As current events and news cycles attest, we are living in a time of increased political and religious extremism. While extremism appears in different forms, it is essentially a radicalism that extends beyond rational thought and the bounds of normal reason. It generates a space where dialogue and debate have no place, as those advocating their views in extreme forms lack an ability to hear another side, perspective, or point of view. The danger of extremism and the ideologies associated with it rests on radicalized divisiveness, separatism, and in its worst forms, violence against those who fall outside one’s own group or belief system.
We discussed our August film of the month WELCOME TO LEITH with director Christopher Walker. He and his co-director Michael Beach Nichols provide an unflinching look at Leith, North Dakota, where white supremacists attempt to secure a foothold in the small American town in order to spread their extremist ideology.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
I am interested in the human condition. The understanding of people and exploring extraordinary circumstances they may be going through. I feel like this is all tied into trying to understand myself more clearly.
Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?
I began my career as an editor, which is something I have been interested in most of my life – I like the feeling of putting things together, the satisfaction of a completed project. In my early work as an editor I worked primarily on documentaries with an overt social issue bend. I feel like working on these types of films informed my current sensibilities as a director. There is an importance and place for these films but I have strayed away from this. I’ve grown to approach films with strong subjects or characters which lend to verité filming, letting scenes play out as a scripted film would. We as documentary filmmakers need to give our audiences more credit, the less hand holding the better. I like to remove the stigma of documentary as only a champion for causes or issues. We lose the art of the medium if we ignore the vast tools that filmmaking allows us to utilize.
How and your co-director, Michael Beach Nichols, came across the story of what was happening in the New York Times. How did this discovery develop into a documentary?
My co-Director Michael Beach Nichols and I had been scouring the news for stories that could be interesting as feature documentaries. When Michael came across the story in Leith, we thought it could have a lot of potential. It was certainly something that most filmmakers would look at as a goldmine of compelling story and characters. We followed the story as it slowly developed, but it wasn’t until we read that Kynan Dutton (a white separatist), his wife and five children had heeded Craig Cobb’s call and moved out to Leith to begin work on his vision of an all white enclave that we decided to take action.
We called Leith Mayor Ryan Schock to see if he would be open to two filmmakers coming out to capture what was happening, he agreed to it and started spreading the word of our arrival. Our initial plan was to make a short doc. We weren’t sure how far Cobb would get, or if his plans would quickly fizzle out. We spent ten days in Leith, filming with anyone we could, including Kynan Dutton, Mayor Schock, his wife Michele, Gregory Bruce – as well as Lee and Heather Cook, who lived across the street from Cobb and Dutton. It was unfortunate to learn that Cobb wasn’t in town while we filmed that first trip, he was on the east coast for a talk show taping which would later become an infamous viral video. The week after Michael and I returned to New York City we learned of Cobb and Kynan’s arrest for an armed patrol of Leith. We knew then that this had the legs for a feature documentary.
You incorporate footage collected from many different sources throughout the film, and interview people involved in the story coming from a wide-range of perspectives – creating what feels like a balanced view of what unfolded. Do you think that this is an accurate take away? And how was it for you as a director working with something so sensitive to engage with all the different players in the film and present their perspectives in the way that you did?
Our initial conception of the film was to shoot with as many people from the town as possible, being that the town had 24 residents, this didn’t seem too much of a stretch. With this idea, we also felt strongly that we would not make the film if we could not speak with both sides of the issue and give each side ample screen time to give their points of view. There are too many films that take an overt side, losing subtlety and nuance to issues that are more than just black and white – we searched for the grey areas. We made sure to keep our personal feelings out of it. We set out to make a film which presented both sides of a very sensitive issue and let the viewer make their own conclusions, and also challenge them along the way.
In the months of making this film we were lucky to find that the town residents, as well as Craig Cobb’s camp, had been filming each other. This was a huge blessing in terms of pivotal scenes that we weren’t there to film, the armed patrol being the most important. With all this footage from both sides we were able to put together an objective film that honored our initial intent as filmmakers as well as a more compelling and rounded out documentary.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?
One of the more interesting things I have noticed since the release of the film is the utter shock that something like this could happen in America these days. In more intimate settings, people have questioned what they would have done if it had been their community while also acknowledging the First Amendment as important in protecting all Americans. Can we pick and choose what viewpoints are and aren’t allowed in a free society as long as these views don’t impinge on others?
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 WELCOME TO LEITH?
People often ask us what they can do to stop people like Cobb from doing something like this again – and the answer is honestly hard to come to. The cleverness Cobb employed in buying property allowed him to use the Civil Rights Act of 1968 to protect himself from housing discrimination based on religion, color and creed. This speaks to how America operates. Democracy is messy!
