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Oscar-Bound: 'Inocente' Directors Sean and Andrea Fine

By KJ Relth

In the weeks leading up to the Oscars®, is taking the time to talk with the filmmakers whose films have been nominated for Academy Awards in the documentary short and feature categories. Below is an interview with Sean and Andrea Fine, directors of the short film Inocente.

Synopsis: Fifteen-year-old Inocente, a homeless, undocumented immigrant, clings to her determination to become an artist in the face of a bleak future. How did you two get started in documentary filmmaking? Did you start as a team?

Sean Fine: We started our careers at National Geographic making films there. We basically started dating there. We decided that we would not work together until our relationship got further along. So after we got married we decided to try and work together, and we left National Geographic. Our first film we made together was War/Dance.

Andrea Nix Fine: We had to get married because when we were both on filming shoots at the same time, we never saw each other! I was in Greenland and Sean would be in Columbia, and we figured out we were seeing each other less than a third of the year. After a few years of that we were like, "You know, the only way we could do that would be to get married and then we could work together, and actually see each other more."

SF: National Geographic was great, but I think we both felt like there were some handcuffs sometimes put on us. When we were able to make our first film, we worked with a really great producer, Albie Hecht, and he was like, "I want you guys to be as creative as possible." The format of a theatrical documentary and the ability to be creative—we just went for it. It felt like the handcuffs were off, and we could be as creative as we wanted to. It just stuck with us. We wanted to keep doing it this way. War/Dance was really successful: it was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008.


D: When you two collaborate like this, what sort of a crew are you bringing into the project? In Inocente, there are moments when you're in this very, very small living space with the family. Are both of you there at the same time? How do you work around getting those more intimate and personal moments between the two of you and your crew?

AF: We both direct, so we are both very involved equally in the creative process, but Sean is also an amazing cinematographer. He shoots everything that we do, so immediately that just cuts down on the number of us working together. Beyond that we work with a sound person. Often times, that's about it. We really try to keep it, for all the obvious reasons, as intimate as possible. We work incredibly hard to have people feel comfortable with us and comfortable with every person that we ever bring on our crew, so it feels like a family atmosphere. I think that we're married and that we have kids, they sense that with us. We share our lives with them. I think it helps encourage them to share their lives with us.

SF: Like Andrea said, we work really intimate, really small. We try to constantly work with the same people. Our sound man we work with on almost every project; even our editor, Jeff Consiglio, we've worked with him on every project we've done. We just had another film called Life According to Sam that premiered at Sundance; he worked on that and so did our sound man. It's the same result. It's this really core team that works on all these projects. We all know each other really well.

Andrea and I have a rule when we're filming someone and we tell the people we're filming: if they want us to stop, we stop. We put the camera down and we stop filming. Film is not more important than someone's life and we constantly are reminding ourselves of that. And yes, we miss sometimes really amazing moments, but when you put that camera down it builds a trust with people that is so close that it opens up many more doors and many other moments. They end up becoming really close with us. Even when I shoot, I shoot extremely close to people. And they forget about the camera and they forget that we’re there. Magical things start to happen because of that.

AF: I think it all boils down to trust. I think that when you create a sense of trust with your subject that they start to trust you. All the characters in our films, we really love having them look directly into the lens. It's something people have to get used to. In the end they have to trust you that this is going to be okay, that the way in which they are speaking won't be odd. They have to trust that they are talking about some of the most dramatic moments in their life, things that are sometimes incredibly emotional and gut-wrenching for them and pivotal. They are trusting that you will take care with their story. We feel like it's an honor to be able to share people's lives like that. We make a huge effort to say, "The way in which we’ll bring your story across, even though your situation feels different from a lot of people, it will be relatable to people." There's a very human connection within that. There are some people who say "There's no place to have a relationship or an emotional connection to your subject because it clouds your judgment as filmmakers."

SF: You can't do that with human beings. Andrea and I, the films we make, generally they've been about teenagers who have been going through very difficult times in their lives. They're not films you can't, as a human being, get invested in, or get attached to the character, or try to develop this trust Andrea's trying to talk about—you can't separate yourself from that. Our films are also vérité; we basically are following people's lives, so you have to be close with them. If you're not, you won't be there when interesting things happen. It's not scripted, it's not like, "This is going to be the end." We're just kind of following a story. You've gotta have trust with your subject to follow a story the way we do, so closely.


D: How did you first learn about ARTS, and how did that lead you to Inocente?

AF: We came across ARTS first. We found out we wanted to do a film after we saw this statistic that one in 45 kids in the United States experiences homelessness. That just seems unreal. The more we looked into it, children and families are the new face of homelessness. There's been an exponential spike in that number, and yet it's something that feels invisible. We felt that we wanted to find a story that was very powerful to bring these kids' stories to life. We had this idea that an art connection of some sort would be an interesting way to come into these kids' lives, to be there to explore the talents and dreams these kids have. It took us months and months. Finally there was that program called A Reason To Survive—the acronym being ARTS—we spoke to the head Matt D'Arrigo and we described [that we wanted] someone they felt could share their story and had incredible talent. He said, "I have the girl for you. You need to meet Inocente."

SF: [We asked if] we could talk to her. He said, "I think you just have to come out here and meet her. She's not really good on the phone." So we flew out. No cameras. We spent a few days with her. Just seeing her for the first time, we were like, "Oh my gosh. This girl is unbelievable." She literally looked like a rainbow with legs. What she was wearing, it was insane: just colorful and bright. Here's a girl who’s been homeless for nine years. You wouldn't expect her to be so bright and colorful. You wouldn't expect her art to be so bright and colorful. So right away, from a visual standpoint, we were just blown away. The more we hung out with her without the camera, we [knew] this girl really has something to say. She's never really told her story, and she really has something to say. And it just evolved into our film.


