BIFF documentary: Lemon of a life inspires a film

Thursday May 31, 2012

He grew up in a Brooklyn housing complex, where selling and doing drugs was commonplace. He watched his heroin-addicted mother and father die of AIDS. He became a drug dealer himself and landed in jail.

Those are some of the painful events that filled Lemon Andersen's cup of life.

It is unlikely many would blame him if he turned sour sour. But Andersen set out to capitalize on his more recent past and make a life for his family that differed from that of his formative years.

That more recent past included becoming a rising star in the slam poetry world, performing in Def Jam poetry and winning a Tony award.

It was Lemon's dogged pursuit of a sweeter way of living that film makers Laura Brownson and Beth Levison chronicle in their documentary film "Lemon," which is being screened as part of the Berkshire International Film Festival. "Lemon is really a voice for people who often don't have one, and a person they [minorities] don't get to see on film," Levison explained, during a telephone interview from her home in New York City.

"This is his real life, not scripted. It is a real story." The film follows the Puerto Rican slam-poetry artist, and three-time convicted felon, as he struggles for three-and-ahalf years to hold on to his creative dream of mounting a solo show.

Never wanting to forget, or turn his back on his past, Lemon has used his painful experiences as fodder for his slam poetry work. The film weaves together interviews with him and others about his work, moments with his family, videos of performances, as well as poetry recitation done exclusively for the film.

While the story of facing and overcoming adversity, only after an extended struggle, can resonate with many people, Levison said she and Brownston are especially interested in reaching high school and college-aged students in under-served populations.

"His story is so triumphant and inspiring. It really carries a message for these audiences," said Levison.

Levison and Brownson co-directed and produced the 82-minute documentary that has been screened at numerous festivals in the United States and in Europe and before coming to BIFF.

It is scheduled to be shown twice - once at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington at 8:45 p.m. Friday, and then at Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema the next morning at 11:30.

Both screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions.

"Lemon" was recently screened for about 60 students as part of the Dream Yard Project, which uses arts to teach and inspire young students in the Bronx.

During a Q&A following the showing, Levison said she was moved by one student's reaction that the film was about recognizing that you do have a chance to rectify your wrongs.

She said they are working on national campaignto reach more high school and college students.

BIFF founder and executive director Kelley Vickery said the festival wanted "to ensure that those who could really benefit from seeing the film, get a chance to see it."

To that end it gave a selection of free tickets to youth in the region via Railroad Street Youth Project, the juvenile correction centers, and Shirley Edgerton who founded the Youth Alive step dance program and the Women of Color Giving Circle.

Four time National Poetry Slam champion Taylor Mali met Lemon Andersen more than a decade ago when they both performed on HBO's "Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry."

"We are from completely different worlds, but we have forged a friendship based upon a common respect for decency and integrity," said Mali, who lives part-time in Housatonic.

Levison, too, says she and Lemon have very different roots. She grew up in Pittsfield, the daughter of Fredric Levison, a now retired physician. She graduated from Pittsfield High School, then Middlebury College and now lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.

She said there is no question that the lives she and Brownson lead are drastically different from Lemon's, but that did not get in the way of capturing his reality.

"We sought to be honest with one another, so at a certain point the differences didn't matter so much," she said.

"Lemon is an artist and when we were filming him he was creating and we were filmmakers trying to tell our story about him, so there was a real mutual respect. That created common ground."

Over the three-and-a-half years they spent following Lemon for the film, Levison said they were, at times, uncertain whether he would achieve his goal.

" There was a real period of time where were it was very, very, very, tense," Levison said. "As film makers we were telling his story, but we also really cared about him and his family. So it was a roller coaster."

But Lemon buckled in for that roller coaster ride, drinking readily from the cup of his life. The result? His play, "County of Kings."

"Watch me be the artist who was born ready made," he says in the show. "Watch me take my lemons, and make the best goddamn lemonade."

On screen

What: 'Lemon," the story of three-time felon, one-time Tony winner Lemon Andersen.

Where and when: Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington at 8:45 p.m. Friday, and then at Pittsfield's Beacon Cinema the next morning at 11:30. Both screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions.

Tickets: $10. Various prices for passes to the Berkshire International Film Festival.

Information: (866) 811-4111 or


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