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Tribeca: So you are certainly not a first-timer when it comes to sports documentaries: Streetball, This is the NFL, The Streak, and Michael Jordan to the Max. What drew you to this genre of documentary filmmaking?
Jonathan Hock: My two great loves were always sports and movies, and I went to NFL Films after college because I felt that was the best place to combine them. They were making real films there and not just putting highlights of action together. They were telling stories, which is really what I like to do. So when I went out on my own, the part of the world I was very familiar with was sports. But the films that I’ve made since leaving NFL Films are not really sports films in my mind. One of the characters in my films plays or played a sport, but the narrative is always about people trying to either put together pieces of their family that have been torn apart or to lift their family into a new circumstance, which was the case in The Lost Son of Havana. Luis Tiant had left his family behind when he lifted himself out of poverty in Cuba by coming to play baseball in the US. He was not allowed to go back to Cuba or have his family come to the US, so when he finally went back after 46 years, he was putting his family back together. Through the Fire was about Sebastian Telfair, a high school kid in Brooklyn who makes it to the NBA. He and his brothers lifted their family out of poverty in Coney Island through basketball, but the story was not about how well Sebastian played, it was about how the family came together and how the brothers all sacrificed to make it happen.
Tribeca: Tell us a little about Off the Rez.
Jonathan Hock: In Off The Rez, basketball star Shoni Schimmel is the person around whom the narrative revolves, but the real igniter to the story is her mom Ceci, who has it in her head that she is going to show her 7 children—which became 8 while we were filming—the limitations of staying on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon where they live. It’s a very closed-off world, and people there are forced to accept a very limited life as it relates to fulfilling their talents, whether they are academically, artistically or athletically gifted. There is a great deal of basketball talent on Indian reservations, and very rarely do you see somebody make it out. So Shoni’s mom took her family off the reservation to become a coach and show them that you can succeed in what they call "the outside world": you don’t have to be afraid of it, and you can take it on in your terms without compromising your values or dignity. The 2 years that Ceci coached Shoni’s basketball team while we were filming, she faced a lot of really hostile welcomes. Everyone said nice things, but they really wanted the family to fail.
Tribeca: I wanted to ask you about that, because though the prejudice is discussed in the film, it is hard to see first-hand.
Jonathan Hock: The family feels very strongly that the refereeing has always gone against them. In tournaments they played as youth teams or in summer leagues, when they would be playing white teams off the reservation, they would always get terrible calls. In the film, Shoni’s grandmother tells a story about a tournament when Shoni was 11 or 12 years old and she was scoring 50 points every game, and suddenly, as it got to the finals, the referees were calling fouls on her every time and not calling the other girls who were clobbering her.
So the feeling in the family is that this all stems from prejudice, and whether it’s conscious or unconscious they don’t care to quibble, but they don’t deal with it sitting down. You see in the film both Shoni and her mother give the refs an earful. In certain ways, Shoni is sort of a Jackie Robinson figure, because she is really pioneering a certain world for her people, but in the stories you hear about Jackie Robinson, it seemed as though he always had to hold his tongue during the games. This family didn’t feel they had to do that. You shout at them, they are going to shout back, and to see these really strong women doing this was really inspiring for me.
Tribeca: You capture a lot of these moments of shouting or fighting back in the documentary, particularly when it comes to Ceci. She uses strong language in front of her own kids as well as the high school girls she coaches. Did you find this inappropriate?
Jonathan Hock: I wouldn’t speak in front of my children like that, but I don’t have to. I’m not fighting for my children’s opportunity. I work hard for it, but I’m not fighting for it, and there’s a huge difference. Whatever Ceci gets in life, she is going to have to fight for, and she is willing to fight anyone for her kid’s opportunity. I have a great deal of admiration for what she has done and what she continues to do for her children. I don’t always like watching her do what she does. I think it’s hard to watch somebody who is so intense and confrontational in front of children, but I don’t judge it because I know that she has a very different situation from me.
I also think a lot of the time she was acting as a lightning rod for Shoni. I think she welcomed the negative attention she drew to herself as long as it was taking the criticism off of her daughter. There is one newspaper we show in the film that wrote an article about Shoni, and though it is flattering of her basketball skills, it is laced with a really loaded comment about how Franklin (Shoni’s high school) “sold its soul to the devil.” Maybe it was innocent and a poor choice of words, but when things like this happen over and over, you tend to believe they are intentional. So the more Ceci could draw attention to herself, the easier it was for Shoni to relax and play basketball.
Shoni is a very sensitive kid and you can see in the film how she struggles to accept a basketball scholarship from any of the many schools interested in her. She’s very strong and powerful on the court but when it comes to her family, she’s very protective, and the idea of leaving them was impossible for her to handle for a very long time.