What would your documentary playlist consist of?
WELCOME TO LEITH is Influence Film Club’s featured films for August 2016. 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: Isis Marina Graham
This month, Influence Film Club is featuring BEST OF ENEMIES as our featured film, so we caught up with co-director Robert Gordon to discuss his work. Together with his co-director Morgan Neville (and the skillful editing of our friend Aaron Wickenden), Gordon looks at the historical U.S. television event of 1968 when William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal squared off in public debate. This televised debate marked a new era in public discourse and television programming. Both leading authors and intellectuals, the two men took place in what would greatly shape today’s media spectacle, for better or worse. Both masters of debate in their own right, they didn’t always keep their cool, and we stand to learn as much from their mistakes as from their skillful methods of argumentation.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
Truth, being stranger than fiction, proves a compelling way to share stories of how societies become what they are. As a lapsed fiction writer, I find the constraints of documentary—that constraint being the facts—make for a more challenging way to work. Instead of manufacturing events, we have to build powerful narratives from the random realities of what really happened.
What is your history with documentary? How does it intersect with your career as a writer? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout both?
I knew I’d tell stories, but I thought I’d write novels. Then, in my early 20s, I found that no one was interested in my fiction, but that people liked to hear the stories of things that happened to me in Memphis, my home. There, I’d become involved with artists and musicians from earlier eras, and began to see how geography and economics and commerce all had huge influences on art. Art may be ideas, but the influences that create it are myriad, and the holistic picture of all the forces interacting is more interesting than the individual element out of context.
You had a wealth of archive footage at your fingertips when it came to making BEST OF ENEMIES. What was it like working with this footage, what were its strengths and limitations?
I can’t think of any limitations—it was just a blast. As it was coming in, the editors would post their favorite finds of the day and they were always great. From the beginning, the assemblies that came out of the editing room, archive heavy, were thrilling. We edited for months and months and then when we made the HD transfers of the film footage, there were images in the footage that we never realized were there. Sometimes sound effects had to be changed. We thought Gore was tossing a book on a table and had a thunk in the track, but when the HD transfer came in, it turned out the table was a sofa! So it’s no exaggeration to say that watching the HD transfer was really, even after months of editing, like seeing all the footage anew.
How do you think the film serves as a metaphor for the current political climate in the United States?
That’s both the easiest and the most difficult question. In the simplest way, our film is two opposing political forces that believe the other is going to ruin the country. But it gets more complicated when you consider that Buckley and Vidal actually engaged in dialogue, responding to what the other said. Today, no one listens, it’s just accusations and acrimony. The fear each side has of the other is the same, the refusal to compromise is the same, but Buckley and Vidal were willing to hear what the other said and refute it. That’s why their moment is so interesting: It’s when dialog broke into two separate monologues.
What has been the primary conversation you have observed people are having around the film? Has it stirred up some strong opinions?
Best of Enemies manages to reflect both a horrific funhouse mirror image of where we are now, and also a hopeful model. If once people were not afraid to bare their education and intelligence on TV, perhaps that culture can return. But if even men of the highest intellectual capacities devolve into schoolyard name-calling, is there any reason for hope?
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 BEST OF ENEMIES?
Engage in real dialogue with someone who holds opposing beliefs.
What would your documentary playlist consist of?
BEST OF ENEMIES is Influence Film Club’s featured film for July. 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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
“Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?”
― David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays
When is it ok to lie? Is it ever? What about those seemingly harmless little fibs we’ve all passed off as the truth once in blue moon as not to make a bad impression, to avoid insulting someone, or to shield a loved one from unnecessary grief? Are those ok? If so, where does the line begin to blur between good intentions and plain deception?
There could be a whole sub-genre of documentaries devoted to this question. Most of Errol Morris’ oeuvre is devoted to the notion of self-deception and its explication across the ripples of personal and political catastrophe, while countless other filmmakers peel back the falsehoods and fabrications of those looking to leverage their way up social ladders the world over, such as in Alex Gibney’s THE ARMSTRONG LIE, where former biking world golden boy Lance Armstrong’s long denial of using performance enhancing drugs to become the biggest name in the history of the sport is stunningly shattered. Or on a smaller scale, the ruthless door-to-door bible salesman of the Maysles Brothers’ vérité classic SALESMAN exploit low-income families by bending the truth to make that all important extra buck.
