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Taking Off and Running with Nicole Opper

Director Nicole Opper's documentary Off and Running (TFF 2009) began as a portrait of a unique family, but soon grew into so much more. Find it on DVD this week!

Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival 2009

Director and producer Nicole Opper's documentary Off and Running (TFF 2009) began as a portrait of a young African-American teen, Avery, and her adoptive family, the Klein-Clouds: white Jewish moms Tova and Travis, multi-racial older brother Rafi, and Korean younger brother Zay-Zay (Isiah). However, when Avery makes the important decision to contact her birth mother, their family and her life change dramatically in front of Opper's lens. The unique relationship between Avery and her former teacher-turned-mentor offers a opportunity for insight into Avery's struggle to find her own identity in an already turbulent time of life.

Says Opper, "I had never met gay parents before when I met them. I knew I was gay, and I knew I wanted to have a family of my own, so I was instantly drawn to them as individuals and as a unit, and so all along, this has been so rewarding and enriching for me because I've been able to feel that, in a sense, I am preparing for my own future by having shaped this story."

Isiah (Zay-Zay), Avery, Tova, Travis, and Rafi Klein-Cloud

Can you explain how you became involved with Avery and, more importantly, gained access to her family and her private life?

I met Avery first. She was 12 years old, and I was finishing up NYU film school. My thesis project was a documentary about a poet named Hannah Senesh, and Avery was attending this little private Jewish day school in Brooklyn called the Hannah Senesh Day School, so I went there to interview the kids and involve them in the project, and she jumped out and volunteered herself for an interview. And we had a lot of fun doing that. I wound up teaching a [film] class the next year for those kids, and she was in my class, so we were kind of first interviewer/interviewee, then quickly teacher/student. A few years later, after she'd gotten into high school and would come back and visit me now and then, we decided to embark on this project. But I did actually approach her parents first because she was only 16 at the time. And they sounded interested, so they had me over for dinner and we talked about what it would all mean and how long it might take—and they didn't believe me when I said it might take up to a few years [laughs]—and the next thing you know, we were filming.

What was Avery's involvement in the film-making process itself?

Avery became really involved in the creative process as we moved along and the reason that that happened—well, first it was a natural fit, because we were teacher and student in the beginning so I already felt passionate and invested in young people learning how to make their own media, so that was my approach with her from the beginning. But it was really not until she kind of disappeared from the project for a couple months and cut all communication with most of her family members and myself that our working relationship really transformed. When she finally came back and said, "Okay, I'm ready to join you again and do this," I brought her in in a much more collaborative way and invited her into the edit room a lot, where she would offer her own feedback to footage we'd shot together.We'd have writing exercises where she'd kind of work out her narration, so she became really involved and invested and took ownership of her own story, and we ended up crediting her for that, as a co-writer of the film.

I know this was shot verite style, so you started with Avery and went from there, but did you have any idea of the drama that would unfold? I was pretty surprised.

I, too, was surprised at every turn. Going into this project, I envisioned it really just being this portrait of a young woman growing up in an interracial adoptive household with two lesbian moms. I wanted that reflected in the media, and I was excited about presenting a positive image of that, and, you know, quickly things just became a little more complicated and a lot more real than that... But I was absolutely shocked when Avery's life kind of began to unravel and I felt like I was barely keeping up. I was always just one step behind her as it was happening with the camera, having that constant negotiation of what do I shoot and what do I talk her through and try to help her through, and so we found this natural balance that felt right for both of us, which was to do a little bit of both. We had a lot of time in these last three years that we spent together [that] we spent off camera. So I think I was always first and foremost her mentor and secondly her filmmaker. [laughs]

Avery, Tova, Travis, and Nicole Opper behind the scenes

As she grows estranged from her parents, they're less and less in the movie. Were you ever tempted to go talk to them on their own, whether as a friend or a filmmaker?

