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    Being BeBe: The BeBe Zahara Benet Documentary Is a Pandemic-Era ‘Movie Miracle’ Close to My Heart

    By Marc Smolowitz–

    Two years ago, all of our lives changed when the pandemic started, and each of us has our unique version of what life became during the first shelter-in-place. My version was about how to be a viable working independent filmmaker during a pandemic. At the time, I had some ten films at various stages of the filmmaking journey that were impacted by festival cancellations and production being stopped. As spring of 2020 unfolded, the Hollywood industry had figured out Covid protocols that could help keep larger films and TV series humming along, but we on the decidedly indie side of the business couldn’t afford the 20%+ increase in budgets and insurance that the pandemic required. Our only safe options were to pivot entirely into editing, post-production, and limited remote-style shoots with skeleton crews in masks.

    Fortunately, my San Francisco-based film company was already accustomed to the demands of remote work, and we had a strong slate of projects in post-production. In a matter of weeks, the pivot became both real and exciting as my various teams around the world figured out how to keep our films moving forward despite Covid. It was hard and uncomfortable at times. But, as I reflect on the last two years, I can hardly believe that my boutique company was significantly involved in the completion and release of seven independent movies. Looking back, it has oddly been one of the most prolific periods of my 30-year career. Some days, it felt miraculous to be doing my job in the ways I was doing it, and I woke up every day feeling so very grateful.

    One of those seven movie miracles— Being BeBe: The BeBe Zahara Benet Documentary—is especially close to my heart, and we’re about to have the film’s long-awaited San Francisco premiere at the Roxie Theater on Thursday, March 31. Directed by New York City-based filmmaker Emily Branham, Being BeBe tells the remarkable story of BeBe Zahara Benet, the renowned Cameroonian-American drag performer and recording artist who became the first winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race in 2009.

    In January 2020, we were already feeling the pressure to get Being BeBe done and out into the world. Emily had been filming with BeBe since 2006, and 2020 was poised to be a very big year for BeBe with new music being released and a tour on the horizon. When Covid hit, we had to stop and take stock of the story we were trying to tell. Unexpectedly, the gifts that emerged from being forced to slow down resulted in extraordinary changes, both in BeBe’s life and in how we decided to share BeBe’s unique journey with the world.

    Notably, BeBe is based in Minneapolis, and BeBe came up the ranks doing drag in the local clubs until RuPaul hand-picked BeBe for the first season of Drag Race. In 2020, BeBe was back in the Twin Cities experiencing an uneasy Covid standstill like everyone, so it was naturally a time of great reflection for BeBe. When the murder of George Floyd happened and the protests and racial reckoning of 2020 followed soon after, we realized together that our film, which was about the journey of an immigrant, queer and BIPOC artist, needed to embrace this urgent moment in our country.

    By August 2020, we figured out how to safely film one final set of interviews with BeBe remotely, with Emily directing from her desk in New York, me producing from my desk in San Francisco, using a local 2-person crew in Minneapolis, and a combination of Zoom, Google Meet, and FaceTime all in real-time. Without giving too much away, this afforded us an unmatched opportunity to invite BeBe to reflect on 15 years of the making of the film and the film’s larger themes of Queer and Black excellence, set against the difficult backdrop of George Floyd in BeBe’s home city, and including some surprise interactions filmed over Zoom to help us complete BeBe’s inspiring story.

    Much to our delight, all of these creative elements worked beautifully and became the new scaffolding for our entire film. Ironically, none of this would have been possible without the pandemic. Covid pushed us to figure out how to complete our film in ways we could’ve never imagined in late 2019. The result, I am proud to say, is a film that has been surprising and delighting audiences everywhere. In June of 2021, we world premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, one of the leading festivals on the planet, and have gone on to screen at 30 film festivals on four continents. I cannot tell you how excited I am to finally share this beautifully touching and joyous film with my local communities here in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    In a business whereby coming together physically in dark rooms has always been our most coveted way of experiencing the work, let me formally invite you to come down and see Being BeBe on March 31 at the Roxie. Both BeBe and Emily will be here with us in person to celebrate, and we’re hosting a special pre-reception Meet and Greet before the film’s main screening, co-presented by Frameline, BraveMaker, and Rainbow Railroad, a leading organization that works to advance international LGBTQ+ safety and civil rights.

    Get your tickets at https://tinyurl.com/zbwaay4m

    Then, for those who want to experience BeBe’s music live, we are partnering with D’Arcy Drollinger and OASIS to present BeBe live-in-concert with a 6-person band on April 1. Tickets are available at https://www.sfoasis.com/events

    These two events are poised to be memorable nights for San Francisco. Don’t miss them!

    Marc Smolowitz is one of the proud producers of “Being BeBe.” He is a multi-award-winning director, producer, and executive producer who has been significantly involved in 50+ successful independent films over the last 30 years. His San Francisco-based film company, 13th Gen, is widely considered one of the world’s leading independent film companies focused on LGBTQ+ films and filmmakers. Learn more at http://13thgenfilm.com

    Published on March 24, 2022