Filmmakers, Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern, have been producing and directing movies together since meeting in 1993. As they talk about their latest project, the two women communicate with one another in a kind of shorthand, sometimes finishing one another's sentences and constantly validating and checking in with one another with lots of eye contact, nods of the head and other non-verbal signals that they are both engaged in the same conversation, that both individuals are equally invested in their common purpose. I first saw their multiple award-winning film, The Devil Came on Horseback, at The Full Frame Festival in April and ran into them last week in the Cinema Lounge at Silverdocs after their screening there.
During what proved to be a horrendously busy day making various preparations for the New York theatrical run of their latest nonfiction collaboration, Sundberg and Stern joined me for a quick lunch in the Chelsea district of New York City at The Antique Cafe, an eatery they frequent since it's right down the street from their production offices. We talked about this unique partnership and the experience of making this extraordinary film, the story of one man's very personal, life-changing journey as an eyewitness to the horrors of mass genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
Still in Motion (SIM): Tell me about this wonderful creative partnership you have with one another. It’s so difficult to find and hard to sustain. Describe the way you work together. I would imagine it informs a lot of the ways you approach each project that you do.
Ricki Stern (RS): Maybe we shouldn’t talk about it; it might fall apart. (laughs)
Annie Sundberg (AS): Well, we are very lucky. And basically, we both have enormous drive and commitment to what we’re doing and we’re willing to stick through things. Given the realities of documentary, that’s hard. I mean, even with The Devil Came on Horseback, there’s been a lot of excitement and attention, but it’s still a struggle to bring out to the market or even to get it done. We’re talking about a new project right now and it’s nice to have that support. For this potential project on which we’re working now, Ricki wrote up the treatment based on an idea I’d had. It’s so nice to have someone help vet a proposal and put something together and, also, to help push the other person to deliver. It’s so easy to lose steam if it’s just you doing everything on your own.
SIM: Yeah, it’s overwhelming, the amount of work that needs to get done to keep the machine moving.
RS: I think it’s the sheer amount of work that needs to get done with any of this, that’s true. But in giving one another directives that are task-oriented—get the proposal down, write the script—I think any one of us could do that. It’s just that most of the time, you’re juggling so many other things and so after working together for so long, we can fluidly take on what needs to get done. For example, today, we need to get a trailer done for the IFC [where the film will have its New York theatrical debut in July]. So that’s what I need to make my priority as of this moment, getting the trailer down there. I mean, there are times when Annie probably takes on more business stuff than she wants and I’m probably happy to let her do that. (smiles) She doesn’t really want to and so I vow to take it on next time, that kind of thing—constant negotiation like any day-in, day-out relationship.
AS: What I’ve also come to appreciate is that we do really trust and respect one another, so then you can get through those challenging periods, like a good functioning marriage. You get through what needs to get done and you each contribute to taking care of the “family,” which is the film project happening at the time. And we’re pretty good at talking about when things aren’t working so well. “This is where I was frustrated” or “This is an area where you have more strengths and why don’t we play to those strengths?” and so on. And again, particularly in documentaries, there’s just so much work because there aren’t usually the budgets to bring in the staff—it’s a blessing to have this kind of partnership, it really is.
SIM: What are you noticing about the ways in which you worked together on this film? Like a lot of projects for documentarians, this story found you. You’re both very experienced producers, directors, filmmakers—how did this project change you personally? Considering the subject matter and the way the story is told through the eyes of one person, did you feel like you were just being carried along for the ride and sort of blind as to what was going to transpire?
RS: One thing I’m constantly trying to figure out is, how does making a documentary happen? And when can we get to the place when someone pays us to do a documentary? And I realize, as we travel to festivals and do the circuit year after year, the really good, incredible documentaries are those where the people just passionately got on board and just did it. No funding, initially, maybe that came later or they managed to sell it, but if what we want to do in many ways is to make art and tell a story, we’re not going to be given the money to do that. We have to save the money we make on a project to make the next one, and so on and so on. And we try to take on bigger-paying projects in the interim to sustain ourselves. And that’s sort of what we’re facing now—there’s a job we might get which would be great. Because, then, it would give us the time to be developing stuff. You know, honestly, with this project, I would not have jumped into the pool had Annie not been here, because Annie really jumped into the pool first. She had the focus and the drive while I was finishing something else. I just told her to go right ahead when it came across our radar, but I just couldn’t really invest in the initial emotional phases to be there like she was.
