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Spot on Directors: Jerry Rothwell

In celebration of summer and outdoor activities, Influence Film Club is embracing nature, our environment, and the act of protecting it by featuring HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD as our June film of the month. In the film, director Jerry Rothwell delves into the archives to discover the origins of Greenpeace, arguably the most well known non-governmental environmental agency in the world.

Beginning with its formation in the early 1970s and their first activist campaign in Alaska, Rothwell follows the group’s initial successes, failures, and growing pains as he pieces together old footage with contemporary recollections from the colorful cast of characters involved during the agency’s formative years. If you’ve ever wondered how to start an organization, big or small, to make a change in the world, or put a good idea into action and help it grow, watch this documentary! The Greenpeace story includes words of wisdom, guiding steps, and important lessons for all of those hoping to be world change makers, but also for anyone interested in human nature and working together toward a common goal.

After sitting down with Jerry last year at Sheffield Doc/Fest, we were excited to get his take on documentary filmmaking, transformation, and digging into the Greenpeace film archive.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I think it’s the improvisatory side of documentary that grabs me. Making a documentary is a kind of dance with the real world: you can have preconceived ideas but they always have to develop in response to the unfolding and elusive reality you are portraying. The best documentaries are a journey of discovery for the filmmaker as well as for the audience.

I heard a story about Howard Hawks recently that made me think about the differences between fiction and documentary storytelling. When Hawks adapted The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler he phoned Chandler to ask him about a detail in the plot that was puzzling him. “Who killed the chauffeur?,” he asked the writer. “Damned if I know” replied Chandler. The world of a fiction is, by definition, sealed. Documentaries, on the other hand, always refer out to the wider reality from which the story is drawn.

This means that documentary stories are always unresolved. Life goes on in the world the film is portraying. It is left to the audience to do the job of finding resolution, so documentaries have a great power to motivate their audience to engage, beyond the limits of the film, in the lives and issues they explore. It might be as simple as asking ‘What’s that person doing now?’ or ‘How does my life relate to theirs?’, but it motivates action, empathy and engagement.

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

My films to date have been about very different subjects – a punk band, a lone sailor, a sperm donor, two girls from an Ethiopian village, a wine fraudster – though maybe there is a similar approach to each story. Somebody told me they thought a common theme was friendship and tested loyalty–and that may be true, though it’s not conscious. I try and find stories where there is the possibility of transformation happening on many levels–personally, interpersonally (in people’s relationships), and socially. After finishing a film, I tend to want to do something really different–in subject matter and approach–which is maybe why the themes are so varied. It’s one of the pleasures of documentary making, to plunge into an area you maybe don’t know much about and spend time with those for whom it’s an everyday experience.

Was your experience making this film like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? How was it similar or different?

Making a film where the story is historical is a different challenge to making one where events are unfolding as you shoot–and each requires its own approach. Both archive films and those shot contemporaneously require a strong relationship with the subject and inevitably the finished film is just one possible view. I tend to work in the same way for both–starting with a sense of a rough possible shape, which gradually adds detail and depth as production develops. In an archive film, watching archive for the first time is a bit like shooting–it sparks ideas and the shape of the film develops in an interaction with the material.

You had an extraordinary wealth of archive footage at your fingertips when it came to making HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD. What was it like working with this footage? What were its strengths and limitations?

Greenpeace was very supportive of our exploration of the archive and allowed us access to it without having any editorial control over the film, which was important to me. I started with the shape of a story based on Hunter’s writings, so I was looking for archive material that would help tell that narrative, but then, working with editor Jim Scott, the archive itself started to dictate how particular scenes worked. There were areas where the Greenpeace footage was very strong (for example the first anti-whaling campaign) and areas where there was very little (for example of meetings and behind-the scenes proceedings).  We did a lot of research looking for archive held by others, so maybe 30% of the archive in the film comes from other sources – news, personal archive, photos.  I think in total, including all the archive and the interviews, we had around 100 hours to work with, of which maybe 20 hours was shot by the original Greenpeace crews. There were two suitcases of quarter inch reel to reel tape which we knew was the audio to some of the footage, and reuniting those with the right pictures and synchronizing them was a labour of love.

The footage shot by the Greenpeace crews was great to work with because we were able to access the original rushes footage – good, clean 16mm – which hadn’t been already cut. That allowed us to edit the footage much more freely and to include moments before and after the point where you’d usually cut. This footage had been shot for a particular, perhaps even propagandist, effect and at one point in the film Bob Hunter talks about Greenpeace’s early campaigns as a kind of performance, so being able to play with the footage in that way helped us to explore that idea.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

We’ve now screened the film in over 40 countries and in each I’ve found myself in conversations with audiences about the dynamics of social change today: in Spain, where the anti-austerity party Podemos was entering Parliament and Catalunya was edging towards independence; in Kiev, fresh from the bloody protests in Maidan which toppled a president; in Mexico, where the missing 43 inspired a nationwide outcry against the government; and even in Britain and the US where Corbyn and Sanders were unexpectedly making discussion of socialism mainstream once again. The tensions shown in the film –  between idealism and pragmatism, vision and compromise  – currently seem to be at the forefront of people’s minds.

The conversations circle around the same dilemmas. How do we square the visionary idealism required to imagine a better world, with the pragmatic politics that might take us there?  What’s the relationship between demanding change (campaigning, protesting speaking out) and making change (through community action, government, political parties)? How does a movement relate to the organizations it gives birth to? And what part do stories and images play in this process?

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD?

For me one of the legacies of the story of the early Greenpeace is that just a handful of people who were very focused on what they wanted to achieve can have an astonishing impact. I hope their powerful example inspires people to engage in the issues that affect their communities, focus on specific things they want to change, build broad coalitions, avoid being distracted by internal politics and think big in the way they communicate about their activism.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

My list of favorite docs is constantly changing – but here are six I’d recommend today, all of them in different ways trying to explore elusive and contested truths:

The Three Rooms Of Melancholia (2004) – Pirjo Honkasalo’s lyrical and distressing film about the Chechnyan conflict

Stories We Tell (2012) – Sarah Polley’s exploration of her family’s secrets navigating the borders of fact and fiction

The Look Of Silence (2014) – Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to his disturbing The Act Of Killing which is as affecting and uncompromising.

The Ark (1993)– Molly Dineen’s series about London Zoo as Thatcherite business management permeates the Royal Zoological Society.

The Thin Blue Line (1989) – Errol Morris’ film about a miscarriage of justice that playing historical events like a thriller but one with profound ambiguity.

The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987) – a crazy, morally challenging film about war, silence and justice as Kazuo Hara follows a world war two veteran demanding answers from his military officers about the destruction of his regiment.

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HOW TO CHANGE THE WORLD is Influence Film Club’s featured film for June. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together. Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Fredrik Gertten

When a child first rides a bike, freedom is the sensation that comes flooding in. I can glide atop the pavement! I can take myself places! When Aline Cavalcante and Dan Koeppel hop atop their bikes in São Paulo and L.A., they too feel that sensation. Yet somehow in their quest to take themselves where they’re going with their own power, they are making a political statement, climbing atop their activist chariots and riding bravely into the mainstream crawl of the automotive norm. Why? They live in cities where car is king.

Swedish director Fredrik Gertten lives in Malmö, Sweden and he hops on his bike every day to pedal himself to and fro. Much as in the world’s cycling capitals Copenhagen and Amsterdam, riding a bike is not a political statement or environmental stand. It’s just a practical way of going about one’s daily business, a relatively safe and reliable means of transportation.

Our film of the month for May, BIKES VS CARS takes a humanistic approach to the environmental issue of transportation. Although less cars on the road certainly leads to greener societies, the film presents a picture of the devastating and often fatal chaos that prevails in cities around the world where the automotive industry has been allowed a free hand to draw up their car-dominating urban schemes. Uncovering some of the motivating factors – both political and financial – Gertten presents a people-centric look at how we choose to get ourselves around.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

Documentaries are, most of the time, stronger than fiction. It’s also a genre with a growing audience all over the world. There are so many people around the world who want to know and understand more about the world. I have always been interested in society and human stories. When you make docs you combine a lot of interests, skills and passions. BIKES VS CARS showcases that quite well. I love bicycles, I am interested in trying to understand how the powerful do their tricks and how we can challenge that, which is quite important right now when our planet is in crisis over climate and overspending natural resources. I also love to travel and meet people, creating my own projects. I love my job.

What is your history with documentary? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I have done docs for more than twenty years. I came from journalism but also from a background of organizing music festivals in my city. I don’t know how to describe my thread more than passion. I have been doing films about the Malmö FF, the football team from my city, the changes of the city- including architecture, building of the bridge- and also international stories like BANANAS!* and Big Boys Gone Bananas!*

Was your experience making with BIKES VS CARS like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had?

Every film is a new challenge. This film is more of an essay film, but I also wanted it to be character driven, I needed one person to carry the weight of the gridlocks, the aggression, the climate change on her shoulders. In my films I want to package information with emotions so it stays with you. The idea is that if the audience make the conclusions themselves it will stay for ever.  A lot of people tell me that they can never ever buy a Dole banana again, or that they from now on will commute on bike: I love to hear that.

What is it that drove you to tell this story? How did you come across the characters? And how did it develop?

I always been interested in city planning and what makes or breaks a good city. At this point in history most city planners know that the private car is making life in cities unbearable. People are stuck in traffic for hours every day. First I pin pointed the bigger structure of the film. I wanted to talk about how the car lobby once upon a time took over the cities and how they keep selling their ideas today. I wanted to have a young woman as a lead in the film so we started to look for her. She should be a person in development, not a classic leader. We found Aline blogging and asked for a Skype with her. I could se that she could work fine on camera. From then on it was a step-by-step process. It takes time and I am never certain of success. It’s a hard job, but with a great team of producers, cinematographers and editors everything can be possible.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

I have now met audience all over the world with this film. The very cool thing is that people everywhere starts to talk about their own city. The film inspires and works as a tool for people working for change. They might be politicians, city planners, architects, urban developers, students or just people who wants to ride their bike to work without getting killed.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is? What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching Bikes vs. Cars?

