In some ways, the documentary film Tomorrow We Disappear has been decades in the making. Brooklyn-based directing duo Jim Goldblum and Adam Weber have known each other since the age of eight. As college roommates at the University of Pennsylvania, the two both studied English. They were huge fans Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and the author’s descriptions of a “magicians’ ghetto” in India inspired them to travel to New Delhi in 2011 to visit the famed Kathputli Colony, an artists’ slum that has been home to over 3,000 magicians, acrobats, and puppeteers since the 1950s but is now targeted for redevelopment.
On their first visit, a 17-year-old magician met them at the Shadipur Metro Station and escorted them back in time, guiding them along unpaved roads and alleyways, into a world where tight-rope walking and fire-breathing are part of the everyday sights and sounds of the neighborhood. Despite vocal protests, the colony will soon be razed to make way for high-rise apartment buildings. It’s a tale that’s becoming increasingly commonly from New York to China.
Goldblum and Weber are fresh off screening the world premiere of their film in the World Documentary Competition at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival (Mr. Rushdie even made it out to the premiere on Saturday). They sat down to talk with us about their journey.
Adam Weber (left) and Jim Goldblum (right) in Washington Square Park during the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.
Doing an independent movie is the same as doing a startup now.
There’s a striking moment of self-awareness in the film where one of the artists says, “Who are we? Are we artists or are we poor people?”
Weber: That’s sort of what we consider the heart of the film. It’s a universal identity crisis with artists in general. It’s not just architecturally replacing old with the new. So much of the village is hand-built and nurtures what you do for a living. When you change the surroundings, you change the context, and all of a sudden you feel like you should change too. There’s a choice of whether to assimilate.
Goldblum: It’s interesting because if you’re an artist you want to be in a space that’s amenable to the preservation of your art. But there’s a psychology of a home. There’s an expectation of what living in a modern home means.
You had a successful Kickstarter campaign back in 2011 raising over 150 percent of your fundraising goal, but now it seems like everyone and their mother is on Kickstarter. Can you describe your strategy? And do you think crowdfunding has reached a saturation point?
Goldblum: We winged it. We unintentionally turned into an e-commerce store for Kathputli Colony with nine duffel bags stuffed with puppets. Kickstarter is a platform, like YouTube. How many videos get uploaded to YouTube every day? But the good things will get seen, and the bad will drop into the well.
Weber: In some ways, Kickstarter was just pouncing on something that always existed. Every artist starts off with friends and family. Kickstarter is just a broader platform, asking the question to more people: Do you care about this story?
Goldblum: I also think it clarifies what’s lucrative in our current entertainment environment, which is cultivating fans and bringing them into the process. Zach Braff and Spike Lee will win because they’ve been able to keep in contact with their fans. Melissa Joan Hart crashed and burned because no one’s heard from her in 15 years. If you want to do well, you build a fan base. It’s a life long thing not a one-off thing.
There comes a point where you have to give up your preconceived notions of what you thought the story was and see how things actually are.
Filmmaking can be very entrepreneurial process. How would you compare filmmaking to the startup/tech world?
Weber: We realized that doing an independent movie is the same as doing a startup now. A lot of our friends are in the startup scene, and we actually go through the same problems and solve the same issues. It’s essential to get people interested, distinguish your product from other products, to fundraise, and figure out who would be interested in this. It’s also just an opportunity to work with great people. Film is a medium that allows you to share skill sets.
Goldblum: I came out of the interactive and transmedia community. I think I brought a lot of those methodologies over. Traditionally, film is very hierarchical. The director is a dictator of sorts. For us, our approach was to keep it pretty flat and empower people. That methodology is more part of the start up community than the film community.
It’s a world of magicians and acrobats and puppeteers—people who are breathing fire on the streets or walking tight ropes over slum walls. We wanted to give people the proper opportunity to get lost in that world.
Social media in increasingly a driver of traffic to any kind of online or offline event. But some still find it burdensome. How did you guys approach your social media strategy?
Weber: In the beginning, I was terrified. It felt like being on stage, either gloating or doing a humble-brag. But you have to find your voice. That’s an attitude that Jimmy has brought to the whole process: being inspired by an Internet community and sharing your thoughts, not just in the sense of “This is an achievement. I’m going to post it.” But more, “Check out this awesome village.” It’s more of a discussion.
Goldblum: The way I think of social media is like a gift economy. Every time you share something, it’s like a gift, and gifts are free. It doesn’t cost money to post on Facebook. It just takes time. Of course, there’s can be a narcissistic element, with people constantly posting selfies on Facebook. But a good gift should show how much you care. For us, we talk about the film, but we also talk about the culture that inspired the film. We try to find examples of disappearing cultures and places so that our audience trusts us as a source. We have 4,000 Facebook fans in India, and they keep us updated while we’re in New York editing.
Weber: Right now the colony is protesting. We went straight to our Facebook fans who were committed to the story and asked who has a camera, who can go down there get snap shots. That allowed us to feel very connected to a place that’s on the other side of the world.
Getting “lost in the weeds” is a term you hear a lot of in long form storytelling, especially documentary since there’s no pre-defined story or structure. Did you have a moment where you felt utterly and completely lost?
Weber: In retrospect, I love being lost. We shot 450 hours of footage. You could literally make 1,000 movies out of that. There’s so many different characters, and it was the process of feeling out which ones were telling the story or living out the story. A lot of what your characters will challenge what you think you’re making while you’re making it. Sometime sour characters disagree with you, and you should let them have a voice too.
Goldblum: Documentary is really a process of transformation of yourself also. There comes a point where you have to give up your preconceived notions of what you thought the story was and see how things actually are. It’s hard to recognize that it’s not always the story that’s right in front of you, but the little things that are happening on the periphery.
Increasingly film and storytelling are expanding into other mediums like mobile phone apps and games. What other platforms are you exploring?
Goldblum: Because our film is covering an event that’s ongoing, we wanted the film to bring you to that space on the edge of the cliff, the question of whether they have to move or not. We think other mediums are more easily updateable than the film. A film is a very locked piece. Mobile technologies allow you to continue.
Weber: We’re sort of interested in exploring other worlds. In the film, we made it as immersive as possible because the world is the most important thing. If you don’t understand what it’s like to be in their world, you won’t understand what it’s like to lose it. Film is a great medium, but it’s like going to worship or to temple. But my day-to-day life, unfortunately or fortunately, is online or on my phone. So we’d like to do something to engage with people on that level. We’re brainstorming ways to do that.
In the age of the 90-second Web video, why not just make an online short? Why do long form storytelling?
Goldblum: You can’t watch Lord of the Rings in five minutes.
Weber: My background is in feature films. We talked about so many different executions, but you need that amount of time and patience. It’s about investigating a world and those sequences need to function to make a point as opposed to just fulfilling raw curiosity.
Goldblum: We may be crazy. That’s totally occurred to us. The scope of it felt epic in that you have literally the last home of India’s traditional artists about to be destroyed to make New Delhi’s skyscrapers. It’s David vs. Goliath on a very epic scale, so we wanted to do it justice. You need the time in a narrative to allow the themes to have depth. It’s a world of magicians and acrobats and puppeteers—people who are breathing fire on the streets or walking tight ropes over slum walls. We wanted to give people the proper opportunity to get lost in that world.
Tomorrow We Disappear has its last screening at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday. See more details here.