When this newspaper last wrote about Rebekah Fergusson, she’d finished shooting a movie that was partially about guys playing soccer in a Bolivian prison.
Nine years later, she’s shooting a movie about guys playing basketball in an American prison.
This doesn’t sound like progress. Yet in between, the former Charlottean (Myers Park High School, class of 2003) has had a varied career as a cinematographer and producer. She’ll find out Sunday if her highest-profile project, “End Game,” gets an Academy Award for best documentary short. It has stiff competition, including a short by an adopted Charlottean: Marshall Curry, who married native Elizabeth Martin and is nominated for “A Night at the Garden.”
If “End Game” wins, you won’t see Fergusson onstage. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences lets only two producers claim this award, so Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman will mount the podium. (Epstein and Friedman won a feature documentary Oscar for 1989’s “Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt” and Epstein had won previously with “The Times of Harvey Milk.”)
That suits Fergusson, who took the job in the first place partly because of these two.
“I watched their documentaries in college,” she says. “What an incredible experience it’s been to have gotten to a place where I can work with them. Over the last three to five years, I have built up a reputation with Bay Area filmmakers. It’s been nice to see that shift.”
She went straight out of Duke University in 2007 to her debut with “Pelada.” She and three collaborators traveled to 25 countries, where two played soccer with locals and two followed with cameras. The word “pelada” means not only a pickup game in Brazil, where they began, but “naked” — the game stripped down to its essence. The world’s most universally embraced sport gave them common ground with South American nuns, Bolivian gangsters, Japanese “salarymen” and Arabs who spoke no English.
Filmmaking ignorance and bliss happily intersected on that breakthrough, where Fergusson got a taste of her future: She served as director and cinematographer and learned what producers must do, and she has taken all three types of gigs since. She followed “Pelada” with “The Case Against 8,” serving as camera operator and co-producer on the Emmy-nominated documentary about Californians’ fight against a gay marriage ban.
She stayed busy shooting corporate and commercial jobs on the side. (“Everyone in my world fears you’ll never work again.”) Then came the call for “End Game,” a 40-minute piece about doctors and hospice workers guiding patients and families as life slips away.
She worked with Epstein and Friedman to develop a sales reel that raised interest from Netflix and another funder. Then she helped as a line producer, establishing relationships with the film’s subjects.
“I had worked with Rob and Jeff before (notably on the 2016 TV documentary ‘Killing the Colorado’), and they knew my skill set,” she says. “This had to be really intimate. We could not go into these settings with a large crew, so Rob and I would do camera, and Jeff would do the bulk of the sound. I have been behind the camera in some fashion on pretty much every project, so it was exciting to be in that role again.
“Part of what makes the film incredible is that we were trusted by caretakers and patients and families. We had to know when we needed to step back; if the answer (about a shot) was ‘No,’ we had to accept that. We kept checking in: ‘Is this all right?’ Crewing the film ourselves meant people always knew who we were and what we were there for. With a big crew, you don’t know who’s making decisions.”
Fergusson has never been drawn to fictional narratives. She likes using narrative techniques to tell real stories, and she gets her greatest joy when “a subject doesn’t forget you’re there, but you develop a relationship where you get folded into their reality. Their trust in you overrides their anxiety.”
Even when she’s driving through her South Berkeley neighborhood, she registers details with a documentary eye. “I am thinking about the landscape constantly changing,” she says. “That makes it hard to turn off the noise, but it’s fun to look at the world that way. Then, if a thing isn’t leaving your head, you have to resolve it. You piece it out to see what it would become.”
The latest thing to stick in her mind is “Q Ball,” so called because it takes place at San Quentin State Penitentiary (aka “Q”). It’s a short trip from her home – half an hour in light traffic – and a circular journey back to the project that plunged her into documentary-making 12 years ago.
She’s shooting it for Fox Sports to release at festivals and then on its “Magnify” series. It’s built partly around the relationship between the Golden State Warriors – whose small forward, Kevin Durant, is an executive producer – and inmates at San Quentin. Fergusson reports that prisoners play teams of volunteers who come over on Saturdays during a five-month “season.” At the end of it, the Warriors bring in their front office staff (most of whom have been college players) to take on the prisoners in a last big game.
“It’s part of the larger rehabilitative philosophy San Quentin has become known for,” Fergusson says. “It’s a huge thing for the guys, who take it very seriously: They have a coaching staff, fitness training, even a game announcer. They’ve created a whole basketball world.
“I went from a film about death to a film about prison, but this is the first sports project I have done in a while. Like ‘Pelada,’ it uses basketball as a vehicle to tell this larger story that’s interesting to me.”