It’s funny how when you start to think about one idea, suddenly everything around you becomes associated with it. Maybe it’s that all those details are always there, dormant, and it’s only when we pay special attention that they become apparent. This phenomenon operates like a symbiotic relationship between your mind and your reality: your thoughts manifest the information that surrounds you, fueling you to think more about it, one inevitable feeding into the other. You become obsessed.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Beethoven.
He is the imponderable man, a fascinating puzzle which my brain has worked tirelessly trying to solve. How could he lose his hearing, the most vital sense which allows a musician to practice his art and live from it, yet still be one of the greatest composers of all time? His music transcends what can be heard, and penetrates the depths of what can be felt.
This kind of approach in anything – a refusal to accept the impossible (be it courage or madness) – is the human survival story I never grow tired of.
The last few weeks of making this short film have seen a bombardment of conversations and clues relating to this larger theme adversity and resilience, of what we can endure and how we can prevail.
I got the idea for this short film when my iTunes shuffled to a slam poem, “Beethoven” by Shane Koyczan which I hadn’t heard in a few years. Shane Koyczan is one of my favorite modern poets. You enter a trance when you listen to his poetry; it’s as visual as it is musical, and I can’t help but envision pictures in relation to his words every time I listen to his poetry. For example:
the man got down on his knees for no one
but amputated the legs of his piano
so he could feel the vibrations through the floor
the man got down on his knees
This time was no exception as the pounding beats and rhythms of his poem conjured the image of a boxer, punching and hitting and dancing to the beat and rhythm of the poem.
I couldn’t get the image of boxing out of my head.
I hit replay. Again and again and again.
I started imaging this story more clearly than the time before: cherry red gloves… sweat dripping down foreheads…the hypnotic slow swing of a punching bag. I can’t explain why. It just seemed to fit.
Conveniently (and serendipitously), the assignment for 285 that week was a re-contextualization film. Context (n): the frame surrounding information which identifies something. Re-contextualize (v): process which extracts meaning from an original context and implies a change of meaning and of the communicative purpose.
I wanted to make a boxing film about a Beethoven – if that makes sense. I wanted to find someone who was pursuing something that maybe didn’t make any intuitive sense for him or her to pursue, but they did it despite all odds because they loved it. Same message, different context.
Fortunately, a journalist friend of mine, Julia Poe, had just written an incredible article on Pico-Union Boxing Club, in which she talks about a 17-year-old girl, Stephanie, who boxes three times a week.
Stephanie is who I wanted to be Beethoven. Not because she was good, not because she had a certain look, not even because she was a girl or that she was young, but because she showed up for practice consistently to do something she loved, something which inspired her in a way nothing else did.
So, given the resources I have, what is the film I can make right now?
I messaged my friend, got the contact information for the coach, Jeff Sacha, and sent him an email telling him my idea and asking him if I’d be able to come film. Jeff wrote back almost immediately, saying that yes, it was okay for me to come film and he’d ask Stephanie if she’d be up for the task, and that I should come shoot the following evening. I texted my friend Lukas to see if I could borrow some equipment, and if he could come help me film, to which he said he’d be out of town, but I could borrow some gear.
All in 30 euphoric minutes, the idea, story, and subsequent game plan to make it happened, happened.
Then reality hit.
Did Jeff say tomorrow?
Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no.
There’s no way I’m going to be ready. There’s no way I can shoot this alone. I want the ultimate cinematic quality for the execution to do justice to the vision I had. How am I going to figure this all out in such a short time frame??
I have to email Jeff back.
I have to tell him tomorrow is too soon.
I have to come up with a different idea for this class project.
This is a film to make some other time.
I need to stop overcommitting and overwhelming myself.
I have to tell Lukas nevermind.
My pulse was racing as I opened my computer to text Lukas and (ever so inelegantly) have a mental breakdown, to which Lukas responded in the most cool-headed, helpful, and sweet manner any friend possibly could, thereby teaching me a very important lesson: trust yourself.
Long story short, that was precisely what I needed to hear. Lukas was telling me what I already knew: don’t be afraid of failure, do more things that scare you, create only the projects you feel passionate about, and that right now is the best time to do anything.
Apart from those four crucial lessons above, I think another rather obvious one is the importance of having quality friends who want you to do well. That’s something which you can probably find outside of film school, sure, but undoubtedly is fostered to much deeper levels when you’re here, making yourselves vulnerable together and on a consistent basis.
And anyway, how much of a hypocrite would I be if the very story I wanted to tell was one I couldn’t manifest in my own life? I had to put my actions in line with my beliefs: the idea that right now is the time to relentlessly pursue what it is that you want.
In accordance with the strange relation to how everything seems to revolve around whatever you’re currently obsessed with, an email I received recently from a former high school teacher of mine articulated this mentality rather well:
“I feel that it is a consistent, deliberate pursuit of your priorities that makes you successful.” –Jonathan Torrez
Sometimes people say exactly the things you need to hear at exactly the right time. Lukas and JT did just that, and I’m very thankful to have them as friends. Also, thanks to Zack Hosseini for being such a reliable friend and filmmaker, who last minute said he would come help me film, and is definitely the reason the visual quality is prime.
Here is the film, Beethoven:
I guess this post is less about what I learned filmmaking-wise, because if I delve into how it took 2 days of shooting, 6 hours of footage, and easily over 30 hours to edit a two-minute film, that’d be another post entirely. Creating work you’re proud of is exhausting and immensely time-consuming, but if you value the quality of work you’re outputting more than the time you spend making it, then it likely will be better work. That’s not to say that this film is flawless by any means. I wish I could edit the middle a bit differently (I actually probably will) so that the story of the poem aligns better with the visuals, and I wish I would have captured more footage of Jeff and Stephanie in the ring together, as the father/son, coach/pupil dynamic is really interesting. That’s documentary work, though – none of this was scripted, I just shot what was available to me and didn’t interfere with their practice.
A final note to emphasize once more the importance of doing anything right now, is that I don’t want to ignore the role that Pico-Union Boxing Club plays in the lives of the kids who attend it. This boxing club is a sanctuary, a place of physical, emotional, and psychological catharsis for kids living in an unsafe and less affluent neighborhood of Los Angeles. What Jeff has offered these kids is a truly remarkable gift, something I was lucky enough to personally witness with my own eyes, and hope will continue to exist. Jeff volunteers his free time to ensure that his boxers have a safe and affordable place to go to after-school. Pico-Union Boxing Club needs our help. They’re crowdfunding on GoFundMe to raise $25,000 to help upkeep the gym, buy new exercise equipment, and allow more kids to come take lessons. Please know that any amount you can give will help, and if there’s a time to do anything, it’s right now.
I'm immensely grateful to the Pico-Union Boxing Club for allowing me to be a fly on the wall for a few nights and enabling me total artistic freedom. Thanks to Jeff for being so cool with letting me come shoot (and if he hadn't said to come in the very next day, who knows if this film would have ever been made). Especially big thanks to Stephanie Varela for being the most badass 17-year-old girl I know, and had the confidence to be filmed by someone she didn't know. I don't know if I could have done that when I was 17, so thank you for being my Beethoven. :)