Karen Willis, Director of the San Diego Black Film Festival
Jhonson Simeon and Sean McLean, filmmakers, "A Part of Our Relationship"
Related Story: San Diego Black Film Festival
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. The list of a boxes -- legacy of a boxing legend and an unlikely love story are the films that kickoff the San Diego black film festival this week. And Karen Willis is director of the San Diego black film festival. Welcome to the show.
WILLIS: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: And Jhonson Simeon is director and writer of a part of our relationship. Hello.
SIMEON: How you doing? Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: You're welcome. And Sean McLean is cinematographer of that same film. Welcome.
MCLEAN: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
WILLIS: We're all excited about that. It all started at the Gaslamp theatre at 5th Avenue. And for a while it was at op plaza for about three years, and it was kind of confined in there, so we decided it was time to come back into the open. We're back in the midst of the Gaslamp quarter, a lot more accessible. So we're excited about that.
CAVANAUGH: And how many screens will be -- you be using if are this festival?
WILLIS: We run four to five rooms at a time.
CAVANAUGH: Lots of things going on. Let me talk about the opening night documentary about Joe Frazier, it's calmed when the smoke clears. Tell us a little bit about that.
WILLIS: Well, this is a very, very good touching documentary about Joe Frazier. It's really about his life after Ali. You know, and the struggles he encountered there in the Philadelphia area, up until really the point he died a few months -- we had planned to have him out, of course, and he passed away a few months prior to this event.
CAVANAUGH: So is this a sad screening for you? Or is it something of a celebration of his life?
WILLIS: Well, it's not really so much sad. It really is a celebration of his life in honor of him now, the screening is now in honor of Joe Frasier and everything. So it's up, the way he would have wanted it.
CAVANAUGH: Up-beat. The documentary is one of what's being called the big eight films. What are the big eight?
WILLIS: Well, are the big eight is -- every year we screen over 100 some-odd films, a few years ago, the community got together and said why don't we try to narrow town what we think are, like, the eight biggest films we can focus on? We decided to see if we could not narrow down by looking at the score of, you know, how well the films scored. We normally score a film between 1 and 10.
CAVANAUGH: And who scores that?
WILLIS: It's scored by a committee. A committee seven.
CAVANAUGH: Lots of numbers!
[ LAUGHTER ]
WILLIS: And at the end, we'll look at those numbers and say which films scored highest, and that's how we come up with the big eight.
CAVANAUGH: Well, there's something that's not new this year but was missing last year that you're bringing back by popular demand, and that is the Shaft superfly party. That's that all about?
WILLIS: That's a really fun party.
[ LAUGHTER ]
WILLIS: It's a 1970s type of party, disco type, people come out, the film-makers, and it's fun. Did you want to stress as if it's the 1970s with bell bell bottoms, some people put on Afros, and it's a wonderful thing we have.
CAVANAUGH: Are you going to be able to spot celebrities at the San Diego black film festival?
WILLIS: Oh, absolutely. We always say it's really the celebrities that just show up, you know, every year what we call black Hollywood just comes to San Diego. Particularly during the Shaft superfly party. We have had everybody from Cuba gooding junior to show up to his father, Cuba gooding senior. And it's a lot of fun. The different events. And we have had Diana Ross's daughter here. Her name escapes me. I think Tracy Ross. They came two years in a row just watching films. And we say, hey, isn't that so-and-so? The staff always say, hey, did you see this person? We have a lot of fun talking about who we saw during the festival that we didn't have, actually, on our program.
CAVANAUGH: Let me reintroduce the two film makers, Jhonson Simeon, and Sean McClane. Of and you are both from San Diego. Jhonson, you wrote and directed and shot a part of our relationship. Tell us what it's about.
SIMEON: Well, it's about this character, Jake. He basically receives dissolution papers and has to result to trying to solve the problems in his marriage. And basically it'll send out a message to couples, married couples and maybe long-term relationship couples on what to do in certain relationships and how not to make them too severe because of the consequences that you may endure.
CAVANAUGH: Jhonson, you come to if I can making in an unusual way. You learned your craft as a combat photographer in the military?
