A few months ago I joined the team at Bertha Dochouse, helping to programme their amazing array of international documentaries which screen in their dedicated cinema in Bloomsbury, London. It’s a wonderful complement to my university teaching. It’s a privilege to be able to watch so many documentaries from around the world – and connect with the filmmakers who made them.
Here’s a good example of those films: Turtle Rock. Stunningly shot in black and white, this slow cinema voyage takes viewers to Turtle Rock, a remote, mountainous village in China. Filmmaker Xiao Xiao grew up here, and for this sumptuous film he returns to follow the village’s seven families through four seasons.
It’s a simple, physical existence for these Bhuddist bamboo farmers – everything needs to be carried, made, cooked with the simplest of tools. In Turtle Rock, the cinematography is the star: each frame is beautifully composed and a pleasure to see on the big screen.
We sent through some questions for Filmmaker Xiao Xiao, about how he made the film:
1. Can you tell us a bit about how and why you came to make this film?
This documentary derives from my own nostalgia. After I was born, my grandmother and uncle raised me in this village till I was six, of school age. After I went back home with my parents, I returned to the village every year and stayed for a while. Turtle Rock is my hometown spiritually. As time goes by, a lot of changes have taken place there, with more and more modern buildings and facilities, and less and less residence. I strongly felt like preserving some of the images as well as my memories of this place. From 2015, with such motivation, I frequently went back alone to the village and stayed with my uncle’s family for more than two years, filming and recording their lives.
2. Filming in black and white is very striking. Can you discuss your aesthetic approach? Did you have any self-imposed rules while shooting?
This documentary was filmed by the format of black and white, instead of post effect. I have several reasons for shooting it in black and white. There are a lot of similar villages in China. Like this one, along with the process of modernisation and urbanisation, they quickly lost vitality and character – generations of young people have migrated to the cities while agricultural society became grotesque under the “modern constructions”. Secondly, I view the images without colours to be far from the real world, and near to the spiritual reality. Especially among the secular mundane images, I believe black and white represents purer spirituality. And I also hoped that the audience could experience their lives like memories.
3. What kind of equipment did you use to film this?
I used a mini SONY SLR camera because I wanted to minimize the disturbance I brought to my filming objects. I also used a stabilizer to obtain smoother and slower effects.
4. Will you continue to make films about your village, Turtle Rock?
I went back to the village time by time without preplanned schedules or presuppositions. Filming this place has become a “return” to myself, not only in terms of affection, but also a process of tracing the sources of artistic production.
5. This has been described as “slow cinema”. Is that how you would describe it? Was that what you had in mind while you were editing it?
I had in mind a relatively slow cinema before shooting: slow story-telling, and slow moving images. It is because the lives there are “spontaneous” in terms of natural rhythms – people follow the seasons in farming activities and they go by the sun in their daily schedule. It is a slow lifestyle of cycles. Compared to the pace of time and work there, this documentary of
less than two hours is very fast and abridged. Of course when I myself review the work, I find some places could have been “faster”, but I do not intend to revise it. I am rather content with my simple and immature thoughts of my first work without any intention of marketing or commercial gain.
6. What do you hope that audiences in the UK might gain from watching this?
It is a documentary of a lifestyle without targeting any regional audience – I believe it is comprehensible for all, but with very different angles. I remember that during a screening in Sheffield, a British man with a long beard said to me, “It is the same everywhere in the world, people are fond of talking nonsense”.
Turtle Rock is screening at Bertha Dochouse on Sunday, January 26th and Tuesday, 4th February. Check out their Instagram feed here.
Fifteen years ago Morgan Spurlock burst into cinemas with the ultimate adventure in immersive documentary: he spent a month eating McDonald’s. The resulting film, Super Size Me, made him an enduring household name – to this day, my twenty year old students know who he is.
While in the intervening years he has directed and overseen a raft of nonfiction programming, Spurlock hasn’t returned to the world of fast food until recently. In Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken he investigates the dishonesty behind the massive chicken fast food industry. By becoming a chicken shop owner himself, Spurlock shines a light on the endemic cruelties in mass chicken rearing, the shocking way farmers are treated, and how the fast food industry has employed an enormous bag of tricks to fool people into thinking that chicken is a healthy choice.
Not long after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, Spurlock outed himself in a blog as guilty of sexually inappropriate behaviour and part of the #MeToo problem. The resulting furore led to the pulling of the film from the Sundance lineup and the shutting down of his 65-strong production company Warrior Poets.
Two years on, Super Size Me 2 has been picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and Spurlock is back in the public gaze. I spoke to him via FaceTime about the journey he’s been on.
As usual, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: I can’t really think of someone who is so well known based off of one film, in terms of Supersize Me making you into such a household name. Is that both a blessing and a curse? What was it like for you going into this project as Morgan Spurlock?
Morgan Spurlock: The minute you call up, certain people know who you are. Or the minute you make the second phone call they’ll know who you are and will have questions about it. It’s a blessing because it opens a lot of doors; it’s a curse because it closes a lot of doors (laughs). You have to lean into the upside of the doors that are actually opened. I think that I’ve always been able to do what I do because I’m blessed with great field producers who are able to go out and be the boots on the ground and it doesn’t have to be me all the time.
CN: Am wondering at what point this became Super Size Me 2?
MS: We were always going to call this Super Size Me 2. But the whole time we were doing it we just called ourselves Chicken just so that it was never tied to me or the other film in an overt way. But it was always going to be Super Size Me 2.
CN: Why was that? You have done a fair number of films in between. Why this one – obviously it’s the same terrain in terms of fast food but it’s not otherwise at all similar in structure to Super Size Me. So what was your thinking there?
MS: I think cause it is so very much a look into the fast food industry and the impact that’s had on how we eat and how we live. Especially because the door got opened by me getting a letter from Hardees wanting me to come be in their commercial, which I thought was the most ridiculous thing ever.
