“Directing When You Are an Editor Feels Like Cheating”: Cinque Northern on His Telluride Doc Short Angola Do You Hear Us?
Having already made the prestige fest rounds to great acclaim this year—from Tribeca to the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage outdoor film series just this summer—Cinque Northern’s Angola Do You Hear Us? is now a must-catch at Telluride. The documentary short follows the incomparable actor and playwright Liza Jessie Peterson on her artistic and spiritual mission to bring her one-woman show The Peculiar Patriot to none other than the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The film also explores all the baggage, bureaucracy and ultimate blocking that was met with a work centered on racial injustice (that deftly connects the capitalistic dots between slavery and the incarceration industrial complex) at a plantation-turned-prison.
So to learn all about this outside the box project (which even includes some evocative animation) Filmmaker reached out to the short’s director/editor— and 25 New Faces alum—the week before the film’s Telluride launch.
Filmmaker: So how did you first meet Liza, and how did that collaboration actually work?
Northern: I met Liza years ago through mutual friends. At the time, she was working with incarcerated youth at Rikers Island and writing a book about the experience. I deeply identified with her struggle as an artist and wanted to amplify what she was doing in a cinematic way.
Through a pre-interview, she shared her story and footage of her teaching at Rikers. We would go on to have many more conversations; but it was another year before we went to Angola and partnered with producer Catherine Gund, who also wanted to make a film that featured Liza’s play.
Liza contributed a lot behind the scenes. She organized the phone calls with the incarcerated men when their wives reached out to her. My very candid conversations were gained through the entry point of their trust in Liza and what she represented. Both the owner of the location where we filmed Liza’s interview and one of the composers came through her contacts. I valued her opinion throughout, and we definitely built a creative partnership in the process.
Filmmaker: So how has primarily being an editor for the past two decades informed your filmmaking process? Do you cut in your head throughout production?
Northern: I absolutely cut in my head! Directing when you are an editor feels like cheating. Years of editing gives you the ability to hold a variety of moments in your head and audition them in relationship to each other.
So when you’re on set composing shots, deciding on coverage, or asking followup questions, you have a very strong sense of how and if it will cut. I love the human interaction of directing and the creativity of visual storytelling, but I tend to approach it like I’m assembling material for the edit. Conversely, I also edit from the perspective of a director, so if I don’t have the visuals needed I look for creative ways to get them.
Filmmaker: The film employs some inventive use of animation, and also some heartfelt testimonials from several of the incarcerated (voiced by actors) towards the end. It made me wonder which artistic decisions were actually part of your original plan for the doc versus the result of the prison’s imposed restrictions.
Northern: I believe part of the strength of this film comes from the fact that it was not planned. I went to Angola with the idea of making a more biographical film about Liza. But when the men responded with such passion, and the administration shut down the play, it seemed clear that I could tell a story about what happened that day in that room—with Liza’s personal journey as the B storyline.
Because Angola didn’t allow us to film the play, we had to use animation and first-hand accounts to place us in that room with accuracy. I had to replace the incarcerated men’s voices because they were so candid and vulnerable that we had to protect their identities from any pushback. The design of the film grew out of trying to represent Liza and the men while finding creative solutions to obstacles.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges you encountered? Were they more bureaucratic than cinematic?
Northern: One of the biggest challenges came from just trying to tell the parts of the story that we were unable to get on camera. It was a tall order for the animation team to render a visual narration of the events we documented through firsthand interviews. It took meticulousness and patience to get the details right, and given we had a fairly tight turnaround, I was blown away by what they created.
Filmmaker: Not too long ago, I learned the unnerving statistic that the top three subjects of documentaries centering on Black characters and experiences are, in descending order, race/racism, crime, and music. As someone long focused on the intersection of social impact and artistry, what are your thoughts on this? What’s the best way to support work that addresses these topics while not contributing to the narrowing of Black voices?
Northern: I’m a big fan of representing nuance and a more complete picture of Black life. But I am not of the mindset that depicting a problem is the problem. I believe the problem is the problem.
In the face of collective pain, artists and creatives have to say the unsaid. For me, the distinction between the gratuitous exploitation of Black pain—which is definitely a thing—and more expansive cinema is the extent to which the filmmaker is willing to listen to who the camera is being pointed at. Are you portraying a human being? Are you letting them change and surprise you? When a film humanizes people, it creates empathy (not just sympathy) and the possibility of change.
I am so proud of the team and the work we did on this film, but I will be much happier when its subject matter is obsolete.