The 2023 Freep Film Festival is right around the corner, taking place April 26-30 at select venues around the city, as well as through virtual screenings. It’s the 10th annual year of the festival, which showcases the works of independent filmmakers from across the globe.
The centerpiece of this year’s festival will be the Detroit Free Press-produced documentary “Coldwater Kitchen,” which originally premiered at DOC NYC. The festival will also include several AAPI-themed documentaries as part of an AAPI film series for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month in May.
Ahead of the festival, One Detroit Senior Producer Bill Kubota sat down with two of the Freep Film Festival filmmakers, Suzanne Joe Kai, director of “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” and “Coldwater Kitchen” co-director Brian Kaufman, to learn about the creative process behind each documentary.
Kubota and Joe Kai talk about the decade-long journey and more than 100 interviews that have gone into “Like a Rolling Stone,” which intertwines modern popular music history with modern Asian American history. Plus, Kubota talks with Kaufman about the humanity his story portrays and the Free Press’ approach to documentary filmmaking.
Bill Kubota, Host, One Detroit: This year’s Freep Film Festival is almost here, talking about a couple of selections. One, the centerpiece of the festival, first seen in New York last November.
Unknown Speaker 1: It’s the focus of a new documentary called Cold Water Kitchen.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill, Coldwater Kitchen: That is perfect, man.
Bill Kubota: Cold Water Kitchen, a Michigan story made by the Detroit Free Press that premiered at Doc NYC. Now we can see it here in Detroit, along with several AAPI themed documentaries, part of a film series. Asian-American Pacific Islander stories, including one with some history that touches all of us if we listen to the music.
Unknown Speaker 2: You know, he’s got some history. Ben Fong-Torres.
Unknown Speaker 3: I used to read him in Rolling Stone.
Suzanne Joe Kai, Director, “Like A Rolling Stone: The Life And Times of Ben Fong-Torres”: Ben Fong-Torres helped shape American culture. Period. That was it.
Bill Kubota: Suzanne Joe Kai, native San Franciscan, journalist, and filmmaker. The film, Like a Rolling Stone, The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres. How did you get the idea to do this film?
Suzanne Joe Kai: It was really an interesting casual conversation that I had with Ben. And I’ve known him for many, actually many decades, actually. Because back in the early days, you know, when I’m like 21, 22 years old, we were the first Asian-American faces on television in San Francisco.
Bill Kubota: Asian-Americans in the media, so rare back then.
Suzanne Joe Kai: Then there’s Ben. Ben, that’s interesting. And then actually he came actually before us.
Bill Kubota: Ben Fong-Torres had a nationwide audience even beyond that.
Unknown Speaker 4: Before the internet, before blogging, before tweeting, there was The Rolling Stone. There were superstars who worked there. One of the biggest was Ben Fong-Torres.
Suzanne Joe Kai: I just said, Ben, why isn’t there a documentary about you? And then he just said, I don’t know. Why don’t you just do one? And that was it. That’s how it started.
Unknown Speaker 5: So, everybody knew Ben Fong-Torres.
Suzanne Joe Kai: Even though we were colleagues, right, is working journalists. I thought this would be a nice short film and it would be, you know, exciting and rock and roll and then over and out.
Elton John: He’s one of the great writers ever. There’s some good ones, but not as good as this guy.
Suzanne Joe Kai: So I figured it would probably be a year or two. And it wasn’t.
Bill Kubota: It would take more than a decade, over 100 interviews, and more to discover about Fong-Torres’s family’s deep connection to the Chinese-American community in San Francisco. Now, part of that history there.
Unknown Speaker 6: Having come from my background, helped to direct subjects and the way stories were done.
Unknown Speaker 7: It was like something that made me feel like because I was Black, I could never be or I would never be.
Suzanne Joe Kai: Ben has this amazing audio tape collection’s probably 50 plus years old, and I would hand carry them very carefully on the flights to get these tapes to our archive people. And they actually would spend sometimes months just to restore the audio.
Bill Kubota: Like the Rolling Stone. The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres Modern popular music history intertwined with modern Asian-American history. Who knew? If you didn’t, you will when you see this.
Unknown Speaker 8: The hardest part is the math.
Unknown Speaker 9: Math. Math is killing me right now.
Bill Kubota: Chef Hill teaches food tech at the Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill, Coldwater Kitchen: It says, no, look, listen, if you’re going to go out there and work in this industry, you need to know what you need to know.
Bill Kubota: Inmates prepping for a very fine dining experience, but still, this is prison. The chef’s knives all tied down and accounted for.