CN: Did you at any point think “I’m going to spend a month eating chicken”?
MS: I knew I was going to eat a lot of chicken but I knew I didn’t want to do that same type of thing. I knew that just going into a place and just eating the food wasn’t the story. Especially once we got into the greenwashing of it, and understanding the journey was going to show where most meat on the planet comes from. We eat 50 billion chickens a year – how do they get from the egg to your plate? And telling that journey.
I was like a lot of people – I thought if you’re still a farmer in the United States that you are doing something to really survive and do well. You’re somehow working the system in a way that is enabling you to thrive. And I hadn’t really understood the level of indentured servitude these guys are going through.
CN: Looking back at the years since the original film came out, how do you think the appetite for nonfiction storytelling has changed?
MS: Oh my gosh, well Americans finally woke up and realised it was a great way to watch movies and tell stories! It was fantastic. American audiences finally caught up with European audiences and suddenly you could see them on primetime television, thanks to HBO, Netflix and Showtime. There has been this great kind of normalisation and commodification of nonfiction which has been awesome. And I think that people finally saw that these can be as compelling, as entertaining, as rich a tapestry as a scripted project. And that’s been fantastic for filmmakers, period. No matter where you are around the world it’s been fantastic for nonfiction filmmakers. And I think that it continues to grow. We’re in this amazing time for television now where I don’t think there has been better television being made. I don’t think there has been a time where there has been better nonfiction being made. So it is a golden age across the board I feel now.
CN: What are your plans for Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken? I understand the gap that you’ve had and why you’ve had this gap. Are you able to pick up the momentum of where you left off in your plans to tackle the chicken industry?
MS: Well, luckily on the heels of the film opening up we did a pop up of the Holy chicken restaurant in NYC. We had an investor group who came on who wanted to get behind the restaurant and turn them into permanent locations. So the goal is to continue to use the momentum of the film and the momentum of the story to start to open these locations which continue to tell a conversation to folks. The film does a great job of opening the door. These people getting to actually sit in a restaurant and actually meet their chicken farmer and eat a sandwich and understanding in a deeper level where that food is coming from is transformative. So the more that I can slowly roll these out around the country will be amazing. And I think we can still do that.
CN: And what would be your best outcome for this in terms of the chicken industry?
MS: The goal from the beginning and the goal moving forward is if I can create more independent chicken farmers – right now one percent of the chicken we buy in the United States comes from independent chicken farmers – 99 percent comes from these giant mega chicken corporations. So, if I can create one percent more independent chicken farmers; so they are not under the thumb of Tyson, Purdue, Cook Food, Sanderson, then that’s a pretty great accomplishment. So, for me it’s how can I empower more of those guys to not feel stuck in these situations where they are not making a living, not making any money, living hundreds sometimes millions of dollars in debt, then I think we’ll be on the right track.
CN: Finally I wanted to ask you a little bit about what it’s like for you now not having the big production company. What’s it like for you moving now more freely, whether or not you would have liked the circumstances behind which it came about?
MS: Yeah well it’s another one of those things where it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because suddenly, as you said, to not have all that infrastructure and have to deal with the support to make payroll for 65 people every two weeks – that’s a stressful, stressful burden. For that suddenly to be gone is awesome. But at the same time to kind of lose that support system of development, of production, of editorial, so suddenly it goes back to being a one man band…I’m literally back to my roots, what do I want to do, what stories do I want to tell? It’s great but to go from a place where I can chase so many different things at once, it’s hard to kind of go back to thinking I can now only chase one or two things at a time.
CN: Because you are a personal documentary maker, have you thought about doing any kind of personal film around the #MeToo movement?
MS: I’ve been asked by a few different folks about doing that, and it’s something that…you know, I’ve been approached but nothing has made me want to tell that story right now. There are other things I’d rather talk about.
SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! is released on iTunes and On Demand from 9th December 2019
I have learned over the years to be sure to watch anything that London-based producer Simon Chinn works on. From Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, both of which won Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, to the Imposter and Project Nim, he has been instrumental in transforming the feature doc landscape. With his company Lightbox, formed in 2014 with his LA-based cousin Jonathan Chinn, he makes quality docs for a wide range of broadcasters and platforms. Recent projects includes the fascinating series Diagnosis, based on the NYT column, the Harvey Weinstein doc Untouchable, and the gripping Netflix documentary Tell Me Who I Am. Some weeks ago, I spoke to him on the telephone about what it’s like serving so many masters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Tell me about your recent projects.
Simon Chinn: Our Weinstein doc was a BBC Two commission that we then enlarged with other investment. We got private investment from someone who is actively getting into the film and television business. That was an interesting hybrid project, which so many of these feature docs can be, where it’s literally trying to sort of make what is very traditional television money work alongside more film money, which is based on theatrical sales projections and presales. It’s a challenging thing to do, for sure….The budget on the Weinstein doc was in excess of a million pounds – the BBC put a third in. They are getting something they couldn’t get if we didn’t broker in that way.
CN: Is it safe to say that for the quality and the ambition of the nonfiction slate that you are developing, a BBC commission is never going to cover the whole budget?
SC: I wouldn’t say that necessarily. There are projects that we could do with the BBC fully funding. I wouldn’t discount that. But not the feature docs, not the really premium documentaries that we do. But we are exploring other kinds of ideas – probably more series ideas. That model has worked well for plenty of companies. Look at someone like The Garden, those rig shows that they make, absolutely great and they make them essentially on a UK terrestrial license fee. They might not make anything on production but they do very very well on the back end. I think that is a model that we would certainly not discount and are actually exploring.
CN: How do you find that the BBC presents itself as different from Netflix?
