Shalom Life | June 30, 2015

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with NXNE's 'Once In a Lullaby' Director, Jonathan Kalafer

In depth interview with the director of one of this year's most anticipated documentaries

By: Sammy Hudes

Published: June 14th, 2012 in Culture » Film » Interviews

EXCLUSIVE: Interview with NXNE's 'Once In a Lullaby' Director, Jonathan Kalafer

“Once In A Lullaby: The PS22 Chorus Story” will be making its Canadian premiere on Saturday June 16th at the North by Northeast Festivals and Conference (NXNE) in Toronto. It follows the story of the PS22 chorus, made up of over 60 fifth graders from Staten Island who became world famous after their YouTube videos went viral.

In December of 2010, Hollywood star Anne Hathaway visited PS22 as a surprise guest during the choir’s Annual Winter Concert and announced to the choir that they were not only invited to the Academy Awards – but would be closing out the 2011 Oscars with their own rendition of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”.

With only five weeks remaining before their big performance, the group rehearsed relentlessly, led by their teacher Gregg Breinberg (“Mr. B”), whose unconventional teaching style and dynamic personality inspired them to express themselves through the music. Along the way, the audience witnesses both the personal and collective struggles that the children go through.

This feel-good documentary follows them to their big performance as the closing act at the 2011 Academy Awards ceremony, where creative differences, lost voices, and homesickness threaten their performance.

Shalom Life had the chance to speak with the film’s director, Jonathan Kalafer, who shared his experience of documenting the PS22 Chorus for approximately three months.

Sammy Hudes (SH): How did you first find out about the PS22 chorus?

Jonathan Kalafer (JK): I’m a teacher myself and I’m actually close friends with the principal of PS22. She had been telling me about the chorus for years. I had been following their progress on Youtube and I’m a huge fan of what they did for a long time.

SH: How did their story inspire you to create the film?

JK: It was something that I wanted to do for a long time and there was a variety of factors that were kind of getting in the way of that happening. Basically as it turned out, that year was, for a variety of reasons, the time to make the project happen.

SH: How long have you been a teacher and a filmmaker?

JK: I’ve been a teacher for 10 years. I teach media arts and sciences at a high school. Basically it’s about music and video production and appreciation. I’ve been making films really since I was in high school but my first commercial film would have been in 2006.

SH: What type of film projects do you typically work on?

JK: Documentaries are really the preferred [movie genre]. That’s really all I desire to work on or have worked on but I’ve done a few short non-doc projects. I just love documentaries. I’m fascinated by the stories and the world around us.

SH: This movie combined your two passions. How did your experience as an educator impact the making of this film?

JK: It definitely had a huge impact. From the beginning, I was really comfortable in the school setting and with students. Really just understanding what’s going on with Gregg’s program because not just the fact that we’re both teachers but we both have tread a lot of the same ground. We both have been posting videos of our students’ work online, we’re both interested in teaching music from a non-traditional perspective. I felt like he was my soul brother or something. In so many ways, our educational style was the same and we tread so much of the same ground that I felt a really strong connection to him as a teacher. Because I’m a teacher myself, I think I was aware of a lot of the stuff that was going on that somebody who might not be a teacher might miss.

SH: What was it like working with so many children while filming the movie?

JK: It was great. It was such a delight. The chorus is so energetic and warm. When I’d come in to shoot, they’d yell ‘Jonathan!’ and they’d all be screaming and clapping. That makes you feel great as soon as you get there. They were wonderful. They were really just adorable and sweet and wonderful kids. It was very heartwarming to work with them.

SH: Why do you enjoy working with children on a day-to-day basis?

JK: I like to try and make the world a better place. I think that working with young people and teaching is the way that I was meant to do that.

SH: As a filmmaker, what’s the main difference between working with children and adults?

JK: It’s interesting but when you’re working with children, you can really just be yourself a lot more. You don’t have to put on the social mask or worry about so many of the hang-ups that adults have. I feel like when you’re working with kids, it’s a lot more real.

SH: Many of the students seem to evolve as people throughout the movie. How did they become more mature as a group and as individuals during the time you spent with them?

JK: They became a lot more mature. I have to say they were surprisingly mature while still retaining the essence of childhood and curiousity. I think primarily they grew because of these experiences they had together as a group, having to depend on each other and themselves. Having to achieve these things that were very significant and then achieving them, I think gave them a lot of confidence and that was the way they grew over time.

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