In 2008, Laura Brownson—a production executive of narrative films—attended a gala event for an educational theater, at which she saw a performance by Lemon Andersen. Lemon, a Brooklyn native, was an original cast member in Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway and his style of passionate, raw, slam poetry made Laura sit up and take notice. After showing footage of Lemon to Beth Levison, an Emmy award-winning producer and director, the pair knew there was a story to tell behind the man with the citrus name.
Three and a half years later, their feature-length documentary, simply titled Lemon, has received an Honorable Mention at the Zurich Film Festival and made its US debut at the recent Doc NYC festival, where it also won a special jury prize.
“It was great to screen in New York with the great mix [of audience members] that we had,” Beth told us, when we spoke to her after the win was announced. “Lemon’s friends and family, our production crew, New York’s doc community, and people who just like good movies. And as for the win, we think Lemon was really pleased. He took a huge risk entrusting us to tell his story, so every prize we get is an affirmation, maybe, that he made a good decision!”
That decision—to share his life story with a film crew for an undetermined length of time—was undeniably a difficult one to come to for Lemon, a father, three-time felon and Tony award-winner who had stumbled backward and was living back in the projects with thirteen family members when production began. Equally difficult for Lemon‘s co-directors was the uncertainty of the documentary’s direction.
“When we started, we knew that Lemon had experienced an incredibly tough childhood,” Beth explained, “We knew that he was a very determined guy who in a “do or die trying” attempt to get out of poverty was writing his autobiographical story for the stage. What we simply couldn’t know for sure was if he would get the show off the ground, how things would play out, and whether our story would end up a tragedy or a triumph.”
“We watched Lemon make some really tough choices that hurt his supporters and his family. We witnessed him and his family fall back into a place they never wanted to be again—struggling, on food stamps, and not sure where their next dollar was coming from. And at a certain point, we really didn’t know if Lemon was going to pull his play off and have the success he hoped for—that we hoped for!”
The gamble paid off when Lemon was ultimately successful in adapting his life story and his show, County of Kings, made it to the stage to rave reviews with the support of fellow Brooklynite, director Spike Lee. This result gave Beth and Laura a concluding chapter to their documentary that has resonated with audiences (encore screenings of Lemon were scheduled at Doc NYC based on popular demand) and made all of their own sacrifices worthwhile.
“When you’re making a verite documentary about someone else’s life, you basically lose control of your own. We each missed family celebrations, Thanksgiving dinners, you name it to make this film…important events in our own lives. So, the unpredictability, the tug between life and film was incredibly tough…There are so many challenges an independent filmmaker faces, from access to funding to avoiding the technical traps to getting the film out into the world. I’m not sure that we entirely knew what we were in for. The real icing on the cake is seeing the reactions of audiences. You spend years in a vacuum making a film, so when it makes the light of day and people actually like it, it’s amazing.”
Like Lemon‘s Facebook page to stay up to date with the film’s progress and find out when you can see it.