Norah Shapiro

Posted in Film on Mar 05, 2010


If you dare to give a child a chance, the possibilities are infinite. That’s what a new documentary, If You Dare, examines movingly through award-winning film maker Norah Shapiro’s lens.

if you dare

Children are natural storytellers, actors, directors (as in “please put the fish stick on this side of my plate, next to the peas but not touching the noodles.”) Willie Reale recognized these traits in kids and created a beautiful program in the 1980s called the 52nd Street Project, which matches up inner city kids with playwrights, directors and actors to help youth create and realize the gifts they possess. Through the theater arts, the kids gain confidence, bond with a supportive community and, perhaps most importantly, enjoy the process.


pillsbury house theatre

The 52nd Street Project has been replicated in communities across the country. Norah’s film, which will have its regional premiere at the Minneapolis/St Paul International Film Festival, follows the kids at Minneapolis’ Chicago Avenue Project, a program based on the 52nd Street Project and hosted by the Pillsbury House Theatre.

chicavelogoSo successful is the Chicago Avenue Project that it has:

  • been recognized by the White House (more about this below)
  • drawn in actors like Josh Hartnett to work with the kids (Josh Hartnett appears in If You Dare to discuss the importance of the program)
  • helped launch Ralph Remington, the man who brought the program to Minneapolis, into a new role as National Endowment of the Arts’ director of theater and musical theater
  • and, most significantly, provided inner city youth with opportunities that can positively impact the rest of their lives.

norah shapiro

And so successful is If You Dare that you will be emotionally invested in kids you’d never even seen until just 1 hour earlier.

Both Norah, a mom of 3, and the Chicago Avenue Project will inspire you to tell your own stories in any medium that resonates with you. Check Chicago Avenue Project’s website for more information about involvement and show dates, and the Minneapolis/St Paul International Film Festival’s site for ticket and screening info for If You Dare (tickets are scheduled to go on sale April 1.) And don’t miss the trailer below.


see this week’s item from the art closet here

What was your path to becoming a documentary film maker?

Not a straight one! This is my second career. I worked for more than a decade as a public defender. The week after leaving my  job as a public defender, I took a documentary filmmaking bootcamp  class. That was a springboard – from there I did whatever I could to get more experience and learn.

I did things like volunteer as a Production Assistant on a documentary made by a filmmaker who taught the first class I took. I took more classes through IFP MN and went to an amazing course through the Film & Television Workshops in Rockport, Maine. I just had to start doing it, shooting stuff.

I was really fortunate to have my 1st short film, A Sacred Heart, win the Emerging Filmmaker award at the Minnesota History Center’s Greatest Generation Film Festival.

How did you first learn about the Chicago Avenue Project at Pillsbury House Theatre? And when did you decide to do a documentary?
I first learned of the project while I was a board member for the theatre’s non-profit parent, Pillsbury United Communities – a large, amazing social services entity in Minneapolis that has its roots in the Settlement House movement.  At the time, I was in the thick of my work as a public defender, including work in Juvenile Court.

What’s your goal in telling this story?
When I began making the film, I think my goal was something close to that of an advocacy film. As I got further along and found myself developing more as a filmmaker, I definitely didn’t change my positive feelings about the program, but I became more interested in storytelling. For me, that meant the inclusion of struggles, conflict, and leaving open questions for the viewers to decide what they think, and hopefully see the complexities involved.

Ultimately, I hope this film can both stand on its own, giving the audience access to something they might not ever get to see or experience in quite this way (really, I think, the goal of any documentary), AND offer a glimpse into the transformative role that art can play, especially in the lives of children.

If You Dare follows real life situations and, most of the time in real life, there’s not a tidy, linear story arc. How did you know you were done shooting, that the story you needed to tell was shot?
This can be tricky in documentary, especially if what you are following doesn’t have a natural beginning, middle, end. In part, it was answered for me in If You Dare by virtue of the program’s schedule – by following the sessions over the course of a year or so, there was something of an arc. That said, I also decided to dig backwards into almost ten years of the theatre’s archival footage of the program, which allowed me to explore and show a major goal of the program: the long-term relationships the program develops with some of the children.

Knowing when you are done shooting can be challenging. In this case, the way events evolved provided a natural ending, while other things offered a continuation of the story. I chose to use an epilogue to wrap things up.

