‘Unalienable Rights,’ an animated film on Philly’s ‘78 attack on MOVE

by JR Valrey

There are a few animated short films in the Oakland International Film Festival this year, but there is only one that mixes documentary story-telling with animation. “Unalienable Rights” by filmmaker Froi Cuesta tells the story of the 1978 MOVE confrontation with the Philly police and all of the local politics surrounding it. It screens Wednesday, Sept. 25, 8:45 p.m., at the Regal Theater in Jack London Square. Go to oiff.org for more information.

What struck me most about this short film was the detail that it gave to key players and key events that happened during the confrontation, including the MOVE family, John Africa, political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal, who was then a beat journalist, Mayor Frank Rizzo, the flooding of the MOVE house by police intentionally, and the police beating of Delbert Africa in front of news cameras.

I wanted to talk to the filmmaker Froi Cuesta about his cinematic creation “Unalienable Rights” and what it took to make this project come to life.

M.O.I. JR: What made you want to animate a short film of MOVE’s 1978 confrontation with the police? Will you animate more of that story, particularly the cases of the MOVE 9 political prisoners who were held captive as a result of the Philly police being shot in the standoff?

Froi Cuesta: Years ago, I had written a screenplay entitled “Brotherly Love,” unfortunately inspired by the 1985 bombing of the MOVE organization in an organized effort by elected Philadelphia officials. For Part 1, now entitled “Unalienable Rights,” I decided to concentrate specifically on what led to one of the first major incidents between MOVE and the police. I developed “Unalienable Rights” to be a four part animated docudrama that will take us from the mid-‘70s ultimately to [the bombing on] May 13, 1985.

M.O.I. JR: What are the story lines of the other three parts about? Will you cover half of the MOVE 9 being unleashed?

Froi Cuesta: Yes, I touched on a bit of everything that was going on in Philadelphia during that time period from the political climate with the FOP, the Italian and Black mobs’ influences, and the struggles Mumia Abu-Jamal was having as a journalist and a MOVE supporter.

M.O.I. JR: Why did you include the work of political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal in the film?

Froi Cuesta: I felt It was imperative that I brought to light the plight of Mumia and John Africa against the Rizzo regime that tyrannized the Black community. As with others, many have tried to silence the Voice of the Voiceless.

M.O.I. JR: Can you speak to the power of animation? What kind of animation most inspired this work?

Froi Cuesta: Initially, I thought I could only afford simple sketch animation. So I did a few tests with animators. That’s when I decided “Unalienable Rights” would be better received through traditional cell animation with vivid colors that would contrast well with the documentary footage.

M.O.I. JR: What made you splice real footage in with the animation to tell the story? Most times people do one or the other?

Froi Cuesta: Creativity rules! The animation gave us freedom to develop scenes and characters the way we wanted them to look. The docu-footage validated everything, especially Mayor Rizzo’s racist banter.

M.O.I. JR: How big was your crew and how long did it take for you to animate this 15 minute short? What animation process was used?

Froi Cuesta: I can’t lie; it was difficult to manage on my own because I had never produced an animation. Finding the right fit was crucial and was costly. But finally, after a few crucial moves, I hired Dupp Du from China as our director of animation; then we started to catch a grove.

We never went full speed because we all had day gigs, so it took about six months. First, we designed all the characters and then the scenes. Once I had an animatic in place, I forwarded it to Mattia Turzo in Naples, Italy, to score and had Sean C from Harlem to produce the music for the final scene. Jeremy Cimino mixed it at Jungle Studios in New York.

M.O.I. JR: What is the ultimate destination for this project? Are you bringing it to the big screen? Are you bringing it to TV? How will it be distributed?

Froi Cuesta: The projected length of the full script would have been around two hours, but we’re hoping to secure funding for a four-part animated docudrama for a digital network.

M.O.I. JR: Where and how did you learn how to animate?

Froi Cuesta: After a few “tests,” we hired Pengpeng Du as our director of animation and brought in Sophie Kinsella, Baris Alten, Bainian Chen and Shou Li.

M.O.I. JR: What is the goal of this film?

Froi Cuesta: My ultimate goal was to bring awareness to a part of history that many weren’t aware of, so I felt it had to have a certain look that would make it more appealing and open it up to a wider audience.

M.O.I. JR Valrey: Where did the name of the film come from?

Froi Cuesta: Originally it was Brotherly Love, but while editing I noticed more of a civil rights tone … it has always been about our rights as human beings, hence unalienable.

M.O.I. JR: Where did you get your information on the teachings of John Africa?

Froi Cuesta: Ok, I started researching when I came back after spending a month in South Africa producing a project for a non-profit back in ‘98, so I was going to the library pulling newspaper and magazine articles, then a few books and finally watched news reports and documentaries.

M.O.I. JR: How could people keep up with “Unalienable Rights” as well as the following three parts? How could people keep up with your work in general?

Froi Cuesta: Please give me some time, I’m hoping the door will fully open and you’ll know and see. Peace.

The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at blockreportradio@gmail.com or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportTV on YouTube.