Looking south

In film, as in the nightly news, the stories and talent of Africa, Central and Latin America, and most of Asia -
June 1, 2008

In film, as in the nightly news, the stories and talent of Africa, Central and Latin America, and most of Asia – collectively known as the Global South – often go unnoticed in North America. New York-based prodco Louverture Films, brainchild of actor Danny Glover and writer/producer Joslyn Barnes, is highlighting the positives and negatives of those nations by churning out social docs to critical acclaim.

‘Our company is geared toward world cinema with a specific focus on partnering with filmmakers and producers from the Global South,’ says Barnes. ‘We also prioritize work with filmmakers from communities of color in the United States.’ Inspired by Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the Haitian revolution who was nicknamed L’Ouverture for his ability to find openings against the opposition, Barnes and Glover have borrowed the name to develop and produce films with historical relevance and social purpose for American audiences.

The idea for the company was sparked in Senegal in 1999, when Barnes and Glover met on the set of the film Bàttu, which Barnes wrote for Malian director Cheikh Oumar Sissoko. Glover, who had accepted a small role in the film to support the filmmaker, began talking to Barnes about African filmmakers and the two asked themselves why some of these fantastic films coming out of Africa were not being screened in the us. They also discovered a mutual distaste for the far too common trend of prodcos praising African talent only to then drop them into American films, rather than just importing African films.

Barnes says they felt they could build a us company that would form authentic partnerships with filmmakers in the Global South. Other contributions involved supporting local capacity building and the marketing, sales and distribution of those films as they crossed over to North America and other regions.

Six years later, in 2005, their conversations and concern brought Louverture Films to fruition. Since that time, the company has executive produced five films, a mixture of both docs and features. ‘We believe documentaries are very important, especially here in the us, where the corporate media controls so much of what people see and hear. We believe it’s often inaccurate, sometimes accidentally and sometimes deliberately,’ says Barnes. ‘We feel it’s important to show people alternative points of view from different parts of the world and I think that’s key to a functioning democracy.’

Glover and Barnes have carefully considered how to garner audiences, specifically for docs. ‘With documentaries, there are so few opportunities for theatrical release. There’s usually very little money left to promote and market the film. We always try to provide for that in the budgets we put together, but we also try to create a social action component. We think that building a grassroots movement and word-of-mouth to get people into the theaters is key,’ says Barnes.

So far, the plan has culminated in the non-theatrical doc Africa Unite, a musical tribute to Bob Marley’s vision of African unity. The film was executive produced by the Marley family’s Tuff Gong Pictures and Louverture, in collaboration with UNICEF. It will be used to support Speak Africa, UNICEF’s campaign for youth empowerment.

Louverture’s other approach to gain diverse audiences is to use music to cross age gaps and cultural differences. Notes Barnes, ‘It was a conscious decision to look at the role of music in widening the audience of films. With Soundtrack For a Revolution, which centers around the music of the civil rights movement, what better way to reach young people than to have contemporary artists interpreting that music to reach a whole new generation of youth?’

The doc currently getting the most buzz on the Louverture slate has already won Sundance’s Grand Jury award and critical acclaim. Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, highlights poverty in America through the personal story of two resilient individuals weathering the Hurricane Katrina disaster and its aftermath.

Louverture came onboard as executive producers of Trouble at the fine cut stage and raised finishing funds. Deal says that he and Lessin are thrilled that their film fits Louverture’s agenda since both directors look up to Barnes and Glover for their humanitarian work.

In order to offer such opportunities, Louverture must find supporting funds. ‘We spend a lot of time raising money, trying to find investors who share a similar vision. We’re working to find grants and soft money, government and tax incentives, equity investors, debt financing – there are all kinds of different ways to structure film financing,’ says Barnes.

Even with a Sundance award and Glover’s name, Louverture isn’t on easy street. ‘Unfortunately, the obstacles remain in the marketplace. There’s so much resistance to any story that’s connected with people of color and to any story that addresses poverty. There are just structural obstacles in place for distribution at all levels. There are very few people that really see the value of films that address these kinds of issues. I think audiences around the country would be extremely excited and moved by [Trouble], but getting it into the marketplace is always challenging. [Even with] this incredible couple from the Lower Ninth Ward, it’s still challenging to get people into the seats,’ says Barnes. Sheila Nevins, HBO’s president of documentary programming, agrees. During her recent interview at Toronto’s Hot Docs, she said of Trouble, ‘I bet you my bottom dollar the film will not do anything theatrically.’

Regardless of the obstacles, Louverture is going full steam ahead because Barnes and Glover believe in the need to bring these types of films to North American screens. ‘I think for us it’s important to keep underscoring Africa because even in world cinema Africa is marginalized, so we have to keep highlighting that,’ says Barnes.

Louverture is currently in production on Soundtrack, and is releasing two other films this year: Trouble and Salt of the Sea. More films are in the planning stages, and the company will also branch out into new territories, including 3D animation and computer games.

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