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A Sundance sombody

Writer/director/actor Hadjii gets a warm reception at Sundance

by Mary Jessica Hammes (ABJ ’98)
photos by Allyson Mann (MA '92)




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In late January, the cream of the film crop descended on Park City, Utah, for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. A Who’s Who list of movie stars attended to promote their films, and whose photo landed on the Jan. 27 cover of the festival’s Daily Insider publication?

That would be Hadjii Hand (ABJ ’98)—above the fold—welcoming viewers to a screening of his film “Somebodies” with a wry smile on his face. The caption below the photo, and everyone else, calls him simply Hadjii, a childhood nickname bestowed by his father and a name that is fast becoming recognized in independent film.

Hadjii and two of the film’s producers—Pam Kohn and husband Nate, an associate professor of telecommunications at UGA—traveled with their low-budget film to the festival, where it earned glowing reviews from the likes of film critic Roger Ebert.

If the accolades weren’t enough, Hadjii experienced something that for most people lives only in the imagination: people wanted his autograph.

“Strangers approached him breathlessly, saying ‘You’re Hadjii, I saw your film, it’s fantastic, can I have your autograph?’” recalls Pam. “The best part for me was to watch Hadjii. He became, literally, the celebrity of the festival.”

“This would be in terms of a nobody becoming a somebody,” Hadjii quickly interjects. “There were real stars there.” As for the autograph signing? “It was nice,” he concedes, but “it was a little weird. The first time, I was like, how do you even do autographs?”

Hadjii’s winning natural comedic graces were displayed every time he introduced his film or its actors at six “Somebodies” screenings, and people started noticing. Hadjii was one of few directors showcased by the Sundance Channel (he and Roger Ebert were filmed taking a shuttle to a screening). According to an article in Cinematl.com, an online regional film and video magazine, one fan said, “I liked the film—it was funny—but I liked it even more after seeing the director during the Q&A.”

Sundance director Geoffrey Gilmore and head of programming John Cooper loved the film. “They were quoting lines to us,” Nate said. “For two of the screenings, they introduced the film, something they don’t do for every film.”

While celebrities were in abundance, Hadjii didn’t meet any, and doesn’t mind.

“Meeting celebrities is kind of overrated,” he explains. “A celebrity is still a stranger.” But the swag—free stuff including shoes, clothes, champagne and chocolate—was a major priority. “I got everything but a telephone,” he says. “You have to be really big to get the phone.”

The trio laughs as they recount their material spoils, clearly more bemused rather than dazzled by the commercial side of the festival.

“Geoff Gilmore, the director of Sundance, points this out,” says Nate. “There are really two things going on: the film festival and then there’s everything else, the Paris Hiltons and the Justin Timberlakes and the parties and the swag. That’s not an official part of the festival … that has very little to do with the festival.”

Indeed, Sundance is fundamentally about the art of film. And beneath the glitzy corporate gifts and autograph signings is a solid Southern film with roots twisting back to Brunswick, Ga.

Hadjii was in the first class Nate Kohn taught at UGA—writing for electronic media, the same class Hadjii teaches now as an adjunct professor.
“He came after class and said, ‘Read this,’” Nate recalls. “It was an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ he had written, and it was really good. I encouraged him to write not just about Jewish folks in New York, but people he knows.”

Hadjii had tried his hand at writing about his own experiences before. Growing up in a Brunswick trailer park, he was practically an only child; his much older brother was already out of the house. He was also the only African-American kid in the trailer park. “I didn’t really fit in,” he says.

So Hadjii immersed himself in creative pursuits, drawing comic books and reading the short stories that his father had written and left lying around the house. In middle school came the pivotal moment—seeing the Spike Lee film “Do the Right Thing.” He found he could relate to it at once.

“It was the first time I saw a movie about people, a neighborhood, complaining about how hot it was outside,” he says. “I thought, ‘I could deal with this.’”