Somewhere in between is ART AND CRAFT’s art forger Mark Landis, who duplicates masterworks and donates them to museums for the sheer satisfaction of duping the pros into believing they are authentic. There is certain fear induced adrenaline rush one experiences when attempting to pull the wool over one’s eyes, as there are no guarantees and success only comes with skill. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s CATFISH plays with this notion of thrill seeking through baiting potential lovers via the digital divide. In the age of the internet, one’s identity can be almost wholly invented, while the truth is merely an option to dole out only if completely necessary. Is this entertainment or self preservation?
Some films, such as Vikram Gandhi’s Indian guru hoaxing KUMARÉ, employ deception as a means to greater, altruistic enlightenment. But lying, even with good intentions, is inherently malicious. When the truth finally comes to the fore, feelings will be hurt and trust, no matter how intimate, will be shattered. No films deal with this idea more intimately than Sarah Polley’s STORIES WE TELL, in which the filmmaker’s own mother purposefully obscured her bloodline for the sake of protecting the immediate family unit.
Were these people right in attempting to pass off untruths as gospel? Does this make them a bad people or do their intentions exonerate them? These six films play with the idea of lying and the trick balance between decency and deceitful. Are you a good person?
KUMARÉ is a documentary about a man who impersonates a wise Indian Guru and builds a following in Arizona. At the height of his popularity, the Guru Kumaré must reveal his true identity to his disciples to unveil his greatest teaching of all.
The Armstrong Lie
Sports legend Lance Armstrong’s improbable rise and ultimate fall from grace. Using interview footage from before and after Armstrong’s doping admission, THE ARMSTRONG LIE explores one of the biggest lies in sports history.
Stories We Tell
STORIES WE TELL is a highly original documentary that explores how we construct our own reality through stories. Sarah Polley’s family and friends weave different narratives into a complex portrait of her mother who died when Sarah was eleven.
Art and Craft
Beginning as a cat-and-mouse art caper concerning one of the most prolific art forgers in U.S. history, ART AND CRAFT is rooted in questions of authorship and authenticity, eventually giving way to an intimate story of mental health and the universal need for community, appreciation, and purpose.
SALESMAN follows four door-to-door salesmen that walk the line between hype and despair as they ply across the American Northeast and Miami trying to sell expensive Bibles to low-income families.
In this tale of electronic attraction, love, deceit and forgiveness, the dark reality of how far one woman was willing to go to soothe her emotional aches and pains is unearthed, and CATFISH asks the question: what exactly can we trust in this age of virtual connections?
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.
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
A good documentary is just the beginning…
Influence Film Club invites you to three evenings after work- “doc- tails” at Barbro where documentary lovers and documentary filmmakers will have the opportunity to meet each other. Have a drink and take part of in-depth talks about some of the year’s Tempo movies.
The first 20 drinks each evening are on us – so come early!
Wednesday 9/3 at 17:00-18:00:
Influence Film Club discusses Sonita.
NOTE the schedule change: Unfortunately Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, director of Sonita, is not able to travel to Stockholm due to passport issues. We’ll still be at Barbro ready to discuss the film and the intersection between art, music, and politics.
Thursday 10/3 at 17:00-18:00:
In conversation with Jerzy Sladkowski director of Don Juan.
Friday 11/3 at 17:00-18:00:
In conversation with the Hussin Brothers, directors of America Recycled.
Moderated by: Isis Marina Graham
Free entrance with Tempo’s membership card!
Hosted in English.
“You’ve got to burn straight up and down and then maybe sideways for a while and have your guts scrambled by a bully and the demonic ladies, you’ve got to run along the edge of madness teetering, you’ve got to starve like a winter alleycat, you’ve go to live with the imbecility of at least a dozen cities, then maybe maybe maybe you might know where you are for a tiny blinking moment.” – Charles Bukowski
Much like Bukowski himself, who spent much of his 73 years in the crazed haze of an alcohol infused fervor, enduring the whoas and joys of a starving artist with the emotional and creative extremes that come with such a provocative lifestyle, artists throughout history have often embraced all forms of madness in hopes of harnessing wild eyed authenticity in the name of art and purpose. For many, suffering and beauty are two sides of the same coin.
Non-fiction cinema is packed to the gills with such characters, from the men and women behind the cameras to those who’ve submitted themselves freely to be taken in by our watchful gaze. Like the wildly empathetic, grizzly obsessed nature-boy whom lost his life to the jaws of those he so loved in GRIZZLY MAN, the manic-depressive emotionally raw singer/songwriter at the heart of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, or the OCD-afflicted world travelling freedom fighter of POINT AND SHOOT, many are propelled to document their own unstable existences, unknowingly reaching out on their own to the anonymous unknown as if the visual documentation of one’s life itself might bring some form of lucidity to an otherwise mad caper. As we see, autobiography doesn’t seem to make their journey through life any easier, yet they continue nonetheless.
