Kristian Hill is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who hails from Detroit and is on his way to the Cannes Film Festival to screen his latest documentary, Electric Roots: The Detroit Sound Project.
Just how he got from Detroit to Cannes is a story unto itself, but suffice it to say, he put in the time and the work.
Hill, 44, directed, wrote and executive produced the film along with his partner, Executive Producer Jennifer Washington and Director of Photography Moses Mitchell.
The film, which is now gaining interest on the world stage, is about the power of music and how it continues to build a bridge between the people of Detroit and South Africa.
Hill shot the film in a way that puts to audience right into the action, creating a non-stop party atmosphere that is palpable. The audience is immersed into Africa’s Capetown Electronic Music Festival where they can bear witness to the genius of some of the world’s biggest DJs and producers, like Black Coffee and Richie Hawtin.
The film features DJs Black Coffee, Richie Hawtin, Esa Williams, Niskerone, Digital Rockit, Killer Robot with special appearances by Juan Atkins and Model 500.
Hill grew up with Atkins, who is recognized as one of the innovators of Detroit techno.
Electric Roots has caught fire since it began playing the film festival circuit and since receiving an NAACP Image Award nod.
Currently the film is 25 minutes in length, but Hill, who has 18 years of film-making/editing experience under his belt, has plans to expand the documentary into a feature length with a more defined focus: the impact of Detroit Techno on electronic music worldwide.
Since 2000, Detroit has held the annual Detroit Electronic Music Festival, attracting more than 100,000 people to the city each year. Cape Town has the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival, which serves as the film’s backdrop.
When you talk to Hill, the passion in his voice says it all. This is a project that’s been in the back of his mind for many years. He said he has always thought “outside of the box and outside of the neighborhood”. He’s always wanted to “explore not to reinvent.”
Hill, who is married to Sheri Deruise Hill, has had a long, zealous love affair with music. He remembers fondly an encounter he had with music when he was in the eighth grade. His older brother, Reuben, who was a record collector, surprised Hill by bringing a couple of his friends to DJ at his eighth grade graduation party.
Right then, Hill was bitten by the bug. It was then that he was exposed to the art of mixing records. There was no turning back. He was smitten.
“Music took over my life from then on,” said Hill, who has a Master of Science in Urban Policy “I was hooked.”
This isn’t Hill’s first time at the rodeo. He received an NAACP Image Awards nomination for Postcards: Mandela, a special feature that aired on the Africa Channel. In 2010 came the critically acclaimed documentary and television mini-series, Icons AmongUs: Jazz In The Present Tense. The doc was cited by the American Film Institute as an example of film-making excellence.
Hill’s credits also include his Emmy nominated editorial projects which have been featured on ESPN, The NFL Network, HBO, BET and SITV, just to name a few. Some of his most notable clients include Warner Bros. Records, Overbrook Entertainment (Will, Jaden and Willow Smith in partnership with Justin Bieber), Simmons-Lathan Media Group and NBC-TV Networks.
Last February, after Electric Roots screened at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, the film was accepted into the Short Film Corner at Cannes 2014.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival, the most prestigious international festival for cinema, takes place May 14-20 on the French Riviera.
I caught up with Hill before he left for Cannes to talk about his career and Electric Roots, which is poised to catapult him into the international limelight.
DD: Tell me how “Electric Roots: the Detroit Sound Project” came about.
KH: Three years ago we started. It was during the time I was home in Detroit taking care of mother, who eventually passed. I got antsy about doing a story on something positive about the city. When I go to Detroit I have an amazing time. I have a point of view unlike some people. Jennifer Washington was at a party and we talked about doing a project on Detroit. We stayed in Detroit. While there I filmed a lot of stuff. I would film hip-hop artists, strip clubs and girl fights. It was a short I did on Allan Ester, a DJ in Detroit that made us realize this was something we needed to do.
DD: Why did you need to talk to him?
KH: We needed to explore the Detroit sound. We interviewed Al and went into his world. That was three years ago.
DD: So, where have you been to spread the word about the sound?
KH: We’ve been to Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Russia, South Africa, all in the name of Detroit techno and house music. The exploration of the sound has taken us all over the world. Electric Roots is the Africa chamber of our trip. Reflecting the African chamber of the trip was an idea that Jennifer (Washington) came up with.
DD: Lets talk about Richie Hawtin because you feature him in the film.
KH: He’s a young man from England. He fell in love with music that in its infancy wasn’t even called techno. He would travel across the border from Windsor (Canada) to Detroit. Now he’s one of the leading techno artist in the world. We went to South Africa to film him. He was representing Detroit at a festival. To film Richie while he’s repping Detroit and spreading the word – was something we wanted to document.
DD: When did you go to South Africa?
KH: Went to South Africa on Feb. 11, 2013. That trip was a 27-day trip. We also went and followed Black Coffee, a leading South African personality. We followed him in Johannesburg and in Soweto. We also featured Esa Williams and Niskerone. They are the central figures in the first part of Electric Roots.
DD: While in South Africa, did you get a chance to talk to people about Nelson Mandela?
