This week’s Staff Pick Premiere, “Golden Age Karate,” comes from Zendesk, the customer-service software company, and director Sindha Agha. It tells the heartwarming story of Jeff Wall Jr., a real-life teenage hero, who uses his natural talent for marital arts to help people of all ages. At 6 years old, Jeff started learning karate. By 10, he was inducted into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame. By the third grade, he’d developed a superhero complex. This led to a reputation for landing in the principal’s office after rescuing other children in need. Ahead of his black belt tryout, Jeff started to spend more time with his grandmother. It was this relationship that taught him to respect his elders. However, it also inadvertently exposed him to the acute loneliness of old age. Jeff realized other elderly people might be experiencing the same thing. With this in mind, he created a karate class for senior citizens in his home state of Ohio. The routine, discipline, exercise and fun of martial arts hit a chord with the residents — and not just because they could “hit” him. Karate gave them confidence to step outside their comfort zone. Produced by Zendesk, “Golden Age Karate” is one film in a series that aligns with their mission of “helpfulness.” Through this lens, Agha uses animation, live-action, archival footage, and a rhythmic edit to beautifully capture Jeff’s humanism and benevolence. If you take anything away from the film, it’s the knowledge that you’re never too young or too old to learn something new. Ahead of the release, we reached out to Sindha Agha to learn more about the project.

On finding the story of Jeff Wall Jr.:

This film is part of a larger series of stories about helpful people that Zendesk is making with Even/Odd. The Zendesk and Even/Odd teams had searched far-and-wide to find compelling people whose small acts of helpfulness were making a difference for others. People who think about ‘us’ more than ‘me.’ Who don’t hesitate to make a situation better than they found it. When they found Jeff and learned about what he was doing for the seniors, they knew they’d discovered an amazing character — and I was so excited to get to take the ball and figure out how to tell his story.”

On the style:

“Like everyone else navigating filmmaking during the pandemic, we had some pretty serious constraints on how we could approach production while keeping everyone safe. But we decided to flip what felt like a limitation into an opportunity, and work with some incredible local photographers — Bridget Bennett, Da’Shaunae Marisa, and Maddie McGarvey — building our film around photographs instead of footage. The photographers were able to work solo which allowed us to have a light footprint, and was essential for COVID safety. But they also brought a beautiful photographic style to the entire piece, and enabled us to get really creative with the edit — which was helmed by my frequent collaborator, Matty Neikrug. Matty put hundreds of hours into creating this meticulously paced, rhythmic edit, which was complimented brilliantly by Daniel Woo’s sound design. Of course, we still wanted to include some live action footage, because Jeff is such an impressive athlete, and watching him do karate is mesmerizing. So, for that portion of the film, we worked with Jeff’s amazing mom, Valerie, who absolutely crushed her role as a cinematographer. We leaned into the personal look of iPhone videos, and had Valerie document Jeff’s life over the course of a month. I love the authenticity that Valerie’s eye brought to the film — after all, who else could better capture Jeff’s spirit than his own mother?  To further lean into the collaged approach that was naturally evolving from our production plan, I decided to bring on one of my favorite illustrators, Avalon Nuovo. I knew I wanted the photographs and footage to transform into illustrations, so I had Avalon create drawings of certain shots and add some subtle animation to bring them to life. I love the color her work added to the film and how iconic Jeff looks in her portraits.”

On challenges faced:

“Hiccups happened — but I’ve gotten used to remote directing over the past year, and I know that everything can and will go differently than planned. The key is bringing together a crew who enjoys experimentation and has fun while they’re working. If you’re having fun, you’ll be able to shrug off the millions of things that might go wrong. So, we carefully handpicked our team and it definitely paid off. And I have to marvel at how a crew so spread out could work that well together — we were in Ohio, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Minneapolis! It also helped that we were all big fans of Jeff and Valerie and really cared about doing right by their story. That genuine sense of admiration led everyone on the crew to give 100% and persevere through the complications of making a film remotely.” 

On approaching the film through the lens of “helpfulness”:

“One of my favorite things about Jeff and his mom Valerie was the pure joy they derive from helping others. And that joy is completely contagious — every day I got to hang out and work with them virtually, Jeff and Valerie made my day. They’re the type of people who you can’t help but want to emulate. Not only because they’re truly good people, but because anyone would want to be that happy! I wanted that sense of joy and delight to come across in the film. I think sometimes we slip into the misguided assumption that helping other people will inherently cost us something — time, money, energy, happiness. But it was so obvious from getting to know Jeff and Valerie that their acts of generosity towards the senior community invariably enrich their own lives. And I wanted this film to serve as a reminder that we have so much to gain when we show up for one another.” 

On an emblematic moment that stood out:

“It was a small moment, but I remember when we were filming Jeff in the dojo (or rather, Valerie was filming Jeff, and I was on FaceTime with them) — and I wanted to get a shot that captured how epic Jeff looks when he’s jumping through the air. Valerie offered to lay on the ground so Jeff could jump over her while she filmed, and I remember hearing her let out a little shriek while he soared above her through the air. Jeff was totally in control, of course, but it was just terrifying to have someone that tall and muscular jumping over you. I was like, ‘Ok! Let’s stop. We don’t need to do that again. Let’s move on.’ And Valerie goes, ‘No, I’m not sure I got it. Let’s go again.’ So he did it again, and she shrieked again, still freaked out. And yet she wanted to do it a third time, to be completely sure she got the shot. I realized that this is a family that doesn’t phone anything in. They always do their absolute best to help others, and they settle for nothing less from themselves.” 

Will Jeff start teaching virtual karate classes?!?!

He already does! Hit him up on his Instagram to book a class. @GoldenAgeKarate

What is your best piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers?

“Oh gosh, so many things… Lead with kindness (which begins with being kind to yourself). Follow the fun, and don’t bother yourself with what you think you’re ‘supposed’ to make. Make work you genuinely care about. Look out for your team. Try to learn something new with each project. And when working with documentary subjects, make sure you’re willing to reciprocate whatever you’re asking of them… If you’re asking them to be vulnerable with you, be vulnerable back. If you’re asking them to share something embarrassing, go ahead and embarrass yourself first. If you bring your own humanity to each of your projects, it’ll come across in your work and make it far more interesting.”

What’s next? Any upcoming projects? 

“Yes! Too many! And I’m too superstitious to talk about them. So instead, I’ll deflect and say I’m trying to learn Hindi and how to make baguettes. Neither endeavor is going too well.”

Check out more Staff Pick Premieres