SC: The BBC looks at places like Netflix and Amazon and sees – like many of us consumers see – receptacles of content libraries. We see how much content they are making. And to some extent how uncurated it can sometimes feel. And I suppose the broadcasters that are much more in the business of curation, that are steeped in that ethos and developing projects carefully with producers, shaping them for their audiences and all of that, it does feel like a different offering to what you often imagine is going on in the sort of big, slightly impersonal places where they are just acquiring and financing huge amount of content. I suppose the problem with that rhetoric is that it doesn’t quite check out based on experience. We work a lot with the premium documentary group at Netflix, run by Lisa Nishimura and executives like Kate Townsend; these guys are actually very smart filmmakers in their own right. My experience on the last two projects we have done with them is that they have absolutely been vital creatively. They have been incredibly hands on in a positive way. I am honestly saying that. There are many broadcaster experiences I have had where I sort of think the executives can sometimes make the films or the programmes worse, but I have not had that experience with Netflix. Netflix is many things; that’s the point. Much like there are many different parts of the BBC. Some of them are tiny bit more cookie cutter or doing things in so much volume that they haven’t got the bandwidth to actually shape anything. But that hasn’t been my experience.
The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them?
CN: Where does public service fit in?
SC: The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them? They do have a tradition of working closely with programme makers and filmmakers to shape their content. And that’s great – and I think there are some very smart executives at the BBC. I actually think that the offering that they should be making to producers is arguably more of a commercial offering. Because the truth of the matter is that because of the terms of trade and because of their ability to co-produce, their involvement from a commercial point of view in the Weinstein project was great. They put up a third of the budget; they took a small piece of the back end – the terms of trade legislate against them doing anything different. And it was very helpful. They put up a very good chunk of the license fee, and their branding is all over it and they felt that they had significant editorial input, which was not unhelpful. So all good then. The point is that generally the terms of trade make British broadcasters very attractive as co producing partners.
CN: Isn’t the Weinstein model how Storyville has been acting for years?
SC: Yes, the difference is that for the Weinstein model, the BBC put up a third of a million pound budget – that’s not to be sniffed at (and is more than Storyville budgets). The BBC linear offering has things going for it that Netflix doesn’t. Stuff can really hit on Netflix but also stuff can get lost. Not to say that that isn’t true of the BBC. But if they want to make noise about something they can do so in a way that perhaps Netflix finds sometimes difficult.
CN: What is your ideal kind of production deal these days?
SC: There is no ideal; it’s all different. There are advantages and disadvantages to every model. My ideal production is one where we have enough funds to do what we want to do where we can also make our margins, and we are completely creatively aligned with the buyers. Certainly there are places I can think of where that’s the case. Certainly Nat Geo is a great example of a buyer we have loved working with for all these reasons.
Beautifully shot and multilayered, the new documentary Mother centres on a care home in Thailand, which provides intensive one-on-one 24 hour care for 14 Western dementia patients. At the heart of the film is Pomm, who we see lovingly doting on Alzehimer’s sufferer Elisabeth. But Pomm’s reality is that at the same time she looks after her patient, she is always thinking of her three children, who live many hours away. I recently spoke over the phone with the film’s director Kirstof Bilsen, about the themes of the film, and how he came to make a film set so far from his native Belgium.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me a bit about its origins?
Kristof Bilsen: I am always looking for stories that are micro but work on a macro level too. So far I focus on people stuck in a certain reality. In Elephant’s Dream it was people in a post colonial situation, and public sectors workers stuck in a job which didn’t exist. With this film it was to do with my mother; it was very personal. She was suffering a combination of dementia, though not literally Alzheimer’s, for quite a lot of time. We lost her this spring. She was going downhill for many years. Eventually we felt there was a point of no return coming: what would be the best for Mom? Would it be informal care at home? An old-people’s home, care centre? If so what would then be the consequences?
So yes, I threw myself into researching various approaches to elderly care and one of them was thinking “beyond” borders. In my research I found out about this place in Northern Thailand, where only 14 patients get 24/7 care by means of 3 caregivers per patient who do a rota. We initially went there for a two week research trip, where I made a seven minute short, which was really a portrait of place. But while researching and shooting that short I found and fell in love with Pomm. I mainly fell in love with her and Elisabeth because I mainly saw a grandmother and a child rather than a Thai woman and a patient, or a ‘guest’ as they call them. That for me was revelatory as I thought ‘that could be a story’. She could be a character. Without really knowing her back story, it was just the dynamic and bond that struck me as a good way into the story.
CN: Did you know going in that you would focus so much on Pomm and what’s it like to be a mother away from her children?
KB: What I prefer most in making documentary is to trust the process. A story leads you where you need to be. In the case of Pomm that was really key to the film. Pomm quite soon started talking about her children, started talking about what she had to cope with as a single mother. And sort of almost gently diverted me to this is actually the story that we are telling. To really be humble to the process.
CN: We also follow the story of Maya, who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s, and is being moved by her family to Thailand. How did you begin to incorporate Maya’s storyline?
The Alzheimer’s patients are at a certain stage quite down the line. You are limited to what you can film..How much can you empathise? The urge for me was to ideally follow a patient coming from Europe or specifically from Switzerland. It was serendipity because we were gently warned ‘well if want to film a patient, just be aware that it is a very stressful time’. It’s very problematic for a family to allow someone to film like that. They are stigmatised, get a lot of judgements from people in the West, you could say the Christian guilt thing – how do you dare to outsource someone all the way out to Thailand? And then suddenly there was this email coming from the man running the centre, who said ‘well actually you might be lucky, there is this family who will have their wife/mother – Maya – going there. And they are happy to meet you in theory’. So I went to Zurich and met them. Fortunately I had the 7 minute short I could show them, so they at least had a flavour of what I was up to. Plus I was very upfront about my own messy situation – we have our mother, and we are struggling and it’s huge taboo when it’s no longer home care. It was just being very up front and honest with them, and they were like let’s go on the journey together.
CN: How do you go about getting access to patients with dementia who can’t give informed consent?
