IDFA 2019: Angels on Diamond Street
Petr Lom, whose new feature documentary Angels On Diamond Street world-premieres in IDFA Competition for Dutch Documentary, once had a blossoming career as an academic, writes Geoffrey Macnab.
"I really enjoyed studying and I loved philosophy and books but I didn't really enjoy being a professional academic," he recalls of the circumstances in which he quit university to pursue a career as a director. "The publishing for your career, I just found that stultifying. That wasn't for me," he says of the pressure professional academics are put under to write books.
Lom was "scared shitless" when he embarked on his documentary career. His friends all told him he would never make a living. However, his first film, Bride Kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan (2004), which screened at IDFA and revealed that 40% of marriages in rural Kyrgyzstan happen through kidnapping, was an immediate success. He has been working steadily ever since then and, for the past nine years, with his wife, filmmaker and producer Corinne van Egeraat.
Their new film is set in The Advocate Cafe, a soup kitchen at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, celebrated for opening its doors to immigrants regardless of their status.
Ask him how they found their subject and Lom replies: "we always make films about injustice. That is what we like to do, that makes our hearts beat." They heard about the cafe from a friend Lom had known since graduate school at Harvard and who is now a Professor at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "He told us about the New Sanctuary movement six years ago," he recalls of churches which make it a point of principle that their doors are open to everyone. The friend then told them two years ago about Carmela Hernandez, the undocumented mother living in the basement of the church with her four children.
At first, Lom and Van Egeraat had planned to make a short but then they realised that this was a story which warranted being told at much greater length. They had met the people running the cafe, including the charismatic ex-Black Panther, Barbara Easley-Cox, and saw the scope for expanding the documentary. They ended up shooting over 100 hours which have been boiled down to 88 minutes.
"The film is location-based and so we don't really leave the church except for one or two occasions," the director explains. "And then, because we like to do Cinema Verité, you have to wait around until you get something. On top of that, Carmela's situation was so emotionally difficult, we had to be quite patient when we were filming. The family is under tremendous stress."
As Lom had learned from his previous documentaries, subjects will open up "if they feel you are totally committed."
The director found Barbara Easley-Cox to be an intriguing and inspirational character. "She is a person who evolved. She looks back at her youth as youth," he says of her radical background. "She is a wise soul, a very wise soul." She is also selfless, always looking to help others. She had been married to Black Panther leader, Donald Cox, but now she works as an anonymous volunteer in a soup kitchen. Lom and Van Egeraat are planning to hold a screening of Angels On Diamond Street in the Church in Philadelphia. (Cinema Delicatessen is handling the release in The Netherlands.)
The director is a confirmed admirer of the work of DA Pennebaker, The Maysles brothers, Fred Wiseman et al. "But I see Cinema Verité as a form of poetry basically. You look for something to happen in front of the camera, beautiful and marvellous...you're looking for something that points to the deeper truth of what people are like," is how he reflects on the magic he tries to capture in his work.
SEE NL Magazine #37 November 2019 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.