Why Not Watch?

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


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

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

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.


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

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 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.

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.

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.


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.


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

Spot on Directors: Sebastian Junger

Our film of the month for May is the celebrated war documentary RESTREPO – but really, this month is about looking into a trilogy of films by Sebastian Junger – RESTREPO, KORENGAL, and THE LAST PATROL – and the unique look they give us into something far beyond war. This trilogy is about brotherhood, bravery, loyalty, fear, and the sometimes harsh reality of coming home.

Sebastian is a celebrated filmmaker, author and journalist who happens to come from a place I have spent a good deal of my life. When the film adaption of his best selling book, “The Perfect Storm,” premiered in our small town, the theater was packed to the brim and us middle school kids sat on the floor in the aisles and everyone cheered as the credits rolled. It was one of the first experiences of a film that I felt a personal connection with – and Sebastian’s storytelling continues to draw me in, connecting audiences and me to the reality of war, building compassion for something that, for many, would otherwise be distant and ungraspable concept.

What is it that draws you to documentary filmmaking? 

I thought that the camera could capture things that words couldn’t, and vice versa. I wanted people to be able to experience combat in the most complete way possible. For me, that meant giving film a try.

Making RESTREPO began a filmmaking journey for you – how did you first get involved with that initial film, and did you have any expectations that it would lead you down the path it has?

I wanted to write a book about a platoon in combat for a year. I thought that if I was going to spend that much time out there I might as well shoot a lot of video as well. Maybe I could make a film; but at the very least it could help me in the writing of a book, because its hard to keep notes during combat.

Beginning with that experience, continuing with WHICH WAY TO THE FRONTLINE FROM HERE? and KORENGAL, and concluding with THE LAST PATROL,  your films have followed a very natural progression given your own personal journey. Over the course of these four films, you have transitioned from filmmaker to film subject. Can you tell me a bit about that journey and how that transition unfolded?

I never intended to make myself a film subject – a big transgression in the world of journalism – but I realized after Tim died that my professional life and my personal life had irrevocably collided and merged. Reluctantly I allowed my editor to interview about my experience with Tim for ‘Which Way.’ And when I made ‘The Last Patrol’, I also realized that my experience and involvement was part of a larger story and that there was no shame in putting myself in there.

The Last Patrol is a very cathartic film. Reintegrating after war can be a challenging experience, and you choose to walk on foot from Washington D.C. to Pennsylvania with the hopes of getting to know the country, and yourself, again. Do you feel that making this film brought you the closer to what you were looking for?

Yes, very much so. I feel like I didn’t really know my country very well until I walked through it. I didn’t really know very poor people, I didn’t really know rural people, I had a lot to learn. And I also walked off a lot of personal confusion and anguish. My marriage was ending during the patrol as well. So I had a lot going on in my life and the exhaustion and the brotherhood and the sheer weird hardness of the trip was enormously beneficial to me.

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

I think mostly people were surprised by how hard and physical the combat was (we’re supposed to be a high-tech army!) by how much soldiers like to fight, and by the psychic costs of killing even for very enthusiastic men.

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

Well I started a non-profit called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues to give medical training to freelance war reporters, so that people like Tim have a chance at surviving their wounds. We exist through donations, Otherwise, I think people might understand war to be a much more complex thing – morally and psychologically – than either liberals or conservatives are willing to admit. The more honest that we, as a society, can be about war the easier it will be for veterans to reintegrate into society.

And finally, do you have any favorite documentaries?

I very much liked Particle Fever, The Happy People, Man on Wire, The Last Days of Vietnam, Waltz With Bashir, Red Army, and Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.


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

Interview by: Isis Graham

Spot on Doc/Fest

Thank you everyone for an incredible festival!

What a joy to meet with such an engaged audience and the incredibly talented filmmakers below.

Film pages will be coming soon for all of the films we discussed at the club.

Thank you:

Director Jerry Rothwell of “How to Change the World”, Directors Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky of “Almost There” and Tim Horsburgh, Director of Communications and Distribution at Kartemquin Films, Director Leslee Udwin of “India’s Daughter”. Director Laura Nix of “The Yes Men are Revolting”, Director Kirby Dick of “The Hunting Ground”, Director Louise Osmond of “Dark Horse”, and of course The Sheffield Doc/Fest Crew

Spot on Docs: Grey Gardens

Cinema of the Performatively Sublime, Direct from the Source

Variable modes of watchful documentary cinema have been called many things over the years – actuality dramas by Allan King, observational cinema by Frederick Wiseman, cinéma vérité by Jean Rouch, and finally direct cinema by Robert Drew and his young, ambitious associates Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Albert and David Maysles. Steadfast until his recent death at 88, Albert Maysles employed his firm belief in the direct cinema ethos, that documentary film should be encapsulations of reality, without interference by voiceover or reenactment, though never attempting to fool the audience into forgetting the prescience of the filmmakers themselves. It’s a matter of capturing the emotional truths in any given situation, whether they be when salesmen candidly speak to camera about their methods of bible peddling in the doc classic SALESMAN or documenting the making of Wes Anderson’s film “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” in “This Is An Adventure”.

