Read my latest interview with the directors of October Country here.
Read my latest interview with the directors of October Country here.
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.
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.
But only a thing or two. Now on newsstands, the issue also features articles by associate editor, Tamara Krinsky, producer, David Becker, filmmaker, Adrian Belic, and curator, Kathy Brew. Documentary.org has kindly reprinted my article that leads the section called "Rethinking the Film Festival" where I talk to many of the top programmers about the current fest landscape.
So having just returned from True/False (coverage on Hammer to Nail in a bit, as soon as my jet lag abates--from Europe still, I think!) and heading to SXSW next week, and also working on distribution strategies and theatrical runs for a few more films this season, it's something with which I occupy a great deal of my time. Why we don't know; but I like it. So enjoy--here's the link. Unfortunately, the web version doesn't include all the pretty pictures, but happy reading, anyway.
At last year's SILVERDOCS, I saw a real beauty of a film called Let's Be Together. This small family story out of Denmark and Brazil, directed by the über-talented, Nanna Frank Møller, really impressed me with its sensitivity and grace. You can read my impressions about it here. (BTW, submissions are now open for this year's SILVERDOCS fest--see website for details.)
I will be bringing this film, and a lovely short film from Finland / Russia called Between Dreams directed by award-winning filmmaker, Iris Olsson, with gorgeous cinematography by Natasha Pavlovskaya ( a nominee for best short for the European Film Awards 2009) to the Brooklyn Independent Cinema Series this Monday, the 1st. The screening starts at 7:00 p.m. and is free--but get there early since it's a very intimate space at the back of the Barbès bar in Park Slope (376 9th Street at 6th Avenue).
I am writing from the presidential suite at the Regency Hotel in downtown Columbia, MO where I'm attending the 7th True/False Fest, feeling damned lucky to have been on one of the last flights out of blizzardy New York City yesterday morning--whew! It's lovely here, no snow and plenty of sunshine and lots and lots of fabulous nonfiction fare on offer. After marching in the March March this afternoon with the Mucca-Pazza band, I will be totally and utterly reverting to the five-year-old inside me.
Hope to see you in the BK Monday evening.
I know there's still the Berlinale to experience next week, but I just booked my MO-X airport shuttle from St. Louis to Columbia and am very excited to be attending my third True/False Fest in a row. This year's the 7th iteration and they have a stellar new website up, as usual, with the fab program on view; you can take a look here. (That's me and director, Havana Marking director of Afghan Star, from last year's fest, taken by the lovely Ingrid Kopp.)
In 2007, T/F started their SWAMI Program to mentor new nonfiction filmmakers. Select filmmakers meet with industry professionals to get advice on everything that happens after they finish their final cut. The 2010 program will be sponsored by Chicken and Egg Pictures and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The seven directors chosen this year are Aaron Schock, Circo; Andy Wolff and Stefanie Brockhaus, The Other Side of Life; Charlotte Glynn, Rachel Is; Fatima Geza Abdollahyan, Kick in Iran; Nuria Ibáñez, The Tightrope; and Pippa Robinson, The British in Bed.
The seven SWAMIs to guide these artists will be Andrea Meditch, creative consultant and exec producer of Oscar winner for Best Feature Doc, Man on Wire, and Werner Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World; Esther Robinson, director of A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, and former director of film/video and performing arts for The Creative Capital Foundation; Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, producers/directors of A Lion in the House and The Last Truck: Closing of a G.M. Plant; Lisa Heller, VP of original programming at HBO; Sandi Dubowski, director of Trembling Before G-d and producer of A Jihad for Love and Budrus, and grassroots distribution guru extraordinaire; and, Yance Ford, series producer and lead programmer for PBS' P.O.V. series. Participation in the program is by invitation only and is open solely to first-time filmmakers.
This year's True Vision Award recipient will be Laura Poitras. The award is given annually to a filmmaker whose work shows "a dedication to the creative advancement of the art of nonfiction filmmaking," and Poitras certainly fits the bill perfectly. Both My Country, My Country and The Oath will be shown as part of the program. (The Oath is at Berlin, as well.) With just three completed films (these two, plus Flag Wars, which premiered on P.O.V. in 2003 and was co-directed with Linda Goode Bryant), Poitras has already garnered a Peabody, an Emmy, and an Oscar nomination, along with awards at the SXSW, Full Frame and Sundance festivals.
Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher's multiple award-winning début feature begins its theatrical run in New York City this Friday, February 12, at the IFC Center. Don't miss the opportunity to go see this gorgeous piece of work. You can now buy tickets online by clicking here.
There will be six screenings a day for a week-long limited engagement. The Mosher family, the subjects of this fine film, will be in the house for a Q&A with the filmmakers at the 6:50 p.m. show on Friday, and Palmieri and Mosher will be appearing throughout opening weekend at select shows. Also, look for the beautiful DVD package coming soon from Carnivalesque Films. Read more about the film and watch the trailer here.
In preparation for talking about Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's new film, The Most Dangerous Man in America, Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a film that moved me profoundly, I thought I would share an article I wrote that was published in the last issue of DOX Magazine about hybrid historical documentaries. While Ehrlich and Goldsmith's film differs a bit from the three films I talk about here, there are innate connections to how creative documentarians can create works that reference "history" in nonfiction storytelling. It's a theme I've addressed before, particularly in terms of this propensity on some critics' parts to judge a piece of cinema that mixes fiction and nonfiction to tell a true story in a very negative light. My essay on this blog, written after last year's True/False festival, about one of the films talked about here, Burma VJ, in fact was fueled by one of these reviews, a particularly boneheaded one for its intense myopia and lack of generosity in reviewing nonfiction cinema on its own terms. It made my blood boil, but it also made me think deeply about these issues. So here it is:
are several new films which use re-constructions of events of the recent past
that are standouts for their vigilant practice of every nonfiction filmmakers’
imperative: the freedom to be honest. Within that exploration, what connotes “honesty”
in documentary and how the blending of fiction (re-enactments) and reality
(archival and live interviews) enhance one another, create a singular type of
There is a new facility in doing a re-constructed historical documentary that, to my mind, is revolutionary for the form. There are still a lot of very stodgy ways of cinematically presenting "History" that essentially act to remove us even further from past events still strongly resonating in our collective consciousness. Emotionally engaging with the story, and the subjects involved, is a whole other set of issues with which a few filmmakers working in the current feature-length nonfiction genre have chosen to grapple, enticing audiences to actively participate and deeply think about the ever-changing, politically-motivated interpretations of seismic events through one individual's, or one particular group's, very personal experience. (Still from Ari Folman's multiple-award winning Waltz With Bashir.)
The Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi
Ian Olds’ latest film is, in essence, a tribute to a young man (an Afghani journalist, “fixer” and interpreter for foreign journalists from the West) who lost his life by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. One could also say, he was born in, lived out his life, and worked in a country where a man of his intelligence and dedication could easily be fodder for a wide array of parties with various agendas. The Fixer, which aired on HBO late summer 2009, maintains its primary commitment throughout—to tell the truth. As Olds stated in an interview with Robyn Hillman-Harrigan on The Huffington Post site: “I felt that just to focus on loss does a profound disservice to the truth, and to Ajmal. A focus on this devastating loss is something that we as a Western audience can relate to, but to focus on this man's life in the context of what's really going on in that country, is history empowered.” [italics mine]
The viewer knows from the first few seconds of the film that the main subject has died under some pretty brutal circumstances at the hands of Taliban captors. Olds continues: “. . . he died at a very specific moment, in a specific place. The aim of the film is to invoke this web of history and power in which he was caught, while never losing sight of the man.” Olds has edited the piece anti-chronologically to great effect, in part because he distinctly did not want to use Ajmal’s death as any sort of dramatic device. After knowing the outcome of the featured subject, the rest of the film tries to answer the question “why” by spooling out the event backwards and forwards in time in a structurally complex storyline. In this way, the filmmaker provides a key, or guide, which can unlock the past, including as many subtleties and complexities as he can muster along the way. Rather than a strict linear narrative, the film flashes back and forth for the sole purpose of “unraveling meaning.”
Olds talks about Afghanistan as a “buffer state,” a land
divvied up between various power players, the British Empire, the Russian
Empire, etc. He also sees Ajmal as
a “buffer” individual, insinuating
himself between the Italians, the Taliban, the Afghan government and the U.S.,
providing a human analogy for the place within which he resides. In other words, Afghanistan is
essentially powerless on the world stage, yet provides the perfect stage to be
played upon by world powers and therein lies the human- scale tragedy of its
inhabitants. The film supplies the
emotional through line in which we can explore those themes. It allows for a human-scale
contextualization, something mass media rarely, if ever, sets out to do.
Paying attention to that context at all times, Olds began to simply “follow the trail,” swept along by the events that had already unfolded, organically searching for (and finding) ways in which to tell the story, knowing that a film “shouldn’t be just a drama unfolding or a certain circumstance or set of circumstances. It should be about an idea.” In this way, the best of nonfiction filmmaking can be engaged with the world through its own language, the one of cinema. Ideas are important, certainly, but it is the emotional movement across the surface of the tale that is the overarching resonant factor for both the director and the viewer. Speaking subjectively, Olds can say that by “bringing my own [personal] experience of discovery accompanied by the memory of moving through that space, showing what it felt and sounded like acts as the litmus in making a film that reflects that emotional spectrum. Rhythms are the key to creating a deeply resonant experience for your viewer since that rhythm reflects the pace of one human life.”
In the last years of his life, consummate diplomat Sergio Vieira de Mello was reluctantly persuaded by Kofi Anaan, then Secretary General of the UN, Condoleezza Rice, then US Secretary of State under George W. Bush, and Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, to take up the post as United Nations ambassador to a freshly invaded Iraq, a war to which de Mello was vehemently opposed. He would die in the midst of that invasion, despite his personal point of view. On August 19, 2003, a deadly bomb struck the UN headquarters in Baghdad where de Mello was working, marking a watershed moment: for the first time in history, the United Nations had become a target of terrorism. Filmmaker Greg Barker recreates the events of that day in a very forceful and visceral way by expertly melding harrowing, and extremely emotional, testimony from Sergio’s fiancée, Carolina Larriera, and the military paramedics who risked their own lives to try and save de Mello.
Sergio is based on historian and activist Samantha Power’s biography, Chasing the Flame: One Man’s Fight to Save the World. The film interlaces the haunting archival footage shot on the day of the bombing in Baghdad, and the dramatic reenactments of the rescue attempt by two US Army reservists, Bill von Zehle and Andre Valentine, to save de Mello and Gil Loescher, a civilian expert on refugees, both trapped underneath the rubble from the explosion. They would successfully rescue Loescher; they were not, however, able to save de Mello. The two men, in operatic and devastating re-enactments, re-live that day again in the film, generously sharing that pain and fear with the rest of us. The emotional impact of watching this cannot be overstated for it resides in the marrow of a collective traumatic memory.
With a background in international relations and economics, Barker has filmed and worked in more than 50 countries on six continents, always drawn to “character-driven stories that also illuminate how global politics really work—who wins, who loses, what the real priorities are behind politicians’ lofty rhetoric,” finding the truth out of a very complex reality. Sergio de Mello also immersed himself in the world’s complexities, inhabiting the shades of gray between “right” and “wrong.” This is the same gray area where Barker finds he can tell complex stories, the place where real progress in our understanding of the world around us is made, enabling him to make a film through the retrospective lens of history by using one man’s experience and commitment to making peace between warring nations.