The best thing you can do for a film is to tell more people about it. Tell them to watch on a platform where to filmmakers get payed like Vimeo. For us at WG Film a film is much more than a screening. We update our Facebook and Twitter everyday with new stories about the subject matter. This community work is joyful but also quite expensive. There’s no funding at all for that work so all help we can get to help this dialog with audience around the world, the better.

What would your documentary playlist consist of? 

The documentary world is growing and there are so many good films coming out. Check out the films supported by Influence Film, or check the programming of festivals that have played your favorite films. In Sweden check the programming of Doc Lounge. If you like a film of one filmmaker, check out the website of the producer or distributor. You will be surprised of many great films you can find. Enjoy.

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Save 15% by using the code BikesInfluence when renting or buying BIKES VS CARS on Vimeo.

BIKES VS CARS is Influence Film Club’s featured films for May. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Geeta and Ravi V. Patel

Our film of the month for April is Influence Film Foundation supported MEET THE PATELS and we can’t get enough of this raucous romp through one of life’s rites of passage. Siblings Ravi and Geeta V. Patel introduce us to the tried and tested Indian tradition of arranged marriage, comically situated on American soil. As a first-generation Indian-American, Ravi grapples with the parts of himself that respond to the ways of the old world, while the status quo of his contemporaries also make complete sense, while his sister Geeta captures it all on film. A humorous rollercoaster ride through the amusement park of family relations, the core-shaking questions Ravi confronts resound with anyone out there who has ever contemplated marriage for themselves.

What is it that drew the two of you to make documentary film together?

Ravi: Common problems.

Geeta: As siblings, we avoid making anything together and I still don’t understand how this happened!?

Ravi: It started by accident – just as a home video. And then when we saw the chance to make something personal, something that could make an impact, it became a very exciting prospect. That said, it was very not easy at first because we have such different sensibilities and it took us a long time to learn how to deal with differences. Thanks to this process, I think we are both now better artists, and much closer as siblings.

Both work in film and television, how does your experience of making a documentary compare to your other work? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout?

Ravi: Documentaries take much longer.  I mean it’s tedious and lacking money. That sucks. But it also was film school for me. And making something that matters – I guess you could say it taught me what art is, to me.

Geeta: Documentaries have this magical element of human nature, world events, the complete unexpected and uncontrollable. It’s an experience that is like no other in that the story tells itself to you most of the time, rather than you writing it.

Documentarians often set out to make one film and end up making another – did you have a specific idea about how the film would turn out? And how did that evolve?

Ravi: We initially wanted to make this more journalistic piece, however as time went on, the vérité aspects and the intimacy of revealing our own family and community felt like the stronger film.

Geeta: The most important thing to us was to make a film that our own family would want to watch. As strange as this sounds, it’s a tall order!

How was it for both of you documenting such a personal experience? Did it bring you closer? Was there any point that you felt like you needed to stop filming, or that the film facilitated certain situations? For example, Ravi, do you think without the film as a vehicle, that you would have ever told your parents about Audrey?

Ravi: It’s hard to say what would have happened without this film, however I know that it changed my life and made all my relationships stronger.  But yeah, it’s hard, and weird  being the subject of your own film. But because I got to see myself from a third party perspective of a director and editor, I think in many ways it did help me try to change, and I guess be a better character in life. Does that make sense?

Geeta: Many times, we wanted to stop making the film. It’s a really uncomfortable and inconvenient process,  and may I just add that the camera was really heavy! This film was also a huge test of my relationship with Ravi. At one point, we thought we’d never talk to each other again. This was the point that changed everything because the lesson of the film became the lesson of our relationship: We chose to make our relationship work. We changed for each other. Now, our relationship is stronger, something new, and quite a dream.

I have to ask – what’s going on now? Have either of you found “true love”?

Ravi: Haha.. Everyone asks us that, of course. We want to keep this a mystery.

Geeta: He says that, but it’s all over social media if you google us. Patels love social media.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up any unexpected reactions?

Ravi: The film has sparked loads of discussion between parents and their kids.

Geeta: In general, people of all communities and backgrounds have been writing to us about how the film has changed how they deal with their relationships with spouses, friends, brothers, sisters, children… It’s been amazing to hear all these stories!

Ravi: The unexpected stuff: 1) I expected, or at least hoped, that Indians would love this film. I’m still shocked that it seems almost every Indian I know has seen it. That’s crazy. 2) even more unexpected is the diverse audience this film has resonated with. People are relating to it in so many ways I did not see coming.

It’s not often that a documentary can be classified as a romantic comedy, and you manage to do it so well! Many documentaries inspire people to learn more, take action or get involved in some way, and while Meet the Patels might not be your typical doc, is there anything people can do after watching the film?

Ravi: People don’t spend enough time on their relationships these days. We hope they will talk to the people they love and learn how to be in a healthy relationship. It’s really hard! I also think the main thing we are hoping people take from this film is that they just make effort in communicating with the people they love. In many ways, this film is broadly about how to love your family.

Geeta: Yes, as small a step as this sounds, it’s the key to everything in life. This film is indeed a social issue film. It’s just disguised as a funny film. This was entirely our goal and we’re so excited that it’s working.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

Ravi and Geeta: Hoop Dreams, Ghosts of Cite Soleil, Sherman’s March, Racing Dreams, Roger and Me, Waltz with Bashir

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MEET THE PATELS is Influence Film Club’s featured films for April. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one (or two) of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film(s) to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film(s), providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Michael Rossato-Bennett

Music plays an instrumental role in each and every one of our lives. The opening seconds of a song can stir up an entire range of emotions, catapulting us back to that first kiss or the feel of the breeze in our hair on that summer boat ride. In the midst of a winter storm, a breezy melody can transport us to the soft sands of a tropical beach. With its sonic strength, music interlaces itself deep into the fabric of our memory and offers a bridge back to the places, people, and passions of our past. We all know that music and memory are intertwined, yet witnessing exactly how intertwined they are can still surprise us.

After being moved by the work of social worker Dan Cohen while shooting a few short videos for a website, director Michael Rossato-Bennett fearlessly followed the founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory as he struggled against a tired healthcare system to inject the healing powers of music into the lives of individuals suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s – resulting in our touching and beautiful film of the month for March, ALIVE INSIDE.

What is it that drew you make “Alive Inside”? 

A friend of mine asked me to do it, to build a website with some films in it for a social worker named Dan Cohen. There was a tiny bit of money, and I did it as a job. I got my equipment and my crew, and we went into this 600 bed nursing home, and there was Dan.  and there was Dan.  He was trying to spread his idea of bringing personalized music to elders.  And he wasn’t having a tremendous amount of luck spreading the idea, so we thought if we could show what he was doing, that might help him. That was it.

When you make a documentary film, you shoot, and you shoot, and you shoot, and sometimes, suddenly, a moment happens- and it brings a tear to your eye. You know you’ve hit something, something real- that your instinct, or whatever it was that set you down this path of shooting, was correct. You have a film!  In this case, we went into the hospital, down these corridors of sadness.  Here I am, I’m a free and unfettered human being, and I’m walking down these corridors of these silent and shut-off people, literally just waiting.

We go into this room, and see this man–literally a blob in a chair, entirely collapsed in on himself, as inward as he possibly could be, divorced from the outer world. Dan puts a pair of headphones on him, and starts to play the music from when he was young, from 80 years ago, when his soul was just forming.  I’m filming, watching this man as he, slowly, sort of come to life- starts singing, and when that happens a chill runs up my spine. It is like seeing Lazarus, a man rising from the dead. And it doesn’t stop, we take the headphones off him, and all of a sudden he is speaking to us in poetry, and singing to us in a voice that is so full of wisdom, so beyond my own.

And I have tears in my eyes. I cried five times that first day of shooting. And I said right there, “Okay, that’s it, this is my next film.” I didn’t have to find “a moment” – it was right here, in front of me. If it hits me like this, there is something here that needs to be told.  If there is this much life hidden in these people, if all it takes a little sprinkle of their own past, their own humanness, to awaken this kind of life and poetry, this is where I belong!

Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career as a documentary filmmaker and in other pursuits? 

The red thread of my career is awakening.  I think we are dangerously asleep.  Wake up!  lets find a better path!

My skills are that I’m kind of fearless in a way, that’s my whole skill set really.  I live my whole life sort of without a safety net, if you will. It gives me a kind of freedom.  As a documentary filmmaker, your freedom and your allegiance, these are your true allies. So, for me, my freedom and my allegiance are deeply intertwined.

My allegiance is to that unknown place, that is a part of everyone, that seems to inform all of the best things we do. And so, if you ask me what my work is, I suppose I should say that on every level of my life, including my positions on artistic, political, and social issues, it’s seeking that place. And that is actually what has given what I do some legs- the capacity to touch people. And I’ve found personally, that the deepest, safe thing that you find: that will give you the most nourishment.

The film is very touching, specifically because it deals with the subject of elderhood, connection and memory, subjects we rarely discuss yet many of us fear. What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions and feelings? 

We’ve become a tremendously fractured communal being. We’ve separated ourselves from our deepest sources of inspiration and justice, and intelligence, perhaps. So, my artistic and social experiments are based on trying to hit notes that are deeply within our consciousness, that ring. Alive Inside; it’s a film about death, it’s about dying, it’s about Alzheimer’s disease, but that’s ok, it hits something.

A friend of mine said, “You’re making a film about  death, dying, and old age: my three least favorite subjects in the world.” And I was like, “Yes, that’s true! they are everyone’s least favorite subjects!”

But this is the key, the key that I’ve found, the choice I’ve made in this endeavor that made all the difference, to go through the door of music and emotion. See, when you seek through music and emotion, it enters humans in a place where it is a reality beneath the mind. And so, people are able to, in my experience, people have been able to open themselves to questions that they usually hide from. Questions that our entire society banishes–literally hides in the darkest corners of our subconscious, attempts to push into the unconscious.