AS: That’s another thing that’s great about having a partnership—when an idea or story comes up and timing is of the essence, as it was for this. I think any film you take on has to “carry you along for the ride,” as you said, because it’s so much work to make a film. And sometimes that story comes with just absolutely lousy timing. We were finishing up The Trials of Darryl Hunt and we were deep in it, trying to get a print ready for Sundance and that’s when Brian [Steidle] had just come back from the Sudan. This was spring of 2005. We were still trying to raise money to finish Darryl Hunt. It was insane to think about trying to take on another project at that point. But it was the right story. And I remember thinking at the time, “If we’re going to want to have this done, it’ll be about a year cycle after the other film releases.” Because we wanted to be able to nurture that film when it came out into the world. Darfur was so compelling and no one was doing a story on it at the time. How could we pass it up? It was a combination of something that sort of forced your hand and the partnership allowed us to actually do it.
SIM: And it did specifically come to you.
AS: Yes. However, had we passed on it, they [Brian and his sister, Gretchen] would have searched for other filmmakers to do the project. We were, thankfully, the first people that they trusted enough to ask. Ricki’s uncle, who is a mentor of Brian’s, was the connection and so it’s kind of miraculous that it found us that way. And as is often the case, the film that got made tells a very different story than the one initially presented to us. Gretchen, Brian’s sister, really wanted to have a film about the work she was doing on the ground in Africa. She really wanted to have a documentary made that looked at social development and the impact on the female population of these areas that had been the hardest hit by this genocide. And Brian was consulting because he had had a lot of on-the-ground experience looking at these women, particularly in Darfur. And we basically had to have a conversation with Gretchen saying, “Brian’s story is the film. Your work will come out and be reflected through Brian’s story and you can use the film to ultimately promote your work. But it's his story we need to tell."
SIM: How and when did you come to that conclusion?
RS: Well, it was very clear. I had a conversation with her basically advising her about how to make a documentary about her work in Africa. And it’s not something that I was going to produce or direct. Her project was much more of an advocacy-based thing and I wasn’t really interested unless there was some money to do it. But she’s telling us that her brother had been in Darfur, and that’s what really got me excited. And then we saw the photographs and thought, well, that’s the documentary story right there.
AS: We weren’t interested in doing an advocacy piece.
SIM: I think the major strength of the film is the character of Brian Steidle and his journey. As a film watcher, I want to witness a personal journey. The subject matter is the subject matter—a devastating, hard-to-fathom event occurring in another part of the world. We need a guide, a journeyman to take us into that place and help us to see clearly the landscape and what’s happening in it. That’s the only real way to garner emotional heft—otherwise, the possibility for emotional detachment is too great. That’s really one of the more powerful scenes I’ve seen—his emotional breakdown in the car near the end of the film and the realization of what kind of cost, psychologically and emotionally, the guy’s paid.
AS: Brian was a really tricky character from a filmmaking point of view. He’s actually still pretty damaged by all of what he’s done and seen. There was a lot of anger and disappointment when he came back and saw how futile the work that he had been doing was in the reaction, or non-reaction, of those to whom he spoke about his experiences there. He was tired of going out on the road and basically saying the same damn thing over and over. So for us to basically compel him to do this film--there was some convincing that was necessary. His attitude was, “Prove to me that it’s worth it.” We wanted to see how fast we could make this film. I think we made it really quickly in terms of a documentary’s life cycle, but it still wasn’t quick enough for Brian. He’s a Marine! He had hopes that the film was going to come out at the end of 2005. It took a year and a half, which is fast for this kind of story, almost unheard of for an independent documentary of this scope.
RS: And the other thing is: to be quite honest, and they know this, I kept insisting on asking the question, “Well, what’s the story?” When we finally get to Rwanda and he acknowledges guilt, it’s like okay, great, there’s the crux of the story. But until then, it was a guy who was being an advocate and it didn’t have that emotional arc that was needed to be compelling story-wise, as we had hoped. If you’re given the luxury of following a subject for three years, you usually find the personal struggle and the obstacles somewhat organically. But in his case, we really couldn’t stop filming until we had the end of the story. When he went to D.C., we knew we could show him bringing the story “home,” and when he went to the ICG (International Crisis Group), that moved things along, as well. Thankfully, during that time, he also went to Rwanda and that was the point where he breaks.