In the tradition of Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, we watch as the subjects who were there that day relive the event on the screen. Barker directed the two men in long takes to let the re-enactment of their partially successful rescue mission play out completely, all in one go. So, as highly directed and expertly created as these segments were, there is also a strong nod to the vérité tradition, capturing something as it’s happening in the moment, and the emotions, of course, are very, very real. Sergio will broadcast on HBO this spring, with special screenings planned at the UN and other overseas festivals throughout the year.
With Joshua, the Burmese VJ (video journalist) of the title as our conduit, the radical condition of the “hidden” country of Burma is brought to lush life, creating a deeply resonant experience of the human fight against oppression. Burma VJ displays visceral insight into civilian journalism and dissidence in a police state while providing thorough, painstaking, and outright thrilling, documentation of the dramatic days of September 2007, when Buddhist monks led a citizen march for peace and freedom against a repressive régime.
Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard has been making nonfiction cinema for years and is well schooled in the organic process of crafting a story, patient enough to let it reveal to its maker how it should be told. This feature-length tour-de-force was originally meant to be a 30-minute film on Joshua and his experiences working as a clandestine operative in Thailand, orchestrating both professional and amateur video journalists in capturing the uprising in the capital city of Burma when it was closed to outside journalists so that footage could be smuggled out and disseminated throughout the world.
Østergaard explained to me in a phone conversation that this documentary short would, out of necessity, have had to have been made using mostly recreation, a much higher percentage than was used in the final film. Yet when it became possible to use the authentic footage, it enabled the director to create a timeline with immediacy, a story played out moment by moment. Directly because of this, the fictional elements or re-creations, take on an even more powerful role in knitting together the whole story.
Østergaard’s overriding desire when making nonfiction films is to “go inside space and time, to fight the ‘provincialism’ of time.” He also explains that there is a whole way of working with archival footage as a graphical element, an element that enhances the creation for context, emotion, mood, tension, and a deep connection with the material when positioned within that specific context. The desire to “really go to places in time and space” is essential for a full experience, but Østergaard is careful to note, it still qualifies unequivocally as documentary since its main interest is in what actually happened; there is no indication that what is being presented is supposition or conjecture. “The truth is an inspiration and the details [of that truth] give one the texture of the story.”
The political energy of the footage speaks for itself, framed for the biggest emotional impact possible. Yet as Østergaard points out, “The filmmaker is a chronicler, certainly, but we can never be a slave to the footage. It is not the quality of that footage so much as its political relevance that is utmost in importance. You lose clarity otherwise, and the focus of the main event; the ‘History’ gets submerged in irrelevant footage and other elements that only help to cloud the story, not reveal it and set it forth.”
It is the revelation of these little-known heroes’ stories
in the shadow of history’s big events that will, hopefully, continue to push
the way historical documentaries are crafted. We need more stories that feature different racial, ethnic
and gender perspectives on history; we need to continue to re-create those
intimate moments of a life hidden from history for this tells us everything
about what it means to be human and creates a revolutionary dialectic in form
and content, proposing no final answers except the unending struggle of human
beings making something out of what history has made of them. The hard and fast
categories of fiction and documentary melt away; there is an insistence that
both forms are equally mediated by the intention of the filmmaker, and that
that hybrid thus requires a fresh critical stance and a more precise notion of
this dialectical imperative on the part of a thinking audience. It can help redefine some of the more
cherished assumptions of a documentary film experience. These filmmakers have beautifully shown
us that the drama of one human life deserves as much.
New Yorkers will have two opportunities to see Eric Daniel Metzgar's latest nonfiction film before it has its national broadcast on HBO in early 2010. (The Paley screening is, in fact, in association with HBO Documentary Films.) This Friday, October 23, at 6:30 p.m. Metzgar will be appearing in person with producer Mikaela Beardsley, and author and film subject, New York Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, Nicholas Kristof, at the Paley Center in midtown as part of its annual DocFest.
Director Metzgar profiles Kristof as he travels to Congo to turn a spotlight on one of the longest and most brutal of civil wars the continent has ever seen, a conflict that has claimed over 5.4 million lives over the last decade. In attempting to profile the story in a human-scale way, Metzgar explores how news is disseminated these days and how our consciences can be mobilized (or not) by one person's story. You can read what I wrote about the film here after seeing it at this year's True / False Fest, and you can read some of Metzgar's thoughts on the Paley website by clicking here.
Then on Saturday, the 24th, up in Harlem, the film will screen at the Cinema at the Maysles Institute at 7:30 p.m. preceded by WITNESS' A Duty to Protect as the cinema continues their "Congo in Harlem" series. Metzgar will be joined by Mohamed Keita of the Committee to Protect Journalists, journalist, Makeda Crane, Sasha Lezhnev of the ENOUGH Project (they are co-presenting the screening), and Bukeni Waruzi of WITNESS (the other co-presenter). There will be a series' closing night reception featuring music by Deja Bella.
I hosted a panel yesterday at the Royal Flush Festival ("Skullie" Awards tonight!) in the East Village with Metzgar, Laura Poitras, Ross Kauffman and Andrew Berends. It was a really fabulous talk and because my fellow juror, Ingrid Kopp of Shooting People, is such a mega-rock star, she recorded it in its entirety, so we'll be able to share the audio file with you soon, both here on SIM and on her own splendid blog, From the Hip. Don't miss this chance to see Reporter on the big screen and hear the eloquent Metzgar speak of his experiences making it.
Following hot on the heels of AJ Schnack's laudatory post about the Camden International Film Festival today, I'll weigh into the mix, too. Thom Powers introduced me to festival founder, Ben Fowlie, and festival producer, Leah Hurley, this past spring when they came to New York to co-host a screening of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly's crowd-pleasing and deeply moving documentary, The Way We Get By, with Stranger Than Fiction and P.O.V.
