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TC Doc Series: Steven Cantor on Devil's Playground

Meet Steve Cantor, the producer of the infamous Amish documentary, Devil's Playground. See it at TC Doc Series on Monday, May 10!



Steven Cantor is the founder and CEO of NYC-based Stick Figure Productions and has been behind such award-winning films as Willie Nelson: Still is Still Moving, What Remains: A Film About Sally Mann, and more. His film Devil's Playground will be playing as part of the Tribeca Cinema Doc Series on May 10, 2010. Please describe the story you tell in your film. What inspired you to tell that story?


Steven Cantor: The film explores Rumspringa, wherein young Amish are given the opportunity to explore the "English" way of life. We track a few of these young people over the course of their experience. The film shows how difficult it is for them to break away from the church. Many of them "act out," exploring not just Nintendo and rock music, but alcohol, drugs, and sex. But almost all of them return to the church, as there is tremendous pressure, both economic and emotional, on these kids to return to the fold.


We focus primarily on a young man, Faron, who develops a serious drug problem and decides not to get baptized, and a young woman, Velda, who was baptized, and then later, suffering from acute depression, made the difficult decision to leave the church. Can you tell us a little about Rumspringa?


The Amish are Anabaptists, which means that they are not baptized as children, but rather have to choose to be baptized as adults. Therefore, they have built into their religion a period called Rumspringa—at age 16 they are effectively released from all Amish rules and customs and allowed to explore the outside world. Until that point, they lead completely sheltered lives, so they often crash pretty hard into our vice-riddled society. Making documentaries is not an easy road. What was the biggest challenge in getting your film made? How did you overcome it?


Amish elders, citing the Second Commandment, are averse to having their image "graven." As a result, we had extremely limited access to anyone who had been baptized into the Amish Church. And even though the teenagers are theoretically released from Amish rules and therefore can appear on camera, they have grown up with little exposure to Western media, including film and television and video cameras, and therefore little interest in participating in a film like this. We started with the seed of an idea, not realizing how excruciating it would be to find the characters and stories we could follow. It took us four years to make the film. And in the process, we burned through a number of field producers and potential directors, myself included, before we ultimately ended up taking a shot on Lucy Walker, who was working on the Nickelodeon show "Blues Clues," and did an admirable job of picking up the leads we had and sticking it out in Indiana to capture the necessary storylines.


Then we made the ingenious decision of bringing on editor, Pax Wassermann, another relative newcomer at the time (though now eight years later, very established) to weave together something logical and sensitive out of the material we had gathered.


Devil's Playground What's up next for you as a director?


Pax (as editor) and I just teamed up again on another HBO film, No One Dies in Lily Dale, about a town of psychics and mediums in upstate New York. We followed some of the thousands of people from all over the world who flock to the village every summer to have questions answered and grief assuaged, chronicling their extraordinary interactions with Lily Dale's unusual residents. The broadcast premiere is on July 5th.


I'm currently developing a psychological thriller feature with one of my favorite collaborators, Eric Daniel Metzgar, and just planning a new documentary with Prof. Robert Thurman and the Dalai Lama. What do you currently find most inspiring in today's film world?


There are a lot of great films being made, especially with the advances in video technology. I just saw The Secret in Their Eyes and really loved it.


But, truth be told, my current obsession is the "concerts a emporter" on a website— Filmmakers from all over, but in particular a guy named Vincent Moon, shoot intimate off-the-cuff live performances by bands. There are hundreds of amazing ones, so if you love music as I do, you can while away quite a number of hours poring over this amazing archive. Start with Sigur Ros performing at the pretty much empty and disinterested French café La Closerie des Lilas. Incredible. What makes Devil's Playground a must-see?


Yikes. I'm not sure I would ever call one of my films a must-see. But I think we do a good job of making the audience care about the characters we portrayed, in particular, Faron. And I think the overall theme—the clash between religion and secularism—remains of paramount importance in the world today.


As a side story, when Pax and I were recording the DVD commentary, we had the feeling that nobody would be listening to what we were saying, so I decided to present a little test, gave my e-mail address, and asked anyone listening to let me know. Well, suffice to say, I have been astonished by the response—literally, thousands of people have written in, many to say they were affected by the film and some with long, deeply personal stories. My company now has a pretty extensive mailing list, and most of it stems from that one flippant comment I made.


I guess if anything makes it a must-see, it's that it's been around for a while and a lot of other people have liked it and been moved by it.


Monday, May 10, 2010
7:30 pm

Producer Steven Cantor and Executive Producer Julie Goldman will both be in attendance.
The Tribeca Cinemas bar will be open before and after the screening—stop in for a drink and mingle with other movie lovers.



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