Our film of the month for May is the celebrated war documentary RESTREPO – but really, this month is about looking into a trilogy of films by Sebastian Junger – RESTREPO, KORENGAL, and THE LAST PATROL – and the unique look they give us into something far beyond war. This trilogy is about brotherhood, bravery, loyalty, fear, and the sometimes harsh reality of coming home.
Sebastian is a celebrated filmmaker, author and journalist who happens to come from a place I have spent a good deal of my life. When the film adaption of his best selling book, “The Perfect Storm,” premiered in our small town, the theater was packed to the brim and us middle school kids sat on the floor in the aisles and everyone cheered as the credits rolled. It was one of the first experiences of a film that I felt a personal connection with – and Sebastian’s storytelling continues to draw me in, connecting audiences and me to the reality of war, building compassion for something that, for many, would otherwise be distant and ungraspable concept.
What is it that draws you to documentary filmmaking?
I thought that the camera could capture things that words couldn’t, and vice versa. I wanted people to be able to experience combat in the most complete way possible. For me, that meant giving film a try.
Making RESTREPO began a filmmaking journey for you – how did you first get involved with that initial film, and did you have any expectations that it would lead you down the path it has?
I wanted to write a book about a platoon in combat for a year. I thought that if I was going to spend that much time out there I might as well shoot a lot of video as well. Maybe I could make a film; but at the very least it could help me in the writing of a book, because its hard to keep notes during combat.
Beginning with that experience, continuing with WHICH WAY TO THE FRONTLINE FROM HERE? and KORENGAL, and concluding with THE LAST PATROL, your films have followed a very natural progression given your own personal journey. Over the course of these four films, you have transitioned from filmmaker to film subject. Can you tell me a bit about that journey and how that transition unfolded?
I never intended to make myself a film subject – a big transgression in the world of journalism – but I realized after Tim died that my professional life and my personal life had irrevocably collided and merged. Reluctantly I allowed my editor to interview about my experience with Tim for ‘Which Way.’ And when I made ‘The Last Patrol’, I also realized that my experience and involvement was part of a larger story and that there was no shame in putting myself in there.
The Last Patrol is a very cathartic film. Reintegrating after war can be a challenging experience, and you choose to walk on foot from Washington D.C. to Pennsylvania with the hopes of getting to know the country, and yourself, again. Do you feel that making this film brought you the closer to what you were looking for?
Yes, very much so. I feel like I didn’t really know my country very well until I walked through it. I didn’t really know very poor people, I didn’t really know rural people, I had a lot to learn. And I also walked off a lot of personal confusion and anguish. My marriage was ending during the patrol as well. So I had a lot going on in my life and the exhaustion and the brotherhood and the sheer weird hardness of the trip was enormously beneficial to me.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the RESTREPO Trilogy? Has it stirred up any unexpected reactions?
I think mostly people were surprised by how hard and physical the combat was (we’re supposed to be a high-tech army!) by how much soldiers like to fight, and by the psychic costs of killing even for very enthusiastic men.
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 the Restrepo Trilogy?
Well I started a non-profit called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues to give medical training to freelance war reporters, so that people like Tim have a chance at surviving their wounds. We exist through donations, Otherwise, I think people might understand war to be a much more complex thing – morally and psychologically – than either liberals or conservatives are willing to admit. The more honest that we, as a society, can be about war the easier it will be for veterans to reintegrate into society.
And finally, do you have any favorite documentaries?
I very much liked Particle Fever, The Happy People, Man on Wire, The Last Days of Vietnam, Waltz With Bashir, Red Army, and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.
RESTREPO is Influence Film Club’s featured film 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
Our film of the month for February is Steve James’ inspiring documentary LIFE ITSELF, a beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of humanity that recounts the surprising and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert, based on his memoir of the same name. This doc is James’ latest in a long line extraordinary storytelling which includes HOOP DREAMS and THE INTERRUPTERS, to name a few.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
I love the surprises and richness of the lives of real people. Its always more interesting than anything I could make up.