This film had been a work-in-progress screening at last year's CIFF. Realizing that they had the burgeoning programming chops and the potential to nurture important films such as this one, Fowlie and Hurley were intent on upping the ante a bit and really putting their small, regional nonfiction festival on the map as a circuit destination. I heard from many local supporters during the fest this year that, indeed, they were well on their way to doing just that; it was a thrilling event for the whole community to have access to a such a powerful slate of films. Man, the people are friendly there! (Pictured, still of downtown Camden from the film Peyton Place, shot on location there in 1957.)
For the first time this year, they had juried competitions with cash prizes, starting with a best feature category and an emerging vision category. Next year, they will also include an Audience Award, a truly meaningful prize to any filmmaker. Fowlie and Hurley also brought on producer, Dominic Musacchio, to help put on the inaugural Points North forum, bringing a few select industry guests and independent filmmakers together to talk about the current state of things. It was informal and it was real and it was pertinent. But more than that, it was fun. I'm one of those who think the panel presentation format should be put out to pasture. I have come to loathe the words "paradigm shift" and other phrases of that ilk that have nothing to do with a filmmaker's daily existence. There was an engaged, smart local audience and we let them into the conversation.
So this year CIFF caught fire and I'm so glad I got to be a part of that. It's exciting to have another domestic nonfiction fest in such a beautiful spot, run by such talented people. I call "the princess room" at The Inn at Camden Place. The ducks and swans are awaiting my return next year.
At the '09 Camden International Film Festival award ceremonies this evening at the beautiful Camden Opera House (which preceded the closing night film, Robert Stone's Earth Days), the recipients of the Harrell Award for Best Documentary Feature and the CIFF Award for Emerging Cinematic Vision were announced, with prizes of $1,000 each. The CIFF Award winner also receives a free course at the Maine Media Workshops.
The Harrell Award went to Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana's Because We Were Born (Puisque Nous Sommes Nés). Camden was the French-Brazilian film's US premiere and it's about to launch its theatrical run in France in a few days. Here's what I and fellow jurors, Ryan Harrington and Dana Rae Warren, had to say about Duret and Santana's exquisite work: "The jury gives Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana's Because We Were Born the Harrell Award for Best Documentary Feature for its excellence in cinematic craft and for its rigorously pure vérité aesthetic. The filmmakers have created a work that challenges the viewer on many levels. Told with a quiet intensity and deep love and respect for their subjects, in our opinion, this piece represents the best of what nonfiction cinema has to offer."
The CIFF Award went to Patrick Shen's The Philosopher Kings, a journey through the corridors of the most prestigious colleges and universities in America to learn profound life lessons from the custodians that clean and maintain these hallowed halls of academe. You can watch the trailer here.
I will have much more from CIFF in the coming days, along with several film reviews from the outstanding program. Congratulations to Ben Fowlie, Leah Hurley, Dominic Musacchio and the entire festival team for putting on a really magical event. We were duly impressed and look forward to visiting again in the years to come.
Still deep into this jewel of a festival called Camden International in Maine and will be writing more in the days to come, but wanted to mention that Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri's award-winning film will be screening at a special Stranger Than Fiction evening on Monday night, the 5th.
Palmieri and Mosher will be there for a Q&A and drinks gathering in the West Village afterward . Do not miss this opportunity to see one of the best films of the year.
Today, September 30, a truly wonderful and uplifting film opens at the IFC Center. Originally called Over the Hills and Far Away, The Horse Boy, directed by Austin-based Michel Orion Scott and released by Zeitgeist Films, is a thrilling piece of cinema, and should definitely be seen on the big screen.
Read my review on the Hammer to Nail site here. Be sure to go see it--it's gorgeous.
For its ’09 – ’10 release slate, new distribution company, Carnivalesque Films, announces the availability of ten great modern classics, representing some of the most outstanding and distinctive independent narrative and nonfiction films made in the recent past. The collection brings together stories united by a "raw, startling sensibility of disruption and celebration, where excess and transgression percolate in everyday life." This small independent start-up created by filmmakers, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, curates stories "united by the raw and startling sensibilities of transgression, spectacle, and variations of truth and falseness. Named for Carnival, a celebration where societal norms are turned on their heads and excess and transgression rule the day, Carnivalesque Films seeks to disrupt a viewer’s most cherished beliefs in unexpected ways. . . . In real life, people behave irrationally, succumbing to madness or self-destruction in pursuit of dreams and desires. Carnivalesque Films acknowledges these dreams and desires by exploring them as literature from the characters’ points of view."
These seven titles are currently available on DVD:
* Mardi Gras: Made in China directed by David Redmon. Winner of twenty-one national and international awards, this multi-layered documentary follows the path of Mardi Gras beads from the streets of New Orleans during Carnival—where revelers party and exchange beads for nudity—to the disciplined factories in Fuzhou, China where teenaged girls live and sew beads together all day and night. Blending curiosity with comedy, director Redmon explores how the toxic products directly affect the people who both make and consume them. The Los Angeles Times says Mardi Gras: Made in China “cleverly juxtaposes the apex of American bacchanalian excess with the sweatshop-like conditions that facilitate the fun.” Stuart Klawans of The Nation says, “This is one of the best films I know about real (as opposed to op-ed) globalization. Please welcome it.” You can read my review from this blog by clicking here.
* Orphans by Ry Russo-Young. Winner of a Special Jury Award at the SXSW Film Festival, Russo-Young’s eloquent feature début tells the story of two estranged sisters who reunite five years after the death of their parents at the isolated farmhouse where they spent childhood summers and holidays. As the two revisit their past and catch up on their present, tensions flare, threatening to end what’s left of a family already ravaged by death, jealousy, and secrets. Andrew O’Heir of Salon.com says that, “Orphans is a striking first film that simultaneously summons the spirit of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers and Brian De Palma’s Sisters. Scott Macaulay, editor of FILMMAKER Magazine as a member of the SXSW jury praised it for its “personally crafted visual aesthetic.”
