Filmmaking and journalism can seem like divergent paths: The former capitalizes on fiction, while the latter seeks to portray the truth. But at heart, both filmmakers and journalists are storytellers. The fields will overlap at this weekend’s Tribeca Film Festival, where two Columbia alumni–Mo Ogrodnik, SoA ’97, and Bill Siegel, Journalism ’90, each screen a film.
Ogrodnik’s “Deep Powder” is a narrative about drug-trafficking boarding school students, and Siegel’s “The Trials of Muhammad Ali” is a documentary about the legendary boxer’s life outside the ring. Though their films’ content couldn’t be more different, both are an opportunity for the filmmakers to return to New York after some time away, as well as return to their roots.
After graduating from Columbia, Siegel, despite his professors’ warnings about the lack of jobs for journalists, decided to stay in the city and quickly found himself broke and unemployed. After running into a friend on College Walk, Siegel found himself with a job: researching a planned miniseries about Muhammad Ali, funded by wealthy Brits. Unfortunately, due to mismanagement, the project quickly went down the tubes.
“It’s the story of the $6 million Titanic,” he said. “In the course of a year, they blew all $6 million and didn’t finish the film. You could almost make a reality show now like, ‘Blow This Money.’ Here’s a million dollars. Who can fuck it up the fastest?”
After the project’s failure, Siegel moved to Chicago, where he worked for a nonprofit called Designs for Change. He began volunteering at Kartemquin Films, assisting with the film “Hoop Dreams.” Soon, he would be at the helm of his own project—creating a documentary, “Weather Underground,” about the radical organization—with his former coworker, Sam Green. The film went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and it screened at Sundance in 2003.
“It was near the end of the film,” Siegel said, recalling the festival. “We were up in front and literally my spine had started to tingle and I was looking around and I look and there’s [actor/director Robert] Redford. He looked at me and gave me the double thumbs up, and I’ll never forget it. I never talked to the guy, but there was that one moment.”
Despite never conversing with Redford, Siegel made an impression on the director with his film. Redford’s most recent release, “The Company You Keep,” brings the radical group into the 21st century. However, at a recent press junket, Redford emphasized that he didn’t do much research beside watching Siegel’s documentary.
“I didn’t feel I needed to, because I saw a documentary several years ago that came to the festival called the ‘Weather Underground,’” Redford said. “I felt that that documentary was very well made about the actual people ... I felt I had a thorough description of them from the film.”
After working at a nonprofit called the Great Books Foundation for several years, Siegel decided to return to the Muhammad Ali project he had started after leaving Columbia.
“I’ve been working on the film now for 23 years in a sense,” he said. “It started in earnest six years ago ... when I got working on it as an actual film.”
After being gone from the city for so long, Siegel is excited to be back to debut the documentary. It will premiere next weekend at the School of Visual Arts Theatre as part of Tribeca’s Sports Film Festival, in partnership with ESPN.
“I’m totally honored and thrilled to be coming to Tribeca,” he said. “The film for me was born in New York City, so personally, it’s the perfect place for its premiere.”
Like Siegel, Ogrodnik is returning to New York, where she was a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. She flew in for the festival from the United Arab Emirates, where she is the Associate Dean of the Arts at the school’s Abu Dhabi campus—a long way from Morningside Heights.
“Deep Powder,” which debuts tonight at the Chelsea Clearview Cinemas, is as much the result of her teen years as of her training at Columbia and in the industry. It’s the second film she’s directed—the first was her thesis film, “Ripe”—and the third movie she’s worked on.
After Columbia, she wrote “Uptown Girls,” which starred Brittany Murphy and a young Dakota Fanning. For “Deep Powder,” Ogrodnik is drawing on her time at the Ethel Walker School, basing the action of the film on the arrest of several classmates for participating in a drug ring in 1984.
“I knew the people that were [expelled], or a portion of the people that were expelled,” she said. “I went to an all-girls boarding school, so that’s really what it was inspired by. It’s more from witnessing that in that period of my life.”
Adapting those events into a film with her husband, Matt Bardin, is Ogrodnik’s way of bringing back what she calls “a New York story in many ways” to the city she likes to call home.
