Atlanta Film Festival 2023 Interview: Shelby Adams, Steven Hoffner and Andrew Barnsley Talk Radio Bingo (Exclusive)

Radio Bingo – Official Trailer from 383 Pictures on Vimeo.

Embracing a communal hobby that appeals to familial generations, friends and neighbors is a powerful way for people in all cultures to bond together. That leisurely connection is highlighted in the new documentary short, ‘Radio Bingo,’ which highlights how the titular game is synonymous with Indigenous culture. The film’s plot explores how the competition offers families and communities a chance to connect and mingle, with the hopes of winning the big prize.

For the residents of Akwesasne Mohawk Nation who live on the border where Ontario and Quebec meet New York state, bingo is played in the comfort of their own homes. The participants hear the numbers called over the radio not just in English but also in Mohawk. The residents not only have fun within their community, but also re-learn a language that was once stolen from them.

‘Radio Bingo’ follows community members who lost their language at the hands of government sponsored, church-run residential and Indian Day schools. The story showcases how families who are desperately trying to re-learn the language so they can pass it on to the next generation before it’s too late and the language is lost forever. The movie features a story about hope, the power of community members and the pursuit to regain a language while also having fun.

The eight-minute short was written and directed by Mohawk filmmaker Shelby Adams, who also served as a cinematographer on the project with her daughter, Jaiden Mitchell. The project originated as a student film that the helmer created while she was attending the Toronto Film School On-Line, where she graduated as the valedictorian of her class. The documentary was named Best Short Film at the school last year.

While completing the program at the school, Mitchell-Adams built a close working relationship with her instructor, Steven Hoffner. The two worked together to help further produce ‘Radio Bingo’ after she graduated.

The short was executive produced by the Emmy and Golden Globe award winning producer of ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ Andrew Barnsley. Adams  and Hoffner are now in development with Barnsley’s company, Project 10, to turn the movie into a scripted television series.

‘Radio Bingo’ will have its World Premiere at the Academy Award recognized Atlanta Film Festival this Thursday, April 27. The documentary’s in-person screening will be held at The Plaza Theatre, and will begin at 6:30pm ET. It will be screen before the 95-minute feature, ‘We Will Speak.’ Following its in-person premiere, ‘Radio Bingo’ will stream virtually until Saturday, May 6. For tickets to the short’s in-person screening or to stream it virtually, visit the festival’s website.

In honor of the ‘Radio Bingo’s World Premiere, Adams, Hoffner and Barnsley generously took the time to talk about scribing, directing, producing, editing and serving as the cinematographer on the movie during exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed that Adams was inspired to make the short because she has fond memories of growing up playing the titular game on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve. The filmmakers also shared that they’re excited to premiere the project at the Atlanta Film Festival, and share the titular game with an international audience.

Film Factual (FF): Together, you produced the new short film, ‘Radio Bingo.’ What inspired you all to make the movie?

Shelby Adams (SA): When I first had the mindset to make ‘Radio Bingo,’ I was inspired by my childhood because I grew up with radio bingo…I live on the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve, and have always loved the radio station there. I’ve always thought, man, they’re a bunch of characters over there.

I always thought that radio bingo should have been a television series. But I started thinking, I’ll do a documentary first, but I never had the opportunity to make it before now because I was working on all kinds of different projects.

Then when COVID hit, I said, “Okay, I’m going back to school.” When I was there, I took a documentary class, and thought, this is my chance to make ‘Radio Bingo’ as a documentary. That’s where the project started.

FF: Steven, you worked with Shelby to shape the story that’s featured in the documentary. What was your experience working together on that aspect of the film’s production?

Steven Hoffner (SH): Shelby developed the piece in my documentary class at the Toronto Film School, which Andrew is the president of. I was so enthralled by this script because it was interesting and was something that I had never seen before. I think these types of stories are more important than ever to be heard and seen.

Once Shelby gave me her documentary treatment, we had a back-and-forth conversation. Upon that, she started to execute the script.

With documentaries, it’s a different approach to creating the script than a narrative film. But nonetheless, it came together beautifully. With Shelby being a student film at the time, her film was certainly elevated above the other projects I had seen. That’s why we wanted to honor it at the festival at our Toronto Film School, and it started going from there.

FF: Shelby, besides writing the script, you also made your directorial debut on ‘Radio Bingo.’ How did you approach helming the short as a first-time filmmaker?

SA: It was pretty hard, I have to say, because we made the film during COVID. So all of the COVID protocols were in place, which was a pretty big hurdle we had to jump over. I had to go into people’s homes and I had to test. We also had to mask up…and a lot of the people I interviewed were in masks, so I eventually had to redo a lot of the interview.

Even with our precautions, I ended up coming down with COVID. So I had to put the project on hold for about two weeks until I recovered.

We also got hit with a snowstorm, which also delayed things. I think Radio Bingo also had to shut down on a Tuesday night and wait until the next day to continue. So this movie was killing me! (Adams and Hoffner laugh.)

SH: I actually didn’t know that you had COVID during the production!

FF: Shelby, you also served as one of the movie’s cinematographers, along with your daughter, Jaiden Mitchell. How did you approach shooting the documentary?

SA: That was also difficult, because like I said, we shot the film during COVID. So we had limited use of equipment because I couldn’t rent anything – a lot of places where you can rent equipment were shut down. So I instead had to use whatever was available in house, which worked out.

I worked with just my daughter, and we did pretty much everything. We set everything up and planned everything. We had to do a lot of planning because we knew we couldn’t just go into anywhere and film.

So we had to set up mock interviews in certain places to see how they went. We executed them when we knew we had all of the places set because we knew we were limited in what we could do. So that was pretty tough.