SIMEON: Yes, ma'am. Basically I went to school in the military for my trade, and basically what we learned was it's similar to a college course in digital production, digital video production, and basically we learned from lighting, cinematography, and editing, and also the uncontrolled actions that we may experience in combat, we also learned how to basically deal with those.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you a little bit more about that, Sean, because I think your background as a cinematographer on this also comes from combat photography; is that right?
MCLEAN: Yes, that's correct. I went through the same course that Jhonson went through as well. And I was also fortunate where I was selected to any to the Syracuse university's motion media program. There we further learned more story telling techniques on both sides as far as, you know, documentary, and cinema style, as well as news production. So all those skills of the trade that we basically assumed over time, and also employed throughout our career, came in handy and helped come together and make this film.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How does that translate to the making after a traumatic film, a fictional film, as opposed to the real-life filming that you learned?
MCLEAN: I think it translates very well. As far as creative, it gives us a lot more opportunities mainly in combat environments and the environments you go through military-wise. In a way, it's work with what you got, basically. You got to light based off the environment you're in, and try and do the best job you can with limited equipment and personnel and what not, where in it's a creative film, you can bring whatever you need, wherever you need. That's your main focus, your main mission. Any other kind of mission, the mission is the mission, and we as combat camera would have our mission on top of that, and do our job in that environment. Film-making, our whole point is to tell that story. We don't have any of the other aspects to deal with.
CAVANAUGH: It sounds like that would be great for any starting out film maker. Jhonson, you made this film while you were still in the military?
SIMEON: Yes, ma'am.
CAVANAUGH: What are the challenges of that?
SIMEON: The only challenge that I can remember is basically adapting the film, making basically -- adjusting my time around my work time, because my military work takes precedence over my personal stuff. So basically, everyone who was on the set was in the military as well, so I had to adjust the time around their schedules as well. So that was a big disadvantage there.
CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both, what's it feel like to be showcased in a festival like this? Is this your first one?
MCLEAN: Yes, this is my first time. And to be honest, it feels real great. Of as we made this project, being involved in it, we got a lot invested in where we kind of had a love/hate relationship with the finished product, and we had to both silt and say we need to take a step back. We know every single frame, everything that wept right and didn't go right. And we kind of went with the crew and had our own little viewing just to go over and critique. And at the end for me, it feels real good that we got selected. We didn't know whether or not it would get selected, we were just shooting for whatever we could get.
CAVANAUGH: And Jhonson is nodding, yeah. It was great.
[ LAUGHTER ]
SIMEON: Yes, it was.
CAVANAUGH: How did you find this film?
WILLIS: Well, they had submitted their film through the normal submission process. There are two ways to get into the San Diego black film festival. You can go through what we call our international submission system, or you can submit directly. They chose the international submission system. And the committee reviewed their film and found it acceptable to us. And so they're here.
CAVANAUGH: There are some film festivals that the economy has been pretty hard on. How the black film festival faring when it comes to funding and being able to put on the big festival that you are plan something
WILLIS: Film festivals are really being hit hard by the economy all over the country, including, of course, black film festivals. And I understand locally here too, we're sort of somewhat different in that we don't rely a city or government or state funding. So every -- all of our funding sources are corporations involved, or the festival itself, different members doing fundraising. So we are a bit self-sufficient, knock on wood, for a while. But we would like to one day, not that we would not like to become more like the other film festivals and start receiving maybe city or federal funding, but right now, the San Diego black film festival is not under the public dole in any way.
CAVANAUGH: How many people in the San Diego black film festival might be described as San Diego film makers? Do they get precedence?
WILLIS: Well -- yeah. This year, I think we have two from the San Diego area. But it's improving. We normal low receive two to six films from film makers locally, and maybe one will make it in, or two. And we'll hoping that that will continue to grow over the years. For the firstiers, we department receive anything. We're getting films from people like Jhonson Simeon. Locally, so they're coming out. But we're not getting -- nowhere near the amount of film makers we'd love to have.
CAVANAUGH: If year a film maker, local black film maker, start now because next year you might be able to submit to the San Diego black film festival. I've been speaking with Karen Willis, who's director of the festival, and Jhonson Simeon and Sean McLean. Their film is a part of our relationship. Thank you all.
WILLIS: Thank you.
SIMEON: Thank you.
MCLEAN: Thank you.