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Misfits and Rebels

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Michelle Kantor

photo by Kris De Guzman

Not all systems are made for artists, and not all artists belong in the system.

It’s challenging to be an independent creative working in Los Angele: hustling, making work, receiving recognition, and paying the bills. We are often driven by little else than passion and a deep belief in our abilities and our truth. “Women speaking the truth is a revolutionary act,” said Jill Solloway. “And it’ll change the world.” The system is not exactly build for us, but the world needs our authenticity. We are important.

In 2002, I co-founded Cinefemme, a non-profit for women directors, while studying for my MFA at San Francisco State University. The idea was conspired with fellow classmates Katrina Parks and Sirpa Nelson when contemplating the market ahead. We wanted to create our own niche and system of financial legitimacy, provide opportunities for other female filmmakers through fiscal sponsorship, and create a sense of solidarity. I stand by our initial mission of artistic empowerment and continue to serve my community to this day, because women directors are inherent rebels and occasional misfits. And I love them for it.

We need to believe in the stories we are drawn to tell, for it’s a beautiful thing to recognize someone’s uniqueness. Personally, I am drawn to document seemingly ordinary people who do extraordinary things. In the age of tentpole blockbusters, I need look no further than my own family for the true superhero stories.

I am currently preparing for the most important project of my career, my first feature Red Star, which will document my parents’ historic escape from behind the Iron Curtain. From my father’s perspective, his life was not glamorous, interesting, or Hollywood movie material. It was oppressive. It was difficult beyond comprehension. It was worth risking his life and limb to escape. As a child, he devoured films at the cinema, on the very rare occasion they allowed a Hollywood film into the Eastern Bloc. He escaped into the colorful world of spaghetti Westerns and imagined himself as the cowboy hero. Hollywood painted a world that didn’t exist in Kodachrome for him (literally, certain colors and paints were not allowed to be imported). But it did reflect the infinite possibilities of his imagination.

dad red army

As much as I love some of the products of our industry’s imaginations (and believe me, I do), it’s often the true stories of real lives that hit you the deepest. I grew up hearing my parents’ stories of Communism and felt pride in my father’s achievements. He is the only man to escape from Czechoslovakia by scuba-diving the Danube River in 1965, at a time when it when hundreds were shot and killed attempting to leave this way. My mother and brother fled after the Russian Invasion and Prague Spring of 1968, and reunited with my dad in New York City, where he was working as a detective. The year I was born, he became the top U.S. salesman for Re/Max (a truly gifted salesman).

I started telling their stories in film while in graduate school, and optically printed their Super 8 home movies for my short documentary Citizen, but wasn’t inspired to share them with a wider audience until after my dad successfully fought prostate cancer. It was tragic that their stories remained unknown, when they literally belong in the history books. I started collaborating with my dad writing his memoirs, and adapted these stories into a feature length narrative script. The material was so interesting, it practically told itself. After having cancer, my dad’s health became increasingly frail, and we now had a deadline to get him back to the scene of the “crime” on the 50th anniversary of his escape. With a crowd-funding campaign on Seed & Spark to raise production funds, there is a fire in my belly and urgency to bring this project to life. For anyone with access to incredible people and their stories, you understand how important it is to tell their stories. It is our mission.

Many of our dreams were afforded fruition by immigrant parents or grandparents who sacrifice and experienced suffering of unknown depths. There is a social duty to maintain global awareness of how people in such circumstances lived, and in some cases continue to live, under oppressive systems and totalitarian dictatorships. Recent tensions between the Ukraine and Russia dominate our headlines with reminders that our hard-earned freedoms should never be taken for granted, and that we need to listen to these voices of dissidence and do our part to stand up for what’s right. Prevention of future oppression and genocide hinges on our collective awareness of the past.

Real people drive the stories we love to watch. They connect us to history. These stories touch our hearts and serve as catalysts for social change. As I embark on this journey to transform my parents’ painful life stories into something beautiful, I encourage all other storytellers to dig deep into your lives. Find those authentic stories that need a storyteller. And never stop working until you bring them into the light of day.

Jill Solloway based her critically-acclaimed show Transparent on her family’s true stories. She said, “We’re making our movies, but we still have to do things like build the bridge out in front of us, like those cartoon bridges where you lay the slats as you go because the road really isn’t there. We’re starting from scratch.” She really says it.

In the beginning, you have little to work with but your passion and belief in the film, gathering steam and momentum as you go. You get strength from your community, you build your audience as you go, and you stay true to your heart. You find that love of misfits and rebels, the part you connect with yourself, and that’s the fuel that speaks your truth.

MJK DAD freedom

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Michelle Kantor

About Michelle Kantor

Michelle Kantor co-founded Cinefemme, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization for women directors, while studying at San Francisco State University. She is the youngest daughter of political refugees who fled Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960's, and is currently producing two films about her family's historic escape from behind the Iron Curtain: RED STAR, a feature documentary following her father's return on the 50th anniversary of his escape, and THE REBEL, a narrative feature film screenplay written by Michelle, based on their lives. She also directs performance art videos for painter Tara Savelo, former Haus of Gaga member and writes the blog www.ultra-luxurious.com. Michelle's body of work includes short films, experimental narratives, documentaries, and live work for circus performers at San Francisco's Teatro Zinzanni. Her music video "Highway To Yodel-Ay-Hee-Huuu," starring America's Got Talent's Manuela Horn, won Best Music Video at LA Femme Film Festival in 2014. Her production credits include work for HBO, FYI, The History Channel, Sony, Universal, and NASA. An advocate for epilepsy, her groundbreaking film "Bettina in the Fog" won the Thunen Award by the Illuminating Engineers Society. Michelle's other distinctions include the Goldfarb Award for Best Student Film and funding from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for Cinefemme. She holds an MFA in Cinema from San Francisco State University and BFA in Film Production from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Michelle is a certified paralegal, mother, writer and artist. An active member of the female filmmaking community, Michelle belongs to WIF, AWD and Film Fatales.