Tribeca: It’s easy to see the change in Shoni and her brothers and sisters’ demeanor when they return to the reservation in the film. They all seem to be much happier and more at ease with themselves once there.
Jonathan Hock: When you’ve grown up in this really cloistered existence, not by choice but by history, and law in a lot of cases, you have 4 generations of people on the reservation who don’t have anything but each other. And when we were there, the kids were so happy, comfortable, and fun, and were always playing practical jokes on the crew; it was a riot to be with them. For them it’s like summer camp, in the sense that there is this open campus and it's all safe, familiar and all yours. But then in Portland, it was very different. They were in a house and a neighborhood, where it’s quiet and none of the people were their people.
Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
Jonathan Hock: For me, that was the very first time I met Ceci. I had found out about Shoni through Nelson Hernandez, who is one of our producers. He was running a National Native American Youth Federation Foundation, and after the Red Lake massacre he organized a national youth gathering at the Red Lake reservation where those murders took place. He asked if they could show Through the Fire at the gathering, because basketball is such an obsession nationwide on Indian reservations and he felt it would be a very inspiring story about a family who stick together when the forces outside their neighborhood are trying to tear them apart.
So they showed the film there, and a couple of years later he got in touch with me saying he had found my next subject and she was going to be the next best basketball player in the country. She was probably a freshman in high school at that point, and I saw some of her high school clips on YouTube, and she was certainly an incredible player, but I didn’t really know much about her story.
So I got in touch with the family, and it turns out they were leaving the reservation. So I flew out to Portland and met the family the day that they moved off the reservation, and they didn’t have anything in the kitchen yet, so we all went out to the Sizzler steakhouse for dinner: 7 kids, the grandmother, the great-grandmother, and me! Shoni was very shy and didn’t really want to talk much, so I sat with Ceci and I asked her who this move was really for—because there was suspicion at the time that she was just using her daughter’s skill as a basketball player to get a job. The truth had been that she had applied to 500 other schools to be the coach, and because she had only coached youth teams on the reservation no public school would give her a chance. The 501st school finally said yes.
Then she started to explain why she felt she had to move the family. She started telling me about what they see as their potential as human beings on the reservation. Spiritually and family-wise it’s very high, but in terms of fulfilling the potential of your talents, she said it was a dead end. She started to cry, and as she looked at her kids, she said, “My children are so talented, and I have to show them before it’s too late, by my example, that you can leave the reservation and succeed on your own terms in the outside world. If you want to go back to the reservation you can, but you’ll go back having fulfilled the destiny that’s yours by virtue of your talents and your character.” Well, THAT was a story, and then we followed Shoni as this dream came true for her.
Jonathan Hock: I try to be as up front with people as possible, because what you have to have when you’re following a family for 2 years is trust. They have to know that they can trust your intentions, and you have to tell them up front there are going to be things in this film they are not going to like seeing. But I told them my goal as a filmmaker was to bring what’s in their heads and heart out to the public. I want people to experience the film through their shoes. It isn’t my political agenda. Every time you make a cut in the edit room, you’re altering reality and it's not purely objective, but as a filmmaker I’m not afraid of subjectivity, as long as it’s guided by empathy for the subject.
So the family watched some of my previous work and said they felt safe with it. Honestly, I’m not sure how much they trusted me throughout the filming process. Culturally, I don’t think it was ever comfortable for them to open their world to our camera crew, but they trusted in the story, and particularly did so after a short piece on the film ran on ESPN and garnered great interest from the Native American community.
Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making Off The Rez?
Jonathan Hock: How separate and isolated the Native American community is from what they call the outside world. Even though I knew the reality of the poverty and the drug and alcohol problems on the reservations, I think I still had this notion that it was as seamless a connection to the outside world as the borders are seamless. You know, you drive on the highway and there’s a sign saying, “Entering the Umatilla Indian Reservation,” but there really is a wall there. The people are raised there with such a lack of understanding of how the world outside the reservation works.
I certainly understand it now, and my hope is that the film will help young Native American people with talent and dreams to not be afraid. As unfamiliar and as difficult the terrain is, they can still make it, and this is something that they don’t know. Shoni and Ceci are certainly not the first Native Americans to have succeeded off the reservation, but it’s much more rare than you would think and much rarer than it ought to be. I hope there will be young people who will be inspired by Shoni’s story and will seek to fulfill their destinies.
Tribeca: What are your hopes for Off The Rez at Tribeca?
Jonathan Hock: I was working in this neighborhood on 9/11, and I feel like the Festival, for as big and commercially successful as it’s become, still represents the idea that in the face of something terrible, you stand up and do something great, and it’s great that there is that same spirit in this film. Shoni and her family are people who would not be deterred or defeated by the circumstances that the world had put out for them. They were going to create their own joy, in the same way the Festival did that here, and it has been so incredibly successful that we don’t even remember why it started sometimes.
