One of the personal highlights of Dokufest this year was meeting up again with old friends, and making new ones. We had quite a few illustrious lights of nonfiction filmmaking there, James Longely, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Gary Tarn, Marshall Curry, Alex Nanau, Pietro Marcello, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, etc., etc. And then there was Mirko Ilic, wildman and creative force. The guy is fly. And while not a filmmaker, Ilic knows all about the intense power of the image. Here is a "reprint" of the article I wrote for the DokuDaily during the fest after Ilic's talk there. (Fisnik, you're a prince among men.):
Yesterday afternoon [24 July] in Prizren’s Hammam Museum, the great designer, illustrator and thinker, Mirko Ilic, delivered a talk to a packed house of young designers and artists in a lecture entitled, “Design of Dissent.” The Bosnian-born 57-year-old runs a very successful three-person commercial design studio in New York City. He was introduced by Prishtina-based designer, Bardhi Haliti, and later in the post-lecture Q&A, Ilic expressed intense admiration for the young artist, in fact, calling him “heroic,” since Haliti had chosen to give up a successful career in New York to come back and work in Kosova.
In his hour-long talk, the charismatic Ilic spoke eloquently and powerfully (and quite humorously) about his own personal journey to discover the power of good design and how it can be used to socially and politically charge a populous to think about the world around them. And, in turn, protest and agitate for change. In speaking specifically of the challenges young Kosovars might face in building a career in the industry, Ilic presented a cautionary tale. Acknowledging that building a local vibrant economy in this young, burgeoning country is of utmost importance, he did mention that this is a designer’s great dilemma. For if someone works for a commercial entity, he or she will constantly have to push products and ideas, which have little to do with the culture in which he or she is living. It is a necessity to make a good living and build a sustainable career. However, it can also sound a death knell for an up-and-coming artist’s ability to constantly create and present a singular vision and body of work that has substance, heft and meaning. The age-old quandary of any creative in the face of a lucrative career is that that career will most certainly present an encounter with the ethics of design and advertising, which can be sticky. (Portrait of Ilic by Lindsay Isola.)
Ilic “deeply believes in laziness,” and feels that the “lazy” creative—one who, say, might think about things six hours of his or her work day and actually produce something for about two—will, in essence, produce much more profound and meaningful work than the designer who “works hard” in front of his or her computer for a solid eight hours or more, for “thinking is the most creative aspect of this business.” It is important to question why one is doing what one is doing for, historically, according to Ilic, “thinking has saved art.” And the ability to produce socially and/or politically motivated work requires time to think.
In speaking specifically of designers and artists working in oppressive regimes, Ilic compared the landscape of working in a controlled and censored regime, or system, versus working in a totally free environment like the one in which he works in the US where he can create anything he wants and put it out for public consumption with little or no risk to his personal safety. In systems of oppression, designers have had to learn to survive by mastering the subtle art of delivering the double message, becoming fluent in “double speak,” the encoded language that is hidden beneath the surface of a, seemingly, mundane symbol or image. “Any idiot can do work that will land him in jail.” It is the intelligent artist who will constantly dredge the depths of his or her creative vision to deliver a wallop subtly, and artfully, to his or her audience, in essence, saying to the client, “If you don’t trust me, I can always mess you up. Trust me, and everything will be transparent.” This takes risk and bravery from not only the artist, but also from the publisher of the work itself.
This led Ilic to talk about the importance of building a personal aesthetic, a personal vocabulary of protest through art, and protecting that at all costs. He, himself, shills for big, corporate clients with big, fat budgets, creating commercials and other design work to sell television shows and other products. However, he also constantly creates, self-publishes and self-distributes work that is not beholden to any paying client. He says, “It is important to do work that protects the rights of others in order to protect your own rights.” If artists can’t or won’t speak for the powerless, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the work is, indeed, meaningless. “In order to be a good subversive, you need brains and the bravery to use them cleverly and clearly.” Speaking specifically of gay rights, women’s rights, black rights, human rights, Ilic emphasized that “you must know your symbols to insult someone on purpose.” In other words, effective insult never comes “by accident.”
To wrap up his talk, Ilic shared an extended slide show of images that he has published in his seminal book co-created with Milton Glaser, The Design of Dissent, sharing the subversive work of artists from all over the world, work that could, and has, resulted in some serious trouble for its makers—imprisonment, expulsion from their homelands, and even, in some cases, death. The book consists of designs that risk, particularly in their use of symbols and imagery of protest about what is happening in the artists’ own culture or country, protest “from within.” An extension of this idea was addressed in the Q&A with the audience (many of whose comments Ilic summarily dismissed as naïve or misguided, urging people to go out and live a little and “then come back and tell me something worth knowing”).
“Change must happen here,” Ilic stated emphatically to the audience. For it’s all well and good, he says, for the very few who will get a chance to study abroad, or get opportunities to work outside their own country to build successful careers. But for those who will stay and build an articulate creative landscape in their own country, the imperative is to have the bravery and intelligence to make a difference in your own backyard.
Zachary Levy's dëbut feature, Strongman, tells of a larger-than-life story writ small. The film had its premiere at 2009's Slamdance and won the prize for best documentary. So why do so few people know about this film, which is one of the most powerful and affecting vérité stories to come out of the US in recent years? While I had certainly heard of the film and knew many people who loved it, this is one of those instances where, perhaps, the film will have a slower build, finding its audience slowly, there for discovery. Levy and his main protagonist, Stanley Pleskin, aka, Stanless Steel, The Strongest Man in the World at Bending Steel and Metal, have a profound rapport which only grew deeper as the two shot together over the course of several years. For some great insight into that aspect, and as an appropriate companion piece to the following chat with Levy, read Michael Tully's review at Hammer to Nail here: "In showing one man's tirelsss quest to wrap the tips of his monstrous fingers around an even somewhat tiny piece of the American dream, Levy has produced a heartbreaking drama that would make Eugene O'Neill proud."
I only saw Strongman but a couple of months ago when Cian Smyth programmed it for the Maysles Brothers Competition at the Belfast Film Festival in Ireland. I was positively floored by its impact on me and unable to shake the film from my head, I really wanted to speak to its maker. Happily, Levy complied:
Still in Motion (SIM): It’s interesting how certain films cross your radar at certain times. It seems like I might be discovering this particular film a bit late?
Zachary Levy (ZL): [laughing] Yes and no. I mean, it feels like in a lot of ways, it’s a largely undiscovered film; at least it feels that way to me. It’s been out there for a while although still largely unknown.
SIM: The second time I watched Strongman, this strange analogy emerged for me. Throughout the whole film, our hero, Stan, always receives a fairly underwhelming reaction to whatever he does—most oftentimes from the people closest around him, his girlfriend, Barbara, his family. All the larger-than-life things he’s trying to do, his ambition and drive to be the best are on display and nobody’s ever paying that much attention. This speaks to the pace and dedication in which you tell this story. I realize how difficult it is to create pieces like this since it’s not really in fashion to do so, and perhaps the reaction from the “marketplace” only emphasizes that. But it’s also so rare to see such a complete and dedicated relationship on screen as the one you have with your main protagonist. Tell me about your initial draw to Stan. What did you see in him that resonated so strongly for you?
ZL: It was a gut feeling more than anything. Certainly the contradictions and the complexity in him were pretty apparent when I met him. There was also a great innocence and vulnerability, although those aren’t exactly the right words. His openness and other things that were all in very tight proximity to one another was interesting. I connected with all that quickly. That’s just at the character level. I felt he was a character that could carry a story and one I cared about, someone who resonated on a personal level so the film could be carried beyond the clichés of how people might choose stories.
It seems to me that filmmakers, way too often these days, are choosing things on their commercial merit, a story they’ve seen before. On some level, too many people, I think, are choosing to make films that are, basically, copies of other films they’ve seen. It’s always hard to articulate why some stories resonate for certain people and others don’t. But I did feel like it had those elements where it would resonate for many people. However, that wasn’t the motivation for making the film.
SIM: What sets this film apart is, of course, the relationship between you and Stan. You allow us to hear you, but we never see you in frame. But you do manage to be quite a forceful presence since he does turn to you for validation many times, especially during the more stressful moments he’s going through. I think most people can feel that kind of authentic bond; it automatically makes you someone to be trusted, both by your protagonists and by your viewers. There’s also no ambivalence on Stan’s part to being filmed and the sense that a documentary subject might be feeling less than secure always makes me a bit nervous. I felt, in this case, that this documentation of his life and what was happening was often a lifeline for him, helping him to articulate all the things he thinks deeply about. Both Barbara and Stan struggle with words and the way they’ve resolved that is to parrot what they’ve heard on TV, from books, from other sources outside themselves. They don’t have the words so they re-purpose things to express their own feelings and points of view. It made me realize that the ability, or inability, to do that carries a lot of weight.
ZL: Yes, you’ve hit on something very few have really noticed and that is that as much as the film is about strength, both inner and outer, it’s also a film very much about language. Literally, Stan is looking for an announcer the entire film. That’s the film. And Barbara, too—she’s also looking for an announcer and her sister, for the most part, plays that role. In Stan’s case, by picking Barbara to speak for him, he’s chosen a person who is largely silent in a lot of ways. She has an extremely firm and strong voice when one strips back all the layers, but she doesn’t have a lot of confidence in it. Stan can also say some pretty profound and deeply true things but he doesn’t trust that anyone will understand him. That tension, between the things we speak and the things we are silent about, that desire to be heard, is a huge part of the film.
SIM: Concurrently with all those individual struggles, there is a very unique and very touching love story you capture between Stan and Barbara. It sneaks up on you, the depth to which they can relate to one another, even though there are aspects of their relationship that are troubled given the way in which they have to deal with Barbara’s sister’s interference. In fact, Barbara’s sister’s role in this drama is symbolic in a lot of ways as a physical manifestation of the conflicts between Stan and Barbara. She was, in fact, the only one that seemed exceedingly uncomfortable in front of your camera and expressed as much. She acts as some kind of weird Greek chorus, commentating on the “action” in their household.
ZL: The other part of it, too, is that both Barbara and her sister are much more concerned about image than the other subjects. Stan cares about the image in terms of his showmanship and his ideas about that, the presentation. For him, what’s more important is something deeper than that, something more internal. He’s not sure if Barbara has that or not, or understands who he is. “Do you really get me?”, he seems to always be asking her. That element of image does play a part in their individual relationships to the camera.
SIM: Well, really the only time we get to see Stan shine in that aspect of showmanship is on the British game show and that comes very early in the film. He’s such a natural showman, as if he was born to do that. He loves the camera and it loves him back in that instance. The audience is with him right away—he tells them he needs them. What’s interesting in terms of the dramatic structure, is that you start with something like that where many directors would end on that note. What follows, instead, is a pretty relentless slide. One of the things Stan says after doing that show—and he’s kind of pissed off at the quality of acts that are also on there—is “You show craftsmanship.” But right after that, he also says, “You show realism,” as if the two, somehow, go hand in hand. It’s such an amazing metaphor for documentary filmmaking.
ZL: Particularly for this film.
SIM: How long did you shoot with Stan?
ZL: I would say the active shooting took about three years. The story arc you see in the film represents roughly a year and a half of filming. I went back for several more years—it was a fairly long time to make this. In some ways, an embarrassingly long time; it depends on how you look at it. Perhaps other filmmakers would be impressed and wince at the same time. I just wanted to capture anything that was changing dramatically as long as there was room to do that. The editing of the film happened after all the shooting was finished. There were about 135 shooting days over the course of the primary three years. With any kind of documentary filmmaking, but particularly with this kind of documentary filmmaking, there’s a lot about it that has the element of a fishing trip. You have to be willing to sit by the river for a day or two and nothing really happens. I had never filmed anyone, however, where at the end of the day, I had so much footage that was usable. There often were three scenes at the end of a day that could have been in the finished film. It came to 230 hours of footage. Which is, admittedly, a lot, but these days you do see people shooting 400 to 500 hours. Effectively, I think you lose so much when you’re shooting in that range. There’s the risk of missing something essential in the editing room because you have so much material to sort through.
SIM: Contextually, so much of your shooting nonverbally illustrates some pretty profound statements in relation to Stan’s story, which is a very American story—a larger-than-life guy in a larger-than-life culture, a culture that consumes everything in its path.
ZL: Well, Stan’s world was a very hard world in which to shoot. What I mean here is in a physical sense, leaving aside the other emotional things. The kitchen downstairs in his mother’s house where his grandmother lives was tricky. There are these ropes from which they hang wet laundry [laughter]. These laundry lines inside the kitchen are eight feet off the ground. There’s horrible boom shadow in that room, anyhow, and with the ropes and everything, it becomes really difficult to maneuver.
But one thing that is useful when shooting people for a while is that you get to really know their habits and actions, behaviors they repeat regularly. When I’ve taught cinematography—or documentary making since it’s a storytelling lesson as much as one about cinematography—I always tell people that whenever you’re shooting vérité, one thing to really pay attention to are these predictable or repeating behaviors. If you pay attention and your eyes are open, you’ll see a lot. Stan would always sit in the same chair or Barbara would. I could begin to anticipate where I should situate myself after a while. You become more comfortable using these things as storytelling devices and to make your work a bit easier. But you do miss things; it’s inevitable. Sometimes they are things that seem incredibly important. But I think that anything that’s important in life comes back, not necessarily in the same way that you missed, but it does come back and I learned that over and over during the process of making this film. The confidence in the storytelling comes from not worrying so much about what you missed or what you lost because they will reappear in some other shape.
SIM: Speaking of that, do you want to know my favorite scene in the film?
SIM: I couldn’t tell you why this affected me so deeply, but I felt it was really when I totally connected to Barbara. Stan, Barbara and another guy are sitting in his truck at night and the only light is coming from the light inside the car and the dashboard. The guys are totally wasted and Stan is in an angry mood but trying to make himself feel better by rocking out to a song, singing at the top of his lungs right into Barbara’s face who’s sitting beside him. It’s a scene where everything is just sitting on the edge of some precipice; everything’s at stake. The shooting is extraordinary considering your space limitations but you get an awful lot of great stuff in close-up, great reaction shots, particularly of Barbara’s face. And then there’s a point where you can only see her eyes and the look in them is indescribably sad and bewildered, a look of sheer entrapment. It’s like she’s having some weird flashback to high school and just completely staggered that life is repeating itself in a nightmarish déjà vu.
This is one of those scenes—and there are a lot of them—where it plays out for quite a long time, much longer than most directors would choose to let them run, thus leading to your longer running time than the average feature doc these days. Usually, seventy-five, eighty minutes and you’re out.
ZL: That drives me crazy, that obligation to “proper” length because I have to tell you, if anything, I think this film might be too short. The structure of the film probably works best at two hours and ten minutes. It doesn’t actually feel any longer at that length; it just breathes a little bit more. But that’s a hard length to put on a shelf. If this weren’t my first film, I probably would have had more confidence to do that. There is this unspoken pressure that a feature documentary has to be 90 minutes or less. It’s death to good filmmaking.
SIM: Yes, but there are many feature docs that don’t warrant their length and seem way too long and indulgent, so I don’t know the answer to that. What sets this film apart is the pacing of most of the scenes and this is a strong editing choice. You don’t cut away with abandon; in fact, quite the opposite. By letting things play out, you create a really profound connection for a viewer with these characters. You catch those moments when they’re not actively performing or doing anything, really. This is a rare thing since most pieces are edited with that eye blink pace that gives me a headache. You allow us to really look and observe. With your filmmaking choices, you were saying something about that.
ZL: Yes, absolutely. There are a lot of things to say about that. So much of traditional film story is about change, transformation. In a lot of ways, that kind of profound change is a fictional device. Major change in who we are doesn’t happen in one moment or several moments strung together. Or by just a surface change in one’s appearance or what have you. The problem may somehow be worse in documentary filmmaking these days than in fiction—this squeezing in of these kinds of forced story arcs which create a phony sense of storytelling change. We don’t see a lot of change in Stan and Barbara. But your understanding of who these people are is changing. The change that’s happening is the internal changes the viewer is experiencing and that’s exciting when the film works on that level. A lot of audiences don’t want that, or are ready for that; they don't go to the movies to experience that. A lot of people would be fine if the whole film concentrated on Stan’s trip to the UK to do that TV show.
SIM: Placed at the end, of course, since it’s his triumphant moment, so to speak.
ZL: But it’s just the beginning of the film. I’m starting there from a filmmaking point of view very intentionally; it's a very precise choice. We’ve all seen that other story before, many times. But, yes, you’re right, they’re not the choices many others would have made. I like to think that most people who see it will have the same type of experience you did where they engage deeper and deeper as the story goes on. That’s what I hope for.
