The Tribeca Film Festival is one of those festivals that always finds a way to highlight New York’s best talent in their narrative and documentary slates, whether that’s behind the scenes or in front of the screen.
This year’s stand-out documentary is Stockholm Syndrome. The film uses a mixed media of art and archival footage to bring rapper A$AP Rocky’s reckoning with racial inequities to the New York audience. The documentary directed by the anonymous collective The Architects spotlights Harlem’s own and his journey to stardom as a multi-platinum artist, showcasing his swagger, unique blend of New York, down south musicality, and modern twist on the runway’s hottest fashion.
As an artist, there wasn’t a creative avenue that was out of reach for Rocky. Then in 2019, the rapper’s career was almost cut short after a physical altercation in Sweden left him locked up in solitary confinement. From the beginning, producers Matthew Perniciaro and Michael Sherman were signed on to uncover the racial component of an already rigid judicial system in Sweden. The film jumps around from talking head interviews with Rocky’s biggest supporters to his high profile friends like Kim Kardashian and Naomi Campbell to family members while documenting how his arrest rocked global airwaves. At the center is Rocky’s raw vulnerability as he comes to turn with speaking his truth.
Awards Radar spoke with producers Matthew Perniciaro and Michael Sherman about bringing A$AP’s story to the screen.
Niki Cruz: Given that Rocky is from Harlem and has that New York sound, how important was it to bring this story to Tribeca?
Matthew Perniciaro: It was very important to us. We looked at the options, and when the opportunity to premiere it at Tribeca presented itself, it was like, okay, this was right. Bringing it back to New York and letting the New York audience see it for the first time really felt like the perfect opportunity to show the film to people.
NC: Can you explain who The Architects are?
MP: It’s an anonymous artist collective of filmmakers from across the globe. It was an interesting thing telling this story because it was a multi-country global story so having filmmakers that are situated like that, made it possible to tell this story at a moment’s notice. One of the things we didn’t know is what was going to happen next. Rocky’s life changes by the day, so having a collaborative group that works as a collective ended up being the perfect creative aspect to tell this story.
NC: Was it a no-brainer to sign onto this project?
MP: Absolutely. Rocky’s management, a few days after he got arrested, had reached out to CAA and said we need someone to document this immediately, what’s happening is not right, there’s a lot of violations taking place, and this story needs to be told. CAA introduced them to a handful of companies, and Bow & Arrow was one of them, and Sherman and I got on a pitch call even before we had filmmakers on board. We told them about who we are and how we approach filmmaking, what we had done previously, and we all saw eye to eye. Two or three days after that, we started filming.
NC: I wondered how you got all of that footage, but I didn’t realize how immediate it all was.
Michael Sherman: It was fast, but it had many unknowns, which was exciting for us as documentary film producers. Going into it, none of us knew what was going to happen, especially when we got there. We had no understanding of the judicial system and the process, so it was interesting to see it in real-time.
NC: Were you fans of Rocky before you signed on?
MS: I was down with Peso from day one. I love Rocky as a musician. He mixed down south with his New York flavor. He was a really new voice in hip hop, and this is embarrassing to say, but I even had A$AP Worldwide sweatshirts, and I gave one to Timothee Chalamet, and he got photographed wearing them in New York.
NC: And now everyone is wearing them on the runway.
MS: Yeah. [Laughs]
MP: I was a fan of Rocky’s as well. The earliest music I remember from him is when “Long Live A$AP” and that hit number one, and I thought he was an artist that’s doing something so different in the space. You’ve seen Hip Hop evolve so much over the past 15-20 years; as these generations go, Kanye [West] hit the scene, and it changed and evolved, and Pharrell [Williams], and then Rocky was the person who ushered in the next generation and has left a mark.
It felt like a great partnership because we were huge fans of his work, but we also had great respect for him as an artist. It was interesting because when we started working with him he was still incarcerated, so we couldn’t communicate. So there had to be a degree of trust there, and you had to have people around who had an idea of who he was as an artist because you weren’t going to have his voice at first to shape those early parts.
NC: In this documentary, you have the story of the judicial system in Stockholm and the comparison to our justice system in America, and then Rocky is at the center. He’s so charismatic; he’s a star, so he’s captivating as a subject alone. That must have made for an interesting time in trying to piece things together.
MP: Absolutely, and I think it affected the filmmakers’ approach to how they wanted to tell the story as well. It was about mixing all these different visual formats. It was an interesting process because it was the kind of film where we didn’t have access to everything. We had a handful of photos from Rocky’s family, but it wasn’t like there was extensive archival footage from that chapter of his life, so the filmmakers chose to use animation. There’s no video for the footage in the cell, and they chose to use claymation from there. It pushed what you can do in documentary filmmaking and how you have to be creative and inventive. That’s one of the things we loved about Rocky — when he started out, he was so young, he was just doing it on his own. He had to be creative and inventive and had to do it in his own way to get noticed. That spirit was alive in the creation of the film.
