Monthly Archives: October 2016

ARMED AND UNARMED IN AMERICA

by Carol Nahra

Two British documentaries airing this week provide nuanced and balanced glimpses of a frightened American psyche. In Unarmed Black Male, screening on BBC Two’s This World strand on Wednesday, James Jones takes a 360° approach to telling the story of the trial of Stephen Rankin, a policeman accused of murdering a black teenager. The following night Channel 4’s Cutting Edge strand airs The Gun Shop, where director John Douglas brings a mini fixed rig to an American gun store. (The films are part of a noticeable uptick in British television programmes examining all things American in the run up to the November 9 election, which continues to grip and horrify Europe). I spoke to both directors as they were putting the finishing touches on their films.

For Jones, his focus on the Portsmouth Virginia shooting stemmed from his interest in the growth of police shootings in America documented by citizens. He was thinking of approaching it in a similar way to films he made in both North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where he employed an abundance of both curated and collected footage by ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. “I wanted to make a film about how technology is changing awareness of American police shootings,” he says.“In the past the police statement has been taken as gospel truth. So there was the idea that people being able to film it on mobile phones was transforming our perception of this issue.” Whilst scouting such stories, Jones came across details of William Chapman’s murder via the Guardian’s acclaimed interactive journalism project The Counted. In a brief early morning encounter outside a Walmart store in Virginia, police officer Rankin had shot and killed Chapman at close range. Extraordinarily enough in the US, Rankin was actually going on trial in the summer for first degree murder. Like many American trials, it would be filmed. Jones had his story.

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Stephen Rankin

In a documentary that never drags in the course of 90 minutes, Jones secures an enormous range of interviews from those caught up in in the highly emotionally charged events — including Rankin’s only interview to date. The interview came about through dogged persistence, by befriending both Rankin’s wife Dawn, who features prominently in the film, and then Rankin himself. Jones found that both were really wanting to tell their side of the story: “They felt very beaten up by the local media and it felt like she was almost like waiting for the call,” he says.  

The Rankin interview succeeds in instilling viewer empathy for a man on trial for his freedom after seemingly just doing his job (Rankin argued he fired in self defense after Chapman dislodged Rankin’s Taser). But soon the film offers up two astonishing interviews providing a very different perspective. First Rankin’s ex-wife describes his obsession with guns, including continuously discussing scenarios where he would discharge against an unarmed suspect. Then Rankin’s former boss, Ken King, a highly distinguished officer, is interviewed saying: “(Rankin)  was one of these guys who could cause a riot at a church social. He could go to any event and it would just escalate out of control.”  It’s jaw dropping, powerful testimony which is impossible to dismiss.

Jones said that neither Dawn nor Rankin were aware of these damning testimonials when he interviewed them, but he has since talked Dawn through it. “She’s going to hate some of it, she really will,” he admits. “But I think the thing is, on their own terms they come across as sympathetic. The film is much more fair and balanced for having them in it. And you get a sense that there are two families’ lives destroyed by this, whatever the details of the shooting.”

The film goes on to show the ripples of misery stemming from the Walmart shooting, following the quest of Chapman’s family for justice, as well as a mother from Kazakhstan whose inebriated unarmed son also was killed by Rankin, who was never charged.  To round out this story, Jones and his team managed the impressive feat of tracking down two of the anonymous jurors, one black and one white, who describe in detail some of the thoughts behind their deliberations, to which they each clearly brought their own personal experience to bear. “The white juror that we interviewed certainly had had experiences in her life that she told us about that shaped her worldview and her view of someone like William Chapman,” says Jones. “So that was key to the jury’s deliberations. And that’s quite scary that that would be the case.”

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Victim William Chapman

Indeed, like so many films about the US, Unarmed Black Male offers up a vision of dysfunctional race relations. What did Jones himself make of racial tensions?  “The divide felt very stark. As an English person who lives in London where you are surrounded by people from all over the world and there are very few ghettoised neighbourhoods, it’s all a kind of melting pot, going to the south of America was a culture shock. You’d go into neighbourhoods and you’re the only white person there. And you’re viewed with great suspicion at first because white people usually spell trouble in that neighbourhood. So I was shocked that the legacy of segregation was so visible.”