* The Holy Modal Rounders: Bound to Lose by Sam Douglas and Paul Lovelace. From their origins in New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene and their involvement in the Easy Rider soundtrack, to the lost years of constant drugging, endless touring and a final shot at redemption, Douglas and Lovelace’s film recounts the unique forty-year history of these true American originals. With startling intimacy, the film also documents the band’s arduous, amusing, and sometimes heartbreaking struggle to capitalize on their recent resurgence in popularity, culminating in an unpredictable 40th anniversary concert in Portland, Oregon. The New York Times calls it “rollicking and poignant,” and filmmaker, Bruce Sinofsky, co-director of such nonfiction classics as Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost and Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, says, “Bound to Lose is a hidden treasure! A surprisingly moving and funny look at a dysfunctional musical family. You can’t take your eyes off it.”
* Manhattan, Kansas by Tara Wray. For her filmmaking début, Tara Wray travels to rural Kansas in an attempt to reconnect with her mother, Evie, for the first time since Evie’s psychotic breakdown five years earlier. She finds a parent still chasing her demons, both real and imagined, struggling to make a career for herself as an abstract artist and searching for the “Geodetic Center of the United States,” the finding of which will bring about world peace. When Tara decides to aid her mother’s search, it sets into motion a surprising chain of events. The Film Society of Lincoln Center says of this SXSW Audience Award winner: “Emotionally blunt and affecting, . . . acknowledging that love abides, even when forgiveness is not always easy or possible.” Marrit Ingman of the Austin Chronicle says that Wray’s film is “everything a personal documentary should be.”
* Invisible Girlfriend by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. Charles goes in search of his love, Joan of Arc, the invisible girlfriend of the title of this story of a 400-mile journey on a big red bicycle from rural Monroe, Louisiana to the Big Easy. Along the way, he encounters a farmer, a witch, a tin man, and an ex-soldier who honors the dead. This hybrid piece, which Michael Tully of Hammer to Nail calls a film “that transcends the realms of fiction and non-fiction to reach a new state of truth,” won the Ron Tibbett Award for Excellence in Film at the Magnolia Film Festival and garnered rave reviews from the likes of Joe Leydon of Variety—“a textbook example of what can result when savvy documentarians fortuitously connect (or, in this case, reconnect) with an interesting subject at precisely the right moment;” and Ty Burr of The Boston Globe—“A surprising and profoundly compassionate road trip about an America struggling to get back on its feet, . . . filmmakers Sabin and Redmon work at the intersection of Flannery O’Connor Avenue and Werner Herzog Boulevard.”
* Kamp Katrina by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. Kamp Katrina is a multiple award-winning cinéma vérité jewel. Shot shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated wide swaths of the American South, Redmon and Sabin document a small group of people who have taken refuge in a garden transformed into a tent city by an extraordinary New Orleans couple, Ms. Pearl and her husband, David. Winner of a SXSW Emerging Voices award, a Special Jury Prize from the Independent Film Festival in Boston, Best Documentary at the Magnolia Film Festival, a Special Jury Award at the Nashville Film Festival, a special screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, top of Booklist’s Best of Editors’ Choice and a selection of the Southern Film Circuit, Kamp Katrina, in the words of New York Magazine, “captures (beautifully and unflinchingly) a harrowing breakdown of social order. The result is a slight little film with a remarkable generosity of spirit.” Matt Zoller Seitz of the New York Times: “The movie is a portrait of New Orleans after the flood, a debris-strewn ghost town where human kindness is overflowing.”
* Intimidad by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin. “Romance is where Intimidad soars, turning it into a documentary fairytale of truly humbling proportions,” says Michael Tully of Hammer to Nail. Intimidad is an original Mexican love story about family relationships and the meaning of home. Cecy and Camilo, both 21 years old, have recently moved to the border in Reynosa, Mexico from Santa Maria, Puebla with a dream of saving money to build a home on the land that they’ve purchased. One year later, they return to their hometown to reunite with their two-year-old daughter, Loida (pictured). Shot by Redmon and Sabin and Cecy and Camilo, the film documents their lives over the course of five years mixing digital vérité with Super 8 and 16mm film. The piece played as part of “The Contenders” series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, won Best Documentary at the San Francisco International Latino Film Festival, Best Documentary at the Sidewalk Film Festival, Best International Film at the Connecticut Film Festival, the Human Rights Award at the River Run Film Festival and the Ron Tibbet Award for Excellence in Film at the Magnolia Film Festival.
Soon to be released this summer and fall will be Redmon and Sabin’s Darlings, Alex Karpovsky’s Woodpecker and Tom Quinn’s The New Year Parade, as well as other yet-to-be-announced films. You can watch trailers and purchase DVDs for both home and educational/institutional use on the Carnivalesque site and titles can also be purchased on Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, BestBuy.com, Borders.com, Netflix.com and Blockbuster.com.
Because you get to wake up in a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn that's a throwback to 1978 Krakow, but with better shoe stores. On the carpet in front of you are the two biggest, fattest, laziest cats to greet you with a blank morning stare, which uncannily matches their blank afternoon stare and their blank evening stare. One of them (the female) has woken you up at some ungodly morning hour by trying to pounce on your head, but you've found the spiritual space in which to forgive her.
You then shuttle your way into the city with a coffee of Stumptown in your hand from the Variety Café on Graham, and arrive early enough at your first meeting point to breakfast alone with your book--a brioche and a cup of coffee, both the approximate size and heft of one of those aforementioned cats.
