Jonas Pariente takes kickstarter by storm with Grandmas Project
Thank God for the Internet. And for Twitter! Otherwise who knows when or how I would have met Jonas Pariente, one the most promising young filmmakers. Jonas produces documentaries, commercial films and creative campaigns. He worked for fashion brands such as Lacoste and helped Anne Hidalgo win the elections and become Mayor of Paris. Right now, Jonas Pariente is taking kickstarter by storm with Grandamas Project. This new project won the Soft Spot Award at Sunny Side of the Doc and was selected at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s MeetMarket and Dok Leipzig’s CoPro Market and aims at sharing the world’s most delicious heritage. It will if during the next 16 days we join Jonas on kickstarter and help him reach his goal.
‘It’s like I lived in 3 different universes’
When and how did you decide to be a filmmaker?
I studied sociology in Paris for 3 years. I really enjoyed it in the beginning but after some time I realized I didn’t want to pursue this principle of “objectively describing society”. I wanted to be able to express my own take on things. So I took a year off and that’s when I realized jumping to documentary filmmaking was the most natural thing: I could cultivate my appetite for understanding others while exploring a more poetic, personal approach. Also, my mom is a filmmaker (Idit Cébula). She started as an actress and directed her first short when I was 16. I was already familiar with film sets and I definitely inherited her passion for cinema … which of course, when you live in Paris, is a great passion to have since there are so many venues!
One of your grandmother is Polish, the other, Egyptian. How did this influence your perspective of the world?
There are two things. Each of these origins influenced me, but I also feel that it’s being exposed to two such different cultures that influenced me the most. My mom’s family, the Polish one, are Holocaust survivors who escaped to USSR during the war and eventually settled in France in the 50’s. Their experience of having most of their families murdered by the Nazis is of course a heritage and a burden that plays a big role in my life. It probably made me a darker person than your regular John Doe, but at the same time I think that’s what pushes me to fight for more justice and open-mindedness in our societies. From my Egyptian family, on my dad’s side, I probably inherited some aspects of the oriental/Mediterranean culture. I love having many people for diner, I love loosing time doing nothing, I’m usually over-polite compared to a French person (I always say “no” two or three times when people offer me stuff).
But then again, more than each culture, it’s the mix of both that influenced me the most. It’s like I lived in 3 different universes. I would lead a regular French life at home and school, but as soon as I would see my grandparents, I would either dive back to Eastern Europe or Cairo. So I developed a kind of inner gymnastics, being able to “converse” with these different cultures very easily. But trying to understand how it shaped my own identity is probably the main (though unconscious) reason why I got in Sociology studies and later documentary filmmaking. With a bit more experience I realized all the stories I care about always have to do with migration and identity. So in the last year or so I’ve tried to focus more on this kind of stories because that’s what I’m passionate about. For instance I’m producing the film of a first-time filmmaker who’s exploring her father’s Palestinian culture, even though he never passed down anything to her or her siblings after moving to France.
Last but not least, all this cultural heritage is never more present than through food. I have very clear though schizophrenic tastes. Eating boiled potatoes with marinated hearing, a long with shots of vodka, make me the happiest. But I’m equally reaching paramount with tahini, pita bread and molokheya. And of course, as a quintessential Frenchman, I love my holy trinity: bread, cheese, wine.
‘I couldn’t work for just any political candidate or party.’
Europeans and Americans have different ways of making movies and documentaries. What prompted you to go study in New York? How these two different approaches blend into your work?
I wanted to go study in an English-speaking country because in France film studies are very theoretical and I really wanted to have a hands-on education. I looked at documentary programs in London, Montreal and New York and got selected in New York first. That was a no-brainer, especially because the program was the most interesting out of the three: the Integrated Media Arts MFA of Hunter College educates you in documentary filmmaking, journalism and new media. It has had a huge influence on my career because I always considered ever since that internet is a premium avenue for media, not the poor child of TV or cinema.
More than in the storytelling, it’s in the “business” aspect that I’ve blended the two approaches. In the US, there isn’t such a big public-funded industry of cinema, so independent filmmakers have to be much more creative and active to make their projects happen. I love this approach. France’s system is still amazing because we have such a strong tradition and attachment to cinema, so many projects that don’t have a commercial potential still get funding. It’s quite exciting to pursue both avenues, and as a producer I’m trying to inspire other French filmmakers to adopt a more active approach.
What are the differences and resemblances between doing a campaign for Lacoste and for the Mayor of Paris?
It’s quite different. The only resemblance is important though: it’s about helping the client to express clearly their identity and message. It’s always about storytelling, but clients sometime have a hard time understanding that. What story do we want to tell? What emotions should the viewer be feeling?
Beside this point, the process and the energy are very different. I can work for Lacoste as I could work for any other fashion brand. But I couldn’t work for just any political candidate or party. I was happy to work for Anne Hidalgo’s campaign because I believed she should be the Mayor of Paris. So very early on I felt, as all the other members of the campaign felt, a sense of mission. I was really determined to make her with the election, so the professional and the personal became very intertwined. Also, a political campaign is long! I started working for Anne Hidalgo one year before the elections, when no one really cared about it yet. The campaign worked in waves. In the beginning, we had to slowly build her as a visible and easy-to-understand character. Then, 3 months before the election, it became a lot about confronting her opponent. And the last month was just hectic. We all worked very hard, starting by her, and we had to stick as much as possible to the news, so it was much harder to plan things ahead. In the end, the satisfaction of her winning was even more enjoyable than all over France right-wing mayors won, and we managed to keep Paris as a humanistic, forward-looking city.
