When Leslie Dektor walked away from his advertising career several years ago, he was one of its most accomplished artisans--as 13 DGA Award nominations for best commercial director of the year would attest. He won the DGA Award twice, in 1992 and 2000.
Among his lauded spotmaking is the iconic observational Levi’s 501 Blues campaign from Foote, Cone & Belding San Francisco, which came to encompass nearly 20 spots. Using neither scripts nor storyboards, Dektor filmed stylish street scenes. The spots’ shaky camera movements spawned numerous imitators. Dektor wasn’t one of them as he avoided being pigeonholed by that look, continuing to seek and turn out original work.
While Dektor left the ad arena to focus on documentaries, there are parallels between his work in both disciplines--capturing moments that shed light on the human condition, introducing us to people from varied walks of life, and in the process sparking empathy among audiences.
His feature documentary exploits span such subjects as a midwife, a dog trainer who doesn’t train dogs but people to live with their dogs, and a feature he recently re-fashioned from its original form to expose us to life on Skid Row in Los Angeles. The latter, originally titled Passing Through, has been remade into We Are, We Dance, We Paint, delving into a community of artists in and around Skid Row.
His latest documentary, Growing Up, was selected for the 27th annual Pan African Film + Arts Festival, which got underway this week and runs through Feb. 19 in Los Angeles. Dektor is hoping that the groundwork for a distribution deal will spring from the festival exposure.
Sixteen years in the making, Growing Up highlights Fernando Pullum and the impact he’s had on thousands of youth in South Central Los Angeles. Through music, Pullum rose above his own harrowing childhood and for decades has passed on the gift of music as a teacher and now founder of a Community Arts Center in Leimert Park that bears his name. Graduates of Pullum’s program have gone on to play with Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder, and Snoop Dogg, and won six Grammy Awards, but he’s proudest of their growth as men and women. “When I started teaching, I just wanted to make whole people. I had no idea that I would be creating artists,” said Pullum. The centerpiece of the film is a conversation between two Pullum students over the course of a decade. Pushing back against tremendous odds, they find success, much of which they credit to Pullum’s influence.
Dektor reflected on Growing Up, his recent re-making of the Skid Row documentary, and his long-time collaborative relationship with editor Rye Dahlman.
SHOOT: Would you provide some backstory on Growing Up.
Dektor: I needed a trumpet player to cast for a gas commercial. He turned out to be Fernando Pullum. We got stuck in an awful snowstorm during the shoot. Cast and crew got stuck in a hotel for weeks--with nothing to do. Fernando shared his life story with me and I became for lack of a better word his “therapist.” I learned about his mother who was a prostitute, other family issues he had. At the same time he was a teacher at a South Central L.A. high school. He taught jazz to kids. And his desire was always to start his own nonprofit program. We started talking in 2001. And I began to help him. I told him we’d bring his mother over here from Chicago, put them together and start filming conversations trying to get to the bottom of issues he was dealing with.
I also started going to his school to follow him. There we found two kids--Jeremy (Jeffers) and Michael (Roundtree) who you see in the film. They were both colorful characters and we wound up tracking them. Jeremy is blind but I never wanted to make a thing of that. I wanted him to be who he was. We started filming them, Pullum, the kids, the school.
Ten years later, I reconnected with Pullum. He was still a jazz instructor at the school but getting closer to launching his own nonprofit program. He never gave up. He pushed and pushed for it. I couldn’t not pursue this. I kept looking for threads in this story. I didn’t know where it was going. But I followed every thread we could. It’s now 2014 and we kept going. In 2017 we see his nonprofit program is up and running, helping a lot of kids. Many of them are working musicians now, very successful. Fernando really was not as interested in that, though, as much as he wanted to show these kids as people, as fully developed adults who have made something of their lives. His program students have a high school graduation rate of 100 percent. He’s serving 600 children ages 5 to 20 each year. And we see in this documentary that the teacher has become the student, learning from these young people and their life experiences.
SHOOT: You shot in different formats during the course of 16 years. How did that come together?
Dektor: I shot 16 millimeter, 35 millimeter film. I shot digital with the Canon 5D, a RED camera, and we mixed all the mediums. I didn’t mind doing this because I wanted the documentary to have an eclectic texture to it.
SHOOT: Rye Dahlman cut Growing Up. He’s been a long-time collaborator. Would you discuss his contributions to the film.
Dektor: We’ve made 9 or 10 documentaries together, as well as hundreds of commercials. When I direct and operate the camera on a documentary, I see myself in the cutting room with Rye. I know the beat and pace of his editing, the way he understands the rhythm of the film. I know the exact beat and frame he’s going to grab while I’m shooting. And his editing in some ways guides my shooting. He means an enormous amount to my work.
SHOOT: When we last talked you had wrapped Passing Through, a documentary about Skid Row in L.A. You have since re-constructed that film. Why?
Dektor: I was putting together a book of photographs as a companion piece to Passing Through. In working on the book, I saw the film differently. So I remade it, re-cut it, re-voiced it--making the film I wanted to make, which is now We Are, We Dance, We Paint.
SHOOT: What’s next for you?
Dektor: I’m developing a narrative feature that I’m directing on (photojournalist) Dorothea Lange. I’ve restructured it too. It was too biopic-like in its prior form. Now it’s starting in the middle of her life. David Fincher is executive producing.