About an hour later, some absolutely lovely woman, who has taken a chunk out of her busy day to talk with you, sits across from you, orders some food and beverage and we then proceed to have the most wonderful conversation, gabbing like we chicks do. That interview, with Cactus Three's Julie Goldman, will be posted here soon, so that's something to look forward to. I learned a lot; I hope you will, too.
Then on to visit some of my favorite peeps in New York and get my bag filled with DVDs to view--the good, the bad, the ugly. Again, I learn lots. And sometimes, I'm lucky enough to see an entire film, finished by the grace of whomever, a year after my last viewing of said film when it was just a few minutes long, dubbed a "work-in-progress," but, nonetheless, wrenched my sensibility around pretty good about my naïve relationship with history and the repercussions of what that naïveté might entail. I'm obsessed with history right now for some reason and have luckily been asked to expound upon those thoughts for some articles--I'll keep you posted on that. But suffice to say, that this imperative of nonfiction filmmakers today seems to be, not unsubtly stated, that we must take over where the world's corporate media stops short. And it's stopping shorter and shorter lately, have you noticed that?
Then I met up with a filmmaker with whom I'm working who makes it possible for me to have a living, breathing model of what a graceful creature a human being can be. That's a good thing to aspire to, I think; especially when I'm twisted up like a pretzel in all kinds of ways about my life right now. It'll all be okay; we'll get through this. Sentiments not spoken out loud, but expressed in the ways that she trusts you and has confidence in you and sees the worth that's hiding under a bushel. I'll stop here 'cause I'm welling up.
Suffice to say that I did the pretentious, incomprehensible art opening bullshit and then went to have a lovely meal in a French outdoor bistro (where actual French people eat) with two of the most interesting people I've met in awhile, most interesting because they're so open and so enigmatic, simultaneously. If the company you keep is any indication of your view of yourself, then things are looking kind of okay.
Eric Daniel Metzgar's second feature-length documentary is a beauty. A deeply personal film about one of his music partners and close friends, Jason Crigler, Life. Support. Music. documents an extraordinary journey of healing, love and sheer determination on one man's part to sucker-punch the odds of recovery from a near-fatal brain hemorrhage from a very discouraging diagnosis to performing and recording again. And learning how to become a father to a daughter whose birth he doesn't remember.
In 2004, Jason Crigler's future was bright. He was one of New York's hottest young guitarists on the rise; his wife, Monica, was pregnant with their first child. At a gig one evening, Crigler suffered a severe hemorrhage. After assessing his state, his caretakers wagered he would never emerge from a mostly vegetative state, would be unable to feed or care for himself, and would be unable to walk or move around on his own, let alone write and play music again. With his and Monica's incredibly inspiring families' unrelenting support and encouragement, he proved them wrong.
This Tuesday, Life. Support. Music. will make its broadcast début on PBS' P.O.V. series; check local listings for showtimes. Visit the film's website or its page on the P.O.V. site to learn more about the Criglers' story, read an interview with Metzgar, buy the DVD from Film Baby (both home and educational versions are available) and to listen to some of Jason's fantastic music. You can also read an in-depth interview I conducted last year with the wonderful and talented Metzgar on the Shooting People site by clicking here.
Playing directly after Life. Support. Music. will be an encore presentation of an extraordinary 6-minute experimental piece that débuted on PBS in 2007, Ariana Gerstein's Alice Sees the Light.
Social conservatives in today's society often express concern over the purported decay of the traditional family and read ominous signs that this is leading to the crumbling of contemporary society. They feel that family structures of the past were superior to those of today where families were more stable, much happier and healthier when they did not have to contend with illegitimate children, divorce, drug abuse, child molestation, domestic violence, and other Jerry Springer staples. You know, those low class issues with which the traditional, normal family unit never, ever has to contend.
In their feature film début, October Country, writers, producers and directors, Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher collaborate with members of Mosher’s family to create a portrait of a family that “wouldn’t know normal if it fell on us,” in the words of patriarch, Don. And yet there is bottomless strength, raw honesty, sardonic humor and fierce love on display from the first frame to the last as each member grapples with their personal demons, standing vigilant over the ghosts of their pasts, hopeful that they will prevail, while simultaneously cognizant of the fact that, at any moment, they can be pulled under by forces so strong that their lives will disintegrate into vapor. I believe this film represents such a healing force, not only for this family, but for us all, that that vigilance has a damned good chance of prevailing, even upon the most hurtful, damaging moments of our lives.
Shot over the course of one year, from Halloween to Halloween, in a town in Mohawk Valley, New York—where like so many working-class towns in this country, the only place of employment is the local plant or factory (in this case the Remington Arms Company) and the only place left to shop is the WalMart—Palmieri and Mosher and the Mosher clan show us, in exquisite and painful ways, that the modern-day family is holding strong despite contending with every social ill in the book, thank you very much. As matriarch, Dottie, says at the beginning of the film: “If you don’t have family, then you don’t have anything. Family is everything.”
The film just won the Grand Jury Award for Best US Feature at SILVERDOCS this past weekend and is up for the big doc prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival this week, where it should have an exceedingly good chance of winning, for Palmieri and Mosher have created a small and quiet masterpiece of transcendent filmmaking. The movie is based on Mosher’s essays and photographs of his family and the town in which they reside. Palmieri, as the cinematographer and editor, gorgeously captures the shattered fairytales of Americana and the family unit that is supposed to reside within those fairytales, seemingly waiting for the most highly prismatic light at every moment with which to frame it all. I have not often seen too many other instances where visual, aural and emotional instincts are so delicate and clean and pure. That delicacy and purity is in Palmieri and Mosher’s photography and in their musical score. It is also in their deep sensitivity to the liminal world around them, their subtle innate understanding of human emotional strength, and in their flawless cinematic craftsmanship. I was utterly transported.