What did like most about working with Anne Hidalgo?
I really liked how she raised up to the challenge of winning Parisians’ heart and winning the election. It’s hard to go and confront actual people for morning to night everyday. I found her very brave and never compromising on her views on politics, hot topics, etc. I’m even more admiring how she’s very easily became the Mayor of all Parisians. I think she’s both open and firm, and she stays close to the people. She also has a very interesting agenda on local democracy and city development.
With grandmothers, it’s really just about spending good times together, and the mutual love is more direct.
Back to your current project, Grandma’s Project. In the presentation movie you say that it was inspired by your grandmothers. Tell me how was the journey from idea to making it real?
It’s really two-fold. In 2005, I started filming my two grandmas and the plan was to make a film about the two of them and how their personalities and different culture influenced me. So I filmed them many hours over several weeks in their daily lives. I wanted to capture every detail of their routine, and show that their differences was obvious in all of these unwatchable details. I didn’t pursue the project because I got enrolled in my NYC program, and as I was studying there my Polish grandmother died, she was 92.
When I returned to France, I started filming my Egyptian grandmother as she was cooking her amazing recipes. She’s really a wonderful cook, and a crazy grandmother delivering tons of food to every member of the family. I didn’t want to loose the memory of her and I could not imagine a world without her food. So I filmed the recipes, and the more I filmed, the more my grandma talked to me about her past, her teenage in Egypt, etc. One sleepless night I was thinking of what I really care about in life, and I came up with Grandmas Project. I thought this experience I’m having with my grandma is something other people should do, so we all save a memory of our grandmas and we can share all those stories and recipes in one common place.
I looked at videos on Youtube and potential existing projects and didn’t find anything satisfying. I also quickly realized the films had to be made by filmmakers. If you don’t have a sense of storytelling, it’s very hard to make a short piece about your grandma where recipe becomes story and vice versa. So after a few hours I got my concept: a web-based collection of films, an interactive navigation, a bunch of filmmakers doing films on their own grandmas using the making of a recipe to open up to a discussion about their history. The concept hasn’t much changed since that night.
What does Nano, your Egyptian grandmother, think about the idea?
She doesn’t really get it but she’s supportive because she wants me to succeed. When I filmed her for my own Grandmas Project film on her, I asked her how she felt about me making a film about her. She said “I hope you’re not showing this to the family!” And I was like “Why?”. She said: “Because I look awful! My hair is not done … If you’re just showing this to strangers that’s ok.” I found it hilarious. I would have said the exact opposite: “I don’t mind you showing me in my pyjamas to the family, but don’t show it to strangers!”. I guess that’s a cultural thing. Also, when I went to Sheffield Doc/Fest (one of the main documentary film festival and market in Europe), she knew I was supposed to do 30 one-to-one pitch with decision makers, so she prepared 30 spinach borekas, put them all in a box and made me travel with it! It was a brilliant idea because people could taste what I was talking about as I was pitching.
What makes a grandmother special (besides her wonderful recipes)?
I think the main difference with a mother is that the relationship is more distant therefore more simple. It’s really just about spending good times together, and the mutual love is more direct. That’s probably very personal to my experience with my mother versus my grandmothers. Also, they lived in periods that sound like history, which makes their story even more fascinating.
Why opting for financing through crowdfunding and why kickstarter (and not indiegogo, for example)?
I tried getting the project financed at the development stage by the classic avenues in France: the CNC (national fund for cinema) and Arte. The CNC didn’t like my project and one of the reasons they gave me was that it would convey a backward image of women. I think they totally missed the point but that’s ok. And Arte said they had too many food-related projects in the pipe. I could have gone to other broadcasters, and I’m still planning to do so, but because I had so many enthusiastic feedback to every other people than CNC, I decided to make it “chosen by the people”. I though if I make it through crowdfunding the project will be much more legitimate, it would be the proof that people actually want to see that and are even ready to finance its making.
Generally speaking I’m a huge advocate for crowdfunding because it puts you in touch with your audience from a very early stage compared to the regular process when people only see your finished piece on TV or in movie theaters. With crowdfunding you really have only advantages: you get money that you wouldn’t have otherwise and it doesn’t stop you from looking for more regular financing ; you’re building up an audience early on ; you can co-create your work with your early audience to the extent you want to, asking them for feedback or more ; as you come close to the launch of your project, all your early audience members become ambassadors of your project since they’ve been following it for a while and even donated for it.
I decided to use Kickstarter mostly because they have a bigger community. Last week they picked us as “Project of the day”: they posted about us to their 1.1 million Facebook fans and 9ook Twitter followers. No other platform can offer this kind of visibility (given you’re staff-picked somehow). Plus I tend to prefer the all-or-nothing model that Kickstarter (or the main crowdfunding platforms in France) use. It puts more pressure on your shoulders, but that’s also more energy to make it happen.
You launched the call for projects. What do you look for into a documentary to accept it as part of the project? Is there a maximum length admitted?
The films of the project won’t be longer than 8 minutes.
I’m looking for stories where the grandma is a character and where the food actually plays a role in the relationship between the grandma and her grandchild. Beyond these two criteria, I’ll take into account the diversity of geographic locations of the grandmas, and the diversity of style of filmmakers. So the previous work of the filmmakers will help me decide what I can expect from them. I love the idea that one principle can be interpreted in very different ways.
When do you estimate the project will be online, up and running?
Probably early 2016. After the Kickstarter campaign we’ll probably have to wait until after the summer to launch the call for projects. Then we need to select the 30 films of season 1. Then they have to be made of course. In the meantime we’ll have build the website. So yes, probably Spring 2016.
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