2015 Tribeca Film Festival Filmmaker Profile: Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg (Directors – ‘In My Father’s House’)

Set against the crumbling landscape of Chicago’s battered south side, IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE is a yearlong journey from homelessness and alcoholism to self-discovery and redemption as Grammy-winning rapper Che “Rhymefest” Smith reunites with his homeless father in a quest to reclaim his neighborhood and discover his true self as a father and son.

Che, a co-writer on the Academy Award-winning and Golden Globe-winning original song “Glory” from the 2014 motion picture Selma (Best Picture Oscar nominee), is also know for his insightful anthems “Jesus Walks” and “Bullet” and has long found inspiration in issues facing the African-American community, including the growing crisis of fatherlessness and gang violence.

Anticipating the WORLD PREMIERE of IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, we spoke with the film’s Directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg on the correlations between fatherlessness and criminality, their approach to documentary aesthetics, production expectations vs outcomes, and much more.  IN MY FATHERS HOUSE screens on Thursday, April 16, Friday, April 17, Sunday, April 19, and Thursday, April 23, 2015 in New York City.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘In My Father’s House’ at the 2015 Tribeca Film FestivalHERE

The film’s title is a biblical reference. But in the context of the film, it’s also ironic given that Brian is homeless when Che first tracks him down. What does the title mean to you?
The title IN MY FATHER’S HOUSE does hold several meanings. Che is living in his father’s house while his father is living homeless nearby. The house symbolically represents the family and home-life Che is seeking in his life. The house is the keeper of many memories that haunt Che until he is able to claim them as his own. Of course, there is the biblical reference too.

How did you first get involved in the project? And why do you think Che initially decided that he wanted to document his search for his father?
Our friend who is a producer in LA introduced us to Che on the phone. Che told us about buying his father’s childhood home and needing to find him to better understand himself as a man and father. Living in his father’s house felt very unsettling and his memories and sense of history was fractured. As a rapper, he had been accustomed to filming all aspects of his life and so it was natural for him to begin filming this very personal journey to find his dad.

Che Smith meets his father, Brian Tillman, for the first time in over twenty years.

Che Smith meets his father, Brian Tillman, for the first time in over twenty years.

The film strongly suggests that, in the black community, there is a direct correlation between fatherlessness and issues such as crime and gang membership. Why do you think this correlation exists? And what do you think might be done to reduce the number of fatherless upbringings in the black community?
We don’t think the film suggests that this is unique to any community. We know statistically that kids don’t fare as well growing up fatherless but that is true across all races. While our story is about a Chicago rapper who grew up on the South Side, this story cuts across race. There are many fatherless organizations focused in primarily white communities as well as Hispanic. While Che’s personal struggle is to understand his history and legacy, Che makes the point that we need to redefine family – that family does not have to be a mother and a father. Family can be community support, mentors, friends, teachers.

When you began filming, you couldn’t have known that Che and Brian would strike up such a close relationship, or how dramatic and emotionally rich their story would become. Did you go into the production with any expectations? In what ways did the experience of documenting their story surprise you?
When we approach shooting a verite documentary, we have no idea what we are going to get except we know our characters and we understand their motivations and desires and the obstacles they will need to overcome. For us, those key elements are the recipe for conflict and drama. As we were shooting, we had to understand the main characters parallel journeys and tease out themes, so we are crafting as we are shooting. Initially, we thought we would shoot for a period time and hope that in that time Brian would get off alcohol and get a new apartment because those were Che’s dreams for Brian. But as Brian accomplished those goals, we realized that the true test, and potential drama, would occur once most of Brian’s safety nets were removed; he would have to approach things on his own. So we kept filming.

Che Smith enjoys breakfast with his father, Brian Tillman, shortly after their reunion.

Che Smith enjoys breakfast with his father, Brian Tillman, shortly after their reunion.

As filmmakers, it seems that you often tried to take a fly-on-the-wall approach, hanging back and capturing events without interfering with them. What steps did you take to make sure that the production didn’t affect the behavior of your subjects? And were there ever any moments when your subjects expressed discomfort with your presence?
It’s hard for the camera to not impact real life. People are much more savvy about cameras now then when verite shooting was first invented. We see so much “reality” TV that it becomes something to really avoid when shooting. If someone is self-conscious in front of the camera it usually doesn’t last long. We spend a lot of time with our film subjects – talking on the phone, eating meals together, hanging out so that when the cameras roll they are comfortable with our small team and regard us as friends. But there always comes a time in shooting a verite film when people get tired of the cameras showing up, especially when you have been shooting for a year or more. As Che went through some financial struggles and disappointments with his dad, he was slightly depressed and tired which made having a camera around more of a nuisance. Also for Brian, he was very accepting of the camera but he didn’t always want to talk about his drinking so we did our best to be sensitive, shoot what was necessary but be respectful. We always tell the camera and sound to shoot / roll sound – even if it is uncomfortable. We can always not use the footage in the edit but it’s important to get it in the moment.

To what degree have you kept in touch with Che and Brian? It’s clear from the film that they have an extremely complex dynamic: There’s love there, but also a good deal of strain at times. Do you have hopes that they’ll be able to maintain their relationship?
We are in touch daily or weekly. Brian has a government phone so his minutes are precious, but he also has an email address and goes to the library to check it. Che and Donnie are easier to be in touch with so they will also feed us information about Brian. I will confess that I nudge Che to be there for his dad and encourage Brian to walk over to see Che. Che and Brian have a complicated relationship that will sustain but sometimes it helps to have outside perspective and encouragement.

– Interview conducted by David Teich

in-my-fathers-house-posterAbout The Filmmakers
TFF Alumni Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg are multi-award-winning producers and directors best known for Knuckleball!, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, The Devil Came On Horseback, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, and Burma Soldier.

Facebook: /InMyFathersHousefilm
Twitter: @IMFHfilm


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