In 2006, I sent a music video that I had made at Berkeley City College for their Intermediate Video Production class to various film festivals. Called “Ma Rainey’s Lesbian Licks,” the video featured fellow classmates Tamra Segall and Jim Chambers on camera and was edited by another student from the program, Carlo Kamin – one of his first editing jobs. To my delighted surprise, this little debut piece was admitted into almost 20 film festivals both here and abroad, including the most prestigious of the LGBT film festivals, San Francisco’s Frameline.
I was hooked. From then on, I began making documentaries with the help of the above-mentioned classmates and another alum of Berkeley City College, Pad McLaughlin, who has served as my editor and close collaborator ever since. We formed a support group, The Videots, and have been meeting now for as long as Shoga Films has been in existence.
Each subsequent documentary became a bit longer and more ambitious, and they rolled out every two or three years. They didn’t all do well on the film festival circuit, but one of them, “T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s,” produced in 2011, achieved a particular success: over 30 film festivals, sales in the educational market, and a berth at IndieFlix.
Last year saw the debut of Body and Soul: An American Bridge, Shoga Film’s first feature-length documentary, brilliantly edited by Carlo and Pad. Although off to a slow start, Body and Soul has finally registered on the radar of programmers for Black and Jewish film festivals throughout the United Stated and beyond. When it was selected as the closing night film for the San Diego Jewish Film Festival earlier this month, it screened simultaneously in four theaters to over 1000 viewers. Two days later, I met with Udy Epstein of 7th Art Releasing, who offered me a distribution deal.
Body and Soul’s newly acquired distribution deal is a true mark of maturity. When a disinterested third party says, “I can make money off this,” you know you have achieved a universally recognized measure of success. How 7th Art Releasing exploits the film is literally their business. They’re professionals. They handle a wide roster of films, including “Chau, Beyond the Lines,” a narrative short nominated for the 2017 Oscars. (http://www.7thart.com/).
I used to describe my filmmaking career as a hobby that got out of control. With the increasing interest, and successful screenings of recent months, it is time I take this ‘hobby’ more seriously. With greater success come greater opportunities and more responsibility. Next month I will be launching a Kickstarter campaign for a new music video that will be incorporated into a long-standing project, Mood Lavender: Queers of the Harlem Renaissance. This will be the first time I have solicited money from the outside. The subject matter and cultural impact of my films have grown beyond my ability to finance them by myself.
Shoga Films has grown up. The baby has become an adolescent – and now he has his hand out. But it’s not only a request; it’s also a gesture of collaboration. Our mission statement reads “Shoga Films creates and disseminates multimedia works on race and sexuality that raises awareness and fosters critical discussion.” In these times of retrograde identity politics and attempts to roll back gains in LGBT acceptance, our voice is more crucial than ever.