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Sweet Micky: the road to Slamdance

At today’s Screen Edge Forum Sweet Micky for President producers Pras Michel and Karyn Rachtman shared how they’d managed to make a successful documentary, almost despite some of what happened along the way.

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Director Ben Patterson was scheduled to take part in the session, but illness prevented him travelling, so Michel and Rachtman took the lead.

For those not familiar with the film it documents the Haitian presidential campaign of Michel Martelli, aka musician Sweet Micky, which Pras Michel supported.

Pras Michel outlined some of his previous filmmaking experiences, which included being homeless for Skid Row and getting kidnapped in Somalia. He also touched on events outside the filmmaker’s control that can sometimes make a significant difference to a project.

After being out there for a couple of years, the 2007 Skid Row documentary got traction in the US largely because of the GFC, when a large number of people in the US lost their homes. It’s now been on Netflix for over five years. When Michel went to Somalia, he was kidnapped, which gave him the story he needed.

Martelli’s campaign for the presidency followed from the Haitian government’s response to the devastating earthquake. The earthquake was what drew Pras Michel to consider making a documentary in Haiti and led Michel to make the film about Sweet Micky.

Rights and responsibilities
“Music is the hardest thing to put in a movie,” said Rachtman. Since the two key subjects of Sweet Micky were musicians, that might have presented problems, but Rachtman’s background is in exactly that aspect of the business.

“Having a celebrity in your doc helps a lot so do get one of those,” Rachtman suggested, before discussing clearances. She and Michel were both keen to point out that they hadn’t got releases signed in advance. “If you can’t get releases, shoot it anyway, don’t give away the chance to catch something. At worst you can use it for research.”

The appearances in the film of Sean Penn, Bill Clinton and others weren’t cleared in advance. Given the famouly prickly relationship between ex-Fugees (“not the most lovey-dovey band”, as Rachtman put it) there was a question about how Wyclef Jean’s permission was secured.

“I made him feel like it was his film,” Michel said.

Rachtman explained they’d also used US “fair use” provisions, which allow for use of clips of up to 30 seconds for some purposes.

Share the load
Rachtman has worked with plenty of well-known directors over the years, and Michel’s celebrity status means he counts a good number of other celebrities as friends – some of whom appear in Sweet Micky.

Michel admitted he was “not a filmmaker” and happily accepted that there were some things that could have been achieved more easily.

“We didn’t have someone who could rein things in,” he said. “Karyn came in at the perfect time
It was painful because we had a vision but we were a mess.”

“They didn’t have budgets, clearances, editorial worked out,” said Rachtman. “We learned a lot about how to finish a movie.”

Best-laid plans
Michel explained, “I look at everything like I’m going to war.”

It wasn’t an aggressive statement, simply that Michel put time into planning strategy with a clear intention to succeed.

“You look at people who make great films and they never get seen and that’s not right but I work strategically. I never rest on my laurels,” he claimed, adding, “Always have great people around you and then you look like a genius.

“Whatever your objectives are, you need to understand them and then you need a strategy to achieve those objectives.”

One of the key objectives for Sweet Micky was to raise international awareness of Haiti beyond the earthquake and the notoriety of former presidents Papa and Baby Doc Duvalier. One way to achieve that was by getting good festival placements, and good featival reviews.

The festival circuit
“Don’t submit too early,” was Rachtman’s advice, noting that Sweet Micky had been submitted to a number of festivals and award events before it was really in a shape to go out – and before it was clear to them when it would be complete.

Having been submitted to Sundance several times by several people along the way, the film was only submitted to Slamdance last time around. It got in, had its world premiere there in January and won two prizes.

“It’s good to be a big fish in a small pond,” noted Rachtman. Sweet Micky generated more attention at Slamdance than it would have at Sundance, where it would have been one of around 40 documentaries in the programme.

Slamdance gave the film distribution, although the deals done are not yet announced.

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