INTERVIEW: Scotty Iseri, creator of kids’ web/app series ‘The Digits’

Creator and Executive Producer, Scotty Iseri

Biography:

Scotty Iseri is a theatre and new media artist based out of Portland, Oregon. His work includes the popular all-ages web series “Scotty Got An Office Job”, the live touring act “The Big Rock Show” and the Paper Hat Game. He was the writer and director behind “Merry Holidays, Please Hold”, a branded series billed “The Worldʼs First Internet Christmas Special”.

Scotty has won numerous awards for his writing, musical composition, and sound design, was an inaugural mentee for the Center For Asian American Mediaʼs Fellowship and was a finalist for the Public Radio Maker’s Quest 2.0 grant. He has years of experience in children’s theatre, has produced for Chicago Public Radio and was a teacher in Chicago’s After School matters.

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Her Film:  You wear three big hats on this series: director, writer, producer.  What has your experience been like balancing these three roles, especially in light of the fact the series is interactive and you’re dealing with various technologies for distribution and exhibition?

Scotty Iseri:  I do feel very lucky to be working with an amazing group of artists that really bring the world to life. But I must admit, it’s been a great deal of work. Luckily I love it.

The addition of interactivity requires a new approach to the production.  For “The Digits,” it’s more than shooting a film and adding prompts.  We wanted the story to holistically change and level as the viewer watches.

Juggling these technologies in storytelling is a whole new world.  The traditional roles don’t 100% apply.  Our actors created Facebook profiles for their characters which interact with our fans, so they’re also creating a universe, too.  Our developer, Battery Powered Games, is also a key member of the creative team.

“Pavi” (Sara Castilleja) and Scotty discuss direction and technique

The hardest part is finding the balance. The writer will write something crazy like, “The Digits crash land on an alien planet made of acid-spitting bacon”.  The director will say “how do i realize acid-spitting bacon?” and the producer will say “where do you think we’re going to find budget money for acid-spitting bacon?”  Since I am all three, striking a balance with only myself is a challenge indeed. Normally you’d have this creative back and forth between those three roles, which i definitely miss.

Her Film:  Can you describe the challenges you encountered when trying to raise funds for this series? 

Scotty Iseri:  We function like a startup [and] I think the startup community (especially on the finance side) is more open to ideas that break the mold.  Silicon Valley thrives on innovation, while the entertainment industry thrives on tradition. The latter usually waits until something is popular enough to enjoy a mass audience before sticking its toe in the water.  The two don’t necessarily always mix.

I took The Digits idea around to the traditional entertainment industry.  I was told “we can give you money for a television pilot that may just sit on a shelf and never be seen, but we’re not sure what to do with this interactive business. ”  I think the traditional entertainment industry is in something of a free fall in terms of its business model and so going the startup route was the best way to create something really cool.

There are some fantastic examples of others in this new storytelling field.  Fourth Wall Studios, and the Lizzie Bennett Diaries are two examples of people taking the entrepreneurial spirit into the entertainment industry and making cool things happen.

Her Film:  Entertainment professionals who create series or films, necessarily, have to act like entrepreneurs when doing so, but the word “entrepreneur” seems to be largely absent from discussions about entertainment, although it’s prevalent when talking about tech companies and start-ups.  Can you address this issue and how your work may be influenced by actively embracing the idea of entrepreneurship?

Scotty Iseri:  It’s an exciting time to make things.  No one necessarily has the “right’ answer when it comes to a next-generation filmmaking model, but you must, must must, be entrepreneurial about it.

If you think about it economically, it’s all about scarcity.  10 years ago, the scarcity was in distribution and money.  It was expensive to rent cameras and film, and more expensive to jockey for time on the limited bandwidth of broadcast.  Today the scarcity is attention–getting audiences to notice what you’re putting out.

Scotty Iseri with his favorite puppet “Andrew”

Her Film:  What is your relationship with the Center for Asian American Media and how does it relate to “The Digits”?

Scotty Iseri:  “The Digits” wouldn’t exist without CAAM.  I’m of Japanese descent and was very lucky to be invited into their new voices fellowship.  I think it was very forward-thinking on CAAM’s part to include a new media fellow among a group of fantastic screenwriters, directors and producers.

