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Farmington Hills filmmaker brings Norman Lear documentary to Cinetopia
Being a filmmaker -- much less a documentarian -- wasn't exactly on Heidi Ewing's radar when she was growing up in Farmington Hills and attending Mercy High School.
Ewing even studied international relations at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. But she figures an accidental path perfectly fits her chosen profession.
"Every documentary filmmaker gets there in some strange way -- not going to film school and always wanting to make documentaries," Ewing, whose "Norman Lear: JAVOY (Just Another Version Of You" makes its Michigan premiere at this year's Cinetopia International Film Festival, says by phone from Los Angeles. "I'm just naturally curious. I ask a lot of questions. And if you make documentaries you can ask anything to anyone you want to, as long as it's coming from a place of real curiosity.
"There's an amazing, liberating feeling to that. I can knock on doors in neighborhoods and countries and places and communities I would otherwise have no excuse to enter. Because I have a camera and I'm a storyteller, I can be a vehicle for people to tell their stories. And that leads to incredible insight and experiences as a human being that are very hard to come by."
Ewing's own journey started with writing plays and doing some minor filmmaking in college and then moving to California. When a friend told her he wanted to make a documentary about finding his mother, a former prostitute in Vietnam, Ewing wanted to help out; so in 1995 she took a documentary night course at UCLA in order to help the friend put together a pitch tape for the project.
"I found my passion," recalls Ewing, who now resides in New York. "I got the bug. I felt like, 'This is what I should be doing. This is it!' and never turned back from that."
Starting Loki Films with friend and directing partner Rachel Grady in 2001, they rolled out "The Boys of Baraka," about at-risk Baltimore students sent to a school in Kenya, in 2005, winning prizes at the South By Southwest Film Festival and the Chicago Film Festival and also netting an NAACP Image Award. The following year's "Jesus Camp," about a Charismatic Christian summer camp in North Dakota, was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 79th Academy Awards. The pair shared a Women of Vision Award in 2008, and 2012's "Detropia," about Detroit's economic decline, won a pair of Cinema Eye Honors and won the U.S. Documentary Editing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.
The Norman Lear documentary, which has been shown at Sundance and the Miami Film Festival, came as something of an accident. Ewing had approached the famed TV producer -- creator of landmark series such as "All In the Family," "Maude" and "The Jeffersons" -- for an interview while working on the comedy episode of PBS' "Makes: Women Who Make America" series. Lear initially turned Ewing down; he was working on his memoir and didn't have time.
Finally she was granted 20 minutes -- if she could fly coast to coast within 48 hours. She did and, not surprisingly, 20 minutes became two hours and spawned an even larger idea.
"We got on like a house on fire," recalls Ewing, who was struck with inspiration when Lear showed her a study filled with stacks of visual resources. "I said, 'Mr. Lear, why is there no documentary film about YOUR life?' He said, 'We tried a couple of times. I pulled out of two projects. I wasn't ready.'
"So then I said, 'How old are you?' He said 93. I said, 'Mr. Lear, there's no time like the present. Let's do this thing. I think you're ready.'That started the conversation to making the film."
Ewing acknowledges that as a biography "Norman Lear" is a bit more straightforward than the style she and Grady usually work in. The duo had full editorial control, which she notes was "hard" for Lear, though he ultimately liked the film. And she's particularly gratified that it turned into something more than just the recounting of Lear's professional accomplishments, as impressive as those are.
"We found a very rich personal life and a lot of instances where his personal life really does get mirrored in the work he did,"Ewing says. "there's a lot of pathos in this person when it comes to his childhood and unresolved issues with his father than we ever expected to find.
"I guess what was surprising to us was the layers of intimacy an humanity in it. We were able to gain a level of intimacy that maybe hadn't been gained with him before; I'd like to think that, anyway. It's not just about a TV legend -- which is a hollow phrase, anyway."
"Norman Lear" has been picked up by Music Box Films, which will begin releasing it nationwide on July 8, with a return to Detroit on Aug. 5 at the Detroit Film Theatre. It will be shown on TBS during October, then released to Netflix.
Ewing and Grady, meanwhile, are busy with their next projects -- including a documentary for Netflix that will be released next year (and which Ewing can't talk about) and a film about undocumented immigrants in Brooklyn. Not bad for someone who didn't exactly set out to do this as a life's pursuit.
"It's a profession that's more of a lifestyle than a job," says Ewing, whose parents reside in Franklin while her two older siblings are also in New York. "It's an addiction. And I don't think I'd feel this way about it if it was something I set out to do. I had to find it.
* "Norman Lear: JAVOY (Just Another Version of You)"
* Michigan premiere at 6:45 p.m. Sunday, June 5, at the College For Creative Studies in Detroit as part of the Cinetopia International Film Festival.
* The film shows again at 3:45 p.m. Sunday, June 12, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.
* Visit cinetopiafestival.org for ticket information.
CINETOPIA MOVES TO THE MAPLE
The 2016 Cinetopia International Film Festival comes to Bloomfield Hills this week for four film screenings at the Maple Theater, 4135 W. Maple Road. The four movies include:
"Ma Ma," Monday, June 6: The Michigan premiere of director Julio Medem's Spanish (with English subtitles) drama about a woman (Penelope Cruz) abandoned by her husband for a younger woman and diagnosed with breast cancer, with a young son to care for as well.
"Baba Joon," Tuesday, June 7: An Israeli film, with English subtitles, about a Persian immigrant to the Negev during the 1980s and the lessons he tries to pass along to his 13-year-old son. It's the first Persian language film ever produced in Israel.
"Suited," Wednesday, June 8: The Michigan premiere of this documentary, executive produced by Lena Dunham, about the Bindle & Keep in Brooklyn, where tailors give special care and individual attention to their clientele.
"Complete Unknown," Thursday, June 9: Michael Shannon stars in this drama about a man who's birthday party leads to a provocative relationship with the date brought by one of his guests, played by Rachel Weisz.
All screenings are at 7 p.m. Call 248-750-1030 or visit themapletheater.com or cinteopiafestival.com for tickets and other festival details. -- Gary Graff
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