KB: Well it was quite straightforward, being very transparent and common sense. That is my responsibility as a filmmaker in terms of representation. But then also for the organisation themselves, they had in the past a bit of media attention, specifically in Germany and Switzerland, and some radio pieces here and there, so they know what media can and cannot do. They were themselves quite confident in terms of the situation. But in terms of the patients it was always just a matter of being very clear to the family members – we are filming your beloved mother for example, in the case of Elisabeth – are you okay with us filming – and they would write informed consent.
CN: Did Maya notice your presence at all?
She did. But it was always a mystery how much. It’s interesting because what filming does and what editing does is you really empathise with them – with Maya in the film. Sometimes I feel that it might make them seem more conscious than they are, in the film, on the filmic frame, than in reality.
CN: Do you mean it makes it look like there is more cognitively going on than there is?
Yes, yes. Just because we do the drama shots – you see them leaving and the reactions of Maya. It’s all true but there is at the same time the deep mystery of how conscious are Alzheimer’s patients. How aware are they of the dynamics? I don’t mind that it adds to the empathy. We would also partake in giving care, that was part of the filming process.
CN: How long did it take you to film this?
KB: For me it’s really important that I take my time, that it’s a mixture of poetical and observational but also that the characters get the agency they deserve…So I think I really needed time to tell the story properly – you can’t do it in half a year. Filming technically started in fall 2016 and ended spring 2018. And then there was an editing process of four months. In total we did three trips. It’s not like there’s an incredibly amount of rushes – it felt quite sane. We shot about 50-60 hours, which allowed us to really be with them and be with Pomm, and be with her.
CN: What is your ideal care scenario?
KB: Ideally there really would be a world where there is space and time to give care. So if you give home care you would be supported by nurses that you know and that are affordable and you can really be a team. And you still keep a certain sense of privacy of your family, but you are also are a community. That is an ideal scenario – not an exhaustion route for the beloved partner or children to give care and not be able to talk about it.
CN: What are you hoping people will take away from the film?
KB: I would say a sense of empathy, open to discussion, to see that it’s not something that you need to hide away from – it’s just the continuum of life. We’re also expecting a little one, a little daughter in February. We are going to childcare places and I’m seeing children and toddlers. And the image of someone being so dependent is an image very familiar to me when I see people with dementia or Alzheimers, or more specfically my mother in the weeks before she passed away, that I still had the honour to feed her. For a lot of people that is unimaginable – feeding your parents? Now for me that taboo is gone – I am familiar with that concept. I would like for people to be much more open and kind to the continuum of life.
Mother is playing this week at Bertha Dochouse and JW3 Finchley in October. See Mother website for trailer and full list of screenings.
In its 26 years, Sheffield Doc/Fest has steadily put on weight, expanding and maturing into a festival that tries to offer a little something for everyone interested in the art of nonfiction storytelling. Having attended every year but one since 1997, I have enjoyed a long relationship with the festival. I’m currently an Advisory Board Member, and I write some of the film copy; in years past I also ran the festival’s now defunct daily newspaper, helped to program, and produced a number of panels. I have easily watched more than 1,000 Doc/Fest films over the years, and I am a better person for it.
This year’s Doc/Fest, entitled Ways of Seeing, seemed to unfurl in stages over its six days, putting on different faces for its nearly 3,500 delegates from 59 countries. I attended over the weekend, which was dominated by young, aspiring filmmakers attending packed-out screenings. They had a chance to worship at the altar of Werner Herzog, looking back on his career and discussing his latest film, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. Asif Kapadia gave a masterclass for his latest film, Diego Maradona, which opened the festival. Nick Broomfield was also in attendance with his story of Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne, whose lives intersected with Broomfield’s as a young man. Paul Greengrass was also on hand to discuss how docs have influenced his career as a feature film director.
Many of the screenings generated a buzz. I heard the most rapturous feedback for For Sama, which added the Sheffield Doc/Fest Audience Award to its growing number of awards. Jeanie Finlay, who, as a northerner, lives close to Sheffield, had two well received films in the program: Seahorse, which tells the story of a man giving birth, and Game of Thrones: The Last Watch.
By midday Monday, when I had to return to London, Doc/Fest had morphed into the British television event that has always been at its core. Industry execs and decision-makers travelled north by train to participate in panel discussions and pitching forums. The frenetic MeetMarket, now in its 15th year, hosted 62 projects, whose makers speed-dated their way through an assembly of potential funders, broadcasters and consultants. Industry talks included sessions on how to tell new climate stories, repurposing celebrities for new projects, commissioning priorities across British broadcasting, the surge in podcasting and short-term video, directors’ well-being, and a case study of Michael Apted’s Up Series, the latest installment of which, 63-Up, broadcast the previous week on ITV (see here for an interview in Documentary with Apted for a previous Up edition).
As always these days, the massive growth in the streaming industry loomed large over talks about the state of British documentary. In a fascinating session on developing policy frameworks for feature docs, producer Elhum Shakerifar noted how difficult it is to get feature docs seen that aren’t celebrity-driven. She complained of the Netflix effect, where documentary directors develop unrealistic expectations of their film’s potential. “People hear of others receiving $1.2 million for their film,” she said. “It’s incredibly disruptive when you are making long-term observational documentaries that don’t get sold to Netflix, and maybe never will. And maybe you know that, but nobody else believes it. It’s really hard because one of the things you are doing is managing everybody’s expectations, while keeping everything stable and ethical at the same time. So for me the Netflix effect is this dream thing that has been waved in front of filmmakers, and is really making it difficult as a producer to manage expectations.”
Fellow panelist and producer Christo Hird agreed, adding that documentaries are valuable in many ways but people need to understand that they are not profitable. The Doc Society’s Lisa Marie Russo said that part of the problem with training documentary producers is that “Documentary people can come from anywhere; fiction people usually work their way up the food chain.” The panel was trying to formulate some policy recommendations for feature documentary in the wake of Whicker’s Foundation research, showing that 65 percent of feature doc producers’ time is unpaid. The panel’s chair, Steve Presence, is heading up a UK government-funded research project into British feature docs, which is running its own survey of the state of play.
