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Faces of the Festival:<br>Nicole Opper

Nicole Opper’s first feature documentary, Off and Running, tells a uniquely American coming-of-age story. We spoke with the director about the joys, and occasional frustrations, of working with a high school girl.

There’s a bit of serendipity operating behind 28-year-old director Nicole Opper’s first feature documentary, Off and Running. A student film Opper was making while at NYU led her to create a film course for middle-students at a Brooklyn private school. That's where she met Avery Klein-Cloud, a young African-American girl being raised in her own little melting pot—her adoptive parents are white Jewish lesbians, her younger brother is Korean, and her older brother is mixed-race. Fascinated by Avery and her family situation, Opper spent the next three years collaborating with the teenager to tell her uniquely American coming-of-age story. And that led to one of the most poignant films in this year’s Festival.

What makes Off and Running a Tribeca Must-See?

This is a film that tells the story of the new American family from the voice of a young person during a time when it's more critical than ever to listen to those voices. I think Off and Running is coming to light at a time when the message of the film is being reflected in our society, particularly with the arrival of Obama. The Obama administration is the first to recognize LGBT families and reflect racial diversity. The issues of adoption and gay marriage are obviously all over the media today, and the characters in the story give insight into the real-world versions of these things.

What’s the craziest thing that happened while making the film?

There were times when it was very hard to understand Avery’s motivations or intentions. I was constantly having to balance that with what my expectations of her were. I recognized that I had to prepare myself to be surprised. And coming to the realization that this film is something Avery will live with for the rest of her life: It has the potential to shape her memory of her earlier self, and there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with that realization as a filmmaker.

What are your hopes/fears/wishes regarding Tribeca?

My hope is that the audiences really respond to the film and walk away feeling close to Avery and her family. Beyond that we want to work to find bigger audiences at the Festival. My fear would be that the film doesn’t inspire conversation. That was always the goal from the beginning, to get people to talk about the issues the film brings up.

If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead)–who would you want it to be?

Mike Leigh. He’s a filmmaker who leaves people with more questions than answers, and I really respect that about his work. But you also leave feeling like you’ve completely gotten to know his characters in this really intimate way. I think that’s a great goal to have as a filmmaker. Or would it be Christopher Guest… 'cause that would just be fun, right?

What piece of art (film/book/music/what-have-you) do you recommend to your friends?

A.M. Homes’ The Mistress’s Daughter. It’s about her own adoption experience, and it just stirred me and influenced me so much in the ways I began to think about the possibilities of adoption.

What would your biopic be called?

All I can think of are totally inappropriate things.

How did you first get involved with Avery and her family?

I was making a student film at NYU, and the film ended up involving students at the middle school Avery attended [Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn]. They became so excited by the process that I ended up pitching the idea of the film class to the school. I met Avery’s family from afar while she was my student. As a prospective adoptive parent, I’ve always been interested in adoption and always knew I wanted to adopt someday. She went off to high school and would come back to visit. When she was 16, I approached her about making this film about her family. I was just so drawn to her because she’s a charismatic character. She’s such a bold individual and never afraid to speak her mind.

How involved was Avery in telling her own story?

The whole idea of this film was to have a true collaboration with a young person, so she was very involved. Our process usually involved sitting down before and after every shoot, just checking in, seeing where Avery was emotionally, then we would constantly reorient ourselves to what this story was about. She would come in while we were cutting it and give her input. She was amazingly sort of hard on herself. The moments that make her seem the most vulnerable or the most embarrassing—she wanted to leave them in. She really got into the idea of making this the most honest story possible. She didn’t self-censor.

Was it difficult to work so collaboratively with a high school teenager?

She didn’t keep a calendar! Just trying to track Avery down half the time was a challenge. I think that’s a side effect of being a teenager. Other times she was just really unpredictable, and it became clear to me that if this was going to work, we were going to have to talk on a regular basis so I could feel connected to her and her journey. We had to get to that place where Avery felt like I was someone she could always talk to above and beyond the filmmaking.

Your film was selected by the Tribeca All Access program. Tell us what that has meant to you.

Tribeca All Access is a really innovative program created with the intention of connecting filmmakers with industry people and, almost more importantly, other like-minded filmmakers. I met a lot of incredible friends through the program. It really began the relationship we have with Tribeca. I’m involved in the [Tribeca Film Institute’s] mentorship program and Youth Screening Series. I highly recommend to other filmmakers to give that program a shot. I’ve been telling everyone to apply.

Off and Running premieres on Sunday, April 26, at 5:00 pm.
More screenings will follow.

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