Off and Running
By Gregory Miller
Off and Running, a new documentary which brilliantly redefines the concept of the American family, features a teenage African-American adoptee named Avery who is being raised by two Jewish lesbians. The film, which chronicles three years of Avery's life and her struggles with race, identity, and family, has already earned praise from the Tribeca Film Festival, Outfest, Philadelphia QFest, and Silverdocs, and will be showing in various cities across the country this spring. We caught up with the film's director and producer, Nicole Opper, to find out what it took to bring such a powerful piece to the big screen.
Out: How did you first meet Avery and her family?
Nicole Opper: I met Avery a long time ago, about 10 years ago, when I was filming at her Jewish day school in Brooklyn for a student project. Then I started a film class there and she became my student and we just kept kind of weaving in and out of relationships until finally we ended up being friends and she would come back and visit as a teenager. But we didn't start shooting until she was 16 years old and started having this deeper exploration of who she was. And I thought that was interesting, so we began to film. But I met her family through Avery.
How were you able to keep everyone so raw and honest?
I would say it really just had to do with maintaining the trust of the family. I think they felt comfortable with me and knew where I was coming from, and we developed trust over a lot of years. We spent a lot more time off camera getting to know one another and just hanging out getting meals together than we did on camera. And they knew that I cared very much about Avery and her future and her well-being. So, all of that just naturally translated into opening up in front of me on the camera, I suppose.
How often were you filming?
It would usually be about once a month. That would vary, once or twice a month, and then [there] was a two-month stretch in there where we didn't do any filming at all. Avery kind of dropped off the face of the planet. But then she came back, and we picked up. So it was fairly consistent.
What was the biggest challenge while making the film?
That's such a hard question. I don't really know the answer to that one. On this film I would say the biggest challenge was knowing when to stop. Because you know, we had a whole village of people supporting the project and rooting for us. We weren't on our own, creating our own time line, which could be tricky because we also had to wait for things to unfold naturally in Avery's life in order to build a narrative arc. So when it became clear that her story wasn't about going to Texas and meeting her birth family, what the story would be about had its challenges.
While the film features a family lead by a lesbian couple, it's about a lot more than that. How does a film feature LGBT people without being a 'gay movie'?
That was a struggle for me. As a lesbian who wants to adopt one day, I went into this story with a bit of a na've point of view and a bit of agenda, which was I wanted to show how beautiful and tightly knit this family was. And I wanted the world to be aware of that, and the beauty of our families, the diversity of queer families. So while to some extent I think that does happen -- I think that people do attach themselves to the characters in the film because they're real people and they're flushed out and they're honest. At the same time, it was an education for me to see how little Avery's moms' sexuality impacted her growth and her identity development. Really everything hinged on her relationship to race and her racial identity, and so there was a point in which I had to gain some perspective and distance myself from the experience of being queer and wanting to tell these powerful queer stories, and just letting myself truly opening up to what Avery was going through and experiencing without that lens in a way.
So, was it during the editing process that you chose not to make this about a lesbian couple's struggle and instead to focus on Avery's growth?
It wasn't so much a decision as much as it was just an organic process of following her and discovering what it was that was going on in her head. And we let Avery lead the way, so when it became clear what the issues she was coping with truly were, that was the path that the story took as opposed to my directing her life and her struggles and saying, 'This must be about these lesbian moms -- let's explore it!'
More broadly, were you conscious that this film was becoming an American coming-of-age story versus, say, a black film, a gay film, or a Jewish film?
That's a good question. I think at the heart of every film, you're just kind of conducting a search for the humanity of the story, and so it would've been impossible to pigeon-hole Avery one way or another. That's the whole point -- she is black, Jewish, and the daughter of lesbians and a member of an interracial family. So there's no way to authentically share her story without exploring all these elements that make up who she is, whether they are working together or whether they feel fragmented, which is sometimes the case. The other thing is we started showing rough cuts of the film to young people along the way and noticing that a lot of people were identifying with Avery's struggle, whether or not they had any experience with adoption, whether or not they were black, whether or not they were the children of LGBT people. So that was eye-opening too. There are certain things she's going through that are specific to transracial adoptees and children of LGBT folks, but there are also a lot of things going on here that are just about the adolescent experience of coming of age.