During this year’s Traverse City Film Festival, managing editor Erin Bernhard was lucky enough to sit down with Bryn Mooser, documentary filmmaker and co-founder of RYOT, an international online news source that allows readers to “become the news” by creating the ability to connect, act, and coordinate relief at the click of a button. RYOT recently launched a partnership with the Detroit-based CrowdRise, an online facilitator that allows users to create their own fundraisers and donate to their favorite charities all from one site.
Read all about Mooser’s film, “The Rider and the Storm” (Founders Prize for Special Mention Short Film winner at TCFF9), his passion for RYOT, his love for Detroit, and his excitement for the next chapters of his work below.
The Awesome Mitten: Let’s talk about this being your second Traverse City Film Festival. What’s different? How do you feel about being here again?
Bryn Mooser: I’m thrilled to be here again. It’s my favorite festival in the world and I tell everybody that. I think it’s a really unique festival because it’s about the films. As filmmakers, we get to see a lot of films—I’m seeing a lot of films that I haven’t been able to see at other festivals—it’s just a great chance to meet other filmmakers and reconnect with old friends.
AM: How do you feel about being back in Traverse City?
BM: It’s great to be back! I feel like this little weekend is my summer vacation. I’m enjoying it and hopefully I’ll be able to go for a swim in the lake and get to see a lot of friends that I met last year. It’s nice to have a little summer break.
AM: Yup, we do that pretty well here! Summer in Traverse City is the best. Why did you come back for your second year, besides the fact that you love it and think it’s a great festival? What really drew you to this festival?
BM: Last year I made a film about Haiti and the cholera epidemic and this year I came back with a film that I made called “The Rider and the Storm.” It’s about Hurricane Sandy and the aftermath and it has a lot of the same themes about hope and resilience to sort of carry on after a natural disaster. I wanted to come back and bring it here because I think it’s a great fit; it’s an American story and this is an American film festival and it feels very American. I thought that this story would really resonate with audiences here.
AM: In making “The Rider and the Storm,” did you decide that you wanted to make a film about Superstorm Sandy or did that story find you?
BM: My co-director, David Darg, and I were working in Breezy Point after the storm as relief workers, because that’s what we are first and foremost; we work for non-profits. We went there right after the storm to help organize community volunteers in that area and bring in volunteers to help rebuild for those who had lost their homes. It was the largest fire in New York City history—130 homes were destroyed. As we were coordinating volunteers and helping community members dig out their homes we met Timmy Brennan, who is the star of our film. His story was so compelling that David and I realized that we needed to tell it as a film, which is how we made “The Rider and the Storm.”
AM: I think that it’s a really important story to tell, especially to the rest of the country and to those who may have not been directly connected to the storm. Tell me a little bit more about Timmy.
BM: Timmy Brennan lost his home in Breezy Point. He’s an ironworker; he helped build the new World Trade Center, Freedom Tower. He really embodies the New York spirit, that toughness and that ability to come back after someone knocks you down. The community took a big hit from the storm and he’s an important member of that community. We saw how much hope he had and how much resilience he had and we knew we wanted to capture that in the film. We used to see in Haiti, and in working in Japan after the tsunami, that people have an incredible human spirit that comes through after a disaster, and he had that as well. One of the interesting things that happened in Haiti after the earthquake is that so many people picked themselves up and started to rebuild themselves. We met a lot of American volunteers who said, “We don’t know what we would do if this happened in America. Would we have the same strength?” We saw that same strength in Breezy Point and wanted to capture that.
AM: Can you tell me a little about RYOT and what you’re working on currently?
BM: RYOT News (RYOT.org) is the first news site that brings action with every news story. Every story we post on RYOT also features ways for people to get involved. We’re really excited about it! It comes from our non-profit work, it’s an extension of that. We were seeing that there wasn’t a great breaking news site for young people; we have a lot of places to go to watch cat videos and find gossip, but there wasn’t a place that really talked about what was happening in the world. The biggest reason for that, in talking to Millennials, is that they said that reading the news depressed them. So we thought that if there was a way for you to take action with every story, that news would no longer be depressing. We can empower people and activate people. It’s growing super fast, we’re always looking for writers so I might steal yours, and we’re having a lot of fun. And we don’t just tell earnest news stories, either; we do have cat videos and sports stories and a little bit of gossip too. We’re hoping to really revolutionize the way news works.