Their storytelling partners are the shuttered, yet eloquent Don; the stoic, emotionally resonant Dottie; the wry and weary Donna and her two daughters, pain-filled young mother Daneal, and the young Desi (pictured) who provides both uproarious comic relief and the wisdom of the ages; Don’s outcast and lonely sister, Denise, our guide into the spirit world (“Every family has its ghosts. You just have to figure out how to live with them.”); and the damaged foster kid, Chris, an outsider’s outsider, shunted aside since he was five by his birth family and out for revenge ever since because of it, even against the people who have shown him nothing but love and forgiveness. It’s quite a crew, and I fell madly in love with every single one of them.
Every aspiring filmmaker should watch this, for it will teach you everything you need to know about the craft of making great nonfiction cinema, one where the complicity of directors and subjects creates epic eloquence and poetry and grace. In this case, the devil will definitely not be taking the hindmost for He has been called out for the weakling that He is. It is the “weak” that are strong and fiery, and they will survive—as will their descendants.
[Note: This review also appears on the Hammer to Nail site.]
Havana Marking, director of Afghan Star, her feature directorial début, walked away with the Best World Cinema Documentary Director and World Cinema Documentary Audience Awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Beginning this Friday at Manhattan's Cinema Village, in advance of its national theatrical roll-out, New York audiences will get to see this highly entertaining and deeply moving story of a country trying to awaken and normalize itself from decades of foreign invasion and brutal civil war--not to mention the banishment of music, dance, film and television since 1996 by the strictest faction of the Taliban regime.
When those restrictions were lifted in 2004, Tolo TV in Afghanistan, among hundreds of others, jumped into the broadcast fray and produced a talent show called "Afghan Star," now in its fifth season, a wildly popular phenomenon where singers of every ethnicity could compete for the top prize in an "American Idol"-type weekly showdown, a vast majority of the audience casting votes for their favorite by mobile phone. Marking's film focuses on the four finalists competing for cash prizes and a record deal. Two of the finalists happen to be female and their participation caused a national uproar, particularly when one of them, in an act of defiance and rebellion when she was voted off the show, uncovered her head and danced around the stage with approximately 11 million of her countrymen and countrywomen watching.
Originally commissioned by Sandra Whipham, formerly of More 4, and Maxyne Franklin of the Britdoc Foundation, Afghan Star is an Afghan / British co-production, exec produced by Jahid and Saad Mohseni's Kaboora Productions / Tolo TV (which produces an astonishing 14 hours a day of programming), and Mike Lerner and Martin Herring of London-based Roast Beef Productions.
Go to the Zeitgeist site and click on "where to see the film" for more information on the 12-state national roll-out. You can also watch producer Saad Mohseni's wonderful interview from earlier this month with Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show" by clicking here.
Broken record time, but the first weekend is always, always so key for an independent film's theatrical success. Flood that theater, people!
A little bit of this, a little bit of that whilst I'm in the midst of Hot Docs in Toronto, fast becoming my favorite nonfiction film fest (although T/F has a special place in my heart):
Last week, I experienced my first Tribeca Film Fest since moving to New York a bit less than two years ago (missed it last year since HotDocs overlapped) and I think it'll probably be my last unless I have a film exhibiting there or go as a spectator to catch a flick or two. The filmmakers were, of course, thrilled to screen in New York and vie for the big cash prizes, but the whole thing left me rather cold as a journalist (the press office really needs a lot of work, folks) and rather ambivalent, truth be told, as an industry guest looking for great fare to program elsewhere. But I gave it a fair shake in my wrap-up on IDA's e-zine which will be posted soon. I also have a couple of reviews posted on Hammer to Nail if you care to take a gander--both films, Defamation (which opens DocAviv this week) and Antoine--are also playing up here in Toronto. Also, look for my interview soon on Shooting People with Beadie Finzi, director of Only When I Dance, a Top-10 audience fave at its Tribeca premiere.
I'm currently working on the transcription of my wonderful interview with Alanis Obomsawin; my first stop yesterday morning was to meet with her at the National Film Board of Canada's (NFB) offices. The 77-year-old Obomsawin is receiving Hot Docs' Outstanding Achievement Award this year for her decades-long career working in conjunction with the NFB to shine a spotlight on the stories of her people, the Abenaki Nation. For over forty years, she has directed documentaries that chronicle the lives of the First Nations people. There will be a retrospective of her films shown here this week, as well. Thank you to the NFB's Melissa Than for facilitating this meeting.
Filmmaker and producer, Ron Mann, is also having a retrospective here, curated by New York-based filmmaker and writer, Astra Taylor. Last year, Mann produced her fantastic Examined Life. As usual, most of my festival coverage, interviews and film reviews will happen post-fest since I will be running from screening to screening every day this week (and some parties, too) to gorge on the best of international nonfiction--there is a wealth of riches here for the documentary film lover and this town is also full of people who adore going to the movies, with the long lines and packed cinemas any time of day or night to prove it.
In other news: congratulations to AJ Schnack. indieWIRE reports today that his new film Convention will world-premiere at this year's SILVERDOCS as its Centerpiece screening (June 15 - 22 in Silver Spring, MD). Schnack led a superstar team of filmmakers as they captured last year's Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. Schnack was joined by Laura Poitras, Paul Taylor (pictured with Schnack), Julia Reichert, Steven Bognar, Daniel Junge, Nathan Truesdell and David Wilson to capture the experience in grand vérité style through the eyes of the convention's organizers, reporters, police force and other denizens of the city. I was privileged to see a bit of this at True/False a couple of months ago and I'm very excited to see the finished film and listen to the accompanying talk with all the filmmakers in attendance at the fest in June.
