In Focus: Jason Zeldes on Romeo Is Bleeding

JASON ZELDES, ROMEO IS BLEEDING

Donte Clark's poetic voice was honed on the violent street corners of a struggling city. Yet rather than succumb to the pressures of Richmond, CA, Clark uses his artistic perspective to save his city from itself. For more information visit RomeoIsBleedingFilm.com.

Romeo Is Bleeding is a 2014 SFFS Documentary Film Fund winner.

How did you first discover your subject(s), and what made you decide to make a film about them?

One of my favorite parts about the making of Romeo is Bleeding is that it’s a family effort.  7 years ago, my cousin Molly Raynor moved to the Bay Area and started teaching in Richmond.  She built the poetry program, RAW Talent, from the ground up, and every time we would see each other she would rave about her student, Donte Clark.  I heard Donte’s story over the years, as he transformed from a troubled youth into the heart of the bourgeoning poetic community in Richmond.  In the summer of 2012, Molly came running up to me at my grandma’s 80th birthday party in Ann Arbor, MI.  “You’re never going to believe what Donte is doing this year!” She proceeded to tell me the larger-than-life tale about Donte adapting Romeo and Juliet into an autobiographical allegory for coming of age in the midst a turf war.  As I listened to Molly, I realized that if I didn’t chase this opportunity I would regret it forever.  Four days later I had written a treatment.  Ten days later I went on my first exploratory shoot in Richmond, and it was everything I could’ve ever dreamt it to be.  I fell in love with Richmond and its youth. I was (and continue to be) mesmerized by Donte’s incredible heart and talent.  Before I even admitted to myself that I was making a feature, it was already underway, and it has been an amazing experience from Day 1.

 


What do you see as the greatest challenges for documentary filmmakers today?  

The greatest challenge for documentary filmmakers today specifically, would have to be the dedication it takes to stick with a story for years in an age of youtube, instagram, and instant gratification.  Documentary filmmaking is an old school endeavor.  It takes time and persistence to allow a story to develop from beginning to end.  The challenge is realizing that you’re still documenting the first act of your story, when you’ve been filming for months on end.  The challenge is creating the time to work with the footage while you’re shooting, in order to diagnose whether your story is complete, or you need to keep filming.  The challenge is admitting to yourself in 2012 that your film will consume your thoughts and your dreams until (and probably beyond) 2015.  I guess all that is to say that the challenge is sustaining the passion necessary to make documentary film at a high level. I think that in order to do this well, you have to truly love your topic, and your characters, and take the time to tell their stories with the care and craft that they deserve.  I lucked out with Romeo is Bleeding, because passion for the topic and characters has never been an issue. I just need to remind myself to get some rest every now and then.


 

What new opportunities are making the biggest difference to your filmmaking process?

This is a hard question to answer as a first time director, because I’m just figuring out my filmmaking process.  I didn’t step into this role entirely green though, I am a film editor by trade, so I felt very prepared for directing my cinematographer to get proper coverage, and for conducting interviews.  I think the most helpful opportunities have been collaborating with other filmmakers and organizations, like the San Francisco Film Society, throughout the process.  SFFS helped me form my film’s identity in all of my writing, which has definitely influenced how I structure the film in the edit bay.  Fellow filmmakers have given invaluable feedback on all of my edits, from first assembly onwards.  Other organizations, have come forward to help navigate us through the finishing processes and marketing efforts that lie on the far side of picture lock.  Every step of the way I’ve been astounded by how much help and support is available to those filmmakers who are willing to sit down, write an application to these various programs, and ask for help.  Who knows if Romeo is Bleeding would even be on course to be a finished film if it wasn’t for all this support?

 


 Describe what impact San Francisco Film Society support has had on your film.

The San Francisco Film Society has been an invaluable asset for Romeo is Bleeding.  I’m an editor by trade, but this is my first time directing a feature.  Obviously, there is a steep learning curve while navigating the world of grant-writing and fiscal sponsorship.  Athena, Michelle, and the rest of the SFFS team paid me an incredible amount of individual attention, meeting with me on multiple occasions when I felt I needed direction in my writing. The Filmmaker 360 team offered insightful advice regarding how to make Romeo is Bleeding stand out from the pack, and their advice on how to frame my story has expanded beyond just my writing, but also into the edit bay.  I’m so happy that SFFS is supporting a Bay Area film about Bay Area youth, and I could not imagine going through this long filmmaking journey without their support.