Unique film workshop comes to CMA, tells refugee's story through Columbus hip-hop

By: Zachary Kolesar

Personifying music is a task not all can tackle proficiently. Artists Keida Mascaro and Jeff Newman, however, are always up for such a challenge and are making it happen in the heart of Columbus.

 Promotional photo for Keida Mascaro and Jeff Newman's Meet Your Creative Community series, kicking off this Thursday, March 22. (Photo provided by Keida Mascaro)

Promotional photo for Keida Mascaro and Jeff Newman's Meet Your Creative Community series, kicking off this Thursday, March 22. (Photo provided by Keida Mascaro)

Despite a wide range of artistic abilities shared between Mascaro and Newman, the two chose film as the medium for their current project, which addresses a polarizing social issue that is currently on their minds: the American story of the refugee.

The docuseries, with a yet-to-be-revealed title, is a highly-stylized fictional narrative about a late 20s male refugee who comes from Africa in 2017 and his first 60 days in America. The second-leading role will be based off of Syrian refugee and Columbus native and poet Sara Abou Rashed, while the third character will be a 45-year-old ex-veteran and doctor of the First Gulf War.

Music plays a pivotal role in the main character’s life, so much so that Mascaro and Newman are treating it as a character.

“If you're going to treat the music as a character, you have to have the conversations about the music in the beginning,” Mascaro said.

The pair’s main character loves American old school hip-hop such as A Tribe Called Quest. Once he arrives in Columbus, he will come to discover that the city’s local sound remind him of the records he heard back home.

“In Africa, especially old school, which to me is very interesting on a narrative level because when you look at hip-hop it's loosely rooted in jazz, which is loosely rooted back in Africa in old African beats, so there's this kind of sub-current narrative with the music that I think is really, really important,” Mascaro said.

 Headshot of Keida Mascaro. (Photo provided by Keida Mascaro)

Headshot of Keida Mascaro. (Photo provided by Keida Mascaro)

With Columbus initiatives like Wednesday's weekly hip-hop night, The Break, at Rehab Tavern, and a plethora of talent—which has led to discussions and possible collaborations with Jay Swiffa and lines out to RJD2 and Blueprint—oozing from the city, shooting the film in the Capital city seemed like a no-brainer. Add in that the main character comes from Africa, which has its music sampled heavily in hip-hop, and the film has a perfect concoction of elements to tell a story of the American refugee.

"Within the elements of screenwriting, you see certain series like The Wire, like Baltimore is a character. So in this particular piece, we're looking at Columbus as a character and the music that is embedded in Columbus as a character," Newman said.

Despite Mascaro living in Columbus during his late teen years, Newman and his story really started in Los Angeles 20 years ago. Running around doing celebrity chef duties with his pal Newman, one of their first major clients was Rod Stewart, a job that almost gave Mascaro a panic attack.

"I was like, ‘Let's just ride back down the hill and eat and not answer our phones for three days,’" Mascaro said.

Pulled over on the side of Mulholland Drive in a “mile-long” Bucik, Newman urged Mascaro to take on Stewart’s job, and they ended up cooking for his house for eight years.

"I think we both are sounding boards and encourage each other to keep going in any time of art, whether it's photography or writing or acting or any type of creation," Newman said.

But building a docuseries is a slightly different challenge than cooking meals for celebrities, especially in Columbus. In 2008, Mascaro returned to Columbus to get his master’s at Ohio State University. During his time learning and teaching, he noticed that Columbus has a vibrant culture and the potential to be a real serious film town. Digital distribution was really starting to take off, so making an episodic made the most sense.

Since the Ohio Tax Credit favors series over films, Mascaro and Newman decided to create  docu episodes—somewhere between four and 10 episodes—where they show the raw process of the making of the film. The last episode would be the two-hour film.

The docuseries starts filming this Thursday at the Columbus Museum of Art, and Mascaro and Newman hope to get 100 people out to the first event of five, which will be spaced out in half-year increments.

“It's going to be this behind-the-curtains-of-Oz type of experience where we show you the process in real time, which is really terrifying because we don't know what's going on; it's not like we're doing it after the fact,” Mascaro said.

The first workshop will cover the research and development that happens prior to filming, screenwriting, the Ohio Tax Credit and music’s involvement in the film, but will also touch on the social issues at the crux of the film.

Newman hopes the projects inspires America to look inward at its ignorance surrounding the refugee community. The duo is doing its research by interviewing local refugees, making sure that they can convert that way of life to the screen.

 Headshot of Jeff Newman. (Photo provided by Keida Mascaro)

Headshot of Jeff Newman. (Photo provided by Keida Mascaro)

“It's a different experience for an immigrant versus a refugee. An immigrant came here for education and other things, to better their lives in a legal form. Refugees are seeking asylum,” Newman said.

One of the ways that the main refugee in Mascaro and Newman’s film will be seeking asylum is through hip-hop music. The two want to incorporate the city’s music scene in as many ways possible, whether that is original music or putting Columbus musicians on the big screen.

"The luxury of shooting here as opposed to LA is that everything's untapped right now. There's no thumbprint on anything here and because of that it's so fresh,” Mascaro said.

"We got diamonds all up and down this street, but we have to put the effort into mining them, and to me this type of project is a perfect project to mine these people."

Mascaro hopes to get Columbus musicians involved to score original music to both utilize local talent and avoid paying exuberant fees on copyrighted songs. He also believes that the talent here is very underrated.

"Producing is all about finding talent and putting it together. Finding valuable assets, finding how to bring value out of assets and putting them together in the most judicious and economical way,” Mascaro said. “And that's what we did with catering, which is kind of funny how full circle (it came)."

Mascaro (producer, director) and Newman (main writer, producer, actor) want the docuseries to drop in late 2019, early 2020, or right around the election cycle. From there, the pair hopes the film goes to series, while the episodic gets picked up by Netflix, taking of the boom in digital distribution.

“We're scared because we care. We want to make something that means something,” Newman said. “We realize that we are going to be shepherding stories from people who mean something, whether they're local people from Columbus or immigrants from Africa or Uganada,” Newman said.

The first of five workshops will take place at the CMA this Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for the Meet Your Creative Community series.