Jessica Kavana Dornbusch chats REEFA – Sandie Angulo Chen interviews

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In August 2013, 18-year-old graffiti artist Israel Hernandez, who tagged under the name Reefa and aspired to be the next Banksy or Basquiat, died after being Tased by Miami Beach police officers who caught him tagging a commercial wall. Less than a year after Israel’s death, Miami-based filmmaker Jessica Kavana Dornbusch signed on to tell the story of the Colombian refugee’s last summer alive, his goal of making it to New York City and pursuing his artistic dreams, and his love of his tight-knit family. It took more than five years of looking for financing, finessing the script, running a Kickstarter, and feeling responsible to Israel’s family and friends, to bring Reefa — a labor of love — to the big screen. And that doesn’t even count the extra year the film’s release had to wait because of the Covid pandemic.

Jessica Kavana Dornbusch spoke to AWFJ’s Sandie Angulo Chen about the challenges of translating a truth-based story, the need for people to understand that Latinx communities also deal with police brutality, and that ultimately every death at the hand of the police cuts short a life that could have added so much beauty and joy to the world, in Reefa’s case in the form of vibrant visual art.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Let’s start with sparked your interest in telling this story.

Jessica Kavana Dornbusch: I had heard about the story a little bit when it was on the news in 2013, but not much. And then about a year, almost a year after he passed away, a producer called me — a producer who was very involved in producing documentaries about Israel and his family for a local news station. He called me, and he said, “I really think this would make for a great feature.” And at the time, Fruitvale Station had just come out, and it had won Sundance, and I just felt like there wasn’t really room for two stories that unfortunately had similar endings. He said, you know, just come with me to meet the family. And when I went and met the family and started hearing more about Israel’s life and his artwork, and the family’s journey to come to United States, to come here on an asylum visa, and having had the tragic ending it had, it really inspired me to tell the story.

More than anything, this is the story of this boy that just could have been so much and the story of an immigrant family and what they give up to come here and in their case only to to have their kid’s life torn apart by those sworn to protect and defend.

SAC: When you’re telling a truth-based story, how do you decide what to fictionalize? I know your previous film was semi-autobiographical, but I imagine not every single conversation and event in the film actually happened. How does that process work as a filmmaker? Can you give some examples in this film of decisions you made for the sake of the story?

JKD: For sure. I mean, listen, this one, it was a really tough process. You know, I’m not going to to sugarcoat it. I don’t know that I’ll ever do this again. When I embarked on the journey, I never imagined the responsibility I was going to feel to Israel’s family and telling their story. Perhaps if Israel had still with us, and it was a different type of story, I would feel better about taking more creative liberties. But in this case, his family and his friends were so protective over the details of his story and the details of him and his artwork and the way he saw the world and not misrepresenting him in any way, that there was times where creatively I had to find my way out of there. And it was a tight tunnel to find my way out of.

I was very adamant about a couple of things. I was adamant about keeping the family’s history intact. The reason they came to this country, the way that they were as a family, because that’s a lot of the reason I fell in love with them and with the story. I love the fact that they were a wonderful family. They were they were tight. They were close. They had dinner every night together. They weren’t what in the last four years was being represented as immigrants, you know, as the people that were crossing the borders. They were here, and they did everything they were supposed to do, and they did it by the book. He made a mistake, which should have probably had a slap on the wrist.

So, with the “night of,” [his death], I really kind of I had to pick one of two versions that there were of that night. There’s a police version of events that happened that night, and there are his friends’ Thiago and Felix’s version of what happened that night. So both versions kind of coincide up until the point where the cop finally catches Israel. Once he catches Israel, the police version is that Israel falls somehow — they don’t really explain how — and hits his head, which is why when eventually the family saw him, his head was all banged up and kind of caved in. The friends say that that’s nonsense. That the cop, when he finally caught him, grabbed him and did what we show in the movie, which just kind of threw him against the wall until Israel collapsed, had his whole head messed up. And once they had him under their custody, then they Tased him for an unnecessary amount of time. The cops’ version is that Israel was coming at them, and they Tased him to protect themselves.

There was just never anything about that story that made any sense to anybody, because Israel weighed about a 118 pounds. He had braces. He was like the skinny kid that had a skateboard. So the idea that he was kind of coming at them in a way that would make six huge police officers feel threatened, I need to Tase him to detain him just seemed a little ludicrous. So I went with the story from the friends.

Then I stayed pretty true to to the way that they described the events of the night, and we actually shot it about a block away from where Israel was actually killed. Everything else is pretty true to form. I mean, the only place where I really took some creative liberty was with the girlfriend. There was a girl who Israel had just fallen in love with the summer before he was killed, but she never really consented to be in the movie.

I think she wanted to put the whole thing past her, so I took stories of different girls Israel had had relationships with over the years and created a composite character.

SAC: I read that you launched a Kickstarter for the film. How did that work and did it help?