“It feels really exciting to be going to Tribeca,” she said. “We’re living in the Middle East right now, so it’s pretty exciting to come back to New York City and to be going to Tribeca. ... It really feels like the perfect place for it to be having its premiere.”
COLUMBIA GUIDE TO TRIBECA
With approximately 89 feature length films, 60 short films, several panels, and midnight screenings of classics, the Tribeca Film Festival running through April 28—has enough going on to overwhelm a festival junkie, to say nothing of the college student reeling from an all-nighter who just wants to see Zac Efron drive a race car.
If you’re at a loss on how to tackle Tribeca, one way to approach it is to see films by former Columbians—and those will keep you busy, as five filmmakers with ties to the school will have their work screened over the next week.
Screenings take place at different theaters in lower Manhattan and tickets can all be bought online. Those films that are sold out of advance tickets offer rush tickets, for which the line forms 45 minutes before screenings. Typically, directors, cast members, and others involved persons are on hand after the screenings to chat about the process, so the $16 for evening and weekend screenings and the $8 for matinee and late night screenings might just be worth meeting the star of your new favorite movie.
'AT ANY PRICE'
Directed by Ramin Bahrani, CC ’96 and associate film professor at the School of the Arts, “At Any Price” stars Zac Efron as the heir to his family’s farming business who wants to be a race car driver. Dennis Quaid plays his father, who wants him to take over the business. With the farm’s practices under scrutiny, the choice between family and passion is brought to the fore.
“At Any Price” will be screened on April 19 at 9:30 p.m. at the Borough of Manhattan Community College Tribeca Performing Arts Center (199 Chambers St. at West Street) and April 23 at 9 p.m. at the AMC Loews Village 7 (66 Third Ave. at 11th Street).
This documentary about oil disputes in Ghana and the high cost of corporate involvement in the region is directed by Rachel Boynton, Journalism '97. The exposé, which is participating in the Documentary Competition, premiered last night.
"Big Men" will be screened on April 20 and 24 at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St. between seventh and eighth avenues) at 9:45 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., respectively. It will also play on April 21 at the AMC Loews Village 7 (66 Third Ave. at 11th Street) at 9 p.m.
“Deep Powder” is a narrative film featured in the festival’s Viewpoints category, directed by Mo Ogrodnik, SoA ’97. It follows an affluent young woman who makes a drug run to Ecuador as part of her initiation to a secret society at her boarding school. She enlists the help of a blue-collar working boy, leading both of them down a potentially dangerous path.
“Deep Powder” will be screened on April 19 and 21 at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St. between seventh and eighth avenues) at 9:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m., respectively. It will also play on April 22 and 26 at the AMC Loews Village 7 (66 Third Ave. at 11th Street) at 9 p.m. and 1 p.m., respectively.
'IN GOD WE TRUST'
Directed by Victor Kubicek, CC '06, and Derek Anderson, this documentary docuses on Eleanor Squillari, Bernie Madoff's former personal secretary. Depicting the events leading up to and following the revelation of Madoff's Ponzi scheme, the film casts new light on the now-notorious case.
"In God We Trust" will be screened on April 19 at 9:30 p.m. at the School of Visual Arts Theatre (333 W. 23rd St. between eighth and ninth avenues). There will also be screenings on April 21 and 25 at the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea (260 W. 23rd St. between seventh and eighth avuenes) at 9:45 p.m. and 3 p.m., respectively.
'THE TRIALS OF MUHAMMAD ALI'
Showing as part of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival, "The Trials of Muhammad Ali" is directed by Bill Siegel, Journalism '90. The documentary examines the struggle Ali faced in his conversion to Islam, his refusal to fight in Vietnam, and his career.
"The Trials of Muhammad Ali" will be screened on April 26 at the School of Visual Arts Theatre (333 W. 23rd St. between eighth and ninth avenues) at 5:30 p.m., and on April 27 at Tribeca Cinemas (54 Varick St. at Laight Street) at 9 p.m.
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that Sam Green attended Columbia University. Spectator regrets the error.
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that "Weather Underground" premiered in 2003. Spectator regrets the error.