AS: We felt really lucky to have captured that. We needed enough time for him to get to that place. Being in Rwanda was really key in that regard. It was a place where people had also really suffered and there was a chance to talk to other witnesses, and Gretchen, as his sister and someone who knows him better than anyone, just kept needling him. He had shared a lot of the stories of what he had seen and been through and felt with her privately. She was enormously instrumental in getting him to that place emotionally on camera.
SIM: How did your relationship with him change in the course of filming? Was it difficult to distance yourself from the huge amount of emotionalism involved and step back enough to see the bigger picture, so to speak?
AS: Well, with Brian it was easy to step back. He’s a professional—sort of like a trauma surgeon. When he was there, he dealt with what he saw as a professional; he was documenting. What we had to navigate as filmmakers is relating to someone who’s tired of being on the road, tired of talking about these things over and over. And there was a certain wariness and a question of whether he should trust us or not. He comes from a military background. It was definitely a hand in hand process. He was to have approval on everything presented in terms of it being factually correct. He wanted to make sure that people featured in the film, whom he felt could be potential targets, were presented correctly and accurately.
RS: We usually really like the people we make movies about. We’ve always had a friendship with the people that are subjects of our films--you spend so much time with them. You hope you have a personal relationship with them—there’s downtime when the camera’s not on and you have dinner together. You’re not just saying, “Okay, thanks, see you tomorrow at 7:00!” But we’re never at a place where we also can’t be critical about the story—the story comes first. We’re careful that we don’t do anything to hurt our subjects, but I think sometimes you have to expose something about them that “on paper” they might object to. But once they see it in the context of the film, they’re okay with it.
AS: It’s a process. And it’s important that they see that we wouldn’t do anything that would intentionally hurt them. So, yes, there’s a personal relationship but with always a bit of distance—you’re always talking about them in the third-person. You’re sort of a "forced" family. You can be very, very different people from your subjects. You can have very different goals. It’s interesting. I think Brian’s agenda with the film was a very particular one. He really felt that his story was bringing the photos back. As Ricki put it, though, he hadn’t yet experienced the emotional reaction that would make him a really viable character for a film. He hadn’t had that change in his nature yet. That was an interesting standoff. Because Brian felt we had everything we needed for the film. We kept interviewing him. And he would say, impatiently, “Well, I’ve already given you fourteen interviews.”
RS: Literally, we probably interviewed him about six times on different occasions, which isn’t even that much. And he would say, “But I told you my story four times” or whatever. And we said, “Brian, we’re probably going to interview you ten times by the end of this.” You can say to the subject of your documentary, in terms of letting them know that you’re going to be living with them for three years, that you're going to want to be with them on Sunday morning at 6:00 a.m., and you say, "I just want you to know that this is a path we’re taking together." And they’re like, “Of course, sure, sounds great. Yeah, I’ll have pancakes ready!” And after a year of doing that, then you get, “Why are you still here?”
SIM: Well, they’re just living their life and as non-filmmakers, at least at the inception, don’t really understand anything about the filmmaking process. And it’s always interesting to see how their knowledge grows as you stay with them—how savvy they become about technical and other aspects of making a film of this nature.
AS: Well, the best is when they start picking up the lingo. Brian kept talking about, “Well, okay, is this a verite moment?” (laughing) So I’d jokingly tell him at certain points, “Okay, we’re going to go get a little verite now.” I remember going on a Texas tour with him and he had been frustrated that I hadn’t been there from the beginning. Brian’s evolution is so interesting. He felt such an urgency about the story of what he had seen and people were inviting him to come and speak at synagogues and universities based on his press. He kind of bankrolled that on his own. Then, Save Darfur Coalition realized that he would be a really effective advocate, and so they said they’d organize a tour for him. So the end of 2005, beginning of 2006, they sent Brian to twenty-eight cities. And he asked me at the beginning of this why I wasn’t filming. Then, when I joined the tour and we were on the road together for almost three weeks, he got tired of us and said, “Man, can’t you guys take a break for a while?”