I guess I’m just trying to shine a light on things that are inescapable and interconnected, and I find this in emotion and in music, powerfully.

The film is strangely not disturbing. There are so many messages we get in this culture about division, yet this film is about connection, and it really opens people’s hearts up. I love talking to audiences after they see it.  They are very beautiful and open with the parts of their being they don’t usually linger in. I find them both grateful and happy to sit in those places within themselves. My hope is they have to courage to change life for someone. People write me every day to tell me the story of the magic of music and the mind.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What actions would you recommend people take after watching “Alive Inside”?

I would recommend visiting aliveinside.org to find out how you can engage further – there you can support the Alive Inside Foundation with a donation, sign up to volunteer or get engaged, and learn about how to make a playlist for someone close to you using the AIF Memory Detective App.

The film is truly a call to action – what were your goals and what kind of impact has the film had? Has anything occurred that has left you with the feeling “this is why we made this film”?

I want to help make the dream of returning connection, aliveness and music to our elders come true. There’s so many people in nursing homes, and, a couple million out of sight, and I can’t tell you how many letters I’ve gotten from people telling me ‘oh my god this is so beautiful, I wish I had seen this before my father passed…’ or even sadder, people say, ‘If I had only known, my father was a composer, he played piano his whole life, and I never thought to bring him his music while he was going through his dementia.’ Or the opposite story, ‘oh, thank you for showing this to me. I went in and my father or my mother was sitting like a bump on a log, and I gave her music, and she was happy for a moment, and she came back the way she was three years ago, just for a moment.’ So, we’re just trying our best.

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

What Happened Miss Simone, The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, The Cats of Mirikitani, Into the Abyss, and The Wolfpack.

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ALIVE INSIDE is Influence Film Club’s featured films for March. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one (or two) of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film(s) to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film(s), providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Isis Graham

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Spot on Directors: Joshua Oppenheimer

After more than a decade of filming in Indonesia, director Joshua Oppenheimer left the country, knowing that he would probably not be able to come back. He brought away the material for two of the most outstanding documentaries of our time, THE ACT OF KILLING and THE LOOK OF SILENCE, our featured films for February. Two films that have the immense power to change the dynamics of a culture by lifting the veil on the daily horrors many Indonesians experience still today because of the 1965 genocide that forever changed their lives. The haunting first film lets the perpetrators speak, leaders of present Indonesian society, eager to reveal their “heroic” acts of killing; in the 2015 companion piece Oppenheimer quietly tells the story about the incredible act of surviving in the face of deeply rooted trauma and bone harrowing terror. Through his work, the survivors have the final say, but now we hand over to the Oscar-nominated filmmaker himself.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

It is a life practice that allows me to explore the deepest mysteries in human life and perception, and sculpt what I find into an immersive, poetic experience for an audience, a translation of what I discover through the journey of filmmaking.

What is your own history with documentaries? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I think the dominant theme in my work has been pretence and self-deception. By giving people a stage on which they can dramatize their lives, memories, and feelings, I return to the state-of-nature of nonfiction filmmaking: the simple fact that whenever you point a camera at anybody, they start acting out idealized images of themselves, how they want to be seen, how they see themselves. These self-understandings are always informed by fictions, by second-hand, third-rate stories borrowed from the cinema, television, advertising. That is, we make ourselves and our world through fictions. Rather than rush past the self-consciousness that is inevitable when people are filmed, we should work with this self-consciousness, allowing people to make their fantasies about who they are in the world explicit, and creating occasions where people confront those fantasies. In this way, the nonfiction camera becomes a prism that makes visible the myriad fictions that constitute our ‘factual’ reality. I have always been interested in what happens when these fiction scenes are allowed to take over a film’s form. What fever dreams become possible? This is why I tend to refer to my work as nonfiction rather than documentary – I’m trying to avoid the sobriety and journalistic connotations that ‘documentary’ has in the English language.

Rather than pretend to be a fly on the wall, I would rather collaborate with my participants to create occasions that make visible the previously invisible forces responsible for the problems I’m investigating. This is always a transformative moment: in order to function, these forces have depended upon their invisibility. The moment they are made explicit and visible, everything changes – in ways analogous to The Emperor’s New Clothes. People  – participants and the audience – can suddenly talk about the forces shaping their lives in ways they could not before.

Many people describe THE ACT OF KILLING as a “game changer” for the documentary genre – why do you think this is? And where do you think the genre is headed?

Building on what I said above, I think the 159-min uncut version of THE ACT OF KILLING – 40 minutes longer than the US theatrical release – is not a documentary at all, but something new, a fever dream, because the fiction scenes created by Anwar Congo and his friends completely take over the film’s form. The uncut “Act of Killing” uses its extra run-time to do a deeper, more profound work – something surreal and dreamlike that viewers may not have experienced before. It is punctuated by moments of absolute silence, pauses that give the viewer space to rest, recover to take in the surreal material – and that makes it feel more real, and consequently more important. The story unfolds more gradually, to a more intimate rhythm, and grows bigger in scope. It offers more time to get close to the characters, to better understand their development. This makes it a gentler, more intimate, and more profound experience.

The uncut version gives viewers time (and extra scenes) to feel Anwar’s evolving doubt, and get lost with him in his nightmares. These begin simply as his bad dreams, but they grow to embody the nightmare of a man living with mass murder on his conscience. They grow further to encompass the nightmare of humanity itself living with genocide and blindness as the foundation of our everyday normality. And as the nightmare grows, Anwar and his friends’ fiction scenes reveal poetic truths deeper than the observational documentary material. The boundaries between fiction and documentary blur. The fiction scenes takes over the film’s form, unmooring it, sending it spiraling into a surreal fever dream. Most significant, though, is the end of the film. In the final act, Anwar’s descent is more complex and honest in the uncut film: his anger and sadism return with a vengeance — and in response to growing regret. Remorse is painful, and the pain makes him angry. He takes it out on his victims, until he finally experiences a shattering, physical recognition of what he has done.

Note that the uncut “Act of Killing” is available in the US on Netflix and DVD as “The Act of Killing – director’s cut”, though this is misleading as director’s cuts are usually made afterwards, and out of regret. The 159-min version is, in fact, the original unabridged film — the full culmination of our eight-year journey making it. It was the main festival and cinema version outside the US, and received the majority of the film’s accolades.

It’s hard to put into words what kind of strange, disturbing feeling it was to watch men who have committed horrible crimes strolling around and describing what they did, often even laughing and smiling. How did you gain their trust and what were your feelings working closely with perpetrators like Anwar?

It took nothing to get them to open up about their crimes. When Adi Rukun, the protagonist of THE LOOK OF SILENCE, asked me to approach the perpetrators back in 2003, I was afraid it would be dangerous. But each perpetrator was immediately open and boastful about the most grisly details of what they’d done. What was harder was getting them to open up about their feelings. Yet once Anwar revealed that he suffered from nightmares as a result of what he’d done, I used this as my opportunity to tell him that I was also haunted by the terrible stories he was telling me. From that point on, I was very open with Anwar about my feelings, though I showed him at every moment that I regard him as a human being. I think this came as a relief to Anwar: he realized that this was a safe space to begin exploring his guilt. Normally, he does not dare acknowledge his feelings of guilt because he isn’t sure how he could continue to live with himself. But with me he saw that he could admit he did wrong (even if only through his body language, his subtext, his description of his dreams), and I would continue to see him as a human being. In a way, Adi Rukun does the same thing: by testing the perpetrators’ eyes, he shows them that he sees them as human, that he’s trying to help them see, and in an intimate way. This helps them open up to him.

I refused to comfort myself by telling myself that these men are monsters, and I am somehow fundamentally different from them, cut from different cloth. And having made this refusal, I bore the responsibility of approaching them as a human being, naked, in a way, entering the darkness of what it must be like for them to live with such horrors on their conscience. And I entered this space refusing to flinch. This was emotionally difficult for me and my crew.

There’s a sequence in the Director’s Cut of THE ACT OF KILLING where Anwar butchers a teddy bear in a film noir scene; it is one of the most important scenes in the movie to me, because Anwar is despairingly embracing the guilt he begins to realize he can never escape. While we were filming it, Anwar stopped the action to tell me that I was crying. I hadn’t realized it. This was the only time I’ve ever cried without knowing I was crying. Anwar asked, “What should we do? Shall we stop?” I said, “We must continue.” In a way I wish I’d stopped, because I went home that night and had terrible nightmares. Indeed, that was the beginning of eight months’ insomnia and nightmares… THE ACT OF KILLING was emotionally frightening to make, while THE LOOK OF SILENCE was emotionally healing. And at the end of it all, I feel I have overcome that most crippling fear of all: the fear of looking.

You said that Adi, the protagonist of THE LOOK OF SILENCE, asked you to approach the perpetrators in THE ACT OF KILLING.  Can you explain about the timeline of the two films, how they came to be, and your decision to create two separate works?

I first went to Indonesia in 2001 to help oil palm plantation workers make a film documenting and dramatizing their struggle to organize a union in the aftermath of the US-supported Suharto dictatorship, under which unions were illegal. In the remote plantation villages of North Sumatra, one could hardly perceive that military rule had officially ended three years earlier. The conditions I encountered were deplorable. Women working on the plantation were forced to spray herbicide without protective clothing. The mist would enter their lungs and then their bloodstreams, destroying their liver tissue. The women would fall ill, and many would die in their forties. When they protested their conditions, the Belgian-owned company would hire paramilitary thugs to threaten them, and sometimes physically attack them.

Fear was the biggest obstacle they faced in organizing a union. The Belgian company could get away with poisoning its employees because the workers were afraid. I quickly learned the source of this fear: the plantation workers had a large and active union until 1965, when their parents and grandparents were accused of being “communist sympathizers” (simply for being in the union) and put into concentration camps, where they were exploited as slave labor and ultimately murdered by the army and civilian death squads.

