2013

Top 10 Character Driven Documentaries from 2015

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.

Cartel Land
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
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.

Natural Disorder
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.

Ida’s Diary
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
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.

Amy
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.

Damon Gameau

Spot on Directors: Damon Gameau

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

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of?

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

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

Interview by: Julia Bier

Aaron Wickenden Almost There

Spot on Directors: Aaron Wickenden

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

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your 6 favorite documentaries of all times? 

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

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

Interview by: Julia Bier

styles of documentary

Documentary Playlist: Documentary is Not a Genre

“The documentary form is one of the freest in cinema, while also being gloriously beholden to the ineffable weight of the real world and the delicate needs of real lives. This tension between limitless formal possibility and necessary moral constraint gives nonfiction a rare power…” – Robert Greene

People often forget that documentary is not a film genre, but the formal result of entrusting truth with enough structure to tell a story cinematically. Within non-fiction filmmaking there are documentaries that span the spectrum of genre, from war film (see Restrepo) to sports thriller (Hoop Dreams) through absurdist comedy (Gates of Heaven) and beyond, but when compared to these films’ fictional counterparts, there are a series of formal styles that documentaries most often embrace as the result of filmmaker intention and situational circumstance that are strictly inherent of the form, most notably the talking head, cinéma vérité and the archival compendium.

In academia these formal styles are broken down further into six types of cinematic non-fiction – poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive and performative. While it’s true that some films may ride the line between the various types of documentaries, most can be categorized quite easily.

Poetic docs can be identified by their lack of characterial focus and narrative structure, often relying instead upon a lyrically associative form, impressionistic and essayistic. Godfrey Reggio’s monumental, environmentally minded KOYAANISQATSI is a perfect example. Riffing on the aesthetics of the traditional city symphony, the film comments on the impact of modernization on our planet through poetics rather than exposition. Its formal counterpoint then would be the expository smash hit MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, which documents the life of penguins with the god-like guidance of its narrator Morgan Freeman.

As one might expect, observational docs are typified by their hands off approach to filming their subjects, taking pains to remain non-interventional and typically remain free of any narrative commentary or the like. Philip Gröning’s INTO GREAT SILENCE is a wonderfully austere example of this style, simply documenting the routines of the devout monks who live within the Grande Chartreuse. The opposite of this approach might be exemplified by the participatory FINDING VIVIAN MAIER, in which John Maloof, the film’s co-director, places himself within the detective narrative of the posthumous discovery of the street photographer Vivian Maier. As in all participatory films, the filmmaker’s presence within the narrative is essential to the telling of the story.

Harder to discern is the reflexive and performative doc. While the Maysles brothers made a name for themselves as pioneers of direct cinema, their singular film GREY GARDENS reminds audiences to remember to question what they are seeing on screen. By drawing attention to the fact that what one is watching is in fact a film of questionable representation via performance and construction, they pushed the reflexive doc forward. Comparatively, Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking depiction of the lingering cultural effects of the Indonesian killings of 1965–66, THE ACT OF KILLING is the quintessential performative doc. Pushing the limits of subjective experience by having his subjects, each former death-squad leaders, literally perform reenactments of their previous acts of murder, the film uses formal experimentation and personal accounts to simultaneously conjure visceral emotional responses while commenting on the horrific political situation that remains in Indonesia.

Though just a divisional taste of the forms that documentary films may take, these six films give you a glimpse of academia. As you take in more non-fiction films, try to discern which of these categories films fit in – poetic, expository, observational, participatory, reflexive or performative?

Koyaanisqatsi
Created between 1975 and 1982, KOYAANISQATSI (“life out of balance”) is an apocalyptic vision of the collision of two different worlds — urban life and technology versus the environment – complete with musical score by Philip Glass.

March of the Penguins
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS documents the emperor penguins annual journey taking them hundreds of miles across the brutal Antarctic landscape through the harshest weather conditions on earth – risking starvation and attack by dangerous predators in the quest for love and life.

Into Great Silence
INTO GREAT SILENCE is an intimate portrayal and examination of the life of the devout monks who live within the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order situated in the French Alps.