It’s funny, Stan was watching the film not so long ago. He’s seen it a number of times. I asked him if he wanted to go outside for a bit and he said, "No, Zach, it’s involving!" [laughter] He got totally reengaged with it as an audience member and got involved as if he were watching other people.
SIM: That’s part of what’s so fascinating about him. More than most people, he has a really wide-ranging perspective for such a small-town, backwoods Jersey boy. I notice in most autodidacts, there is an ability to focus that’s pretty intense. Stan is so focused on his goals and dreams almost to the exclusion of everything else. And when that focus is broken by what he considers to be an interference of some sort, he breaks down quite easily. It’s so easy to make fun of that in a way, and even though there are lots of humorous moments specifically because of that, he’s for real.
I think of that strange scene in WalMart where he’s waiting for Barbara to finish shopping and some kids come to stand around to see what you guys are doing considering you have a camera trained on him. His face flushes with pride because someone is giving him that much attention; his life is interesting enough to warrant that. He’s getting so much out of the experience of being filmed, even more than you’re getting from filming him and that’s not such a common occurrence. His true lack of self-consciousness is a real asset to a filmmaker. Tell me a bit about your editing process for this long-term project.
ZL: Well, unfortunately, as I mentioned briefly earlier, I didn’t edit as I went along. Part of the problem was that I shot part of it on digibeta. I used to work as a freelance cameraman for several people and I knew someone who had a digibeta camera. A guy named Vic Losick used to have a camera rental business and he gave me a camera to use and told me that if I ever got money for the film, I could pay him back. Of course then I didn’t know how long the film was going to take. At the time, there weren’t a lot of 16 x 9 cameras out there so it made a lot of sense to shoot with that. I thought I would shoot for six months and then be able to get some money to complete the film. And that never happened [laughs] so I had all these digibeta tapes on a shelf and no way to watch them. In essence, I was shooting blind while I was making the film. There was an element of not really knowing what I had even though I did, essentially, have everything in my head, what I was getting and not getting. I didn’t start editing until five years after the initial shoot.
SIM: Did that make a lot of the earlier footage fresh for you?
ZL: Yes it did, but it was also terrifying. When I’m watching my own raw footage, I’m seeing very clearly every day’s shoot. I see not only the actual footage but am also remembering everything that had gone into that day—from whether or not I could get a sound person that day or arrange the rental car or pick up the equipment—all the mess of production day in and day out for years, really. It was a result of not having money so every day was a struggle just to get to the point of actually shooting. I also remember the things that were happening in my life at the time. When I’m looking at the footage, it’s almost like being in therapy [laughs]. I’m seeing all the choices I made and sometimes that’s hard. After so much time not seeing the footage, seeing it was often quite scary in some ways. It was exciting, as well. I could feel how alive the film felt for the first time.
SIM: Who helped you out the most during that time of going through all that footage and settling in to assemble it?
ZL: It was really just showing people I trusted the footage and gauging their reactions. That was really helpful. Not everyone got what I was doing. I showed a lot of people. I probably talked to fifty editors in New York, at least. One person told me that he thought that Stan didn’t have a really expressive face. I knew right away that was not the right person for me since I can’t think of anyone I know that’s more expressive than Stan. But it wasn’t just professionals I would show it to; I showed many friends who aren’t filmmakers. It was a process of finding the people that did connect to the work since that was my audience. Luckily, the people I liked the most liked what I was doing and that was reassuring. One of the biggest challenges of being a documentary filmmaker, especially one that works pretty much solo, is that it’s difficult to discern when you’re in the vacuum by yourself and when you’re not. That was a challenge for me throughout the process. But every encouraging word—any encouraging word, really—got me to the next day and then the next. But from day one, there was a part of me that believed so deeply in this. It was something that took hold of me and I wasn’t going to let go. It goes back to what you were saying before about how so much of this film is about documentary filmmaking itself.
SIM: Yes, especially because your story arc ends with the realization that these two people have found one another to be much more of a support system than they had supposed and that Barbara, somehow, does find her voice since she does the best intro ever for Stan at the very end of the film. It is a really lovely moment, so playful and alive. They even do a role-reversal of sorts, which is hilarious.
ZL: Throughout the film, I’m trying to play with this tension of what an audience expects from a movie and what they would feel is “real life” in any kind of traditional way. That’s why the film doesn’t end at the Hollywood moment when they kiss. It ends thirty seconds later.
SIM: The post-Hollywood moment then.
ZL: Their lives are not magically fixed in one moment but they understand one another more. And perhaps then, we can understand ourselves a bit more. We might see the roles or the parts that we’re playing. But again, it all comes down to the audience and how they’re reacting, especially if you’re not presenting the Hallmark card variety story arc. It’s way too easy to write half sentences in your filmmaking if you expect that your audience’s needs are quite basic and they don’t need or want any more substance than that. To serve up familiar emotions with the accompanying visuals allows for a pretty insubstantial experience and there is certainly that kind of engagement, engaging with cues of what they’re supposed to feel, rather than the work as a whole. I think a lot of people find that totally satisfying and don’t want or expect more than that.
I think there are a couple of different audiences for a film like Strongman. The people who seem to respond the most to it are either artists themselves or artistic in the way they engage, in general. The other group of people that is responding, or has responded strongly to the film, know nothing about documentary filmmaking; they simply get involved in the story and the characters because it resonates on a very basic level.
SIM: Like it does for Stan.
ZL: Like it does for Stan. I really would like to say that what makes audiences engage are stories that take them to places they want to be taken but I don’t know if that’s always true since much less than that is enough to engage people who come see a movie, whether it’s a festival audience or not. And that’s a challenge for filmmakers who aren’t interested in making that kind of film. Ultimately, as a filmmaker, you have to trust that if you’re engaged, then there will be other people out there that will be, too.
SIM: Yes, and with a film like this that doesn’t hit the market very hard, there is a chance for discovery, a long shelf life, if you will, since films like yours are distinctly not made for that fifteen minutes of glory, but rather the long haul. You chose an incredibly inspiring protagonist, one who is rigorous in his efforts to always improve, who has the discipline to always pull himself back on track when things derail. I would like to see more subjects like him. We need these films that tap into things with which we all struggle. There is a distinct lack of substance in almost everything we encounter these days, unfortunately.
ZL: I couldn’t have done it any other way. It still is a film under the radar in so many ways. But I’ve received both big and deep responses from people who have seen it and still think about it a year later and still want to talk about it. My hope is that it will continue to resonate with more people. The paying-the-rent part of all this is always difficult, but I’m optimistic about the long-term prospects. At the very least, I hope it encourages more filmmakers to make work that is true to themselves and who want to push the door open a bit wider for other kinds of films.
Filmmaker, artist and curator, Marie Losier, was born in France in 1972, and has been living and working in New York City for the past seventeen years. She creates singular portraits of vanguard filmmakers, musicians, composers and artists, although many of them are far from obscure. Losier has given her distinctive filmic treatment to the likes of Mike and George Kuchar, Guy Maddin, Richard Foreman, Tony Conrad and Genesis P-Orridge, the subject of her latest piece called The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye. She also has intimate friendships with all of these talents. Here’s what filmmaker Charles Burnett wrote to her in 2006 about her work, “I sit with a smile on my face. I wish there were more people like the characters in your films, in the world. It takes you on a ride that weaves the real and surreal.” And Maddin has dubbed her “Edith Sitwell’s inner Tinkerbell.”
Her films have shown widely in museums, galleries, biennials and festivals all over the world, including P.S.1 in New York City, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Biennial, Rotterdam International Film Festival, La Fondation Cartier, The Tate Modern, The Wexner Art Center, Luxe Gallery, White Column Gallery, the Ismailia International Film Festival in Egypt, Anthology Film Archives (where she also curates experimental film and video shows), Ocularis, British Film Institute, the Musée d’Art Contemporain, among many others. She was recently the subject of a full retrospective at the Buenos Aires Festival of International Cinema.
Since 2000, Losier has also worked full-time as the film curator at The French Institute Alliance Française in New York City, where she presents a weekly film series and has hosted the likes of Raoul Coutard, Claire Denis, Chantal Akerman, Jane Birkin, Jeanne Moreau, Jackie Raynal, and Anouk Aimée. As well, she has performed in films by George and Mike Kuchar, and Jackie Raynal, and in plays by Juliana Francis and Tony Torn.
Her work with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, born Neil Andrew Megson in Manchester, England in 1950, has been a seven-years-long collaboration, and has resulted in her first feature film, which will début as part of the Forum at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye is a glorious pastiche that features the story of the incredible love between Genesis and Lady Jaye. Tragically, in the midst of creating this project, Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge unexpectedly passed away at the age of 42 on October 9, 2007.
Most famous for the bands, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, the 63-year-old Genesis currently resides in the house in Brooklyn, New York where he lived together with Jaye. There, Genesis reads, paints and writes. He also tours extensively, giving lectures, talks and performances throughout the world. As part of the Forum Expanded section, Genesis and Tony Conrad will perform an improvised violin concert together on February 19th at Berlin’s Hebbel-am-ufer Theatre.
During a trip to New York at the very beginning of this year, I met with Marie at the charming East Village coffee and pastry palace, DeRobertis Caffe. In walked a tiny figure, bundled up in a long coat and chapeau against the winter chill—an utterly charming and warmly-smiling gamine—to talk to me about her latest project, her unique and intimate relationship with Genesis, and the long and hard road she traveled to complete this film:
Still in Motion (SIM): I think it’s always pretty easy to tell when the subject or subjects of a film have encountered the maker that’s meant to record their story. I’ve seen wonderful examples of that several times in the last few years. You have a distinctive way in which you do portraiture in film. Some of the first footage I saw of this piece was where you and Genesis were playing a game of hide-and-seek amongst the shelves of a gigantic home archive. It was so playful and so lovely. And, of course, it’s an amazing and deeply moving love story.
Marie Losier (ML): Very moving. Gen is amazing.
SIM: When and how did you first meet one another?
ML: Seven years ago, I went to see a concert of Alan Vega with Suicide at the Knitting Factory [in New York City]. I was really excited because I loved his work but, unfortunately, it was a terrible concert—really bad. However, the third part of the concert was Genesis, of whom I didn’t know anything. It was Three Majesty, her third band. So it was Bryan Dall, Genesis and Lady Jaye on bass, and she was reciting poems and it was so amazing, her energy and her presence were astounding. I had no idea who they were.
The next day I went to an opening—which I never do—right in Soho. I walked into this gallery and it was a show about music and painting. It was packed with so many people. I was crushed against a wall because I’m so small and I stepped on someone’s foot. I turned around to apologize and it was Gen. She looked at me and all I saw were huge gold teeth in a big smile. I told her that I had seen her concert the evening before, told her how beautiful I thought it was, how moved I was. She looked at me for a couple of seconds, gave me her card and asked me to call her. When I called, she asked me to come over.
When I got there, I was introduced to the basement where she greets people when she doesn’t know them. I was sitting on this gigantic plastic chair shaped like an open palm. She was staring at me and then called Lady Jaye. Jaye walked down the stairs, looked at me and asked me if I’d like a coffee. She asked me what I did, what kinds of films I made, so I talked a little bit about my work.
Something passed between the two of them and Jaye looked at me and said, “She’s the one. She’s the one who’s going to film our life. We’ve been waiting for you.” Ten days later, they took me on tour with Psychic TV. I didn’t know their music at all, but it had been a dream of mine to go on tour with a band. It was really intense. I jumped in. That’s how we met.
SIM: It sounds like you had no choice in the matter.
ML: It was like it was waiting for me, yes. I always wanted to be in a rock band and this was it. And then, through the years, I learned about Gen and Lady Jaye. I lived with them for a time. It was then I saw the love story. Also, filming the concerts and being on tour made me really sure I didn’t want to do a film about a rock band. It’s very repetitive and a bit cliché. I wanted something more. Discovering their archives made me realize how much was there.
SIM: She’s front and center in this film. It appeared to me that Jaye, at times, was a bit reticent about being filmed. She could ham it up for the camera like in home movie fashion, but she seemed to almost shy away a bit once in a while.
ML: She was more of a private person. But also she had a very strong personality. They would do everything together. There was a complete energy balance with everything they did, all day long. The pandrogyny project was as much Jaye as it was Gen. They were muses to, and for, one another. So I saw something really balanced. Jaye was much less comfortable being filmed. I first did spend more time with Gen because she was so open. And then, suddenly, in 2007 Jaye died.
I thought that would be the end of the film, really, because it was so tragic, but I kept filming up until last year, 2010. I did really think that would be the end, though. Her death was a complete shock and Gen was completely devastated. It was the end of the band; it was the end of everything. Gen stayed at home crying for about a year. I spent a lot of time there and she said to me that she didn’t want me to stop. She wanted me to keep making the film in memory of Jaye. I had to adjust to both taking care of her and supporting her and also to keep the film going. It was just really painful and hard, so heavy. I film alone so it’s not like I have a crew to make it a bit less intimate, so it tends to be very emotional. You have to be careful—sometimes, you get taken into things you don’t want to and it’s very painful and, at times, very forceful. Sometimes you see things you really don’t want to see and there’s no protection.
SIM: One senses that vulnerability. There is one scene where she’s sitting listening to a song and starts to weep and the camera gets put down immediately as you go to her. There would be a lot of filmmakers that would have just sat there and kept shooting.
ML: I’m really close to Gen; she’s a very dear friend. We’ve been through so much and she knows me inside out. She also knows how hard I’ve worked on this and that I’ve done it entirely by myself, including negotiating music rights, archival rights, credits, and other things where I really have no idea what I’m doing. It’s endless—building a website, on and on. Steve Holmgren, who came on as a producer after the film was made, is helping, but I’ve had to do everything else by myself. Not to mention the fact that no funding for which we applied came through. It’s been a hard film to pull out since I also work fulltime so it’s been one roll [of film] at a time. I think the film is just too experimental for many funders, and I think Gen scares some people.
SIM: Ironically, their story has been an inspiration for other films. I think of Jake Yuzna’s Open, which won a Teddy at Berlin last year, for instance. Also, the times that they lived through and the incredible people that Gen calls friends and colleagues is pretty damned impressive. You’ve captured an important piece of literary, art and music culture in the 20th century.
ML: Yes, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, the list goes on and on.
SIM: It’s possible you would have been supported more extensively if you had been making this film in Europe.
ML: Well, it was also one of those instances where I just started filming. There wasn’t a choice in the matter and I have never really worked with a producer before so I didn’t have one on this film either. To then look for money three or four years into the project was difficult. Thankfully, I had a few grants that supported me during that time. But the film was basically self-funded. I also didn’t want to bend at all in my creative vision for this piece. When I did the IFP market, I met with a lot of people who really wanted to help but the film needed to be a bit more “commercial” for them to be able to do that, more of a traditional bio-pic, I guess. So that made it clear that I just had to keep making my film my way. I have so much material that is not going to be in the final film. I’ve done many, many interviews that I’m not using and I have interviews of people who are no longer here, like Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson of Throbbing Gristle, who died a month ago, people like Gibby Haynes [of the Butthole Surfers], Peaches [Mermaid Café, The Shit]. I decided in order for me to really make it my piece, it would have to be Gen’s voice and Jaye’s voice.
SIM: There are also these wonderful, whimsical interludes that you use where you dress Gen up in costumes and do little “passion plays” and such. You externalize the flights of imagination she’s used throughout her career to express herself. For anyone who knows your work, “playtime” sessions with your subjects are de rigueur.
ML: I also live this way. I do a lot of that playtime type of thing in my daily life with my friends. It was great to push Gen to do it without a lot of thought; she just trusted me and dressed up and did what I asked. She’s always portrayed as a rock icon, very posed, the whole concert/fan thing. But I know the Gen who can be so whimsical and so out-there in another way. I wanted to turn her into this other character. She lives her life as a sort of fiction, anyway. Gen fears nothing. Yet she’s the most sensitive and emotional person, and quite shy, actually. She loves being alone, reading books. Everything else she releases on stage.
SIM: Berlinale is, of course, one of the most important film festivals in the world. Are you excited, intimidated, nervous? You’ve exhibited films there before, but this time, Genesis is also going to perform a live show with Tony Conrad at the fest, which should be amazing.
ML: Gen is nervous. I introduced her to him for a scene in my film about Tony. She saw the film [Tony Conrad DreaMinimalist, 2008] and just fell in love with him and asked me about him. She didn’t know his music or anything. And I knew Gen’s favorite instrument is the violin. So I set up a scene where both of them are playing the violin. I organized something more formally, since people really wanted to see this unique collaboration. We made it into a two-day concert at ISSUE Project Room and also did an album. They became really good friends and now are touring together. I should be an agent [laughing]. So in Berlin, they’ll do their concert, which will be totally improvised. (Still of Tony Conrad and Genesis in "Slap the Gondola," 2009, photo by Bernard Yenelouis.)
