Christiana Botic is an American filmmaker.
She’s running a Kickstarter, Vinka Apartment 19, to tell Vinka’s story. In only 2 weeks, her project has raised 90% of its $8000 funding goal. Vinka is Christiana’s grandmother.
When she went to live with her grandmother in Serbia for 6 months, she discovered the strange patterns of her grandmother’s life. The routines and interactions that preserved the identity of this 92-year old woman, living on her own in the center of Belgrade, for 40 odd years.
The Kickstarter video starts with an image of a woman, sitting slightly crooked, but composed, on a half-made bed. There are artifacts hanging on the wall behind her, and a television to her right. “My grandmother leads a very insular life”, says Christiana. I was hooked for the 4 minutes that this video ran.
I invited Christiana to tell me about why she chose to tell her grandmother’s story & how Vinka Apartment 19 raised 90% of its funding goal in the first 2 weeks.
Note: When I interviewed Christiana, the project was 75% funded. On Oct 3, it was fully funded!
Can you think back to the moment when you decided you were going to tell your grandmother’s story?
I knew I wanted to make an observational documentary – something that was not interviews, but just observing the daily life of somebody.
I was sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen one day and she was making Turkish coffee in the microwave, which I don’t think anyone on the planet does. She was leaning down, with her face about 2 inches away from the microwave. Then she stepped away from the microwave and on her way into the hallway, she pressed her whole hand against the stove because she wanted to see if it was still warm from when she was cooking. She walked into the hallway, looked around for something, came back, sat down on the table & started speaking to me in Serbian, even though I didn’t speak Serbian then.
I realized that she’s such a character. She has such a strange, bizarre life and these peculiarities that other people don’t have. I thought- what a great opportunity to create a portrait about someone who otherwise no one would know about, because her life is so insular.
In the 6 months that you lived with her, what was one moment of connection between her and you?
It wasn’t anything really profound but it was important to me. I’d never had a conversation with her. I’d spent time with her, but my father had always been present to translate what she was saying.
A beautiful moment was the first time I was able to express something in Serbian to her & she responded. I think it was something simple – I said I needed to use the shower. And she said, yeah of course, it’s free, take it. And we had a small interaction about things in the apartment which we had been sharing for 6 weeks at that point.
That’s something that is so simple. With my American grandparents it wouldn’t have been something spectacular but with her it was really special.
Your grandmother is a strong, independent woman. But you told me about a moment that was particularly heartbreaking for you to watch. Can you talk about that?
She makes a lot of phone calls, probably about twenty phone calls a day to her friends in Serbia and her son, my dad, who’s in America. She doesn’t have an address book, just slips of paper with people’s number on it.
She made a call one day and hung up immediately after the person picked up. The person called back & they were speaking in English, so she handed the phone to me. They said this number has been calling us – we don’t know who it is, this person just hangs up. I was trying to figure out how this mistake could’ve been made, when I realized it was the number of the house my family had moved out of, ten years ago. For the last ten years, she had potentially been calling these other people, not realizing her mistake.
I see her as a really strong woman. For being 92 years old, she’s mentally and physically capable of a lot. But this was one of those moments when I thought, she’s actually quite fragile. She’s a vulnerable person. She’s vulnerable to age; she’s not able to escape it, like all of us.
Tell me about the time when you decided to run a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film.
I had already begun making the film and the cost of things had started to rack up. I realized it was going to take more money than what I had saved. I looked into grants but it was difficult to find a grant that was a good fit for my project.
Then I started to think about projects I had contributed to on Kickstarter and Indiegogo & how grateful the people who were making the projects had been towards me. And just being able to see people rally around their projects, and make money for their project and support them, I thought – what a great opportunity to expose people to my film & create a community around it.
It’s been 2 weeks since you launched and “Vinka Apt 19” is already 75% funded, did that catch you by surprise?
It did! I thought I would be lucky if it was half way funded by the final week.
