Catching up with the Sundance Filmmakers Behind HALLELUJAH
The 38th annual Sundance Film Festival came to a close this past weekend, finishing its 10-day run of celebrating independent film and emerging and established artists. This year’s impressive lineup comprised 33 works by 41 AFI Alumni, including HALLELUJAH, the brainchild of writer/director Victor Gabriel (AFI Class of 2020, Screenwriting) which he made alongside fellow AFI Alumni – producer Duran Jones (Class of 2021), cinematographer Robert Hunter (Class of 2020), editor Camilla Bartoli (Class of 2020) and production designer Esmé Jackson (Class of 2020).
World premiering in Sundance’s Live Action Shorts section, the film was shot in Gabriel’s very own backyard in Compton, CA, and tells the heartbreaking story of two brothers named Chetty and Paper who, under tragic circumstances, are faced with the predicament of whether to take on the guardianship of their precocious, bookworm of a nephew named Hallelujah.
AFI spoke with the up-and-coming filmmakers about being selected for the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, crafting an introspective, nuanced story about Black trauma and what they learned during their time at AFI.
AFI: Congratulations on being accepted to Sundance! How does it feel to have HALLELUJAH make its World Premiere at the festival?
Duran Jones (producer): Thank you! It’s unreal! We are extremely grateful to Sundance for championing this project. We made this film to have an honest and truthful dialogue on Black Male trauma, so Sundance is giving us an opportunity to expand that conversation.
Victor Gabriel (writer/director): It feels odd. You would think I would be euphoric, but I’m not really great at celebrating myself…I feel more excited about the fact that my friends and family get to see me shine. I want to make them proud.
Robert Hunter (cinematographer): Honestly, I don’t think any of us expected to get into Sundance. We all just set out to make a good movie. It’s hard enough to get a film made, especially during COVID, and it’s even harder to make a good film. That’s all we wanted, and I hope we achieved it.
AFI: Before we get into the film, we’d love to know a little bit more about your background and what made each of you want to pursue a career in filmmaking?
Victor: I come from an impoverished background. This led me to a lot of escapism in books, movies, comic books and just my imagination. That led me to hip-hop music, to becoming a marriage and family therapist and then to screenwriting. There are so many emotions and feelings and images in my head that I want to get out. And film has been the best place for me to do that at. It’s also given me the ability to connect to another human being through stories.
Duran: Before coming to AFI, I was an independent rapper. I never realized how much creating, distributing, marketing, promoting and financing my own music qualified me as a film producer. In 2017, I made my first short film titled BLKMGC, an urban musical inspired by the killing of Tamir Rice at the hands of police. I’ve been creating art my entire life, but as a Black Man in this industry I felt responsible to not only create but to learn how the business worked. Learning how to produce has set me up to produce for others and one day cut out the middleman for projects I believe in.
Robert: It’s a bit of a long story. It all goes back to my love for music, art and of course movies. There has always been a severe drought of indigenous stories on screen especially by indigenous filmmakers. I dropped everything and set out to tell our stories. The movies I wanted to see – for us by us – and it wasn’t ever going to happen by itself. Problem is I fell in love with light and nothing has ever made more sense for me. My goals are still the same. I’m just operating within a different capacity as a cinematographer.
Esmé (production designer): I found my love for building things while earning a bachelor’s degree in Industrial design. I bounced around through several jobs in my early twenties and found myself working in a scene shop. That is where I fell in love with Production Design.
Camilla (editor): I have always been fascinated with films from an early age. I would spend my time making home videos with my family and friends which are now stored in my blackmail folder. The more I was learning about filmmaking, the more I noticed the impact that the editing process had on shaping the story. There is so much you can do in post-production and so many different emotions that you can convey to the audience. I was blown away by the possibilities and what started as a hobby soon became a professional path for me.
AFI: Victor, what was the inspiration behind your idea for HALLELUJAH and can you talk about incorporating the powerful words of writer and social critic Richard Wright?
Victor: It was about grief and trauma and how I tend to laugh at the dark things. The most traumatic memories I have, I know I’ve made jokes about. And, in turn, I have found connection with other people. Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” was a seminal book for me growing up, but the words are vastly more subtextual and almost insignificant when put up against the real weight of the book – which is that Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” was Hallelujah’s father’s favorite book.
AFI: Can you talk about how you all came together and the collaborating process?
Duran: Vic emailed me the script for a feature titled “The Incredible Heist of Hallelujah Jones.” The characters, the world and the humor resonated with me immediately. That same script landed us a spot in the 2021 Sundance Feature Producer’s Lab. Before that announcement, we decided making a short with him as the director was the next logical step. The team was put together by Vic. All people who made him feel supported and heard. My job was to equip everyone with what they needed to the best of my ability and to make sure they remembered why we came together – the story!