RS: And he’s aware more than most film subjects. He’d ask us on certain occasions why the camera wasn’t there, why aren’t we filming something he thought was really important, the “good stuff” in his words.
SIM: Did the film end up being crafted a lot differently than you anticipated or were you just really clear from the beginning what it would look and sound like?
AS: Well, in the initial stages of just sitting with Joey [Grossfield], our editor, we decided that we really wanted to make a film that played more like a political thriller rather than an academic treatise on what’s going on in Darfur. We did a lot of interviews with experts to ground ourselves and to also give ourselves legitimacy because we knew we wanted to stick solely with Brian’s perspective. We didn’t want to be called on a lack of legitimacy about the larger issue, though. What was interesting, was that we sat and watched old Godard films, we watched City of God, we looked at sections from The Year of Living Dangerously. We looked at films that had a certain aesthetic, a certain ethos because we wanted to have something fresh and Joey always felt that Brian’s time in Africa, and the Africa sections, should be more impressionistic, should be more emotionally associative, the rest of it playing more like a straight documentary. And even in our rough cuts, the Darfur section used to be much longer. But when Brian's back in New York on his sailboat, a lot of people felt that that was when the story really takes off. It was much more traditional storytelling with clear plot points that moved the story forward so it had some impact on how we reshaped the Darfur section.
RS: And we went through this process, like everyone does, where you have all these other interviews, part of doing our homework. We knew we couldn’t make a movie on Darfur without interviewing “X” and we tried to break away from our narrative in a creative way, but it’s such a personal narrative, it was hard to bring in any outside opinions that directly related to Brian’s experience. And even when people knew him personally, it was so detached, so third-person, and ultimately drew away from the immediacy of this particular person’s experience. And so we decided that we weren’t going to go there—if it’s not going to work once, it’s not going to work at all. We found footage from Darfur of what was happening there, and in a way, it limited us a bit in exposing Brian’s experience there and so we had to find the right footage, which we did in about a month’s time. But it took a while to figure all that out. We went back and forth about deciding on whether or not it should be chronological. We resisted that obvious structure, telling it that way, in “real time.” Looking at it now, it’s obvious, but at the time we struggled with that. But that’s the stuff that really works.
AS: Darfur, itself, is a very complicated story, so how do you do that effectively? Is it all through Brian’s voice? Ricki did a lot of work with archival news services and radio newscasts, Voice of America.
RS: This was an evolution, too. We decided that we wouldn’t have a narrator, so how do you give information about Darfur, without Brian saying, “And then, blah, blah, blah,” in a very contrived way? It became a task of weaving different sources of audio to get that effectiveness, that urgency, that pacing.
SIM: It’s so easy to sit back and intellectualize something like Darfur, a protective mechanism of sorts. But if you’re going to bother to make a film like yours, film being a visual medium, then that impressionistic, saturated color palette, sharp-shooter type of editing becomes a way to inform a viewer intuitively what’s going on there. The care you took to really think about those things is so apparent in this piece—it has to become visceral, that’s imperative.
AS: Ultimately, the subject has to become a greater social issue beyond the film itself. The balance between making it a personal story and telling the larger story of Darfur is important. We needed to tell enough about Darfur so that people really understood the story of what's happening in that place and why.
RS: That’s also a process. Annie was very focused on providing context, focusing on al-Bashir [President of Sudan, Umar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir], focused on the sort of bullet points we needed to provide that context about Africa, about Darfur. I was a bit more focused on Brian’s journey and so those two directions informed how the piece came together. It would have been a longer process if I had been doing this by myself to figure out what was missing, what was essential, how to weave and dovetail those two things.
AS: I think the hardest thing is, that when you take on a subject like Darfur, you’re going to be held to task.
SIM: You’ve been shown a lot of love for this project from festival audiences, from the nonfiction filmmaking community, at large. Where has the backlash come from? I’m assuming there’s been some.