In a recent interview with Joshua Oppenheimer conducted at the Based on a True Story conference at the University of Missouri’s journalism school, the filmmaker behind the oddly performative, seering Indonesian expose THE ACT OF KILLING stated, “In so-called ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, there’s a claim that the camera is a transparent window onto a pre-existing reality. But what really is happening is that the director and the film crew and the subjects are collaborating to simulate a reality in which they pretend the camera is not present. It’s a kind of dishonest story about how the film was made that performs a useful function — namely it helps us to suspend our disbelief and perceive that simulation as reality…No one forgets the presence of the camera, no matter how long it’s there. All documentaries are performance. They are performance precisely where people are playing themselves.”

No better statement could surmise what takes place in the films of Albert Maysles. Unobtrusive in their watch and wait technique, but always operating in their sweet-spot when the camera becomes a sounding board for his chatty, often eccentric subjects, Maysles’ films thrive on unrequited conversational performance and ethical murkiness. Just a week before Albert died at the age of 88 on March 5th, the same day that his masterpiece GREY GARDENS was to be re-released in theaters, Richard Brody wrote a piece in The New Yorker titled “All Documentaries Are Participatory Documentaries” in which he most acutely writes, “The subject of the film is performance, and the filmmakers are no mere observers of the action, they’re its catalysts. Filtering themselves out of the dialogue and off the screen (an editorial trick that might be fun to try at home) would do worse than to thin out the film—it would falsify it.”

When we’re first introduced to Big and Little Edie, the aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, in a flurry of conversational chaos – “I’m gonna get naked in just a minute, so you better watch out.” – “That’s what I’m afraid of.” – “Now why? I haven’t got any warts on me.” – “But the movie….the movie!” – in the sun and shade of their dilapidated, though beloved, old money mansion off the shores of the Atlantic – “any place on Earth would be much worse” – we don’t know what to think. Is there something wrong with these people? Why are they dressed as they are (or aren’t)? Why are they continuously bickering? Are they always this eccentric? In their lovably ragged on screen appearances, are they being exploited for our entertainment? These are all valid questions, yet the filmmakers employed footage with intention, just as the Beales of Grey Gardens portrayed themselves.

As the camera rolls on, with Al Maysles behind the viewfinder, panning and zooming in on revealing facial expressions and hand gestures that hint at the underlying emotional gravity of the given situation, we begin to see that, although there are heartbreaking truths about ageing and the peculiar nature of family relations, their somewhat bizarre on screen personas are an amplified version of themselves. Their performances see them laying claim to strong wills and lives lost in the pursuit of failed artistic endeavors. The film is no less a document of the wacky happenings on screen as a self proclaimed public record of the Beales as a respectable family of wealth, moral fiber and artistic integrity. And the Maysles were smart enough to grasp onto that performed reality and integrate it into the very DNA of their cinema.


GREY GARDENS is Influence Film Club’s featured film for April. 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.

Written by: Jordan M. Smith

Humans of Documentary: Pia Pearce

Our film of the month for March is Lucy Walker’s THE CRASH REEL which tracks the exhilarating and inspiring journey of U.S. champion snowboarder Kevin Pearce, whose fast-hurtling career is halted by a near fatal crash that leaves him with a traumatic brain injury. This film is so much more than a winter sports flick – it explores passion, drive, and when to draw the line, life transformative experiences, is an inspiring story for anyone whose life has been touched by Traumatic Brain Injury, and celebrates the power, strength and support of family and friends.

Given that our founder Cristina is also a mother of four wonder-boys, the character in the film that really stuck out to us here at Influence Film Club was Kevin’s mother Pia, so we couldn’t wait to take a moment to find out more about her experience of the film and how she has fostered such the genuine family bond that we all take witness to and admire in THE CRASH REEL.

The Crash Reel is a film about so much more than snowboarding – it is about dedication, drive, traumatic brain injury, and also very much about family. What were your initial thoughts around the idea of making a documentary about Kevin’s experience – and ultimately about your family? 