In 2001, the killers not only enjoyed complete impunity, but they and their protégés still dominated all levels of government, from the plantation village to the parliament. Survivors lived in fear that the massacres could happen again at any time. After we completed the film (The Globalisation Tapes, 2002), the survivors asked us to return as quickly as possible to make another film about the source of their fear – that is, a film about what it’s like for survivors to live surrounded by the men who murdered their loved ones, men still in positions of power. We returned almost immediately, in early 2003, and began investigating one 1965 murder that the plantation workers spoke of frequently. The victim’s name was Ramli, and his name was used almost as a synonym for the killings in general.

I came to understand the reason this particular murder was so often discussed: there were witnesses. It was undeniable. Unlike the hundreds of thousands of victims who disappeared at night from concentration camps, Ramli’s death was public. There were witnesses to his final moments, and the killers left his body in the oil palm plantation, less than two miles from his parents’ home. Years later, the family was able to surreptitiously erect a gravestone, though they could only visit the grave in secret.

Survivors and ordinary Indonesians alike would talk about “Ramli,” I think, because his fate was grim evidence of what had happened to all the others, and to the nation as a whole. Ramli was proof that the killings, no matter how taboo, had, in fact, occurred. His death verified for the villagers the horrors that the military regime threatened them into pretending had never occurred, yet threatened to unleash again. To speak of “Ramli” and his murder was to pinch oneself to make sure one is awake, a reminder of the truth, a commemoration of the past, a warning for the future. For survivors and the public on the plantation, remembering “Ramli” was to acknowledge the source of their fear – and thus a necessary first step to overcoming it. And so, when I returned in early 2003, it was inevitable that Ramli’s case would come up often. The plantation workers quickly sought out his family, introducing me to Ramli’s dignified mother, Rohani, his ancient but playful father, Rukun, and his siblings – including the youngest, Adi, an optician, born after the killings.

Rohani thought of Adi as a replacement for Ramli. She had Adi so she could continue to live, and Adi has lived with that burden his whole life. Like children of survivors all across Indonesia, Adi grew up in a family officially designated “politically unclean,” impoverished by decades of extortion by local military officials, and traumatized by the genocide. Because Adi was born after the killings, he was not afraid to speak out, to demand answers. I believe he gravitated to my filmmaking as a way of understanding what his family had been through, a way of expressing and overcoming a terror everybody around him had been too afraid to acknowledge.

I befriended Adi at once and together we began gathering other survivors’ families in the region. They would come together and tell stories, and we would film. For many, it was the first time they had publicly spoken about what happened. On one occasion, a survivor arrived at Ramli’s parents’ home, trembling with fear, terrified that if the police discovered what we were doing, she would be arrested and forced into slave labor. Yet she came because she was determined to testify. Each time a motorcycle or car would pass, we would stop filming, hiding what equipment we could. Subject to decades of economic apartheid, survivors rarely could afford more than a bicycle, so the sound of a motor meant an outsider was passing. The Army, which is stationed in every village in Indonesia, quickly found out what we were doing and threatened the survivors, including Adi’s siblings, not to participate in the film. The survivors urged me, “Before you give up and go home, try to film the perpetrators. They may tell you how they killed our relatives.” I did not know if it was safe to approach the killers, but when I did I found all of them to be boastful, immediately recounting the grisly details of the killings, often with smiles on their faces, in front of their families, even their small grandchildren. The contrast between survivors being forced into silence and perpetrators boastfully recounting stories far more incriminating than anything the survivors could have told made me feel as though I’d wandered into Germany 40 years after the Holocaust, only to find the Nazis still in power.

When I showed these testimonials to those survivors who wanted to see it, including Adi and Ramli’s other siblings, everybody said, more or less: “You are on to something terribly important. Keep filming the perpetrators, because anybody who sees this will be forced to acknowledge the rotten heart of the regime the killers have built.” From that point on, I felt entrusted by the survivors and human rights community to accomplish work that they could not safely do themselves: film the perpetrators. All of them would enthusiastically invite me to the places they killed, and launch into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed. They would complain afterwards that they had not thought to bring along a machete to use as a prop, or a friend to play a victim. One day, early in this process, I met the leader of the death squad on the plantation where we had filmed The Globalisation Tapes. He and a fellow executioner invited me to a clearing on the banks of Snake River, a spot where he had helped murder 10,500 people. Suddenly, I realised he was telling me how he had killed Ramli. I had stumbled across one of Ramli’s killers. I told Adi about this encounter, and he and other family members asked to see the footage. That was how they learned the details of Ramli’s death.

For the next two years, from 2003–2005, I filmed every perpetrator I could find across North Sumatra, working from death squad to death squad up the chain of command, from the countryside to the city. Anwar Congo, the man who would become the main character in THE ACT OF KILLING, was the 41st perpetrator I filmed.

I spent the next five years shooting THE ACT OF KILLING, and throughout the process Adi would ask to see the material we were filming. He would watch as much as I could find time to show him. He was transfixed. Perpetrators on film normally deny their atrocities (or apologize for them), because by the time filmmakers reach them they have been removed from power, their actions condemned and expiated. Here I was filming perpetrators of genocide who won, who built a regime of terror founded on the celebration of genocide, and who remain in power. They have not been forced to admit what they did was wrong. It is in this sense that THE ACT OF KILLING is not a documentary about a genocide 50 years ago. It is an exposé of a present-day regime of fear. The film is not a historical narrative. It is a film about history itself, about the lies victors tell to justify their actions, and the effects of those lies; it is a film about an unresolved traumatic past that continues to haunt the present.

I knew from the start of my journey that there was another, equally urgent film to make, also about the present. THE ACT OF KILLING is haunted by the absent victims – the dead. Almost every painful passage culminates abruptly in a haunted and silent tableau, an empty, often ruined landscape, inhabited by a single lost, lonely figure. Time stops. There is a rupture in the film’s point of view, an abrupt shift to silence, a commemoration of the dead, and the lives pointlessly destroyed. I knew that I would make another film, one where we step into those haunted spaces and feel viscerally what it is like for the survivors forced to live there, forced to build lives under the watchful eyes of the men who murdered their loved ones, and remain powerful. That film is THE LOOK OF SILENCE.

Apart from the older footage from 2003–2005 that Adi watches, we shot THE LOOK OF SILENCE in 2012, after editing THE ACT OF KILLING but before releasing it – after which I knew I could no longer safely return to Indonesia. We worked closely with Adi and his parents, who had become, along with my anonymous Indonesian crew, like an extended family to me. Adi spent years studying footage of perpetrators. He would react with shock, sadness and outrage. He wanted to make sense of that experience. Meanwhile, his children were in school, being taught that what had happened to them – enslavement, torture, murder, decades of political apartheid – all of this was their fault, instilling them and other survivors’ children with shame. Adi was deeply affected – and angered – by the boasting of the perpetrators, his parents’ trauma and fear and the brainwashing of his children.

In early 2010, as I finished filming THE ACT OF KILLING, I gave Adi a video camera to use as a notebook to search for metaphors that might inspire the making of The Look of Silence. When I returned to Indonesia to make the film in 2012, I asked Adi how we should begin. He told me that he had spent seven years watching my footage of the perpetrators, and it had changed him. He wanted to meet the men who murdered his brother. I refused immediately. It would be too dangerous, I told him. For a victim to confront a perpetrator in Indonesia is all but unimaginable. There has never been a nonfiction film, in the history of cinema, where survivors confront perpetrators who still hold a monopoly on power. In response, Adi took out the camera I had given him, and one cassette. “I never sent you this tape,” he explained, “because it is meaningful to me.” Trembling, he put the tape in the camera, pressed play, and began to cry. On the camera’s flip screen came the one scene in the THE LOOK OF SILENCE that Adi shot: the scene at the end in which his father, Rukun, lost in his own home, is calling for help as he crawls from room to room. Through his tears, Adi explained: “This was the first day my father could not remember me, my siblings, or my mom. All day, he was lost, calling for help, but when we tried to help we only made him more frightened, because we had become strangers to him. It was unbearable not to do anything, and after hours of this, not knowing what else to do, I picked up the camera and filmed, asking myself why I am filming? But then I understood: this is the day it became too late for my father to heal. He has forgotten the son whose murder ruined his family’s life, but he has not forgotten the fear. Now that he cannot remember what happened, he will never work through, grieve, mourn. He will die with this fear, like a man locked in a room who cannot even find the door, let alone the key.”

We watched the footage in silence. When it was finished, Adi said, “I do not want my children to inherit this prison of fear from my father, my mother, and from me.” He told me that if he were to visit the men without anger, showing that he is willing to forgive if they can take responsibility for what they have done, they would greet his visit as a long-awaited opportunity to stop their manic boasting and accept their guilt, to find forgiveness from one of their victim’s families. In this way, Adi hoped to live with them as human beings, as neighbors, rather than perpetrators and victims, always afraid of each other. Discussing this with my Indonesian crew, we realized that the shooting of THE ACT OF KILLING was famous across North Sumatra, but nobody had seen it yet. I was therefore well known across the region for having worked closely with the most powerful perpetrators in the country – the Vice President, cabinet ministers, the national head of the paramilitary organisation. The men Adi hoped to confront were regionally but not nationally powerful. They would think I am close to their superiors, and would not want to offend them by physically attacking us or even detaining us. Thus, the unique situation of having shot a film like THE ACT OF KILLING – but not releasing it yet – might allow us to do something unprecedented.

I also realized we were unlikely to get the apology for which Adi was hoping, and I told him so. But I felt that if I could show why the perpetrators cannot apologize, if I could film with precision and intimacy their complex, human reactions to being visited by their victim’s brother, then perhaps I could make visible the abyss of fear, guilt, and (for the perpetrators) fear of their own guilt that divides every Indonesian from each other, and from their own past – and thus from themselves. I told Adi that by documenting the perpetrators’ inability to apologize, maybe we could show how torn the social fabric of Indonesia is. Anybody seeing the film, I hoped, would have to support truth, reconciliation, and some form of justice. In this way, I hoped that, through the film as a whole, we might succeed in a bigger way where we fail in the individual confrontations.