D: Tell me about the first time you went to the place where she was living at the time.

SF: When we started she was 15, so I had to ask her mom for permission to film her. Neither of us realized the relationship she had with her mom. That kind of evolved as we were filming. That’s a big part of our film: I think, Yes, it is a film about homelessness, but it's also a film about a young girl's relationship with her mom, and trying to mend that relationship. We didn't know all that. We went with her to talk to her mom about what we wanted to do and explain what we wanted to do.

When we first met her, they were living at a friend's house. So they were still homeless and they were trying to figure stuff out. I remember when we went into the house, there were big suitcases and bags of clothes everywhere. It looked like they were going to leave. I was talking to Inocente, and she was like, "I don't know. We could be kicked out tomorrow. We could be kicked out in a week. We never know where we’re going to be."

It kind of hit us, what this does to a young kid. Inocente [didn't] even have a place in this space to do [her] art. Where they lived was just like a studio apartment with all these kids. They're sleeping on the floor, and they don't know where they’re going to be the next week. They can’t call a place her home. It was very telling: she didn't even want to hang her paintings up on the wall, because she [knew she would] probably have to take them down in a few days.

AF: She had to throw them out often. The way that the family becomes part of this story is really about the idea of home and the loss of home as not just a physical structure; it's about the loss of family and a safe place and a sense of emotional home. Oftentimes people can’t take in a whole family. Everything starts to disintegrate, and the stress that puts on the relationships. I think that's one of the things in our film that they all go through.

SF: Once we explained to her mom how we wanted to make this film, and we wanted to film her and Inocente and her kids. Her mom understood that we’d be following her daughter. When we came into the house the next time with our camera, it was as if the camera wasn’t there. It was very natural.

There's one point where we felt we had to interview her mom. Her mom started telling us all her stuff that Inocente had never shared with us, these stories about how her mom was an alcoholic, how there was this time when [she] took Inocente and was going to jump off a bridge with her. Inocente never told us this stuff. I remember the moment, because my sound man also speaks Spanish and he translated it to us. I said, "She really said that? Can you explain to her this is for this documentary. I just want to make sure."

We asked her, "Why did you share this with us?" She said, "I want to do this for my daughter. This is something I can do for my daughter because I've failed her. Being honest with this film hopefully will help my daughter." I thought that was really interesting, how the whole thing evolved.

AF: I think often times there's an intimate connection people have with the film. People say, "How did you get those people to talk about that stuff?" I've learned and I've always been surprised by—so many times people have this need to share this. Like the mother in the story wanted to talk about this. She felt like it was positive to share this. Even though it put her in some ways in the darkest light, it just shows how she’s trying now. Same thing when we did War/Dance and even Life According to Sam. These people have amazing things that they're wanting to share. You've asked, and so they're going to share. It's a way to give them an open door to do that.

SF: People just don't ask these people ever what they're feeling or what's going on. Especially Inocente's mom: she's invisible to everybody. She doesn't speak English, she washes bathrooms, she's trying to raise her kids. Nobody ever asked her, "What's your story?" These are things she never was asked, so I think it feels good sometimes to be able to talk about these things to the camera.


D: As you have screened this film, how have audiences reacted? What has been the most surprising or unexpected thing about their reaction?

SF: We had one screening in New York that was extraordinary because after the screening, Inocente had an art show. We had this screening and all these people were watching it. Inocente was up on stage answering all these amazing questions. It was really fantastic. This one girl stood up and said, "I don't have a question; I have a comment. I want to tell you, Inocente, I'm homeless. Seeing your courage and seeing what you've been able to do has inspired me. I want other homeless kids to see this."

It was amazing because Inocente [realized she had] impacted someone. It was the first time she had impacted someone and she could see it happening. When we started making the film we asked her why [she wanted] to make this film with us. She said [she wanted] to help other homeless kids. [She wanted] them to see that they can do really wonderful things. That homelessness doesn't define them, it's just kind of a part of who they are. This girl, to say that to her, it kind of all came around. The other great part is that after the screening, she had an art show and she sold everything. For her to support herself with her work, it's an amazing thing to see. It all came kind of full circle. That screening stood out for us as a pretty amazing event.

D: Are you excited about the Oscars?

SF: It's amazing. I hope this doesn't sound cheesy, but the history behind the Oscars and the people who have won and what it symbolizes—it kind of hit us the last time we were here when we were walking up from the red carpet. You saw Best Pictures listed on the column. It was like, Wow, these are the people who have walked here before us. They're amazing filmmakers. We're big traditionalists and we love history, so it brought out a lot in us emotionally. But then for this one, I don’t know: Has a former homeless kid ever been to the Oscars? I don't know. And Inocente is going to go with us. She’ll be on the red carpet. She is ecstatic. We're just gonna be with her and have such a fun time.

She asked us the other day, "Are we going to be standing next to movie stars?" We said, "Yeah, you will be." She was like, "Can I touch them?" (laugher) She was really excited. She's our date, and we're really excited just to hang with her.

AF: I feel like for a lot of the documentary work, it's incredibly hard. Generally everybody’' trying to tell a story that’s true and honest and powerful and beautiful. That's what we try to do. We worked for years on this, and there's not all that often when you actually get to celebrate, and celebrate together. It's such a team effort. Could this be a higher celebration? There's a giddiness to that. You just feel like you’re seeing and meeting the people whose work you really have had so much respect for.


See Inocente at DocuDay LA on Saturday, February 23 at 1:05pm, or at DocuDay NY on Sunday, February 24 at 2:05pm.