Roger Ross Williams: a case study in choosing your collaborators wisely

Roger Ross Williams hated his job as a television producer. Desperate for something different, he went to the Catskills, N.Y. home of his neighbor, Elinor Burkett, an author and journalist who also has a home in Zimbabwe. "'Save me,'" Burkett jokingly recalls Williams said to her, to an audience in the Catskills in early 2009.

Williams laughs and explains, "I was working in television and I was sick of it. And I couldn't deal with it anymore and I wanted to make an independent feature. And I knew I wanted to do something in Africa. So I said to [Burkett] find me a story in Africa. She found me this amazing story."

The story Williams and Burkett worked on together followed Liyana, a band of disabled musicians in Zimbabwe, featuring a limbless lead singer named Prudence. The documentary, Music by Prudence, won an Academy Award last night for best documentary short. Unfortunately, the film will also be remembered for Burkett, a brash redhead, "Kanye-ing" Williams' acceptance speech. "Let the woman talk. Isn't that the classic thing?" she said, as she commandeered the mic. How did a seemingly natural collaboration go so wrong?

Watching their acceptance speech debacle was an awkward, -- where did this redhead woman come from? Is she drunk?-- and entertaining blemish on an otherwise classic Oscars night. The next day, Alison Bulman, the Senior Editorial Coordinator of the American Journal of Nursing, emailed me that she had met the embattled producers and the inspirational musicians of their documentary. (You can find her coverage here).

How did these two neighbors and media professionals become the biggest drama of the night?

"Certainly one needed the other to get to this point," says Bulman. "I think they both ultimately made out pretty well. There were two Oscars up there. She botched it by displaying such rudeness."

Last year, in the Catskills, Bulman recorded a podcast of Williams and Burkett presenting the trailer of their documentary that was to become Music by Prudence, which was then called iThemba: My Hope."Their relationship seemed fun. They seemed cordial to each other. But you've heard the podcast. You can definitely hear her mowing him over. She's a loud, New Yorker-seeming woman, and he's the soft spoken, creative type."

This was one of the final stops of a one month tour of Liyana across the United States, a dream for the musicians and filmmakers. In Zimbabwe, Bulman explains, being born with disabilities is considered a bad omen of witchcraft. Prudence, the eventual heroine of the film, was abandoned by her family, left to die, and was taken in by the King George VI School & Centre for Children with Physical Disabilities, where Liyana was formed and Prudence writes and sings her vibrant songs.

The filmmakers both love and support the Liyana musicians, but Williams and Burkett broke up -- and went to court -- over how the story should be told. Williams, the director, orchestrated a deal with HBO and chose to tell the story of Liyana through Prudence, the lead singer, while Burkett, the executive producer, demanded that all the musicians in the band be the focus of the short documentary. As any professional story-teller knows, focus makes perfect. Williams' vision won out and went on to win the Academy Award. But Burkett, as the original producer, shared in the prize.

"The final product, it's not that it's bad," she told Salon last night. "It's not what I envisioned when I came up with this project. And it's not what we promised the boys in the band. It's just not what we wanted it to be."

Maybe Williams had no choice but to work with Burkett -- she did find him his winning subject matter, after all -- but he should have established partnership guidelines after he realized he was working with the woman who wrote the memoir, So Many Enemies, So Little Time.

Before going into any creative collaboration -- whether with your neighbor, best friend, favorite work buddy -- always write-up and sign a partnership agreement contract. The Oscar acceptance speech is one of the most coveted moments in the limelight, and you never want to do business with someone who has the potential to steal yours.

On Monday night, Williams had the chance to deliver his acceptance speech on Larry King Live. Here's the clip.

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