NFF alums Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg (Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, NFF 2010) bring their deeply empathetic and insightful storytelling to a different kind of subject with In My Father's House. Che "Rhymefest" Smith, the Grammy-winning rapper and writer behind Kanye West's "Jesus Walks" and the Oscar-winning "Glory," buys the Chicago home of his estranged father whom he hasn't seen in two decades and eventually seeks him out. We spoke to Stern and Sundberg about Smith's incredible journey and their collaboration.
NFF: How did you first meet Che Smith?
Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg: Two years ago, we received a call from our friend Daniel Kellison, a producer in Los Angeles. Daniel was sitting with Che “Rhymefest” Smith, a Chicago rap artist he’d met when he was producing Jimmy Kimmel Live. Che, recently a co-writer on the Oscar winning song “Glory,” was then a Grammy-winning rapper who co-wrote “Jesus Walks” with Kanye West and had been a featured performer on Kimmel’s show.
On a hurried phone call, Che shared his story with us and we were hooked.
Che explained that he had recently purchased his father’s childhood home in the Chatham neighborhood of Chicago’s south side and had moved in with his wife Donnie, a Chicago school teacher, and his 14 -year-old son Solomon. Che was looking for stability for his own family and a safer neighborhood for Solomon, and Chatham has a strong history as a solid community that has held together against the increasing violence and gang pressures of the south side.
Che hadn’t seen his father in over 25 years. Che had grown up with his grandparents and his mother, who was 15 when she gave birth to Che and battled drug addiction throughout Che’s early childhood. Che had only vague memories of his father as someone who came by sporadically, drank beer in the basement, and occasionally took him to movies.
Not knowing if his father was still in Chicago - or even alive - he called his mother and with relative ease tracked down his father. He was drinking every day and living at a homeless center just blocks from where his wife taught school. The next day, Che met his father - whom he had last seen when he was 12 years old - at their neighborhood library. His father, Brian, was overcome with emotion but Che was wary. He was afraid to fully embrace the man he felt had abandoned him and he was not ready to call him dad. He wasn’t sure what this relationship would require, or if he wanted any part of it.
When Che finished telling us about meeting his father, we were concerned that we had missed the emotional trigger for the story by not filming the first reunion in the library. Che then explained that as a rapper, and as a person growing up without a sense of legacy and history, he was accustomed to documenting his life. Che had filmed the day he found the house, the weeks spent settling in and unpacking boxes…. and the day he met his father!
Che shipped us all this early footage overnight and we watched everything he had shot. One week later, we booked tickets to Chicago and began what would end up as an 18-month experience tracking Che and his father’s journey from homelessness and alcoholism to self-discovery and redemption.
NFF: Did you spend a significant amount of time with him before you started filming, given that the film documents a very vulnerable moment in his life?
Stern and Sundberg: We decided to follow his unfolding story and so we began filming right away, but we spent a lot of time on the phone talking with Che between shoots. We spent hours talking about his family, his life, his growing relationship with his dad so when it came to filming there was a sense of intimacy already established.
NFF: Were you ever concerned about Brian's willingness to participate in the film?
Stern and Sundberg: Brian has always been very open and willing to be filmed. He never indicated any concerns so we were never worried. We spent a lot of time with Brian just hanging out, having a meal, getting to know each other.
NFF: You've made character studies like Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which played the festival in 2010, and broader, more political works like The End of America. Do you feel that you approach the process differently depending on your subject matter?
Stern and Sundberg: We try to ground all our films in strong characters, and even as we look at social issues, the stories emerge from the main characters in the film. In the case of The End of America, the film was driven by Naomi Wolf’s point of view that we brought to life.
NFF: Can you speak a little bit about your collaboration, and how you two work together as directors in the field?
Stern and Sundberg: We spend a lot of time talking about the project, how it will look and feel, the tone, the narrative through lines. We will both spend as much time in the field as we can either together or solo. There seems to often be a natural flow to how we work.