The time with CAAM allowed me to have some structure and support in building not just the technological idea, but also the story universe.

Her Film:  The main character of the show is “Pavi,” the lead singer (and a female).  With the bias, and stereotype, that girls and women are not capable in mathematics, this is very refreshing to see.  How did you decide which character, and which gender, should take the lead?  

Scotty Iseri:  Every day I see girls and women that defy this stereotype, but I also know how important it can be to have a good role model.  There’s a lot of research and conversation happening about ways to interest girls in science and technology careers and I think one of the ways to do that is to give them a role model.

Sally Ride, may she rest in peace,  inspired many women to aim for the stars, but so did Nichelle Nichols (Lt Uhura on Star Trek).  Fictional characters can be incredibly inspiring.  It allows you to “see yourself” in a fantastic situation.  Even master storyteller LeVar Burton was inspired by a strong female lead. He said in a keynote speech this year that “By the virtue of Nichelle Nichols sitting on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, I knew that there was going to be a place for me in that imagined future (of science fiction) and I felt incredibly excited by that possibility.”

Children are great imitators, so the goal was to give them someone fun to imitate.

But, for all the high minded ideals behind the creation of the character, she’s a blast to write and Sara (Castilleja) really brings her to life.  I wanted her to be capable, and strong, but also funny and flawed…In other words, a person and not a “female character.”  Does that make sense?

Although, to be fair, our first appisode does not pass the Bechdel Test (though we correct this in the web series).

“The Digits” characters

Her Film:  “The Digits” seems to be a great example of “edutainment.”  Can you talk a bit about the process of working to create a show that both entertains and educates?

Scotty Iseri:  The project was really inspired by watching my nieces and nephews play with interactive technology.  They are naturals.  They take to it immediately and begin experimenting:  Can I click this?  What happens if I do this?  This is science in its rawest form; Hypothesize, experiment, examine results, change.

I think edutainment gets a bad rap.  For people of my generation, the only reason they know their state capitals is from the Animaniacs song.

I also think kids love to learn.  They love the empowerment of knowing something they didn’t know before, and they love to show it off.  “Guess what?” is my favorite question because I know it’s going to lead somewhere new and exciting.

Her Film:  Were kids involved in the creation process or have you tested the show with kids?  I ask because I read the description of the show to my 11 year old nephew and he thought it sounded cool (his words).

Scotty Iseri:  Your nephew is right.  I think it’s a universal truth that Rock and Roll is cool.  Robots are cool.  Spaceships are cool.  Our focus really wasn’t on creating a world “for kids”, but to harness good storytelling for a new medium.  We’ve been testing the “appisode” with kids of all ages and it’s going really well.  As i said, kids are natives to this technology.  They expect their stories to play with them.

“Pavi” with beloved band-mate “Ray Ray” at her side

I do think people “create-down” for kids.  In truth, kids are the savviest and best audience in the world.  They are willing to go with you on your storytelling journey, but the minute you break your own rules, they’re the first to call foul.  They’re exacting and they’ll ask you more questions about the story you’re telling than you probably ever could think of.

Tell your nephew if he’d like to ask the Digits a question they’ll answer it in a future episode! Audience participation is key to “The Digits”!

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To learn more about this filmmaker and his work, please check out these links:

Facebook:  /WeAreTheDigits
YouTube: /FUNDAWatch
Website: watchthedigits.com
Twitter:  @wearethedigits
All-ages webseries: scottygotanofficejob.com

(Photos courtesy of S. Iseri)

‘Wadjda’ by Haifaa Al Mansour, first film made by Saudi woman and first film made in the KSA

Wadjda is a new film by Haifaa Al Mansour, the first Saudi woman filmmaker.  She is writer and director of the film.  To add to the enormous responsibility of representation she now carries, the film is also the first to be filmed completely inside Saudi Arabia.  While movie theaters are illegal in the country, producers have stated they plan to distribute it through “DVDs and TV channels” (Telegraph). You can watch two clips of the film below.

I’ve been excited about this film since I read about earlier this week, and am looking forward to seeing it (somehow, some day).  It screened at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, and has received quite a bit of press.  Check out the links below for more articles on Al Mansour, plus this week’s Her.Stories post.

