Monthly Archives: March 2015

London’s HRWFF: The Yes Men Are Revolting

The Yes Men are Revolting opened the London’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival last night – the third feature outing for activists Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, who have forged a career of elaborate stunts targeted squarely at corporate behemoths, perhaps most famously posing as Dow executives pledging to make reparations to Bhopal victims. This time around, the pair engage with a wide range of other activists in taking on bigwigs ranging from the U.S Chamber of Commerce to leaders attending the Copenhagen Climate Summit. Along the way they join thousands of other activists during the Occupy movement and in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Twenty years into their career, Andy and Mike are clearly older and wiser and a bit world weary. The Yes Men are Revolting for the first time focuses on them as human beings with families, boyfriends and plenty of lashings of modern stress. Appropriately enough, the film shows the frustrations and tensions which inevitably emerge when trying to save the world, one hoax at a time.

At a post screening Q&A with co-director Laura Nix, here’s what the three film-makers had to say about activism, and their latest cinematic outing:

Laura Nix: (Mike and Andy) are always doing actions – there is always a ton of stuff going on. So it’s a question of how does any particular action serve the narrative of the film? And this film is more complicated than the others because it involves them as humans. In the other two films they were like cardboard cut-out characters, like cartoons, and this time they were real people.  And I felt that was really important because I’ve known them a long time and I am very impressed at what it takes to do this work for decades. It’s one thing to get involved in activism when you are in your twenties, and it’s another thing when you are starting to hit the other ages that we are all facing!

Laura Nix
Laura Nix

Mike Bonanno (on dodging a law suit threat): One of the things that we’ve come to realise from years of doing this is that we’re not in any danger physically or legally for what we’re doing. Everything we’re doing as far as we can tell is totally legal and totally safe. We have some people to thank who have fought against companies like McDonald’s, for example – the McLibel case here in the UK – which has made a lot of corporations scared to threaten activists legally.

Mike Bonnano (left), Andy Bichlbaum (right) (1)
Mike Bonanno (left), Andy Bichlbaum (right)

Andy Bichlbaum: For me the personal story is really important as a way of showing the importance of social movements. We despair, we wonder why we are doing things? What did this achieve?  And we get the answer with Occupy, when we realise that we’ve been part of this and it’s exploding and it’s huge. That’s a lesson that activists often don’t realise – if you do something with your heart really in it, it matters. Even if you might not see how – it might take a long time for you to see how it works.

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The Human Rights Watch Festival runs until March 27. Stay tuned for a future blog about the rapidly growing subgenre of activism on film…

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Daisy Asquith Gets Personal

In nearly twenty years as a filmmaker, Daisy Asquith has told human stories the length and breadth of the UK, and beyond – not least in Crazy About One Direction, where she memorably explored the legion of passionate One Direction fans. She has also taken viewers into the world of clowns, young mums, Holocaust survivors and house clearers, in empathetic, nuanced portraits which have earned her multiple awards.

Her latest film is a departure for Asquith, in that for the first time she points her lens at her own family. In My Mother the Secret Baby, she embarks on a journey with her mum to find out more about her grandparents, who gave her mother up for adoption after she was born illegitimately in Ireland in the 1940s. In going in search of details about her birth grandfather,  Asquith alienates a number of her Irish relatives, who vehemently resist airing their family’s secrets in public – their objections becoming part of the narrative of the film. I spoke to Daisy about the film, and what it was like making a film about her own family.

Daisy, middle, with her cousin Johnny and his wife Mary
Daisy, centre, with Johnny and wife Mary

Can you tell me a bit about the origin of the film?

I had a lot of wobbles over whether or not to make the film, because one of my aunts…is really really against my talking about our illegitimacy in public; she wanted it kept private and a secret. So I kept chickening out basically. (BBC) Storyville have supported it very patiently for about five years. I kept saying I’m not doing it. And they would say, hmm okay and then three months later it was back on again.

Is this a journey that your mum would have taken if the film wasn’t driving it?

No, she says she wouldn’t have done it. And that kept confusing me too – that I was dragging her into it. But I think it just needed all that time. We needed loads of time. She kept changing her mind as well. I tried not to push her and to be patient really. And they allowed me to do that. She came to the realisation that she really did want to know more about her father.  And now she’s so delighted that she made that decision. She loves the film and she loves the information that she has about who she is – who her father was. It’s somehow kind of filled in loads of gaps that you wouldn’t expect – why you are like you are. I think it has made her happy, actually.

You’ve pushed some family away, and others have become closer, like your aunt who is in it.

Yes, my Aunt Siobhan has been incredible. Her courage – I don’t know how she is so courageous. She is the one who has given us the confidence to do it. She kept saying ‘you have the right to know,’ and not backing down either.

J&Mdance
Johnny and Mary in NYC

And has that led to her having difficulties with her own siblings?

Yes, it has caused her all kinds of trouble.

What was it like discovering your main characters, Johnny and his wife?

It was delightful. When I first saw Johnny and he sort of emerged from his milking shed with hay sticking out of his hat, I thought, this is just amazing. I fell in love with him really. Luckily he likes me. I must be quite challenging for him, but he seems to like it and handle it, and is in full control of me when I’m over there.

