Heroes are confusing.
As a child in Brazil, I grew accustomed to seeing films from the U.S.A depicting racial injustices being fought by heroic light-skinned fellas who used their rationality and generosity to help liberate the downtrodden from their burdens. It is now clear that if what these films portrayed then is still going on today, the kind-hearted “white saviors” didn’t really save anyone. I had this in mind as we prepared to tell a fictional story of two black teenage hacker activists. These hacktivists had had enough and, influenced by Edward Snowden, were ready to do what the establishment was not willing to do. They were going to try to radicalize the system.
We filmed the first scenes of our film American Thief about eighteen months before the end of Obama’s second term. The implications associated with the first Black president stepping down were more complex than what the general public was ready to accept or, in some cases, even imagine. This country was as racist in 2016 as it ever was. Nothing was new or surprising about the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and many other black men and women in the years leading up to the 2016 election. The surprising new element was the footage. If the very first execution video didn’t shut down the country, clearly there was going to be a second, a third, a fourth… There was something sordid about how these horrid videos were being consumed online and how the Black Lives Matter protests and demands for justice were met with criticism or completely ignored by the leading political parties. It felt like these videos didn’t really mean anything – no concrete action was being proposed in a serious manner by the country’s political leadership.
If you were willing to make the connection, you would have noticed the red flags all over indicating that something unprecedented was about to go down.
Reality hits: No dog? No problem. Hunt with a cat.
Out of money to pay for an apartment in NYC, I had to move to my producer’s couch for a few months. While we struggled to find ways to keep filming, the Bernie Sanders campaign exploded. So did Donald Trump’s. As I looked at our footage and at what was happening out in the streets, the daunting feeling that Trump had a major shot at winning the republican nomination grew stronger. As we kept trying to finance the film, our story began to incorporate more and more of what was happening during the election. The certainty I had that Trump was going to be the republican nominee was now directly proportional to the level of media denial that this could happen.
As my producer Michel Stolnicki and I continued to develop the story with screenwriter and co- producer Missy Hernandez, it became clear that our improvised approach was getting us closer to truths we should not and could not script. It was more important to observe and listen to what the streets were telling us. As we filmed our characters in real life events such as protests, rallies, and marches for Black Lives Matter, people would naturally approach our crew to speak their minds to our cameras. At first, I was simply curious about what people had to say. Soon, I realized this was the way the film demanded to be made. We began interviewing people and allowing reality to blend with the fiction narrative.
Cubs Win World Series: Now we know for sure.
Between January and November, a lot had happened. The Cubs won. The primaries were over and now it was Hillary vs Trump vs the kitchen sink. In my mind, the excitement for the possibility of having the first female president simply didn’t match the broken “state of the union” made self-evident in each and every awful snuff video depicting black people being executed by law enforcement, or by the protesters being attacked in Standing Rock – all met with the same contempt by the policy makers in Whashington. How clear did it need to get before people caught up to the notion that things were not going to go as expected? At that point I was virtually convinced that Trump was going to win the presidency.
Meanwhile, we found great partners who helped finance more shooting days of what was now, clearly, a documentary-fiction hybrid. I also won the Jerome foundation Production Award which allowed me to shoot crucial segments of the film. The most crucial of them all – Election Night 2016 in New York City. With Hillary and Trump’s Election Night headquarters only a mile and a half away from each other, we decided to put our cast and crew in the middle of it all. Everything we knew was going to happen months prior to election night did happen that night. And we captured it. Even though a lot still needed to be shot, the soul of the film was finally in the can.
Making and releasing films in a COVID-19 world.
As the world shuts down in an attempt to try containing the spread of the virus, with some countries doing a better job than others, the U.S.A and Brazil being the worst of all, the film industry does its best to adapt. Film festivals are going online or moving their screenings from indoor theaters to Drive-Ins. American Thief had its premiere in a Drive-In as the centerpiece film at the Maine International Film Festival. Even though the road to the outdoor theater venue was plastered by “Trump 2020” signs on both sides, at the end of the screening the sold-out venue burst into a symphony of car honks or “car applause.”
After years of work and preparation for a release in theaters, we understand and embrace the new reality of film distribution. American Thief is scheduled to play in numerous international film festivals before the presidential election in November. Let’s see what happens.
2021 in the horizon
It’s all connected, folks.
As I write these concluding words, there are over 6 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally (I wrote this a little over one month ago, as of August 11th the number of cases has reached 20 million). This pandemic has claimed over three-hundred thousand lives (735K as of today). It’s a major catastrophe. At the same time, people across the country are risking their health and safety to speak out in protest against the centuries-old issues of systemic racism and police brutality only to be met with increased violence from police, and now, federal agents.
As a filmmaker, I think that now is a time for artists to engage, listen, reflect, and capture this moment and this movement – to demand participation in and consciousness of what we “consume.” I didn’t make a “feel good” movie. I know my film makes people uncomfortable and I am comfortable with that.
Miguel Silveira is a director, writer, and arts educator who makes films dedicated to investigating social issues in contemporary culture. His recent works include “I Am A Visitor In Your World” — a feature documentary that follows a young woman’s struggle with the medical costs of her terminal illness, “Venezuela: The Sounds of Peace” for MTV’s TV documentary series “Rebel Music” – which follows musicians and activists as they use their music to fight for change, and “Devil’s Work” — a short film about a young boy’s search for answers after his war veteran father commits suicide. Silveira’s most recent film, “American Thief” is a feature narrative fiction/documentary hybrid about a teen hacker who unexpectedly becomes a pawn in a plot to derail the 2016 presidential elections. “American Thief” is a Jerome Foundation grantee and participant in the 2017 IFP Narrative Completion Lab.