feb 20 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley. Details at Cinequest Film Festival honors local hero Benjamin Bratt March 4 with its Maverick Spirit Award and a screening of La Mission at the California Theatre in San Jose. Peter Bratt’s indie feature has been acquired by Screen Media Films, which is planning an April 9 release. Jennifer Kroot’s It Came From Kuchar is tentatively slated to open April 16 at the Roxie. The expanded 147-minute restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis that premiered last week at the Berlin Film Festival screens July 16 in the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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