Last blog post, we shared two of our favorite Big Apple Film Festival entries from the past few years, April Showers and Women and Elephants. These two films showcased compelling stories conceived of during the Covid-19 pandemic. One of our other favorite films, Digging for Weldon Irvine, examines the life of a legendary, yet not too well known musician. We got a chance to speak with the filmmaker, Victorious De Costa, and ask him about the story behind the film.
De Costa’s work, Digging for Weldon Irvine, examines the life of all-around 20th century musician, composer, and writer Weldon Irvine. Irvine is most recognized for writing the lyrics of the Civil Rights Movement anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.” The film interlaces interviews with contemporary experts and musicians, archival footage, and never-before-heard audio of Irvine’s work to explore his career and contributions to the jazz genre. Irvine’s story is an important one to share, as he not only holds a significant role in music history but also in Black history and culture. His name is not widely recognized just yet, but this documentary seeks to change that.
Activist & documentary filmmaker De Costa followed a path into the filmmaking world that wasn’t conventional. As a DJ and manager, De Costa got his start by filming behind-the-scenes footage of those who he represented, and he eventually produced and directed several music videos. After the passing of his father, De Costa took a break from the music scene before resurfacing and making short films “to express the things [he] had seen in [his] life and neighborhood along the way.”
Since the screening of Digging for Weldon Irvine at BAFF, De Costa has kept busy in the film industry. In 2020, he was a producer on the HBO Max-distributed film, Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn. De Costa also produced and directed the Fox Sports Films documentary, Jackie Robinson: Get To The Bag, that premiered in 2022. He is currently producing a documentary, Ring the Alarm, that investigates the racial discrepancy in suicide rates throughout the United States among children. And as a writer, De Costa optioned his first script for a future narrative comedy feature titled Ashbury Heights.
We asked De Costa to reflect on the making and premiere of Digging for Weldon Irvine, especially as he has progressed in the film industry.
What was it like having your film appear in the Big Apple Film Festival?
De Costa: BAFF was the film’s New York premiere. I, a Brooklynite, directed a film about a Queens legend, and it was screened in Manhattan. It’s hard to get more Big Apple than that, so it was an honor. It was especially an honor to premiere in NYC at SVA Theater. I dreamed of having a film screened there because that's where I was seeing films during the Tribeca Film Festival. BAFF is the one that gave me that shot. I was in awe of the sold out theater; they had to bring foldable chairs in to accommodate the rest of the audience. When the lights turned on after the film ended, there were so many people who were standing in the back. It was an amazing experience, and I am so thankful for that.
Can you sum up your experience on creating this film?
I just really appreciate this whole new world opening up to me. I wasn't aware of Irvine when I started to develop the film. I honestly wasn't a fan of jazz or jazz-funk fusion. I just didn't know much about it, but I think that helped me. In fact, I know it helped me. I was so inquisitive and that helped to flesh out the context of Weldon's life not only for the audience but also for myself. I wouldn’t have known about Weldon if it wasn’t for Joey “G-Clef” Cavaseno, one of my executive producers. Angelika Beener, an interview subject in the film who I brought on as a producer, was also a wealth of information music-wise. She especially knows jazz… She's in the direct lineage of Thelonius Monk, T.S. Monk, Oliver Beener and more.
What surprised you during the making of this film?
Virtually no one I asked knew about Weldon, and they should have. This ranged from artists who loved music who had his samples to jazz heads down to record store owners. Part of that of course, was my limited circle, but it still rings true. He is still largely unknown.
Was there anything happening behind the scenes that didn’t make it into the film?
Digging for Weldon Irvine was a race against time, and it actually was a painful process for me. My mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness in 2017. At that point, I was just over a year into the filmmaking process. I raced to finish the film so she could see it, but due to a lack of funding, resources, and time, I couldn't do it. I actually did a lot of the editing in her hospital room while she was asleep. She had a part in the making of the film though… She gave me notes on my fundraising teaser and also helped me raise money. She passed in 2018, the same day as Weldon Irvine. She had no knowledge of Weldon except that she loved the song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," and like everyone, she was hyped to know that he wrote the lyrics.
Are there any important takeaways you experienced during the filmmaking process?
Learning how to conduct a good interview and how to be an archival producer. I can tell you that learning about jazz and coming to love jazz is a lifelong lesson.
Digging For Weldon Irvine is currently seeking a distributor, but you can check for updates on festival appearances and a future release here.