'Happy Birthday Project' Uses Deep Irony to Cut Through the Bullshit on Police Brutality
"We're asking our audience to truly consider the impact of human loss."
With the US Presidential elections less than a month away, political rhetoric in this country is high, and the focus on tangible issues is low. In all the hubbub, it can be easy to forget that there are human beings behind the hotly debated topics—real people are affected by the headline-grabbing moments.
Filmmakers Mohammad Gorjestani and Malcolm Pullinger of Even/Odd are trying to combat this by bringing us up close and personal with people at the heart of one of the essential issues facing the US today: police violence against unarmed citizens. Their Happy Birthday Project is, in Gorjestani’s words, "a series of intimate short films on the loved ones and communities affected by police shootings." Each piece focuses on one man killed by police, and each is filmed on the first would-be birthday after his death.
No Film School: What motivated you to create this project?
Mohammad Gorjestani: We're making the films to hopefully shift the camera beyond the headlines and the initial shock and anger that floods the airways, and re-frame these tragedies inside of the quiet, stick-to-your-bones grief that these people are feeling. We're asking our audience to truly consider the impact of human loss. We’d like the project to be a catalyst in creating common ground and dialogue by bringing all sides together with a common language, rooted in empathy.
"Even when we were filming, it was like, 'Man, at this very moment last year, Philando was here.'"
NFS: Why take this particular stylistic approach?
Gorjestani: I think it made sense practically and emotionally. A birthday is something we can all relate to. It is meant to celebrate the continuation of life in its purest form, and to acknowledge a human being’s existence in the world. So this deep irony and juxtaposition felt right.
For me, even when we were filming, it was like, "Man, at this very moment last year, Philando was here," or "I can't believe last year Mario was alive for his birthday." And then you think about how they were killed in that same moment. That right there is very heavy. Hopefully, that weight transcends the screen.
Logistically, the ability to turn these around quickly is a big part of this project. Truth be told, we wanted to get [the Philando Castile video] out to the world while his name was still fresh in people's minds. And since we're mostly self-funded (with the addition of a few generous donations), I wanted to make sure we weren't setting ourselves up for a project that required days of filming, interviews, and a long edit. By containing the film to a one-day event, we were able to make these films and will continue to make them at scale without requiring a ton of funding.
NFS: The families and others close to the deceased have potentially received a lot of press attention. How did you get them to trust you and let you into their intimate moments?
Gorjestani: A lot of credit goes to Ephraim Walker, one of our EPs who, in addition to his role on this project, was a consulting producer on Fruitvale Station (dir. Ryan Coogler, 2013), and also works for John Burris, who is one of the most respected Civil Rights attorneys in recent US history. Malcolm and I met Ephraim because we were all in residency together at the San Francisco Film Society's Filmhouse, and the project really came together over a few conversations we had that led to us making Happy Birthday Oscar Grant. I think the success of that film, along with Ephraim's track record, gave us credibility to engage Philando's people.
From there, we really took it one step at a time. First, getting the okay to be present with our camera and crew on the birthday. Then, once we met Philando's friends and met Gwen, things mostly took care of themselves. I think they could see that we had no agenda, no incentive, and really just wanted to tell a meaningful story.
We also made it really clear that this was meant to be a collaboration, and I think everyone responded well to that. Another thing we learned through filming is that people had a lot that they wanted to say, but felt that they hadn’t had the proper opportunity to express it in the right context. So they ended up seeing us as "filmmakers" instead of as "press," and that's huge.
NFS: If you are trying to raise awareness, how do you plan to get the films out to a wide audience? In other words, how can the films actually make an impact?
Gorjestani: We really aren't reinventing the wheel with the release strategy. We engage some outlets we think would be a good home for the films. With Philando, we released the film with The Guardian and from there, it got picked up at The Atlantic, Mic.com, and a few other places. We also got a Vimeo Staff pick, which was great.
For our film on Mario Woods, we had a similar strategy of landing a partner we think is right for the exclusive for the film, and also making sure a few other targeted outlets were aware of it. We ended up partnering with The Atlantic and REVOLT.
"These films are part of a greater movement that we hope will draw viewer’s attention towards the common ground we all have with each other, rather than our differences."
Out of the gate, we decided that we weren't going to make this a "festival first" project. This is all about getting maximum eyeballs and trying to get the films seen via outlets that have a diverse and wide reach. Hopefully, through these outlets, these films reach people who generally wouldn't see this more "slow-burning" type of storytelling. These films are part of a greater movement that we hope will draw viewer’s attention towards the common ground we all have with each other, rather than our differences. We're also going to enter the films into festivals, but we took an online-first strategy because of the timeliness of the films.
As far as impact, I think that’s hard to pinpoint. Films can inspire dialogues and leave lasting impressions on people, so to me "impact" starts to be achieved when a person who sees it changes their perception or reinforces an existing one. What that person does with that feeling—especially if they put it into action—is impact. It could be as simple as someone having a newfound empathy, or as radical as changing someone's entire perception. Hopefully, in a few years, the climate on these issues becomes less tumultuous and more unified, and we’d like to think these films could play a small part in that.
NFS: What are your next steps for the project?
Gorjestani: We're looking to find partners and donors interested in making long-term commitments to the project, which would provide the necessary resources and enable us to continue making these films at a high-quality level. We also are exploring the creation of a microsite for the films, as well as building out some interactive elements and other content around the project. I wish we could say that these issues will be resolved so we won't have to be making any more of these films, but my gut feeling is that there will be more to come.