The Ru Story: Film Festival Fantasy
“Let’s just complete a film.” Steve’s words, spoken five months earlier, rang in my brain like a two-ton church bell calling in a Sunday morning church service. I wondered if Ru: Water is Life was going to be completed. Would Steve, who took a risk on us, be disappointed once again? It was mid-January 2012. We completed filming Ru a year earlier. And here I was, on the phone with Joel, hearing the words, “I am not going to be able to edit anymore on the film.” Joel’s life had spiraled into insane busyness since we returned from Africa. He had started a new job and just become the father of his first baby, all while renovating his house. Joel had no more bandwidth to complete the editing of Ru. The 40% we completed looked beautiful, but now we were without an editor. It felt like Ru was sinking fast. How could a year have gone by with so little progress? When things felt most desperate and I was ready to throw in the towel, Mike Gwartny put his producing skills to work. Over the next four months, he secured two more editors. I had to work closely with them but Ru moved forward. Movie posters and promotional materials were created. Movie trailers had to be cut. A superb colorist restored footage we thought unusable, and an original soundtrack was produced by Aaron Robertson to complement the music we recorded on location. By the time we worked on the final sound editing I knew Ru was something special; a project worth all the sacrifice. We had created a $100,000 film for under $20K. Ru was going to tell the story well. Our film was completed April 18, 2013. Then it was time for film festival submissions. Today, independent filmmakers submit their films to festivals through the Without a Box website. Our team carefully mapped out where we needed to submit. Each submission cost $20 to $125 dollars so we had to be careful. We also considered locations across the nation for potential WiB promotion, social justice-minded festivals, and places where we might speak at schools and to other organizations that wanted to hear what Water is Basic was accomplishing. Here’s the truth: only 3 – 5% of films submitted get into festivals. Our chances for selection were slim, but every festival we secured meant more press and the potential for more wells for the eight million people in desperate need in South Sudan. We knew we had to try. Our goal was three festivals over the next year.
So when we were rejected by the first four submissions, I was not surprised. But the haunting thought, “Maybe Ru is not nearly as good as we thought” nagged at me. Ru premiered on July 15, appropriately enough, at Irving Bible Church, the birthplace of Water is Basic and a huge financial supporter of the film. The month was also incredibly significant. July was the one year celebration of South Sudan’s independence. (She is still the youngest country in the world) This was also the month Water is Basic became an independent non-profit organization. And the week of the premiere we were invited to our first festival, The Global Peace Film Festival in Orlando, Florida. We were busting with excitement. I can’t explain the thrill of seeing your film on the big screen for the first time. I was that little boy again, taking in the magic of the big screen, and I felt as if I might float for hours. As the film came to a close 475 people stood to their feet and cheered. Some cried while others yelled out in joy. We had done it. Ru: Water is Life shared the story of a billion people. I knew, at that moment, we had captured lightening.
Out of our 35 submissions, we were invited to 14 festivals. Over the next year, Steve and I traveled to social justice festivals (Global Peace in Orlando, Chicago International Social Change in Chicago, UNSPOKEN in Utica New York and the Justice Festival in Philadelphia) and Academy-qualifying festivals (New Hampshire Film Festival and the American Documentary which is the 2nd largest doc-fest in the U.S.). We were thrilled to win Best Documentary in Houston’s Bayou City Inspirational Festival and win Runner-Up Best Documentary for the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival.
Most festivals were great. A few were poorly executed but every time we went to a festival we were inevitably invited into local high schools, colleges, churches, middle schools and community centers. This was a benefit we were inspired to pursue by independent filmmaker, Ian Thomas Ash, at our first festival. Ian took us under his wing and gave us a crash course in film festivals. We remain thankful for his selfless generosity. By far, our greatest joy came in watching teens connect with the film. They were enraptured by Jina, a girl their own age. When we started sharing statistics about the need for clean water around the world they grew silent. The one that always stunned them was the fact that the whole South Sudan water issue could be solved for $70 million. In 2012, we spent $373 million on Halloween costumes in the U.S.—for our pets. It did not take long for money to start flowing in to support well projects across South Sudan. Thousands of people were watching, and responding to, Ru. And they were acknowledging that we can, within our lifetime, answer this desperate need of global thirst. They were realizing that water is basic and water is life.