Others merely embrace their lunacy, knowing all along that their life’s endeavors are those of idealistic moonstruck dreams. The tightrope walker of MAN ON WIRE damns all logic, personal safety, and even legality in an act of singularly spectacular physical performance, while the abiding filmmaker of AMERICAN MOVIE, eyes deep in debt and personal crises, obsessively crusades in the name of his perfect picture. And much like Bukowski himself, the starving outsider artist at the center of ALMOST THERE has lived a life fueled and haunted by mental volatility in the pursuit of artistic revelation. Sometimes one must let go of reason and stability to reach out for something greater.
The following six films bring us closer to that “edge of madness” that Bukowski so lovingly speaks of, allowing us a view of the world detached from logic through the eyes of dreamers and madmen.
Man on Wire
MAN ON WIRE explores tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between the twin towers of New York City’s World Trade Center in what some consider “the artistic crime of the century”.
In GRIZZLY MAN Werner Herzog explores the life and death of Timothy Treadwell who lived among the grizzly bears of Alaska for 13 consecutive summers until being attacked and eaten by a bear in 2003.
For filmmakers Rybicky and Wickenden, Peter Anton’s home is a treasure trove, a startling collection of unseen and fascinating paintings, drawings, and notebooks, not to mention Anton himself. ALMOST THERE is a remarkable journey following a gifted artist through startling twists and turns.
The story of filmmaker Mark Borchardt, his mission, and his dream. Spanning over two years of intense struggle with making a movie, family issues, financial decline, and personal crisis, AMERICAN MOVIE is a portrait of ambition, obsession, excess, and one man’s formidable quest for the American Dream.
Point and Shoot
With a gun in one hand and a camera in the other, 28-year-old OCD-afflicted Matthew VanDyke set off on a 35,000-mile motorcycle trip through Northern Africa and the Middle East, where he undergoes a self-described “crash-course in manhood.”
The Devil and Daniel Johnston
THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON follows the long and winding road traversed by Daniel Johnston – manic-depressive singer/songwriter/artist – on his way from childhood to manhood in this portrait of madness, creativity and unrequited love.
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
Between having more than 200,000 followers on social media, holding the number one slot on Australian iTunes, and becoming second highest-grossing documentary with a theatrical release Down Under – our January documentary treat THAT SUGAR FILM has certainly hit its sweet spot. A list of successes like the above doesn’t come out of nowhere, it’s the result of a hard-working team empowering and challenging us from behind the scenes. Making us kick our sugar addiction and get hooked on THAT SUGAR FILM instead, Anna Kaplan plays an exciting role that is forming, shaping and increasingly becoming recognized within the world of documentary filmmaking: the Impact Producer. She is helping bring our film of the month to the world and orchestrate change and now we have the chance to bring her to you.
What is it that draws you to documentary film?
I studied broadcast journalism, but I was drawn to documentary because I always wanted to delve deeper into stories and follow them over a longer period than a news story allowed. I get really excited by bold, cinematic films that play with the form and push the boundaries, but at heart I’m a sucker for a good observational film that follows quirky characters doing inspiring or unconventional things. I love the way documentaries allow filmmakers to challenge the status quo and open the audience’s minds to ideas or issues by allowing them to connect emotionally with the film’s subjects.
What is your own history? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career as a documentary producer and in other pursuits?
I’ve worked in documentary production for most of my career, starting out in the BBC’s documentary department in London, before moving to Australia where I started producing documentaries and short films independently and working with other producers in various production roles. I supplemented the paltry income I made from my own projects working on feature films, TV drama series, online and educational projects, but I always have a documentary passion project bubbling away. My work spans a broad range of topics, from ageing, family and motherhood to youth justice, crime, refugees, Aboriginal rights and female empowerment. The red threads would be social justice and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I feel incredibly privileged to do this work and I get to meet and work with the most amazing people.
For That Sugar Film you work as an Impact Producer. Since this is an increasingly important roll among documentary film teams but at the same time is a rather new term for many, could you explain what your job looks like?
It’s a real mix and draws heavily on my existing skills base as a producer and project manager, such as writing, budgeting, scheduling, project management, content development, audience engagement, legals, grant writing, financial and narrative reporting and liaising with various stakeholders. But it has also required me to develop a new skill set across campaign strategy, corporate partnerships, social media marketing, non-traditional distribution and project evaluation. I’ve also had to learn to frame the outputs and success of the project in a way that ensures that our philanthropic donors and outreach partners are getting a return on their social investment.