KH: It was hard not to turn cameras on to the legacy of Nelson Mandela. That’s where Postcards: Mandela aired last year on the Travel Channel. That’s where that whole thing came from. We took our stories while over there and told a few different stories on our impression of what Africa is today. Our trip morphed into a quest to document modern Africa in a way that related to people like me in the states. We have a misconception that Africans are behind in the times. Their lifestyle can’t be as opulent as ours. We went to document Richie, the music scene and a wider range of modern Africa.
DD: What are your thoughts on Detroit being the birthplace of the Motown Sound as well as Techno House Music?
KH: Because of our work on the Detroit Sound Project, I am now getting the opportunity to tell Detroit’s story on a bigger stage. Man, what Berry Gordy did was phenomenal. Detroit is the home of Motown, but it’s also the home to the most electronic music in the world. Detroiters have talent. Berry Gordy took his music and created his own life from it. Detroiters have taken portions of Motown and Berry Gordy’s business plan and applied it to themselves. It’s great to know that Detroit techno music today has allowed people to create their own economic engines.
Motown left, but Detroit didn’t die. Detroit never stopped being a musical Mecca – even though Motown left.
DD: Aren’t you working on a Motown project?
KH: In regards to Motown, I’m doing the Motown 25 commemorative DVD. Because of the work we did on Electric Roots and Postcards, I was invited to work with the production company doing the DVD for Time Life. The DVD will be reissued. You will have more value added material related to that show and the history of Motown.
DD: Your work is now garnering you more work.
KH: I’m now being invited into Hollywood productions about Detroit musical history. Not only Motown but the legacy of Detroit. Detroit is one of our nation’s musical arteries and lifelines. To be able to be a curator of that history and legacy is an honor. It comes from hard work. Jennifer and I started three and a half years ago chasing DJs all over the world.
DD: Projects like yours cost money. How was it funded?
KH: Well, one way we did it was to fundraise on Facebook. We got $4,000 on Facebook in 10 days to go to Japan to film Derek May. He did a concert for 20,000 people.
DD: Why is this an important story for you to tell?
KH: It shows that music is the bridge to cultures around the world. It’s also the tool that we can use to disenfranchise or to realize a dream. You see that in the film. You see how Black Coffee is able to impact other people’s lives.
DD: Talk about Esa Williams.
KH: Esa Williams grew up in a colored Africa. After his father’s murder, he turned to his father’s passion to become who he is today. Stories like that is what we’re telling on the road. There are inspirational stories to be told. It’s good to connect him to a Richie Hawtin. They overcame some things – that’s what we want to show. They turned their lives into what they envisioned.
DD: Tell me what Techno house music does to and/or for you?
KH: I’m a huge fan of House Music to a degree as a teen I was a DJ. Steve Dunbar and Al Ester dj’d my 8th grade party. They opened me up to music beyond what I heard on a regular night. I would make trips to Chicago to buy records. I would tell my mother I was going to a party and drive to Chicago. I have a friend named Juan Atkins. He’s a childhood friend who was making his own music and sound. It merged with house music. Juan coined this music. He grew up around the block from me. I love Juan and the music he makes.
DD: What were the challenges of putting this project together?
KH: Money is definitely a part of it. Also, trying to attract DJs to work with you. You can’t appear like a YouTuber. Everything I do is not going to be on YouTube. If I film you in 2012 and you don’t see anything in two years people think you stopped working on it. My goal is to see the stories on the screen.
DD: Any other obstacles?
KH: Before we did Postcards, we did an even bigger story on our trip to South Africa. The powers that be at one point didn’t think the music was important at first. You can run into non-believers working on this. Some people don’t know techno came from Detroit. Some people in America don’t know music is still alive beyond rap and pop. That’s enough for us to tell a story about Detroit on the international stage.
DD: What is your hope for your project?
KH: In the beginning I hoped we could make a feature film on Detroit techno and house music. I don’t think it’s changed. I wanted Electric Roots to attract like-minded people to us.
DD: You are going to Cannes. That’s huge.
KH: We’re going to Cannes to show this film to any and everybody so we can raise anywhere from $250,000-$500,000 to finish the feature and make some more trips, which would allow us to make a film to go into theaters. Our goal is to make a feature documentary on the scale of Searching for Sugar Man and A Band Called Death and Woodstock.
DD: So what more do you need for your film?
KH: We just need time to get the heart and emotion of the film. We want to make it a cinematic gem.
DD: What’s the most important part about being a filmmaker?
KH: As a filmmaker every film I’ve done has been something that has taken people somewhere. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I like about film-making.
DD: You’ve been making the film festival circuit. What’s up next?
KH: Right now we’re up for the Seattle International Film Festival and the Urban International FilmFestival. In June we’ll be in Nashville meeting with distributors and television networks. We will be pitching Electric Roots for a broadcast partner to buy into as a series. A feature film is something we‘re hoping to do as well. The feature film will deal specifically with Detroit artists and their lives. Detroit will be much more a forefront. The people you meet will be Detroiters.
DD: Do you have a title for the film?
KH: Yeah, it’s tentatively titled: God Said Give Them Beat Machines.
DD: How would you describe yourself?
KH: I’m a community based filmmaker, but on an international stage and with an international point of view. I love what I do.