My initial thought was that Kevin’s story about his injury and his amazing recovery were a tale very much worth telling. I really did not expect that the film would include as much about our family as it does. But because the film has had such a positive impact, I am very grateful that Lucy Walker (Director), Julian Cautherley (Producer) and their team made such a powerful documentary.

Lucy met Kevin after his injury, and became a part of a healing process that often occurs behind closed doors. What was your experience having these intimate family moments revealed? 

Because Lucy operates with a very small team and is such a sensitive and thoughtful person, it really did not feel like an imposition to have her filming some intimate parts of our family interactions. Some of the footage for the documentary was shot by our son Adam who wanted to capture some of the more touching moments of Kevin’s recovery. Of utmost importance to me was to portray an accurate, honest and truthful picture of the process of Kevin’s recovery. I feel Lucy and Julian did an amazing job bringing all of this to life on the screen.

Did the documentary have any effect on the healing process for your family?

I think one of the benefits of the documentary for our family has been seeing how something so difficult and challenging can end up having such a very positive impact on a number of other families and people struggling with similar issues. It has been very rewarding to know that something beneficial can come out of a life changing experience that at first seemed so unexpected and so frightening.

You have four sons, and the film portrays your family as incredibly tight knit – even during the most challenging moments you speak to each other from the heart with kindness and respect. One of the most striking moments is when your son David, who has Down syndrome, asks Kevin not to go back to professional snowboarding. Is there something you would recommend to other parents to foster this type of communication and bond?

My suggestion to other parents in terms of fostering family communication, is to promote and encourage each person to share their feelings in an open environment that includes respect and understanding. I think it’s important for each person in the family to feel heard understood and seen by others. In our family, we make an effort to not shy away from difficult conversations, but rather promote being open and honest with each other.

What are some of the most important things you have learned that family and friends can do to support someone with brain injury?

One of the most important things that friends and family can do to support someone with a brain injury, is to realize that the recovery is a “marathon and not a sprint.” The process is a life-time effort and both patience and support are essential. Most helpful has been our friends and family who have been with us for the very long haul of recovery with both understanding and kindness. Support for healthy choices like food, drinks and exercise are also very important. Kevin has been so fortunate to have FRENDS who really have stood by him through this ordeal. They have been open and willing to learn what kinds of things support his recovery and what does not.

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 Kevin’s story?

One of the best things to come from our experience with Kevin’s traumatic brain injury is our Love Your Brain Foundation. We welcome support, involvement and participation by others. Kevin is now doing a significant amount of public speaking and sharing information about what it means to truly “love your brain,” as his story continues to inspire and touch so many lives. Adam is the executive director of the foundation and he and his team are making access to yoga available to people who have sustained traumatic brain injury.

The work they are doing is already having an incredibly positive impact on many individuals and families.


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

 Interview by: Isis Marina Graham

Movie Snacks, Vol. 2

One of the most loveable things about movie night? Everybody ends up contributing food. It almost goes without saying. Magic: Poof! Chocolate. Tadaaa! Chips. Be it sweet or savoury, healthy or a sprurge, supermarket bestsellers or baked dreams come true – food brings us together. It’s like glue, just in a tasty, non-toxic way. And we stick to it. We are as devoted to gathering, eating and talking today as humans always have been, with the fine distinction that we now have a multitude of films available that also give us food for thought. With that said there was only one thing for us to do: expand our collection of movie snacks to provide you with some simple ideas for something you can pull out of your hat at the next movie night!

Here are twelve new recipes that will open your hearts and minds for nights of meaningful conversation with the people that matter to you…

Cranberry Coconut Raw Bars, from Not Your Standards
Unforgettable Pecan Bars, from My Life Runs On Food
Fig and Walnut Biscotti, from Martha Stewart
Candied Grapes, from Rachel Schultz
Autumn Brittle, from Adventures In Cooking
Deep Dark Chocolate Cookies, from Picklee


Build-Your-Own-Tartines, from Camille Styles
Gluten Free Nut Crackers from, Green Kitchen Stories
Goat Cheese & Thyme Dip, from Green Kitchen Stories
Crispy Baked Potato Chips with Garlic, Thyme and Parmesan, from Cooking For Keeps
Roasted Rosemary Almonds, from Jennifer Chong
Cauliflower Fritters with Lemony Mayo, from Dinner with Julie
Don’t forget to check out Movie Snacks Vol. 1!

