BBQ & A: Bay Area filmmakers Jennifer Kroot (left) and Geralyn Pezanoski enjoy the flavors of South by Southwest.

SXSW: From the Producer's Chair

Holly Million March 17, 2009

Day one: Strong showing for SF filmmakers

I was sitting at a rustic table at the Iron Works, an Austin institution serving "gen-yoo-ine" Texas barbecue. I licked bits of beef brisket and barbecue sauce off my lips and wiped my sticky fingers so I could snap a photo of San Francisco-based filmmakers Jennifer M. Kroot and Geralyn Pezanoski, both of whom have feature-length documentary films premiering at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival. In addition to directing her own film, Geralyn also has a producing credit on another documentary, Motherland, directed by Jennifer Steinman, that is premiering at SXSW. (To hear this report in my own words, try my Vlog at YouTube.)

Jennifer M. Kroot is a native San Franciscan who studied film at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where she met George Kuchar. Jennifer’s first feature film, Sirens of the 23rd Century, screened at Frameline, Sci-Fi London and Anthology Film Archives. It won Best Narrative Feature at the New Orleans LGBT Festival. Jennifer’s film It Came From Kuchar, which I worked on as a producer, is—if you don’t mind me saying so myself—a hilarious and touching documentary about the legendary, underground filmmaking twins, the Kuchar brothers. As kids in the 1950s, George and Mike Kuchar began making no-budget epics starring friends and family with their 8mm camera in their Bronx neighborhood. In the 1960s the Kuchars became part of Warhol’s New York underground film scene. The Kuchar brothers’ films have inspired many prominent filmmakers, including John Waters, Buck Henry, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin and Wayne Wang (all interviewed in the film). It Came From Kuchar interweaves the brothers’ lives, their admirers, a history of underground film and a "greatest hits" selection of Kuchar clips into a stream-of-consciousness tale.

It Came From Kuchar premiered March 14 at 5 p.m. George Kuchar flew in to Austin for the festivities, and Donna Kerness, who was a high-school classmate of the Kuchar brothers and a staple actress of their early films, including Sins of the Fleshapoids, drove here from her home in San Antonio, Texas.

Geralyn Pezanoski, co-founder of Smush Media, has 12 years experience in corporate and commercial producing, and her film producing credits include the narrative short, On A Tuesday (Santa Barbara & LAIFF), Motherland (SXSW) and the doc series Firehouse (Sony Pictures Entertainment). She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Peter, and their dog, Nola. Geralyn’s film is Mine, a feature-length, independent documentary about the essential bond between humans and animals, set against the backdrop of one of the worst natural disasters in modern U.S. history: Hurricane Katrina. This gripping, character-driven story follows New Orleans residents as they attempt the daunting task of trying to reunite with their pets who have been adopted by families all over the country, and chronicles the custody battles that arise when two families love the same pet. Who determines the fate of the animals—and the people—involved? A compelling meditation on race, class and the power of compassion, Mine examines how we treat animals as an extension of how we view and treat each other. Mine premieres Monday, March 16, and several subjects, including canine ones, featured in the documentary are on hand for the screening.

After each screening, we head out for some classic Tex-Mex food. With all the barbecue, chilies, and charred meat I’m consuming, I’m going to need some R-O-L-A-I-D-S, big time. Fortunately, the endless buffet of films at SXSW is easy on the stomach!

Day two: It Came From Kuchar premieres

The aforementioned feature documentary by Jennifer Kroot, It Came From Kuchar, enjoyed a packed house and enthusiastic reception at its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival on March 14. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema hosted a sold-out screening of the film about twin brothers and filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar. George and Mike Kuchar’s careers began in the 1950s when they became obsessed with film while growing up in the Bronx. When the boys received an 8mm film camera for their 12th birthdays, they began to stage productions inspired by epics that they saw in theaters. According to George, “At the age of 12 I made a transvestite movie on the roof and was brutally beaten by my mother for having disgraced her and also for soiling her nightgown. She didn’t realize how hard it is for a 12-year-old director to get real girls in his movies. But that unfortunate incident did not end our big costume epics. One month later, Mike and I filmed an Egyptian spectacle on the same roof with all the television antennas resembling a cast of skinny thousands. Our career in films had begun."

In addition to the director, Jennifer M. Kroot, George Kuchar was in attendance for the screening. Also on hand were Chris Million, director of photography, Tom Bullock, editor, and Donna Kerness, a key star of early Kuchar brothers films. I was there, too (as mentioned before, I produced the film). The audience laughed out loud throughout the film, which featured outrageous outtakes from George and Mike’s early films, as well as interviews with well-known directors such as John Waters, Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, and Wayne Wang, all of whom were influenced by the Kuchars.

In the question-and-answer session following the screening, Jennifer Kroot described how George Kuchar, her former teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute, inspired her to become a filmmaker. George Kuchar said of Kroot, “I admire her spunk. She’s a woman who get things done." Later, George signed autographs for adoring fans who lined up to meet him. George’s advice for the audience as a whole? “If you want a movie career, you have to make pictures." Sound advice, from the prolific Mr. Kuchar!

Day three: Motherland

Jennifer Steinman's feature documentary, Motherland, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival on March 15. Jennifer was a long-time Bay Area filmmaker who just recently moved to New York City. She co-founded Smush Media with Geralyn Pezanoski, another San Francisco-based filmmaker whose feature documentary, Mine, is premiering on March 16 at SXSW.

Motherland is a poignant, gripping story of grief and the kind of peace that may follow it. On December 1, 2006, six women from diverse backgrounds came together to take a very unique trip: a 17-day intensive pilgrimage to volunteer in rural South Africa. Prior to the journey, these six women did not know each other. However they all shared one thing in common: they had all suffered the death of a child. With grief in their hearts and the willingness to make a difference, this intrepid group of women traveled half way around the world to live with local African families and to work with African organizations dedicated to improving the lives of children. Motherland reveals what happened, and portrays the lives that were forever changed, on this journey of hope and healing.

The film follows each of the six women through their entire journey from America to South Africa. We meet each woman at home in America, introducing her life and her family to the audience. For these women, who have each endured one of life’s greatest tragedies, the chance to travel to South Africa together as volunteers comes as a welcome opportunity. Once in Africa, the women work with local children, help teach in over-crowded day care centers, lead activities with abused and at-risk teens, and help care for physically-challenged youth. The work is meaningful and rewarding, and a welcome reprieve from the depression, isolation and stagnation of life at home.

By illuminating the overwhelming pain and isolation caused by the loss of a loved one, Motherland opens up an honest and intimate dialogue about the complexity of grief. Through the different voices and experiences of this diverse group of women, we are reminded that there is no instruction manual for dealing with grief, and that there is no “right way" to grieve. The film explores the differences between the American women’s experience of suffering and that of the African women they meet along their journey, and in doing so, it challenges our culture’s inadequacy for dealing with death and loss. Through the relationships and friendships that form between this unlikely group of travelers, we are reminded of the resilience and triumph of the human spirit. The film ultimately celebrates these mothers’ ability to survive, to heal, and to live again. The larger vision of Jennifer Steinman is to offer an opportunity for healing, growth and hope, not only to the women and children of the film, but to the entire global community.

Holly Million is a consultant, author, and filmmaker with nearly two decades’ worth of experience in fundraising. In addition to securing funding for A Story of Healing, which won a 1997 Academy Award, Million has raised money for documentary and dramatic films that have aired on PBS, HBO, and other broadcast outlets. She is the author of Fear-Free Fundraising: How to Ask People for Money, available on Visit Million’s fundraising blog at

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