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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Bruce Broder--'Chops'

By Tom White

Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 17-23. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Bruce Broder, director/executive producer of Chops.

Synopsis: Chops tells the story of a group of kids, born with extraordinary musical ability, who learn to make the most of their gifts in an acclaimed public school jazz program in Jacksonville, Florida. From their early, squeaky scales to their soaring improvisational solos, we have a front-row seat for their fascinating transformation.


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Bruce Broder: It was a thing I always wanted to do, even when I didn't know it. I had experience with filmmaking through years of commercial work. What precipitated the leap from interest to action in the documentary realm was the discovery of subject matter that meant the world to me.


IDA: What inspired you to make Chops?

BB: I left work early one day in the summer of 2002 to watch my son, then in middle school, attend a jazz band camp. Within a year, I'd left work altogether and begun to film this bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds who had fallen for jazz body and soul. They had talent, no question about that, but it was the enthusiasm they brought to the classroom, their enchantment with the musical form, their receptivity to new ideas, and the way they related to each other because of the music that made me want to be around them. The camera was my hall pass.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

BB: Access was challenging every step of the way. You don't just waltz into a school and start filming kids. And once the story moves to New York and into larger venues, with even more kids and now professional artists, the degree of difficulty ratchets up even more. These particular obstacles we were able to overcome largely because the people who held sway over access got behind us. In the case of Jazz at Lincoln Center, we provided background on the filmmakers' previous work, and even clips of footage shot for this film. The people there became so supportive of the project that now they're partners.

Artistically, the toughest challenges revolved around what to cut. There are characters and plotlines that at one point I considered central to the story that are now completely gone. They're friends that I miss.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

BB: Originally I intended to follow the members of a small jazz combo as they transitioned from the supportive, nurturing world of a middle school jazz program into the much more competitive, indifferent world beyond. I was interested in what would happen to the total commitment these kids gave to the music once they faced the twin emotional hurricanes that are high school and puberty. And I felt some fine story lines were developing there.

Some of those kids made it into the top high school band and some did not. But what started as one element of a larger story--the exploits of the kids who made the top band--eventually became the focal point of the movie. What was going on in and out of that classroom was undeniably dramatic. They were growing and changing and challenging themselves every day in front of the camera.


IDA: As you've screened Chops--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
BB:Audiences like these kids. They laugh at what they say, they squirm at their embarrassing moments, they pull for them. When the kids get their big moment, audiences have actually applauded in the middle of the film.

Here's the most surprising reaction: After virtually every screening an educator or a school board member will contact me about getting the film in front of all the students in his/her school or district. They react to the level of teaching and the openness to learning depicted in a public school program. And they react to the way these kids band together in pursuit of a shared dream, irrespective of color and background differences. I didn't set out to advance any of that; it's just the way it was.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

BB: Films about musicians and music: Dont Look Back, The Last Waltz, Monterey Pop, No Direction Home. Films about aspiration and accomplishment: Hoop Dreams and Spellbound. Films about ordinary struggles elevated to heroic status: Young at Heart.

Chops will be screening at The LANDMARK.