AM: What are your plans for the future in connecting RYOT to your documentary work?
BM: RYOT is growing in a lot of different ways; we’re launching RYOT TV in about three or four months, and that’s where our work with documentaries and RYOT itself blends together. I think the greatest people that have been involved in projects around the world are driven by stories; it’s a personal experience. With all of our films, we hope to tell an amazing story, an inspiring story, that hopefully will spark something inside of somebody either to take action or to be a more compassionate person. News has the same way of doing that. It’s just that, traditional news has always been ‘here’s what’s happening in the world’ and that’s it and the story ends. Now we’re saying ‘here’s what’s happening in the world and here’s what you can do about it.’ It’s only in today’s times, with the way technology is, that RYOT is even possible. There’s a great quote by Bonhoeffer that goes, “Silence in the face of evil is evil itself.” We really think that it’s almost unethical that journalists can tell you these terrible, depressing stories about things that are happening when there is a solution, but not offer that solution. We’re really trying to offer that solution to people.
AM: I’ve read a little bit about your potential partnership with CrowdRise, which is a non-profit based in Detroit. What does it mean to you to be connected to Detroit?
BM: We love CrowdRise; they’re totally Detroit and everything about them is Detroit. CrowdRise has really revolutionized fundraising and crowd-funding for non-profits. They picked Detroit because Detroit is an incredibly vibrant city that’s having a great recovery right now. I have so many friends who have moved to Detroit, and a lot of my friends who were in New York, and then they moved to Berlin, and now they’ve moved to Detroit because it offers so many incredible opportunities. It’s a place where you can truly be an artist. You can find space, you can create big art projects, and you can really realize your dreams. I think that’s what’s happening in Detroit. It’s really exciting, and I’m glad that my friends aren’t in Berlin anymore; now I’m traveling from LA to New York and Detroit but I always love coming back to Michigan.
AM: What’s the potential of you making a documentary based in Detroit?
BM: That’s a good question—I don’t know! I always end up making documentaries about places that I’m in. The more time I spend in Detroit, the more I’m sure I’ll be shooting more and more footage there. I’ve seen so many great films that have come out of Detroit—“Detropia,” which was a brilliant documentary, and “Giant Mechanical Man,” a great narrative film that was shot in Detroit. I love seeing it more and more. It’s a great backdrop, a great city. It’s a great character!
AM: What does the Traverse City Film Festival mean to you?
BM: Traverse City Film Festival means a great opportunity to reconnect with great filmmakers, to meet new filmmakers, and to see some of the best films that have been made over the past year. Michael Moore really curates an incredible line-up of films; these are the best films that are happening all over the world. The line-up that you see is better than any line-up at any festival in the entire world. These really are the films. If you spend a day going to films here it’s like film school 101—you’re seeing the best of the best. All the filmmakers are here too, so it’s really a great opportunity to have that talk. You can go to other big film festivals and everything gets lost in industry stuff. Here, it’s really about films, filmmakers, and people who love watching films. The community comes out to support it, too, and that’s really rare and really exciting. As a filmmaker, to show your film at Traverse City Film Festival, it’s just thrilling because people really want to see the films and they want to support filmmakers. They laugh at the right spots and they clap at the right spots and you can watch them cry at the right spots and that’s what you want to see.
AM: What is one great movie that changed you?
BM: Wow, another great question. Well, I’m going to make a plug here, but I think it was “Roger and Me.” That’s why I’m here, essentially. “Roger and Me” changed me; speaking for all documentary filmmakers, I think it changed a lot of us. For me, it was the first time I really said, “Whoa, what is this genre of film? I can tell a real story and I can make it funny and scary and exciting and infuriating?” Yeah, it was “Roger and Me.” That’s why I’m proud to be here and honored to be invited here.
RYOT News and CrowdRise encourages charities to sign up for the #STARTARYOT Challenge; do it before August 19th for a chance to win $200,000!