JKD: Yeah. I think it’s the definition of masochism, it’s a tough process to do a Kickstarter. I didn’t I didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. Our financing had come together and fallen apart multiple times over the course of like five years. And I mean, I started on it not even to the year after Israel passed away. And we we were about to go into production and got really, really close to getting into production a couple of times and then the financing would fall apart.

Then finally, we just decided to piece together the money. I mean, really, we raised $25,000 here, $100,000 there. And we’re close enough to get ourselves through production with a little bit more money. So we decided to run a crowdfunding campaign. We knew that Israel’s story had really broad appeal. And it had made a lot of news, and there was a lot of people really behind just wanting to tell his story.
So we said, let’s try, let’s see what happens. And they told us we were crazy for putting such a high goal, you know, because if you don’t make your goal, you don’t get any of it. But we kind of figured if we weren’t going to get $150,000 we couldn’t make the movie anyway, so why would we take people’s money if it wasn’t what we needed. So we did it and we did meet the goal. It was a 24-hour job for a month where we were just posting 24 hours a day, emailing anybody we had ever known to donate whatever they could. And we got there, I mean a couple of big donors came in, you know, that maybe had been shy of investing in the movie because they thought it was too big of an amount, so they came in, and really they saved us. And once we had that money, we went into production.

SAC: That’s wonderful that it worked out. Were bigger donors extras? What happens afterwards, because I don’t think everyone always shares how that works with Kickstarter.

JKD: I mean, you do, you know, they were extras and they’re invited to the premiere. The film was actually supposed to premiere last March. In February of last year, we finished the sound mixing in L.A., and literally beginning of March, I was coming home to Miami with the DCP in my hand to premiere at the Miami Film Festival. They had a huge screening planned for us. It was like 1500 people at the Guzman Theater. And the night before March 11th, all the actors flew in, we’re sitting at this big party for the film that had premiered that evening.

And I’m sitting there with the director of the festival, and I’m just getting one hundred thousand texts going like, “Are you sure? There’s this virus.” And and I said to him, “Are you guys sure?” And they said, “Yeah, look around. There’s like a thousand people here, there’s a party. It’s no big deal. It’ll be fine.” The next morning at 10 o’clock in the morning, he texted me. “We’re good. We’re on.” And by 11:30, he texted me again to say “It’s off.”

It think it was Tom Hanks getting Covid that changed things. Once “Woody” got it, that was it. The world just freaked out and shut down. And so anyway, so all the big investors and the big donors to the Kickstarter were all guaranteed seat. They could have been extras if they wanted to. A lot of them came on set. They had a very active role watching the development of the film. And now they’ll be here Thursday night when we finally premiere a year later.

SAC: I know you mentioned that you felt this responsibility to Israel’s family. How much involvement did they have in the film? Did you show them an early cut or the script, or did you have to sort of for the sake of your ability to make this film, say “OK, they’ve given me their blessing and the right to make this, I’ve got to do this and set some boundaries.”

JKD: I should have done that. I really, really should have done that. I didn’t. I felt so close to them at that point. I felt so responsible to them at that point that I didn’t think I could do that, so throughout the entire process, I kept them very close. And when we finally got into preproduction and they hadn’t asked me to read the script except for when we had to sign over the life rights. At one point had to sit with Israel’s and go through the script with her.

That was one of the most nervous moments of my entire life, because I thought, OK, now we finally have the money. Now what if she doesn’t like this. But she did; she liked the script and she did sign the life rights over. And at that point we were good, and we started production and they were impressed. I took everybody to their house. The whole art department looked at all of his art work and spent a lot of time with the family and with, like photo albums and such.

And then I decided to invite them to the first day of production just because I thought it was kind of an innocuous scene. It was like the scene with a lawyer. I didn’t think it was anything that would trigger them too much. I didn’t think that would be too emotional for them. And I said, OK, let me at least bring them to set so they see the production and maybe they’ll they’ll get some joy out of it.

The mom was really excited about who we had cast for her. She’s a very famous Colombian actress… So she was all excited about who was going to represent her, and I was excited to bring her to set and introduce her to the actress.

SAC: But it was more emotional than you thought?

JKD: It was tough. I tried to keep them as close as I possibly could. You know, having said that, it was not easy, which is why I probably would never would never do it that way again. You need to have a distance to have that creative liberty, you know, where you say, OK, if this storyline is not working, I’m going to keep the spirit alive, but I have to change the story.

I will say it took me a long time to get this script together because, in the first year or two of writing it and rewriting it, it was almost too close. He had just passed, and it was fresh and everybody remembered him through rose-colored glasses. Every aspect of the story was like he was this perfect person. I mean, he was amazing. He was an incredible kid, but he was 18. No one’s perfect.

He was still a kid and had his good side, his bad side, like everybody else. And so it took a long time to kind of get there where his friends finally said, well, yeah, you know, funny stories about him. They started finding things, funny stories about him to share and admitting how, you know, at the end of the day, his downfall was the fact that he was so perched on that throne of like “I’m an artist. I do things the way I want to do them,” but it took a while to be able to get all of that right.