Finding Vivian Maier
The discovery of over 100,000 photographs hidden away in various storage lockers unveiled the story of Vivian Maier, a mysterious nanny, who is now considered one of the 20th century’s greatest street photographers.

Grey Gardens
In GREY GARDENS we meet Big and Little Edie Beale—mother and daughter, high-society dropouts, reclusive cousins of Jackie O.—thriving together amid the decay and disorder of their ramshackle East Hampton mansion.

The Act of Killing
THE ACT OF KILLING follows former Indonesian death squad leaders as they are challenged to re-enact the real-life mass killings in the cinematic genres of their choice, from classic Hollywood crime scenarios to lavish musical numbers.

Dan Rybicky Almost There

Spot on Directors: Dan Rybicky

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

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

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

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

Interview by: Julia Bier

Cozy Documentaries

Documentary Playlist: Cozy Parlor Firesides

“When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlor firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender, of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.”  ― Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

We love docs, and therefore we would not necessarily like to be lumped together with a certain non-fiction phenomena that centers around things such as games and thrones. However, we all have to face one fact: winter is coming! The days are getting shorter, the temperatures are dropping, there will be rain and wind and eventually there will also be snow. In addition, there will be the same complaints about the same issues just as last year and every other year before. And while all that combined sounds less than inviting, there is a lot to get out of this time of the year. Mostly: endless coziness. It is the feeling that Kenneth Grahame captured so very successfully, the feeling that gives us this tingle, pleasantly spreading from the back of our heads, comforting us, warming us, calming us.

So, while we watch the weather doing whatever it wants to do, we can have the best of times at home. If it’s too dark, light a candle. In case of shivering, put on some comfy, heavy knit. Is it raining? Perfect – cuddle up on the couch with a cup of tea and, yes, watch a doc!

Luckily, we might be able to help you cozy up on your winter days even more. Whether it’s the beautiful story of a horse touching the lives of many, the wonder of finding out the musician you’ve always admired is still alive, not knowing he’s so loved, or a heartwarming tale of  a journey hundreds of miles across the brutal Antarctic landscape, undertaken to continue the circle of life – the following six films will make you feel the unique spirit of the season.

Dark Horse
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.

Searching for Sugar Man
This Academy Award-winning documentary takes viewers on a surprising journey from one side of the world to another to remind us that, sometimes, the greatest heroes are the unlikely people living right next door.

March of the Penguins
MARCH OF THE PENGUINS documents the emperor penguins annual journey through the harshest weather conditions on earth – risking starvation and attack by dangerous predators in the quest for love and life.

Alive Inside
ALIVE INSIDE follows social worker Dan Cohen as he fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.

Babies
BABIES joyfully captures the earliest stages of the journey of humanity that are at once unique and universal to us all.

In the Shadow of the Moon
Captivating scenes include hauntingly lovely moonscapes, thrilling launches, exploration of the Moon’s surface, engineers and astronauts designing a space aircraft with tools and technology that seem quaint today, and the reactions of people around the world who came together to see for the first time—a man walking on the Moon.

Alison Klayman

Spot on Directors: Alison Klayman

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

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

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

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

Interview with Julia Bier

Ross Web-1

Spot on Directors: Ross Kauffman

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

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your 6 favorite documentaries of all times? 

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

American Movie

The Last Waltz

Hearts of Darkness

Style Wars

Cane Toads

The Fog of War

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

Interview by: Julia Bier

IDA-web

Humans of Documentary: Ida Storm

As soon as the final credits were rolling upon my first viewing of IDA’S DIARY, there was so much more I longed to know about this remarkable woman. Luckily, Ida was willing to answer a few of my questions, shedding even more light on her journey and offering her thoughts on what it means to live a life battling with and rising above mental illness.

Tell us about your life since filming the last footage for the film.

After the filming wrapped in 2014, a lot of different stuff has happened in my life. I’ve enrolled in a two-year activity course, I feel that I master my life better and I attend regular sessions with a very good therapist. The therapy supplies insights that help me on a daily basis. I also attend meaningful activities and take some spare jobs when I have the time.