You have a 20 year history as a documentary filmmaker- What is it that draws you from one film to the next? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?
I don’t know that there is one thread through all my films. For many of them, I am compelled by people at important junctures in their lives, whether its chasing the basketball dream, or facing prison, or trying to mediate violence. I also need to feel some kind of personal connection to the story or subject matter, even if the film isn’t in and of itself, a personal film. Though I have done two such films. Finally, I’m intrigued by complex people whose lives take surprising turns. Roger Ebert certainly qualifies on that score.
Is your experience making Life Itself like any of the other filmmaking experiences you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?
This is the first time I’ve made a true biographical documentary, which was an exciting challenge for me: how do you capture the full life of a person without it feeling like a “connect the dots” travelogue through their life? I also was challenged by the reality that the film ends up documenting Roger’s last months of his life. That aspect of the film carries it beyond being just a biographical film.
Documentarians often set out to make one film and end up making another. Life Itself began as an adaption of Roger’s memoir of the same title, although it took an unexpected turn due to the resurgence of his illness. This gave you a window into a part of life, and death, that often occurs behind closed doors. What was this experience like as a filmmaker? Were there any restrictions on what could be filmed, or was there ever a question about if the film should go on?
We were challenged on how to tell that story along with his life story. And of course, it was profoundly sad and unsettling to film Roger’s decline and eventual passing. But part of Roger’s courage was in his allowing – and even insisting – that the film capture those difficult last months candidly. Now, that doesn’t mean that we filmed everything. Doctors prohibited us from filming from time to time out of concern for Roger’s energy or health, particularly near the end of his life. Despite Roger and Chaz’s courage, the last couple weeks of Roger’s life were not filmed or photographed in any way. That time became understandably private for them, and I had no expectation nor desire to film Roger as he passed away.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up any unexpected reactions?
I’ve been particularly pleased to hear people speak about Roger’s life as an inspiration in the way that transcended his considerable contributions to film and film criticism. And part of that is watching the way in which he coped with illness and the last months of his life with grace, acceptance, and even humor.
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 Roger’s story?
What I said before… Roger not only inspires one to appreciate and think about great films, he inspired people to live their lives in a full and compassionate way – to love life, not just movies.
What would your documentary playlist consist of?
How about a list of docs that I know Roger loved: Gates of Heaven, Michael Apted’s “Up” series, Shoah, Crumb, Grizzly Man, and a fun one since Roger had a great sense of humor and loved music: Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
Watch out! More of these films are being added to our Documentary Pages soon!
LIFE ITSELF is Influence Film Club’s featured film for February. 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.
Photo: Steve James, director of LIFE ITSELF, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Interview by: Isis Marina Graham
When Influence Film decided that we needed to start a monthly Film Club of our own, it was pretty obvious that VIRUNGA was at the top of our list to start out 2015. We watched it, we loved it, and the film deals with a gamut of issues that are worth discussing.
To start the month out right, we want to introduce you to Virunga’s director Orlando Von Einsiedel – With his documentaries spanning Africa, Asia, America and the Arctic, winning numerous awards, screening at the world’s top film festivals and encompassing everything from a skateboard school in Kabul to the tracking and arrest of pirates in West Africa, you could genuinely say that Orlando’s filmography thus far is down right impressive. Praised by critics for his fearless filmmaking and strong sense of the people and places he covers, Orlando’s eye for striking shots, combined with his compelling global investigations into social issues, have ensured that he is unequivocally an original and talented filmmaker on the rise.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
There are so many incredible people in the world. As a documentary maker I feel honoured that I get to follow such inspiring people’s lives and tell their stories. And, if in sharing these people’s brilliant lives with audiences across the globe, it can in a small way make our world a little bit better, it makes me a very happy person.
What is your own history with documentaries? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?
I cut my teeth in documentary filmmaking by producing journalist investigations for a number of years. I moved away from them after a while and began to concentrate more on verite films that were more positive in tone. For a long time I was most interested in looking for inspiring and hopeful stories in places more known for much more negative elements.