Jonathan Hock: We have Buzz Bissinger, the journalist who wrote Friday Night Lights and has won a Pulitzer Prize, and he’s not one to hold back either, so having him and Ceci interact is going to be a lot of fun. Eileen O’Neil, who is president of TLC Networks and Discovery Networks, will be there, and she is the person who got behind this film at TLC when they funded it after we’d been shooting for a year. Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos [who will also be at the panel] are executive producers on this film and they had a first-look deal, and we had no expectations that TLC would want to do something with this film.
It turns out Eileen had played high-school basketball and felt very passionately about the story, and even though it wasn’t an easy fit for her network, she was so inspired by the story that she got behind it. Also all 16 members of the Schimmel family are going to be there, including Shoni and her 7 brothers and sisters! Most of them have not been to New York, so it will be very exciting. I haven’t seen them since we stopped filming in Portland close to a year ago, and they haven’t seen the film yet. But they are getting to New York a couple of days before the screening, so we will organize for them to see it before they have to watch it with people.
Jonathan Hock: Find a subject that you feel passionate about, and don’t be afraid to fall in love with it/them. When I say fall in love, that also means embracing their flaws. You have to present these flaws onscreen, otherwise it’s not going to feel real and it won't be real. Don’t be afraid to feel deeply for what you’re doing and trust your feelings, because they will guide you to those moments where your subject is going to reveal something very important. Also, if you keep your subject at arm's length and be purely analytical and try to have your subject bear some kind of pre-conceived notion for you, you’re not going to get anything interesting out of them. It’s going to be an essay of your thoughts on people with pictures. Film with an open heart, because that’s what will guide you to the truth.
Jonathan Hock: In 1995, I left NFL films, where I had worked for a long time, and started a workshop for at-risk youth, and one of the young people who came to the first group was Alistair Christopher, who was 15 at the time. We were shooting 16mm film donated by Kodak (NFL Films donated all the equipment), and we went around the city making short first-person narratives. When this young man picked up the camera, it was like he was born with it in his hand. He had an eye for composition, as he had done some illustrations growing up and graffiti art type things, and he learned how to use the camera and a light meter and got everything right and always ended up with beautiful images. And when I started making films again, he started hanging around the office, and we’d give him a camera and send him out to shoot some second unit stuff. When he was around 19 or 20, he came out to shoot B camera and a couple of verite-style shoots, and it was quickly apparent that he was not going to be the B camera for long. So I demoted myself to B camera, and he was promoted to A camera, and we’ve been working together ever since.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
Jonathan Hock: Besides Robert De Niro, I would have to say Roberto Rossellini. I find his War Trilogy and those early Italian neo-realist films in general to be incredibly inspiring, because those films are great examples of loving your subject and simultaneously showing them warts and all. So little can take place in terms of a narrative and so much happens to the people in his films. I also appreciate the political stance his films present—that “the system” is aligned against the people and individuals. When people take on that system in a very humble way, just to try to succeed within it, it’s the greatest, most heroic thing that ordinary people do. I would love to hear how he found these stories.
Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/TV show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Jonathan Hock: I’m recommending the new edition of The Elements of Style, the old Strunk and White book that Maira Kalman has breathed new life into with new illustrations and paintings. It takes these old notions of proper writing and makes them feel like somebody just thought them up. It’s a reference book with examples of proper usage and improper usages. It’s the driest thing you can imagine, but with her illustrations it’s become this delightful read.
Tribeca: What would your biopic(s) be called?
Jonathan Hock: Hmm, I don’t think that would get green lit! Yeah, that one’s going to be “Untitled Jonathan Hock Biopic: Project in Turnaround.” If you pitch it and somebody buys it, let me know.
Tribeca: What makes Off The Rez a Tribeca must-see?
Jonathan Hock: There are still people in the world for whom the doors are closed that those of us with privilege go through everyday, thinking these doors are open to us as long as we have the talent and the drive. There are Americans in our country for which this is not true, and we’ve seen the inner-city ghetto story, but we haven’t really seen the Native American ghetto story, and to me it’s just the hood but it’s set way out in the country in the middle of nowhere. Those people feel locked in, and I think the story of this family that moved off without compromising their own values and their loyalty to their people is really inspiring. I think it will open some eyes to a reality that we all live with and tolerate every day and never really think about, back East certainly. People really ought to know that there are those people who are Americans not born with the opportunity, and they grow up just not believing that this country is theirs the way the rest of us do.
Find out where and when Off the Rez is playing at the Festival.
Check out Hock Films to learn about Jonathan's past films.