I'd also like to mention one more item before I go submerge myself in films again: Greenhouse has just opened their submissions with a deadline of June 1. Now in its fourth year, the Tel Aviv-based Greenhouse is a program for the development of documentary films crafted by Mediterranean filmmakers from Jordan, Algeria, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. The program hosts between ten and twelve projects a year and the selected filmmakers are invited to participate in a year-long program, which meets three times annually, to develop an international production file and project trailer which, in turn, are presented at a pitching forum for international commissioning editors, funders, producers and distributors. Greenhouse founders, Sigal Yehuda, Yair Lev and Sarah Assouline have shown really stellar results in a very short amount of time and have gathered together some pretty high-profile partners. To learn more about entry requirements and submission information, click here.
More coming soon from HotDocs. And, James McNally, we will hook up one of these days!
Last night at Thom Powers' top-notch screening series, Stranger Than Fiction, Aron Gaudet's deeply moving, beautifully realized debut feature, The Way We Get By, was co-presented by the Camden International Film Festival. The festival's co-founders, Leah Hurley and Ben Fowlie, got in on the action early by recognizing a jewel-in-the-rough and showed a work-in-progress screening at their nascent nonfiction fest in Maine last fall; they've been championing this Bangor-based story ever since. The other co-host was PBS' P.O.V. which will be broadcasting the film's television premiere some time at the end of this year. (Keep checking local listings and this blog for updates). Despite the fact that the Tribeca Film Festival is currently in full swing, it was an STF sell-out, as usual, with the filmmakers on hand for a charming Q&A afterward, a drinks party and a dance party.
Gaudet and his producer (and, now, fiancée), Gita Pullapilly, both come from the world of local television news and spoke about the specific challenges and skills inherent in producing and directing a nonfiction feature. This is one of those instances where the filmmaker enters into the story through a very personal connection (Gaudet's mother is one of the main subjects), and tells the story in an intimate and singular way. But what he also manages to do is parse together many key themes so engagingly and gracefully, making new and relevant discoveries about how a few citizens (people who by any other definition, including their own, are now marginal, and marginalized, members of society due to old age and infirmity) choose to move up and out of their own circumscribed lives to reach out to the young men and women still serving overseas in a largely unpopular war, hundreds of thousands of soldiers leaving and returning through the Bangor International Airport. These seniors have remained on call, literally, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week for the past six years to greet and see off over one million US troops at the tiny local airport which happens to be a major military deployment hub.
The Way We Get By offers a unique (and very quiet and unpolitical) look at the toll the Iraq war has been taking on the individual citizens and families that comprise this nation. Through touch, a smile, an encouraging word (and Fireballs!), these seniors tell each and every soldier coming through the terminal how grateful they are for their sacrifice and service.
Moreover, the film also tells stories of what it's like to be old and lonely in this culture, the isolation and the feelings of uselessness and the emotional losses that come with old age. We enter into the lives of 73-year-old Jerry Mundy, 75-year-old Joan Gaudet and, the subject that touched my heart most of all, 86-year-old Bill Knight--all brave and honest souls compelled to keep going directly because of the work they're doing. With patience and sensitivity, Gaudet and Pullapilly allow their characters to help breathe new life into an issue we all think has been pretty much tapped out. Gaudet presents these wonderful subjects, albeit a bit frayed and tired, with dignity and grace, all to a person containing a life-force that transcends everyday concerns to offer object lessons in how to be a human being.
The next stop on their festival circuit will be the Hot Docs festival in Toronto next week. Don't miss the chance to see this film wherever and whenever you can.
Next month, May 7 - 23, the Museum of Modern Art will be staging a 14-film retrospective honoring multiple-award winning filmmaker, Kim Longinotto. Longinotto has been building an extraordinary body of nonfiction cinematic work for the past several decades and is one of our most sensitive (and prolific) storytellers.
Longinotto has spent the last thirty years of her life creating intimate portraits of extraordinary people from all over the world (still from her film, with Jano Williams, Shinjuku Boys, 1995). The films featured in the retrospective present a diversity of subject matter, often from the perspectives of those we normally never hear from. Longinotto will be in New York for the premiere of her Sundance World Cinema jury prize-winning Rough Aunties (2009), as well as throughout opening weekend.
The retrospective is organized by the MoMA department of film's assistant curator, Sally Berger, in collaboration with Women Make Movies, Longinotto's US distributor (they have all 14 films in their catalog), marking the first time that such a comprehensive look at her work has been staged in the States. To see a full screening schedule and information for ordering tickets, you can either go to the MoMA site or click here.
Longinotto will also be teaching a Master Class at DCTV co-presented by WMM and DocuClub, Saturday May 9 from 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m., moderated by WMM's executive director, Debra Zimmerman. It's $50 for DCTV and DocuClub members, $75 for all others. Room is limited, so if you want to attend, you should RSVP soon to firstname.lastname@example.org. To read my wonderful conversation with Longinotto from last summer when she was cutting and finishing Rough Aunties in London, click here.
Anna Broinowski writes from Oz that her brilliant nonfiction romp will be opening in theaters here in the US. Roxie Releasing will exhibit the film at New York's Cinema Village starting April 3, at the Sunset Laemmle in Los Angeles starting April 10, and at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center beginning April 24.
I saw Broinowski's multi-award winning film at the True/False Film Festival in '08 where it caused much excitement and glee. To see a "doco," as the Aussies call it, this hilarious and entertaining is rare, and to say that the director plays with form and content with extraordinary innovation would be an understatement. It is a roller coaster ride from beginning to end and you will never forget Norma Khouri, a con artist and femme fatale par excellence, a woman who even took Broinowski for a ride.
If there was a category for Best Performance by a Documentary Subject, Khouri would certainly walk away with the prize. And then she'd sell it to the highest bidder. Do not miss the opportunity to see this in the cinema!