I’d seen other projects that did most of their fund-raising in the last week, because that’s when people really start to support it. Kickstarter is an all or nothing platform – if you don’t make your goal, you don’t get any of the money.
I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from people, both financial and words of encouragement. It was amazing to see all the young people who are struggling to make ends meet, and don’t have a ton of extra money, be very generous with their money and support me.
What was the first step, the first thing that you did to get all of this support?
I basically made a mass email list of all of the people from different communities I’d been a part of.
All of my friends and family, people from my university, people I’d met when I was working at a film festival in Chicago, people who I’d worked with on projects, people I’ve met through travels. I made a list of people who inspired me & who I thought would be interested in the project.
I sent out an email the first day that I launched the Kickstarter, saying – I really value your support and I really hope that you’ll pass it on. And I just trusted in the faith that these people would pass it on. I think it means more when you send it to a few people who are your good friends. They’re going to be more likely to contribute, than if you post it to Twitter or Facebook. Probably the most support I’ve gotten is through the grapevine – me sending it to people who sent it to their circle.
Also, I was lucky to have it posted to the American Embassy in Serbia’s Facebook page & it got featured by this Serbian news source too.
Did you see a spike in your contributions that corresponded to the US Embassy in Serbia posting it to their Facebook page & the Serbian news source picking it up?
I did. I noticed there were people with Serbian names who I didn’t know, contributing to my Kickstarter. Then I got emails from Serbian friends saying you’re in this newspaper. My friend who works at the US Embassy said we’re featuring your film on our Facebook page. I think it was important because a lot of people in Serbia got to know about it. More so than the donations, I got a lot of people saying that the project was really inspiring. So that was amazing.
Clearly, your campaign struck a chord with a lot of people. What were 3 things that you focused on when creating the campaign?
I wanted it to be sincere. I spent some time thinking about what I was going to say. Then I set up the camera in my grandmother’s apartment and spoke from the heart.
Second, I knew I wanted to incorporate images of my grandmother because that’s the heart of the project. If people didn’t see who this was about – her life, bits of her apartment, her interactions with people – they weren’t going to understand the story. So it was important for me to film quite a bit before I did the Kickstarter, to have different moments to choose from.
And the third thing was – having her say something to camera. She’s hilarious and sweet & I knew that if I had her talking to people, it would go a lot further than if I asked for donations. When a 24-year old filmmaker asks you to give her $8000 you might be a little weary of that, but when a sweet old lady asks you to support her granddaughter’s project, I think people can rally behind that a lot more!
Did you rally support from people outside of your circle of influence or was that basically your marketing strategy?
That was my whole strategy. I think I’ve been lucky to be part of creative communities that value film and independent projects.
What creative communities did you reach out to?
I reached out to filmmakers in Chicago & New York who I had worked with, people in the film program at the University of Michigan & people I’d done internships with. I’d done an internship with an organization called Students of the World, which partners young media makers with nonprofits. I’d met students from different universities, from all over the country during this program.
With 16 days to go, your campaign is most likely to be successful. What happens on October 3rd, the first day after the campaign ends?
The most important thing for me is getting music made for the film. One of the things that I learned while living in Serbia is that people, even young people, are very connected to folk music. They have very interesting brass music. They also use a lot accordion and guitar. I want to find someone who is willing to contribute music to the film & record it with Serbian artists. I want it to be something that comes from Serbia and is true to my grandmother’s history & personality.
I love the music that runs in the background of your campaign video too, who is that by?
It’s by a girl named Kerry Alexander. She’s from Birmingham, Alabama & recorded that song when she was in Minnesota where she went to school. I’ve listened to her for years so when I was putting together the Kickstarter I asked her if I could use her music. She’s a really amazing singer- songwriter.
P. S. If Christiana’s story or Vinka’s presence in the video, struck a chord with you, help Vinka Apartment 19 get to a 100%. Rewards include a personal thank you video from the star, Vinka!