While I enjoyed dipping into the festival film program, and industry sessions, my goal this year was to really experience Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities, its ever-expanding platform for nonfiction interactive and immersive artworks. Its popularity over the last few years has often outpaced the ability of the festival to meet demand, and last year I managed to try out only a couple of VR projects, losing out on the more popular ones to attendees with sharper elbows.
Clutching my press pass, I was able to sample the projects at both Alternate Realities sites before they opened to the public. At the Hallam Performance Lab’s VR Cinema, a dozen chairs were grouped in a circle, each equipped with VR headsets, headphones and a dedicated festival volunteer. Twelve curated projects under the banner of Converging Sensibilities highlighted racial injustice and modernism.
I began with 4 Feet: Blind Date, and was completely taken into a world where I sat beside “Juana,” a wheelchair-bound teenage girl as she pushed back against her mum at the breakfast table and foraged ahead on a blind date, determined to explore her sexuality. The camera places us in next to Juana, as it jumps back and forth in time between her awkward date with Felipe, and the days leading up to it. I was only halfway through it when I started to wonder about its placement in a documentary festival, as it was clearly a scripted drama, albeit one steeped in realism. Its lead writer, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, is a wheelchair-user, and the entire project (this is the first in a series of VR films about “Juana” ) came about as a result of a TED Talk she gave. Writing about it several weeks later, I’m struck by how clearly I remember the film, and felt a part of Juana’s world, for a short time.
I also really enjoyed Nyasha Kadandara’s Le Lac, from the Climate and Care strand of the VR cinema, which won the Digital Narrative Award. In ten minutes it tells the story of the impact OF the massive shrinking of Lake Chad, from the perspective of the lake itself.
The other project that really stayed with me from the VR cinema is Roger Ross Williams’ Traveling While Black. A beautifully constructed and multilayered experience, made for New York Times’ OpDocs (the 300th in the strand), it tells the story of The Green Book. Beginning in an empty cinema, scene by scene takes us closer and closer to the experience, until the film culminates with us sitting across from Tamir Rice’s mother, as she is sympathetically quizzed about the police murder of her son. There were so many nice touches throughout, including the wall of the DC diner that serves as the set giving way to a dramatized past, actors depicting the interviewees telling their stories. Artful, visceral and heartbreaking, it’s hard to imagine a 20 minutes better spent for anyone interested in the African American experience.
While the VR cinema was straightforward 360-degree video with headsets, the second location for the Alternate Realities was much more complicated and sometimes more about the form than the storytelling. The Subconscious Sensibilities collection consisted of 14 multidisciplinary installations that invited users to “showcase the stories of others and explore the elusive story of the self.” A few of these, sampled briefly, I just didn’t get. Among them was Algorithmic Perfumery, which asked a lot of questions via a device to produce a small perfume bottle with an original scent for every visitor. Mine came out smelling strongly of apple, with little explanation. Others I spoke to shared my bewilderment—and annoyance at how many questions it has asked. But the project won the Audience Award, so clearly hit its mark among many of the delegates delighted with their small bottles. I was similarly underwhelmed by To Call a Horse a Deer, a game that calls for you to lie quickly, which I immediately felt too old and too honest to do. Both projects I felt strayed too much from the theme of nonfiction storytelling.
Aftermath: Euromaiden promised to take you to the heart of a deadly protest in Independence Square, Kiev. Through the VR headset I wandered through the Square and its environs, all eerily deserted. It was a strange set-up for a project describing massive crowds and a deadly protest, and while there was archive to engage with that helped bring it to life, the impression I am left with is of that quiet emptiness.
I had better luck with the thoroughly engrossing Accused #2: Walter Sisulu, which capitalizes on 256 hours of audio from the early 1960s trial that ended with Nelson Mandela, Sisulu and eight other activists receiving sentences of life imprisonment. Pairing audio sequences with black-and-white animation, the experience succeeds in immersing us in this moment in history and shining a light on the Sisulu’s heroism, whose life played out in the shadow of Mandela. I was also charmed by the storytelling in My Mother’s Kitchen, through which you can hear eight LGBTQI+ people discuss childhood memories through the lens of the layout of their respective mother’s kitchen.
My favorite of the Subconscious Sensibilities was Darren Emerson’s Common Ground, which powerfully and innovatively tells the story of the largest housing estate in Europe, the Aylesbury Estate, now being cleared to make way for developers. In an early gripping sequence, the idealistic plans for the community merge with animated photos of the reality, with a cogent explanation of what went wrong in the design. After that, a number of the residents told their sometimes harrowing stories, bringing us into their flats. I was able to engage by grasping photos, pressing elevator buttons, and spraying graffitti on the walls of the stairwells. The video archive, residents’ testimonials and expert interviews effectively intermingled to tell a story that kept me completely engaged for the entire 30 minutes. Common Ground really complemented the themes of Push, playing in the festival program, an alarming, masterfully made film by Fredrik Gertten about the global housing crisis.
Finally, the winner of the Best Digital Experience Award, Echo, very effectively brought home how easily it is to “deep fake.” After my face was scanned, and I chose someone’s story to tell, I watched on a large screen as the person’s face as they told their story, changed into my own—alarming and sinister as it’s all too easy to imagine the technology in the hands of the Dark Web. (See my Instagram film of it here).
The takeaway from my four hours of Alternate Realities underscored what I already felt about forms of immersion and documentary. Done well, and with a strong story at their heart, they are immensely powerful, delivering long-lasting impressions. There is a lot of controversy around describing VR as an empathy machine, but I do believe that it can go further at putting ourselves in others’ shoes. There is a striking sequence in Greg Barker’s The Final Year, where UN Ambassador Samantha Power emerges from a UN showcase having just viewed Clouds Over Sidra. “Do you have 15 minutes?” she asks the ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “They’ll put a pair of glasses on you and take you into the Za’atari refugee camp.” As the ambassador begins to walk away from her, she pulls him back and says, “Seriously, if you do nothing else that I ever ask you to do, please do this thing. It’s amazing.”