From Al Mansour’s “Director’s Statement”:

I come from a small town in Saudi Arabia where there are many girls like Wadjda who have big dreams, strong characters and so much potential. These girls can, and will, reshape and redefine our nation. It was important for me to work with an all-Saudi cast, to tell this story with authentic, local voices.  (Read more.)

Have you see the film?  It’s a Saudi Arabia-Germany production, with most of the crew being German, but Al Mansour still had to deal with the exigencies of directing as a woman in Saudi Arabia where gender separation is required.  Without being able to direct the male cast or work with the male crew face to face, what did she do?  Worked from a van and used a walkie talkie.

Wadjda screened at La Biennale on August 31 and September 1.  Visit the film’s page on the festival’s website.

Watch an interview with Al Mansour at the Doha Film Institute’s website.

Read a review of Wadjda in Variety.

Watch clips from the film:

 

A waiata, a betrayal, a surprise and a good deed: 2nd Night at the Maori women’s film festival

Four short films screened on the second night of Whiti Whitiāhua Wāhine, the Matariki Maori women’s film festival, each very different from the other.  But first, university instructor and filmmaker, Ella Henry, talks about this first ever Maori women’s film festival!

The first film to screen was Kararaina Rangihau’s Taku Rakāu e, a narrative short that tells the story of a young girl who wants to know the meaning behind a waiata she is taught to sing.  (A waiata is a Maori song which preserves the wisdom and knowledge of ancestors.)   Her grandmother sits with her and tells her the story.  As Kararaina explains in the video below, the waiata was “written” (the Maori have an oral tradition) in the mid-1800’s by a woman named Mihikitekapua.  Kararaina pointed out that although the song is about a man, she as a filmmaker told the story of Mihikitekapua instead!  She has flipped the story a bit on its head to bring the woman’s story to the fore, and it resonated very well with the audience.  One woman in the audience stood up after the screening and talked about how she learned to sing this waiata as a child and how amazing it was to see the story of Mihikitekapua told.

Kararaina spoke about growing up and learning this waiata (and forgive me, but she used a lot of Maori language in her introduction, so I don’t entirely understand or know exactly what she said), and how her passion for the meaning of the waiata grew over the years.  The historical and cultural significance of it was important to her.  The famous late filmmaker, Merata Mita, produced Taku Rakau e but passed away during the process of making it.  About the film, Kararaina said that it took awhile to make and that “it should never take two years to write a short film,” but that “Merata Mita [my mentor] showed me how.  It wasn’t a straight road.”  She went on to say “I’ve learned a lot about myself and who I am.”  Kararaina dedicated her film to the memory of Mihikitekapua and included a dedication to Merata Mita in the end credits.

Kararaina’s interest is in telling stories in Maori and helping to foster the life of the Maori language.  (She will be taking her film to the National Geographic All Roads Project this September in Washington, DC, USA.) It was a major education chatting with her and filmmaker Ella Henry this morning on the ferry, and I really appreciate them letting me ask them so many questions off camera!  Watch a video of Kararaina Rangihau below talking about her work and later in the post, Ella Henry talking about Merata Mita.

The second film to screen was Katie Wolfe’s This is Her, a comedy with some dark undertones of resentment, bitterness and revenge!  (Wolfe couldn’t make it to the festival, unfortunately.)  The film starts off with a woman in sexual ecstasy, then moves on to show her in labor in the hospital.  The story revolves around her recalling giving birth to her child (with husband at her side) while she also narrates the story of how their relationship fell apart after he met a much younger woman.  The woman is shown as a child and the narration goes: “This is the bitch” (who will grow up and take her husband away).  Funny and bitter, much like life!

The third film to screen was The Winter Boy, directed by Rachel House who introduced the film.  Again, she is another filmmaker at this festival who has worked with Merata Mita.  She talked about how she lost her editor during the film and decided to recut the picture.  She talked to Mita about it, and Mita said to do it how she wanted it to be and to “stand by your work.”  At the end of the introduction, Rachel said, “So here I am, standing by my work.”  It’s an interesting film which seems to direct you down a path that is totally different from the path the film ends up taking.  I was surprised by the film as its tone is one of panic as a mother loses her son at an aquarium, but moves into one that is a bit mysterious, then at the end, one that’s funny and joyous.  It’s an interesting dramatic arc with some questions left unanswered.  To a question asked by an audience member, Rachel said that she liked that there were some unanswered things in the film.  (By the way, if you don’t know Rachel House by name, you may know her by her films, including Eagle vs. Shark — a classic, and one of my favorites ever — and Boy, both successful New Zealand films which have also seen a lot of success outside of New Zealand.)

