ALRICK BROWN HAS WRITTEN, produced, and directed narrative films and documentaries that deal with such topics as race, genocide, justice, and social issues “affecting the world at large.” An RPCV who served in Cote d’Ivoire from 2000 to 2002, Brown was an Education Volunteer in a western region of the country that went on to suffer much violence during the Ivorian Civil War. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey, Brown earned BA and MA degrees from Rutgers before joining the Peace Corps. He later attended NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he earned an MFA in film.
Brown’s work has been screened in over forty national and international film festivals, winning numerous awards. Along with his co-producer, he received the HBO Life Through Your Lens Emerging Filmmaker Award for their critically acclaimed documentary Death of Two Sons. In 2004, he was one of four NYU students featured in the IFC Documentary series Film School, produced by Academy Award nominee Nannette Burstein. In 2007, he addressed the Motion Picture Association of America on C-SPAN, and in 2009, he directed his first stage play. His first feature film, Kinyarwanda, shot on location in Rwanda, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Filmmaker magazine recently named him one of the “25 New Faces in Independent Film.”
In the following interview — which he gave not long after winning an Audience Award at Sundance — the prolific and acclaimed young filmmaker talks about his time in the Peace Corps, his artistic influences, getting independent films made while living off of credit cards, and the role his service in West Africa played in preparing him to shoot on location in Guinea and Rwanda. Brown’s website is alricksporch.com.
Talking with . . .
. . . Alrick Brown
An interview by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
At the Sundance Film Festival this year, your first feature film, KINYARWANDA, premiered and was a finalist for the World Dramatic Cinema Competition, winning an Audience Award. Can you describe the film, and the highlights of your Sundance experience?
Kinyarwanda weaves a very intricate tale based on personal and historic narratives about life in Rwanda during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
I was told by a fellow filmmaker and Sundance alum that the Sundance experience was the greatest an independent filmmaker would probably have. It was. I really enjoyed sharing my work with the Park City audience and celebrating the premiere with crew, cast, family and friends. I brought my mother and was proud to share the experience with her. With the help of one of our producing partners, Blox Box Interactive Media, we also brought four high school students from my hometown of Plainfield, New Jersey to share and document the Sundance experience.
Can you tell us about your background and education before joining the Peace Corps?
I have a Bachelors in English with a minor in French from Rutgers, and completed a Masters in Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. Teaching was a part of my preparation for the Peace Corps, and later for filmmaking. While in the Peace Corps, I applied to NYU’s Graduate Film Program.
Why did you join the Peace Corps?
I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted the Luke Skywalker adventure. I wanted to experience the world, learn a language, and grow as a person. I wanted Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. The Peace Corps is one of the few ways to do that without joining the military.
I wanted to go to a French-speaking country and West Africa was my top choice. I really wanted to go to Cote D’Ivoire after seeing an episode of the X-Files, where evidence of early alien life was found on a beach in West Africa. I thought that was an amusing sign.
You served in Ivory Coast during violent years. What were your projects?
My village, Gbloale, was in the western part of Cote D’Ivoire, in the Man region, close to the Liberian border. It was a beautiful, green, and hilly Yacouba village with no electricity or running water. Every project I did involved education. The coolest project in my area existed before I arrived. It was a literacy program I tried to support. My most visible project was a renovation of our local schoolhouse. When those renovations happened, my stock in the village went up. However, the real and longer-lasting work was the relationships and bonds we built together.
My Peace Corps service was my first time in Africa and probably the best way I could have genuinely experienced the continent.
My memories of my village and my time in Africa haunt me. I look forward to my own scripts based in West Africa. My most vivid memory occurred during training. We were sitting in an Education For Development session when we heard screaming. We looked over and saw a woman carrying the limp body of a baby. Her child had drowned in the river as she was washing clothes. That image of her cradling her baby and screaming is etched on my brain. And in my heart I hurt, because there was nothing I could do.
You write and direct your films. When did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Writing, communicating, and expression have always been a part of my journey. When I was in elementary school I realized early on the impact the written word had on others. I wrote a poem in second grade and people liked it; they responded to it. Filmmaking has always been something I secretly admired from a distance. I watched a ton of TV as a child and one of my favorite things to do was to go to a matinee and sit in an almost empty theater and take in a film without the distraction of a crowd.
It wasn’t until I was in the Peace Corps that I looked at film seriously. I took a trip to Ghana on my only vacation, to the slave castles at Elmina. That experience shook me to my core. I not only saw history, I saw a set. Shortly after, when I questioned what I wanted to do with this precious life that I was given, film was the answer. It just made sense. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to speak to people. I wanted to have a bigger classroom. I wanted to change the world. Film seemed like the ideal medium.
Who are your artistic influences?
For writing, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin are a few of my big influences. For directing, the big ones are Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Spike Lee, Michael Man, Quentin Tarantino, Elia Kazan, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, just to name a few.
After Peace Corps, you earned an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School. How did that experience, develop your work? Would you recommend an MFA program to aspiring filmmakers?
Going to Tisch immediately after the Peace Corps was probably the best decision I could have made. There are many ways to learn film, but the structure of Tisch was for me. They didn’t care I had no film background. They cared that I had a voice and they taught me how to express that voice by sharing the tools of the trade with me. At Tisch, I was surrounded by some of the best filmmakers in the world. I learned from them as much as I learned from professors. That’s why my craft is strong.