The curators in the Forum Expanded section are really amazing about pushing the edge, creating events for the festival. Vaginal Davis and Bruce LaBruce are always creating something really unique and special there, all these amazing artists that live in, or come through, Berlin regularly.
SIM: What’s so delightful for me, always, is the fabulous sense of humor that accompanies all this madness. It’s great fun. Gen, too, is a very funny person, almost like an old vaudeville performer. The sections without synch sound are so evocative of the silent movie era
ML: Well, the use of no synch sound in the film was a bit scary. I worked for years without that. I was afraid it would put a viewer too much outside the film. But I think I found ways to bring a viewer in. Gen’s always worked with cut-ups. So, in a way, certain parts of the film act as kinds of cut-ups. It works with the subject.
SIM: Have you edited the whole film on your own, as well? It’s beautifully edited.
ML: Yes, essentially, but the editing started with the support and help of friend, Charlotte Mangin. She went through all the footage with me and helped shape and build the story. I also had invaluable help after eight months when everything was assembled, including sound. My friend, Marc Vives, came in and helped me to move things around when I couldn’t see anymore. The story needed some shaping and I wanted it to have more of a feature narrative storyline. I’m not a narrative person. And I couldn’t move the pieces anymore. I’ve always edited my own films; it’s an essential part of the process for me. It wouldn’t have my touch otherwise. I had about 20 hours of 16mm film and about 60 hours of interviews on HD. I also have non-HD video; there’s a lot. I could make many movies [laughing].
SIM: I would think that someone, at some point, would be very interested in the archive you’ve gathered.
ML: Yes, I always keep an extensive archive. Gen’s used some of the material for music videos or projections for her concerts. You see some of that footage being projected during some of the shows—a movie within a movie.
SIM: The way in which Genesis has recreated herself over and over again speaks to that way in which your footage will probably be manifested in several different ways. That’s the joy of making art and, to me, that’s apparent in all the film work you do. Your pieces remind me in a way of handmade quilts, excuse the quaint analogy. I guess what I’m saying is that no one else can weave together these elements like you can considering your emotional proximity to your subjects.
ML: I’ve also learned so much from living next to Gen for so long. As an artist, it opened many doors in ways of thinking about things and ways of being. I see someone who is fearless, who doesn’t have a lot of money but lives in this uncompromising way and keeps going, really experimenting. To me, that’s the key of life—that freedom. It’s really hard to do it.
SIM: How does she survive?
ML: She sells some of her paintings. Now it will be a bit difficult since Throbbing Gristle doesn’t exist anymore. That was paying a good amount touring with that band. Psychic TV also doesn’t exist. There will be some shows here and there, but not enough to make a living. She also lectures, sells artwork. (Lady Jaye, second from left, and Genesis, center, in a Psychic TV publicity still.)
SIM: Can you talk about your impressions of the pandrogyny experiment, this living art piece that Genesis and Lady Jaye created together? It’s been called performance art. It’s been called a lot of different things.
ML: Well, I will say that, for me, that was not the subject of the film and not something I was interested in focusing on. Their “credo” about all that and why they did it was not really the interesting thing for me, so much as the love it expressed. What I saw in all that, almost exclusively, was the love story. To do a story on two people who engaged in plastic surgery to transform themselves to look like one another as a piece of performance art wouldn’t be up my alley, frankly. But I’ve known her for years and have an archive of rock music and so that pandrogyny was part of the cut-ups, being male and female simultaneously. It’s part of the “performance” but it’s also so much about being Gen and Jaye and their love. It became something else for me. People might be disappointed because this is not a “fan” film about Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV. It’s a disturbing love story.
It was a bit difficult for me since I was moved by both Gen and Jaye, as people. But I was compelled to tell this story of this unique transformation. These are real people. As strange as it is, when you think about what they go through, it’s just a human story. For Gen, it’s not about becoming a woman or being transgender.
ML: She likes being “she” right now.
SIM: A way to stay close to Jaye.
ML: Jaye is always there. She’s unbelievably present. Gen still uses the pronoun “we,” not “I.” It’s both of them, all the time. I’ve only known Gen as a “she,” so it’s pretty straightforward for me. It’s much harder for people who’ve known Gen as a man to say “she,” the daughters, for instance. They call her Dad.
SIM: To me, the most important thing this portrait of a life says is that all of us are separate but equal to everyone else and we can do whatever we want with our lives. Genesis is inspiring in that way of never asking permission from anyone about how she feels she needs to realize and validate her existence. I really hope audiences will tap into that more than anything else in your film. That and the amazing music she creates.
ML: Yes, the music is something that has attached me most strongly to the film. Seeing her perform makes me remember that, how much I love the music she makes, her voice, that singing / talking voice that carries everything. Gen’s voice, for me, is just beyond. I want this film to be a musical ballad; this is why that word is in the title. It’s also, of course, a love ballad.
SIM: There must have been moments over the past several years when it all became too much for you considering this devotion you’ve had to Gen and Jaye and their story.
ML: [She laughs, shaking her head.] There were moments when it was really hard and I wasn’t really that strong yet. Gen was hard on me, as was the band, at the beginning. They were testing me. I had to go through a lot. And there were some really heavy times, emotionally. I was fragile and sometimes it ate me up. There were times I wanted to stop. I was also making other projects and keeping up with my everyday life. It’s hard to only be with one person for so long. Gen also saw how stubborn I am and has discovered other things I do, all the friends I have, the life I have. But she also knew I would never give up on her and the story and the project.
But now that the project is finished, I am looking forward to just going to a movie together with her, eating ice cream together, and not be filming everything! But I relate to people mostly through my work, working and collaborating on something. And our relationship is based on this creativity so I’m sure we’ll keep doing things together. And we have several months ahead touring together with the film, of course.
SIM: Gen’s life, post-Jaye—what does that look like? I know from what you say, Jaye’s presence is always there, but do you think she will want to spend the rest of her life alone?
ML: She explains it this way: Jaye was the ultimate love of her life. She told me that in order to be with someone else—which she would love because it’s hard to be alone all the time—that person would have to love Jaye, as well, and accept that Jaye will always be there.
SIM: That would take a pretty expansive individual. It sounds highly romantic, but difficult.
ML: That person will be very hard to find. Most of the time I see Gen, she’s alone and she seems to be okay with it because Jaye’s there. And she’s also surrounded by a few, genuine, really good people who care for her deeply and have been a part of her life for a very long time.
SIM: You chose a very open ending for this film which is, obviously, appropriate for a life far from finished. What were some of the harder editing choices you had to make for the cut audiences will see at festivals?
ML: There were some really, really beautiful scenes with Peaches dancing that were really great. There were some fantastic and funny scenes with Gibby Haynes. Those kinds of things were hard for me to let go. There were some with Sleazy. But it became too cliché to have those scenes in the film. They really belong to any kind of “extra” material. Ultimately, they distracted from the main story. There were also some beautifully shot, very whimsical scenes with Gen with great costumes and things that were hard to let go.
SIM: What’s the distribution plan post-festival run?
ML: The only thing I know for sure right now is that the film will be distributed by Arsenal in Germany. Stephanie [Schulte-Strathaus, co-director of Arsenal—Institute for Film and Video Art, member of the selection committee of the Berlinale Forum, and founding director of Forum Expanded] was the first person to show my work at a major festival and has had a huge influence on my ability to exhibit my films. I owe her a lot; she’s been an incredible mentor.
But other than that, I don’t really know. Steve has some ideas. It’s so nice to have someone working with me with so much passion and excitement, someone who’s working so hard without getting paid. It’s such a gift to have such a dedicated producer; I’m not used to that. Also, I must mention, too, that Martin Marquet, a dear friend, is working on the producing and publicity aspect. And Elyanna Blaser-Gould, my assistant, has my eternal gratitude. Without her constant support, I could not have done any of it.
SIM: I’m looking forward to meeting you and Genesis in Berlin. People there will love the film; I know it.
ML: We’re both so nervous and anxious, but also incredibly excited. Yes, see you there!
(All photos courtesy marielosier.net, with the exception of Psychic TV still, courtesy Dan Mandell, www.danielmandell.com.)
At the 53rd International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films back in October, I spent most of my time immersing myself in the wonderful animation programs, some of which I'm hoping to bring to Berlin soon for Kino Satellite with the cooperation of curator, Annegret Richter. Here is a reprint of my article on the programs there from the newly-released Winter 2010 / 2011 issue of DOX Magazine:
Time works differently in the animated world. In just five minutes’ time, we can travel through wide swaths of space, live many lifetimes, extract the essence of a complicated emotion or event, or unravel a deep human mystery. These stories are mostly told nonverbally with sound effects, music and glorious image replacing traditional narrative styles. With abstract images, absurdist plots, and a very liberal sense of time and space, a distinctive universality emerges that transcends culture.
At the 53rd International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Films, the artistic and narrative diversity on display in the animation program was truly remarkable. The International Competition consisted of four themed programs with a total of 32 films; the International Panorama showcased 27 films; there were two Animadok programs exhibiting 16 films; 22 films of Neue Deutsche Animation; 19 films in the Anima Für Kinder program; and, Pink Elephants, the best of the young international animation scene.
In addition, there were three curated programs by Latvian-born animator, Signe Baumane, also one of the competition jurors, along with Olaf Encke from Germany and Andy Glynne from the UK. Finally, in a special encore, there was “Battle of the Sexes—Animated!,” a show that Baumane and Bill Plympton débuted at the IFC Center in New York City this past spring. Plympton, “the king of indie animation,” was also at the fest to lead one of the master classes. It all amounted to a boatload of cartoons.
Much has been written of late about the power of animation in documentary film, specifically its ability to deal with difficult subject matter, or the ability to re-create historical events in which no recorded film footage is known to exist. Yet, in the daily AnimaTalks held in the café next to the animation theater, all the visiting filmmakers, whether they are making fiction or nonfiction, talked about the elasticity, the freedom, to create whole worlds in accelerated time. Animals act like humans; humans act like animals; an identifiable creature turns into something we’ve never quite seen before; a person can tell his or her story just using voice and other aural elements accompanied by illustrated abstraction.
Or the image is quite literal, drawn in a clearly delineated style—we recognize what we are seeing because it is “life-like.” But perhaps it is the soundtrack that is shattered into abstraction, using non-realistic interpretations of what the event sounded like as it was happening. Real life can be intensely surreal, and there is no better cinematic tool to explore surrealism than animation.
Not all, but most of the pieces in the programs, whether they were fiction or nonfiction, were pretty brutal, exploring dark themes and difficult material. Viewers were taken on a multitude of journeys into the subconscious minds of the creators of these stories, stories told in brooding, or outright violent palettes creating emotional dislocation, a waking dream—or nightmare. In this vein, the films in the international competition reflected these dislocations in a myriad of ways. In a program entitled Kein Kinderspiel (No Child’s Play), seven filmmakers explore the relationship between parents and children, and the role of children in the family from the child’s perspective. Ann Marie Fleming in her film, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (Canada, 2010), adapts a memoir that explores the influence that a parent’s very dark past can have on his or her child. These films dealt with divorce, the death of a parent, abuse. A family only communicates via technology when they’re sitting around the dinner table together in Daniel Greaves’ Speechless (UK, 2009)—a story for the modern-age, to be sure.
Yet in the program called Reiseaussichten (Chances of Traveling), other filmmakers turn to whimsy, using extremely bizarre humor to explore journeys to different worlds—from the ones taken right in our backyards to trippy travels in alternate universes. Some of the creatures making those travels cannot even be seen by the human eye, as in Matray’s hilarious Babioles (still pictured above), which won the Silver Dove in the competition and clocked in at a cool 4 minutes 40 seconds. The coveted audience award went to another traveling animated piece, a documentary of one man’s travel diary, Bastien Dubois’ Madagascar, carnet de voyage (still pictured below), an absolutely exquisite piece of storytelling at a more satisfying 11 minutes 30 seconds. The illustrations, the color palette, the music, the sound design of Dubois’ film, were all so thrilling, I would gladly have sat through a feature-length piece.
This brings us to the more practical aspects of making animation—the costs and the inordinate amounts of time it takes to put together a piece of animated cinema. Bill Plympton talked a lot about this in his master class. Even though he speaks of making animation as being “god-like, creating all these characters and creatures by hand,” he also talked a lot about the practicality of the work itself in terms of the marketplace; he’s a fan of the "short, cheap and funny." This is the case for Signe Baumane, as well, an artist who worked for Plympton when she moved to New York from her hometown of Riga in the mid-90s . “I like to eat and I like to fuck, so my films always are about food and sex,” she told a delighted audience at one of her late-night shows. Ironically, both are currently working on feature-length animation films. Baumane shared a few minutes of her work-in-progress with me called Rocks In My Pockets, an autobiographical account told in her own voice of the time she spent in a mental institution in her native Latvia. Like a lot of the best animation, it is both riotously funny and profoundly sad.
Leipzig has a special program for animated documentaries where they screen the best new films of the genre, and explore the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction as the best doc programs these days do. In Vom Menschlichen Wert (Stories of Personal Value), curator and new head of the animation program at Leipzig, Annegret Richter (formerly the artistic director of Filmfest Dresden), showcased films “with a very personal perspective that raise fundamental political questions.” Standouts, for me, in this program were A Kosovo Fairytale, a student film by Anna-Sofia Nylund, Mark Middlewick and Samantha Nell, which tells the story of a family torn apart by war—one parent Serbian, the other Albanian. The filmmakers animate the family's escape from their war-torn homeland minus the youngest son, who stays back in Kosovo with his grandparents because he is too young to make the days-long journey in a dark, cold truck that carries the rest of them to a better life in Finland. White Tape (still from film pictured), a painterly film that only lasts for two minutes, is based on five seconds of video footage from the project “shooting back,” initiated by the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem. The organization gives Palestinians video cameras to document life under occupation. The extraordinarily moving and inventive film, Shall We Take a Walk?, tells the story of a blind Korean boy who takes his hospitalized older sister on an imaginary walk through a world that he’s created in miniature with his own two hands.
The other anima-doc program called Nobody Is Perfect was “a smorgasbord of bizarre stories.” The great Swedish animator, Jonas Odell, opened the program with his latest, Tussilago (still pictured right), a beautifully drawn film accompanied by a narrated story from a terrorist’s girlfriend, who explains in a ravaged voice how she got caught up in some bad business in 1977 which ruined the rest of her life. Netherlands’ filmmaker, Rogier Klomp, creates an eerie atmosphere with drawings, graphics and voiceover to explain the amalgamation of the world’s media companies in his 4-minute film, This Is Propaganda: Part A—The Masters of the Media. And Daniela Sherer from the USA interviews her 83-year-old grandmother who tells her about one night when she was a frightened 17-year-old in 1941 Krakow, Poland, and her memory of a small kindness from a stranger when she was in hiding from the Nazis.
At this juncture in our cinematic evolution, we see that animated films can go beyond stories that show things that can’t be filmed. That’s no longer the point, really, although animation can be a creative refuge for difficult-to-relate stories, whether it is because there is, indeed, no visual record, or because of the personal trauma the subjects have experienced. Collectively, we are discovering that even though documentaries capture what appear to be spontaneous happenings, animated true stories rely solely on the artistry of a singular human creation. The quantifiable aspects of time and space are loosed from their moorings in reality, allowing filmmakers the ability to re-chart the course of those elements so that they can be experienced in a more malleable way. Hopefully, the debate will never stop raging about what can call itself documentary, and what cannot. But seeing so many diverse and creative pieces of animated fiction and nonfiction only makes me believe that much more strongly in personal vision—its freshness, its immediacy, its originality, its artistry.
Look for my review of the partially-animated new feature documentary, the devastating and artfully-told, The Green Wave, as part of Hammer to Nail's upcoming Sundance coverage.
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Read my latest interview with the directors of October Country here.
Upon discovering the captivating photography work of Mark Hogancamp in an issue of ESOPUS Magazine, an arts journal that is published twice a year featuring "aspects of the contemporary cultural landscape," Los Angeles based editor, Jeff Malmberg, got in touch with Hogancamp in hopes of doing a short cinematic portrait of the man and his work. Four years later, after dozens of self-funded trips from his home on the west coast to Mark's home in upstate New York, together, Malmberg and Hogancamp came out the other side of an incredibly intense and life-changing journey for both of them. (The director, pictured left, next to his subject, Mark Hogancamp.)
