June 5, 2017

Alumni Profile: Raquel Korman

The Director of Forever Home Speaks on her BAFTA Shortlisted Film

Raquel Korman '16

Raquel Korman ‘16 is a documentarian and video game designer, who uses her skills as a storyteller and media maker to give voice to those often overlooked in society. In her new documentary Forever Home, Korman follows the story of a family in California who adopt a group of foster children with different backgrounds and challenges.

The documentary was produced in the USC School of Cinematic Arts course CTPR 480 and, after a successful festival run, was shortlisted for a student BAFTA.

We're here to talk about the film Forever Home. What’s the film about? Forever Home is an intimate look at the family of Jaci and Eric Hasemeyer, who adopted ten children out of the foster system. It's a candid portrait of how the family coexists on a daily basis and manages to cope with children who have a range of difficulties including, physical and mental issues, and histories of abuse.

How did you find the family? I originally read an article in the The New Yorker, by Larissa MacFarquhar, about a family who adopted twenty-two kids from foster care, and was blown away by that couple's altruism.

Learning about all the problems surrounding foster care and group homes was disturbing, but seeing how an ordinary family’s commitment and unconditional love can change the lives of so many children really inspired me. I was determined to find a family like that in Southern California to make a documentary. I remember I spent hours and hours looking on Google. Two days before the thesis film application deadline, I came across an Anderson Cooper interview with the Hasemeyers and decided to reach out to them.

I thought there was no way they'd respond, but the day before the 480 pitches they emailed me back. I stayed up all night writing the pitch and luckily it got selected and everything fell into place after that.

You mentioned 480. What is a 480? It’s the capstone undergraduate film class for narrative and documentary films. There’s a very formal application process, and about four to five films are picked for production. You then form crews and develop your project over the course of the semester. It's a big honor to be able to be selected, and to have the support of the School, and the mentorship of such great professors.

What's the pitching process? It was a little bit different for us because we were a documentary, but I can tell you from our experience. I wrote a proposal including, background research, the purpose, proposed narrative, and what the film’s visual style and music would be. Then I got a producer, and together we pitched to the faculty. We actually went over to the family's house ahead of time, and made a two-minute pitch film to present. We talked through our idea with the selection committee, and at the end of the day, we got it!

What was production like? It was very challenging. Since it was made for a 480 we didn't have a lot of time to film. We made the film in six shooting days. And so the biggest challenge -- one of the biggest challenges -- was getting the kids comfortable enough to make sure we would get real quality footage in a short period of time. So even before the crew started, the cinematographer and I would go over to the family's house to get them used to the camera.

We didn't even turn it on all the time, but we wanted to get them accustomed to interacting with a camera and having a big film crew present. Another big challenge is that going into it we thought we knew what the story would be. But it was really difficult while filming to piece the narrative together, because there were so many different avenues that the film could take. So it was lots of hours in the editing room, and that’s where the film came together.

We wrote it in the editing room. It was a puzzle. It was a great experience.

Tell me more about the family. It was so nice to spend time with the family, with all the kids--just hanging out and hearing their stories. I felt like this film would be a good opportunity for these kids to have their voices heard and get the chance to share their own perspectives. So often documentaries are about the adult point of view. I tried to focus on two of the boys -- Jonah and Isaac.

Jonah suffers from physical and mental disabilities, including autism. As a way of coping, he’s obsessed with Indiana Jones. He wears a head to toe costume every day, and plays with a whip. He's a little isolated. The other kids leave him out. So, he tries to emulate Indiana Jones, and take himself on his own adventures.

At first I didn't think he would be a main character, but that changed. One day, when the family wasn't home, he started talking to me about his insecurities and we began an on-the-fly interview. I realized that no outsider ever asked him how he was feeling. It was really eye opening for me and that interview is a main part of the final film.

Now a completely different personality in the family is Isaac. He and his younger brother Gabe were adopted together, and they had been heavily abused in the foster system. They bounced from group home to group home and were abused in all of them.

At first, he comes off as really alpha. You see him excluding Jonah. When you get to know him and hear what he has to say -- when you understand his background -- you realize that he and the others are all coming from such difficult places and they're just trying to survive and be kids.

I'd love to hear more about the editing process. It seems like hanging out could lead to headaches in the editing bay. It was important initially to spend a lot of time with the individual family members. With such little filming time, we were on and off set trying to figure out who the main characters were and what the main stories would be. At the same time, the editors were back at school trying to figure out what they thought the story was without having been on set.

It was the editors who initially thought that Jonah would be a strong main character. And as we spent more time at the house filming, we saw there were a lot of issues arising from him. He’s seventeen, going through puberty, and has physical and mental issues.

We knew Jonah was a lead character because he brought about so much conflict. So then we got a better sense of who to follow and the more we narrowed our focus, the more dynamic our footage became. You had quite the festival run.

Can you tell me about that? Our festival experience has been really great. It's wonderful to see the family’s story reaching such a wide audience. It was just the USC community at first, but it's bigger than that now.

After the screenings, people who have gone through their own hard upbringings come up to me and tell me how they relate to the film in a special way. Interactions like that remind me how important it is to keep sharing these stories and giving children, who need one, a voice. It's really motivated me to keep submitting to festivals.

My team did most of the distribution and they've been amazing--coordinating social media, creating a website, and making sure the word gets out. We recently got into an international film festival in New Zealand, and it's incredible to think that people on the other side of the world now have a relationship to the story.

And you're shortlisted for a BAFTA, right? That was exciting! It was nominated through USC's First Look Film Festival. I didn't submit directly so it was a really great surprise. It's awesome that USC's connections got this story taken seriously, and it’s amazing to be honored on such a high level.

Who on the faculty helped you with the film? Through the whole process, Tom Miller was there one hundred percent of the way. He’d take so many hours outside his school day to make sure we were on the right track. There was one day when we were close to picture lock and Tom came in on a Saturday at 9 AM and stayed until 11 PM, helping us find cuts of film. His graciousness, compassion and generosity -- not to mention his invaluable experience, made this film the best it could be.