Viewing John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood” soon after inspired him to try writing his own screenplay, and as a high school student he wrote his first script: “The Weekend,” about some mischievous South Georgia teenaged boys spending a night in Florida—an experience not far removed from his own reality, he notes.

Hadjii would later write and film the mockumentary “The Making of Brick City,” which earned a spot in the Hollywood Black Film Festival and was reviewed in L.A. Weekly magazine. Yet Hadjii says that he feels most comfortable writing for television; indeed, “Somebodies” originally was intended as a script for a television pilot.

He sent the script for the television version of “Somebodies” to various networks, who liked it but didn’t know what to do with it. So he switched tactics and reworked it into a film script.

When Hadjii approached the Kohns to produce the film, they agreed immediately. “He’s just an extraordinarily talented writer and has proven to be a talented director,” Nate says.

“In the script, he showed us a world I’d never seen before, of African Americans from a strong family and church background who are trying to make it in the world today. He’s very strong at writing dialogue that’s realistic, funny and insightful. His scripts work on many levels. On the surface, they’re very funny. Beneath that, there’s a social conscience at work.”

“We’ve been reading scripts for a very long time,” says Pam. “I think we’ve got a pretty good background in spotting good material.”

“Somebodies” revolves around Scottie (played by Hadjii), a college student floating directionless through life, and the varied characters who attempt to guide him—including girlfriend Diva (Atlanta actress Kaira Whitehead, M ’02) and an eccentric collection of roommates, relatives, ministers and even an inmate or two.

Production and post-production lasted a year, and they submitted “Somebodies” to Sundance last fall. More than 3,100 films were submitted to the festival; of the thousand submitted for the dramatic category of the independent feature film competition, only 16 were selected for screening. Hadjii and the Kohns found out “Somebodies” was accepted—an honor Roger Ebert has called “the most important thing that can happen to an independent film”—the day after Thanksgiving.

“It was a big surprise,” recalls Hadjii. “I didn’t believe it, to be perfectly honest…it was too good to be true.”
But for the Kohns, the news was validation of what they already believed—that Hadjii has a unique voice as a storyteller. Though their relationship with Hadjii began as student-teacher, it’s since blossomed into a solid, but playful, collaboration of equals.

Following its success at Sundance, “Somebodies” is opening doors for Hadjii and the Kohns.

At Sundance they received several offers from distributors, but at press time they were still considering options. They did, however, sign with Paradigm Agency, which now represents Hadjii as a writer-director and Pam and Nate as a producing entity.

In February, the three visited L.A. to pitch another feature film and a cable television series version of “Somebodies.” In March, “Somebodies” screened at the first French Festival of Independent American Cinema in Paris—as one of seven invited films. In April, the film went to the Sarasota (Fla.) International Film Festival, where Hadjii won a special jury prize for screenwriting, and also screened at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, of which Nate is director, in Champaign, Ill.

Hadjii, meanwhile, has a book deal with Broadway Books, a division of Random House, for a semi-fictionalized biography with the working title Staged Persona: A Manual Biography. And he’s set to direct another Kohn-produced film also set in Athens and written by another of Kohn’s former students, Allison Firor (M ’99).

With so many opportunities on the horizon, Hadjii plans to stay put.

“I would like to stay here in Georgia, actually,” he says. “Hopefully we can set up things so that we can work here. I’m not in a rush to move to L.A.”

“What we’re really wanting to do with Hadjii is to build a regional film industry based out of Athens,” says Nate. “The technology now allows us to do that, and Georgia is as good a place as any to create an independent motion picture industry.”

In the meantime, Hadjii is simply hoping for a national release of “Somebodies” so that he can finally show his family the movie the way he wants to—on a big screen at an official opening.

“God willing, we’ll have a big premiere in Athens, with the red carpet and all of that stuff,” he says.

For more information, visit www.somebodiesmovie.com.




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PHOTO GALLERY

Allyson Mann

Click on image to enlarge



(from left) Crew members Tom Pritchard and Ousama Rawi with actress Kaira Whitehead and Hadjii on the set of “Somebodies,” filmed in Athens in fall 2004.