It was a story of hope and rebirth that led me first to Virunga although the situation on the ground changed quite rapidly shortly after I arrived and the film became something quite different. In the end, I was forced to bring the two elements of my filmmaking together (journalistic investigative work and vérité techniques) in order to wrestle the narrative into something coherent and adequately tell a story of oppositions – hope verses greed.
Is your experience with Virunga like any of the other filmmaking experience you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?
This project has really been unique and I can honestly say I’ve never experienced anything quite like it; from the dangers involved in the investigation and working throughout the war through to incredible moments with the park’s stunning wildlife and mountain gorillas. That said, the thing that stood out the most is the bravery of the park’s rangers. I’ve never met people with more honor and integrity. Over 140 have died in the line of duty in the past 15 years. I found it deeply humbling to work with these are men and women who are willing to get up each day and willingly put their lives on the line for something bigger than themselves. Virunga National Park holds the keys to the economic development of the entire region and with that comes the real potential for long-term stability and peace in a region that’s experienced 20 years of war. The rangers know this only too well.
Virunga is a beautifully shot documentary that plays more like a thriller than your typical doc – how did you come across the story of the film, and how did it develop?
As I mentioned before, I first went to Virunga National Park because I was interested in trying to tell a positive and hopeful story from Congo. The story of the park’s ambitious development projects and the rangers protecting mountain gorillas in order to drive forwards economic prosperity and peace to the region was just that. It wasn’t long however before the story started to take a u-turn with a new civil war beginning right in the park itself and a British oil company illegally exploring for oil in the park in the midst of this rapidly deteriorating security situation. As a documentary maker you need to be able to let the story take you in different directions to what you originally anticipated.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?
I think there are two main things that people recognize. Firstly, they understand that what is happening in Virunga National Park really is a metaphor for a process happening throughout the world to protected areas. Secondly, they realize that if somewhere as iconic and important as Virunga National Park falls in the face of corporate interests, what is left on our planet that can be protected?
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 Virunga?
I would ask everyone to visit our website – virungamovie.com. There are a number of small actions we suggest people to do if they have been affected by the issues within the film and want to engage:
-Spread the word far and wide about the film and the issues at its heart
-Sign up to our website so that we can keep you informed about actions to support the park
-Donate directly to the park itself at virunga.org/donate
-Check your shares, pension schemes, insurance etc. You may not be directly invested in SOCO International but you will probably have shares in one of their institutional shareholders as many of them are household names – a full list of these companies is available to download on our website – and if you do, we ask that you write to them and ask them what pressure they are putting on SOCO to unconditionally withdraw from Virunga National Park and to adequately address the allegations put to them in the film.
Are there any other important actions people can can take? On a small scale (ie sign a petition, buy eco-chocolate, etc)? What about on a big scale (donate funds, write letters, visit the area, etc)?
If there was one other thing I would say, it would be to go and visit the park. Since the film was finished the security situation has actually dramatically improved in the region and both gorilla treks and hikes to the top of the stunning Nyiragongo volcano are open and safe. It’s obviously not like going on holiday in Spain but it is an experience you will never forget and it directly benefits the park and the rangers. It’s hard to describe just how life affirming it is staring into the eyes of one of the 880 mountain gorilla left on the planet. You can get more info about this at visitvirunga.org
What are the six best documentaries…
…of all time?
…to watch if you loved Virunga? Why?
–The Cove: A great example of a film using an exciting premise (a heist narrative) and a strong story to put forward a social issue and with that, bring a wider audience to the film.
-The Ambassador: Ingenious use of undercover cameras.
-Darwin’s Nightmare: Excellent film showing the complex relationships between, and motivations of, different (and often foreign) power brokers in Africa’s Great Lakes region and how the end result often leads to poverty and misery for local people.
-The Monkey In The Machine and the Machine in the Monkey: A film that really shows the connectedness and importance of Congo to the wider world.
–Blackfish: A powerful thriller narrative about humans’ treatment of animals.
–Big Men: A unique story about oil exploration and exploitation in Africa from the point of view of the oil industry.
VIRUNGA 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: Isis Marina Graham