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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: And now, we turn to a new kid on the block, a teenage filmmaker just starting out, but already making waves. He’s 19-year-old Phillip Youmans. His first feature, “Burning Cane” snapped up three awards at this year’s Tribecca Film Festival. The film is set in rural Louisiana, and it tells a story of a deeply religious woman and her struggle to reconcile her faith with the love that she holds for her alcoholic son and a troubled preacher. Phillip Youmans has now made history as the youngest director to feature in the festival and the first African-American to win the top prize. And our Alicia Menendez spoke to him about the story behind his amazing story.
ALICIA MENENDEZ: Phillip, thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations on your recent honor.
PHILLIP YOUMANS, FILMMAKER: Thank you. Thank you.
MENENDEZ: Tell me what this film “Burning Cane” is about?
YOUMANS: So, “Burning Cane” is about Helen Wayne, a mother living in rural Louisiana. Her son, Daniel and his son Jeremiah and also her pastor, Reverend Tillman, and their relationships with each other, their relationships with their religion and their community and how their environment and their home effects really every aspect in the fabric of their lives. It’s about how religion, it sort of governs their community. It’s about the cyclical nature of destructive behavior and how vices are passed down in lineage very often. And it’s also about the dangers of enacting a fundamentalist interpretation of religion and then taking religious doctrine literally.
MENENDEZ: What is the meaning behind the title of the film, “Burning Cane?”
YOUMANS: Burning cane is a part of harvesting cane, but — and it’s a part of the culture and the fabric of the entire process in the community.
MENENDEZ: Sugar cane?
YOUMANS: Sugar cane. But, it also releases toxins that are very negative for people’s health. And so, I think there’s just an interesting sort of a dichotomy there, in that it is such an important part of their economy about — it’s — and sugar cane in that — in that — in that industry is an important part of the culture and the fabric of that area, but it is also detrimental to their health in terms of the toxins that are released in the air because of it. So, and I feel like that sort of touches on the sort — the multi- dimensionality of all the characters that kind of populate the film.
MENENDEZ: You finished this film up during your senior year of high school, 17-years-old. Tell me about the process of making this film.
YOUMANS: So it started when I was 16. In the December of my junior year of high school, I wrote this short script called “The Glory”, and then I wanted to make that short, but I stepped away to make another short. And then after that, my instructor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts named Isaac Webb told me that he thought that the film had feature length potential because of the fact that it was so grounded in character, that it seemed like it could be something that could be made feasibly. And so, I just because obsessed with that idea. And then in the ensuing weeks and months, I was just churning out drafts of the feature length script, going through script revisions, meeting actors all the while raising money and casting.
And then so in that summer before my senior year, we went into production and shot the bulk of principal photography and then shot Wendell’s piece in that August, and then the rest of senior year was spent in post production.
MENENDEZ: For someone who doesn’t go to an elite school like the one that you went to, how do you make a film like this?
YOUMANS: I think at my age when we made this film, I relied so much on the fact that the artists that were my friends and a lot of my friends who weren’t artists were just really behind my mission and my drive. And when you can’t pay people industry rate, especially when we were that young, you have to rely on people wanting to work for you regardless, or wanting to work with you because they believe in you and they believe in the project. And for me in that case, those are my friends. So I’ve actually been telling people recently that I feel like if you’re as young as I was making a film, I think you really do have to kind of rely on your friends and your community in a way to ban together and help you figure out some of those resource and some of those jobs.
MENENDEZ: You’ve said, “I think now is probably the best time for “Burning Cane” to come out. Why now?
YOUMANS: Well, there are two parts to that. I think it’s time for us to kind of take an objective look just at religion and its role in our community and how it plays into our advancement as a community. And I also think in terms of making this, you know, in more like applicable sense I had to make the film then and now, because of the fact that there was such a community around me that there was no other time that I was going to be able to rely on people’s good will quite like I could then because the moment you turn 18, then you’re an adult and people expect and entirely different thing, you know?
So when I was 18, we were already in post production, but when I was 17 I think we kind of – we were aware of the fact that people thought that we were just a student production and in that they were willing to give so much because they thought they were just helping out some kids. And we were, you know, young, but we always envisioned this going farther than just, you know, a student project.
