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by Samantha Hill
August 8th, 2012

Co- presented with the Act Now Foundation, Rooftop Films is screening Welcome to Pine Hill at Fort Greene Park this Thursday, August 9th.  Best part? It’s free.  Director Keith Miller draws a raw and moving performance from his lead, Shannon Harper, a non-professional actor. Winner of the Grand Jury Award at 2012 Slamdance, Welcome to Pine Hill is a meditative study of a New York man’s personal journey to acceptance of his past on the hard streets of the concrete jungle and inevitable fate when he receives an unexpected diagnosis. We chatted a bit with Miller about the film.

Rooftop Films: The film grew out of the success of your short film ‘Prince/William.’ What was it like expanding upon this short to create a movie almost ten times the length of the original?

Keith Miller: Unlike some shorts that are mini version of the feature, Pine Hill grew out of Prince/William, but had a really different focus and story. The genesis of the movie is the same, which is why I included it in the feature, but it feels really different to me. I think of shorts as one liners and features as more complex than that, or at least with more elements.

RF: In ‘Welcome to Pine Hill’ were there issues or subjects you were unable to approach in the short format that you endeavored to explore in the longer medium?

KM: Yeah. A lot. The issues of  the short are all really clear and on the surface, I think. In Pine Hill there are similar concerns, but the general engagement with the ideas and issues was hopefully more nuanced and focused. I could touch on a theme in a variety of ways and each time it came back, it had a deeper resonance and meaning. By the time we get to the end, I think a lot of things that had been floating throughout the movie kind of converge in a way that is hopefully a bit surprising, not in a trick ending way but in an emotionally charged way.

RF: What were some of the advantages and disadvantages of working with a cast of primarily untrained actors?

KM: I think the craft of acting is really amazing and anyone who can do it with real results deserves serious respect. That goes for trained actors (let’s say with a headshot) and untrained actors, or someone who is a non-professional, first time actor. The kind of realism I am currently interested in demands that the facts off the screen echo what’s on the screen. With the (untrained/non) actors in Pine Hill, I was very lucky that they all brought a real piece of themselves to the process and were willing to go to really honest places, despite the apparatus of a movie shoot looming over them.

I’ve worked with some very talented and trained actors (some who are in Pine Hill) and I really like that as well. It’s great to see dialogue transformed radically in the body and hands of a great actor. Working the way we did on Pine hill, there wasn’t many times we did things exactly the same way twice, because asking an untrained actor to ‘play it this way or that’ or do it again with the direction you can give a trained actor, who has learned the language, doesn’t make sense. So I’m not sure there are any inherent judgement calls, it is really based on the type of piece you’re working on. I wouldn’t want to see this kind of naturalism in Duck Soup or something…

RF: The film deals with a number of issues surrounding race, class and cultural differences. How difficult is it to present an honest and open discussion of such important and often sensitive topics?

KM: I guess  that is one of the central questions I wanted to address since I think most honest people can see that these issues are dealt with in ways that are either clueless or just plain offensive. So the short answer is: it’s hard, but urgent. I think if one addresses people on a human level, with a sensitive and critical eye inward (what am  doing to reinforce stereotypes, etc), it need not be so hard. But since we are constantly reminded not to talk about race, class, difference, except in rarefied academic circumstances then we start to believe it.  I think all but active, conscious racists don’t want to be seen as racists -or whatever- so very often it seems wisest to just not say anything. I don’t think that is a real solution.

RF: Abu eventually travels upstate, away from the inner city, to find relief. Does this suggest that there are certain insurmountable issues associated with urban life that can only be overcome through a geographical escape?

KM: No. I think geography is more than landscape, but it is never only one thing, like a place where you can’t surmount problems. Geography, place, landscape, architecture, these are all indicators of a philosophical position, a view of the world, an ontology. In Abu’s case, the journey was his solution. But I hope that was specific to his story at that moment.

RF: I understand that you are also a curator, painter, and a professor. In what way were the skills gained from these professions valuable in your role as a filmmaker?

KM: I began as a painter and as such one constructs the world and it’s stories visually. As a curator, I always begin with an idea and try to figure out how to make a group of disparate work come together to broaden the emotional understanding of a topic, which in my curating, are usually political or social ideas. Being a professor is very much about opening up the space for people to engage with the material in ways that surprise them and me. I think those are the basic elements of my directing process.

RF: As a professor you are normally asked to teach but what are some things you learnt from your experience working with this film?

KM: Well, my role as a professor is to teach, I guess, but I don’t look at it as that exclusively, I may have encountered the material previously, but I think the students bring to it just as much possibility as I do, so I’m pretty sure that I learn more each semester than they do. That may be unfair to them, but learning as a student is hard. As a professor, it seems a little more inevitable to me. But I was a bad student.

But to answer the question: too much. Being ignorant was a great help with Pine Hill. I think it may be like parachuting (someone said something similar to me): the first time is easier than the second. The second time you know what to do, but you also know the real implications of doing it.

RF: Despite any formal training Shannon Harper offers an incredibly moving performance in this film. What about him do you think enabled this success?

KM: He is a natural. He brought a lot of very real stuff to the set, and was brave in his ability to let it out. We are very close, so I knew how to work with him on that, but that was him.  I could tell early on how much he got it, because his responses to scenes -after we were shooting them, on set- were always very deeply emotional responses, the kind of thing I have heard only from teh best actors I have seen or worked with. It was never about faking it, acting like something, he was amazingly present and focused. And really, that is what acting is about, no?

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Rooftop Films is a New York based non-profit whose mission is to engage diverse communities by showing independent movies in outdoor locations, producing new films, coordinating youth media education, and renting equipment at low cost to artists.

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