Esmé: I am a huge fan of Vic. We are both native Angelenos, and I really see the city and its people in his heart. Everything that he has written in our time at AFI together has been so beautiful. His characters are so developed that it’s hard not to connect with them and just feel a little bit more whole as a person knowing their stories.
Camilla: I remember Vic calling me and telling me about this opportunity, and I was on board without even knowing what the story was. Once I read the script, I was filled with so many emotions. I knew this was a story I wanted to tell, and this was the perfect team to do it with.
Robert: Vic is my brother, and we had collaborated on my Second-Year visual essay with Camilla. I have the utmost respect for everyone on this team. They’re all so talented and I’m grateful to be in community with them. By the time Vic sent me HALLELUJAH, I had worked with Camilla many times and it was all sort of a no brainer. We are all just climbing together. I think creating an atmosphere of positive energy and respect was key to our collaboration.
AFI: What do you hope audiences take away from seeing the film?
Victor: I hope that fundamentally and simply they connect to the joys, triumphs and pain of being a Black male. Simply put: it’s hard for us out here, and we are trying our best.
Esmé: Hopefully, watching HALLELUJAH will make their world a little bit bigger and maybe they will feel a bit more whole.
Camilla: And that they take away the power of love and the importance of supporting one another. There is light even in the darkest of places, and I think that’s what makes this project so special to me.
Duran: I hope they see the humanity of Black Men. The world can be heartless toward us, using false stereotypes and outdated clichés to cast judgement. This film disarms the audience through humor, but by the end they are face to face with our humanity.
AFI: How did your AFI Faculty and/or classmates help you evolve into the filmmakers you are today? What lessons did you take away from attending the AFI Conservatory?
Victor: Anna Thomas, Kevin Kennedy, Karen Janszen, Andrew Wagner and Bill Dill were instrumental Faculty members for me. They taught me how to write, how to direct, how to put myself on the page and on screen. And for that I am forever indebted to them.
Duran: My first semester at AFI, I felt like an imposter. I’m not a cinephile like the majority of my classmates, so I came in feeling like I had everything to learn and not much to offer. I was wrong in my assessment of myself! Countless discussions with other Fellows and Faculty made me realize my approach to this industry was unique. AFI not only helped me realize that, but also gave me the courage to lean into it.
Camilla: AFI had a big impact on me and my work. It was very helpful to get my classmates’ feedback on my projects and my Faculty’s expertise. Everyone had different experiences and different ideas, and I started to value and focus on what really mattered. The story is the vehicle that we use to achieve an emotional reaction and emotion is everything! I learned a lot about characters arcs by experimenting with actors’ performances, the pace of scenes, the importance that each frame has and the different ways you can tell a story. AFI gave me room to experiment and make mistakes and I learned a lot from everyone I met there.
Robert: Faculty, classmates, and AFI helped shape me in every way through all the successes and failures. Like any master’s program, sometimes your greatest teachers are your peers and at AFI you’re surrounded by massive talent and a hunger every day. My experiences at the Conservatory served as a reminder that you have to be true to yourself – know who you are, know who your ancestors are, know whose shoulders you stand on, who bled for you to be here. As a Blackfeet, Shoshone-Paiute, Washoe-Paiute and Chippewa Cree man, I don’t take the privilege and responsibility lightly. Movies aided in the genocide of my people. This isn’t something I’m doing just for fun. If I’m not in service to my community, then it’s time to find another career.
AFI: As a recent graduate, what practical advice do you have for current Fellows and new Alumni who are looking to succeed on the festival circuit and make an impact in the industry?
Victor: Look for that embarrassing story, that feeling you have been avoiding, that memory you shut down. Lean into it and sit with yourself. And I bet you a beautiful story will come out. And write all the time.
Esmé: I’d say don’t confuse a feature with a short. Simplify those epics and get your foot in the door. Also take a beat, let go of that ego and learn who you are in your soul and as a person.
Robert: My career and journey is still in its infancy, so I’ll just say what I tell myself: set out to make the best film possible. Nothing else matters except the lives on screen. How can you honor them? If it has a heart and a soul – which come from you – then perhaps people will receive it well despite the flaws. All you can do is grind and hustle. The rest is in creator’s hands.
Camilla: Cherish the relationships you build at AFI. You never know who will call you for a project they are planning to shoot. Use this time to really understand what makes a great collaboration and you will start to notice what an effect that has on the story.
Duran: Don’t worry about the festivals or the success. Figure out what is important to you, what is really important to you. Make that. Don’t apologize for it. When you find people who want to help you make that thing, listen. Your collaborators are not your enemies; they are your resources. Suffocate that selfish voice inside you because that voice will only stunt your growth and your progress. You have just as much to learn from other Fellows as you do from your professors.
*Interview was edited for clarity and length.