There are many debates about whether people need film school. “To each his own.” I like school because I love learning. I like the structure and the imposed deadlines. I got to use equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I got to watch others going through their own process. Most importantly, I was given the opportunity to fail. Failure is much tougher when you are making films on weekend and nights with a credit card and your friends have day jobs. In that film program, we were focused on our craft for a few years, we put in countless hours on set and walked away with a few films to show for it.
Your 2006 film Death of Two Sons looked at the killing of Amadou Diallo, shot 41 times by the NYPD, as well as the death in an auto accident in Guinea of Jesse Thyne, a Peace Corps Volunteer living with Diallo’s family in Guinea at the time of the shooting. Where did the idea come from? What was it like to work with these families?
When I arrived at NYU I met another RPCV, Micah Schaffer. Micah and I worked on several projects together and he told me Jesse Thyne’s story. Jesse was a Volunteer in Guinea with him who lived in Amadou Diallo’s village. I made a short film about Amadou Diallo and had protested his death before going into the Peace Corps, so it felt like Micah and I had two perspectives on the same story. We collaborated for a few years and Death of Two Sons was the outcome. It is a feature length documentary that follows the life histories of Amadou and Jesse as their dreams led them to each other’s home countries. The film looks at the religious, social, and political implications of their deaths, raising painful and difficult questions about race and global disparities of justice. Beyond examining the broad societal aspects of the events, the film leads us to a very personal truth: the loss of any human life is equally tragic. Death of Two Sons shows the common humanity shared by these young men, their families, and their nations.
I ended up producing, Micah directing. Working with the families was the best part of that journey. They wanted to tell the story of their sons, especially when they saw that Micah and I were genuine and righteous about our intentions and approach. They made the film what it is.
Your work has been screened at over 40 film festivals, you’ve received HBO’s Life Through Your Lens Emerging Filmmaker Award, and caught the attention of folks like Will Smith and Melvin Van Peebles. What are the challenges you face in getting your films made?
Making any film is difficult, and getting one made independently is even more difficult. Though my films have been very low budget, the medium can be very expensive. There are few people out there willing to take risks with their money. My stories are risky and challenging. No matter how entertaining or engaging they might be, people with money prefer safer bets. If it was only about craft and being a strong writer and director, getting a film made would not be a problem. But this is also a business, and sometimes the business comes before the show. I have faith that if I continue to tell good stories that find their audience, my career will be long and impactful, even if I don’t become wealthy. I got into this to tell stories, not to have a nice car. If I can tell stories and live humbly spending time with my family and friends, I will be fine.
You’ve shot on location in Guinea and Rwanda. Did your service in Ivory Coast prepare you for filmmaking in these countries?
My Peace Corps service was instrumental to my film work in Africa. Certain cultural and physical hurdles that many would have had to endure did not encumber me. My skills as a fluent French speaker served me well. Handling the food, bureaucracy, corruption, or just interpersonal relations, was not a stretch. Shooting in Guinea and Rwanda felt a little like going home.
Kinyarwanda comes from the Rwanda genocide. You dealt with actors who lived through those events. What prepared you for this filmmaking experience?
I think everything in my life prepared me. I really can’t imagine a film being much tougher than what we went through in Rwanda. It was emotionally and spiritually taxing for our cast and crew. My upbringing and education in Plainfield, New Jersey prepared me. My birth in Kingston, Jamaica prepared me. My college courses, my teaching degree, my mentors, my previous films, my work with transcripts from the trials in Liberia, my documentary work in Cambodia about their genocide, my experience directing theater, my education at NYU, and above all my Peace Corps service, made this film possible.
What’s next for you?
For the next few months we have the daunting task of getting Kinyarwanda to larger audiences. We have a theatrical release with AFFRM (African-American Film Releasing Movement) this December. We will be starting out in seven cities including DC, NY, LA, and Seattle. We have to continue to build our audience and ensure that we have a successful theatrical run.
Currently I am in post-production on an episode of a new hour-long television show titled Final Witness, scheduled to air January 2012 on ABC. But the biggest “next’ may be just getting back to writing. I have a few projects that need to be written and re-written . . . I am so looking forward to it.
What’s your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
When choosing a project, respect the process as much if not more that the product. When you can, try to work with people you love. Try to create a positive environment where people are learning and growing. Make work that is meaningful and purposeful. All films are political. Whether they are saying something overtly or not, they are saying something. When you put process first the quality of the product becomes a bonus. This does not guarantee a good film but it makes the journey that much more rewarding.
Would you serve in the Peace Corps again?
The Peace Corps was one of the best times in my life, so I would serve again. My only fear is that I would want my next experience to be comparable to the first and I really doubt that is possible.
Do you follow events in Ivory Coast?
I call my friends in Cote D’Ivoire every few months and get personal news. They often call me as well. When things get crazy there, I can expect a phone call. Otherwise I don’t seek out Cote D’Ivoire news. It is too close to my heart and I know I would invest too much of myself. So I keep up on it when I hear it mentioned on WBAI or NPR, otherwise I keep it personal.
Thanks Alrick and congratulations!