Finally, I realized that whatever truth and reconciliation might come in the future – perhaps, in part, as a consequence of our two films – Adi is right: it is too late for Adi’s father. This film should honor that, and thus must be more than a %9

Damon Gameau

Spot on Directors: Damon Gameau

Until 2014, Damon Gameau was primarily known for being an actor. Today, the Australian is known for far more than that – he is making us fundamentally rethink our food choices. As writer, producer, director and lead of our film of the month, THAT SUGAR FILM, he embarked on a journey to discover the sugary truth about foods marketed and commonly perceived as ‘healthy’. For two months, he would eat 40 teaspoons (160 grams) of sugar each day – the average amount a young, Australian male consumes. Yet, you won’t see him indulging in soft drinks and ice-cream but rather low-fat yoghurts and juice, groceries we consume in pursuit of a better health that hide their sugar-sweet-selfs behind the façade of do-gooders. Filmed as Damon was about to become a father, he decided it is about time to lift the veil on hidden sugar. So, for all of us victims numbed by sweet substances, let’s tune in and listen to his wake-up call.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” I actually think the world needs documentaries more than ever. They have become a wonderful form of modern journalism and can shine a light into our darkest corners.

That Sugar Film is your debut as a documentary director. What sparked your interest for becoming a human lab rat and at what point did you decide to make a film?

I was aware of the mixed messages around sugar in the public opinion. The camps were very divided so I wanted to find out some truths for myself. I always thought telling a story about sugar would also lend itself to some great aesthetics. A colorful Willy Wonka joyride.

You were the director while still having the lead role in the film. This is rather an exemption to the rule. Could you tell us a little about how you experienced it?

I certainly learnt a lot about myself doing it this way. My barometer is very finely tuned now for when I am truthful and when I am bullshitting. I have been an actor for 12 years so I am used to watching myself on screen and accepting the flaws. The tough part was eating all that sugar and trying to make smart decisions during the filming process.

The highlight of your film is that while everyone would expect you to have consumed sweet foods you actually switched to so-called healthy foods such as low-fat yogurt, cereals or fruit bars. So, what’s wrong with this “healthy” stuff?

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it, it’s just that people have been mislead into thinking it is all healthy. I think the point of the film is to try and teach people the true meaning of moderation. Most people think ice cream or chocolate is their only sugar for the day. Hopefully the film shows them exactly how much sugar they are consuming in other products.

One of the most impressive insights for me was how big of an influence sugar has on our mood and mentality. Are its effects comparable to those of a drug?

Well, Nora Volkow, the head of the National Institute of Drug Abuse in the US, acknowledges that sugar  is a drug for some people and that is certainly the feedback we get. It all comes down to the size of the opioid receptors in your brain. [Opioid receptors are located in the brain and the spinal column. They are responsible for aiding neurotransmitters and hormones, the most well known being our endorphins.  Addictive substances like Heroin work by enacting upon these receptor sites while high sugar foods can cause similar reactions.] Some are more prone to sugar addiction than others, in the same way alcohol and nicotine affects us all differently. Sugar is no different. The mood factor is a very important topic as I think most people are completely unaware of how sugar impacts their cognition.

Your film has created huge awareness for sugar and its effects on us – and the industry counting on us being sweet tooths. Now, how can people that watched your film take action and what are your hopes in terms of changing behaviors?

To take action, I would recommend people to check out our website where we provide lots of free recipes and tips. I also wrote a companion book to the film, That Sugar Book, that really walks you through the process of lowering sugar intake.

What people need to know is that their palate adjusts. Things might taste bland in the first few weeks of lowering sugar but then you begin to notice the natural sweetness of foods and that the refined stuff tastes way too strong.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What were and are you hoping for in terms of your film’s impact?

We have had an incredible outreach campaign that includes a free app, a school action kit that 1,000 schools have already signed up for and an Aboriginal Foundation for lowering sugar consumption on the lands. It is a full time job and tough to keep up with but we are thrilled with the response and support for all these ventures.

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of?

The Staircase, The Inside Job, The Bill Hicks Story, The Comedian, Man on Wire, Capturing the Friedmans, Bowling for Columbine, Searching for Sugar Man.

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THAT SUGAR FILM is Influence Film Club’s featured film for January. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Julia Bier

Aaron Wickenden Almost There

Spot on Directors: Aaron Wickenden

The path he followed led him from snacking on leftovers at one of LA’s production houses to Chicago’s documentary powerhouse, Kartemquin. Would acclaimed editor and co-director of our December film, ALMOST THERE, Aaron Wickenden have thought he was going to have the career he has today when he was cracking the crust of crème brûlée in the mecca of film? It’s hard to know. But one thing is clear: not quite getting what you set out for, as the film’s title suggests, does not apply to Aaron.  Amongst his several award winning collaborations are films like Oscar shortlisted Best of Enemies  by Morgan Neville who described Aaron with the following words: “Docs, in general, are made in the edit bay, archival docs even more so… We brought in Aaron Wickenden, who cut Finding Vivian Maier, and he’s amazing.” See it for yourself!

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

The collaborative storytelling process is a big part of it… and with that, the joy that comes from working in small groups of passionate people. When I graduated from college in 2000 my work experience was the opposite to the career in documentary that I have now. I went to work at a major post production house in Los Angeles. I told the HR director I wanted to be an Assistant Editor. Instead I was assigned to the Client Services team where I would spend the next few months bringing espresso drinks and crème brûlées to advertising executives and show runners. After I mastered that, they promoted me to the Tape Vault where I put barcodes on film and tape elements and made sure they didn’t get lost in FedEx. It was a fun gig at first because I could zone out, eat crème brûlée leftovers and listen to KXLU while getting my work done. After a while it occurred to me that what I was doing had so little to do with the actual films and shows that we were working on that I might as well have been selling t-shirts. Nowadays, the teams I work on are usually about 3-5 people at the core: Director, Producer, Editor, and if I’m lucky an Associate Producer and Assistant Editor. The creative conversations I get to participate in at that level are fantastically stimulating.

You have worked as an editor on many films, including Finding Vivian Maier and The Interrupters.  Can you tell us about your history with documentaries? In what way was it different from your previous experiences to work as a co-director on Almost There?

During college, one of my best and hippest friends turned me onto the radio show This American Life. It was early in that show’s history and I remember sitting in my friend’s loft in Tucson sparking off of all of these great stories and drinking lots of wine. Around that same time I stumbled across a copy of Kartemquin’s classic film Inquiring Nuns on VHS at my college’s library. That film blew my mind. Essentially the film is about two nuns walking around the streets of Chicago in 1968 asking people if they were happy. It features one of the first film scores by Phillip Glass who was a student at the University of Chicago. These experiences were among the first that sent me on my way towards docs.

In the winter of 2001, after moving to Chicago myself, I came across another copy of Inquiring Nuns at a great video store called Facets. I looked up Kartemquin online but at that time their website was really terrible and had no contact information. So I grabbed a phone book, found their listing and called to see if they had an internship program. The timing couldn’t have been better because Kartemquin was in the midst of creating a 7 hour mini-series for PBS called The New Americans and they needed all the help they could get. Another turning point in my career happened then because I met Steve James. He was incredibly kind, approachable, and sincere while also being very funny. He went on to hire me as his Assistant Editor on Reel Paradise which we premiered at Sundance in 2004. In a way, I was mentored by Steve over the years and he quickly promoted me up the post-production ladder to the point where we co-edited two films: At the Death House Door (2008), and The Interrupters (2011).

Only in the past few years I have started working with other directors and I’ve been very lucky to have some great filmmakers come my way. The resulting success of films like Finding Vivian Maier, The Trials of Muhammad Ali, and Best of Enemies only continues to help open my world up to new creative collaborations. Each experience is very different. The most different of which would be Almost There because I was co-directing and producing it with my talented friend Dan Rybicky. I was also the cinematographer, editor, and a minor character in the film. After completing Almost There I think I understand a bit better how exhausting it is to direct a documentary and push it out into the world. As a result I now have an expanded depth of compassion for my directors and the stresses they’re navigating.

You shot the film over the course of 8 years. How did you manage to keep control over the presumably extensive amount of footage? How do you find a starting point?

I’m pretty methodical and system oriented when it comes to my projects. However by contrast, my office is usually a mess and I wish I could declutter my living space with the same rigor that I do with my films. It’s one of my 5 year goals.

With Almost There we certainly had a mountain of footage that accumulated over the years. It was all organized by shoot date and then backed up onto multiple drives in case one of them failed. I still have eight external hard-dives hooked up next to my computer at home so that I can finish and deliver our TV version of the film which has to be about 56 minutes long. Believe me, I am looking forward to boxing up those drives and putting them into storage.

If we had just tried to attack the edit of the film by just diving in I think we would have failed miserably. We actually started by writing and submitting proposals to ITVS [Independent Television Service] as part of their Open Call process that can result in a TV acquisition. We applied 3 times before being successfully funded, and with each application our written description would get tighter and more refined. ITVS gave us feedback as we went along and it helped us understand how to tell our story. Once successfully funded we were faced with a new challenge: could we pull off what we had written in our proposal.

Though he certainly doesn’t appear as the easiest person to deal with, Peter Anton’s story is heart-wrenching and while watching the film you can’t help thinking how lucky he was to meet you and Dan. What does Almost There really mean to Peter and how is he doing today?

When we first met Peter he was living in a pretty horrible situation where his home was falling down around him and he had self-isolated from his community. Those were the conditions that compelled Peter to want to chronicle his life story. In writing about himself, I think he wanted to cultivate a certain kind of control and self-worth that he didn’t feel in his day-to-day life. He began making his scrapbooks in the early 1980s and by the time he was finished there would be 13 volumes comprising his life-story, Almost There. He explained to us that this title choice came from his life being composed of “almost there” experiences where he was close to succeeding but didn’t quite make it.