You have made a lot of films – is this the first autobiographical film that you have made?

Overtly, yes. You could say all of your films have much subjective stuff in them, but yes overtly it is the first autobiographical film. It is so different. And of course they pressured me to be in it, which is of course out of my comfort zone.

You weren’t in it that much!

I don’t’ think I needed to be in it that much – do you?

Well I have a sense of who you are already. But I do usually find myself craving to see more of the strong personality behind the camera.

I think it is a bit of a cop out to hide and not do that and pretend that you weren’t affecting everything all of the time, so maybe I didn’t do it enough.

Can you expand on how it was different making this film?

You can’t see clearly when it is your family. It’s too emotional. You get sucked up into lots of different people’s feelings, all of whom you love and all of whom are not going to mince their words in their criticism of you. I try to treat the people whom I film with huge respect and some love, and to try to collaborate with them. But actually what happened was my vision was fogged by it. I had to separate how I felt about them being angry with me to how I present them in the film.

Will any of them end up watching it and coming around?

I want them to watch it – I’ve offered. They have not taken me up on my offer yet. But you never know. I’m hoping it is way better than they imagine.

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My Mother the Secret Baby premieres at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival the 26th March (under the title After the Dance) and will be broadcast on BBC Storyville, 30th March, 10pm. There will be a special screening at the new Bertha DocHouse in London on 31 March at 7pm, which will include a post screening Q&A with Asquith.

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Meet Charlie Phillips: The Guardian’s Head of Docs

Lured away from Sheffield Doc/Fest, where he was Deputy Director and ran the extremely successful MeetMarket, Charlie Phillips is now the new Head of Documentaries at the Guardian. As a huge Guardian and documentary fan it’s a job that sounds pretty good to me. But as newspapers aren’t normally in the business of commissioning documentaries, I went to the Guardian to find out more about what Charlie’s up to:

Head of Documentaries is a new position. How was it pitched to you and what are you doing with it?

I was recruited because the Guardian wants to make a push into documentaries. We’ve always had a lot of video on the website and made lots of video. Sometimes that has been documentaries, but more often it has been news and current affairs, or sometimes virals. This is a very specific thing – pushing into documentary proper. The basis for doing that is that documentary is increasingly popular. It’s being regarded in an institution like this as a really great way of doing journalism, of getting people to reflect on the news and absorb new information and be surprised. People here think that documentary is doing that better than any other art form, which of course I agree with.

I was approached to work out what we should be doing with documentaries, and then commission lots of docs for our website and also ideally our YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook platforms — in terms of commissioning documentaries for “the Guardian” that basically means for all of our platforms. So that is my remit, basically, to get the Guardian known for supporting documentary. It’s been four months now. We’ve started commissioning them and getting them out. We’re not at the point where we have one going out every week but we aren’t a million miles away from that. We’ve got a lot of possibilities, a lot of irons in the fire. The ones we’ve put out already have done very well. So there’s definitely a hunger there.

How are you commissioning? Are you doing it through contacts or is there an open process?

It’s primarily through contacts at the moment, and obviously through people directly approaching me. From my time in Sheffield I know lots of people; I know the documentary industry. So it’s not that hard for me to reach out to them. I’ve also been doing talks and have been to a lot of festivals. The word is generally out that we’ve been commissioning docs, and the films have been going out as well…Maybe once we’re up and running and have everything going out we might have some section on the side which says how you pitch to us. I’m very aware I’m not connected to everyone.

How does it work in terms of Guardian journalism? Is anything driven initially by print or are you just free to go where you like, content-wise?

We’re pretty free to commission anything regardless to what is happening in the rest of the building. And it’s very important that the video leads. What we want is for people to watch documentaries on our website regardless of whether there’s a tie in to anything else. That has to be the first thing…Although we’ve always had a lot of video up, it’s not always been that easy to find, and has not been done as consistently as we would have liked. So we have not really built up that audience like we could have done. That’s our ultimate priority – get really good stuff up there and get people watching it, and maybe don’t worry so much what other people in the building are doing. With that said, there are some subjects that are so brilliant and are such a focus of the organisation that we will coordinate, and we will commission a doc, and someone will write a piece, we might do a podcast, and we might do a data led explainer.

Can you give me an example?

We did a big focus on the Guantanamo Diaries. That wasn’t one that I was directly involved with, because it is more news than documentaries anyway. But it’s a good example. So there was coordination across publishing the diaries, a really beautiful animated doc that my colleague Laurence (Topham) made, there were readings from famous people which went out in the audio department. That kind of thing can be great but it’s not practical to do week after week.

It must be very labour-intensive too — and has to be the right type story I would imagine.

Yes, it has to be the right kind of thing. And also the kind of things I’m doing, they are not news videos. We have a separate news commissioner who does news. So I am looking for things which are maybe reflective and story led, not necessarily things that the writers here are going to want to write about. It needs to feel contemporary and relevant now but that doesn’t necessarily make it news.

Can you give me another example?