The result of their magnificent collaboration is a feature documentary--Malmberg's first--called Marwencol. (Be sure to check out the film's fantastic website to read about Mark's story and to see his creations). The film débuted at the South by Southwest festival in March of this past year, and walked away with the grand jury documentary prize, the first of many festival awards including the Cinematic Vision Award at Silverdocs, Der Standard Readers' Jury Award at the Vienna International Film Festival, and the Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Filmmaker Award from the International Documentary Association. An unabashed critics' darling, as well, the film received The Boston Society of Film Critics' Best Documentary award and voted Malmberg Best New Filmmmaker of 2010. Marwencol is currently rolling out what is proving to be a very successful theatrical release through New York-based distributor, The Cinema Guild in the US and KinoSmith in Canada. The film and its maker have gathered a slew of nominations, including four from the Cinema Eye Honors, and Best Documentary and Truer Than Fiction noms from the Spirit Awards.
When the film played at the 2010 Sheffield Doc / Fest in the UK in November, I moderated the Q&A for one of Marwencol's screenings with Jeff and his wife and producer, Chris Shellen. Both are engaging, open-hearted people and it was clear they were having the time of their lives (although they both had flu and Jeff had injured his arm). The audience was deeply moved by the film and obviously charmed by Malmberg and Shellen--as was I. Between theatrical engagements in San Francisco and Berkeley in Northern California, and the film's opening in Denver, Colorado, Jeff took some time to chat with me over Skype from his home in LA about the past five incredible years of his life.
Still in Motion (SIM): How’s the rock star tour going? Does it feel like a rock star tour?
Jeff Malmberg (JM): It does, except for the budget and no wild stories. But other than that, it kind of does feel like that, yeah.
SIM: And congratulations, as well, on all the nominations and critical acclaim—that must feel pretty wonderful.
JM: It does. But the audience reaction to the film is really the big thing. It’s so amazing to see how Mark’s story goes over. It’s really interesting to see.
SIM: Has he been able to accompany you to theaters some of the time?
JM: No, but occasionally we’ll call him so we can do a phone Q&A for a couple of minutes. He likes doing that and the audience really likes hearing from him. He came down to New York for the opening there [at the IFC Center].
SIM: I would think it still must be very difficult for him to be in large public spaces with lots of people around.
JM: Yeah, but I think it helps him to know that everyone's on his side. He’s not comfortable flying and not comfortable with a lot of people who don’t know him. It’s usually not really what he’s up for. He handled the New York thing really well because I think he felt like everybody there was going to protect him.
SIM: I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand an audience react to the film and to Mark's story. Why do people love this film so much, do you think? What is it tapping into, in your opinion, in terms of the zeitgeist right now? What are people responding to?
JM: There’s something about Mark that’s really honest—a lot more honest than probably most everyone is in the course of a normal day. A lot of us convince ourselves of certain things that maybe aren’t above board and we know it. Mark is so incredibly honest. He made a promise to himself that in his "second life," as he calls it, he would never lie. In the film, for instance, when he’s explaining how Deja Thoris' time machine was built, he doesn’t necessarily want to tell you those details, but he has to, you know? [laughing]
The other thing I think the film taps into is the notion of alter egos, alternative creations, being another person or representing yourself with some kind of avatar, either online or what have you. Here’s this person that’s taken that concept to the nth degree.
SIM: My admiration for Mark is in his absolute monk-like devotion to what he’s doing, how he’s living his life, tending to his own wellbeing with everything he has. You, in turn, display that kind of attention and nurturing in the way you record him. There are lots of other—quite distracting—elements in this story. Obviously, we want to conduct this interview without divulging any spoilers since those “surprises” are such an essential part of the human being that’s being revealed to us.
JM: I agree. But what we can say is that he’s one of those really special people who is just not kidding around. Initially, it might be easy to dismiss him in one way or another. You think you understand this guy or you can see what he’s doing as just kind of sweetly “playing with dolls,” or whatever. But as I got to know him, and as audiences get to know him, you realize that he’s one of those people who is on a mission. He’s using every moment in his day to try and scale this mountain, so to speak. And it is a really beautiful thing. Frankly, it’s just downright inspirational. What he’s created is monumental, mentally and physically.
SIM: The film is remarkable, too, for the way in which you juxtapose the footage to the events in the unfolding story. It psychologically matches the relationship that developed over the course of those years you were filming, as you were growing a relationship with one another. I think the way in which you put this piece together really speaks to that, and totally justifies the liberties you decided to take with the chronology of how things were revealed to you. Your intuitive decision-making in that regard was really in high gear. To me, that is the essence of a really good documentary filmmaker. It’s so obvious to me when someone has that. The curator from ESOPUS that discovered Mark’s work and took it public has that instinct, too.
JM: You’re hitting on the most interesting part of the process for me and one I don’t really get a chance to talk about. I first encountered Mark through his photos and this backstory of his that was so fascinating. But it was one of those experiences where you really need someone who’s ready to go down that road. Many people at Q&As ask me how Mark let me in; everyone wants to know about this access I had to this person.
The short answer is that I met someone at a time when I really wanted to get down to it in a pretty serious way as a filmmaker. The smart things I did, looking back, were going to see him and film him by myself for the longest time. I never set up any lights or reflectors; most times I didn’t even take a tripod, I would just balance the camera on my knee. So all that was helpful. But more than that, I had encountered a person who was really ready to let it all go. We were two people who wanted to go down that same road, a road of discovery. We both knew certain things, but there were also other things we didn’t know, things we didn’t yet understand. He certainly didn’t understand it all when we started. Our quest was the same one and together we could figure it all out.
I had a lot of scenes, for instance, of us going to the courthouse, or to meet the woman who found him on the side of the road the night he got beat up, Nora Noonan, who is this really wonderful person. We went with her to see the spot where she found him. But somewhere along the way, I realized that these scenes weren’t necessarily really germane to the arc of the story. It was, however, important background that we had to do together.
SIM: Sounds like an archeological expedition.
JM: It was totally like that! I was filming from 2006 to 2010, six to ten years after his attack. One thing that struck me as I was getting to know Mark during that time, and that I hope is reflected in the film, is the process he goes through as a victim of an incredibly violent incident. He’s constantly chewing on these negative equations of this post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d been doing that for close to a decade. It would have been better, of course, if his therapy hadn’t been cut off like it had; maybe he wouldn’t have been in this situation of having to figure things out for himself. That being said, if you’re going to do a documentary about someone and that someone is going to open up everything to you, it’s important to make sure that he’s going to get something out of it, too.
SIM: Well, what’s a bit ironic—and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out—is that I don’t think any expert or therapist, or what have you, could ever have accompanied him on the journey he takes, the one you took with him with your camera in tow. That is the most moving thing about this film for me, Mark’s self-salvation, with very little help from anybody. We live in a society where it’s very common to look outside ourselves for help, for aid, for support.
JM: In order for us to show up, all the other people have to show up.
SIM: There was no one there for Mark, and this was someone who really needed help! His discovery of this incredible inner reserve as a newly born person is, indeed, inspiring. There’s no other word for it.
JM: The biggest thing I learned during this whole thing was that there is no replacement for using your heart. A documentary from fifty years ago or a doc made today—if they’re well made, they have this overlap, this idea of kindness and appreciation. If you look close enough at anything, it’s possible to see beauty. I didn’t expect to find a teacher like Mark. I thought I was making a little eight-minute short of somebody who plays with dolls in his backyard, who’s created this really rich fantasy world and photographs it. I didn’t expect to go on this journey. This might serve as some sort of template for me as I continue to make more films. Go find something that fascinates in some way and jump in. And take your camera with you. I don’t expect all of these ideas to pay off in the way this one did. My wife and I joke about our “doc-of-the-week” ideas. Let’s go make that film! And next week, it’ll be something else. Sparks are easy.
SIM: Short attention span cinema.
JM: Exactly. I think it’s best to always just think of these potential projects as short films and let it be a surprise when it turns into a feature.
SIM: Not a bad strategy. Let’s circle back to the onslaught of regard for this film. As a début feature director, it’s obvious you’ve splashed big, at least in the American market which is probably the toughest market there is, particularly for documentary. And as documentary makers, it seems the world toys with us endlessly to see if we’ve really got what it takes to make nonfiction films. Most of the best makers I know just have this inexplicable devotion to the craft of making nonfiction and the rest seems like so much background noise as they go about their work, as you have done with this film.
JM: I think I’d be extraordinarily lucky to meet anyone like Mark again and I was incredibly lucky in meeting him when I did. But there’s always the next step: what do you do with this “stroke of luck,” do you know what I mean? I always want to get inside people’s heads; it’s an interesting place to be. It’s something you can do in documentary that you can’t do in narrative. It happens in novels, maybe. Mark let me inside his amazing head.
There’s really nothing to understand about the “business” end of things in making these kinds of films. It’s mind-boggling. I really appreciate the response this movie is getting right now. But you know as well as I do that on another level, this was not a “grant-able” or fundable film. All these dynamics I encountered during this project were kind of through a side door. What I can tell you is that now I do want to buy some new equipment [laughs]. I just bought some sound equipment and now I’m looking at cameras. I just want to be in a place where the next time something comes across my path that I want to do, I can just go out and shoot it.
SIM: You started out with the intention, as you said, of making a short film about Mark. When you realized you had a feature on your hands, to whom did you turn for advice besides your inner circle of producers?
JM: It always was only that inner group, the four producers on the film—my wife, Chris Shellen, and my friends Kevin Walsh, Tom Putnam and Matt Radecki. And me. That was it. We didn’t really show it to anyone at all. We didn’t know anyone to show it to! It’s only now after moving through this festival tour that I’ve met all these great people with whom I do want to consult and show cuts to the next time. It would be great to have that input. As an editor, I really thrive on that, and I need it.
SIM: All that input can be a mixed blessing sometimes, too.
JM: Yes, definitely, it’s got to be when you’re ready for that. I didn’t even show anything to those four producers for the longest time. I wanted to get lost. At least in this case, it was appropriate to get lost. Mark had created this world that was so vibrant, I wanted to get lost in it. I also knew those four people would make sure I didn’t get too lost [laughing].
Once the film was at rough-cut stage, it was really Janet Pierson [the director of the South by Southwest Film Festival] who saw through the crummy video output to the film’s real beauty. She could see what it was going to look like and was the first one to really champion it and program it. That was everything for us in terms of launching this film.
SIM: Well, considering you walked away with the documentary grand jury prize, her instincts were spot-on.
JM: It was a dream come true. I remember calling Mark from the bathroom after it happened. “Mark, Mark, we just won the grand jury award!” In his mind, grand jury means something else completely. So he goes, “Grand jury! . . . Is that good?”
SIM: That puts things in their proper perspective pretty darn quick, doesn’t it? [laughter]
Do you find the festival junket and constant Q&As a surreal experience? I’m asking this for a specific reason since I conduct a good number of Q&As with artists and filmmakers regularly. It’s such a weird experience to present the person who made the work to an audience that just experienced something pretty intense, pretty wild. This instant dialogue is meant to happen when people are still processing. But there’s the expectation that there’s this amazing opportunity to talk to the maker—ask brilliant questions--go!
JM: I know exactly what you mean. It’s a bit unfair to an audience. Everyone’s still processing what they just saw, the lights come up and I bound up there and say, “Hi, I made the movie. What do you want to know?!” You can kind of see a certain anxiety on a lot of people’s faces, especially if it’s not a festival environment. Chris and I were just in San Francisco and Berkeley this past weekend and I saw that on their faces there. This was a weeklong engagement at a Landmark theater. There’s this weird adjustment period that can be very awkward.
But I will say what we realized doing all these Q&As was that it’s really important to always make sure that you work on a subject that you don’t mind talking about for a solid year—or longer. The great thing about Mark and Marwencol is that I don’t have all the answers to that; I never will. I’m a pretty studied person on all this and, in part, can be everybody’s tour guide, but the audience actually informs me and makes me rethink things constantly. It would be really tortuous otherwise. We find that the questions people ask, for the most part, are very subjective in nature.
SIM: That’s the best litmus, I think, for the success of a film. Do people take it to heart and really resonate with it in a personal way? This guy is, or could be, any one of us. But how many of us could self-heal like Mark does, in that particular artistic way? And not to sound completely cheeseball about the whole thing, but you really feel the love you have for him—it’s there in every shot. Yikes, I sound like a Hallmark card, sorry; I can hear you laughing.
JM: I’m laughing because I’m not necessarily that person all the time. But that kind of love and devotion was required. I was talking to you about this at Sheffield when we were discussing how every movie should match its subject—the form of it--especially in documentary. You don’t really know what the form of what you’re making is ultimately going to be. You really can’t if you’re doing it with any amount of integrity. And you really need the person you’re shooting to be on the journey with you. You don’t really know the “genre” your film will fall into until you’re done shooting. As I was shooting, all I really knew was that I wanted to bring it, because I just care for that guy so much. That soaked through, I guess. And hopefully, it’s representative of how the audience feels. I just read a review that said, “Movies rarely let you inside someone’s head. But this movie pops open Mark Hogancamp’s head and lets you jump in.” That made me really happy because that’s sort of what I was going for. What is it like to be on the other side of that crime? So often we hear from the aggressor’s side, the prosecutor, perhaps, but the victim is always this kind of MacGuffin in that his or her situation gets the story going and then they sort of take a backseat to the "action." But I wanted to try and show what it’s like to really be that victim, on the other side of evil. What does it take to get the trauma ground out of you, and can you ground it out?
SIM: Or the ways in which you just can’t. You don’t supply any nice, happy ending, that’s for sure. What’s so beautiful about docs is that you show one aspect, one part of a real person’s life. The movie may end here but that life goes on. It’s one thing to admire a fictional character, but it’s quite another to know that this person you just spent an hour and a half with is still out there somewhere just living his life, still processing what happened to him in his own distinctive way, still creating all this remarkable art work because it’s the only thing that makes it possible for him to go on. The role of artists in our society right now is a really dire one, I think. It’s really rare to find someone that pure in the way they express themselves.
JM: Mark brings up a lot of questions that I’ve always been interested in, particularly this idea of “outsider art.” What exactly is that term supposed to mean? Outside of what, exactly? He’s somebody who has to do this; he has no choice. He’s not doing it to impress people. He’s doing it because he wants to express something about himself, to himself. When those people are labeled “outsider artists”—I don’t know. It’s so incredibly ridiculous to me. I’ve never understood that and I didn’t really want to make a movie about that. To me, Mark is the perfect example of why that term is owned lock, stock and barrel by the commercial art world.
SIM: It’s just one more thing to commodify. What you just expressed really nicely articulated something I’ve been thinking about lately. As someone who writes about art, I’m currently going through what I can only call a severe case of paralysis about writing something about anything anyone is making anymore. It seems so pointless, such an inane exercise in many ways. I don’t even know what I’m writing about. A movie? A social cause? Some artistic phenomenon? It’s fabulous to celebrate good work but I’m really questioning the exact value of doing that. It’s all a self-referential nightmare after a while. [Malmberg laughs] Anyway, I really like what you just said.
JM: We had some people from New York see it recently who are from the art world—you know, capital A, capital W. Their reaction to the film was really interesting. I don’t think they quite knew what to make of Mark.
SIM: What were their impressions?
JM: It was their lack of impressions. They said, “Thank you very much,” and they left.
SIM: Well, I suppose you can be flattered if you left people like that speechless. That's something, I guess.
JM: I hope it shook them a little. I don’t know. That’s why I always subscribe to ESOPUS. I think a lot of what that publication does makes you question those boundaries, those lines, those rules. Mark naturally brings up all those questions.
SIM: But he had a taste of that gallery world and we see how confusing and, ultimately, meaningless it is for him. It's like a Martian landing in the midst of that world and you see the people there trying to adjust to his frequency, some willingly, some not. But he is really not able to adjust to their frequency at all.
JM: As much as I got along with Mark from the beginning and really felt a kinship with him, it wasn’t until we got to the art show that it really sunk in for me what this movie was going to be about. Thank god for videotape or a card where you can just keep rolling. You just never know. I remember that moment very clearly when he asked me outside the gallery what in the world he was supposed to do. I could see how bewildered he was. The whole last period of time that I’d been shooting with him, which was pretty substantial, immediately ordered itself in my mind. I think the audience gets set up in this, as I was set up, in thinking that somehow the art world was going to solve all his problems, that we were going to go on that typical narrative journey where getting to the "big art show" was going to make him better. We want him to be better, right? We’re used to narrative fixing people, in books or movies, or whatever. But in real life that’s not always really the case. Your use of the word Martian made me think of that. That’s what it felt like for me.
Now that the movie’s done, I can say that I feel like the time for analysis and discussion is before or after the making of a film. But if you’re engaging in any of that during, you’re sunk. There’s a time where the work is pure muscle; you’re just showing up every day with your camera. Then there’s time to do the work with your heart and there’s a time to intellectualize with your mind. I have to be very careful in these interviews to really convey that I did not know ahead of time a lot of what I discovered. The mystery and loss of control was the wonderful thing about it, the best part, to my mind. I would hate for some wanna-be first time filmmaker to get the wrong idea. In a lot of interviews I do, it seems like the person interviewing and crafting the conversation is setting things up to make me look a lot smarter than I actually was about all of this. It’s just not true.