What was the process of making this film: did you plan it out or just start rolling? did you estimate how long it would take you and, if so, did you stick to that timetable?
Mostly just started rolling.  Of course, I had a strong sense of the way the program worked because I’d been attending performances for many years.  But, in all honesty, making this film was my version of film school – I can’t begin to tell you the learning curve, and what I know now that I didn’t know then.  I pretty much stuck to my anticipated schedule on the production end.  I had no idea, though, how long the post-production and the distribution phase would take – the enormity of that process, plus managing the lives of my own 3 kids, required a bit of a flexible timeline. (interesting note: Norah edited about 200 hours of footage down to a 1 hour film)

chicagoavegirlIn the film, the Chicago Avenue Project receives a high honor at the White House when they win the Coming Up Taller Award from the President’s Committee for Arts and Humanities. Was this a serendipitous event that happened to come about while you were shooting or did you know from the start that it would take place?
Actually, I think I found out about it shortly after I embarked on the project, so for me, yes, it truly was serendipitous. It was an incredible experience for me to be a “fly on the wall” in the East Wing of the White House as I shot the ceremony as part of the press corps.

At one point, there was a break in the award ceremony because the Airforce One helicopter was landing right outside, and the First Lady (at the time Laura Bush) decided it would be cool for the kid honorees to get to see it land. Sadly, I couldn’t talk my way into getting footage of that, but, overall, I still can hardly believe I was able to talk my way into the White House in the first place. I only got clearance the day before the ceremony. I had bought a plane ticket in advance and crossed my fingers, hoping it would work out…and it did!

If You Dare will premiere at the Minnesota Film Festival. What do you hope happens after that?
This is my first feature length film , so I am in the process of learning a ton about the life of a film after it is finished – and the distribution world is in huge flux at the moment.

First, I am hoping it will continue on the festival circuit, both nationally and internationally. Second, I recently obtained a european distributor – they are essentially acting as an agent, and the hope is for international television broadcast, as well as video-on-demand, digital downloads markets.  I also am very much hoping to see the film distributed in North America in the educational arena, particularly in the context of the intersection of art and community building, and am excited at the prospect of non-theatrical screenings (i.e. community theaters, schools, libraries, museum).  A DVD with extra features will be available within the next month. (it will be offered through If You Dare’s website and at screenings.)

Your current project, Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile, is about the juxtaposition of holding a beauty pageant in a community that doesn’t necessarily embrace this kind of thing. How did you learn about this happening and how are you working on it?
I learned about the existence of the Miss Tibet pageant from a playwright who was volunteering with the Chicago Avenue Project while shooting If You Dare.  She was writing a play about the pageant, and the idea of it as a documentary film subject immediately captured my imagination. I began work on that project while I was still in production on If You Dare. I traveled to Dharamsala, India (where Tibet’s government-in-exile resides) for the 1st time in 2006.  Currently, I am in the post-production phase – otherwise known as assembling a rough cut. I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of 2010. (for more about Norah’s projects see her Flying Pieces Productions website.)

Is it fair to say that your devotion to “justice for all” shapes the documentary work you do now and hope to do in the future?
Yes and no. I am drawn to subjects involving the pursuit of justice, but I also see myself pursuing subjects because they intrigue and move me in some way. By virtue of being really unusual, or a twist on something that reflects the ordinary, I see the value in art and culture for its own sake, and this might not always directly translate into stories about the pursuit of justice.

How has being a filmmaker impacted the way you mother your 3 kids?
If you ask THEM, and I’d agree, they’d say I travel a lot. But I’m also around a lot too because my office is in my house and I’m able, for the most part, to set my own schedule.

Proust Questionnaire for Norah Shapiro:

My favorite snack is:  Red licorice

Don’t ask me to:  Help my kids with their math homework

I would put into a time capsule my:  iPhoto  external drive

My favorite place is:  Tie between my bed, Martha’s Vineyard, and Manhattan

When I have a creative block I:  Either push through it, or get myself in contact with some of my amazingly creative friends & colleagues– always eventually does the trick.

My favorite mantra is:  I don’t have a  single one, though I am constantly talking to myself!

  • 2 responses to "Norah Shapiro"

  • Lenore
    5th March 2010 at 12:06

    It’s true – they don’t have much info there but it’s great that you’re interested. I’m sure they’ll have more info closer to the time of the fest (so in the next few weeks), so maybe keep checking their site. I’ll also do a blog post (in the blog section of this website) when Norah is given a screening date and knows that tix are on sale (as well, I’ll likely post it on mom culture’s facebook page.) Hope that helps for now!

  • Sarah
    5th March 2010 at 9:49

    The MN International Film Festival website is…terrible. I can’t find when the film is planned for. I’d like to tell my friends about it and post it on my facebook page. Any suggestions?