This past summer, my theater director-producer friend Jeremy Aluma, invited me to The Adams Hill Arts Festival, a neighborhood festival that he was producing in Glendale. If you know anything about LA you know that driving (AKA traffic) defines everything, and Glendale might as well have been Philadelphia given that I live in the far, far away land of Inglewood. As much as I value off road time, I decided to make the trip nonetheless. I was impressed that even as COVID had kept so much theater at bay, my friend was still managing to put his producorial skills to good use.

I was happily even more impressed to find the local artists showing their wares, to hear a neighborhood band performing and to see the many kids playing in the festival park when I arrived. I wandered around, past the homemade kombucha stand and greeting card artist until I came to a make shift pottery booth.  A beautifully handmade cup, with warm sandy colors and without a handle stood out to me. I turned it upside down looking for a price but instead found a name; “Laura Falk.”

“Are you Laura?” I asked the woman standing behind the pottery.

“I am,” she answered.  When I asked her the price I could only blink in disbelief. “What? For a mug?” I thought. I didn’t know anything about Laura Falk and even less about pottery, but I did know something about bargaining.

I learned the skill years ago when living and traveling in Nigeria and Israel, where bargaining threads its way through the purchase and sale of all things. It didn’t take long for folks to figure out that I was a foreigner and as I was determined to be considered a valued customer (and not to get cheated) I got good at negotiating fast. And I took it seriously. Once while haggling with a market woman through an open bus window, the person sitting next to me told me that she had never seen anyone push so hard for a few bananas. Admittedly, I didn’t always get it right. There was the time I argued a little too intensely with a senior in my neighborhood over the price of a used Spike Lee book that I had insisted was too high. Or with the traditional dressmaker in Mexico City who likely needed the few extra dollars a lot more than I needed to save them. But over the years bargaining has become so second nature that it has been a tough habit to shake.

When I suggested to Laura a much lower price than she was offering, she said that she hadn’t come to the neighborhood festival with an intention to negotiate. I explained that I hadn’t come looking for a mug to buy. She pointed to the native California flower that she had hand drawn on the front of the cup and I dug in my heels, clinging to the amount I proposed. Eventually she conceded. Driving home I couldn’t believe I had spent so much on a cup but I was glad to have supported an artist and indirectly my friend.

In the days that followed, my perceptions of that piece of art began to shift. With each time I took it out of the cabinet I was reminded of Jeremy and what he did for his neighborhood by producing that first time arts festival. I tend to drink hot liquids slowly, and as it is technically a cup (not a mug) I can enjoy sipping the smaller amount of coffee and tea it holds before it gets cold. Since there isn’t a handle, I can easily wrap my hands around it, and it fits and warms my hands as if it was made just for me. I have found the practicality and charm of its use a comfort and a dependable de-stressor, particularly when wrestling with a writing deadline or when I’m feeling restless and in search for something warm and simple to get grounded. This little cup has now become my favorite cup in the cabinet (other than perhaps the one with my nephews faces on it) which throws a whole new light on the assessment of its value.

As “America’s Family” is now in the process of seeking distribution, I think about the notion of value all of the time. Like every aspect of making this film, the distribution process is taking much longer than I had anticipated, going through the festival circuit, shopping it out to different distributors, working with a sales agent. I think about what the film is “worth” as I sort through the offers (and the passes) and I wonder who gets the right to determine value and exactly what yard stick is being used to take the measurement. I try to speculate the distance between an audience member who laughs or cries in recognition or gratitude as they resonate with the film, and what the final price tag will be for whomever will ultimately buy it.

The Godmother of documentary filmmaking Julia Reichert used to say that “a filmmaker must identify the beating heart of their film.” It wasn’t that long ago, that I was deep in fundraising for the making of the movie, fighting hard for a collaboration of community members, activists, and professional artists, so that we could get to tell the story we wanted to tell and so that this movie could be seen by the right person at the right time. As I try to reconnect with the beating heart of “America’s Family,” I remember that just as it was community that was at the core of the making of this film, and just as it was the community that filled the seats in our runaway sold out premiere, it will also be the community that makes sure that it’s seen by the public at large. On this I can depend and trust, wherever the movie lands.

I also remember that the real value of “America’s Family,” as with most works of art, can only truly be determined after it makes its way through the test of time. After all, we can only see it for what the movie is now, not for what it may someday be. There will be those who will come to enjoy the movie and still others who may come to need it.

You can find a cup similar to mine and other ceramics made by Laura Falk at https://www.falkceramics.com/. They’re worth every penny.

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