Sundance Features

January 15, 2007

Nanobah Becker, Conversion

"I just want to go and enjoy it and encourage people to see my film."

Simone Frazier in Nanobah Becker's Conversion

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

There are something like a dozen Columbia alums from the last year or two in this year's festival.

Yeah, there are bunch of us; like four people from my class alone with a short.

So like a quarter of this year's New York filmmakers at Sundance came from your school? Do you have any theories on how that phenomenon came to be?

Wow. I guess there is only a certain number of quality film schools out there that attract the kind of person who is driven - the kind of drive it takes to make it in this kind of business. Not to say that were not all artists and we aren't interested in improving our craft and don't love film. I think that when I went there, I was in a class of exceptionally talented people, and we all worked really hard. I personally think that I benefited from the approach that Columbia takes, which is really concentrating on writing and story above the technical aspects of it. We spend a lot of time in writing classes. A lot of time working with actors and that's really the focus of the program. And I think it really helps us know what's important about film as a means of expression -- at least for me. There are some experimental and documentary films by Columbia students, but the primary focus is narrative film. So I think that the fact that we spend so much time thinking about that and working on that -- getting our scripts together and sharing with other people who are also in this process -- I think that really has made a difference for a lot of us. But on top of that, I think I just came in with a lot of really talented people.

I only know what's in the synopsis, which isn't very much. But it is a narrative?

It's a narrative -- a nine minute film. It was my thesis film a Columbia. It was actually shot in New Mexico, where I'm from originally, though most of the crew was from New York; we brought them out for the shoot. It based on a story that my Mom told me about with missionaries coming to the Navajo reservation -- I'm half Navajo and half German -- in the '50s. Its about this little girl's conversion to Christianity. We shot it in period, primarily exteriors in the desert, all in the Navajo language.

It sounds like the logistics were unusually challenging for a thesis film, especially pulling a crew from New York.

We shot on 35mm, and my DP, T.K. Nelson, was also a Columbia student. This was the second short that we'd done together. He works professionally in New York as a gaffer; he worked on Half Nelson. He's always working, but he came out. Our gaffer came out. Our sound guy came out. My producer was from New York. My first AD. It was a medium-sized crew. Almost all the heads of the departments that I had were from New York.

Were you always intending to submit this to Sundance?

Well, it played at the Columbia Film Festival last May, and I've been sending it out to festivals since then, and its played in quite a few. I've just been seeing what happens. Actually, the Sundance Institute has this thing called the Native Initiative -- Bird Runningwater is the person who heads that up. They're really focused on finding Native American talent -- filmmakers in particular -- who they want to support. So I have been part of that program for the last couple of years, but I still had to submit my film like everyone else. But I knew because of that that I was definitely going to submit.

Do you think it helped, though, having that familiarity with the Institute and that program?

I got a phone call from one of the shorts programmers and my heart went down into my stomach. It's a huge deal -- a tremendous honor to be selected for this festival. I was totally shocked and amazed and delighted. It was great. I'm still kind of on that cloud.

But does having that other Sundance experience before make you any less nervous?

I don't know if I'm less nervous, but since I've been to the festival as an observer and I always hoped to someday screen something there, I'm not as overwhelmed. I know what’s in store for me, and I'm glad I know what to expect. Having seen it and seen how different filmmakers approach that experience, I feel like I have a little of a game plan in my head. I just want to go and enjoy it and encourage people to see my film.

Is that alone the game plan?

Yeah, basically. I mean, it's just a short, so I feel like I don't have too much pressure. Obviously I don’t have the same amount of pressure as someone with a feature trying to get it sold. That's it. I'm really happy to have gotten in, especially for the people who worked on it -- my producer, my DP and some of the actors are coming in so they can go out and have a good time and get in that mix. Like most of these films, it's a labor of love for everyone.

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