If I Die on Mars was a film about three people who want to be on the first manned mission to Mars – the Mars 1 program. And that did really well for a number of reasons. One of them was people didn’t really know about the Mars One programme. It had been reported a bit but it was quite under-reported. We knew it would intrigue people. It’s from a production company called Stateless Media, a guy called Peter Savodnik. He was quite clever – he framed it in terms of why do these people want to leave earth on a one way mission, that is effectively a suicide mission. It’s quite a melancholy piece, so it had that human element.

Another thing that we have coming up in a totally different way is we’re doing a version of They Will Have to Kill Us First, which is a new film by Together Films about music being banned in Mali a few years ago. So this is effectively what happened since the ban – and the human effects on these amazing musicians. It is also about Mali music becoming very popular at the moment.

Presumably you are aiming at people on tablets and phones – is there an ideal length you go for?

It definitely has to be under 15 minutes. Generally things are going to be the 10-12 minute mark. You could say that is quite long for online – the wisdom is that people don’t concentrate for more than 30 seconds. But we’re doing things which are very story and/or character led. So I really feel like if it hooks you in from the start, and it takes you on a journey, and it looks beautiful, and you feel like you’ve had an experience watching it, you will stick and watch it. And if people don’t watch the whole thing but they watch five minutes but really like those five minutes, that’s okay as well. You can’t assume everyone is going to watch the whole thing, but as long as a good proportion do, and also as long as they share it and tell other people about it — it’s about building up the audience.

It’s a tough model.

It’s a new model and a form a lot of filmmakers aren’t acquainted with. So it’s hard graft getting something going out…It’s not a grammar that to be honest loads of filmmakers understand, because they are used to a longer form. And that’s fine because that’s been their main thing. But increasingly people are going to have to learn how to make something that is shorter and is going to work online and get attention. It’s a medium that people should use more. But it’s different. In the same way that doing something for TV is different than the cinema – it’s a different art form.

Do you have a model that you are following from other newspapers or media?

The two big influences are definitely the New York Times in the sense of doing short documentaries, working with filmmakers, having a commitment to high quality docs, and not doing any random old thing. Vice are definitely an inspiration, especially in terms of how they’ve built up that audience. Which they’ve done very cleverly, working across different platforms.

What kind of budgets are we talking?

The range is anywhere from at the lower end, a low point of £1000 if we are acquiring ten minutes or just chopping ten minutes with very little editing, up to an original commission that we really really want where it’s all being shot up front in a far off country, then it can be up to like £8-10,000. Most things at the moment will be something in the middle of that range. We’re doing both original short commissions and cut downs of longer docs.

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NFTS Documentary 2015: The Ones to Watch

Last week, after years of wanting to attend, I finally made it to the NFTS Show, the National Film and Television School’s showcase of films made by their Directing Documentary MA graduates.  I took my documentary students to see the eight films at the BFI Southbank – an impressive venue which also played host to some outstanding fiction and games student projects.

There’s every reason to keep an eye out for NFTS documentary students: graduates include many of the UK’s top doc makers, including Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Kim Longinotto and Sean McAllister. Kim Longinotto’s own NFTS graduation film, Pride of Place, about the boarding school she loathed as a student, was so successful at showing up the school’s shortcomings that it closed shortly afterwards.

Long after my own students filtered out, I sat mesmerized. Despite tiny budgets of £4,000, not one of the films was based in the UK – shooting locations included Cambodia, Thailand, California, and Brazil.  A couple films followed a strong observational narrative, including a senior citizen on an overseas mission, and a drug addict on a Buddist detox. But as the NFTS’s head of documentaries Dick Fontaine noted whilst compering the afternoon, those students without a strong narrative worked intensively to develop a cinematic language of their own in these films. It showed. In an age of formatted television, where action is heavily narrated, and follows a predictable storyline, as a whole these stories were beautifully told without titles, narration, presenters or archive. Although made on a shoestring, the directors had the support of the abundant resources at the NFTS, and a sizeable crew of fellow students, introduced by the directors after each screening.

Here are my favourite films from the day:

The Archipelago

This portrait of the Faroe Islands, as it struggles to hang on to its traditions in the modern world, is not for the squeamish. Following an unnamed character known in the credits as “the young man”, director Benjamin Huguet sketches the community through his daily life as a butcher, capturing him scratching the cows behind the ears, and in the next scene carving them up into steaks. Huguet was also along for the ride when the community turned out for a practice bringing them international condemnation: pilot whale hunting. By filming the blood drenched slaughtering of the whales, and the allocation of their parts to local families within minutes, Huguet’s immersive camerawork shows how close to nature the Faroese continue to live.

Esta Vida (This Life)

Director Lyttanya Shannon’s at times heartbreaking film shows child advocate Rita as she works to encourage a group of vulnerable young girls in rural Brazil to fight against a cycle which sees them all too often the victims of drugs and sexual abuse. Shannon’s cinematography places her in the center of these girls’ worlds, as they perch on the edge of a frightening adulthood.

Pioneers

Grace Harper takes us onto the streets of the eccentric Pioneertown – a former Hollywood film set now inhabited by a number of characters carrying abundant personal baggage. It’s a beautifully shot ensemble piece, which paints a portrait of a town as unique in its populace as its history.