Theodore “Regge” Life, an independent producer and director of award-winning documentaries about peoples’ cultural experiences in countries such as Japan and Africa, is Emerson’s newest distinguished director-in-residence in Visual and Media Arts. The seasoned filmmaker came to Emerson in September after teaching at Howard University for several years. He is teaching two advanced film-directing classes, Directing Actors for the Screen and Directing Image and Sound.
Life, who is originally from New York City, has a background in sociology, film, and theater. He studied abroad at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria while earning his undergraduate degree at Tufts University and attended New York University for graduate school, where he again did some of his post-graduate work at the University of Ibadan. The time he spent in Nigeria influenced his career path.
Reason to Hope, Life’s latest documentary, recounts the experiences of CBS correspondent Bill Whitaker and producer Erin Lyall George living and reporting in Haiti for a month after the 2010 earthquake. Whitaker and George stayed in Haiti longer than other network journalists to cover the aftermath of the earthquake, and consequently witnessed more than what was generally depicted in the media. Reason to Hope aired on PBS and won Best Film/Video at the 26th International Black Film Festival in Berlin. It was also selected to screen at the Hollywood Black Film Festival.
Emerson is hosting a special screening of Reason to Hope in the Paramount Center’s Bright Family Screening Room on Thursday, December 1, at 7:00 pm, followed by a Q&A with Life. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
ECT spoke to Life about why he makes documentaries, his interest in Japan, and his latest film Reason to Hope.
Why did you decide to start making documentaries?
I wanted to combine my background in sociology and film and do something about my time in West Africa and about West Africa itself. I found in returning to the States, I had to spend so much time destroying myths about Africa to friends and family and people who I thought knew better. So my first documentaries were ethnographic documentaries [films about human culture] about West Africa, the Caribbean, and South America, looking at the African diaspora worldwide. There were many things I experienced in Africa that were, to my surprise, better than things they had in the United States. But no one would understand and believe that concept because we have this idea of the U.S. as the end-all, be-all.
How did you come to Emerson?
I’m always looking for opportunities to do things that [intersect] with my background. So, I saw coming to Emerson as a chance to work more on a project that is a narrative feature based on a prize-winning novel. With it I’ll get a chance to collaborate with my colleagues here in cinematography and with the Performing Arts students. It’ll be a good collaborative time, which I strongly believe in when it comes to filmmaking.
How did you become interested in Japan?
I went to Japan first as a creative artist through the National Endowment for the Arts. I spent most of the 1990s living there and had developed and produced three feature-length documentaries there in association with Japanese television. I found it very fascinating, being in Japan for all this time, meeting other Americans and particularly Americans of color who were living there. And that led to my documentary, Struggle and Success: The African American Experience in Japan, where I wanted to break some myths about what it is to be a person of color in Japan.
How do you choose the topics for your films?
I don’t know if I choose them as much as they choose me. When you’re living in Japan, there are certain things you experience, certain truths come to the surface. When I was there, there was a lot of press and a lot of talk about certain remarks by Japanese politicians that were viewed as discriminatory and racist toward Americans, particularly African Americans. So it led people to make hard and fast assumptions about a nation, about a culture, and about a people. So I think part of what I hoped to do was to give people a chance to experience the Japan I found, the Japan I met, as a way to see this place in a different light. And in some ways to urge people to always dig deeper, always look deeper; don’t just believe the hype.
Tell me about Reason to Hope.
Reason to Hope came about ironically because of the Japan connection. Bill Whitaker, who is a top CBS correspondent, was sent to Haiti to cover the earthquake right after it happened. Bill had been the correspondent in Tokyo while I was living there and he had been in my first documentary on Japan, Struggle and Success. Bill and I became friends, and we stayed in touch. So as I watched the coverage, the situation in Haiti kept developing, and I’m watching Bill on TV every night giving a report. I wondered how it really was for him because he wasn’t just in for the weekend or a few days. He stayed. He and his producer [Erin Lyall George] were there for a month, which is unusual. So I called him afterward to see how he was doing after going through that tragic situation, and the stories he told me just made me suddenly get this idea that here’s a film. Because we rarely get to know what journalists think about beyond that two-minute report. I wanted to allow people to see behind the scenes…what do the journalists go through when they’re putting together stories? Where is that push and pull between being the journalist and being a human being when you’re in the midst of a devastating situation, like what was happening in Haiti?
What message do you hope to spread with Reason to Hope?
Bill and Erin’s message: Don’t forget Haiti. Don’t suddenly go away to find another story that you can care about. Haiti still needs our attention and our care. It needs us. It’s our neighbor in this hemisphere, very close to the U.S. Haitian history is very tied to U.S. history in ways that most of America is not even aware of. And I think that’s what they realized and felt and absorbed while they were there, and that’s what they wanted to convey.
How did you go about making the film? Did you go to Haiti yourself?
No, I actually didn’t. This is one those rare times where because of technology now, I didn’t have to go there myself. I did interviews with Bill and Erin when they got back to Los Angeles. But all of the footage and photographs that appear in the film were supplied by Bill and Erin, a photographer who was there with them, and courtesy of CBS News, who allowed me some of the footage that was never showed on TV. No matter how much they shoot each day, they only have a small window at night to show in the report. And most of that footage just goes in the archive, never seen. So I was happy that they let me use some of that.
Which film has felt like your greatest accomplishment?
Ah, it’s always the last film [laughs]. That’s a hard question, because like a parent, you like all your kids. All my films, there’s a part whenever I watch it, it hits me in a certain way because I feel like “Okay, I did my best work there for that segment.” With all films, you’re always saying, “I should’ve done something a little differently here or there.” I don’t think I have a film where I can say from beginning to end, everything is exactly like I want it. Some come close, but there’s always something I would now revise in hindsight.
What’s up next for you?
There’s another Japan film on the back burner. And being here at Emerson, being around some really incredible colleagues particularly in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, I’m hoping to partner with someone in the writing program on a future project. That’s what I’d like to do very much.