Indeed 360 video experiences like Clouds Over Sidra can immediately appeal across a wide variety of ages and cultures. Once I had my 12-year-old watch it with a VR headset, which he wordlessly handed back to me afterwards. But two years later I overheard him describing it in detail to a friend, to my immense gratification. Projects like Traveling While Black can convey a lot of information and leave a lasting impression in a short amount of time through the relatively simple medium of 360-degree viewing. I can envision its increasing use in classrooms as a way to make an impact quickly and rise above the noise.
Doc/Fest just announced a new festival director: Cintia Gill. Elizabeth McIntyre stepped down shortly after last year’s festival, with interim director Melanie Iredale steering this year’s edition.
Over the last decade producer Elhum Shakerifar has established herself as a vital voice in the world of international documentary, working with a range of directors on highly acclaimed films, including A Syrian Love Story and Almost Heaven. She has won numerous awards including the 2016 BFI Vision award and the 2017 Women in Film & TV’s BBC Factual Award; she was also named one of Screen International’s 2018 #Brit50 Producers on the Rise. As she explains below, Elhum is an outspoken advocate of the need to challenge mainstream narrative and to bring quieter voices to the big screen. I sent Elhum a number of questions about her work – her written answers are printed here in full.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be a documentary producer?
I have been making films for about 10 years and came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in a community centre with unaccompanied minors (young refugees who are separated from their families).
The first film I produced was about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara – The Runner (2015) by Saeed Taji Farouky. I actually became involved in the film out of sheer surprise that I didn’t know anything about The Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is the last colony in Africa, under Moroccan occupation since 1975. I thought that making a film about a territory most people have never heard of – by design – would be the most challenging part of the equation. But I was wrong – it was showing the finished film that was a bigger problem. We were told informally several times that the film “couldn’t possibly be screened”, some screenings were complicated by complaints from the Moroccan embassy, etc. This first experience already underlined that the biggest challenge is being seen and being understood on your own terms – whether as filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, or filmmakers making work that challenges the mainstream understanding of things, which is dictated by the loudest voices.
Making The Runner was in many ways my baptism of fire. I thought that things should be simpler after all the learning of that experience – how wrong I was! I have since produced films all over the world – in Yemen, in Nepal, in Syria, in Japan, in the UK. They each have their distinct worlds, issues and surprises. The one thing that unites all of my work, I believe, is that I am interested in the quieter voice, the untold side of the story. And sadly, it has not become easier to do that work – which really says something about the world we live in.
How do you decide to take on a project? What do you look for in stories? Can you give some examples?
I only work on films that mean something to me – there needs to be a strong personal reason and drive to getting involved in a film, because that determination will be key in carrying you through from conception to the finish line, from the good days to the bad. The creative process is a vulnerable one, and it is important to know why you are engaging in that space, even if just for yourself.
I would say that I’m a director’s producer – I work with people whose vision I understand, admire and want to bring to fruition. Shared vision and teamwork enables the strongest films to be made – teams make films. And so it is also important to work with people who you can have a cup of tea or an ice cream with and really talk things through, talk things out.
For example, Sean McAllister, who I have now made three films with, had been filming in Syria for some time when we first met. The footage he showed me was unlike anything I had seen coming out of the country, and his relationship with the family was intense, direct, and also complicated – just like human relationships really are. I respected this directness and honesty, and it is something that I value in our relationship as collaborators as well.
How has the documentary industry changed over the years you have been working? Is it easier or more difficult to get your films made? How has distribution changed?
I would say that reality TV and celebrity documentary biopics have all but destroyed the mainstream understanding of documentary, and have certainly changed the dynamic of making non-fiction. The prominence of these films have also made variety in documentary filmmaking styles difficult – the space for creativity, to stray from format and ‘known’ values much more challenging. The space for newer voices to emerge on their own terms is essentially impossible without external support (read: trust fund) to enable years of unpaid and never adequately funded work.
The documentaries I have made to date have all been fairly unknown entities at the start of the process. I enjoy the layered space of the documentary journey, rather than contrived formats where you know what you’re going to do and say from the beginning. In the absence of partners who will get involved early and share a creative risk with you, to really develop documentary work, I would say that no: things are not getting easier.
I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms?
Finally, I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms? To my mind, the art of non-fiction filmmaking is in holding a mirror up to the world. There is undeniable value in longitudinal, artistic, unexpected, creative, divergent and diverse approaches. We must see things from different perspectives to better understand the world, but also to challenge ourselves. If we valued the variety of mirrors, of voices and the range that non-fiction can represent – we would be living in a very different world today.
What are the biggest challenges for the films you produce? Do women face particular challenges?
There is a vulnerability to making films that is seldom talked about, and that makes every film into a distinct struggle – creatively and financially. As an independent producer, it is a challenge to take the risk of jumping into a film, time and again – in knowledge that you will be carrying that risk alone for a long time before anyone else shoulders it with you.
My biggest challenge right now is understanding how we are going to challenge the industry’s in-built elitism. How can I keep – ethically, and realistically – producing so called ‘diverse’ filmmakers, in particular people who do not come from an affluent background? How can we possibly expect people with no fall back to take on the level of risk and uncertainty that a documentary requires? How can I ensure that people don’t feel more disempowered by the status quo, when it is exactly these voices that I want to hear? There is some good work being done out there, but I have been struggling with this question a lot recently – I don’t need any more training, accolades or schemes – I need cash funding to pay highly competent people properly.
Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
And yes – women face particular challenges, most importantly to my mind, of not being taken seriously. When I first started working in the industry, people always assumed “Elhum” was a man’s name– sometimes to the point of telling me “no, I’m waiting for someone else”. I have been asked on numerous occasions whether I would like for a male colleague to corroborate my decision. I have been asked by Sales Agents whether I am dating filmmakers whose work I produce. I am currently developing work with a male and female co-directing team – nine times out of ten, people pivot to talk to the man to ask questions about the film, regardless of who had been speaking in the first place. The inability to dissociate women’s gender from their work is a burden placed on women by others. There is great work being done and some good spokespeople but let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
Can you discuss one of the projects you are most proud of, and why?
I am proud of all the films I have produced – the (often long) journeys of making them really are woven into my life, and I sometimes revisit them like I might old photo albums. The people in the films we’ve made become like distant relatives – you share some sort of genetic information and oscillate in and out of contact depending on the order of the world.
A good recent example, however, would be Island by Steven Eastwood. Island follows four individuals to the end of their lives, including one, Alan, who you see breathing until he doesn’t breathe anymore. When I first met Steven, I was already juggling quite a lot and certainly wasn’t planning of getting involved in another film, but the visceral connection I had to his idea of giving an image to death – a reality that we all too often turn away from – was something I had to listen to. I truly believe Island to be a film of distinct, bold beauty. I have seen it countless times, but it still mesmerises me, as if it had its own magnetic field. I am incredibly proud of having produced it, and I am moved every time it is screened. I am proud to know that it is a film that has challenged and helped many people reflect on death and dying – we still receive emails and messages to this effect, particularly from people as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one, or reflect on the death of someone close. Challenging the silence around death was important to me on a personal level, but I am also proud of the relationships we build with the hospice where the film was shot (Mountbatten, on the Isle of Wight), with the families of the beautiful individuals in the film. We are currently developing pilot toolkits for the film to be used for training NHS junior doctors and nurses – this was a tangential outcome, but really underlines how far a film can travel when a story is told with intent.
How many projects do you have on the go at the moment, and what work of yours can we look forward to seeing soon?
Making creative documentaries is an all encompassing, all consuming reality. Whilst you might develop several ideas at once, I have learnt (the hard way!) that it’s too much to be involved in full production of too many films at once. You never known how long a film might take – A Syrian Love Story ended up being made over six years; Even When I Fall over seven. And once the film is finished – its festival journey, distribution, future…the full span of a film’s life is long. When you make documentaries, you’re also working with real human beings, whose life you have depicted in a moment in time, but the relationship exists far beyond the film. Does your responsibility to that representation ever end?
At the moment, I am developing a few exciting projects with emerging directors Ana Naomi de Sousa and Omar El-Khairy, as well as working on new ideas with Steven Eastwood, and Sean McAllister, which I look forward to sharing more information about in due course. I am currently putting finishing touches on a film called Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, which reflects on forcible disappearance in Syria through the prism of families searching for their loved ones. We began making the film five years ago, after Father Paolo, the subject of a film we were making at the time, was forcibly disappeared in Raqqa. We still have no concrete or reliable information of Paolo’s fate, though the Italian press have recently been reporting on new evidence that would suggest he was killed shortly after he was disappeared. The film depicts his sister Machi’s search for him, alongside that of Noura Ghazi, lawyer and wife of Syrian Creative Commons developer and hacker Bassel Safadi, who disappeared in 2014.
On the curation side, this July will see the return of Shubbak, the festival of contemporary Arab culture, for which I have once again curated the film programme at the Barbican (it runs 3-7th July) around the thematic of generational change in an exciting programme of films from Algeria to Tunisia, and a focus on Arab-British directors, a hyphenated identity that is rarely discussed in these terms, which is in itself quite interesting.
How do you think the industry will change in the next few years?
I don’t know, but one thing I hope for is greater support for producers. Receiving the BFI Vision Award in 2016 was a game-changer for me – it gave me an insight into what working with a secure overhead could be like, it enabled me to develop new work from scratch and so to champion projects that were too malleable and raw to be pitched to funders before being more fully developed. Essentially: to be supported to take risks. It also positioned me amongst my peers – most of whom work with fiction exclusively – which also gave me a lot of insights into the bigger picture, broader industry. The way that I see it, documentary hardly has a place at the table.
I also think that there is a discussion around mental health that needs to be had in relation to both creative processes, and the industry. I found this recent Filmmaker Magazine article “Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession” painfully pertinent, and have seldom seen this addressed in a meaningful way. There are so many complex questions that need to be discussed, that would challenge the reality of this profession as a particularly lonely and complex space. Should independent producers be supported to be more mobile and visible in a dense and competitive international space? When do you pay for someone’s time – taking part in panels, hosting events, imparting wisdom in other ways? Should there be budget lines for therapy worked into complex projects? Shouldn’t the ‘aftercare’ for subjects of complex films be the responsibility of all film partners, and not just the filmmakers? I could go on. Rebecca Day is doing interesting work in this space, having recently set up Film in Mind and offering tailored therapeutic workshops, support and consultancy.
I know you also do an impressive amount of work outside of producing creative documentaries, including film programming, translation and publishing. What underpins all the work that you do, and does your other work inform your doc producing?
I would say that all my work looks to challenge a mainstream narrative. In the film world, I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed. I crossed into distribution space after producing A Syrian Love Story and realising that if nobody inherently saw the ‘value’ of the film, that we would have to create the conditions for it to be understood – our self-devised release strategy enabled a reach of over two million people in the UK in the month of release alone.
Perhaps the film’s framing and visibility was so important to me because I had spent a decade working in a community centre with young refugees – in the years directly following the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. I think that all the different hats and spaces I’ve occupied – from translating Persian poetry, to producing photography (and even once upon a time, a band!) – have contributed to how I understand the world, and to the work I am doing today.
I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed.
