POV: The subtitle of Off and Running is "An American Coming of Age Story." What is the film about, and why did you choose that subtitle?
Sharese Bullock: Off and Running looks at the life and journey of Avery Klein-Cloud, a teenage adoptee with two Jewish moms who is living in Brooklyn. She has two adopted brothers as well, and she's on a search for her birth family. We follow her in that journey toward her birth family and on her quest for her identity.
Nicole Opper: We subtitled it "An American Coming of Age Story" because it follows Avery's journey as she comes of age and because her family is very American in some ways. From the outside, you might describe the Klein-Cloud family as atypical: It includes an African-American daughter, a Puerto Rican and black son, a Korean son and two white Jewish lesbian mommies.
Bullock: But in many regards they are the face of the United States today. They are a family that's defining itself and going through the same problems that every family faces — that's what's so American about them. There's also a mix of identities and cultures in that family.
Opper: Americans, especially those in Avery's generation, are increasingly identifying as multicultural and multiracial. So I think the Klein-Cloud family, especially Avery, feels particularly American in this day and age.
POV: How did you meet Avery, and how did you decide to make a film about her?
Opper: I met Avery when she was just 10 years old and attending the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn. I was a film student at New York University at the time and I was making a short film about Hannah Senesh. So I went to the school in search of interview subjects, wondering whether the kids would be able to contribute to this film. I met Avery right away — she jumped up and volunteered to be interviewed. I could feel her charisma and excitement. I had so much fun working with Avery and the other young people at the school that about one year later I returned to the school and created a filmmaking program. Avery became my first student. So we've known each other for almost 10 years now. Our relationship has changed over time, but we began as teacher and student.
When I began to make the film, I really didn't know what the story would be exactly. I just knew that Avery was incredibly compelling and was experiencing a lot of profound changes. I was getting to know her family, and I saw the film as a portrait of a strong interracial family built through adoption and led by lesbian mothers. That was something to which I connected very closely and that I wanted to represent. Then the central conflict began to emerge. The film began to take shape and we saw the trajectory of Avery's journey.
Bullock: When you meet Avery, you immediately know that she's a courageous and remarkable person. You think, Who is this young woman, and who are the parents who raised this young woman with such courage and confidence? As she began to go through the process of finding out who she was, we wanted to go on that journey with her. The film became about a young African-American woman telling her own story of self-discovery, and it was exciting for us to be a part of that process.
POV: How did you gain the trust of Avery's family?
Opper: Avery's family trusted me because I was Avery's mentor. But they also saw that I had good intentions, and I spent a lot of time off-camera with them, just getting to know them. They recognized that I was a young gay woman who plans to adopt, and I had their best interests in mind. I wanted to represent this family as positively as I could. They committed to being as truthful and open as possible during the process because we were connecting.
POV: You collaborated with Avery during the making of the film. Can you tell us more about how you worked together?
Opper: Avery began as the subject of the film, but an evolution took place within our creative process when we saw that to allow Avery to feel that this was her story and to allow her to take ownership of her own narrative, we needed to work more closely with her. We began to bring her into the edit room and do writing exercises with her. We worked on her voiceover narration very deliberately with her. She became a part of the process as much as Sharese or myself or Jacob, our director of photography, or Cheree, our editor. Avery was really a member of the team. That's how we worked for the last two years of production, and because of that when Avery travels with us to festivals and talks about this film, she feels really empowered to speak about it not just as a subject who was followed, but as someone who had a hand in the craft-making.
POV: Off and Running is one of three films that POV is broadcasting that address issues of adoption. Did you glean any lessons about adoption from the process of making the film? What advice would you give?
Opper: This is something I think about all the time, especially as a prospective adoptive parent. There is one thing I feel very strongly that I learned from watching what Avery went through, and that is the importance of listening to young people without judgment. Unfortunately, it's quite infrequent that young people are listened to in this way. We live in a society that still very much devalues the opinions of young people. It was a real challenge for Avery always having to face authority figures who thought they knew what was best for her. She had so many people in her life telling her what was best for her, and she just needed the space to figure it out for herself and to be able to ask questions and be able to receive answers without judgment.
POV: What was the biggest challenge you encountered while making this film?
Bullock: One of our challenges was managing the boundary between being a filmmaker and being a mentor to a young person who was in the middle of facing challenges and making serious decisions. There were times when I wanted, as a friend and a mentor to Avery, to protect her from pain and certain experiences. But as a filmmaker, I wanted to capture her going through those experiences, have her tell her story and stand by her decisions. So balancing the roles of protector and storyteller was a challenge.
Opper: I agree with that. The greatest challenge of making this film is also the greatest gift of making this film, which was having a layered relationship with the central protagonist, where it was so much more than just a relationship between filmmaker and subject. It was also a relationship between teacher and student, and friend and friend. I consider Avery a good friend now. We still talk all the time, even though the camera was set down long ago.
POV: What is this film ultimately about for you?
Bullock: It is about a young woman who is finding herself, questioning her own character and her own journey and reflecting on the journeys of those around her. In many ways, this is a story about all of us — about who we are and how we grow and how we are accountable for our decisions. This is also a film about families — about how diverse they are and about tough and rewarding it is to create a family. Avery's parents created such a dynamic family and raised some amazingly insightful young people. Watching the film gives you the opportunity to think about yourself and your own family.
Opper: Family is the rock of my life, and I don't feel that I would ever have gotten anywhere without the support of my family. So I'm always drawn to stories of family, and this film is very much about family for me. Avery's family is an example of how a family can be built across race, across culture, across experience and across sexuality. I believe that this is an incremental but fundamental component of creating social change. The more we meet these families, and the more they become our next-door neighbors, the more progress we're making as a society in learning to recognize and embrace the differences between all of us.