How do you think the film can help others suffering from a mental illness?

I think it can help showing people that they are not alone. I knew absolutely nothing about psychiatric illness before I was admitted to a psychiatric ward when I was 18. If I had known more before that happened, I might have sought out help at a much earlier stage. At the time I associated people who suffer from psychiatric illnesses with axe murderers and other horror movie clichés. I really didn’t know that people have a mental health and that I was mentally ill. Borderline is maybe one of the most stigmatizing diagnoses you can have. And there has been talk about changing the name of the diagnose to something that better reflects what the illness represents – sometimes Borderline gets nicknamed “Good Girl Syndrome”. I wish I saw a film like this when I was 15. It would’ve shown me that I was not alone and helped me gain insight, seek out help and guidance.

Do you still keep a video diary?

I still film a little, but far from as much as before. I film maybe every other week to document how I feel and what I’ve been up to. It helps me locating patterns in myself and makes me more able to handle bad periods. Every now and then I also get ideas about making my own film; I might dress out, play different characters and make parodies. That provides me with a lot to film. I have my own channel on youtube.

What have you learned from sharing your story with others? Do you feel more connected to the world having told your story through film?

I’ve learned a lot about both others and myself by sharing my experiences in the film. I’ve crossed many borders and surrendered to the process (to me the act of surrendering is positively charged). I accept life the way it is. I also feel that I’ve gained more trust from the people around me. People I talk to feel relieved that they’re not alone, and they really appreciate it when I commend them for the great effort they put into reworking their lives. It’s not only about pulling yourself together. Psychiatric illness can be so complex. So, yes, I feel more connected to the world after having told my story.

In your darkest times, what kept you going?

What kept me going was family and friends. I’ve thought a lot about whether I would’ve been easier on them if I were dead. Sadly, I’m not alone in thinking this way. Feeling like a worthless strain on society that also represents a huge economic cost when you are hurting inside also added to the death wish. Sometimes there was no hope, but I had to hang in there for my family. The worst thing for me when it comes to self-harm has been the shame and guilt I’ve felt for my family. It feels so bad to be the reason for their pain. But it is a disease. I really can’t help it. But you need guidance on how to handle your disease without cutting. At present I’ve only cut myself twice the last 5 years. I’ve gained a lot of experience on how to deal with adversities in alternative ways and that gives me hope for the future. And if I slip and have a relapse, I both hope and know that I can get back on the horse again.

What advice would you give to someone suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder?

There is hope for everybody. Have faith in your betterment. Have faith in the fact that your symptoms can be less intense over time. Know that help and guidance are available.

What are your hopes for the film?

My hopes for the film are that it will create more openness around psychiatric illness and show that people with Borderline are not diagnoses, but people. People with psychiatric illnesses are so much more than just their illness, but still they are being stamped as if the diagnose was an identity. I’m still sick, but that’s only one part of me. I have good periods and bad periods. I handle the bad periods better now. I’m not Borderline – I’m Ida. This has been one of my main goals for the film; showing that a person with a psychiatric illness is so much more than simply the illness. Then there’s the need for openness and understanding. I really wish there would be a mandatory class in school about mental health – as an integrated part of a focus on health in general.

Would you be interested in working in film – having gone through the process of IDA’S DIARY?

The process of making the film has been very exciting and interesting, and I’d like to work with something that has a value for other people. I really hope this film will mean something for other people out there. Other than that I have a small job as a helper aid and I’ve enrolled in a program to become a voluntary social helper for people of all ages who for some reason are lonely or lack social interaction. In the future I would like to work more actively with mental health awareness – at schools for example. There is so much ignorance. How are students supposed to learn about these things when algebra trumps are teaching about how the body and mind work. I really would like to make a difference in that department.

Where do you picture yourself in five years?

Well, 5 years ago I had absolutely no idea or even a fantasy that there would be a film called IDA’S DIARY, so I honestly don’t know. But I imagine I will be even better – that the sick side of me will be even smaller and the healthy side bigger. Other than that I envision a house with a view of the sea, a cat, a sailing boat and someone to love.