MENENDEZ: There’s a clip I want to watch. It comes very early in the film, and it is Wendell Pierce giving his first sermon that we see in the film. Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WENDELL PIERCE, ACTOR, “BURNING CANE”: Now however it says he has died, he has learned that is not to be true. That’s not true. He who dies with the most toys wins. You can go out there and try to get a pretty dress, but it don’t mean nothing if you’re going to lose your soul. He who dies with the most toys wins. He knows that’s not to be true because when he died, he better have good relationships because that didn’t get him across Jordan into heaven. No toys gets you into heaven. It’s the friendships that you have. It’s the kindness that you do. Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you give me housing when I had no place to live? Did you feed me when I was hungry? Did you drink – give me water to drink when I was thirsty? He who dies with the most toys wins. What good is it for a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MENENDEZ: Talk to me about the dichotomy of cutting between this sermon and then this man reckoning with his won demons?
YOUMANS: There’s some truth to what Tillman says in that sermon in that he believes that friendships and personal relationships are more valuable than material possessions, and I think most of us can kind of agree with that. And I just kind of wanted to show the fact that there can be some truth that comes from this man and he can also still be broken. He can still be a beacon for people that may oral status that pastors have but still be grappling with all those same demons on his own. And it just brings about the question of whether or not we should be following anybody who can’t really practice what they preach, but we should – should we even expect anyone to be able to do that? That’s a whole other question, you know?
MENENDEZ: How did you convince Wendell Pierce to be apart of this film?
YOUMANS: Well, on the months leading up to pre-production — well, in the months leading up to production actually, I was working at Morning Call Coffee Stand in City Park and I was waiting on a woman named Lula Elzy who’s also an alumni of the same high school that Wendell and I went to – the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. And I went up to Ms. Elzy and I was waiting on her table. And she asked me about what I wanted to do, what school I went to. And then I was talking to her about some of the roles in the project. I told her that we had casted pretty much every role except this preacher, and I was just kind of explaining, you know, the preacher’s motivations, where he was in this life.
And she said, “what do you think of Wendell Pierce playing the role?” And of course I like freaked out, you know, because is Wendell is so big in our community, not only because he’s a brilliant actor, but because of the work that he’s done in Pontchartrain Park where he grew up, you know, and sort of helping stop all the gentrification that was coming through that area. And then she texted him right in that moment and he responded to her quickly. I think she said like, “there’s a student who’s shooting a feature film this summer. He’s interested in seeing you play this role.” And he was like, “OK, give him my email.” And so, I got his email and after that it was really just a back and forth with the script trying to make dates work, you know, looping him into all script revisions and – but Wendell coming in, it helped expand the community because, initially, the film was so much more centered on Daniel and Helen’s relationship as a mother and son.
What Wendell came in and allowed is to kind of build this entire portrait as a community and show how Helen’s religion and the people that she associates with her religion, how they directly affect her actions with her loved ones and her family. So it’s just — it allowed the entire story, the entire community of Laurel Valley to be flushed out.
MENENDEZ: How did working with Wendell change you as a director?
YOUMANS: I think before working with Wendell, or even before “Burning Cane,” I had kind of a messed up idea about what directing was.
MENENDEZ: What did you think it was?
YOUMANS: I thought it was so much more, you know, commanding, so much more — so much more authoritarian than it really is and than it really should be. It’s so much more about the conversations that you have, and sometimes maybe even the conversations that you have before you even show up to set, you know? And I think what working with Wendell and Kaia and Dominique kind of taught me is that they’re brilliant actors and you have to give brilliant actors the space to create alongside you. It was just a – it was just a back and forth, you know, dialogue, and I mean, he made all the great choices, so yes, it worked out.
MENENDEZ: He’s not the only character in the film that struggles with addiction. Let’s take a look at another clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MENENDEZ: The main character, this is her son dancing around with his son, passes the little boy a bottle. Talk to me about addiction.