Now that Peter is out of his home, the film is out in the world, and he has reconnected with a community it’s clear that his compulsion to tell his life story has calmed down. He’s now working on other artistic pursuits: directing an elderly person’s choir, writing a massive book of facts about the world, and teaching art classes. He’s very fulfilled by these things.

The other day a very favorable review of our film came out in The Chicago Tribune. Peter read it and called me. He thought it was interesting but all he really wanted to do was to talk about how we were going to get his new book published. So he’s basically over the film… and that’s amazing.

Thinking of filmmaking as the art form it is, in what way has Peter’s story influenced your own pursuits as an artist?

My favorite art of Peter’s comes from a place of his compulsion. It’s work he has to make no matter what. As a freelance editor for hire, I try to chose to work with directors who feel that same need to make their film. I also try to judge how acutely I’m catching this contagious need for the film to be made. If I find myself wanting to tell my friends about a new project I’m working on and I can feel myself getting excited while I’m talking about the film, then those are good signs for its success. When those things aren’t in play, I’ve found that the purpose for the film existing in the world can get kind of diluted, the director can loose steam and the work becomes more of a job then a collaborative art. In those instances it’s still a wonderful job to have, and I’m lucky to be paid to be creative…but at the end of the day I’m in it for the process and want to be around people who are excited.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

When people watch the film it reminds them of conversations they’ve had with a family member or neighbor around moving out of their home and whether a nursing home is the right fit for them. While Peter is going though a pretty extreme version of this transition in our film, this pivotal time in a person’s life is very relatable. We’ve now shown the film at over 30 film festivals around the world and I’ve noticed people consistently leave the theater with a sense of expanded compassion towards the elderly. If that is the legacy of this film than I’m pretty happy with the outcome of this whole endeavor.

What are your 6 favorite documentaries of all times? 

  • Inquiring Nuns
  • Streetwise
  • Fighter
  • American Movie
  • Stevie
  • Heavy Metal Parking Lot

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ALMOST THERE is Influence Film Club’s featured film for December. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Julia Bier

Dan Rybicky Almost There

Spot on Directors: Dan Rybicky

While making ALMOST THERE was a life-altering experience for co-director Dan Rybicky, our team’s first encounter with the Chicago based filmmaker could very well be described with the same term. Seldom have I seen a similar expression of joy and gratitude as when first meeting and shaking hands with Dan at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. Hence, I am happy that we have the opportunity to feature ALMOST THERE, a documentary brought to us by a brilliant, congenial team of filmmakers who try to brighten the future of an amazing artist buried in the past. ALMOST THERE might be Dan’s first full-length feature but he is no stranger to the film industry. With an MFA from New York’s Tisch School of Arts under his belt, he got involved in various production capacities for filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, John Sayles and John Leguizamo. In his current position as Associate Professor in Cinema Art + Science at Columbia College Chicago he is at least as cherished by his students as he was by me throughout the interview, so let’s have a closer look at the first of the two creative minds behind our December doc.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

I love how passionate, purposeful and humane documentary films and filmmakers are, and I’m challenged in a wonderful way by the inherent tensions and complexities contained within John Grierson’s early definition of documentary as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Best of all, I’m grateful for the discoveries I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned during the process of shining a literal and metaphorical light on the always fascinating, unpredictable, and inspiring lives of the real people I’ve met – and those I look forward to meeting soon.

What is your history? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career as a documentary filmmaker and in other pursuits?

For better or worse, I’m a person who has always picked the scab and scratched the itch, even when I was told not to. As a kid, my family called me “the shit disturber” because I spoke out about the lies and injustices I saw to those close to me who preferred, and even demanded, silence. I’m sure I was really annoying (and probably still am), but this early quest for truth (which has evolved into more of a meditation on what truth is and isn’t) – combined with my endless curiosity about people and why and how their stories are told – first led me to pursuing a career as a playwright and screenwriter. And while I do still enjoy putting my words into other people’s mouths, I’ve become increasingly more interested in listening to non-actors speak their own words and seeing how the narrative structures and character arcs I’ve employed in my fiction apply – or don’t – to the complicated lives and surprising stories of real people. Ultimately, it is my deep love for these real (and really great) characters – especially those who are at a turning point in their lives and deeply desire something – that has made me become a documentary filmmaker.

So, you came across Peter Anton at a Pierogi Festival – probably one of the most fun stories a filmmaker can tell about how they found inspiration for a new project. What sparked your interest? At what point did you decide to start working on Almost There?

It’s true that my friend and co-director Aaron Wickenden and I first met Peter Anton during the summer of 2006 at Pierogi Fest in Northwest Indiana, having initially gone there because the festival was trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by unveiling “The World’s Largest Pierogi.” We brought our cameras with us because we thought that buttery mountain of dough would be a sight to behold. Little did we know we would encounter someone who would change the course of our lives for the next decade.

Peter was sitting at a rickety table off of the main festival path dressed like a disheveled dandy persuading passersby to let him draw their portraits. We were charmed by his corny jokes and mesmerized by how much the kids he was drawing loved him. And then from under his table, Peter pulled out one of his twelve gigantic and totally handmade scrapbooks. It vibrated with color, glitter and text, and we were immediately drawn in.

We wrote letters back and forth for two years before finally visiting Peter at his house in 2008 so he could show us more of his art. When we got there, we were deeply saddened yet intrigued to learn that Peter was a hoarder living in extreme squalor, surrounded by artistic gems buried in rubble and mold. We were excited to discover this body of artwork but majorly concerned for Peter’s well being. What shocked us the most was how determined Peter was to stay living in such life-threatening conditions. After offering Peter information about social service organizations that could help him secure better housing, we were finally forced to accept Peter’s wishes. But because we remained interested in this tension between the past and present that exists in Peter’s art and life, we began documenting him, his house, and his art before everything was damaged beyond recognition.

Almost There is a very personal film, focusing not only on Peter but also on you as you become a subject of the documentary and share your personal history. When did you realize that you would become a part of the story, and what was that experience like for you?

Aaron and I did not begin this film wanting or expecting to become supporting characters in it, but while reviewing our footage, we realized some of the most dramatic exchanges that brought the deepest conflicts of Peter’s life and story immediately to the surface were between him and us. This is not so surprising in retrospect, considering Peter lived in almost total isolation and we were two of the only people he would see or talk to for weeks at a time.

But only during our fourth year of our collaboration was I able to more deeply explore my own motivation for telling Peter’s story when, soon after the art exhibition in Chicago we had helped Peter set up, a journalist discovered a disturbing secret from Peter’s past – something he had kept from us. My friends saw how upset Aaron and I were about it and started to ask me why I was still documenting this man’s life now that he’d lied to us. Why did I feel the need to continue helping Peter so much even though he actively refused to help himself?

During a visit to my hometown, I began to look more closely at the parallels between Peter’s story and the story of my family and quickly realized how much my desire to help Peter in the present was related to my not being able to help my own mentally ill brother in the past – a brother who, like Peter years ago, was an artist still living in the house he grew up in with his (and my) mother.

I’ve always been wary of the ‘God-eye’ in documentary anyway and often wish more directors revealed on screen the ethically complicated and hard-to-define relationships that have developed between them and their subjects over the course of filming. Although this is usually the stuff they edit out, these “behind-the-scenes” negotiations and power dynamics contain stories I find as interesting, if not more interesting, than the ones the directors have chosen to tell. Based on this, and based on my determination to hold myself up to the same scrutiny I give to a subject, Aaron and I decided that developing my character and showing my motivations would add an additional layer of depth and context to our story and pull the veil back even further on the process of documentary making itself.

Comparing his situation to van Gogh’s Peter says: “Only the art matters, not the mess.” Having been a regular at Peter’s, what is your opinion?

As Victor E. Frankel wrote in one of my favorite books Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Peter definitely confirmed my belief in the truthfulness of something because it was only through his passion for art making – combined with the deeper sense of purposefulness he derived from creating work based on the story of his life and those in his community – that he was able to survive and even thrive in conditions I’m sure would have killed anybody else.

Based on this, I would agree with Peter that art does definitely matter more than the mess. That said, and considering how much the mess threatened to destroy both Peter’s life and his art, I think both are important.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What were and are you hoping for in terms of your film’s impact?

I didn’t think about what impact I wanted our film to have while we were making it. All I wanted during that time was for Peter to not die alone with all of his art buried in the decrepit house he was “living” in. Only upon completing the film have I been able to see the impact it has on others – not just on various art communities but also on anyone who is confronting issues involving poverty, the elderly, the disabled, and those with mental illness. Peter’s story may be extreme, but it is ultimately universal: most everyone has a friend, relative or neighbor who mirrors some of Peter’s eccentricities, and sooner or later, everyone copes with end-of-life issues with a parent or grandparent. And we can all relate to the difficulty of letting go, as well as the fear of making long-term changes, even when those changes may be for the better.

While our film also explores the how’s and why’s of compassion, as well as the limits of altruism, it more specifically provides a portrait of what aging is like for many people in America who have no family members left and currently live at or below the poverty level. Several people have approached us after screenings to tell us how much they hope every elderly person – and every person taking care of someone who is elderly – will see what we’ve made.

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

My list of doc favorites would be way too long to share in its entirety here, so I’ll instead highlight some of my favorites that were particular inspirations during the making of Almost There. Three are from our amazing production collective Kartemquin Films: Stevie, Home For Life, and Golub: Late Works are the Catastrophes. Other fantastic films I thought about a lot while making our film include: Grey Gardens, Marwencol, Crumb, American Movie, Little Dieter Needs to Fly, Mr. Dial Has Something to Say, and last but not least, The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

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ALMOST THERE is Influence Film Club’s featured film for December. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Julia Bier

Alison Klayman

Spot on Directors: Alison Klayman

She never would have expected that the first camera she bought would play such a huge role in their career. Yet, for a period of three years, one-person crew Alison Klayman held it up to renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, having unprecedented access to his life and work which resulted in her debut documentary AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY. The award-winning film and our November pick proved relevant to people around the world. It is a lesson in not accepting so-called truths, about encouraging dialogue and the freedom to express ourselves. We gave Alison the opportunity to do the latter in our interview with her.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

I love being able to explore the world through a multitude of experiences and points of view, and creating work that can make faraway and disparate places and perspectives feel closer. I fully believe in the notion put forward by Roger Ebert that films are machines that generate empathy.