SIM: Were you fearful a lot of the time you were shooting with Mark?
JM: Yes! There were many periods where I had no idea what I was doing. And here I am with all these wonderful prizes and nominations for my directing and editing work. So, the next time I’m that frightened, I’ll just think, “Oh wait. I must know what I’m doing somewhere. The last time this happened, I got nominated for awards!” Maybe I don’t have to be so frightened next time [laughter].
Seriously, the real honor is that I had a subject with whom I could get that lost and get so upside-down about. But I hear from filmmakers all the time about how they set out to make a certain movie; it was going to take exactly one year from start to finish; and they made it, the end. And these are mostly movies I don’t really vibe with most of the time.
SIM: So what I hear you saying is that fear and uncertainty are good.
JM: As long as you’re willing to work through them, they are. You’ve got to keep pushing. All I can say to someone considering making documentary films is that you’ve just got to have an undying, burning desire for it. It’s really a format that can be very user-friendly if you’re willing to go for scaling the wall, for a crazy idea. Or something that really matters.
A quick post betwixt fests: just coming down from Sheffield Doc/Fest and a very active marketplace--wow! I just filed my report for DOX Magazine; look here for film reviews in the coming weeks. Loved, loved, loved Marwencol (and felt very honored to host the Q&A at Sheff). This was the film's UK premiere and during the Cinema Eye Roller Disco party, it was announced that the film had garnered nominations for Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking (CEH's version of "best film"), as well as nominations for outstanding achievement in direction, editing, and début feature. The film opens this Friday the 12th at the Landmark Nuart in LA, Malmberg's hometown. Don't miss it!
I also saw The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, a 187-minute tour de force from director, Andrei Ujica, and also a nominee for a Cinema Eye Spotlight award. Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop was another film I was lucky enought to host with its producer, Jamie D'Cruz, and editor, Chris King. Exit is nominated for six Cinema Eyes: best film, production (award goes to the producer), editing, international feature, début feature, and the audience award. Quadrangle, an outstanding piece directed by Amy Grappell, was a film I saw at the last SXSW, but I had a chance to see it again at Sheffield where it played with Catfish. (I loved Catfish so much!) Quadrangle is one of the nominees in the CEH best short film category (which is new this year), along with Andreas Koefoed's Albert's Winter, Arsy-Versy by Miro Remo, an amazing student film that has won many awards around the world, James Blagden's Dock Ellis and the LSD No-No, and Vance Malone's The Poodle Trainer. I also got a chance to see the world premiere of Jerry Rothwell's excellent Donor Unknown, a totally ready-for-primetime doc--that's a compliment. Delights out of the Scottish Documentary Institute Focus strand: Calling Home, Surpriseville and Twinset. More coherent thoughts beyond "I loved it!" on all of these outstanding films at some undefined free moment in the future. And to see the rest of the categories and nominees for the Cinema Eyes, taking place at The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens on January 18 (and broadcast on The Documentary Channel), visit the site here.
Early tomorrow morning, I fly to Copenhagen for CPH: DOX to spend a few days taking in their incredible program. I've already seen quite a few pieces out of there which has just whet my growing appetite for more visionary programming. I mentioned to a colleague recently that it's getting harder and harder for me to watch more traditional docs when I see all the innovative ways in which young filmmakers are stretching, mashing and creating new ways in which to storytell. Very exciting stuff, indeed. Look for articles on the New Vision category out of CPH in DOX and on the program that Harmony Korine curated for the fest this year on Senses of Cinema. (Pictured, still from Israeli artist Roee Rosen's staggering film, Out.)
The call for entries is open for the International Women's Film Festival Dortmund | Cologne. The theme for 2011 is NOW WHAT: Films About Getting Out of Here. They are looking for films by women directors that deal with topics on Quest for Meaning, Orientation, Confidence, Antagonism, Rebellion, Utopia. There are no restrictions on genre, running time or year of production. You can find more detailed information here. Entry deadline is 29 November.
There is also an International Fiction Feature Competition endowed with 25,000 Euro; that entry deadline is the 7th of January and the film must have been finished within two years of the festival date in April. As well, there is a National Director of Photography Award endowed with a 5,000 Euro prize for fiction, and a 2,500 Euro prize for documentary. This is an advancement award for an up-and-coming German cinematographer/DP. They also accept films by DPs who either live and work in Germany, or finished their training here. Entry deadline is 31 January. Vist the web site for updates and to download entry forms. The festival will take place in Köln, Germany 12 - 17 April 2011. (Pictured, still from Susan Muska and Greta Olafsdottir's Edie & Thea: A Very Long Engagement, 2009.)
In New York, the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival opens once again at the Museum of Natural History, 11 - 14 November. On Saturday the 13th, the festival will present the New York premiere of Human Terrain with filmmakers David and Michael Udris and their collaborating Watson Institute Research Fellow, James Der Derian, for a post-screening discussion. In a co-presentation with the Goethe-Institut in New York, the festival's opening night will honor Veterans Day with Dustin Grella's Prayers for Peace and the New York premiere of Jens Schanze's Plug & Play, a documentary starring some of science's most famed researchers. In another strand, the fest will celebrate The World's Children with films that address the unwavering hope of children around the globe faced with difficult circumstances. Featured films will be Born Sweet, Shelter in Place, Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana's exquisite Because We Were Born, and one of the most moving shorts I've seen this year, Carol Salter's Unearthing the Pen. Visit the web site for more info and on how to purchase tickets. (Pictured, still from Unearthing the Pen, 2009.)
Lastly, but far from leastly, our second KINO SATELLITE show happens tomorrow night in Berlin with a selection of work from filmmaker, Ken Jacobs. We're pleased to present a program of recent works by the legendary filmmaker, one of the pioneers of the New York avant-garde. The program includes the German premiere of his most recent film, a loft, which just premiered at the 2010 Viennale (still from film, pictured). The show will be introduced by Ekkehard Knörrer of Die Tageszeitung, Cargo and Perlentaucher. We will show The Day Was a Scorcher (2009), 8 minutes, color, silent; an excerpt from THE SKY SOCIALIST Stratified (2009),19 minutes, color, sound, music by Olivier Messiaen and Michael Schumacher; Capitalism: Slavery (2006), 3 minutes, color, silent; Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), 14 minutes, color, sound; Ron Gonzalez, Sculptor (2009), 20 minutes, color, sound; and, a loft (2010), 16 mintues, color, silent. I will, of course, be in Copenhagen, as mentioned above, but Andrew Grant will be on hand to welcome you to Direktorenhaus--doors and bar will open at 7:30 p.m., and the screening will start at 8:00.
Not only is this the year I will finally have an opportunity to revisit one of my favorite documentary festivals, but one of my favorite contemporary artists, Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo, will be making the selection for the Top 10 for the 23rd edition of the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The festival was started over two decades ago by Ally Derks and is still running under her impressive leadership today. As Honkasalo has done for nonfiction film, so has Derks done for nonfiction festivals. In fact, in my report from the festival in 2007, I recall using the word "Mothership."
In terms of Honkasalo's work, I can hardly ever properly articulate my feelings for her films, they move me so deeply, in particular, The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (an unmitigated masterpiece), and her latest, the quietly powerful, exquisitely beautiful, Ito--A Diary of an Urban Priest. The images from her films resonate and haunt me forever, it seems.
Honkasalo's selected films place an emphasis on cinematography, and also show off the exciting territory between fiction and nonfiction storytelling some of the best filmmakers of the 20th / 21st centuries have explored. A retrospective of her own work will be exhibited and Honkasalo (pictured) will be holding a masterclass at the festival, as well. The IDFA will be held from 17 to 28 November and will be staged, as it has been for the last four years, around the Rembrandtplein.
Here are Honkasalo's selections:
The Earth by Aleksandr Dovzhenko (Russia, 1930); The Mad Masters by Jean Rouch (France, 1955); The Earth Trembles by Luchino Visconti (Italy, 1957); Close-Up by Abbas Kiarostami (Iran, 1990); Kyoto, My Mother's Place by Nagisa Oshima (Japan, 1991); Quince Tree of the Sun by Victor Erice (Spain, 1992); Brass Unbound by Johan van der Keuken (Netherlands, 1993); Tell Me What You Saw by Kiti Luostarinen (Finland, 1993); The Smiling Man by Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann (Germany, 1996); and Blockade by Sergei Loznitsa (Russia, 2005).
Also, something of note coming up In New York City: The New York Times and P.O.V. are holding a free event. There will be a panel discussion entitled, "The Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg and The Times," moderated by Jill Abramson, the paper's managing editor. The panelists are Daniel Ellsberg, Adam Liptak, Supreme Court reporter, and Max Frankel, the Times' former executive director. The event will take place on Monday, 13 September from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. at the TimesCenter (also home of the Cinema Eye Honors). RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Tuesday, October 5, P.O.V. will broadcast the Oscar-nominated film, The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. If you can't make it to the live event, it will be edited and broadcast along with the film next month.
Carnivalesque Films has just announced their fall slate of releases, four of the strongest documentaries I've seen in the past couple of years: Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri's October Country; Darius Marder's Loot (an extremely overlooked gem despite its top-prize win at LAFF '08; still from the film pictured); Bradley Beesley's Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo; and Sam Wainwright Douglas' Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio. Douglas' film will be the first to market, available the 24th of August following its broadcast on PBS on the 23rd. The company and the film's director will be co-releasing the film. (Be sure to add it to your Netflix queue.) The film premiered at SXSW in March, and is currently traveling around the US on an extensive screening tour.
The kind and generous, Ben Fowlie, the founding director of the wonderful Camden International Film Festival (September 30 - October 3), writes to remind everyone who reads this blog (all five of you) that there is less than a month left to get your submissions to the programmers there for the sixth annual fest. CIFF is fast becoming a domestic nonfiction festival of note--just ask AJ Schnack. Both of us were a few of those privileged to be invited up to Maine last year, Schnack with his third feature doc, Convention, and I to jury the international competition and to help launch their new industry initiative for local filmmakers called Points North. (Pictured, me and IFP's Danielle DiGiacomo in an intense powwow before our panel discussion at last year's fest, 'scuse my back). Check the CIFF website for more details and information.
Currently, I am working from the lovely city of Berlin doing various film curations (more on this in a bit), developing some film and installation projects, and trying to learn some German. The scene here is quite vibrant and I'm looking forward to diving in. Look for more news in coming days. Then, at the end of the month, I will be making my way to Prizren, Kosova for Dokufest (July 31 - August 7) to jury the international competition there. My hope is to be able to return to Berlin after that, but like much in my life, as always, that's up in the air. Tschüss!
David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, filmmakers extraordinaire and co-directors of Carnivalesque Films, their distribution company, have added another title to their growing catalog of independent films. In October of this year (appropriately enough), they will be releasing Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri's multiple award-winning film, October Country.
The reason I'm writing about this now is that, at this juncture, it's imperative that all you fans of the film out there add October Country to your Netflix queue to maximize overall interest for the film since they pre-order DVDs based on the amount of requests in a film's queue. You can click here to add it.
Also, the new DVD package will include some great added bonuses in the extras! And in yet another bid at shameless self-promotion (and isn't that the whole reason Facebook exists--that's enough about me, what do you think about me?), I am honored to say that one of the two critical essays included in the package for sale is written by moi, the other stellar one written by the brilliant Dodie Bellamy.
A traveling program of films opens tonight in NYC presented by what moves you?, Cinema Tropical and the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at NYU. The documentary film series is committed to enriching the discussion on a wide variety of issues pertaining to Mexican immigration to the US. All films are in Spanish with English subtitles and all screenings are free and open to the public.
Indocumentales launches tonight, Cinco de Mayo, at 7:00 p.m. at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center auditorium on the NYU campus with Al Otro Lado by Natalia Almada from 2005. The film will be preceded by Subterraneans: Norteña Music in New York by Gaspar Orozco and Karina Escamilla. Other films in the series are Los que se quedan/Those Who Remain by Juan Carlos Rulfo and Carlos Hagerman from 2008 which won the grand jury documentary prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival that year. Also exhibiting: Mi vida dentro/My Life Inside by Lucía Gajá, and Farmingville by Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini. The screening series is at various locations throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn, so be sure to check the website for locations, dates and times.
I've just come to accept the fact that whenever I'm at a major film festival (or even a not-so-major one), I experience virulent sensory overload in just about every way. This year at Hot Docs, I've been a participant in the first CFC Media Lab's "Leave the Walls at the Door" workshop they've done in collaboration with the festival, which was intense and wonderful. More on this in a bit since it was just this afternoon--man, the world's wide open for some real substantive and innovative media, gaming, social change stuff--exciting. It's something I will have to process a bit before I write on it all, but honestly, I was quite honored to be in such an illustrious group of media producers and filmmakers. Suffice to say, it was an energetic group that cooked up an afternoon's worth of puzzling and innovative ideas for interactivity in documentary projects. The possibilities are endless. I also attended lots of micro-meetings with Canadian broadcasters to get the low-down on co-pros and such, and tomorrow I have a full day of moderating a panel in the morning and then diving into an afternoon of pitching. So I ain't just a blogger, got it? However, to take a moment to blog in the midst of all this about some things of note happening in NYC is a bit of a respite. And they are things I care about deeply.
Yance Ford, series producer of PBS' P.O.V. series sent word today that the top-notch series, our country's premiere broadcast showcase for independent documentaries (take a look at this season's offerings here), has launched its annual call for entries for the 2011 season. Ford is always available to talk to filmmakers with questions about the application process and can be reached at email@example.com. All subjects, approaches, and lengths are welcome to submit; this includes short-form work. Completion funding is also available; read the complete guidelines on the website here. Every applicant must fill out the online submission form; the deadline is Wednesday, June 30.
Laura Poitras' The Oath opens this Friday, May 7, at the IFC Center. On opening night, Karen Greenberg will moderate a discussion with Carol Rosenberg and Abdul Ghani. Rosenberg will have just returned from Guantánamo where she is covering the Omar Khadar military commission. Poitras, cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson, and co-producer and editor, Jonathan Oppenheim, will also be there in person. Do not miss a rare opportunity to see this award-winning, incredibly artful and important film by one of the most talented directors working today--in any genre--on the big screen. Read my recent interview with Kirsten Johnson here. The Oath will also air on P.O.V. this season; check the series' site for its air date later this year.
Last night at the Sunshine Cinemas in the East Village, nonprofit film organization, Cinereach, gave its third group of film Fellows a wonderful showcase opportunity to exhibit their finished short works (two docs and two narratives) in front of a packed house of industry guests, family and friends. The screening was followed by a wonderful party around the corner from the theater at Rayuela. Let it never be said that the Cinereach guys and gals do not know how to throw a great shindig. (Pictured from left to right, Fellows Gabriel Long, Courtney Hope, mentor Laurie Collyer, mentor Jeremy Kipp Walker, and Reach Out Winner, Anthony Morrison. Photo courtesy Nicole Cordier.)
The evening was the culmination of Cinereach's 2010 Reach Film Fellowship program for emerging filmmakers, an intensive seven-months during which four Fellows--Nadia Hallgren, Courtney Hope, Gabriel Long and Anthony Morrison--were paired with mentors Marilyn Agrelo (Mad Hot Ballroom), Laurie Collyer (SherryBaby), Annie Sundberg (The Devil Came on Horseback) and Jeremy Kipp Walker (Half Nelson) to realize their creative visions. Over the course of the seven months, the filmmakers also participated in a series of workshops led by sixteen advisers, including Yoni Brook (Bronx Princess), Dan Cogan of Impact Partners, Tze Chun (Children of Invention), Cara Cusumano, associate programmer, Tribeca Film Festival, Ingrid Kopp of Shooting People, and several other shining lights of the New York indie film scene. Each Fellow received a grant of $5,000 and other production support throughout the program.
The evening was presented by Cinereach founder and executive director, Philipp Engelhorn, its creative director, Michael Raisier, communications and fellowships manager, Reva Goldberg, grants manager, Adella Ladjevardi, and Margaret Shafer, operations manager.
Anthony Morrison, the Reach Out 2010 award recipient, who received a $5,000 grant for future work, presented his nonfiction film Bye, which follows a two-year-old autistic boy through his first months of school in the Bronx. The other nonfiction piece was by Nadia Hallgren (who, unfortunately, couldn't make it last night). Her excellent film, Love Lockdown, tells the story of a young Bronx mother of two little girls as she waits to learn the fate of her incarcerated fiancée. She communicates with him through a popular late-night radio show called Lockdown Love where people can call in and send messages to their loved ones doing time in prison. To my mind, this was the strongest and most cinematic piece of the four. Hallgren shows much promise and was lucky to have the whip-smart Annie Sundberg as her mentor.
