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Canada's Ben Proudfoot up for Oscar for short doc 'A Concerto is a Conversation'

TORONTO — It's been an emotional start to the week for Halifax-raised filmmaker Ben Proudfoot.
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TORONTO — It's been an emotional start to the week for Halifax-raised filmmaker Ben Proudfoot.

On Monday, the Los Angeles-based director-producer scored an Oscar nomination for the documentary short "A Concerto is a Conversation," which traces the family lineage of co-director and composer Kris Bowers.

Proudfoot said he was "floored" by the news and was fielding many congratulatory messages from Hollywood, but he was also facing a more sombre time, after travelling home to Halifax and finishing a 14-day pandemic quarantine so he could be with his mom.

"This time last year I was here, my dad was in the hospital and he passed away in May," Proudfoot said in a phone interview shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced.

"So this is the one-year anniversary of coming back to Halifax to be in the hospital with him. And at the same time to get this magnificent news of the Oscar nomination — I'm thinking of him today. He would be very happy. He was my biggest fan."

The 30-year-old Proudfoot is nominated alongside Bowers, who is also featured in the film. 

"We actually just got off the phone," Proudfoot said. "He's scoring the new 'Space Jam' movie. He's actually in the studio today, which gives you some insight ... into how busy he is as a composer. And today is no exception. He's trying to balance high-pressure recording and an Oscar nomination on the same day."

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Ava DuVernay is an executive producer on the 13-minute "A Concerto is a Conversation," which focuses on Bowers' 91-year-old grandfather, Horace, and the discrimination he faced as he tried to escape the Jim Crow South.

Proudfoot said Horace Bowers left his home at age 17, hitchhiked across the United States and landed in Los Angeles to start a new life in the 1940s. 

He was homeless and had just $27 when he arrived in L.A., but within two years, he and his wife Alice were the owners of a dry cleaning business. The family now has a stretch of Central Avenue in South Los Angeles dedicated to them: Bowers Retail Square.

"We track Horace's history ... all the way until today, to fill in the blanks of how Kris's lineage came from slavery to the stage of the Walt Disney Concert Hall," Proudfoot said. 

"And in so doing, it's a dedication to Kris's grandfather, and in a larger sense that entire generation."

This is the first Oscar nomination for both Proudfoot and Bowers, who have been friends and colleagues in Hollywood for about five years.

Their Oscars competition for the April 25 show includes "Colette" by Anthony Giacchino and Alice Doyard; "Do Not Split" by Anders Hammer and Charlotte Cook; "Hunger Ward" by Skye Fitzgerald and Michael Scheuerman; and "A Love Song for Latasha" by Sophia Nahli Allison and Janice Duncan.

Proudfoot said they started shooting "A Concerto is a Conversation" in 2019 and finished just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. They had to edit remotely with a team that included another Canadian — Lukas Dong.

The film has screened as part of the New York Times "Op-Docs" series of short documentaries and at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Proudfoot said the seed for the story was planted when he was working on a project for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and noticed Bowers was also there writing a concerto. 

Bowers is a virtuoso jazz pianist and composer in Hollywood, scoring the Oscar-winning film “Green Book” at age 29 and earning Emmy Award nominations for doing the score on "Mrs. America" and "When They See Us." 

He's also premiered a concerto at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, composed music on the Netflix series "Bridgerton," and recorded, performed and collaborated with Jay-Z and Kanye West.

But in doing the concerto, he had "all kinds of mixed emotions and feelings of imposter syndrome," Proudfoot said, noting the film is about breaking into new spaces through generations of sacrifice.

"I do think the film touches on something important, which is intergenerational conversations," said Proudfoot, whose California-based company Breakwater Studios produced the film. 

"Obviously, the film explores Horace Bowers' experience as a Black man in America and the bigotry that he faced simply in trying to build a life for his family. But what I find always interesting is that we don't even need to necessarily look into the history books. Witnesses to history are all around us. All we need to do is ask. And my hope is that more films that spark intergenerational conversation might come of this."

It's a topic Proudfoot's dad, who has Scottish heritage, was passionate about as well.

"He always told me, 'Your mom and I have a century of experience between us. And if you don't listen to us, you're throwing away your greatest resource.' And I think that's true," said Proudfoot, who's directed or produced dozens of original short films, and won an Emmy Award for the PBS documentary "Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano." 

"We may not always listen to our elders in the end, but we'd be fools not to hear what they have to say, and what experiences and sacrifices they made to give us the opportunity to build a better world."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 15, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press



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