AS: Well, the only backlash we’ve experienced was when we showed the film at the Arab Film Festival where there were Sudanese National Islamic Front members in the audience and, it was just as it was in the film when Brian spoke at the Holocaust Memorial Museum and encountered an audience member who, like the one in our Q&A, basically said that he believed that every interview of the refugees was scripted, he believed that the film was not trustworthy in telling the truth about the situation, that it was serving as propaganda against a certain group of people. We’re investing the whole film in Brian’s story. Another critical comment we did receive happened when we showed it at South by Southwest. There was an Irishman who came up to the microphone and said, “Don’t you feel responsible for creating this jingoistic, ‘America will go save Sudan’ attitude with your film?” And I said, “No, I feel that we were very honest and truthful in depicting Brian as a character. And Brian believes that America has a responsibility.” As filmmakers, we were documenting Brian’s particular journey as a witness and that’s always been my feeling about this film.
RS: It’s true. I mean, people have said that Brian believes in military action. And yes, he does believe in it and whatever you’re sensing from the film is him, in the moment of anger, saying, “I wish I had a knife.” As a filmmaker, I don’t always agree with everything our subject might say or do, but as Annie says, we’re telling his story from his point of view. It’s not always exactly what we might feel or think. But that’s not our job to tell you how we feel or think. What I like about making documentary films is that you get to be in people’s lives, lives you wouldn’t normally get to be in. And you get to, as best you can, tell their story. It’s not my story. I can do a story about a conservative, anti-abortion person and I could fundamentally not believe in what they say or do. But as a screenwriter, as an actor, I’d want to understand their particular motivation. I’m not interested in demonizing them. What is it that drives them to have these beliefs? I need to respect that in order to make a good movie about that person.
SIM: But what’s your opinion, then, on filmmakers who might not respect their subjects that much and do depict them in a negative light, who make fun of them in a way where the audience becomes complicit in the “joke.”
AS: Well, here's the thing about filmmakers like Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald who do that kind of thing--in my mind, what these filmmakers are doing is presenting these social arguments. They're using a medium, just as writers do in the op-ed pages in the back of the New York Times. But these filmmakers I'm talking about are not just creating op-eds with films. They’re very indicative of the documentary medium—films like Manufacturing Dissent and The Corporation, these are films that have a very different agenda. I think our films have been traditionally much more about getting inside a human being and trying to understand human behavior. I felt in doing a film about Darfur, if we can bring enough people to an awareness, then a more academic approach or the op-ed approach can be written based on that awareness. Those things will organically flow from the emotional experience of seeing the film. I didn’t feel a need to do an op-ed on the Sudan.
SIM: Do you think a film like this can change things?
AS: It’s going to happen more and more with other documentaries, but I think something like An Inconvenient Truth broke the mold in a lot of ways in terms of making direct impacts on people’s perception of an issue and has directly resulted in putting the issue of global warming on the map. It engaged viewers at the house parties where it was shown, it changed behavior--the Prius is now the top-selling car. With our film, I feel we're using the same kind of power of “shaming.” The power of photographs and the power of documentary to compel action, that’s vital. One, it can inspire viewers to actually take on an active role in an issue, but it’s also part of the public shaming that apparently needs to happen before people wake up. An example is the China-Darfur connection: there were these photographs that were released by a Security Council member that showed how Chinese-donated aircraft carriers were being painted white, the UN insignia was then painted on the side of them and they were loaded with arms which were then shipped to Darfur. As soon as those photographs became public, Bashir relented to Stage 2 of the U.N. military operations to support 21,000 ground troops there. I think there’s a power to the visual medium that can actually have tangible impact.
SIM: Many in the documentary community feel, on the whole, that as filmmakers creating powerful, investigative, artfully done pieces, we might be stepping into the shoes of a very lazy news media—the supposed “watchdogs” that are keeping an eye on government, elected officials, big business, etc. Many filmmakers I’ve spoken with sense that that void is begging to be filled with substantive content, with" instruction" or guidance on how to stage an action-based movement by and for average citizens.
RS: Well, we started making films years ago, before there was the Internet. There weren’t as many avenues to disseminate and distribute documentary—there was PBS, HBO, some television, maybe a short theatrical run, and then it lived in some educational library. Since the advent of the Internet, you have no excuse to not create some kind of accompanying agenda in terms of social action based around your film, whatever the subject. It’s so much easier now to get it out there. There’s so much opportunity—even something as easy as posting it up on YouTube or creating a myspace page.