What is your own history? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career as a documentary filmmaker and in other pursuits?

I think my Jewish education and family background have always underscored the importance of memory, of critical thinking and inquiry, and pursuing justice. To me these are essential aspects of documentary filmmaking. So many of my other pursuits over the years have helped me along my path of documentary filmmaking: years working in radio taught me storytelling, interview skills and the importance of a journalistic approach to my work; 12+ years of classical piano training gave me a sensitivity to the rhythm of film editing, a love for scoring and sound design, and most of all impressed upon me the importance of discipline in a craft. The joy I get from traveling and learning languages is represented in my work, too.

You were living in China when you came across Ai Weiwei and his work. How did that happen and at what point did you decide to make a film about him?

I moved to China after graduating from college in 2006, and began freelancing in whatever jobs I could get related to film and radio. In 2008 my roommate in Beijing, Stephanie Tung, was curating an exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s photographs for a local gallery, Three Shadows Photography Art Centre. Stephanie asked if I wanted to make a video to accompany that show, and that December I spent several weeks filming the curating process, following her to Ai Weiwei’s studio every day. The first time I met Weiwei I had my camera in-hand, already rolling. By the second day I was already asking him questions about politics, personal safety and artistic purpose. I shot 20 hours that I edited down to a 20-minute video for the gallery, primarily focused on his time in New York (since the show was his New York photographs). But I had so many more questions and wanted to continue spending time with him. I wanted to know more about who Ai Weiwei really was, what motivates his art and activism, and I thought that audiences around the world would learn something new about China by being introduced to him.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is an intimate portray of an exceptionally inspiring and creative character. How has working with Ai and making this film influenced you?

I feel very lucky to have spent so much time with him because it absolutely influenced me as a young filmmaker, and my recent project on the 100-year-old geometric painter Carmen Herrera (The 100 Years Show) gave me another chance to spend time with an artist and be shaped by their persistence, inspirational story and creative vision. I think my time with Ai Weiwei and experience making Never Sorry helped me know I wanted to dedicate my life to making films that have an impact, that audiences will react to, and that I hope make more space in the world for the voices of others.

Shooting a documentary about an activist in a country where free speech is often being restrained – that sounds like the definition of “challenge”. What kinds of obstacles were put in your way?

My first priority was to ensure that my presence did not put anyone around me at increased risk. I was filming Ai Weiwei and many other savvy and courageous Chinese citizen-activists who were working with him. Often they would be tweeting the events I was documenting in real-time, and sometimes filming for their own documentary projects as well. But my presence as a foreigner with a camera had the possibility of changing the dynamic of any situation, so I completely took my cues from Ai Weiwei and others about whether it was appropriate for me to be filming next to them, or filming from the car, or not at all. Later when it became clear that the film would reach massive global audiences (it certainly wasn’t clear to us while I was filming) the significance of my responsibility in the edit only deepened.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What were and are you hoping for in terms of your film’s impact?

My hope is for people to appreciate the power of their own voice, and that Ai Weiwei’s example might help them find courage to be creative and express themselves on whatever is most important in their own lives and communities. I also hoped that audiences would feel a bit more connected to China on a human level, and become more familiar with Ai Weiwei’s own work and life, through the film. I think that is happening more and more thanks to the film’s phenomenal reach…and it’s so great that audiences have so many opportunities to see Weiwei’s work in person, at new exhibitions like the Royal Academy in London or Alcatraz in San Francisco last year. The fact that he’s free to travel now also opens up new ways for people to connect with him after seeing the film.

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

My list would be so long! Here are just a few of my favorites:

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AI WEIWEI: NEVER SORRY is Influence Film Club’s featured film for November. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview with Julia Bier

Ross Web-1

Spot on Directors: Ross Kauffman

As a long time defender of the book stores I couldn’t help but feel a bit pleased discovering that we owe it to nothing less than a second-hand bookshop that Ross Kauffman became the acclaimed filmmaker he is today. The co-director of E-TEAM, our engrossing film of the month, can already look back at an impressive non-fiction filmography, crowned by the awarding of the Oscar for BORN INTO BROTHELS in 2005. Like this portray of several unforgettable children of prostitutes living in the red light district of Calcutta, Ross’ documentaries often focus on children and unusual families. With his latest project E-TEAM he adds a piece to this collection, taking us behind the scenes of the lives of four human rights investigators in the field as well as at home.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

The people and the places. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world and meet people from the most varied backgrounds. It’s an honor.

You are director to another film we feature on our site, Born Into Brothels. Can you tell us a bit about your history with documentaries? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. During the summer between my junior and senior year at college I ventured into a second hand bookstore and came across a book entitled “The Elements of Film”, by Lee F. Bobker. I bought the book and read through the entire text in one sitting. It was mostly about narrative filmmaking and referenced all the great masters of film (Kurosawa, Fellini, Bergman, David Lean, etc.) The next day, I returned to the store and bought three more books about filmmaking. My film education had officially begun. I wasn’t aware of or that interested in documentaries at the time. I was keen on narrative films.

Almost everything I was reading about narrative filmmaking stated that one of the best ways to learn how to tell stories was to edit documentaries and independent features. David Lean, Robert Wise and Hal Ashby started as editors. So in 1992, after two years of commercial production work in New York City, I switched gears and started an editing internship at a documentary/independent film editing house working mostly on verité documentaries. Editing documentary footage was fascinating, difficult, and an excellent education in storytelling. Documentaries became my focus. Then, I got tired of being in an editing room alone all day and started shooting and directing. That’s when Born Into Brothels started.

I can’t really think of any thread that has followed me throughout my career. I just like to tell stories with an emotional center. I’m not an activist, just a filmmaker who enjoys bringing out the empathy in an audience. I love making people laugh and cry.

E-Team is – in many respects – an exceptional film. Has making this documentary changed you in a way?

I’ve never really filmed people/characters from my own peer group. It’s always been going to far off lands and filming people that I normally wouldn’t interact with. Though I often keep in touch with people from the films I make, with the people from E-TEAM it’s different. One of the great things that came out of E-TEAM is that I now consider Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter friends. I’ve really come to the point where I appreciate and cherish the opportunity to meet and befriend people that I have a chance to interact with through this job.

Before seeing E-Team I was well aware of the work the Human Rights Watch is doing but not specifically of its team of investigators. How did you come across the story and what sparked your interest?

I was walking on The High Line in NYC one day and ran into a friend who has her hands in both the film business and the human rights world. She asked what I was up to, and I told her that Katy Chevigny and I were looking for projects to collaborate on. That’s when she told me that Human Rights Watch [HRW] was curious about the idea of making a film. We went in and met with Carroll Bogert [currently the Deputy Executive Director, External Relations of HRW] and we were very clear with her: if we made a film about HRW, we would need to have total creative control to show HRW and their work, warts and all. The question was, “How do we tell this story?”  Then we met the E-Team. We went out to dinner with them in NYC and we instantly knew that they were a very charismatic and varied group of people and that we had great characters for a film. We thought that if their work was a fraction as interesting as they were, that we would have a worthwhile film on our hands.

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?

I was just speaking with a colleague the other day and she brought up E-TEAM. She said it has totally changed the way she views the world and the people trying to change it. People hear the words, “Human Rights Activist” and most times it washes over them. What does the term “Human Rights Activist” mean? After seeing the film, people seem to have a sense that things can change for the better and that it takes regular people like us to get up and do something out of the ordinary.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to take action or get involved in some way. What were and are you hoping for in terms of your film’s impact?

Katy and I have a saying that we like to “trick people into caring.” All that means is that if we can connect them emotionally to our characters, then hopefully the audience will care about what our characters care about. Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter are all passionate people about human rights. I don’t like to push anyone into action. If I’ve made a movie and it helps them click on a link to a website about human rights watch, that is a win. On the extreme end, if I’ve had anything to do with someone changing their vocation in order to help and change the world for the better, that is also a win. Change can come in so many different forms, and every little bit, every little step counts.

What are your 6 favorite documentaries of all times? 

That’s a hard question to answer. But here goes:

American Movie

The Last Waltz

Hearts of Darkness

Style Wars

Cane Toads

The Fog of War

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E-TEAM is Influence Film Club’s featured film for October. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Julia Bier

Katy Web-1

Spot on Directors: Katy Chevigny

We owe our exceptional October film E-TEAM to another special “team”: directors Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman, who joined forces to bring to us a film, driven by characters that could easily be featured in any James Bond blockbuster. But in keeping with the motto “lady’s first” let’s have a closer look at Katy for now – both James and Ross would agree. After more than 15 years of experience in documentary filmmaking, her credits include acclaimed films like “Election Day” and “Deadline”. Her provocative and engaging social-issue documentaries partly come into being at the creative think tank of Big Mouth Productions, which she co-founded in the late 1990s, while the power of everyday life has gained her attention (at least since she’s become a mom). Her most recent film, E-TEAM, reflects both sides of the coin, portraying four people living extraordinarily ordinary lives.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

I think the accessibility of people’s real lives is what drew me to documentary film. The fact that if you spend time with real people you can find stories and characters that are fascinating, warm and real is endlessly appealing to me. I also love that there are certain moments in documentaries where the realness is so striking, as in “You couldn’t write this.” It’s often the lucky accident of these moments that makes documentaries so vivid and arresting.