And finally, the fourth film to screen was Ebony Society.  While it’s directed by a male director, Tammy Davis (also an actor on the successful Kiwi series “Outrageous Fortune”), it is produced by Ainsley Gardiner.  And if you don’t know who she is, she produced Eagle vs. Shark, Boy and other films.  Gardiner co-owns Whenua Films which she co-founded several years ago with actor Cliff Curtis, whom you have seen in tons of movies.  (She’s someone whose work I try to follow and someone I look up to much like I do Nira Park in the U.K. who’s produced some of the best comedy to come out of England in the past 15 years.)  This is a lovely film about two teenage (or early 20’s?) boys who break into a house around Christmas time.  They find that there is a baby and a very young boy left alone at night in the house.  While they meant to rob the place, they find they can’t leave these kids by themselves and decide to stay and watch them while their parents are out.  It has a good heart and some funny lines, an interesting and sweet story.

Unfortunately and disappointingly, I became ill during the festival and missed the third night of screenings.  Ella Henry screened her Ph.D. thesis film called Wairua Auaha (meaning something akin to “creative spirit” as she explained to me), which is about “emancipatory Maori entrepreneurship in screen production.”  Sounds great, and I’ll be watching it soon!  Also, two episodes of the series “Songs from the Inside” screened.  This is a successful Maori Television series which follows four Kiwi musicians as they teach songwriting to prison inmates. (I wish I could’ve been there!)

Q+A with CampbellX (“Stud Life”)

CampbellX                                    (Photo by Robert Taylor http://www.roberttaylor photography.com/)

Biography:

Campbell is an award-winning filmmaker/curator whose films include the award-winning BD Women about Black lesbian lives and history, Legacy about the lasting impact of slavery on Black families and Fem, a butch homage to queer femininity.   Her body of work was honoured by the Queer Black Cinema Festival in New York (2009), and she curated “No Heroes” in 2010 at Iniva.  She was a selector for GFEST 2009-11 and the festival director for The Fire This Time! – Queering Black History Month.  Campbell has been published in Diva Magazine, Feminist Review, The Pink Paper, and many more publications.


Her Film:  What is your film Stud Life about and what drew you to making this film specifically?

CampbellX:  Stud Life is a film where a stud lesbian and her gay man best friend deal with what happens when she gets tight with a femme lesbian lover. “who did you wake up with? your lover, or your best friend?” The story is about how you negotiate time with your queer family when you want to be with a new lover.

I made the film as there are actually a dearth of images of masculine females – studs/butches/bois in cinema and not that many images of QPOC [Queer People of Color] anyway. The queer films tend to be from a Eurocentric perspective and whenever there are QPOC in films often our presence, whether it is the filmmaker’s intention or not, is often treated like we are giving insight into our “problems” and the issues of “gayness with our cultures”. We as QPOC filmmakers are not given the space to just tell a story where we are central to the narrative and it not be problematised.

I also made the film to show that London is very mixed and jumbled up if you live in an urban environment. So immigrants, queers, and the indigenous people are all living on top of each other and have to learn to negotiate the spaces we occupy. However we are now heavily influenced whether queer or not,  and from whatever class or ethnicity, by African Caribbean and African American culture in our clothes, language and the way we dance.

Very often British cultural product that shows this urban life is usually straight and homophobic and the ones that are LGBT are very “white”. Stud Life shows a different reality.

HF:  What has the reaction been to the film?  How do you engage with your fanbase/followers around the topic of the film to continue to build an audience?

CX: The reaction to the film has been mixed. Stud Life is not for everyone. It has scenes of sexual practice and violence some people may find triggering. The main role is that of a stud, which many lesbians who wish to have a mainstreamed image of ourselves find shameful.  It is also not a segregated film. It shows a world where genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities mix. Some queer audiences like their films gendered – boys only, girls only.

