Documenting Realness with:
The Queendom of Tonga
(click each image for more info)
December 10th, 2016
by Mark Schwab
Raised in Los Angeles, San Francisco-based filmmaker Brian Favorite has worked on sitcoms such as Mad About You and Something Wilder as a production assistant, camera operator, floor director and assistant director. Realizing a dream of becoming a teacher, Brian acquired California, Illinois and Washington state teaching credentials, leading to a stint in the Peace Corps as an elementary school teacher and community organizer focusing on teen youth job development in radio and television in the Kingdom of Tonga, South Pacific. This adventure led to him to produce and direct the upcoming documentary "The Queendom of Tonga". Currently a graduate student at the Broadcast Electronics and Communications Arts (BECA) program at San Francisco State University, Brian seeks out his documentary subjects in the most diverse communities fostering trust and professionalism.
1) How does living in San Francisco influence you as a filmmaker?
San Francisco is known for being a place where diversity thrives and is a beautiful place to work and live. As a creative and openly gay man, I need to be in an environment that nurtures and inspires artists as well as a place I feel safe being who I am. Specifically, as a documentarian, everywhere I turn, there are fascinating people with compelling stories here, though that is relatively true everywhere. The history of this city, as well as California, is filled with people who sought refuge from conservative environments, and who fought to be heard, and who have important things to say.
2) You seem to gravitate towards documentaries - how do you discover your ideas/subjects?
Great documentaries for me are about interesting people doing compelling things. Everybody has a story and I really seek out character-driven narratives by people who have something to say and can say it in an interesting or unexpected way. It should have a larger historical or topical context, or subject matter that is new to an audience, where learning occurs. I keep my eyes and ears open for story ideas all around me constantly, but realize how difficult it is to find original and powerful stories.
3) You made a terrific short film called "Heklina" - how was that project realized?
It was an assignment in grad school. Originally I wanted to focus on a theater group, but it fell through last minute. I was at the El Rio (music venue and bar in Bernal Heights, SF) the Sunday after the other film topic dissolved wondering what next to do, when a drag show started up. I could not take my eyes off Heklina, the host of the event, as she would introduce then watch the performers do their thing. I wanted to know what was going on in Heklina’s head as she watched the performers on stage. That question drew me to go up to her and ask if she would want a short film done about her. She said: “What, a film done about me? YES!” We met later that week and we immediately clicked. She was a dream to work with: she wanted promotion, she understood she needed to dig deep and really share herself to make this film worthwhile. It was not until I understood that this was a film about a person with a dual personality: a man AND a drag performer, from there, it really began to take off.
4) As an instructor at San Francisco State, what do you see in the new film students? What are they focused on in regards to how they approach filmmaking?
Most of the students are influenced by current, successful films - and how they can garner the skills to make similar work so they can land a job in LA. Knowing the latest technology in filmmaking is very important to them. Most are interested in telling stories on screen, and telling them well.
5) What is your current perspective on the "indie film landscape"?
There are so many interesting films out there now: internationally and domestically. I see myself at 90 years old, sitting in front of some kind of screen trying to see all the current and past films I missed, because of the massive amount of them out there now. Since films can be made much more cheaply than ever before, (yet filmmaking is still tremendously challenging work), the opportunity to tell more diverse and engaging stories while showing the complexities and similarities of the human experience is crucial, especially with the current constrictive political environment in many countries. I am excited that today’s independent filmmakers have the courage and enthusiasm to tell stories that upset the many rigid and stifling narratives of the past.
6) Your new documentary is called "The Queendom of Tonga" - what has the journey been like for you to make this film and what do you hope audiences will take away from it?
It has been a nine- year journey for me with TQOT and honestly it was never easy. Not even once. Little money and resources were a constant “drag”, but I realized if I gave up on this film, I may never think that I could go on to do another. Choosing to go to graduate school was this film, and my saving grace. The resources and “hand-holding” of experienced filmmakers who are also teachers who pushed me to find a compelling narrative, while allowing the voices in TQOT to shine forth in an ethically responsible way, was crucial to the film’s success. I hope the audience comes away with an understanding of the leiti experience while finding commonalities in their own life.
"The Queendom of Tonga"
7) What is the biggest mistake you see new filmmakers make and how can they avoid it?
In terms of documentary films, I would say: not allowing your subject to have the freedom, space and opportunity to say, be, divulge who they truly are. The biggest challenge is to capture those special, honest moments from your subject. This comes from a smart director who knows how to create an environment where these moments occur. If your subject feels safe where they have the ability to “emote”, you have created the opportunity to get that stuff recorded. Understanding your subject as best you can: their motivations, interests, etc. before production can help. Much like casting an actor, you want to take the time to “cast” your subject before doing a film about them. Make sure they are on your side, understand what you intend to do with them in the film, and have them agree to be open and available as much as possible throughout the shooting.
8) Our traditional final question: For all of the filmmakers out there feeling overwhelmed/frustrated/discouraged, what words of encouragement/hope/insight do you have for them?
I am one of the discouraged throughout making of "The Queendom of Tonga", which took so long. Just realize that it is part of the creative process of filmmaking and that lows and highs are inevitable. When my energy was high and things were going well, I would push myself much harder to complete the as many tasks at hand as I could. I would ride that energy. When times were rough, I would step back and not allow myself to get swallowed by it all. That can be an important period of time to recollect the overall film to let your subconscious perhaps tell you things that may benefit the film and minutiae attached to it. When a grant comes through or a festival accepts your film, make the effort to celebrate those moments which can get you through those more difficult times.