EVERY CHILD IS BORN A POET: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas

The Poems

Filmmaker Q&A

Producer/director Jonathan Robinson discusses orchestration, time travel and not seeing the dentist.

In the filming of this program, what’s the most amazing thing you saw Piri Thomas do?

Piri is not a trained actor or a performer. When he reads any of his poems or stories, all of which are autobiographical in nature, he actually re-lives the emotions from the particular event he is describing. In rehearsals or on set, one would see him time travel and encounter some of the demons from his past. Wow!

How did you figure out how to tell this story?

The dramatic arc of Piri’s coming of age tale was already clearly mapped out in his own writings. The challenge for me, therefore, was how to integrate all the different voices and styles that he uses in his writings—fables, comedy, tragedy, poetry—and make a seamless, coherent flow. Taking his art as the basis of the film, I was guided by the rhythm of his writing and the way he reads his work and orchestrated the script like a piece of music.

What impact do you hope to have with this program?

For those who have never encountered Piri Thomas or his writings, I hope they will be inspired and moved by his life story, by the way that he uses his creativity as an educator, and to see that, regardless of who we are, we all have similar emotions and feelings when challenged, that we all are together in our aloneness, and that human beings can change.

What do you hope to achieve with this film?

I would like the PBS broadcast to reach those who do not regularly watch public television, especially Latino and African American youth and young adults, and to increase the opportunity for and appreciation of more non-traditional documentary storytelling projects.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Well, it’s really a cliché by now, but the only way to get past the hurdles in place here in the United States for obtaining the limited funds available for producing independent documentary films is to be so personally committed as to be obsessed with the subject and to sacrifice many things to get it done. I’d say one has to be fanatical, not motivated.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

I don’t think that any other broadcaster in the United States would support a program such as EVERY CHILD IS BORN A POET. For some it would not be conventional enough in terms of form, for others it would probably not be sensationalistic enough. While I respect and even admire some of the documentary programming on other channels, ITVS and PBS are the only entities that really encourage strong program content, have a true appreciation for literature and the arts, and expect exceptional filmmaking technique.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

I didn’t save any money to send my kids to college or to have my teeth fixed.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Nuts and berries. It’s important to stay hungry.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

I think that like a lot of filmmakers today, I have been influenced by popular culture (TV music, advertising), as much as by any particular films. That said, I have been most influenced by the work of classic narrative filmmakers (Bergman, Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, Bertolucci, Fassbinder) and the documentary works of French filmmaker Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) and the British filmmaker John Akomfrah (Handsworth Songs).

If you could have one motto, what would it be?

Aesthetics are as important as politics.

What sparks your creativity?

The desire to inspire.

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