Do you feel that mental illness is being accepted and embraced more by society than it was 10 years ago? What additional steps can be taken to bring the issue into the light and normalize it?

Absolutely. When I was introduced to the world of psychiatry 10 years ago, I knew nothing. Now there are blogs, more and more people are open about psychiatric illness and there is an increased media focus. But we are not quite there yet. There’s still a lot of taboos and ignorance surrounding the issue. We’re on our way, but we still have some way to go.

 

Interview by: Sarah Snavely

Katy Web-1

Spot on Directors: Katy Chevigny

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

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

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

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

Interview by: Julia Bier

devotion

Documentary Playlist: He Who Devotes Himself

“Do not worry in the least about yourself, leave all worry to God,’ – this appears to be the commandment in all religions. This need not frighten anyone. He who devotes himself to service with a clear conscience, will day by day grasp the necessity for it in greater measure, and will continually grow richer in faith. The path of service can hardly be trodden by one who is not prepared to renounce self-interest, and to recognize the conditions of his birth. Consciously or unconsciously, every one of us does render some service or other. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will steadily grow stronger, and will make not only for our own happiness but that of the world at large.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Since the dawn of man, humanity has sought to improve upon themselves as moral beings through the belief and worship of a higher power. Religions, no matter what the creed, have always required their devotees to make personal sacrifices in the name of righteousness and holy veneration. Some of these acts are relatively simple, such as giving up meat for the Catholic Lent, or they can be more demanding like fasting from dawn until sunset during the Islamic month of Ramadan. At the extreme end of this spectrum, as tribute, the Mayans actually sacrificed their own people to the gods, throwing them into cavernous cenotes believed to be portals to the underworld. Or simply look to the Pantheon, St Peter’s Basilica, the Mahabodhi Temple, Masjid al-Haram or any number of awe-inspiring religious structures the world over, erected specifically to honor the divine and encourage prayer. Human devotion can take shape in extraordinary feats of grandeur or merely modest efforts of self improvement.

As Mahatma Gandhi phrased it, these personal sacrifices are, at their core, a service whose ultimate ends are to better one’s self and the world around them. Often, the unfortunate result of this mindset can be catastrophic, either personally, by ignoring one’s own general well being in service of their religion, or culturally, as we see in the repetition of wars throughout human history in which one sect claims to be of higher verity than another. In these situations, morals seem to become as slippery as presumed truths. Yet, people continue to worship. They continue to pray, to meditate, to donate, to sacrifice, to make pilgrimages and devote their lives in hopes of bringing meaning to their existence and good into a world that often looks quite grim.

The following six films chronicle the holy being humanized by various forms of sacrifice and devotion of people young and old. Some subjects find themselves abstaining from pleasure for the purpose of purity, while others seek forgiveness for sins past, wholly believing that moral transgressions are spiritually reconcilable. Each of these documentaries, varying in style from meditative observation to hysterical satire, celebrates the devout by simply bearing witness.

Kumaré
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.

Koran By Heart
Following a global contest reading of the Koran by young Muslim children that takes place in Cairo, Egypt annually during Ramadan KORAN BY HEART is a coming of age story about Muslim kids in modern times.

Samsara
Exploring our world from the mundane to the miraculous, looking into the reaches of man’s spirituality and the human experience, SAMSARA is neither a traditional documentary nor a travelogue, instead taking the form of a nonverbal, guided meditation.

Manakamana
High above a jungle in Nepal, pilgrims make an ancient journey by cable car to worship the legendary temple of the Hindu goddess Durga: MANAKAMANA.

The Overnighters
THE OVERNIGHTERS is the story of the broken, desperate men chasing their dreams and running from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields and the local Pastor who risks everything to help them.

Into Great Silence
INTO GREAT SILENCE is an intimate portrayal and examination of the life of the devout monks who live within the Grande Chartreuse, the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order situated in the French Alps.

 

Suzan-Beraza-web

Spot on Directors: Suzan Beraza

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

What is it that draws you to documentary film? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 What would your playlist of documentary favorites consist of? 

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

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

Interview by: Julia Bier