It's not easy being outdone by vaginal fistulas. But a film about Ethiopian women who suffered through devastating childbirths won at the St. Louis International Film Festival. At South By Southwest we were bested by a great movie about a boy with Asperger's. At Newport International it was a documentary about torture in Afghanistan. When your movie is about eight people whose lives are transformed by balloon twisting conventions, you have to work a bit harder to convince adults that your film will be worth their time. While it would seem obvious that, at some point, counter-programming would be desired to offset the over-saturated downer-documentary market, distributors can't get enough sad stuff, which, at one point, left us wondering if our film would ever see the light of day. If only there were more HIV positive, autistic, Darfurian balloon twisters.
I met Naomi Greenfield, co-director of TWISTED: A Balloonamentary, at a dorm icebreaker in college where you had to state your name and something interesting about yourself. I said, "My name is Sara and I know how to make balloon animals." It was followed by, "I'm Naomi and that's what I was going to say." Years later, I mentioned that I'd always wanted to make a documentary and Naomi told me she'd just heard about balloon twisting conventions. Shocked that they existed, we decided to go on a scouting mission. We spent the weekend talking to a stockbroker who moonlighted as a twister and a woman who started twisting as a form of therapy after surviving 9/11. On Sunday morning, we filmed the Gospel Balloon Church service. As the song "The Old Rugged Cross" played, churchgoers raised their balloon crosses every time the word "cross" was sung. A sweet man and gospel balloon minister named Ralph led the service and popped the feet off of a balloon replica of Satan, showing everyone how to "de-feat the devil". It was unlike anything we'd ever seen and Naomi and I smiled at each other confident that we just might have a movie.
TWISTED: A Balloonamentary is a documentary about passion, salvation, love, death, race, religion, and a whole lot of balloons. We met one of our main characters, Vera, because our cameraman had a crush on her. The entire convention we'd ignored the young, pretty girl and at 2 AM on the last night we spotted Vera in the "Jam Room" and our cameraman insisted that we interview her. She told us that she started twisting balloons when she was 15, to get off welfare and out of the trailer park. A few days later we booked our flight to Arizona, to continue filming her. We soon met more twisters and our main stories started to emerge ... a grandfather who twists to be a good role model for the black community and to show kids that they don't have to sell drugs or join gangs to get by, a couple who finds love at a convention, an award-winning competitive balloon artist, and a world-renowned instructor. There's a former felon who found religion through balloons and shows audiences that you haven't seen a circumcision until you've seen balloon Jesus being circumcised, "like a good little Jewish boy should be." And, of course, where there are "gospel balloons", there are "adult balloons" and one of our main characters has made everything from head to toe, but mostly the parts in between, out of balloons. The adult balloon artist is also a successful balloon business woman who surprises audiences by disclosing that some twisters make six figures, or, as it is now known, 25,000 gallons of gas, from corporate events, birthday parties, and restaurant work.
For 3 ½ years we filmed and edited the movie on a laptop in my small NY studio apartment. We would work our day jobs until 7PM, have dinner, and then edit until 2 in the morning. It was an exhausting process and people would assure me that it would be easier "next time", which was a ridiculous suggestion because I knew I had to milk this film for all it was worth so I would never have to do it again. As no-budget filmmakers, we had to borrow equipment and pay our crew with T-shirts and balloon dogs. Our credits are 5 minutes long because we gave one to everyone who gave us a donation of any size, offering photos in the credits to anyone who gave over a certain amount. When money got really tight, we decided to auction off Executive Producer credits on e-bay. Once the film was finally ready to premiere at South By Southwest, I was high on adrenaline and Immodium and couldn't believe people who were not related to me would finally see the movie. Excited and terrified, we opened to a packed house and somehow, everyone seemed to laugh and cry in all the right places. Suddenly, other festivals requested screeners and audiences seemed to respond to the film, even with its lack of fistulas.
We still sometimes have to convince people to give our documentary a shot. It's not offering a new look at a societal crisis and the film includes very few penguins. Some distributors have told us they don't know how to market it because ours is not a competition movie, like most of the other successful quirky documentaries. Our film follows a different formula and we've been pleased that we've managed to carve out an audience for the film. At every screening, someone asks what our next project will be. Since we're still so involved with this film, we don't want to cheat on it with a new one. Yet, I sometimes find myself brainstorming ideas and wondering what the experience will be like next time.
TWISTED: A Balloonamentary opens at New York's Pioneer Theater on June 20th, as part of the film's limited theatrical release. There will be a Q and A at every screening and everyone in attendance will learn how to make a balloon dog. The DVD is available at www.twistedballoondoc.com.