The two accomplished narratives both contained wonderful performances by their young actors. Courtney Hope created and directed Wild Birds which tells the story of two sisters who have run away to the forest from an abusive mother. And Gabriel Long presented his film, The Drawing, about a young boy navigating a complex relationship with his older brother. A special mention must be given to Diogo Taveira (pictured); this kid has major screen presence and was a sharp casting choice by Long.
Reva Goldberg also announced that Cinereach is now seeking applicants for its 2011 Reach Film Fellowships. Click here for more information and an application. Applicants must have completed at least one short film and must reside in the New York Tri-State area from August of 2010 through April of 2011. The deadline is Monday, July 12.
Next month, there will be three major film festivals in Poland: the 7th Planete Doc Review Film Festival in Warsaw (May 7 - 16); the 35th Polish Film Festival in Gdynia (May 24 - 29); and the 50th Krakow Film Festival (May 31 - June 6). Can't make it to Poland? Well, there's the 6th Annual New York Polish Film Festival right here, April 30 - May 5, at the Anthology Film Archives presented by honorary patron Andrzej Wajda.
The fest will exhibit recent films from Poland, such as All That I Love by Jacek Borcuch, Snow White and Russian Red by Xawery Zulawski, and Reverse by Borys Lankosz. As well, there will be a tribute to director Janusz Morgenstern with a retrospective of his films. There will also be screenings of shorts, documentaries and animated films, including the award-winning, Oscar-nominated, Rabbit à la Berlin by Bartek Konopka, Mother by Jakub Piatek, and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired by Marina Zenovich, among many others. You can visit the festival's website here for more information on the program and how to purchase tickets.
This Saturday, April 17 at 5:00 p.m. at the Brooklyn Lyceum, there will be a special screening of new work by the Reel Works' Fall 2009 workshop's teenage filmmakers. Many young talents will be joined by their mentors and there will be a reception afterward at Reel Works headquarters located at 540 President Street, Suite 2F.
Filmmakers and mentors will include Luca Balser with Tony Gerber, Zakiyyah Bowles with Yoruba Richen, Negesti Cantave with Laura Poitras, Shalaun Nelson with Jennifer Dworkin, Ileen Gutgarts with Marlo Poras (look for a conversation with Poras soon on this blog), and many others. Hope to see you there!
A very exciting collaboration will take place next month at the HotDocs fest (April 29 - May 9) in Toronto when Brooklyn's own Rooftop Films partners with the festival for some outdoor screenings. (Photo courtesy of blursurfing.com and Jonathan Castellino, Toronto.)
There will be three open-air screenings in a new Rooftop Docs series which will exhibit on the top tier of the Citipark Cumberland Garage, Thursday, May 6 to Saturday, May 8. Along with the screenings, there will be live music, locally brewed pilsner courtesy of Steamwhistle Breweries, and free popcorn courtesy of Whole Foods Market.
On the 6th, Meghan Eckman's comedic doc, The Parking Lot Movie, will play and on the 7th, Jeff Malmberg's award-winning and critically-acclaimed Marwencol will play. Rooftop will also present an international doc shorts program on the 8th, which includes films by James Blagden, Jake Chirico, Miro Remo (love Arsy-Versy), Sergio Oksman and Amy Grappell (love Quadrangle), among others. Funding for Rooftop Docs is provided by the Government of Ontario. For more info, visit the HotDocs site.
As usual, Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen, have a fabulous line-up for their '10 Stranger Than Fiction spring season which began last week with Steven Soderbergh's beautiful ode to Spalding Gray, And Everything Is Going Fine. I was lucky to catch this at True/False in February since the STF screening sold out very quickly. Here's what I wrote about the film on Hammer to Nail:
Soderbergh has pieced together a loving post-mortem video portrait of performer/writer/actor/philosopher Spalding Gray through live performance footage, several talks with him over the course of his career (with a wacky array of interviewers and venues), and family home movies. It is an exceedingly intimate look at a man who shared just about everything there is to share about the human experience through his intensely personal monologues performed live on a stage with very little in the way of accoutrements—a table, a chair, a microphone, and his notebook. Throughout the film, Soderbergh vigilantly showcases Gray’s rarest trait—to masterfully perform live, while simultaneously experiencing crippling inner turmoil and severe emotional distress, deriving “order from chaos,” and sharing with us all the bottomless absurdity and searing pain of life. I miss his voice so much. (Pictured, Powers and Soderbergh at the IFC Center.)
This week, STF will host new filmmaker, Chico Colvard. His film, Family Affair, which world-premiered at Sundance in competition, will play this Wednesday, April 14. Here's my review on HTN from when I saw it back in January. (I'm planning on seeing it again tomorrow.):
On the surface, those of us who have never had to suffer severe abuse at the hands of a parent, be it verbal, physical or sexual, do not necessarily look (or act) any differently from those children who have. As childhood and teenage photos of what appear to be three happy, well adjusted, doted upon, beautiful girls floats across the screen in Chico Colvard’s feature documentary debut, Family Affair (world premiering in the Sundance US Documentary Competition), the insidious nature of how deep and well-hidden a family’s dark secrets can go becomes almost too much to bear.
For Colvard, the beginning of exposing his own family’s dark secrets started, unwittingly, innocently, as a little boy. In the kitchen of their home in Radcliff, Kentucky in 1978, he accidentally shot one of his sisters, tempted to pick up one of his father’s guns and, unfortunately, finding some bullets after watching his hero on television, The Rifleman. This explosion of violence shattered the family: father arrested and sent to prison after Pauline (Paula), believing she was going to die, tells their mother what is going on; all four children separated and scattered to different relatives’ homes; mother having to face the fact that the man physically and verbally abusing her was also having “affairs” with all three of their daughters. When the father (a black man raised in the segregated South, also an abused child, and on his own since 13 years of age) leaves prison after serving less than a year, the daughters run back to him, loyally, willingly, continuing to see him and have relations with him. The mother (a white German Jewish woman) then flees, abandoning the family entirely, profoundly betrayed by her own daughters. They never see her again. A story of Shakespearean proportions.
Fifteen years later, Colvard, who has not spoken to, or seen his father in that time, goes to Thanksgiving at one of his sister’s houses, only to confront, not the demon in the flesh he expected to find, but a pretty normal family holiday scene, one just like any other in millions of households across the country—laughter, teasing, hugs and kisses, family photos, a celebratory communal meal. Staggered by the “normalcy” of his sisters’ relationships with their father, he sets out to try and figure out, and reveal, the many complexities that reside within an abusive parent-child relationship.
Family Affair is a straightforward, but intense, investigation as to why, to this day, “There are certain things we don’t talk about,” despite childhoods that were irrevocably damaging, where “no help came for so long,” no rescue in sight. These girls—Angelika (Angie), Chiquita (Chici) and Pauline (Paula)—fully adapted themselves to the situation—so much so that they continued relations with their father even after they were grown and could, ostensibly, defend themselves. Angie, pregnant for the first time at 14 by her father, says she prayed for someone to “give her a way out” from the ages of five to thirteen. But she acknowledges unequivocally that after that point, she became “the girlfriend, the wife, the seductress.” And Chici tells an unsettled Colvard, “I enjoyed sex with my father.”
What this filmmaker does so simply and generously, and what makes the piece so emotionally resonant and rich, is he hands the reins of the story over to his sisters and they tell him, in astoundingly open ways, what it was like for them when they were girls. Throughout, they offer unapologetic, non-histrionic, sometimes humorous testimony, straightforward talk from the mouths and hearts of three exceedingly strong women, all of whom still suffer the ramifications of the intense abuse they experienced at the hands of their father. Touchingly, they also share and articulate the ways in which they worry about heredity when they talk about their fears and insecurities about raising their own children. It is riveting and painful and Colvard meets his own feelings of inadequacy with an unrelenting and deliberate journey into the most complex parts of who we are as parents, children, and siblings.
There are never pat answers or neat resolutions on offer, although he does go see his mother after eighteen years and walks away better understanding her side of things, as do we. She is a woman who, with the help of a new husband and her steadfast faith, has moved on, forgiven. But not forgotten. There is no tearful family reunion; there is no contrived circle of love and healing at the end of the film; there is no simplistic redressing of the morass of plain wrongness that has transpired between this parent and his female children. There is just moving on, living, dealing. Some might say there are massive amounts of denial on display. This viewer thought there was very little of that, actually.
Except for a haunting and beautiful score by composer Miriam Cutler, and a few artfully done recreations of certain memories the girls describe, the film is pared-down, gritty, never devolving into anything slick or overly produced. And except for one brief visit with Colvard to a doctor who specializes in treating victims of long-term incest (and I have a feeling this was something that was imposed in the interests of marking this as an “issue” film), the documenting of this story, the collaboration inherent in the telling of it, with everything in plain sight, is its strongest aspect, its healing force, a sort of gift that Colvard bestows on the three sisters who, in turn, share with him the utter hell that has been their lives, telling their story with dignity, grace, humor, refusing, at least on the outside, to live as life-long victims of a childhood probably very few of us would have survived intact.
What kind of public reception this film will have, how it might affect the way families and therapists talk about these things in the future, is really up for grabs. I took it in as an incredibly moving testimony to the power of human resilience and an example of the child-like faith that can enable us to move beyond the worst of what can happen to us when we’re vulnerable and small and at the mercy of the custodians that cross our paths. Or live under the same roof with us.
Next week, another new film will have its New York début at STF, Doug Block's much-anticipated The Kids Grow Up. In another intensely personal family story which follows up on his 51 Birch Street, Block parses the ways and means of his own parenthood this time out, his only child, Lucy, the focal point, a girl who has been "documented" by her dad most of her life. The film last played in North Carolina at the Full Frame Film Festival and is moving on to the Sarasota fest next before coming to STF. Block's film will also be part of this year's program at HotDocs in Toronto next month. I'm very much looking forward to seeing this.
For the full spring season program and other treats, visit the Stranger Than Fiction website here.
Cinema Tropical will be presenting PeruFest: Festival of New Peruvian Films this Thursday and Friday, April 14 - 15, at the King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center at NYU. The fest includes both an opening and closing reception. The festival has been curated by Ph.D. candidate, Claudia Salazar from NYU's Department of Spanish and Portuguese.
All screenings are free and open to the public and directors Melina Léon, Juan Manuel Calderón and Cady Abarca will be on hand for Q&A sessions. Visit the site to read more about the program.
Now that a hint of spring is in the air, it's a great time for the Woodstock Film Festival and the IFC Center to present The Battle of the Sexes, animation-style, on Monday, April 12 at 9:00 p.m. (Still from Bill Plympton's How To Make Love to a Woman.)
The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with some of the animators and the programmers. Woodstock Film Festival's animation programmers, Bill Plympton and Signe Baumane, square off, each showing a selection of the funniest, sexiest animated shorts they could find in a 5-round match to discern which gender makes the hottest cartoons. The audience gets to decide the winner.
The five selections from the ladies will be: The Teat Beat of Sex by Signe Baumane, Vessel Wrestling by Lisa Yu, Time for Carla by Saray Dominguez, Carnival of Animals by Michaela Pavlatova, and Girls Night Out by Joanna Quinn. Representing the gents' side of the matter: Chirpy by John Goras (friends who have seen this say it's quite remarkable and could only be possible in the world of animation--let's hope), Roof Sex by PES, The Making of Gladiator by Duncan Beedie, Cosmic Honeymoon by Ondrej Rudavsky and, the above-mentioned How To Make Love to a Woman by Plympton.
Kirsten Johnson has traversed the globe as a film director, and as one of the most acclaimed and sought-after cinematographers working in nonfiction filmmaking today. She just shared the 2010 Sundance Documentary Competition Cinematography Award with Laura Poitras for The Oath, and shot the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary winner, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney, two women she is currently, once again, collaborating with for an extended project in Congo. She also shot Ted Braun's Darfur Now (2007), and has collaborated with directors such as Raoul Peck, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore and Kirby Dick. A chapter on her work as a cinematographer is featured in Megan Cunningham's The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors and Producers. She has also directed the cinematography on films such as Throw Down Your Heart, Lioness, Motherland, Election Day, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Farenheit 9/11, Derrida, The Two Towns of Jasper, My Generation, and many others.
Her feature script, My Habibi, was selected for the 2006 Sundance Writers' and Directors' Labs and is the recipient of an Annenberg Grant. Her film, Deadline, co-directed with Katy Chevigny, premiered at Sundance in 2004, had its national broadcast on the NBC television network, and received the Thurgood Marshall Award.
As is the case with most people I talk with who have been devoted to making independent films for a long time, Johnson's career trajectory was far from a traditional one. The beginning of her film career was spent living in Dakar, Senegal, and then seven years were spent in Paris, France, where she attended La Fémis, the French national film school, receiving a degree from the Cinematography Department. Her work has taken her to close to fifty countries, and she is fluent in French, Portuguese and Wolof.
Just a week before departing for Colombia to shoot part of Reticker's long-form new project, Johnson and I spent an afternoon chatting together at a café near her home in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): So you’re off soon on another adventure and working again with Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney. I’m assuming they want to work with you on every single thing they do for the rest of their lives, or something like that?Kirsten Johnson (KJ): Well, Gini and I have a collaboration that dates all the way back to Asylum [shot in Ghana, 2001, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short], a film we did with [director] Sandy McLeod. That was the first time we had worked together. Gini had strong story ideas but she wasn’t confident about her visual ideas at that time. Now, of course, she’s a very visual director. It was one of those things where we got on that shoot and it just was kind of remarkable how we were all seeing and wanting to shoot the same things. We call it the “stop the car” shoot where all three of us, simultaneously, would shout, “Stop the car! There’s something we want to film!” I think that that collaboration was one of those things where we found a way to talk about ideas together that has continued throughout the years. We’ve done two Wide Angle shoots together, one in Rwanda and one in Morocco, and then Pray the Devil Back to Hell. When Abby came on board, we all realized, too, that we could play Speed Scrabble together [laughs].
Right now, they’re doing this very ambitious thing, a four-hour series, done in co-production with WNET. But it’s a Fork Films production, which is Abby and Gini’s company. There will be a broadcast of the whole thing, accompanied by a broadcast of Pray the Devil as a part of the series.
SIM: I hope you’ll take this next question in the right spirit because some people we know and love sort of balk at this subject matter, but you’re a white woman, or a group of white women, and you tend to shoot in locales where, as a female and as a white person, and one with a camera, you distinctly don’t blend in. You’ve been doing this for decades now, so I’m assuming you’ve come up with ways to negotiate that. Both you and Gini, I know for sure, are incredibly open people and it wouldn’t appear as if it’s that difficult for people to trust and open themselves to you. But do you encounter suspicion or mistrust, wariness? And when you do, how do you counteract that?
KJ: I think that’s a great question and it’s an important one. For anyone who knows me, they know that thinking about race has been a part of my life, actually, since my childhood. I grew up going to a Seventh Day Adventist school that was incredibly racially diverse but there was a lot of 70s confusion about race and a lot of racism. I really picked up on that as a kid and I was very concerned and very confused and wanted to understand it. So I would say that I’ve been thinking about race since the early 70s.
I always think “whiteness” matters, being an American matters and it’s really important to understand that you represent something to other people and that those affiliations have an impact when you go somewhere. The question is always, how can you be aware of that and yet deal with people where they are? I was just talking about this with the sound person we’re with on this trip, Wellington Bowler; he’s African American. He’s one of my steady collaborative partners. I also work a lot with Judy Karp, who is a tiny white woman--as opposed to me, a giant white woman. I think all of us are really aware of what our presences mean in a certain place. What does it mean to have a man in a maternity ward, etc.? I think all of these factors go into my presence.
SIM: Is race thought of in the same way in those places?
KJ: It’s always different wherever you go. Wellington, sometimes, will be seen as a white person because he’s American.
SIM: Wow, that’s interesting, and kind of weird.
KJ: Right? Or we will be seen as urban people in rural places. There’s no question: I’m 6’2”; I am white; I am someone, in these situations, who can be very communicative, comfortable. I try and engage with a lot of humor. I have a presence; it’s a big presence in certain ways. There’s no missing me in these contexts. But it’s also how you behave, what level on which you give people the respect they deserve. One of the things I found early in my life through traveling in African countries is, because of this history of colonialism, as a white person you have unexpected privileges, and whether or not you use those privileges, how you use them would be the better thing to say, dictates how things go. Rather than being shut out, you’re actually given access to things that are almost inappropriate for you to be given access to. I’m constantly reminded of the kind of privilege you experience as a white person. It comes back to you, how meaningful that is. I clearly remember being in Mali and there was a group of people gathered in the central square of this village, all sitting under a tree waiting to meet with us. They had brought out chairs for us and there were a lot of older men and women sitting on the ground. I just gestured to them and gave up my chair. An older man took the chair and I sat on the ground. It wasn’t what they expected me to do at all. Who knows really how appropriate it was? I saw a hierarchy I respected and that was the hierarchy of age.
