“The Crossing” | Interview with Kadri Koop, Stanford University

| March 2, 2016

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The Crossing will screen as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices.

Prentiss McKnight attends the crossing at night.

Prentiss McKnight stands watch at night in The Crossing.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What got you into film?

Growing up in Estonia, a small northeastern post-Soviet country by the Baltic Sea, in the 90s it never crossed my mind to consider a career in filmmaking. It was either you became a doctor, a lawyer or a plumber. Regardless, in the beginning of my 20s, I was studying Chinese film in the National University of Singapore and became interested in Mainland Chinese film, which later led me to Chinese documentary and wanting to become a filmmaker myself. I ended up moving to Beijing to pursue my quest for Mandarin and became more curious about getting my hands dirty with film. However, I quickly realized that for making narrative films one needs enormous resources, which I was lacking, whereas documentaries do not always require all the money and people. So, I set out to film my interactions with Beijing street vendors and their relationship with work. I later went on to work for a documentary film production company in Beijing. Working for others felt very unsatisfactory and I decided to apply for the Stanford’s Documentary Film and Video MFA program to truly discover my own voice as a filmmaker.

Tell us about The Crossing, and how it came to be. How did you meet your subject Prentiss McKnight?

Imagine that you’ve never lived in the U.S. and the first place you move, from dangerously polluted Beijing by the way, is sunny and seemingly idyllic Palo Alto in the heart of Silicon Valley. For someone coming from a developing country and having mainly lived in Europe and Asia, it felt strikingly different from everything I knew so far.

To ease the process of assimilation, Stanford University matched me with a lovely local lady, who I call my aunty now. She has been living in Palo Alto for most of her life. In this way, spending time with her, I met many other Palo Alto community members. It must have been around last year in the same time when the suicide topic came up as a boy from across the road from my aunty had crawled under the fence to the tracks to jump in front of a train.

It made little sense to me that kids growing up in such a seemingly idyllic place would want to end their existence, and in such horrific way. Surely, I realize now that things are not always like they appear and that the issue is much more complex than I could address in a short film with the time that I had in my hands. (I had 10 weeks to make the film.) Thus, I became more interested in pondering over the presence of the track guards than trying to formulate an answer to why the suicides where occurring.

Prentiss McKnight watching the train.

Prentiss McKnight watching the train.

Finding the right track guard was not easy. Many of the people at the four intersections, where guards are contracted, did not show interest in participating in the project. Many of them were concerned with being fired by the security company who was/is contracted by the city of Palo Alto. I did not give up and continued visiting the crossings at odd hours. Prentiss was a one-of-a-kind presence. He immediately expressed his deep concern about the youth as he had spent all his time, about 10-hour shifts 6 days a week, trying to wrap his head around the issue. Because the problem was so close to his conscience, he told me from the get go that he would not care if they fired him for talking out about it. To him there just was no other way to bring about change.

Silence and the incidental sound environment is such a part of your film’s tapestry. Can you tell us about how audio plays a role in the film?

The Crossing itself is aesthetically pretty uneventful, but there is something to the soundscape of the place that makes it haunting. Perhaps, part of the effect was created by knowing about the numerous deaths in the particular location, but perhaps there was something else to it…

The peeping sound that you hear throughout the film, to me, became a visual metaphor for a person’s heart rate that could be stopped any moment by the decision to take one’s life. It was, however, a coincidence that it happened to be present at the crossing. The sound originates from one of the crossing aids a little further away from where Prentiss was standing most of the time.

What were some of the challenges you faced while filming in a low-light environment?

The challenges began to show itself mostly in the edit room when I realized that a lot of what I had shot was overly dark and could not be used for the film. Other than that, I felt pretty pleased with darkness. It made standing in the middle of the road with a gigantic Sony 5F on my shoulder much more comfortable as I felt the lack of light made me invisible to a degree.

Prentiss McKnight in the stillness of the night.

Prentiss McKnight in the stillness of night.

 What sort of response has the film received, for instance with suicide prevention groups in Silicon Valley?

To be honest, I have not been in close contact with any of them. Not yet. This film is showing in the area pretty much for the first time and I’m yet to engage with the local audiences it. I’m definitely committed to get it out there and hopefully arrange screenings in local high schools.

A sign at the crossing about suicide prevention.

A suicide prevention sign at the crossing.

You made another film called Monumenting, about a third generation gravestone maker. In another film of yours, I am Ayotzinapa, you document Latino artists in San Francisco responding to the disappearance of the 43 students near Iguala, Mexico. How do death and mourning connect in your films? What else ties your work together?

It is rather strange to myself as well that all the films I made in the first year of my studies in the US were related to death in one way or another. I don’t have a good explanation to it. I see documentary filmmaking as a way of connecting with the big questions in my life. It’s a way to unravel topics and learn not only about the subject matter but also about oneself in the process. This is also why, more than anything, my films do not necessarily offer answers, but they ask the viewer to ask questions.

 Who do you cite as influences?

The filmmaker whose work got me into documentary would be Jia Zhangke. He is a Chinese docu-fiction filmmaker. It does not mean that you can necessarily see his style in my films. It’s more that his bold approach to film encouraged me to embrace my lack of resources when living in a hutong in Beijing and start filming regardless of what I thought documentary was supposed to be/look like. The subject matter of some of his first films, the experience of the average Chinese, was also my very first documentary interest.

Tell us about your Stanford University experience.

It’s been a journey and an intense one. I’ve learned so much in such a short time. Moreover, I’ve learned so much about myself as a person and through that also as a filmmaker. I think these two go hand-in-hand in (documentary) filmmaking.

It’s been an incredible experience to be part of such a small group, 8 students a year, of highly motivated and creative people. The very intimate setup of the program dictates a very personal approach to feedback and advising. I’m forever grateful for all the wonderful professors whom I’ve had the privilege to work with. Especially, Jamie Meltzer, Jan Krawitz and Srdan Keca.

Do you have any advice for student filmmakers? 

It’s hard to come up with valuable advice for everyone as the journey to filmmaking, the reasons for pursuing the particular career, are so personal, and this often dictates the various approaches to filmmaking. However, if I had to say something, it would be encouraging student filmmakers to remind themselves the root of the urgency of making their work. I think often times it’s easy to forget why ones to tell a certain story and how does the reasoning dictate the formal approach to the subject matter. In other words, one can lie to others, but as a filmmaker, it’s important to stay true to oneself.

kadri

Kadri Koop is a Bay Area-based freelance documentary filmmaker, cinematographer and editor. She is now in post-production on her first full-length documentary Charlie (working title), which is about an ex-Black power militant living in exile in Cuba for more than 4 decades after hijacking a plane there in 1971. The film takes a form of a letter to his 9-year old Cuban son who has no context of his father’s revolutionary past in the context of racial tensions in the 60s and 70s America. 

Learn more about Kadri’s work on her Stanford University page.

Like The Crossing on Facebook: www.facebook.com/thecrossingdoc

Watch the trailer for the film here: vimeo.com/130458546

Follow Kadri: @kadrikoop

The Crossing screens as part of Cinequest’s Short Program 9B – College – American Voices showcase on Friday, March 11 @ 9:30pm, and Saturday, March 12 @ 3:45pm.

All screenings are at Camera 12 Cinemas in San Jose, CA.

Click to read more Cinequest interviews.

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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

Film School Shorts is a production of KQED.

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