Coffee Talk is a monthly informal chat between Washington Filmworks staff and local film industry professionals and arts organizations to better understand what it is they do, how our work and missions intersect, and what we can do to support like-minded projects moving forward.
Josef Assi and April Larson are true, passionate storytellers. They may work in Seattle as filmmakers and have a Kingston, WA production studio, but Assi’s career didn’t originate in the Emerald City. “I was born and raised in a Lebanese refugee camp before I found myself participating in a documentary about Arabs moving to America,” explains Assi. After getting exposed to filmmaking, he worked with a Hollywood company for years specializing in stereotype-breaking and peace-making works before he met documentary filmmaker Larson. Together, they made a documentary about Assi’s affiliation with Lebanese refugees and children. Meanwhile, Larson has written and directed several projects – including PTSD-veteran drama Wayside Junction as well as joining Assi in working with TheFilmSchool on a new web-series. The two share an ardent love for the content they’re producing and the cutting-edge filmmaking techniques employed (during our talk, Assi demonstrated and used a few of his many filmmaking “toys” – including a portable monitor and a tripod-clamp). Larson has “always been a writer and a story-lover – when I discovered film, I learned how to tell a story visually. Then I learned how to edit and mix storytelling with technology, and it became a very powerful outlet to reach a lot of people – especially with documentaries.” Assi suggests filmmaking is a proaction, stressing one needs to “find the pattern and keep doing it – intellectualizing what you’re doing is not productive unless you’re doing it.”
Their love for storytelling has certainly intersected with emerging technology, and they impart it all onto students at TheFilmSchool. One class Assi teaches in particular is Guerrilla Filmmaking, the “power to use your environment and what is accessible to you and create a touching story,” he explains. He teaches students to tell stories using only their smart phones, telling them that “your phone is your camera.” The students film the stories, then edit and present them – all on their phone. Assi asks his students, “why not shoot fiction stories with documentary techniques?” He explains that it used to be expensive to shoot these kind of films, but now “the money barrier has been diluted tremendously with the new technological boom. The new HD cheap technology and the use of available light and elements will be the way of the future.”
Also through his teaching, he’s “able to connect with younger students who want to be filmmakers and tells them they all need to do is stick together and build a community.” One way he suggests to do so through technology is to build an app or a website that centralizes local film production, creating a “physical spot where filmmakers and artists gather to share their work and meet each other.” He and Larson argue that the students are feeling isolated from not having this kind of center, but are excited to change the status quo. Furthermore, Assi is teaching a graduate filmmaking program at Islandwood on Bainbridge Island, again working with students on how to film things all on their phone. Larson, meanwhile, is enthusiastic about programs like the Filmworks Innovation Lab. “I love the forums and blasts about it spreading,” she says, “and that people are really excited about it. It’s something filmmakers gravitate towards and talk about with one another, allowing them to share their work.”
Alongside their work, Assi and Larson know it’s important to keep their goals in sight. “Success, to me,” Larson shares, “is paying the bills from filmmaking, certainly, but also knowing a completed project is being seen. Not necessarily seen in a theater, but anywhere from festivals or in the online community reaching as many people as I possibly can. I also embrace the support from the community and ability to pass on the knowledge.” Assi agrees, but also stresses that even in times of hardship that it’s imperative to keep moving forward. “The concept of not stopping is so important to me,” he enthuses. “As an artist, you’re only equal to your last project – so success is about being able to try and move forward. That energy to keep going is the seed for success.”