AS: With that, I think there comes a sense of responsibility and a power for filmmakers to know you can create awareness, create change, to further an agenda. Or, in this case, to bring awareness to what’s going on—this is certainly our agenda. And to give people concrete tools for doing something with that awareness.
SIM: That’s quite a big chunk for a filmmaker to take on.
RS: It is! There’s a whole new role for outreach being formed.
AS: We both gravitate towards this medium because it can be so beautiful. Sometimes it’s just the power of shooting a quiet human moment. It doesn’t have anything to do with changing the face of an issue or anything on a grand scale, but with our cameras we can create really beautiful moments that say volumes without words. One of my favorite shots ever, was a shot that Ricki directed from The Trials of Darryl Hunt. We see Darryl from behind as he’s walking out his front door and it’s at a point where no one’s sure whether he’s going to have to return to prison the next day. Maybe it’s one of the last nights this man will ever spend in his home. It’s a lingering shot of his face at sunset and that, to me, is a beautiful moment in the film that allows you to share that particular man’s experience, to be in his shoes. I think, as artists, that's always what we’re trying to do, whether we write literature or make film.
RS: I do think that with every film you learn. I really can’t look back at old films I’ve done; it’s difficult. The medium’s changed so dramatically in the past 10 or 15 years, that it’s so easy to say that if we had been working with the kinds of tools we do now, shot the way we shoot now, the choices might have been vastly different—working in film versus video, editing on a truck bed versus on an Avid system using a laptop—there was only so much back-and-forth you could get away with creatively with those tools. It was a nightmare to have to change your structure. Editing now, in this way, really opens up the opportunity for any kind of storytelling you want to create. Especially in documentary, that’s not scripted, you can be so much more creative than you used to be able to be. It really is a luxury.
SIM: And the distribution scenario for this film?
AS: Well, it’s kind of been an interesting mix since we didn’t sell to a major distributor right away coming out of Sundance in January. We’re actually going with a much smaller distributor, so we do have a good deal of control since we’re working in a very hands-on way with Wendy Lidell of International Film Circuit. She just has an awful lot of integrity and really good relationships with theatre owners. To be honest, I think theatrical really matters with this film because I’ve seen what happens when audiences see it together. It’s like a shared commitment to walk out into the day and do something. It can happen with house parties, but it takes so much more initiative to get people to put that together. We saw this weird viral response during our qualifying run [for an opportunity to be short-listed for an Academy Award nomination] in Los Angeles (June 1 – 6), where the numbers just went straight up and by the end of the week, we became the top-grossing film in the independent market. And in talking with people about this response, they told us that they went home after seeing the film and emailed, like 150 of their friends, and told them that they had to go and see it. And, Wendy has also worked with NGOs before; she had a film that had a partnership with Oxfam and so she knows how to work with groups that are already issue-based. So we brought in a really wonderful publicist out of D.C. who knows how to really get in front of key leaders and knows how to rally constituents who, in turn, rally others in the surrounding communities.
RS: I think the whole notion of these mega-distribution deals out of the major festivals, like Sundance, is quickly going to go away. Those companies aren’t really marketing and distributing in a way that can really sustain a film like this one. There’s this one-week opportunity in New York and/or L.A. and if it doesn’t kick it there, it’s over, you know? We need to get to the people. It’s the filmmakers who are going to become these really good outreach coordinators and distributors on top of making films and that’s what I don’t like to do all that much, but. . . . So yeah, the temptation to make that big deal is strong but you have to ask, “But how much do you really love our movie?” We can’t afford to throw this movie away. It’s too important.
AS: Netflix is acquiring films now and that’s also a different level of support. They have seen really great results with films that they helped market to the public. Even though they have no stake in the theatrical, they want to be aware of what we’re doing and help us to maximize certain press opportunities. It all benefits everyone in the end. They just want people to see the film. For us, it’s piecing the deals together—foreign sales here, domestic TV there.
RS: It’s so much more work but it seems to be the best way to go. You need to get a good sales agent, definitely.
SIM: You open your New York run July 25 at IFC with a fundraiser that night. That's just a couple of weeks from now.
RS: Yeah, we have to figure that out and figure out the venues and all that. As you can see by the flying fingers over our Blackberrys, we have many full-time jobs between the two of us.
SIM: Well, go do your thing. And congratulations!