Being attentive to those cues is what makes it possible for any documentary filmmaker, no matter what their skin color or what country they’re working in, to gauge things. To gain a little respect from the people that are working or living where you’re shooting is really important. But you have to earn the respect they, in turn, give you by allowing you to be there, a white person in a brown world. There’s a lot of bad history under the bridge.
SIM: Current things being done by filmmakers, however, in the guise of being “sensitive,” kind of concern me sometimes. It’s tricky. People don’t realize all the nuance involved, particularly filming people’s stories. The respect definitely comes from the person behind the camera, the person telling the story. It’s an innate quality, perhaps—in the true sense of that word, they just know how to do it.
KJ: There is an innate thing going on. Sometimes, you’re in a sophisticated city, like Kampala, where everybody’s making music videos, for example. Or you’re in a village where they’ve never seen a camera before. That’s one thing people might forget: how technologically fluent the world is now. Cell phones, video cameras, all these things exist in the developing world. Respect for other human beings is just something you keep learning your whole lifetime.
Being the cameraperson really does put you in particular quandaries where your idea of what’s respectful is often challenged. It’s not so much the apparatus, the camera, that is perceived to be this intermediary between me and the subject; that quickly falls away. For me, it’s always, “Who’s holding the camera? How do they move?” I feel like I’ve done the same kind of work with a ridiculously huge camera and a teeny, tiny one I can hold in the palm of my hand. But you often find yourself in these moments of total ethical confusion.
Gini and I were shooting in Rwanda on a project that was to talk about a lack of infrastructure in the country. We were driving and we saw a group of people carrying a screaming woman on a litter. We could see them and hear them from down the hill. Gini quickly realizes that this scene completely conveys our theme and decides also that we are going to help them. There was a silence and I said, "Are we going to film them, too?" [laughing] It was like this little moment. Obviously, if we had stopped the car next to them and said, “May we film you?,” they would have put the litter down, the woman would have been in pain. We would have had to put her in the car immediately. So we decided that we would pass them, go up the hill. I was going to get out, be with the camera, and film them walking up the hill towards us. I know I’m not there as an aid worker; I’m not there as a doctor. I’m there as a filmmaker. But this thing of having to ask people’s permission—they’re in an urgent situation, etc. This stuff is just going through your head as you’re standing at the top of the hill while people are walking up to you. The woman was in labor and had been for seven hours. We put her in the car and it was another hour and a half to the clinic. She ended up naming the baby after our driver! But there was that moment that wasn’t quite right. But I got the shot and that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done that. That dimension is constantly with you. Those are split-second decisions. As a cameraperson, I feel that you are certainly a collaborator with the director. But, you are also responsible for maintaining your own ethical boundaries.
SIM: It does seem like you’re working with filmmakers, for the most part, that have strong ethical boundaries, as well. But there can easily be a sense of confusion when your crew is in the thick of something and you just roll.
KJ: It can be confusing. There’s always this moment of, “This world makes no sense!” when I’m filming beside workers that make a dollar a day hauling huge sacks of rice with a camera that costs more than they make in several years.
SIM: You trained at La Fémis, the French national film school in Paris. Why did you decide to take yourself there? What were you going to get there?
KJ: I had kind of a peculiar career trajectory. It wasn’t about going to France. I went to West Africa and that’s where I started, in Senegal. I was really interested in African filmmakers. It was purely the discovery of filmmaking and I thought, I might want to write about film or be a critic. I really didn’t know.
SIM: What was it about the filmmaking tradition there that was so enticing for you?
KJ: I think it was the pace of it and the world that was being described in it. I had seen some of Ousmane Sèmbene’s films, a couple of Cissé's films. I saw that there was just a whole other thing going on. I was really curious about it, probably stemming from my focus on race. I had this elaborate plan my senior year of college [Brown University, Providence, RI]. There was a possibility of getting something called a Watson Fellowship that would grant someone $20,000 for the year and you could go anywhere in the world and do anything you wanted. I wanted to go to West Africa and be on set with filmmakers there—and to Brazil and to Paris and to London. And think about blackness in all these different places. I made it to the finals but didn’t get it. I didn’t have any back-up plan. At all. I sent some letters to various people, bought a one-way ticket, and went and knocked on Sèmbene’s door.
SIM: Right out of college?
KJ: Yeah. I got there and I lived there and just loved it. I got to work on a film and discovered I really liked production. I worked as an intern on a film directed by Clarence Delgado based on a Sèmbene novel, Niiwam. He was Sèmbene’s assistant director. There was this whole crew of Senegalese filmmakers from a very particular era. Despite the sometimes crazy difficulties of shooting there, I loved being on set. I had this Senegalese boyfriend who was a photographer. I was realizing that I really needed to learn something about how filmmaking worked. He asked me why I didn’t go to the film school in France—it was free. So that was how I ended up there. But in talking to people, I was told that there was no way they were going to let me into the directing department, not being French. No American had been accepted into that program. I was told to try for a technical department and by default, I went for camera because I didn’t know how to do anything, but I’d taken some photographs before and that’s how I got into cinematography and fell in love with the camera.
I can give a lot of credit to the French and the way in which they train people for the way I work. The films I saw during my time there and some of the people we got to work with were extraordinary—people like Raoul Coutard and Michel Fano, who’s an unbelievable sound guru who taught everybody how to do documentary sound. Sound, in many ways, is the missing piece in so many people’s documentary filmmaking. The level of sophistication and intent was displayed in some of the films I saw and what we strove for in our own work. A strong contextual base is really, I think, where I come from and that has a lot to do with sound. That’s why I work with people like Judy and Wellington. When I first started shooting, I didn’t hear at all; I was so concerned with composition. Little by little, I’ve become more and more quiet; I listen more and I realize how much more of the story is in the ear than through the eye. That’s been an evolution for me.
Initially, my instincts certainly weren’t bad. Especially in relation to people, they were pretty decent. But for a long time, I was moving too fast. I wasn’t thinking about how to recognize a scene in the middle of a moment. All those things I’ve learned through the back and forth of working and watching other people’s films, and those films that are made with the footage I shoot. It’s surprising sometimes [laughs].
Right now, I’m working with this German-Swiss director named Mirjam von Arx. She and I are working on a film about the father/daughter Purity Ball in Colorado Springs. The ball is an event staged to celebrate the father's role in the daughter's commitment to sexual abstinence and virginity until marriage. It’s in lieu of a prom since most of these kids are home-schooled. We’re shooting in one family’s home for one year, from ball to ball. Mirjam is coming from a European sensibility; you hold a shot a really long time and look. I was trained in France; I have that sensibility, and yet it’s still a whole other level. I would shoot for about three minutes and start to move away and she'd lean over and say, “No, no, stay.” And it actually felt really wonderful to have permission to do that.
I felt that way working on Laura's film, too [The Oath]. She's a director that says, “Yes, we have the time. Yes, take the time.” Knowing that that kind of care and attention was going to be put into the film was exhilarating. There’s a lot of expediency we’re dealing with in camerawork a lot of the time. If you do end up working on things that are going to be made into television programs, it’s about getting the coverage and you may only have one day in a place with a subject. [Poitras and Johnson accepting their cinematography award, Sundance Film Festival, 2010.]
SIM: This is distinctly not in the American tradition of how films get edited and pieced together. If the time was taken on the shoot, we can’t really ever tell since we’re given such a rapid series of cuts to take in at any given moment. We aren’t usually given this luxurious sense of spending long, extended moments with a subject or character. Scenes clip along so rapidly.
KJ: There are enough moments where there is action—and by action, I might mean just emotional action happening between people. You can see it all in a wide shot and have a chance to sit and look at what’s going on. A lot of times, you’re in a space that’s so small and you’ve got one character on one side of the room and one on the other. The camera operator has to make the choice. If we’re going to see two people in this shot, I have to move, I have to change positions when I’m cutting from one person to the next. Thank goodness we’ve got the continuous sound to make us feel like it’s all cohesive. But you’re still making these choices. The mind space that I’m in is going to decide when I choose to move and on whom to put my focus. I try to develop those things with the director in conversations where we’re discussing what we want. What do we really care about seeing?
SIM: Was that the first time you worked together with Laura?
SIM: She usually has done all the shooting on her films. What was different about this project, about this situation, where she decided to bring on a DP? Making this film was difficult on many levels.
KJ: Almost in every way.
SIM: In My Country, My Country, her naivéte and inexperience shooting in a place like Iraq stood her in good stead, one might say. Meaning, I don’t think she really fully realized what she was stepping into and needed to just go by herself to figure it out. This was before she met Dr. Riyadh, this was when she was preparing to embark on that trip not really knowing what story she’d find there.
The way The Oath is put together, working closely with you and Jonathan [Oppenheim, co-producer and editor], the level of craft is so deliberate and fine, with uncompromising intention, as in her other work. We move moment by moment through this film and we see and hear exactly what’s intended for us to see and hear. But we’re never told how to feel. The collaboration involved really speaks to that, I think. We see the outside world of the city of Yemen; we’re out in the streets. And we’re in incredibly intimate spaces, as well. When you first discussed this project with her, what were her concerns, especially as they pertained to shooting Abu Jandal, Guantánamo, and the possibility, at least at the beginning, of getting footage of Salim Hamdan, Jandal’s brother-in-law?
KJ: I actually saw the
film for the very first time at its premiere at Sundance in January. I could not be more honored that I was a part of making this
film. I think it’s
extraordinary. I think that Laura
and Jonathan did a mighty work in the edit room. I will say that I think that Laura had the vision in the
beginning. From the moment she met
Abu Jandal, I think she understood what a complex person he was. She knew she would have to calibrate
the film with that kind of razor-sharp attention and elegance. She also knew she needed these
counterpoints. Her initial impetus
for making this film was to do a story about a detainee returning from
Guantánamo. Her interest in
Guantánamo was there; it’s a place she feels very strongly about
politically. She wanted to
represent it in a way that translated the energy of the place. [Pictured, Abu Jandal driving his taxi in The Oath.]
We did everything we were supposed to do in relation to the military’s restrictions. We asked, every day, if we could film the prison but were never given permission. We kept asking and kept asking. We were allowed access, as most of the journalists are, to very specific things. And yet, we were also given access to all the public places of the base. The places that you can go, you go with a military escort. The prison, itself, is off in another place. I just filmed everything I was allowed to film and I filmed it with the energy borne by sitting in the courtroom everyday. That’s what’s so extraordinary about Laura as a director and producer. She couldn’t be in Guantánamo because she was filming in Yemen. She said to me and Jonathan that she wanted us in the courtroom as much as we could be there [during the trial of Salim Hamdan]. Now, mind you, we couldn’t film in the courtroom. It’s an eight-hour day, time she’s paying for us to be there. And listen. And take in the story. We were there a total of five weeks.
SIM: That’s really incredible. I didn’t know that.
KJ: Yes, amazing. So, basically, when I was shooting the exchanges between the journalists and the lawyers, I knew, from being in the courtroom that day, what the key moments were.
SIM: You had profound contextualization, in other words.
KJ: Yes, and very few people would feel confident enough, in both their collaborators and the subject matter, to say the important part of your shooting is for you to sit in a courtroom and listen. That speaks volumes about Laura. It was absolutely engrossing to be a part of that event, the first military commission trial of its type.
SIM: Did you experience a good amount of frustration that you couldn’t film?
KJ: Not being able to shoot in the courtroom? It killed me! I feel like I have this personal vision of Hamdan. I was sitting very close to him watching his emotional reactions to all kinds of things. He would say these incredibly cinematic things. At one point, he was describing becoming slightly delusional after being in solitary confinement for so long and he said that he felt like he had eyes all over his body because he was constantly being watched by the guards. What I would have given to have him say that on film, you know?
What’s so interesting, and I think is often true with documentaries, is that your constraints are part of the story. The more you have to find a way to embody them filmically, the better off you are. It’s a great thing in the case of The Oath that you don’t ever see Hamdan except in that footage at the very beginning.
SIM: It is very powerful. You’ve just articulated what we can do creatively with nonfiction storytelling. I did not know about the situation you just described when I watched that film and I’ve seen it twice now. But in thinking about those scenes with the journalists and the lawyers doing their post-mortem sessions, there was something ineffable and palpable in the way in which those interactions were filmed and interpreted. You can feel the import of it from all sides, this vital line of communication. There’s almost a secret language being spoken but, as a viewer, you really get a very nuanced understanding of what’s happening—it’s subtle, instinctual, anchoring. As opposed to the scenes where Jandal is holding forth and talking incessantly, rapidly, about so much. In juxtaposition to the post-courtroom footage, it’s quite disorienting, the wall of sound coming from this man who is providing a boatload of exposition. I always felt so off-center and that’s one of the things I love about this film.
KJ: I’m so thrilled that you picked up on that secret language going on between the lawyers and the journalists. I felt like that was something on which I had to quickly get up to speed. There is this roomful of amazing investigative journalists, people like Carol Rosenberg and William Glaberson, who’ve been following Guantánamo from the beginning. They understand all the legal intricacies. Then you’re there, listening to all of these lawyers, many working pro bono, some of the very top attorneys in the country and all of these military experts. You’re really dealing with three or four languages that are unfamiliar to you. It was stimulating and absolutely gripping. I would come down to the debriefing room after a day in the courtroom, anxious to hear about how a lawyer would address what had happened.
I mean there were moments when you, literally, could see the judge trying to decide, “Do I say this court is invalid?” It was the first trial of these military commissions [on Guantánamo] and there was no precedent for any of it. There were at least four times where the judge was faced with an ethical decision, more about his role than anything else. “Am I the judge that goes down in history as the person who recognizes this as something legitimate, or do I take a stand and say it’s not?” Those were stunning moments.
The journalists would ask questions of the prosecution and watch the prosecutor set his jaw and insist that it was all working fine. To paraphrase one of the military prosecutors, he said something like, “We want the public to relate to these trials like they do to the Space Shuttle. Shuttles are constantly going up into space and people know that they are, but they aren't really paying attention." That was his hope--that these kinds of trials should become so commonplace. And yes, I would be shooting in my head and visualizing all these powerful shots of these people making these moment-by-moment decisions. But it’s nice to know that is all getting through on some level. You do put in all that time of understanding the context of what’s going on—it’s really important, understanding the deeper narrative. And then you do your best on the fly to tap into that. That’s what’s so amazing about filming real things; it’s all there, all the complexity, the power balances. Can you let the viewer see them?
SIM: What falls flat so many times about capturing vérité? A lot of times it really has very little dimension. The fanciest cutting and other production values are not going to hide the fact that one has captured less than compelling footage.
KJ: It’s an incredibly challenging job to be tuned into what matters and to find the way to film it. It’s exhausting. Often, you’re in for eight, ten, twelve hours in a day. You can get in a mode of shooting too much, obviously. But staying on point and staying focused on what really matters in the story takes a huge amount of concentration, a physical flexibility in space. It’s a thing that a director gives you. They give you what you need. I need twelve bottles of water a day [laughs]. They give you what you need in order to stay in that zone, able to film. If a director gives you the support and allows you to stay in the zone, then sometimes, you can actually start watching the film while it’s being made. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it’s extraordinary.
SIM: And when a director is, distinctly, not giving you what you need, or any of the other crew for that matter? You also take on the role of director and have a whole body of work you’ve directed. How does that inform the way you handle yourself on set?
KJ: That’s something I bring to a shoot, my experience as a director, my thinking as a director. I do think about what happens in the editing room. I’m a really active partner in the whole collaboration. I almost never would say to a director, in the moment, that things aren’t okay, that they aren’t working. There’s too much going on. But every night, I’ll come back with my input, letting him or her know that we needed more support in this regard; something was great in the way it was executed; we’re not giving this character enough time, etc. Sometimes, I really will push directors in terms of blind spots I feel they have. We all have them. I expect to be pushed on mine. Once in a while, I will encounter someone who’s not interested in the elephant in the room and for whatever reasons, it’s scary territory for them and they start putting up all these subconscious obstacles to actually getting at it. I’m definitely not a silent partner at the end of the day. I will do what I can do in the course of a filming day and won’t call into question any of the director’s choices. But at night, over dinner, I will talk about missed opportunities and want to know why. A lot of directors don’t really realize what you might be going through unless you speak up. People forget about the physicality of holding the camera, shooting. It’s the obligation of the crew to tell the director what they need and how and when they need it.
