Meet Robert Philipson of Shoga Films, a former professor of African-American studies, published author, and Harlem Renaissance historian. His work encompasses the intersectionality of race, music, & sexuality, through the unique lens of a queer Jewish man. An accomplished filmmaker of multiple award-winning films, Philipson has carved out a niche space for himself and his collaborators. WMM had a chance to catch up with him, in anticipation of his latest short film, Smoke, Lilies, and Jade.
WMM: Where are you from, what is your background, and how do you think that informs what you do as a filmmaker?
RP: I grew up in Pasadena and pretty much lived in California (undergrad at UC Santa Cruz) until I went to Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 1974-77. As a result of that experience, I worked towards a degree in Comparative Literature with a specialty in Black and African literature. Unable to get a tenure-track position, I left academia in the early 90s and reinvented myself several times since then. I began taking multimedia classes at Berkeley City College from 2005 on as a hobby, but the enterprise grew out of control.
WMM: What films have made an impression on you? How? Why?
RP: I grew up in the 50s and 60s, so the films that made an impression were, weirdly enough, science fiction noirs like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, musicals such as The Sound of Music, feature-length Disney animations (especially Fantasia), and blockbusters like Cleopatra. I was not a cinephile, and there were no art house theaters back then. I didn't run into "high art" film (Fellini and French New Wave) until I went to college. Saturday Night Fever was a milestone on my road to coming out as a gay man. Ditto for Women in Love! (That naked fight scene in front of the fireplace!) As an adult my European art films were pretty standard: Fellini's 8 and 1/2, Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Werner Herzog's Fitzcarroldo. I didn't necessarily understand those movies, but there were the indelible images that have become cinematic touchstones.
Some American directors made similarly grandiose movies, but their storylines were comprehensible: Stanley Kubrik's 2001, A Space Odyssey. and Francis Coppola's Godfather trilogy. As a Jew I loved most of Woody Allen's prolific output, and the "Springtime for Hitler" number in Mel Brooks' The Producers wrenched hysterical laughter out of me. Once again, the usual stuff: lots of Hitchcock, George Lucas' Star Wars, Mike Nichols' The Graduate (spoke to my generation big time), Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (I had a crush on Sidney Poiter). I also love talk-y films with literate scripts, so John Madden's Shakespeare in Love blew me away and Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre was a tour de force.
Not surprisingly, no documentaries made an impression on me. Documentaries weren't a thing in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. When a documentary did hit me in the Third Eye, it was for it's content, not its technique: Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, probably the first doc that shifted my world view in the space of 90 minutes, and Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, that devastatingly restrained unveiling of the Holocaust.
WMM: Just to dig in a little deeper (obviously no path is simple) what drew you to making the kind of films/film you are making now and what was your inspiration?
RP: Although I didn't go to a proper film school and fell into this career by accident, making my little films, even in the beginning, were expressions of my intellectual interests and passions as a fully fledged adult. It's not every film school student who wants to make films about the Harlem Renaissance (Rodny Evans notwithstanding). I made documentaries because they were w-a-a-y less demanding and more forgiving (on a technical level) than the requirements of a narrative film. (Now, of course, I've shifted my screen writing to narrative shorts -- a temporary aberration one hopes.) And because my subject matter was unusual, I've had amazing film festival success in my 15-year film career: over 120 acceptances.
WMM: How did you find your team that you worked with and how did WMM play a role in your project?
RP: My initial team came out of the Berkeley City College multimedia department. Four of us older students coalesced into a critique and support group we called "The Videots," which met with some frequency for almost 15 years! A chance meeting with Chad and Kendall Kukahiko at a Memphis film festival (beaucoup fun!) brought me into WMM's orbit, and now I'm firmly in their galaxy.
For years I've been researching and collecting images for an ambitious documentary about the Queer Harlem Renaissance. One idea I had was to incorporate production pieces -- stories, poems, and interviews featuring queer characters -- into the documentaries like historical recreations. Kendall and Chad agreed to produce the first of these, "Congo Cabaret" (2017) eventually bringing Eric Kochmer in tow. Now WMM is a full producer on a just-completed short, the second in the series, entitled "Smoke, Liles and Jade," and it is a thing of beauty. Furthermore, WMM has taken over my marketing and publicity. I have been fully assimilated.
When I wrote "Congo Cabaret," I asked Quincy and Deondray Gossfield to recommend a young and hungry Black director that I could underpay since I was working with the usual shoestring budget. Much to my shock, they jumped on the idea with both feet bringing all their Hollywood connections to bear on "Congo Cabaret" and "Smoke, Lilies and Jade." (Did I mention that Billy Porter is the narrator of the latter?) As directors, the Gossfields are more than talented. Their work is visually sumptuous -- not an easy trick to pull off on a shoestring.
WMM: So, Shoga Films -- what should we know? What do you do best? What sets you apart from the competition?
RP: I don't see myself as having competition. I do what I do, and there are a certain number of people who like it. And since I'm the only person who is making films and documentaries about the queer Harlem Renaissance, I'm becoming known for that to those who care. Of course I have the luxury of not having to make a living from my film work. That's huge.
What I do best is learn and continue learning. I know my strengths -- writing, conceptualizing projects and events -- and I know what areas I *have * to develop strength in -- producing, recruiting people to my projects. Over the years I've picked up enough knowledge about what people actually do on a film shoot, so that I can either make it happen with my own crew for documentary shoots, or write narrative in a way that makes life easiest for the producer (usually me) and the directors. (No scenes written on top of the Eiffel Tower.)
WMM: What would you change (if you could) about your career trajectory? Any advice for other filmmakers?
RP: I would have started earlier. I came late to the game, in my fifties. On the other hand, I entered the field just when it was becoming democratized through ever-improving technology.
Advice. The self-actualization mantra -- "Do what you love and the money will follow" -- is bullshit. However, if you do what you love people may follow. That's only the beginning of the work. (See my Shoga Films posts on Instagram and Facebook.)
WMM: What is next for you?
RP: We just completed the final cut of "Smoke, Lilies and Jade," 30 minutes of visual pleasure, sophisticated dialogue, and sexual tension. This will make my reputation. It's gonna be big. BIG, you hear? The studio executive doors will fly open!