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Jeremy Joffee, a 2008 graduate of the Master of Fine Arts program in Media Arts Production at the City College of New York, won the silver medal in the category of narrative film for his senior thesis film,The Bronx Balletomane, at the 36th Annual Student Academy Awards held on June 13 in Beverly Hills, Calif. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established the Student Academy Awards to encourage excellence in filmmaking at the collegiate level. More than 500 college and university film students from across the United States participated in the competition. The World Tribune, an SGI-USA publication, spoke with Mr. Joffee about how his Buddhist practice has enabled him to become an award-winning filmmaker.
World Tribune: You won a silver medal for directing The Bronx Balletomane, a short film about a tough-guy security guard and widowed father who nurses a secret love for ballet. Why did you choose this as the premise of your film?
Jeremy Joffee: The story was inspired by my mom, who used to be a ballet dancer. When I was young, I would watch her teach dance. Later, as a young man, I had this tough exterior and pretended that I didn’t like dance. But deep down, I did.
I was raised practicing Buddhism in the Bronx. I feel very fortunate to have grown up around tremendous diversity, because I have so many great stories and ideas to draw from. I really wanted to set this film in the Bronx.
I created a character who is a middle-aged Italian man, like many I grew up around—someone who you wouldn’t think has much appreciation for ballet. I thought there was a lot of humor in those opposing ideas.
Though the film is inspired by my own experience, ultimately it isn’t about me. I think that many people can relate to this film, because everyone experiences a time when they fall in love with something, such as dance, but are afraid to pursue their passion, because it isn’t the cool thing to do. This film is ultimately about chasing your dreams.
WT: What went into winning silver in this high-competition event?
related article China National Peking Opera Company Performs in Japan From May 9 to July 3, to celebrate the 120th birth anniversary of Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), first president of the China National Peking Opera Company (CNPOC), the Min-On Concert Association invited the company to perform at some 30 venues throughout Japan. Joffee: The Academy breaks up the competition into three regions across the United States. I submitted along with many others and later heard that we were competing with films from New York University and Columbia University. Because my film is a comedy, the response from the audience was great. We scored high enough in the semifinal to compete at the main event in California, and we ended up winning silver.
After the event, I was contacted by several agents and production companies that would like to work with me to make this film into a feature movie. I’ve spent a year writing the feature script, so it is all ready to go. My current goal is to make the feature-length version of the film by fall of next year.
WT: How did your Buddhist practice and school experiences enable you to create this film?
Joffee: I wanted to go to Columbia University but was rejected. I was so disappointed. But I didn’t give up. While chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to pursue my dream, I applied to City College, which ended up being the best thing for my life. The program was just two years, really intense for an M.F.A., so I had to learn from making mistakes. Also, my background isn’t film, it’s music. Every day, I had to overcome self-doubt by challenging myself in chanting and participating in SGI-USA activities.
One of my professors, who is a dear mentor to me in the film world, knew I needed a lead for my film. He gave me the number of an actor perfect for the role, Federico Castelluccio, who played Furio Giunta in “The Sopranos.”
WT: You mentioned in your acceptance speech that your wife, April, gave birth in New York shortly before you left for the awards. How did that affect your trip?
Joffee: June was the most intense, joyful and scary month of my life. My wife, April, gave birth to our daughter, Jillian Shea, on June 9. I was scheduled to leave for California on June 10 and wasn’t sure if I should go. April supported me 100 percent; her encouragement enabled me to go to the event.
WT: What obstacles did you face while shooting the film?
Joffee: Halfway through the film shoot, we lost the possibility of filming in a particular location. I thought the whole film was over, and my actor would walk out on me. I was totally in despair.
Renewing hope, I think, is central to being a great artist.
My cinematographer, who was also an SGI-USA member, came up to me while I was hiding in a corner and asked whether I was feeling defeated. I didn’t answer. Then he asked, “What would President Ikeda do at this moment?” I knew that my mentor, President Ikeda, wouldn’t give up, so we rallied our crew, and we broke through together. I feel that this is a great example of how having a mentor, and a good friend, can enable you to overcome self-doubt and win.
WT: Do you have any advice for young artists out there?
Joffee: For me, when it comes to making films, or any art, the biggest difficulty is self-doubt. I’ve noticed that when I am creating something, I am so close to it and it’s hard to see it objectively. When doubt comes in, it robs your confidence.
I find that every day I need to come back to my prime point—the passion for creation—and have faith that it is worth the struggle. I have to have faith that I can do it and just go for it. This is where chanting helps me. Every morning, I can renew my vow to create something that I am proud of. Renewing hope, I think, is central to being a great artist.
[Adapted from an interview by staff writer Michael Strand, in the August 7, 2009, issue of the World Tribune, SGI-USA; photo courtesy of Manuel Elias]
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