With this in mind I have been absolutely bowled over by finding the Other Audience who do not really care for this and are hungry for something different.  They have responded with love and joy at the screenings. So far all screenings have been fully booked out with many sold out screenings. The audiences have laughed, cried, screamed, groaned and shouted at the screen. I have had many tweets, Facebook feedback and posts written from audience members. Some quoting lines from the film or saying how the film related to them personally. I have found these touching, as when I wrote the film, I had no idea if anyone would even like the film or come to see it.

I used Facebook from the very beginning to connect with an audience and later Twitter and YouTube. I think it is important in these media to share others people’s work as well. Stud Life is about building LGBT community around queer cultural product. We seek out those who are doing the same. We actively promote those whose voices continue to be silenced by mainstream straight and LGBT media.

HF:  You’ve directed a number of projects, but can you speak a bit about your experience making your first feature film?

CX:  My experience of making my first feature was like that of a virgin. I had no idea what it would be like so I went into it all wide-eyed and innocent. This is even though I have made several award-winning short films before. I had one goal and it was to finish the feature. I could not have done it without community support and by that I mean the wider filmmaking community in London, the people who live and work in East London and also the wider international LGBT world who stumped up cash for our IndieGoGo campaign. The cast T’Nia Miller, Kyle Treslove, Robyn Kerr and Simon Savory were put through a gruelling 10 day shoot in the cold and wet London weather but were always chipper and professional and put in stellar performances.

I am one of the privileged few in the UK to have made a feature film – Stud Life was the only new LGBT film made in 2012. That is a sobering thought considering we made the film “by any means necessary” and received no film grants from any of the funders who give money for film. This allowed me to have a freedom to play and to cast the leads I wanted and also choose the crew I wanted to work with.

I am no longer a virgin and now have baggage that anyone does after the “first time”.

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To connect with this filmmaker and to support her work, please visit these links:

Website:  blackmanvision.com

Twitter:  @CampbellX

Vimeo:  vimeo.com/blackmanvision

Facebook (Stud Life):  /studlifemovie

Twitter (Stud Life):  @studlifemovie

Tumbler (Stud Life):  studlifemovie.tumblr.com

Women’s Stories Weekly: Streep, Pixar, Tropes, and more

MERYL STREEP CALLS ON HOLLYWOOD TO MAKE MORE FILMS ABOUT WOMEN

Read the story over at The Guardian.  

PIXAR’S ‘BRAVE’ CALLS ATTENTION TO FEMALE ROLES ON AND OFF SCREEN

Read the article at Mercury News.

DIRECTOR NANCY SAVOCA A ‘COWGIRL’ IN CINEMA’S WILD WEST

Read the fully story at Toronto.com
Read my review of Savoca’s Union Square here (scroll to 2nd film).

HYSTERIA HITS OVER 150 U.S. CITIES, NEW FILM FROM TANYA WEXLER

Visit the website and check out theater release information here
Read my review of Wexler’s Hysteria here (scroll to 3rd film).

ANITA SARKEESIAN’S ‘TROPES VS. WOMEN IN VIDEO GAMES’ REACHES RIDICULOUS NEW LEVELS OF CROWDFUNDING AT $150,000+ WITH A $6,000 GOAL

Check out the project on Kickstarter.
Follow Sarkeesian @femfreq.
Visit Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency website.

(Sarkeesian has been the target of severe harassment — including threats of rape and murder — as well as disgusting hacking of her wikipedia page and lewd and hateful comments online as a result of her launching this study and web series.  For those stories and details, please google.  I’m more interested in sharing and reveling in the greatness of this project and the enormous positive response to it. Unfortunately, I see that most reporters and bloggers are more interested in focusing on the negative response she has received mainly from gamers.)

THE WRITING ROOTS OF A YAMHILL GIRL: ESSAY ON BEVERLY CLEARY

Read this eloquent essay about Cleary’s life and how it helped her form her writing style by clicking here.

Review: “Higher Ground” (2011)

A film by Vera Farmiga

Vera Farmiga directs and stars in this movie about a women’s journey of faith.  The film is based on Carolyn S. Briggs’ memoir, This Dark World. She breaks the movie up into chapters, such as “Summons” and “Waiting for Dawn” that deal with different parts in her journey.  Corinne grows up with a sister and parents that are in love but break up when they lose their third child.  Corinne goes to church as a young girl and tries to make sense of religion and how she fits into the picture.