Absolutely, a little bit of both. I sat down and interviewed them alone in their house while Avery was kind of away, which was pretty uncomfortable for all of us. But I would also just check in with them all the time—on the phone, and I had a few brunches at the house when Avery was off doing her thing and finding her space—[but] I would say, much less so than the time that I spent with Avery, absolutely. And they understood that, and I think they were all for that, frankly. At that point, it was kind of like, the more adult mentors in her life helping her find her way, the better. And this was a strength of theirs as parents—they didn't feel the need to be managing every step that she took, and I think that that was ultimately why she ended up picking herself back up and moving forward, and her relationship with them now is much stronger.

You're very involved in youth filmmaking, particularly with Tribeca All Access and the mentorship program and the screening series.

Well, I'm a huge fan of the Tribeca Film Institute, actually. [laughs] I thought it was amazing what was created for the youth of New York City at the Festival, and I haven't experienced that before, and I've been in a lot of other festivals, so the fact that there was a whole separate screening series just for public high school and middle school students was incredible. Avery came to every single one of those screenings, and she was treated like Beyonce. [laughs] People were standing up and cheering. That was so much fun for all of us... I've participated outside of the film with Lisa [Lucas]'s program... the Youth Screening Series, the Tribeca Film Fellows program, and right now I'm also volunteering with Reel Works in Brooklyn, so I have a 15-year-old mentee who's making a film about not wanting to grow up, and she's in production right now. They're just a really incredible media program out in Park Slope. So I just love this work. It's invigorating for me; I feel like I learn from watching how kids choose to tell stories before they go through any kind of training or they're told how they're supposed to do it. It's so much fun to see what they come up with on their own.

The way you're describing how you worked with Avery reminds me a little bit of Mike Leigh or maybe Andrea Arnold, and how they shape their actors' performances with the actors themselves—not to say Avery is an actor, but...

Yeah, I think a lot about... how documentary is so heavily influencing narrative filmmaking right now, but also, I think, the other way around. There were a lot of moments where I felt that Avery was, not necessarily performing for the camera, but she was well-aware of the medium she was working in, and she was well-aware of the need to create a narrative arc and to reach a resolution. You know, we may never know how much her awareness of that impacted her actions, or even the outcome of the film, but I think it's a really interesting thing to consider. And she got very, very good about directing herself and the people in the room in a scene... particularly when she started to get involved behind the camera and really become a player in the creation of the film. It would happen all the time where... she'd have a group of friends in the living room, they'd be in a conversation about something completely irrelevant to the film and she would kind of glance at me and steer it into something else, and in that sense, direct it. So I think that there's a lot of fiction in documentary. I'm one of those people who really enjoys the blurring of those lines, and I think that, ultimately, it's just about finding emotional truth, whether it's scripted or real. That was our goal all along, was to help [the] discovery of Avery's emotional truth.

That's fascinating, because the synergy there is—she's learning about herself and she's learning about filmmaking and she's learning how to express herself, both her own truth but also in a way manipulate it. She wanted a happy ending.


And she got herself one.

And we talked about that all the time. "Avery, do you really want to end here? I've gotta finish up this film. We're actually on a deadline. We have funders. [laughs] Things need to happen. Is this how you want the movie to end?" We had those conversations... And I was manipulative too. I used that as motivation when she dropped out of school. It was sort of like, "Oh, we can't have that be the ending, Avery, so you better take that GED, girl! [laughs] You better get it together! You're gonna live with this movie forever."

Do you have any plans for a feature-length narrative?

It's so funny. Some people have asked whether I would try to turn this into a feature narrative, and I just, there's no way I could ever attempt that. I don't know where I would begin. But it has influenced some of the future projects I hope to make. My project coming up is a doc, and I'm headed to Mexico in a month or so to start filming at a home for boys who have been abandoned by their families, some of whom are in the States looking for work but others [who are] abusive, dealing with issues of drugs and alcohol. So these kids usually have lived on the streets for a while before they come to this home, which is this totally self-sustainable space where they're running a farm and, you know, making goat cheese and selling to cover their own cost of living and also doing amazingly well in school and usually going on to college. It's a real success story, so I'm excited to go embed there for a while and just live with these kids.

But yeah, I'm also beginning to write and outline a future script that follows a young African-American Jewish girl to Mexico to study abroad and she develops a really strong relationship with her home-stay mom. And I think you'll see a lot of Avery in that character.


Off and Running is now available on DVD.


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