Coming as a stranger into a volatile story, Jones is delighted by just how many people agreed to take part. “We were really happy with the way the film turned out. I don’t know if it’s America, or the South, but everyone was willing to talk to us. And that just never happens. Usually you’ve got like a one in three chance of people agreeing, but for one reason or another they really did want to tell their story.”

In the end, the type of mobile phone footage that was the seed for this film instead becomes a grim drumbeat of misery. In between scenes from the Rankin storyline, Jones uses such video to catalogue the many police shootings of black victims which took place, even in the relatively short time span of the film. 

Made using very different techniques, The Gun Shop nonetheless sheds light on similar terrain, notably the current climate of fear in the US which contributes to a gun death rate at least ten times higher than the rest of the developed world.  Director John Douglas says that he and the development team at Rogan Productions were very keen to find a shop whichb flew in the face of British perceptions: “It felt like we should try and move away from very stereotypical views of gun shops and gun owners. So finding somewhere where the shop was based in a community but was diverse, had young and old, and wasn’t just the community you’d normally expect.”

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Joel Fulton, the gun shop’s co-owner

The shop they settled on, in Battle Creek, Michigan has a shooting range and runs educational classes, in addition to a constant stream of varied customers. I wondered what the owners of the gun shop made of the fixed rig style of programming they were proposing – using mounted cameras operated remotely – which is unknown in the US?  “Yeah it is unknown,” Douglas agreed. “The sort of reactions we would get would be people would think it was like a reality show or Big Brother.  It took a while. We showed them some 24 Hours in A&E and some other things I’d worked on which were not rigged but not sensationalising and treated people with respect. So I think that helped.”

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Director John Douglas in the edit

For the six day rig shoot they kitted out the shop with 12 cameras (three would shoot at any one time); Douglas directing from a backroom gallery. Assistant Producer Rebecca Coxon manned the shop floor, seeking consent and fitting customers with radio mics. In a week of follow up filming they delved more into some of the stories, which together paint a rich tapestry of reasons underlying why so many Americans are arming themselves.

Back in London, working with experienced fixed rig editor Sam Santana (see this Docs on Screens interview), Douglas was painstakingly working to make a film which took a nonjudgmental tone. “It would be really easy to make an anti gun film. Really easy,” says Douglas. “But the way that I’ve hoped we approached it in this documentary — and to some degree all documentaries — is always to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes a bit. Because clearly whether anti gun or pro gun there’s not all that anger and rhetoric because they’re bad people and they only want to hate one another and they want to ruin everyone else’s life. They’re doing it because they feel really passionate about the issue.”

Unarmed Black Male airs Wednesday, November 2nd at 9pm on BBC Two. The Gun Shop airs Thursday, November 3rd at 9pm on Channel 4.

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Coming of Age Docs Shine at BFI LFF

During the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, one of the most acclaimed dramatic features was British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a coming-of-age story acclaimed by critics for its “visually fascinating aesthetic.” But far away from the buzz surrounding such Oscar hopefuls, in the relative quiet of the Documentary Competition, I found a clutch of coming-of-age films that equally shone. Together, they employ a battery of storytelling techniques to bring their young protagonists’ lives to the big screen.

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Ginger, from All This Panic

All This Panic, a feature debut by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jenny Gage (director) and Tom Betterton (DP), follows a handful of private school-educated teenage girls in Brooklyn over three years of their late teens. Ginger is “terrified of getting old,” clashes with everyone in her family, and finds herself adrift as her friends begin university without her. Her father tells her she can stay in the house, musing that they used to be best friends but have spent the last six years fighting (a haunting line that brings chills to those of us with young daughters with whom we are still on good terms). The other main subject, Lena, is self-possessed and articulate, and at the film’s outset, preoccupied with having her first stab at love. But Lena also has bigger issues on her mind: Her brother has significant behavioral problems, and both her parents—now separated—are living turbulent lives. Indeed, despite their privileged education, most of the girls here are dealing with significant issues, from broken families to self-harm and emerging sexuality. Photographers-turned-filmmakers Gage and Betterton manage, without formal interview or narration, to capture the complexity of teenage lives with the film’s striking visual style.All This Panic is beautifully shot, very close up, and in a dreamy-yet-pacey style that mirrors the girls’ inner lives, consumed with whom they are and whom they might become. The film is very effective at evoking the storminess of the high school years, as well as the fleetingness of this period.

