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Filmmaker Q&A: Karina Epperlein

Berkeley filmmaker discusses her new documentary about the lives of young black men in Akron, Ohio

When Karina Epperlein decides to tackle a subject for a documentary, she dives in deep. The Berkeley filmmaker took more than three years to make Finding the Gold Within, a look at six young black men in Akron, Ohio as they go from high school to college. Each man was involved with a non-profit called Alchemy, Inc., a mentoring program that lets young men share their stories and relate their life experiences to various cultural mythologies. The resulting film is at times inspiring and funny, at other times heartbreaking and disturbing, and always fascinating.

Finding the Gold Within will screen on October 3 at the Lark Theater in Larkspur, as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. Fans of provocative documentaries should not miss it. I had a chat with Epperlein to discuss her film.

First off, you were raised in Germany—how did you come to live in the East Bay?
I came to the United States with a theater company from San Francisco, called Soon 3 Theater. I had been performing with them in Frankfurt. We toured Europe and they asked me to come perform in San Francisco’s Magic Theatre

That was 33 years ago—I came with a one way ticket. I knew I would want to stay. I was just thinking that it was 30 years ago that I had my first two two pieces showing at the Mill Valley Film Festival, showing video pieces.

You have remarkable access to your subjects in this film. How did you come across the Alchemy, Inc. program from Ohio?
I had met Kwame Scruggs, the founder of Alchemy, Inc. when he was out here on a conference. He told me about the program—issues of the black community had always interested me. But I was hesitant to dive into a film right away.

Then, Kwame sent me two pictures of these 11-year-old boys from Alchemy, and he put the pictures next to pictures the same two boys as they were ready to graduate from high school. Seeing how much they grew in that time they were in the Alchemy program made me realize this would be very interesting from a visual perspective.

So, I came out to Ohio for a scouting trip, and I saw what Alchemy was doing with these young men and the magic they were creating in the story circles. And I realized that there was such intimate material here.

The conversations you recorded with these young men featured some of the most frank discussions about what it means to be black in America that I have ever heard. What fascinated you so much about understanding the life experience of young African American men in the U.S.?
Maybe it is because I come from a different country and a different culture. My country has a history that my generation had to and wanted to deal with. It took a long time and a lot of cultural work. My generation wanted to take a look of why fascism took hold.

I have always been interested in the black experience in America, from the long history of slavery to the present day. And I wanted to look at what happened to these young men when they are mentored—that was important. Not just to say, ‘Look how hard it is to be a young black man in America’ but to say, ‘Look what happens to these young men when someone offers support.’

You have the camera right up in your subject’s faces as they discuss the most personal and painful experiences. How did you earn the trust of these young men to let you get so close?
I’m kind of fearless of issues that may be dark or difficult—all of the material about mythology and evoking metaphors to work deeply with the soul. These men got that, that I understood that.

I would expose myself and tell them why I was interested. I’m very passionate and intense. They took to that and we worked on it together to shatter the stereotypes that they have to deal with. I kept making portraits of these men for each year. They would give me feedback that would just blown me away and make me cry. It has moved me tremendously.

One of the most moving sections in the film involves your subjects dealing with the recognition of negative stereotypes that African American men have to deal with—how matter-of-fact people can be about being completely racist.
Yes. I was surprised at how measured and dignified that these young men were in dealing with that. I am an impulsive person and would have a lot of anger. They had such a composure about it; that is is just how it is.

Watching this film this week made me realize how prescient the movie is in dealing with issues that have been in the news a lot in the past month. For example, there have been a number of African American NFL players who have been exposed in domestic violence scandals.
Some of the athletes we are hearing about are repeating the mistakes that they were raised with. It is a vicious cycle. The kids involved with Alchemy have an advantage, in a sense. These young men are nurtured, they learn about principals of life, they recognize that sacrifice is necessary or perseverance is a good thing.

It’s interesting—in the circle of 28 young men, this core group that Kwame has nurtured, most of these kids were athletes. They know that athletics are basically their road to college—for some of them the only road to a college education. They would simply not have the means otherwise.

Recent events involving the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown make this movie extremely topical as well. It’s my feeling that there is a drumbeat in certain sections of the media to vilify these young men who have been gunned down in the most tragic of circumstances. It is nice to see your film take the time to follow these young men and show how challenging their lives really are, rather than hear someone like Bill O’Reilly spout his opinions about young black men in America, as if he has any clue.
Thank you. It is important. The Trayvon Martin thing happened during the time that we were filming. This film was a very difficult project, to find the funding and make it happen. That event with Trayvon Martin made me stick it out. My feeling was, we really need to find some images that counter that drumbeat. We have been hijacked by that drumbeat.

How important is it to have independent film festivals such as the Mill Valley Film Festival to get movies like yours shown to audiences?
It is really important. Mill Valley is renown nationally. Getting in to the festival will help us get recognized and out into other festivals as well. Then the film will go to TV and community screenings.

But it is really an uphill road. It is hard to get the entry and hard to get people to watch the film at all, because it is challenging. But it is a good film and worthwhile. Mill Valley brings in wonderful audiences and I am excited for them to see it.