The film goes on and shows Corinne as a teenager finding love with a boy in a band called the Renegades.  They marry at a young age after she becomes pregnant.  The band travels and on one particular trip Corinne brings their young child along and they are in an accident.  They crash into a lake and frantically search for their toddler that they had placed in a cooler.  They find her and are convinced that God saved her.  They join a fundamentalist sect and raise their family in the group.  They have two more children.  The group is very traditional and Corinne goes along with it until she starts to realize that maybe it’s not for her.  The group is very strict about women doing any teaching.  She tries to share what she has learned from the bible to the group and gets chastised for preaching.  She also gets called out for wearing a dress (a maternity dress no less) that garners too much attention.

I think we can all relate to this film because religion or spirituality is in most of our lives in some shape or form.  It can be a struggle to make your way and try and figure out what you would like to believe.  I thought that Corinne was very brave to leave the group when she no longer believed what they did.  It was all she had known and took courage to walk away from her family and friends.  Farmiga did a great job with the flow of the movie and kept it moving along nicely.  This film was a great start for Farmiga as director.

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Lotus Wollschlager is the official Her Film movie reviewer.  Find her bio on the Her Film Reviews page.

SPOTLIGHT: Small Small Thing

Writer-director Jessica Vale, with producer Nika Offenbac, are making a powerful documentary film called Small Small Thing about the epidemic of rape in Liberia, focusing on the story of a mother working for justice after her young daughter is raped.  Today, rape is the #1 crime in Liberia.  Vale and Offenbac (with co-producer Barnie Jones) have spent the last three years making this film which is currently in post-production and raising funds through Kickstarter.  Together, Vale and Offenbac are founders of the Take My Picture LLC production company in New York City dedicated to the pursuit of long form non-fiction works.

Trailer and Pitch:

SMALLSMALL THING

Crowdfunding through: Kickstarter

Campaign goal: $25,000

Days left on campaign:  Less than a day (28 hours / deadline April 8)

Logline

Caught between tribalism and democracy, a Liberian mother is at odds with her country after the brutal rape of her six-year old daughter.

Olivia (Photo courtesy of J. Vale)

About Olivia:

“As we were there, we had to navigate the same channels that she and her mother were also trying to navigate to find out their own answers.”

– Jessica Vale, director

“If this were to happen here in the United States, maybe she could get therapy.  There’s no such thing as therapy in Liberia…. [S]he represents thousands of little girls behind her that we haven’t met; we haven’t heard their stories.”

– Barnie Jones, co-producer

Synopsis

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in women’s issues. Yet according to U.N. statistics in 2012, rape is still the #1 crime in Liberia, and the majority of the victims are children.  Médecins Sans Frontières in Liberia reports their youngest survivor at 21 months old.

Olivia (Photo courtesy of N. Offenbac)

Small Small Thing begins at JFK Hospital in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, and urban center of this West African country.  Olivia is 9 years old, severely malnourished and handicapped. Her condition is life threatening. Believing her injuries to be the result of witchcraft, Olivia’s mother had been hiding her for years.  The doctors conclude her condition is the result of a brutal rape that took place when Olivia was 7 years old. When pressured to reveal her rapist, Olivia names her cousin.

Olivia's mother Bendu (Photo courtesy of N. Offenbac)

This diagnosis has severe consequences. Originally from deep in the Liberian jungle, Olivia and her mother are shunned from their tribe for seeking outside help.  They are left stranded in Monrovia at the mercy of President Sirleaf’s government, facing the most difficult decision of all. What price are they willing to pay for justice?

Photo courtesy of J. Vale

Credits

Jessica Vale (Writer/Director)
Nika Offenbac and Jessica Vale (Producers)
Barnie Jones (Co-producer)

Connect with this filmmaker and learn more about this new film:

Facebook: /SmallSmallThing

Twitter: @Smallsmallfilm

Website:  www.smallsmallthing.com
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Do you have a film you are trying to finance that you would like to feature here?  Send us an email with a website and social media page(s) for your film.