Covering similar territory, in at times a strikingly similar visual style, is Alma Har’el’s Lovetrue. She interweaves the stories of three young subjects spread out across the US: a young erotic dancer in Alaska, a surfer-turned-single dad in Hawaii, and a teenage girl in a New York City family of singers whose parents have dramatically split. Each is navigating difficult relationships and trying to make sense of a world that often seems cruel. Har’el’s 2011 debut feature, Bombay Beach, was an innovative hybrid, with her rural Californian characters often breaking out in dance. She continues to break new ground inLovetrue, which features enacted scenes (filmed in a home-movie style reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell) that include both flashbacks and flashforwards, often with the subjects interacting with their dramatic counterparts (see featured photo above). While I admired the beauty and innovation of the film, the stories of the three protagonists were strong enough that in the end I felt the dramatic elements were sometimes more of a distraction than a service.

Less innovative in style, but no less compelling, were two additional coming-of-age films in the documentary competition. Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams takes us inside a detention center for 18-year-old Iranian girls. Their crimes sound shocking—they range from larceny to murder—but their back stories, revealed matter-of-factly to a sympathetic Oskouei, are even more disturbing. Together they paint a portrait of the most dysfunctional rung of Iranian society, where drug addiction rules and families violently turn on each other. But inside the center, the girls act much as any other high-spirited teenage girls living together, and the film says more about what we have in common than our differences. The press notes say that Oskouei worked for seven years to gain access to the institution, an effort that more than pays off for a film that has already garnered both an Amnesty International Award and a True Vision Award and went on to take the LFF’s Grierson Documentary Competition Award.

 

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Starless Dreams

 

At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum are the French students who are the focus of Claire Simon’s observational documentary The Graduation. They have come from all over France to take an astonishing entrance exam to the country’s most prestigious film school, La Femis. Over three months the wanna-be auteurs undergo a host of tasks, mulled over by the film’s real stars – the industry figures who serve as the selection committee, offering up withering critiques once the candidates have left the room. I emerged in awe of the articulacy of the candidates, and in wonder at the complete Frenchness of the whole scene, which comes with more than its share of chain-smoking and Gallic shrugs.

Not surprisingly, many of the festival’s fare across the genres reflected the turbulent times in which we live, with a host of films focused on stories of migration and war. Among these was the winner of the short film category, the documentary 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo. Finding his apartment smack-dab on the frontline when war breaks out in Syria’s largest city in August 2012, photographer Issa Touma begins filming from his window; this compelling short is an intriguing insight into the opening days of the ongoing destruction of Aleppo.

While nonfiction media is never going to dominate at the BFI London Film Festival, where the focus remains firmly on the dramas and the red carpet, it can be said that there has never been a better time for cinema documentaries in London. There has been a boom in arthouse cinemas opening up in the last few years (my North London neighborhood, Crouch End, which formerly had none now has three within a mile). And in order to differentiate from the temptation to remain at home in front of the television, cinemas are featuring many documentaries with Q&As or panel discussions afterwards. During the LFF I took a side trip half a mile away to the Bertha Dochouse, which has been exclusively showing documentaries for more than a year. There I hosted a panel following the screening of yet another coming-of-age documentary, Driving with Selvi. Directed by Canadian Elisa Paloschi, it’s an inspiring tale of how a child bride in India escaped her life to become a taxi driver. Having spent ten years filming Selvi, Paloschi eschews dwelling on the abuse that she suffered as a child bride, focusing instead on the confidence she gained as a taxi driver and through a second marriage, this time for love. This week I’ll be returning to moderate another panel, following Rokhsareh Ghaem Magham’s multi award-winning Sonita, yet another tale of an inspiring young woman whose story continues to put “bums on seats,” as they say here.