Spot on Docs: Discover Influence Film Club’s First 100 Documentaries

100 is not just a number. 100 stands for crossing a line. 100 is a mark. And while for some people it means they have to throw the biggest birthday party of their life, for us it is an inspiration.  Keeping this numeric symbol in sight, we’ve happily spent the past year in handpicking our favorite documentaries and creating dedicated film pages around them. We had late nights and lots of coffee, took challenges and feedback, chased our dream through highs and lows in order to bring something innovative and good to you. And here we are on this day in February, humbled and proud, presenting the first 100 documentaries that motivated us throughout the past year and that motivate us to bring you 100 more, because oh, there are so, so many more. We hope they spark your lives as much as they have sparked ours. We hope they bring us together. We hope we will influence you. Because remember, a good documentary is just the beginning…

So our first 100 films (in alphabetical order because we love them all) are:

In a world of sound-bites, documentaries provide an opportunity to think, understand, share, and connect with the world. These 100 films are controversial, divisive, fascinating, unexpected, and surprising. They are thrillers, dramas, comedies, romance, tear-jearkers, and horror films. Documentaries provide the perfect topic for meaningful conversations.

If you want to talk about the things that matter with people that matter then pick a film, invite your friends, and watch & discuss together. It’s as easy as that. Not sure what film to pick? Each month Influence Film Club is going to hand pick one of our favorite docs as our club’s featured film. And if you just can’t get enough with 1 a month, there are 99 more waiting to be discovered! Its time to watch + engage with some of the world’s best documentaries!


Spot on Directors: Steve James

Our film of the month for February is Steve James’ inspiring documentary LIFE ITSELF, a beautiful and heart-wrenching tale of humanity that recounts the surprising and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert, based on his memoir of the same name. This doc is James’ latest in a long line extraordinary storytelling which includes HOOP DREAMS and THE INTERRUPTERS, to name a few.

What is it that draws you to documentary film?

I love the surprises and richness of the lives of real people. Its always more interesting than anything I could make up.

You have a 20 year history as a documentary filmmaker- What is it that draws you from one film to the next? Is there a red thread that has followed you throughout your career?

I don’t know that there is one thread through all my films. For many of them, I am compelled by people at important junctures in their lives, whether its chasing the basketball dream, or facing prison, or trying to mediate violence. I also need to feel some kind of personal connection to the story or subject matter, even if the film isn’t in and of itself, a personal film. Though I have done two such films. Finally, I’m intrigued by complex people whose lives take surprising turns. Roger Ebert certainly qualifies on that score.

Is your experience making Life Itself like any of the other filmmaking experiences you have had? Was there anything that stood out about the experience?

This is the first time I’ve made a true biographical documentary, which was an exciting challenge for me: how do you capture the full life of a person without it feeling like a “connect the dots” travelogue through their life? I also was challenged by the reality that the film ends up documenting Roger’s last months of his life. That aspect of the film carries it beyond being just a biographical film.

Documentarians often set out to make one film and end up making another. Life Itself began as an adaption of Roger’s memoir of the same title, although it took an unexpected turn due to the resurgence of his illness. This gave you a window into a part of life, and death, that often occurs behind closed doors. What was this experience like as a filmmaker? Were there any restrictions on what could be filmed, or was there ever a question about if the film should go on?

We were challenged on how to tell that story along with his life story. And of course, it was profoundly sad and unsettling to film Roger’s decline and eventual passing. But part of Roger’s courage was in his allowing – and even insisting – that the film capture those difficult last months candidly. Now, that doesn’t mean that we filmed everything. Doctors prohibited us from filming from time to time out of concern for Roger’s energy or health, particularly near the end of his life. Despite Roger and Chaz’s courage, the last couple weeks of Roger’s life were not filmed or photographed in any way. That time became understandably private for them, and I had no expectation nor desire to film Roger as he passed away.

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

I’ve been particularly pleased to hear people speak about Roger’s life as an inspiration in the way that transcended his considerable contributions to film and film criticism. And part of that is watching the way in which he coped with illness and the last months of his life with grace, acceptance, and even humor.

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

What I said before… Roger not only inspires one to appreciate and think about great films, he inspired people to live their lives in a full and compassionate way – to love life, not just movies.

What would your documentary playlist consist of?

How about a list of docs that I know Roger loved: Gates of Heaven, Michael Apted’s “Up” series, Shoah, Crumb, Grizzly Man, and a fun one since Roger had a great sense of humor and loved music: Anvil! The Story of Anvil.

Watch out! More of these films are being added to our Documentary Pages soon!


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

Photo: Steve James, director of LIFE ITSELF, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Interview by: Isis Marina Graham