SAC: Tell me about casting Tyler, because I know there had been other people attached. He really stands out in the film. What was it like to find him?

JKD: Yeah, you know, we did, we had another actor [Jeffrey Wahlberg] attached for a while. And then ultimately, once we had the funding, he had just gone into a bigger studio movie, and we just weren’t in the same place. And he’s he’s a wonderful kid, and he’s a great actor, but he just wasn’t right for us any more. So I kind of had to look for Reefa. And I had a friend in New York who’s a producer, and he called me and he said, “I heard you’re not you’re not working with Jeffrey anymore.” And I said, “no.” And he goes, “I have your kid.” And I said, “You do?” And he said, “I have a kid, and I think I have your girl.” He read the script a couple of times, and so he sent me both name. Tyler put himself on tape, and he put himself in like a funny Spider-Man costume and he read for the part.

I remember watching him and then turning the volume off and just kind of watching him and thinking, this is 100 percent him. I don’t even know if he can speak Spanish. I don’t know anything. But I know that what’s coming off the camera is that soulfulness. That was the number one quality I needed for Israel. You know, for me, Israel was all about like his kindness and his spirit and just that that that we that he just wanted so badly to tell his story and to portray his art. And it was just an energy. And Tyler just had it. And then, funny enough, Tyler knew Clara, the one who plays the girlfriend Frankie. They knew each other. Tyler’s friends with her boyfriend.

So I went to New York and I actually met them both at the same time and just hung out with them for a while, watch them interact, and just knew that I had found my Israel and my Frankie. After that, I spent a solid month with Tyler every day on the phone on FaceTime.

SAC: What would you work on with him?

JKD: We would spend a couple hours a day going through scene by scene of the script and adapting it, making it a little more Tyler, a little more Tyler’s Israel than my Israel. And look, I’m a 44-year-old mother. I can’t write the way that 18 year olds speak. Sure, it was really helpful to have the kids make the dialog their own. And I really allowed for them to do that in any way that they thought they could.

SAC: Do you think the film is timelier now that the national conversation about police brutality has changed after George Floyd’s death?

JKD: You know, it’s such a timely question because I thought so. Yes. I thought that the silver lining of everything that happened last March was that over the summer, there was so much noise about police brutality that it wouldn’t have been a good time for the film to come out, because I think it would have gotten lost. However, what I’m finding now in talking to to our publicist is that she’s having a hard time getting people to actually watch it. She says it’s the subject matter, like they’re just, they’re worn out by the subject. They know how to film ends, and people are just a little fatigued. So, I don’t know. The optimist in me wants to say I hope that’s not the case. I hope that this film serves a purpose that I wanted to serve, which is to shift the conversation from this being a story that’s told way too often, not only in the African-American community, but in other minority communities as well.
If you talk to any Latino kid growing up in a Latino neighborhood, they’ll tell you that this s—t happens all the time, you know, and those stories aren’t being told. So I was I was really hoping that it could serve as that as that shift in the conversation. And I hope I hope that people aren’t so fatigued that they don’t want to talk about it anymore.

SAC: In many ways, though, it’s not a movie about how he died but about how he lived. It’s not like he dies in the first half of the movie, and it’s about the case against the police.

JKD: I am so happy that you realize that. I worked so hard for that purpose. I really wanted to tell a story about his life. That was that was my main purpose. I want to tell the story of his and his family’s journey and all the passion that he had for this world and everything that we lost, especially in these dark moments, you know?

SAC: As our time wraps up, tell me your thoughts about seeing two women directors be nominated for an Academy Award. And I know it’s a little complicated because you can be Latina, but not a person of color. Do you feel like we’re really turning a page on the legitimacy of women behind the camera?

JKD: I was actually telling my editor who’s a woman, last night, I said: “My biggest takeaway from this entire process is how much I love to work with hard working women.” I know this is an overgeneralization, but I really in my experience, hard-working women will work ten times more effectively than men. They just don’t have time for the bullshit.

And I just I see the effective way in which they’re used to just juggling every single goal and getting it done because there’s just no time to mess around. And I really appreciate that. And I hope that the world, like you’re saying, I think the world is taking notice. It’s really inspiring. I’m really inspired by the fact that these two women have been nominated this year in the way that they have. And they’ve made incredible films, as so many other women have before, that haven’t gotten noticed. And hopefully it comes to the point where it’s not “inspiring” anymore, because there are so many women making movies.

SAC: One last question, what other projects do you have that we can watch out for?

JKD: I have three other films in the works to scripts that are done and one that I’m currently working on. And yeah, hopefully, hopefully there’ll be a big broad comedy in my future. We could all use more laughter.

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Sandie Angulo Chen

Sandie Angulo Chen is a feature writer, film critic, and book reviewer. She’s written about movies and pop culture since high school, contributing to outlets like Common Sense Media, The Washington Post, EW, Moviefone, and Variety. She lives outside Washington D.C. with her husband and their three young cinephiles.