This article also ran on www.documentary.org

‘Tower’ Animates a Mass Shooting, 50 Years Later

In August 1966, the University of Texas at Austin found itself at the mercy of a sniper perched at the top of a tower at the center of the campus. Ninety-six terrifying minutes later, more than a dozen were dead, many more injured and an entire community was traumatized. It was the first mass shooting at a school in America—and, of course, far from the last.

From its opening moments, the mesmerizing Tower pulls viewers directly into the horror of the unfolding murder spree. Its dazzling use of rotoscopic animation and vivid eyewitness testimony contribute to one of the most effective accountings of a historical event that I’ve ever seen in a documentary. At the BFI London Film Festival press screening I attended, the film drew rare applause. And no wonder: by the end of the film you feel like you have been there, and that you had a lucky escape.

I sat down with director Keith Maitland to learn more about his creative approach to making Tower. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The opening of the film puts you directly in the action straight away. I was wondering if you creatively had a mantra that carried you through. Can you talk me through it?

Keith Maitland:  A couple things from the very outset that struck me were, I would never be able to include everything, and I wanted the film to speak to people emotionally and from a human place. So, I would err on the side of character and humanity and emotion over information. I wanted to trust the audience because I like it when filmmakers trust me to put it together. And I wanted the viewer to feel the way those people felt, which was that this came out of the blue. And so, any deep backstory, any setup, anything that would tip your hat that this is about to happen just didn’t need to be there.

What really struck me in the first half of the film was the set-up with the animated interviewees looking directly at the camera with youthful voices, which I soon realized were acted. Can you talk me through how you developed that approach?

I knew immediately when I decided to make the film that I wanted to make it animated. And I did that primarily because I knew that there was no way I’d be able to film the recreations on campus in live action in a compelling and cinematic way—[it would have been ] just too big a task. Animation was a great tool to overcome some of those hurdles. A lot of documentaries use animation, but what oftentimes makes it feel less effective to me is that it’s used strictly as B‑roll. And if we just showed these people running from place to place, it would feel like B‑roll, and I wanted the animation to feel like A‑roll. And I wanted it to carry us along like a great animated film, where you stop thinking about the animation. I also wanted to make this film for teenagers. I wanted them to see themselves up on the screen and not see a 68‑year‑old woman talking about an 18‑year‑old girl.

What’s also interesting is that the animation is so effective at masking who are your current interviews and who are your archival interviews.

Yes, two of the main interviews, Allen Crumb, the bookstore manager, and Houston McCoy, the blond cop, passed away before I started the project. But for every other character, the dialogue or monologue is taken directly from interviews that I did and then scripted. In the first hour of the film, I took those 20 hours of interviews that I had done and edited that down and scripted it out in Final Draft just like a narrative screenplay—with a nod to the idea that these are 50-years-later stories and a recognition that it’s all based on memory.

You interviewed quite a few people for this, yet there are really just a handful of main interviews. 

There are eight main characters and five man-on-the-street kind of characters. But we did on-camera interviews with about three-dozen people. And I’ve done telephone interviews with about 120. And then other people on my team have interviewed at least another 80. We’ve collected over 200 stories.

What do you do with all that material?

We just got a grant from the City of Austin to develop an online home for all the stories. It will be map‑based, and I think it’ll be called Tower Together. People will be able to upload their stories. Every time the film plays publicly, or word gets out in the media, our email lights up and we get two or three more people who say, “Oh, I was there.”

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Keith Maitland

It’s great when you start to reveal the real people behind the interviews. I’ve seen it before as a mechanism and it seemed to me that in Tower there was a good half an hour before the end of the film when you started to do it. Can you talk me through that?