I like to talk about themes with the director so I can watch more for those elements that speak to those themes. That way when we’re filming something relatively interesting but I see something going on that really is the embodiment of what we’re trying to capture, I can just say it and be able to turn and start shooting what should be shot. They get what I’m doing because we’ve discussed it. That’s the art of catching things on the fly. There should be a good amount of preparation so you can do that. You have to know what you’re looking for and you have to have the freedom to get it. Not communicating well about these things can be disastrous, both for the film and the relationship. Hopefully, it becomes an unspoken thing after a while. That’s how you become really alive and light on your feet.
SIM: With your background, your training and these locales that keep drawing you—can you talk about light and texture in the way you see things? There’s a luminous quality to your work that’s very particular. In those places you shoot, in Africa, for instance, there’s a particular light that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Is that part of what draws you subconsciously, perhaps? This is more a curious question more than anything since I’m obsessed with light and reflection and how those things can cause emotional resonance just on their own, doesn’t matter really what the image is. Is that something you think about?
KJ: Yes, it’s something I’m absolutely interested in. It’s hard to tease it out in some ways. Senegal was the place I went as a young person. It was the first place I was truly free, in many different ways. I have a strong, nostalgic engagement in that particular environment and it speaks to why I love West Africa so much. Absolutely I’m turned on by the madness of color there and the quality of light on the equator.
Admittedly, though I’ve been slow in my developmental relationship to what light can do. I understood composition much more. Again, my teachers were extraordinary—I had an opportunity to learn from Raoul Peck on a documentary that he did here in New York. It was a transcendent experience. It was an essay film called Profit and Nothing But  set in Paris, Haiti and New York. He had planned to go to many different places in New York to express these different ideas. We’d go somewhere and nothing would be happening with the light and he’d say, “We’re out of here.” I’d never experienced that before from a documentary filmmaker. He had been a taxi driver and he took over from the AP who was driving slowly through New York traffic and he drove us up and down the city chasing the light. He went where the light was. Something changed in me from that experience. He also has an incredible compositional eye. We had a lot of locked-off shots and he’d have me set something up, come and look at it and he would just move the lens incrementally, just a smidge and that would be it, so much better. It became my quest to set up as many shots as possible to please his aesthetic, shots Raoul would keep. Certain things really matter to me from that experience; I was so inspired by him.
SIM: Was there another seminal filming experience that inspired you in that same way—to notice something you never paid much attention to, yet, somehow, now it’s a signature way in which you shoot?
KJ: You mentioned reflection, too. I was shooting a film, Derrida , for Amy Kofman and Kirby Dick. Initially, we had all these great conceptual discussions about how we were going to film things. One of the ideas was that we were only going to film Derrida in reflection. Which proved to be impossible, among many things, although it’s great to try and push yourself. I always love having to stay too long because once you stay too long, you get through all of the “stock” shots, the obvious things to do. You get to a place of slight boredom because you think you’ve seen every possible angle from which to shoot. Then, suddenly, you’re finding things. That was my experience in the courtroom in Deadline [co-directed with Katy Chevigny, 2003]. I started shooting reflections in the table, filmed the clock seven times, people’s hands in a moment of grief or agitation. You start to see differently because your eye gets tired of seeing the same thing. You start to search. You learn that there are always more shots.
SIM: This is when you realize there are two directorial minds—that of the director and that of the cinematographer. It’s a distinct advantage, especially in documentary.
KJ: In my experience, everyone I work with in documentary, including the sound people, thinks like a director. Your whole team has to be thinking that way, respecting the director as the primary person. When you don’t have that in documentary, stuff just falls off the edge. That’s what it demands. It demands this team of people totally engaged in making the same film.
SIM: Have you ever lone-wolfed it—did your own directing, shooting, sound, with no one else crewing?
KJ: I did that this past summer in Afghanistan and I have to say I kind of loved it. It’s something I hadn’t done in years. This was more of a scout situation and it was in a place where there’s a lot of danger so it wasn’t wise to bring too many people. There was a clinic opening and a lot of people were making speeches. If I’d have been there with a director, I might have felt obligated to “cover” the scene, the crowd watching, the people speaking. I was perfectly disinterested in that but what was amazing was that every person there was completely stressed, everyone was worrying their prayer beads, all in a state of deep agitation. I felt a lot of that in Afghanistan, people are worried, stuff is churning. I spent the entire opening of this clinic just filming people’s hands. It’s gorgeous footage; I have no idea what I’ll do with it. But, to me, it said a lot about the emotional state of these people. Instead of that being a cut-away in a sequence in a scene of the opening of that clinic, because I was by myself, I filmed what I wanted to.
But I do feel like I have relationships with directors where I can say to them that I know which shots are going to give us what we need in terms of capturing the emotional temperature of a situation. I ask them to allow me to do my thing. I am comfortable taking the initiative if I see something like that. But to not even have to discuss it was really fun. One thing I did find difficult working by myself was not having a producer. Having to decide where to stay, where to find food, all the logistical stuff you take for granted when a good producer is just taking care of all that—I missed that very much [laughs]. Half the time I’m shooting, I’m completely disoriented, since I’m so present in the action around me.
SIM: What kinds of stories haven’t you had an opportunity to explore, thus far?
KJ: I’m really interested in having the time and space to tell really complex stories.
SIM: Complex in what way? The stories you’ve told have a complexity to them.
KJ: I feel like something like The Oath has the kind of complexity I mean. I feel like we’re in a time where a lot of “issue” documentaries are supported and expected. I’m supportive of that kind of work, certainly, but they trap you in certain ways. They might allow you to go into structural complexity, but not necessarily human complexity. It’s sometimes too much to get in, somehow. Where I’m headed right now is that I’m feeling like I have a couple of ideas and a couple of places I want to be where I can tell those complex stories. One of the things that I admire about The Oath is that it manages to function on a complex level both in a human way and in a political way, addressing something that’s really important to us all. You have to take the time to make the choices you’re making. To do most things well it takes years of commitment, to not get sidetracked by things that are less critical. There are a lot of critical things to think and talk about right now. Finding the way at them is important.
One of the things that interested me about my time in Afghanistan—and I don’t quite know what to do with this yet—was my interest in photography and filming in Afghanistan. There are all kinds of restrictions on who can be filmed and who cannot. There’s an amazing group of female videographers who film weddings. The wedding parties are all single-sex and women dress completely differently than they dress out in the street. It becomes illicit material that everyone wants to look at and it can be dangerous, as well, if the video images of women dancing get outside the family and passed from cell phone to cell phone, for instance. Women can get into trouble. That’s fascinating to me, what can be photographed, what can’t be; there’s a lot to explore there. This entire history of imagery is hidden or purposely destroyed. I saw a lot of interesting stuff there and there would be something interesting to make there, although right now, I don’t know how or what it would be. I can get very conceptual like that and realize, that’s not a movie!
SIM: Or it could be. It’s always captivating to discover narratives hidden in these types of “archaeological finds.” I like it when people make up stories on evidence left behind where not much is explained anyway. There’s an archive, but of what we don’t know. The baseline of the story is rooted in reality. I think you’ve earned your creative stripes to try on something like that if you feel like it.
KJ: Well, I’m glad to hear you think I’m entitled to that [laughter]. I’m definitely interested in doing work that’s formally sophisticated and emotionally true and is complex. I’m trying to find ways in which I can do that with other people or on my own. I realize now that takes time and strong choices about subject matter and intense commitment. Again, I think of the work Laura does and her commitment to the material on a number of levels.
SIM: Well, there also needs to be a willingness, I guess, to be in that tortuous phase where you’re really lost. Where you do say, I don’t have a movie.
KJ: If you don’t feel that way, you’re probably not making a movie, especially a nonfiction one. It’s in those moments, I think, where the work of discovery is being done. It certainly creates anxiety for me as a director, but as a cameraperson, I really like being in that place where I’m searching. There’s always something interesting going on, you just have to find out where it is.
SIM: Who’s making work these days that really excites you?
KJ: You know what film I think about a lot is [Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana’s] Because We Were Born (Puisque nous sommes nés). I want to show that film to everyone. I mean, come on!
SIM: It’s gorgeous. They really reached a creative pinnacle with this film. It took them many years to get there. It’s filled with so many incredible moments.
KJ: There’s so much happening on so many levels—it’s visually stunning and they tap right into the dreams of those boys.
I can watch that movie with Gini or Judy or Wellington and we all know what it takes. You see that film and respect it for what it represents which is the complexity of that relationship between those subjects and the filmmakers. They were living with them for months and negotiating their involvement with them day by day. That’s a high emotional risk, such difficult terrain to journey through. Being in those kinds of situations for a long period of time is a big deal. And in seeing Duret’s film, I knew how many levels on which those filmmakers were operating. It’s such an exciting thing to see. You don’t look at a film like that and just take it in as something stylistic. No. It is an approach, it’s time spent, it’s understanding how a camera works, understanding how a story works. The choice of filming two little boys who can talk to one another—all those things speak to a lot of experience. You see it all there. That’s the kind of thing to which I’m aspiring.
SIM: I’m always embarrassed to say this out loud, but I call it love. It sounds kind of dopey to say that, but that’s what you feel when you watch a film like that. It doesn’t speak well of my critical chops but that’s what it is and I twist myself around trying to find a more academic word for it. It’s the energy created from the people behind the camera and the people in front of it that supersedes circumstance; all have a hand in creating something utterly unique and singular and I don’t understand how that cannot be a thrill. You feel it in your bones.
KJ: Absolutely. Listen, some of the situations that these people are in, the subjects of our films, are egregiously horrible. And they’re still human beings who are funny, who have hope, who are open. Truly, we have to honor them. Filmmaking becomes a form of honoring people, honoring the tradition of filmmaking, as well, stretching that far, and further. It’s a mutual gift documenting the truth that happens between director and subject. Laura did that with Abu Jandal. She surprised him.
SIM: It’s not such a bad thing to sometimes be underestimated. Low expectations give you a lot of leeway, a distinct advantage [laughter].
KJ: Yes, but sometimes you need to own up, too, and show right away that you’re a high-level player. A really great example for that, to me, was St. Claire Bourne, someone I miss terribly. Saint did not let anyone, I mean anyone, sleep on the fact that he didn’t have a sharper question, was searching for a better answer. He was always on, always bringing up the level of expectation for everyone. He wouldn't let an interview subject off the hook. That’s especially important in interviews.
SIM: Sure, especially when you have agendas which are in opposition to one another. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to weigh that, not the interviewee’s.
KJ: Yes, if you let someone sleepwalk through an interview, they will. It’s our job to get at it. I know I’ve said this a couple of times in the course of this conversation, but sound people are so underestimated in the documentary world. I have these incredible conversations with the sound people I work with. They are the people listening the most. It doesn’t happen very often, though, that the director is turning to them for input into what’s happening. One of the things I try to ask of a director with whom I’m working, if he or she is okay with it, is to give both me and the sound person an opportunity to ask a question at the end of an interview. The director is caught up in the interview and we’re there the entire time watching and listening. It can be tricky because sometimes it is inappropriate to ask and the crew needs to stay out. But most of the time when this is allowed to happen and the director is willing to give it a shot, there will come Wellington or Judy, or whoever has been recording, with a question that sends it out of the ballpark, the question that nails the interview. I like to set up a dynamic where that kind of thing is possible, reminding everyone in the room that we’re all filmmakers together. [Soundman, Wellington Bowler, pictured.]
SIM: Can you recall a particularly profound moment while filming that shifted your molecules around, made you look at the world a bit more openly, perhaps, than you had before?
KJ: I can say I’ve had many, many of those moments. I can think of a lot of extremely emotional experiences, particularly interviews, as we were talking about. The experience that always comes to mind, however, is that of shooting Derrida (1930 - 2004). Basically, he was very ambivalent about us filming him. He’d constantly cancel shoots. One day, he’d kind of had it and was in the mood to call everything off. He said he just couldn’t have all of the distraction going on; he needed to get things done. He just needed to be there in his house. He told us that if it was just me who stayed and I didn’t say a word all day, we could stay there with the camera.
I was incredibly intimidated, very respectful of who he was. He made you feel as if your speech was so superfluous; he thought people talked too much, like so many of my words were superfluous because he used words so carefully. He was so precise and rigorous. So I was left in Derrida’s house and I vowed not to talk all day and went into this place where I just moved around and filmed him doing what he was doing. I opened the door, went out into the backyard, filmed him from outside when I got too much of being around him [laughs]. I just kept moving around and doing my thing in complete silence. It was quite liberating. I’m obviously quite a talker!
I wanted to prove to him that I was smart. That mattered to me, you know, that Derrida should know that the cameraperson wasn’t dumb. To have him tell me what he needed from me, which was utter silence and for my presence to allow everything to happen for him, was revelatory.
I’m currently working with a filmmaker named Kathy Leichter on a personal documentary about her mother’s suicide [Motherland]. We’ve been working on it for a long time and it’s usually just her and me in the room. She’s let me know that, filming with me, she feels like she can display any type of emotion—even intense anger—and it’s okay. I feel like I learned I had that ability that day with Derrida. Kathy says she can feel it, that she can feel from me that it’s okay. People always have the right, after the fact, to request that something not be used in a film. But if there is trust established, it allows the subject emotional freedom. Kathy says she's actually willingly gone to very dark and difficult places because she feels like she's safe to do that with me. I’m not sure I’d know how to let myself emotionally go to certain points with someone standing by. It was thrilling to me to see someone allow herself to do that.
Can I ask you a question? Do you feel, in general, excited about what’s happening formally in documentaries right now?
SIM: For the most part, I do. It’s a way of telling stories I’ve been fascinated by for a long time, even before I became a maker or started celebrating in rapturous prose all the incredible work I see. I want to concentrate on people pushing the form in exciting ways, not the horror stories of elusive funding and how hard it is to make films and how we can monetize all this in some way. I’m bored by all that. I see too many instances where people make their films on their own terms using money they scraped together somewhere and made a beautiful, personal piece of work.
It’s interesting that in this particular form—in most creative endeavors, but particularly this one where you are investing years and years of your precious life and it’s hard to keep the mechanism going, and there’s so much mystery involved!—well, the most extraordinary people are drawn to do this. Documentary filmmakers are the most fascinating people to be around, they just are, mostly because the best ones tend not to be filmmakers. They're coming at cinema from another vantage point; they've been out in the world and lived a bit, traveled, learned languages. So yes, I have hope that the work of making nonfiction cinema is just going to get better and better and better if my reading of the pulse and vigor of this particular community here in New York is anything to go by. The aesthetic imperatives are becoming something important to acknowledge and that’s a big leap, I think, and an important one.
KJ: Where we
can take hope, on a certain level, is that there are many films that do exist
where the craft is so strong, it cannot be denied. I think we just have to keep speaking publicly, indulging in active discourse and honing our unique sensibilities. But that
aesthetic imperative should be more of a baseline. I care about social justice as much as
the next person; I’ve spent my entire adult life filming stories that push that
agenda, right? But we have to be
careful about these alliances we make that can, if we’re not careful, create
literalism, reduce craft. I’ve
seen it happen. A lot more of the
funding is there for that than it is for other kinds of films.
I try to save certain periods or opportunities where I can work for free or for very little money and have blocks of time where I earn some money so I can take on these kinds of projects that I know are never going to get funded. I worked on Kathy’s film for years because I knew it wouldn’t be getting into any funding loop. Or something like Lisa Collins’ film about the Oscar Micheaux festival in South Dakota [Festival of the Unconquered, 2004, currently in post-production]. She can’t take that project to the Good Pitch, or whatever. And it’s the most complex film about race there is. It’s about this crazy town in South Dakota where they hold a festival and celebration of Oscar Micheaux because he lived there for a short period of time. There are Indians coming from the reservation, old ladies talking about race problems in Denver—it’s a wild film, the funniest and most complex discussion about race you’ll see. That doesn’t fit a category; there’s no NGO for that. And did I mention it’s funny?
SIM: There definitely need to be more comedic docs.
KJ: I need to make more of them, too. The important thing is to allow for the surprises that happen in a story. A story isn’t necessarily “character-driven” if its main protagonist is chosen because he or she fits in a slot that serves the explication of the issue. And we don’t let people talk and tell their own story outside of the context of illustrating a problem, especially if they’re “problematic” people like criminals or terrorists. It’s always got to be in this context of explaining the political issues involved when, in fact, it could just be the weirdness of a certain person [laughs] and how they got to this obsessive place. That’s fascinating. There should be a space for films like that to be supported. Those kinds of things are very hard to predict in terms of outcomes.
SIM: Well, we all live for the going-down-the-rabbit-hole episodes of our lives and that’s always what it is.
KJ: It's so important that we be surprised by what we find.