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Community Engagement Research and Thoughtful Filmmaking

Community Engagement Research and Thoughtful Filmmaking

Kaeley Boyle

Lanie Zipoy is a Memphis-born, New York-based director and creative producer working in film and theater. When Lanie isn’t working on award winning film she devotes her time to community through the arts. Lanie has served as a volunteer tutor for over 1,000 New York City children through the East Harlem Tutorial Program and New York Cares. Her work in community engagement research translates seamlessly into her first feature length film, The Subject, which follows a white documentary filmmaker’s journey after filming the death of a young black man.

I had the privilege of screening, The Subject, for the Loudoun Arts Film Festival a couples month past. It embodies the essence of great independent film. It’s evocative, thoughtful and unapologetic. The Subject features an incredible script by screenwriter, Chisa Hutchinson, and stunning performances by Jason Biggs and Aunjanue Ellis. The back half of the film steps on the pedal and doesn’t let off until the credits role.

Lanie recently took time out of her incredibly busy schedule to speak with us about art, community engagement, The Subject, and her upcoming projects.

AF: Can you talk about your work with the East Harlem Tutorial Program and how you’ve seen that impact the art you create?

Lanie Zipoy: I worked one-on-one with a student, Anthony, on a weekly basis for six years from the time he was eight-years-old until he was 14. His family moved away from New York or we would have continued to work together through his high school years.

Those Monday nights at East Harlem Tutorial Program were some of the favorite of my life. Anthony loved poetry and science; it was a joy to explore the arts and science with him week in and week out. When he was 11, Anthony and another student scripted and shot a short film, “Black and Blue,” about being their own version of superheroes. Supporting his love of storytelling sticks with me years later. I want to make movies that he would be proud of, that reflect New York, and honor the years we worked together. 

We, in fact, shot a few scenes of The Subject across the street from EHTP. It felt like coming home.

the subject film poster, community engagement
Photo Courtesy of The Subject

AF: How did you come to make “The Subject”?

Lanie Zipoy: I had known screenwriter Chisa Hutchinson for about a decade. We are both theatermakers, and had worked on a piece together years ago. I produced a collaboratively-created play that she wrote a scene in; a very funny and sexy scene. It was a joyous experience. When I was looking for a screenplay to direct, I reached out to a lot of colleagues, and Chisa’s script was the one I could not stop thinking about. The Subject grabbed me from the first time I read it.

The characters are compellingly real, and it unpacks our world in such a complex manner. When Chisa and I spoke, we were on the same page about the script and the film-to-be. Thankfully, we had worked together before because she entrusted her wonderful script to me, a first-time feature film director. I am forever grateful.

AF: How long did it take to get “The Subject” made, was there any pushback?

Lanie Zipoy: This film, for the most part, was a joy to make. We had so many serendipitous, magical moments that encouraged us at every turn. For example, we had the worst weather on the two days we shot with lots of background actors. In New York, that usually means that no one will show up, but in both cases, everyone arrived on time!

The cast and crew all really were moved by the script, and did everything they could to make it happen. 

Still, it’s an indie film, and there are inherently challenges in making one. Once Chisa and I agreed to work together, we had about eight months before our shoot, partially because we didn’t want to shoot during the summer and because of actors’ availability. There wasn’t any real pushback. The whole creative team wanted to make this film come alive.

Director, Lanie Zipoy with Jason Biggs on the set of The Subject.

AF: The camera played an important role in revealing the main characters identity but also became a character itself. What was your thinking behind this choice?

Lanie Zipoy: Chisa wrote the idea into the script. We knew that we would need at least four cameras–narrative, Malcolm documentary, Kwame documentary and the spying camera. Cinematographer Darren Joe and I ran with the idea. We leaned into it whenever we could–adding footage from the Kwame documentary camera into scenes with Kwame, for example. 

Often, in cinema, the camera is supposed to be invisible. Darren and I relished figuring out where and when to shift the lens for the viewer, and let them see the shift–show the seams of the story, so to speak. Part of that is to engage viewers and their understanding of who gets to tell the story. In fact, audiences who have seen the film always comment on one moment in particular where the viewpoint shifts, and how that moment affects how they watched everything before. That is really gratifying.

AF: How do we as artists reconcile our role within the establishment, the system currently in place? How do we challenge the hierarchy of that system while being a part of it?

Lanie Zipoy: What an important question. The answer changes by the day.

First, as an artist, be clear about what is important to you, how you envision the world, and what your ultimate goal for your work (and the world) is. 

Listen to other artists and how they create their best practices. We have a lot to learn from each other.

Slow down, and check in with your collaborators. Work pace and flow affect people differently. Understanding that is a good start. Ask stakeholders–fellow collaborators, administrative support, funders and audience members–what they need. Taking time for each project allows you to do this. This is key. Working on process as much as “product” can be a radical approach.

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One of the great things that 2020 has brought us is the ability to push back on the idea of the “status quo.” Change is possible. We can inspect every aspect of our work, of our community, of the establishment, and re-imagine each one of them. That’s an incredible gift, a true opportunity for a more equitable world.

Look at what is within your control. In those areas, model the way you want the world to be. Make sure it reflects your values.

Stand up for yourself and others when you see injustice.

Of course, look at the budget. Emily Best of Seed & Spark called the budget “a moral document.” That’s brilliant insight. Budgets show what is valued–where a group, an organization or a person puts their resources.

AF: What Are you working on anything currently? What’s Next?

Lanie Zipoy: There are a few upcoming projects, in addition to getting The Subject out in the world. I am curating the PEN America Prison Writing Awards, which celebrates poetry, essays, drama and more by incarcerated writers. I’ve also helped develop Recent Cutbacks’ Objects in Mirror Are SPOOKIER Than They Appear, a drive-through theater piece coming to the Alden Theatre in McLean, Virginia in October.

I, also, want to shoot my next feature–a horror film–in Virginia in 2021. I’ve been working with the screenwriters and a horror dramaturg on it for the past few months. It’s ready to go. 

Follow The Subject on social media @thesubjectmovie. You can watch The Subject for a limited time at the links below.

Naples International Film Festival (Oct 22 – 25) https://watch.eventive.org/niff/play/5f5cdff9d02d390045037474
Twin Cities Film Festival (Oct 22.- 31) https://twincitiesfilmfest.org/film-fest-movie/the-subject/

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