The first hour of the film gets a lot of attention. In some people’s eyes, it’s basically an animated action movie of that day. The part of the film that matters most to me is the last half-hour of the film. It’s one thing to recount in an emotional and humanistic way this horrible action, but what was most interesting and most intriguing and I think most important was, How did this affect people over the course of their entire lives? I didn’t want to make a recreation and then at the end cut to a photograph of the person that acknowledges that this is a real person. I wanted to hand off in the same way that says, This is an event that weighs heavily on somebody’s life and deserves a full examination. There’s the rest of their lives. And I wanted to remind people at the height of the intensity that these were real people. And so, where those reveals happen was strategic. You’re actually the first person who’s seen that it wasn’t that late into it. Most people say, “You waited such a long time to reveal those people.” It was a balancing act all the way through. I hoped that when the film was done, people wouldn’t be able to remember which parts were archival footage and which parts were animation.

Would you describe this type of animation to the layperson?

Rotoscoping is a technique that is over a hundred years old. You film and edit the scenes in live action; we did it on video where we shot on a Canon C100 camera. When you see somebody walking across the screen holding books, wearing a period 1966 outfit, there is an actor holding those props and wearing that outfit. Because I knew the university wouldn’t allow us to shoot on campus, most of the film is acted out in my backyard about two miles from the university in East Austin.

Were the actors the same as the voice actors?

Yes. There was a while where we tried to cast some celebrities. But we had a hard time explaining the concept to people, and we had no money to offer. So it was going have to be someone who got it and was passionate about it. And that’s why Luke Wilson came onboard as an executive producer very early on: He grew up in Texas, like me, and had heard of the story and was interested.

What animated films were an inspiration to you?

A film that was certainly an inspiration for me was Waltz with Bashir. I saw Ari Folman, the director, pitch that when it was still in its concept stage at Hot Docs in Toronto in 2004. That [film] was like a light bulb—and that’s actually what encouraged me to use animation in my first documentary. But I would say like that the film and the quality of the animation that I take direct inspiration from is Waking Life, by Richard Linklater. And as somebody who lives in Austin, I interned for Linklater 20 years ago, just before he did that film…Rick has made such an impact on the world of independent film since 1991. But creatively the inspiration from Waking Life is because that film is about dreams, and he let this animation embrace its dreamlike quality. There’s a looseness to it, but it’s still tied to humanity because there are actors in live video underneath that animation.

The end scenes, where you have an archive of people coming out in the square and no one is really saying anything, are very moving. It shows what a novel situation it was. 

I appreciate that.  When I saw that footage, I saw something that I had experienced myself on September 12, 2001. I was walking through Lower Manhattan and I witnessed something that I had never seen before, which was thousands of New York City residents on the street with nothing to do, going nowhere in particular, and making eye contact with each other…I think there’s that same sense of, What do we do now?  What can you say in a situation like that? And what can you expect someone else to say to you? I think that expectation was just wiped away.

What was the hardest thing about making this film?

So many things. The very hardest thing was choosing which stories to include and knowing that we were excluding stories and even continuing to collect stories beyond the point of being able to include them and finding things that we wish we could get in there. From the human side, it was definitely just whittling down this massive event and asking people to look backwards 50 years into this most traumatic moment and knowing that some people would be disappointed that their story wasn’t included. From a production standpoint, [the challenge was] convincing producers—not my production team, but financial producers to come aboard. We still haven’t completed our budget. When I pitched this to producers initially, people said to me, “Who’s going to care about this outside of Texas?” But now we have a release in Jerusalem. And we’re playing five [other] cities in Israel.  We’re playing in seven cities in Canada.  Here we are in London.  I’ve screened the film in the Czech Republic, in Australia and New Zealand. It’s screening in Iran in December. It’s screened in South America. It’s actually played more international festivals than domestic festivals.

Has your background in drama helped your storytelling?

I think so. I don’t come to documentary through a kind of classic documentary upbringing. I’ve worked in narrative film and have written screenplays. And I stepped into documentary ten years ago because I felt ready to direct a film, but I didn’t have a script that I loved that I could produce for no money by myself…And I fell in love with telling real stories. There’s a part of me that felt a little silly that I was working so hard to create something out of nothing, and when you look around, there are so many incredible stories waiting to be told.

Tower is currently screening in New York and Los Angeles. This interview can also be found on the IDA website, documentary.org.