January 29, 2014

Students @ Work with Sam Centore

Last Semester, Pratt Success Contributor Craig Alexander Hartl, met up with Sam Centore, a Pratt Film major who's project, Passing Ellenville, has been gaining national media attention.  A collaboration between Sam Centore and Gene Fischer, Passing Ellenville is an indie documentary which focuses on the lives of two transgendered youths, living in upstate New York, as they undergo the process of gender transition.

With major cable networks and media outlets like The Huffington Post already in support of the project, Pratt Success and Sam Centore discuss what what led Sam to explore the nature of transgender identity, as well as what it's been like for him to juggle working on an indie film and his Pratt career.

What’s your major?  Where are you from?

I’m a film major in my senior year at Pratt.  I’m from Manlius, NY originally, which is about four hours from the city.

Why did you come to Pratt?

I originally grew up liking films, like classic cinema, Alfred Hitchcock movies.  Then I became more interested in photography and drawing.  I won the National Scholastic Art & Writing Award in 2009, and everything seemed to be pointing towards fine art.  So Pratt was like a hybrid between film school and an art school.  I guess that’s the reason.

What professional projects or jobs do you have outside of Pratt?

Well, I spent a lot of time at Pratt working at a website called Swagger New York, and that kind of led to a few other blogs that I was making videos for.  I interned for a production company, Smuggler Film.  Then I started doing this project; it actually started as a school project, Passing Ellenville.  And then in the past, maybe, six months I’ve been making all this other material.

How did you come upon Ellenville, of all places?  More generally how did you get involved in this project?

I have a friend of a friend, his name is Dustin Lance Black.  He’s a screenwriter, and he was giving this talk at Rubin Museum of Art, Brainwave: Illusion.  I didn’t really know who he was, but I have this mutual friend with him so I went.  

Lance was giving this talk on personal narrative in history.  Gene, one of the guys I went with, was doing this photo series of these two kids in Ellenville, New York, and so I was like, “Oh my gosh, yeah, that totally ties in” to the lecture we were at: all about personal narrative, telling history and stuff.  And Gene’s like, “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been doing with the photo series,” so yeah.  It’s just kind of grown since then.  It’s just been observing these two people, three people now, in Ellenville.

Ok, so you’ve had a pretty successful Kickstarter campaign.  (At the close, Sam and Gene raised $15,770 of their campaign’s $5,000 goal.)  How did you guys come upon using Kickstarter?  What has your experience with it been?

We started to use Kickstarter because it’s been just the two of us with the project, paying for equipment, and in order to to make this project go anywhere, to distribute film and stuff (you know, their fees for submissions for festivals), and if we wanted to extend the project, funding was necessary.  So we started this Kickstarter to spread the word.  

I feel like with a film like this, where we’re telling these peoples stories in hope of inspiring other people, it’s all about getting the word out there.  There’s no point in making it if it’s just you and your friends who are going to see it in the end, you know?

So the whole goal of the Kickstarter was to make this project something we could expand upon.

With Kickstarter you only get the money people give if you raise your entire goal (or more).  Did you expect to have success with the Kickstarter, or were you just doing it more as a promotional thing?

I have friends who are filmmakers, and they set a “low” goal of raising ten thousand dollars.  I’ve never made a film before, so I thought five thousand dollars was high.  I really didn’t think I was going to make that.

Now it’s over double that!  

It’s been a lot of Gene and me reaching out to people: friends and family members, and then spreading out from there.  I wasn’t sure how Kickstarter worked originally.  I thought you just put it out there, you know?  And then people would donate money!  But it’s not like that.  You have to constantly keep working on it.

Of course, it’s not just about raising money but really spreading the word.   In the media there aren’t that many people who are covering queer issues like this in the news, who are discussing people transitioning [between genders].  I mean, it’s kind of, some Zeitgeist thing.  But it’s cool because I was able to share this information directly with people.

Out of everything you’ve done professionally, what are you most proud of?

I think it’s probably what I just described.  I mean, there is the, “Oh, cool, I’m producing a real film.”  But also, with promoting the Kickstarter campaign, it’s given me the excuse to shove it in people’s faces, people who might not normally listen.  On a personal level, that’s really, really nice.

By “it” do you mean trans issues?

Yeah, trans issues.  I just find, if you don’t know anyone who’s transgender and the only person you’re seeing is maybe on a Katie Couric episode…  It’s just like, this is just another person who just so happens to be transitioning.

Not like Tyra’s Fifteen Trans Women of the day or whatever the case may be?

Right!  I think the other thing the people I talked to in the movie were really angry about was this whole thing about being grouped in with drag queens, and the idea of this clown figure.  That’s what people go to, because the only person they know is RuPaul.  So it’s cool to break through that.

Does Passing Ellenville talk about the relationship between the drag community and the trans community?

Not specifically, there’s no one we interviewed in the film who’s a drag queen.  But the characters touch on it, just with their frustration with.  We’re asking them about how they’re treated.

We actually had this really interesting thing happen.  Ashlee, one of the main characters in the movie, was walking down the street and somebody who bullied her in the past, with his group of friends, came up to her and actually said, “Oh, we saw this video of you on YouTube and we had no idea that that’s what it was all about.”  And one of them was like, “I’m almost jealous that you have this life path that you’re on.”  They had this larger understanding of her from seeing that video and that felt really good.

It seems like you’re saying that you’re glad that by establishing a professional identity, you’ve been able to have resonance in the entertainment and larger cultural spectrum.  Is that true?

Yeah.  I feel like I’m learning professionally that it’s good to have different ideas about what I’d like to affect, and then realizing the actual steps, like a Kickstarter, that I can take in order to spread a message that I think is important.

Or another thing was we showed part of the video in a gallery show.  Gene had his photos and I had my video in this gallery called Smart Clothes Gallery.  It was up last month, and that was another thing: it’s good to make the video, but it was also really importantly I felt I was a part of this show with other artists. It was important to share in the community.  It was transgender, it was LGBTQ.

So you’re in your senior year at Pratt and finishing up, but right now you’re still a student.  What has your experience been with balancing academic and professional commitments?

I’m actually better off now, and I’m busier.  Before, I was doing jobs, they were necessary jobs (for the blogs and stuff) but I didn’t necessarily want to do that.  I was telling myself, “Oh, this is what I want to to…” because it was music and fashion and stuff that I was filming, but I don’t think it really interested me.  The cool thing is this topic really interests me, and the documentary project that I’m working on outside of school is feeding into my thesis project, so it’s actually working out.  It makes me feel like it’s a more valid, you know?  So it’s actually helping me, it’s not crowding my schedule or anything.

I feel like I’m really excited about my thesis now because it’s a part of this larger idea that I’ve been working off of.  It’s not just something that I’m really in my head about and trying to come up with.

Do you feel like doing this professional project has taken away some of the anxiety of your senior year?  Many people’s senior theses are how they sell themselves to the professional world, but your project already exists in the context of the professional world.

Absolutely.  It feels less precious, because I already made one video, and this is coming out of that video.  They talk a lot in the film department about how this doesn’t have to be-- and maybe this is getting too much into the specifics of film, but it doesn’t have to be your “grand masterpiece”.  You’re like, “Oh I’m going to make Citizen Cane for my senior thesis,” you know? But we’re making a short film, that’s what we’re being trained to do, we’re not trained to do feature film.  So to think about it as making a glimpse of this character in a short film, of knowing the limit of a short film form, not as something that’s at all hindering me; but knowing the limit of what a senior thesis can be, in the timeframe I have, with the resources I have, is actually really, super helpful.  It’s like I know the tools I have to use.

Interviewed by Craig Hartl, October 2013