FF: Shelby, you also served as one of ‘Radio Bingo’s editors, along with Steven and your daughter, Jaiden. How did you all approach working together to put the final version of the film together?

SA: I think editing’s my favorite part once I have all of the footage. But it always makes me nervous because I wonder, did I get it all? That’s usually my biggest worry.

But once I realize I have it all, I start worrying about how the audio sounds and if the lighting is right. So I have all of these secondary worries once I get everything in place.

The editing platforms we use are really good. So once I let my guard down, I’m like, I think we got it all, and now I can manipulate the light and color and do all the fun stuff. So then I’m okay at that point.

But usually it’s playing in my head before the filming starts. I already know what I want the project to look and feel like, so it’s just about getting to that point for me.

FF: You all served as producers on the short. How did you approach producing the movie together?

SH: Well, after Shelby graduated, she won the award for Best Canadian Short Film at the Toronto Film School. That’s when I decided to help and step in because I saw the potential to get the short to the next level status. So the two of us coordinated, and we helped produce some elements to help fulfill the film a little bit, in terms of the story.

Upon the screening of Shelby’s film at the festival at the school, Andrew saw it. He had some other ideas to bring it to the next level. So he came on a little later as an executive producer. So I’ll let him speak about the next stage of things.

Andrew Barnsley (AB): Thanks. The film has such a great story, so becoming connected to it and getting to work with Shelby and Steven was amazing.

Besides being the president of the Toronto Film School, I’m also an independent television producer, and the show I’m most known for is ‘Schitt’s Creek.’

I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about the power and importance of television, and how to be responsible with it. I’ve also thought about what it means when you have access to an audience, and how to use that to open up important conversations. As a producer, that’s how I think about television and the projects I take on with my production company.

So I’m in a very privileged position, as every year, I get to see the top films that come out of Toronto Film School. Last year, I was lucky enough to see Shelby’s film.

Right away I thought, there’s something bigger here; there’s a big story to tell, and the story and characters are rich. So if we take the time to put the pieces together, not only can this have a good festival run, but we can also build it out to something bigger, like a television series.

It was at that film festival where Shelby and I had met. Steven and I had known each other for a long time, so I connected with him and said, “I have to meet the woman who made this film.” At that moment, we started talking, and got maybe 30 seconds of her time because everybody wanted to talk to her that night. But I said, “Let’s keep the conversation going, as I think there’s something important here.”

So that night really sparked our collaboration. As a result, I began to see the momentum that Shelby has built…and we’ve created an overall exciting team that has worked on the project. We’re working on building up the film so that it can reach a global audience.

FF: Speaking of bringing ‘Radio Bingo’ on the film festival circuit and having it be seen by viewers around the world, the project will have its World Premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival this Thursday, April 27. What does it mean to you all that the project will be screened at the Atlanta Film Festiva?

SA: It’s been pretty exciting on my end. I actually booked my flights last minute (the night before the interview), and I booked my room (the week before the interview). I don’t know why I was waiting on the flights. My daughter, who’s going with me, as she’s going to take pictures, is also pretty excited to go.

So when I booked the tickets, I said, “I finally booked our tickets!” She was like, “Good, I was getting worried!” She’s already made a list of everything she wants us to do when we arrive in Atlanta, and I was like, “But I have to find Tyler Perry’s studio!” (Adams laughs.)

But we have a whole list of things we want to do. I also want to see some of the other films that are also playing at the festival. So it will be fun!

FF: Once the documentary plays at the Atlanta Film Festival, what are your upcoming plans on how you further want to screen and distribute the project?

SH: We’re looking forward to having a Canadian premiere. So we have several festivals that we’re targeting and hoping will take our Canadian premiere. We’re also looking into a lot of other American festivals.

It’s certainly exciting to build an audience during the festival run. Then the larger ambition is to work with Andrew and his team at his production company, Project 10, to turn the film into a television series, like we mentioned earlier. So that’s a whole bigger thing.

FF: Speaking of turning ‘Radio Bingo’ into a television series, why are you all inspired to make the show? How far along are you all in adapting the short into the series?

AB: The television series is something my company is very excited about. The woman who oversees the development for our company is in touch with this team regularly, and I am, as well.

I’ve never gone from working on a short film that’s an original form of IP and building upon it, so this is new territory for all of us. But what we’re really working on now is making sure that we can get a television pitch in place, so that we can figure out where the character and story engines are, and determine where there’s longevity for a series.

We’re also figuring out what team members to add to make sure we’re supporting Shelby’s vision. We also want to make sure that we’re coming from a place of not only entertainment, but also responsibility and authenticity, which is really important to us.

So we’re in the early stages of that, but we’re also really excited to put the pieces together and take it to market. This festival run that the short is on certainly helps build momentum and interest in the project. So the idea is to hopefully get attention from a buyer over the next six months to a year, and then start developing it formally with them as a half-hour television series.

SA: It’s pretty interesting because like I said, I always look at my community as characters. My community’s pretty unique, so I want to see more of it, and the people who love playing Radio Bingo on screen. I’m a bingo player and play Radio Bingo, so I know what it’s like getting that rush of sitting in your own home and being surrounded by your family.

So we want to incorporate all of that fun stuff into the televisions series, and show that there is a backstory to everything in the short. We want to show that we’re all happy and having a great time playing the game. So I would love to see all of that incorporated into the series.

AB: One thing I can say that we’ve learned as a production company with television series is that if they’re done right, you can live in very specific worlds and sensibilities. But what we’ve been able to find with a lot of our series is that the more specific you get, you touch on themes that are universal.

So when you look into something like ‘Radio Bingo,’ you’re getting into themes about family, community and history. There are some other things you might not think make a show like this accessible, but we believe that you can pull the universal themes out of the story, and that’s the thing we’re going for.

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