YOUMANS: So addiction runs through my family. Alcoholism is probably the most prevalent example of that, and before I made “Burning Cane,” actually it was when I was 17 in junior year, I kind of had a little spout of alcoholism myself because I was always able to grow a beard pretty easily. And so, I would go up to – go up to like discount stores in the city, in the Seventh Ward, and get alcohol because they didn’t ID me because I looked older. But I was really kind of self medicating, because I was at a particularly low point then. I was insecure, jealous, and it really kind of sabotaging the relationship I was in. And then, it wasn’t making things any better when the girl that I was dating at the time she was also dealing with some sort of alcoholism with her own family and her own father, you know?
So it was just kind of a toxic cycle in that, and I recognize that it was self medicating. And my mother caught me actually a few times. That’s why she told me to shave the beard. After that, you know, I stopped drinking as much. You know, I stayed away from hard liquor. And so, I just kind of — I had my own personal experiences with some of the jealously, insecurity and alcoholism that Daniel kind of finds himself with. Albeit, Daniel’s is much more magnified and has a much, much harsher context in terms of him being an adult and having to care for his child and all of that. But what I wanted to really touch on with Daniel and Jeremiah’s relationship, more than anything, in that sort of sphere of alcoholism is just the fact that things can get passed on so easily.
That’s another thing that’s sort of cyclical, in the cyclical nature of vices and how they’re passed on from generation to generation. And that’s something that present in the movie not only in alcoholism but also in smoking. When it’s routine, when it’s normalized, it’s so easy to let that become a part of your routine and I definitely wanted to touch on that with “Burning Cane” and Daniel and Jeremiah’s relationship.
MENENDEZ: The mother, Helen, was played by Karen Kaia Livers, one of the more complex and dynamic characters in this film. Let’s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KAREN KAIA LIVERS, ACTRESS, “BURNING CANE”: It was Mr. (inaudible) who helped me to get up. And by the grace of God, I could walk away. I was scared I was going to have to be in a wheelchair. But you know, with the help of the Lord, I’ll be fine and I’ll survive.
DOMINIQUE MCCLELLAN, ACTOR, “BURNING CANE”: That’s great, mom. I’m glad to see that you’re doing OK.
MENENDEZ: You said Wendell is our lead male character, but the story revolves around Helen and her decisions, her experiences define “Burning Cane.” How so?
YOUMANS: So, Helen is a character in “Burning Cane” that has the major, dramatic, question that really has the major decision to make.
MENENDEZ: Which is?
YOUMANS: Which is how does she proceed with knowing the man that her son has become? And how does she feel as a mother, is there any guilt that she feels for how he’s turned out? And it’s also how does she respond, what action does she take to what he’s done? And with–
MENENDEZ: Which is not just his grappling with his alcohol addiction–
YOUMANS: No, no, no.
MENENDEZ: — but also with domestic violence.
YOUMANS: Yes, yes. And what I wanted to speak on especially with Helen is that there is a danger in enacting a fundamentalist interpretation of religion. And that by the end of the film, she takes Tillman’s words and his guidance literally and in that, in that very fundamentalist interpretation of what she’s saying — what he says she takes action from that. But her major question is how does she help the people and the men in her life really that she loves, a pasture, her grandson and her son Daniel.
MENENDEZ: You’ve said “my artistic identity is defined by humanizing more than it is by my blackness.” What does that mean?
YOUMANS: So, I am — I want to tell honest nuanced black stories. There’s an alphacentrism that is always going to be a part of my work. But I think above all that, if not even above all of that, but in kind of in tandem with that, is showcasing the duality and the nuance of our experience. But I think there’s something important about us being able to, as black people, be able to tell our stories and be able to show ourselves in that fallible light. But I think it has to be told from a black perspective to make sure that the humanizing element is still there.
MENENDEZ: Phillip, thank you so much.
YOUMANS: Hey, thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
About This Episode EXPAND
Christiane Amanpour speaks with Eric Schmidt and Alan Eagle about privacy, democracy and the spread of extremism on the internet. She also speaks with actor Glenda Jackson about her role in “King Lear” on Broadway. Alicia Menendez speaks with filmmaker Phillip Youmans about “Burning Cane,” the 19-year-old’s first film that won three awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.LEARN MORE