That Sugar Film is loaded with bittersweet facts, but nevertheless is digestible because of its humorous approach. Why did you decide to go this way with the film and how does it influence the outreach?
I actually came on board once the film was finished, so I can’t take any credit for the accessibility of Damon and Nick’s (the producer) approach to the topic. From an outreach perspective, their stylistic and tonal approach was an absolute gift, as while the film is disseminating confronting information for most audience members, you come away empowered to make better decisions about your eating habits rather than feeling confused, angry and bleak about the future.
You have already been able to develop a huge fan base for the film. What is the next step?
We’re currently working on a range of engagement activities for schools here in Australia. We’re developing partnerships to allow us to launch our School Action Toolkit and That Sugar App in other countries. Another big focus for us is developing more resources for a range of settings, like kindergartens, workplaces and hospitals. We’ll also be campaigning for clearer food labeling and better regulation of marketing practices (especially with regard to kids).
After watching documentaries, people often feel moved to learn more, take action or get involved in some way. Is there anything that you recommend to those who feel inspired by That Sugar Film?
Absolutely! First and foremost, we want people to share the film, book and our Website/Facebook page with their friends and families. We also encourage all parents to approach their kids school (via the Principal or parents committee) offering to help arrange a screening of the film for the whole school community (doing it as a fundraiser is a great option). If they encounter resistance, then another tip is to approach the teacher who teaches the ‘health’ curriculum (here in Australia, it’s the Health & Physical Education teacher) and ask them to consider using the film in the classroom. We have a free download of our Study Guide which can be accessed by signing up to the schools mailing list.
Community screenings are great too and we have a community screening kit available to help screening hosts plan and promote their event (the Discussion Guide created by Influence Film is a great resource too!).
What are your 6 favorite documentaries of all times?
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
Documentaries from 2015 are daring to show us that its been another incredible year for film; more and more docs are focusing on characters – sometimes to tell the story of a greater cultural happening, and sometimes as a way to share with audiences a story that has never been told. Influence Film Club’s Top 10 Character Driven Documentaries from 2015 feature some extraordinary individuals, and these films go beyond the surface and invite us into the lives of others with unprecedented access. So go ahead, take a peek and lose yourself in the reality of our favorite character driven documentaries from 2015.
Welcome to Leith
Chronicling the alleged take-over of a small town in North Dakota by notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb, WELCOME TO LEITH examines a rural community’s struggle for sovereignty against an extremist vision.
They Will Have to Kill Us First
Music, one of the most important forms of communication and cultural connection in Mali, was banned in 2012 when Islamic extremist groups rose up to capture the northern section of the country. THEY WILL HAVE TO KILL US FIRST follows the influential musicians who give their all to surrender anything but their sound.
With unprecedented access, CARTEL LAND is a riveting, on-the-ground look at the journeys of two modern-day vigilante groups on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, and their shared enemy – the murderous Mexican drug cartels.
THE WOLFPACK documents six bright teenage brothers have spent their entire lives locked away from society in a Manhattan housing project. All they know of the outside is gleaned from the movies they watch obsessively. Yet as adolescence looms, they dream of escape, ever more urgently, into the beckoning world.
He Named Me Malala
HE NAMED ME MALALA is an intimate portrait of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted by the Taliban and severely wounded by a gunshot at the age of 15, and currently works as a leading campaigner for girls’ education globally as co founder of the Malala Fund.
Stand-up comedian Jacob Nossell, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, is on a quest to comprehend the concept of normality while challenging his own lack of skills. By staging a four-act play supplied with information from his family, scientists, philosophers, and actors, he attempts to figure out what the meaning of life is for him and others like him.
A young Norwegian woman struggling with borderline personality disorder named Ida Storm chose a video diary as an outlet for her mood swings, a way to ease her mind and structure her thoughts. IDA’S DIARY invites the viewer into an anxiously intense insider’s view of a real life conducted under the auspices of mental illness.
The Hunting Ground
Following a group of victims gone activists as they defy shame and stigmatization to uncover the truth, THE HUNTING GROUND is a startling exposé of sexual assault on college campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and the devastating toll they take on students and their families.
DARK HORSE is the inspirational true story of a group of friends from a former mining village in the Welsh countryside who decide to take on the elite “sport of kings” and breed themselves a racehorse.
A once-in-a-generation talent and a pure jazz artist in the most authentic sense, Amy wrote and sung from the heart using her musical gifts to analyze her own problems. Her huge success, however, resulted in relentless media attention which coupled with Amy’s troubled relationships and precarious lifestyle saw her life tragically begin to unravel.