Short film 'Nani' explores identity in LA through graffiti
In his AFI Conservatory thesis film, director Justin Tipping weaves together a story about age, culture, mental health and crime, where graffiti is the binding element that brings a young boy and an elderly woman together.
"Nani" opens with the teenage protagonist Oscar, spraying graffiti on a nondescript wall in L.A., a habit that will get him arrested shortly after. As a form of punishment he must do community service at a nursing home. There, he meets 84-year-old Isabel, an Asian senior with advancing dementia.
Isabel begins accompanying Oscar on his nights out, eventually developing an obsession for tagging walls with her own alias.
"You gotta use something people call you, like a nickname or something," Oscar tells her during one of their walks. She writes "Nani" and the two bond across generations and cultures over the art of graffiti.
At KPCC's Forum event, director Tipping was joined by cast members Johnny Ortiz, who plays Oscar, and Nefetari Spencer, who plays Grace to discuss the making and the themes of the film.
Tipping said "Nani"was inspired from the relationship he developed with his only surviving grandmother, who also suffered from dementia.
"While writing the story we looked at the idea of graffiti and how taggers go up and put up their name and the next day it gets washed away," he said. "I saw a parallel between memory loss and graffiti."
Invisibility, graffiti and identity
When asked whether he's ever done any graffiti, Tipping admits he has. But he's quick to point out that the film is not about graffiti and doesn't take a stand one way or another on the practice.
"I didn't want to preach about graffiti, I didn't want to make a graffiti film," he said. "We have these preconceived notions of what all these things are and there's multiple levels and worlds to the culture of graffiti... There's a story behind every person who wrote their name."
Tipping said he aimed to portray the artistic impulse that graffiti artists have — to leave their imprint on a city in which it's easy to be invisible.
That allows an audience to draw an emotional connection to the artist, he said.
"Some [graffiti] are gang-related and some I don't agree with, but it's more just raising awareness," he said.
Tipping says graffiti became central to the film as a way of symbolizing immortality. "Everyone has a human desire to be heard," he said.
The film, too, left its mark on the city where it was filmed. The word "NANI" can still be seen tagged in a few places in Los Angeles where the film was shot, Tipping said.
Diversity on screen and in casting
Tipping, who is part Filipino, said the film was intentionally meant to have a diverse cast. He grew up in a diverse community near Berkeley, California, an experience he said inspired him as an artist.
"Where I grew up was so diverse, a big part of why I got into film and screen writing was so that at least I could attempt to be that voice, " he said. "In writing [Nani], I wanted it to reflect the world that I knew as my reality."
Tipping added that he rarely sees the representation of a city's diversity in films.That, he said, is why he wanted a diverse cast. He said making a film is part directing, part casting, and that led him to write a cast that was representative of Los Angeles where ethnic intersections are common.
"The role of Grace and Oscar were written as a 'young Latino' and 'African-American' woman," Tipping said. But that didn't stop him from seeking the best cast, including Ortiz, who plays Oscar, is Latino and Spencer, who plays Grace, is black.
"When putting together a cast like this, you just need to make sure that everyone fits together in the right way," he said.
The film feels authentic. There are no visual effects and no false backdrops of the city. It was filmed in Los Angeles over the course of six days—most of it inside an adult day care facility where the only two extras seen on camera are Ortiz's relatives.
It's a story Tipping says he has considered expanding into a feature-length film. At the same time, he said, he likes that its brevity forces the audience to interpret it themselves. For Tipping, the story is about a boy who starts as a selfish being and in the end of the film Oscar does the most selfless thing he's ever done.
In the closing scene, Oscar is seen tagging the name "Nani" — a tribute to Isabel. He walks to the edge of the roof of the building where he's standing and throws off his spray paint can — a gesture that could suggest he's giving up his life as a tagger, or beginning a new graffiti campaign.
For his part, Tipping said he wanted simply to tell the story behind one piece of graffiti.
"There's a story behind every single person who wrote their name into every single crevice," he said.
"NANI" is currently not screening in theaters, but the film can be accessed at the American Film Institute library.
A live viewing of "Nani" took place Thursday, July 25th, with director/co-writer Justin Tipping and actors Johnny Ortiz ("Oscar") and Nefetari Spencer. You can view free upcoming events at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum at the forum website.
Josie Huang, KPCC reporter and "Take Two" producer @josie_huang
Justin Tipping (director/co-writer) started out in the commercial and music video arena where his work gained wide recognition (MTV, VH1, FUSE, Discovery Channel networks). He holds an MFA from the AFI Conservatory (Directing) and is recipient of over a dozen honors including the Student Academy Award and the Director’s Guild of America Student Award (for NANI), and the Franklin J. Schaffner Fellow and Richard P. Rogers Spirit of Excellence Awards. Tipping was one of five innovative directors selected by Lexus Short Films and The Weinstein Company to create short pieces to "reach and engage people from all cultures." @justintipping
Johnny Ortiz is a native Angeleno from Highland Park. A young teen when he played "Oscar" in NANI, he's since been in two other feature films and will appear in a forthcoming Danny Trejo project. Johnny is working on a college degree in the Los Angeles area while continuing to pursue acting.
Nefetari Spencer ("Grace") is a Chicago native who's been in L.A. since '99. Her career began behind the camera before moving in front of it: Bernie Mac was a beloved mentor until his passing in 2008, and her formal training includes time at Improv Olympic West and The Groundlings. She's one of the talents behind YouTube sensation "Condilicious" as well as the co-creator of Elite Delta Force 3. @nefetaris
With contributions by Luis Gomez. This event was produced by Elaine Cha.