What is your own history with documentaries? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I started out in social services working with Vietnamese refugees, and then fell in love with filmmaking. I think if I were to identify a thread in my career it would be seeking a connection with people whom you might not connect with otherwise. I also enjoy the juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary – either ordinary moments within extraordinary situations, or something extraordinary occurring within something apparently ordinary. I also have a deep belief that ordinary, not-famous people are just as compelling to watch (sometimes more so) than famous people. Sometimes it’s harder to raise money for films about ordinary people, but they are my preferred subject. Finally – and this is something that Ross and I share – I always want to seek out the joy, beauty and humor that occurs in regular life, even in the midst of an apparently miserable situation. I think filmmakers too often shape their films around simple and clear emotional moments, but I find that often there’s a confusing but very natural mixture of emotions and tones within any given situation. I like finding situations where the nuanced or mixed emotions are present – joy, anger, humor, misery – they all can get jumbled up together in real life.

Is your experience with E-TEAM like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?

Each film is very distinct, in my experience. E-TEAM was different in many ways from past films. One significant difference in making E-TEAM was that many of us, including both Ross and myself, had children during the making of the film! So did each of the E-Team members. This required a lot of flexibility among all of us in terms of sharing workload and being flexible about schedule. It also affected my sensibility somewhat, in ways that I can’t exactly articulate, but I can say that having children to care for while also having the pressure to finish a film does help you focus on your priorities and what you want to accomplish. Another way of putting it is that I think that the theme of family plays as a backdrop to the main narrative of the film, as demonstrated by how the film features people raising children in the midst of war and while conducting human rights investigations in Syria, for example.

E-TEAM was also different than other films I’ve worked on because we were combining material from the field, which was very intense, with footage of the E-Team members at home, which had a very different feeling and atmosphere. Ross and I were committed from the start of the project to include both home and field footage, and we knew that editing them together would be challenging. Fortunately, we had a fantastic editor on board to help with that task (in the form of David Teague) and he was able to interweave those two sensibilities into the film in a way that works.

Both you and Ross have a history in documentary filmmaking but for the work on E-Team you decided to join forces. How and why did that come about and how did the story of the film develop?

E-TEAM came about because Ross and I were looking for a film to collaborate on together. We’ve known each other for years and have worked in different capacities on each other’s films. I’ve produced some of his work and he’s shot some of my work and E-TEAM was appealing to us as an opportunity to work together. And the story of the film came out of our meeting of the members of the E-Team over dinner. Neither Ross or I had any interest in making a film that preached the gospel of human rights, but when we met and talked with Anna, Ole, Fred and Peter, we were completely engaged. They were funny, smart, experienced and adventurous. We suddenly felt like it would be fun and interesting to make a movie about them. We had no idea what they’d be investigating or how the film would unfold – we were attracted to them as characters. And we also knew that characters like them would help draw audiences to the issue of human rights in possibly new ways.

Rather than dissecting the ins-and-outs of human rights investigations or addressing injustices, E-Team gets up close with four individuals, working to make the intolerable tolerable. How was it to disconnect after having spent a long, intense time together with your documentary subjects and how do you as filmmaker deal with the suffering and desperation you witness?

There were many joys and privileges that came with the making of E-TEAM and some of the biggest were getting to spend so much time with the investigators themselves. We stayed at their homes and ate meals with them and met their families, all of which was great for us. It’s actually very hard to end the film, knowing that now we don’t have any good excuse to spend time with the E-Team anymore! It’s often one of the hardest things about finishing a film, and it’s certainly the case here. We are all still in touch and I think we’re still looking for good reasons to keep working together, albeit in a much less constant capacity.

In terms of the suffering that we documented, we were very mindful in the edit room to be cautious of how much of that very difficult material we included in the final film. We had some early cuts of the film that were so painful to watch, we felt we’d be traumatizing audiences if we shared that much horror. So we had to strike a balance. We had to show enough suffering so that the crisis felt vivid and compelling to viewers, but not so much that the viewer was bombarded with it.

Often after watching documentaries, people feel moved to learn more, take action or get involved in some way. Is there anything that you recommend to people who feel inspired by E-Team?

One action we recommend to those interested viewers is that they start following the work of human rights groups, which is easy today thanks to social media. It doesn’t have to be Human Rights Watch, which is where the E-Team is employed, but it could be any other organization. The members of the E-Team have extremely active and important Twitter feeds that share breaking human rights news and that often include calls to action. And if viewers get involved by simply sharing and retweeting the information from these social media feeds, they can help to frame the world’s crises in human rights terms.

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

My favorites change over time, but right now I’m really crazy about Debra Granik’s documentary STRAY DOG, which played at theaters earlier this year. I also recently saw STORIES WE TELL by Sarah Polley and was blown away by how good it was. I’m not sure how either Debra or Sarah managed to make those films as good as they are. I would also put CUTIE AND THE BOXER and THE OATH among my favorites in recent years. Before I was a filmmaker, I was influenced by Steve JamesHOOP DREAMS along with Marlon Rigg’s genre-bending classic BLACK IS, BLACK AIN’T.

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E-TEAM is Influence Film Club’s featured film for October. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Julia Bier

Suzan-Beraza-web

Spot on Directors: Suzan Beraza

Suzan Beraza, creative mind behind our film of the month BAG IT!, has set out to document what really moves the world – the important stories of our time. Originally a theater director, she was drawn to the camera in the late 1990’s. What started out rather spontaneously launched an impressive career in documentary directing and editing. With a focus on social and environmental issues, Suzan’s films have won people over on national public television and at many festivals, earning top awards. This well intentioned, likeable filmmaker is on a journey to better the world and we’re happy to join her.

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

As they say, the truth really is stranger than fiction. There are such amazingly fascinating true stories and characters out in the world beyond what one could conjure up as fiction. While I would like to do a full-length fiction film in the future (I have already done a few fiction short films), I am happily exploring the documentary genre for the next several years.

What is your own history with documentaries? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I have definitely focused to date on films that focus on either the environment or human rights issues, perhaps because I am a bit of a “Pollyanna” and believe in the power of film as a catalyst to affect change. I have learned this about myself: there are so many films and external stimuli out in the world that do nothing for the betterment of the human condition. While “mindless entertainment” has its time and place (hey, I love melting into my couch after a long day watching something that doesn’t require much thought), I want to figure out a way to make films that benefit society while still being entertaining.

Is your experience with BAG IT! like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?

I never went to film school. BAG IT! was my feature-length directing debut, though I had worked as an editor on several environmental/human rights documentary films. I feel that being naïve and not realizing how hard it is to make a film saved me; I didn’t ever stop to think that it wasn’t possible. From the very beginning, our biggest challenge was to try and figure out how to make a film that average people would be drawn to and want to watch. Our mantra became “accessible,” and we decided that humor was the best way to make that happen. We also had to figure out when to not be funny or cute. When you’re staring into the gut of a dead albatross filled with our plastic waste, that’s not the time to crack a joke.

A huge surprise for us with how viral the film became. It has been broadcast in over 20 countries. We are a small company and this was our first feature-length film, so we really had no idea what to expect. I think because the film is fun and not preachy, it just took off.

BAG IT! is eye-opening in a very funny, non-radical way. This seems to easily motivate people to take action on a daily basis – just like “everyman” Jeb Berrier. (Some of our team members have actually introduced a fine for every member of their household that leaves the supermarket with one more plastic bag after watching your film.) How did you decide to make a film together with Jeb and how did the story of the film develop?

Jeb really is adorable and nerdy, and that is exactly why I chose him to play the part of an everyman. I wanted someone that audiences could relate to, someone you felt like you’d love to have over for dinner. During shooting, I would often not tell Jeb the information I already had so that he was discovering it with the audience. I directed theater before making this film, so I knew how important it is to create the illusion of the first time—that sense that this is the first time that he is finding out about something—where it really feels like he, and in turn the audience, is making a discovery. I had worked with Jeb in theater and knew that he had the charm, sensibility and improvisational skills to be an excellent protagonist. Part way through making the film, Jeb’s partner, Anne, got pregnant. From that moment on, I knew that a very important shift had been made in the film to where the impacts of chemicals in plastics on humans became relevant to the story. We also knew that we had an ending to the film! 

What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Is there some fact that people react most strongly to?

As the film has showed in over 1500 schools, amongst our younger viewers I would say that the ocean segment of the film really resonates. The students respond to seeing sea mammals and birds impacted by plastic entanglement and ingestion. It seems that our older viewers, perhaps because as an adult you begin to understand your own mortality, really grasp the impacts of plastic and chemicals on human health. Many already have children, or are planning on having them, and are shocked at these impacts, particularly on fetuses and young children.

Often after watching documentaries, people wonder what the one most important thing they can do is. What is this one thing you would recommend to someone after watching Bag It!?

The easiest step is to cut down on your use of those pesky “single-use disposables.” Bring your own. Make your own to-go kit with your reusable water bottle, mug, dish and silverware. It is really fun to go to take out places with your own dishes; you get great comments! To overcome inertia, try it first for one day, then a week. After that it becomes habit.

A more profound step is to actually become a leader and an activist. There are all sorts of causes out there that need a champion. This is why we have this Margaret Mead quote in the film, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

 What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

Wow… I love so many documentaries and don’t want to short any that I’m not thinking of at the moment, but here goes with a few of my favorites: Sicko, Roger & Me (I love Michael Moore’s huge “balls”), The Thin Blue Line (and many other Errol Morris films); Exit Through the Gift Shop; Stories We Tell; Murderball; Mad Hot Ballroom; Born Into Brothels; Marwencol; The Overnighters; King of Kong; Harlan County, USA; American Movie; Capturing the Friedmans.

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BAG IT! is Influence Film Club’s featured film for August. Each month Influence Film Club hand-picks one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film to watch and discuss together.  Throughout the month, starting with our newsletter and continuing on our website and social media we will extend the conversation by exploring the various issues touched on in the film, providing filmmaker interviews, suggesting ways to Influence, and discussing documentaries in general – because after all, We Love Docs.

Interview by: Julia Bier