NC: The thing I appreciate about Rocky is he’s opinionated and has a really specific taste as an artist. Did he give an opinion about the visual aspect of the film in post-production?
MP: Yeah, Rocky had some thoughts. He is such a creative mind. He also understood that when you’re the subject of the documentary, it has to be honest, real, and vulnerable, and sometimes those are things that he wasn’t always comfortable with. He hasn’t let the world see him in this way before where the curtains are pulled back, so I think it took some time for him to embrace allowing people to see this side of him, or speak in this manner about certain things. It was a process of learning each other and gaining that trust when he was released. It’s a true collaboration because it takes that kind of trust to tell that story in this way.
NC: What was the process of gaining that trust from Rocky?
MP: It was an interesting situation because he was released from jail and then walked straight into our cameras. He enters the film in that capacity. It’s the first time he’s meeting everyone on the film team, and it’s all playing out in real time, which is unbelievable to have that degree of access and to capture a moment like that, but at the same time then you have to learn and get to know each other and earn that kind of trust. It’s a process that takes time, but you see him on the plane back home from Stockholm, and he’s opening up immediately. He was ready to talk about what he went through. We saw those changes he was going through in his life and these revelations of who he wanted to be in his life and using his platform in a different way than he had. These are all things that happened to him while he was incarcerated. They were brewing inside of him and happening in real time, so it was cool to sit back and watch him go through that change. He was ready to tell this story.
NC: The media covered his arrest in Sweden, but even I walked away with a few things I didn’t know, particularly the politics surrounding the Swedish prison system. Our bail is bad, but Sweden’s is nonexistent.
MP: Yeah, there’s no bail. Someone can literally be arrested and not be assigned a trial for years. They can be sitting in jail and not be assigned a hearing date for 12-18 months, and unfortunately, that’s the norm. It’s predominately immigrants and people of color that are arrested in the jails, and Rocky saw that with his own eyes. I think when he saw that he realized this is not just an American problem, this is an issue around the globe, and these are things that need to be talked about.
NC: It was an interesting evolution to see him go through because initially, he didn’t want his past to define his narrative as a rapper. As he said in the documentary, usually, rappers are using their past to market themselves, but he was hesitant.
MP: Yeah, he never wanted to flaunt his struggle because it’s a shared experience that many people have, and some people have exploited those stories in the past. He wants to promote love and unity, and that’s what he’s about. As part of that journey to do that, he’s recognized that he has to use his platform to talk about some bigger issues than he was previously to this incident. Watching that as filmmakers and seeing someone go through a personal change over the last two years in their lives — it’s an unbelievable thing to have it be organic and honest.
NC: People supported Rocky when the news broke about Stockholm. You saw it across social media, and it’s documented in the film, too. What was it like setting up those interviews with Naomi Campbell and Kim Kardashian? It seemed like the team had so much support.
MP: It was amazing. If it hadn’t been for COVID, we would have even more people who wanted to talk about Rocky and the experience he went through and how they participated in helping him through this period of time. I think it’s a testament to who he is as an artist and a person that you see the people who wanted to go to bat for him and speak for him.
MS: It’s also important to recognize, like Rocky says, no matter where he goes, he’s still a black man, and that’s something that, unfortunately, this world needs to focus on. That’s why Naomi [Campbell] was important in making that sentiment because not a lot of people will say that it’s racial, but when we look at the situation — in America, you have a street fight, and you go your separate ways. You don’t spend 31 days in solitary confinement with no bail, with the possibility of 6 years in prison.
At every level, it was weird for us to be sitting in that courtroom behind this big plexiglass wall where you’re completely separated from everything, and you don’t even understand what’s happening. There were a lot of underlying tones in this whole experience, so it’s important that his journey at the end is him using his platform to be vocal about certain scenarios because they’re often disregarded.
NC: What do you hope people take away from this film?
MP: We’ve had some very important and necessary conversations about race in this country over the past year, but we need to understand that these are global issues and we need to talk about it on a global level. One of the things that this illustrates is that there are different sets of standards for different people, and the fact that many of those are judged by someone’s skin color is extremely broken and wrong.
G-Eazy was charged a few months before Rocky in Stockholm, he walked to the station, he played a $500 fine, and there was a drug element in that case and he was let out of the police station the same night. Rocky was locked up in solitary confinement for 31 days — there were so many things they could’ve done differently, and they tried to make an example out of him. Why did that situation ever have to occur? That’s the biggest thing we want people to ask.
Stockholm Syndrome is currently playing at the Tribeca Film Festival.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]