Mark Kurlyandchik, Coldwater Kitchen: Only knife wire these guys have held has been in battle. And then you give them one and they’re like, you’re giving me this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s tethered. You got a lock on it. But yeah, let’s cut some things. And that trust is the first little bit of trust they’ve had in a long time. And from that trust they create.
Bill Kubota: Cold Water Kitchen co-director Brian Kaufman also earned the trust of the Corrections Department to let the cameras inside. How did this film come about?
Brian Kaufman, Co-Director, “Coldwater Kitchen”: So, the film came about through a letter that was sent by a guy who ended up being a character in the film, Ernest Davis, longtime tutor in the program. And he sent a letter to Mark Kurlyandchik, who’s the co-director with me, who is the Free Press restaurant critic at the time. And Ernest Letter said basically, like, we’ve got this program, we’re doing awesome stuff would you come out. Mark went in his capacity as a restaurant critic, wrote a story about it, then approached me about doing a film.
Ernest Davis, Coldwater Kitchen: But the personal aspect of it is the love and care that you get from preparing food. When you give it to someone to eat, what you get back from that. It is like you sharing of yourself. They get to taste a little bit of you.
Mark Kurlyandchik, Coldwater Kitchen: When you walk out, though, you go back to the unit. Guys know your in food tech. So you become a target.
Bill Kubota: Food, quite the commodity in prison, a harsh reality that. But reality can also be viewed in different ways.
Brian Kaufman: Part of what we try to do as documentary filmmakers is sort of bust the stereotypes. And it’s very easy to go and make a film about prison and you see clanging doors and you’re hearing all these sounds and it’s dark and moody. And the classroom, the guard and the Food tech had such a warm feeling to it when we went in. It’s like, let’s turn our cameras on this. This the humanity that exists in this place that chef Hill created.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill: I hear all the time. Man you probably guys spent a lot of money on those guys. You know, there’s a lot of people out here who are struggling, and that’s usually where the conversation starts to go south. That right there, that’s some good eating right there. And I know that everybody that’s there is not there for the right reasons. I mean, I get that because, yeah, we do. We eat pretty good in here, but we eat with a purpose.
Daqwan “Dink” Sistrunk, Chef, Green Mile Grille: The best part of the film is showing you the reality of it. You know, it’s a harsh reality.
Bill Kubota: Chef Dink, another key character in the film, now running the Green Mile Grille on Detroit’s east side.
Daqwan “Dink” Sistrunk: When you get to see that side of it and you see what this program is doing and the rest of the culinary program that’s in the Michigan Department of Corrections it’s just giving you a skill that can be used forever. You scaring me to death.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill: When I first met Dink, what I remember the most is…
Daqwan “Dink” Sistrunk: Pull it out, man. This comes out. Make it easy. Work smart not hard bro. There you go.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill: He had this cool daddy walk.
Daqwan “Dink” Sistrunk: What yall got going on over here, man.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill: I thought, okay, I’m going to have a problem with this guy because I think he believes that he’s the do all be all. But as we traveled that journey, it came out of me. And then he likes to be in it. And that’s the whole thing. You have to want to be in food service, to be in food service. You can’t fake the funk. If it’s in you. It’s in you.
Daqwan “Dink” Sistrunk: Chef, he don’t look at your file. He don’t care what you did to get there. If he accept you in his class, he going to make sure that you are qualified to do something when you get out of here. It’s not about getting in. It’s about getting out and not going back. That’s the thing. That’s Chef Hill’s thought process.
Brian Kaufman: And Chef Hill is one of those rare people who operates, you know, with such a level of humility and kindness that the students who come to this program can’t help but taking what he has to say and running with it.
Brad, Coldwater Kitchen: Dealing with me, that’s the hard part. I have you to talk to.
Bill Kubota: Brad, another outstanding cook. He struggles with an addiction even while incarcerated.
Brad: And I don’t know which way to go.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill: There’s only one way to go. You can’t give up. Don’t give up. I’ve never given up.
Chef Jimmy Lee Hill: Push. P, period, u, period, s, period, h, period. Pray until something happens. That’s exactly what stands for.
Bill Kubota: Cold Water Kitchen, A Detroit Free Press Production. How many newspapers have a documentarian on staff?
Brian Kaufman: I don’t know. I do get called in to do some daily stuff occasionally. I started working here in 2007. It was always my goal and the goal of the immediate leadership in the photo department to raise our video levels every year, higher and higher to the point where we’re now making films that are competing with independent documentary filmmakers and being shown at the same festivals. And that’s sort of where we’ve taken our craft to the free press. Let’s create content that’s not necessarily for the Free Press website, but can we get this out of the world through streaming platforms and treat it like other documentary content?
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