I think there is real value in this kind of cross pollination, and don’t believe that everything needs to necessarily follow a certain pattern or format. I remember walking around Paris’s empty streets on a hot August day (I grew up in Paris), wondering what I should do after school. I was drawn to the postcards outside a bookstore – one was a stunning piece of Arabic calligraphy, in brilliant blue. Its meaning was a saying by Lao Tseu “Le parfait voyageur ne sait pas où il va” – meaning, a good traveller doesn’t know where they are headed.That postcard (by an Iraqi calligrapher called Hassan Massoudy) has been up on my wall ever since. I interpreted it then as having the confidence to not always know the exact answers. This doesn’t mean not having plans or goals, but being open to enjoy the journeys that life takes you on, to see the opportunities as they present themselves. Similarly, Rebecca Solnit has written about getting lost in a way that reminds me of the creative process. (Apart from the fact that I have a terrible sense of direction ) I think it says a lot about why I make the films I make.
You can learn more about Elhum’s work on www.hakawati.co.uk. Shubbak’s film programme runs 3-7th July at Barbican – for more info about the line up, and the whole festival, see https://shubbak.co.uk
Filmmaker and single mum Victoria Mapplebeck was nearing completion of her BAFTA-winning film Missed Call, when a routine mammogram revealed she had breast cancer. Naturally, she began filming, using her smartphone to chronicle life after the diagnosis, as she undergoes chemo and months of uncertainty, living alongside her teenage son Jim. Her short film The Waiting Room has just launched on the Guardian website. A VR project with the same title will premier in the autumn. Together they lay bare the reality of living through a cancer diagnosis and treatment in sometimes shockingly intimate detail.
My interview with Victoria has been condensed for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: How did you have the wherewhithal to start filming so early on in your diagnosis?
Victoria Mapplebeck: It helped that I had done two smartphone shorts (Missed Call, and its predecessor 160 Characters). I had been filming with Missed Call relatively recently, so I was in the habit of continually filming with my iPhone X; I would have found it a much bigger leap if I hadn’t made a film for a few years. I think I also knew from Missed Call that there’s something about scrutinizing the hell out of difficult stuff that I find helps. It maybe doesn’t help everybody but it helps me. It’s almost like it brings emotional dramas into closeup and puts it at a distance at the same time.
CN: You seemed to cope well with difficult news. Is one part of your mind always being the director even when a doctor is telling you it has spread to your lymph nodes?
VM: Yes, I remember coming out of that session with my oncologist and it being difficult to hear – because when it becomes lymph positive it means you are in the firing line for chemo, particularly since mine was a grade III. I knew as he was telling me this. I was hearing this at one level – in the VR piece you can hear my anxiety. So you have almost this dual experience – feeling it as a patient as he is telling me, but also knowing that it is film gold in the language he is using. This is a classic filmmaker moment: feeling the personal and very real impact of a cancer diagnosis , but also knowing that the way it has been delivered to you, will make for a really strong sequence. I remember coming out from that appointment and realising that I couldn’t find the audio recording. I had done it on one of those voice memo apps and it wasn’t showing up. And it was one of those things where it had gone into the cloud and had taken a while to show in the phone app. And I sat in the waiting room weeping because I thought I had lost the audio. Rather than weeping because, bloody hell, it was bad news and I was going to have to do chemo (laughing). You know you are a filmmaker when you’re more upset by losing the material than hearing that you have to do chemo!
CN: You looked very alone. You talk to people on the phone but we don’t see anyone other than your son Jim. Were you as alone as you appear to be?
VM: I decided I was going to do all of the consultations on my own. My mum and friends would happily have come with me. But I think it’s quite hard to have somebody there with you. Having support from friends and family can really help at times but dealing with their worries and emotions can also add to the stress of the experience. And the funny thing was – it sounds sentimental to say the camera was a companion – but the distraction of filming seemed to help. If I had people with me I don’t think I would have filmed as much.
I sat in the waiting room weeping because I thought I had lost the audio…You know you are a filmmaker when you’re more upset by losing the material than hearing that you have to do chemotherapy.
I remember people saying ‘oh you’re so brave to film it’. But I knew if I was really low, I didn’t have the energy to film and I would feel worse. I think people are also often surprised by how much a gallows sense of humour helps you get through some of the toughest parts of treatment. I remember the first day – because I really did suffer with the sickness. It’s like dealing with your worst hangover times 100. You sort of feel it coming on and then I was vomiting for hours. I texted my closest friend Glen – who you hear in the film on various voicemails – he was really supportive throughout. I texted him ‘oh it’s started, I’ve started vomiting’ . He texted back, ‘are you filming it?’ and I said ‘yes of course!’
CN: Can you describe your different ambitions for the film vs the VR project?
VM: The film is much more about the fallout of cancer in the domestic space in terms of myself and Jim and family life. Particularly the kind of impact it had in terms of my relationship with Jim and what it must have been like as a young person dealing with that. The VR piece touches on that a bit – I use the audio conversations with Jim for that as well – but the VR piece is a lot more about cancer in the clinical setting. The conversation with the consultants feature more. I use the medical imaging in both films but I don’t think they work anything like as powerfully in 2D as 3D.
CN: What’s it like seeing yourself having a mammogram?
VM: I did actually go with the shot which gave me slightly more privacy because it was one from behind! Trust me there was one that just left nothing to be imagined. I think I thought to myself you know, pretty much all women are having these post 50. Everybody complains about them and hates them. Menopause is affecting 50% of the population and yet we don’t feel able to talk about it. And that’s something that hits breast cancer women. If they’re not menopausal – which I wasn’t – you get this chemically induced menopause which is much more severe. If I make a longer version of the film I think I definitely want to include the challenges women living with breast cancer face once they’ve completed their first stage of treatment and attempt to get back to normal. Health-wise you never are really what you were before you were diagnosed. And I think there’s an expectation that you will be, and that you will just go through all these big treatments and get through it and then everything will be as it was. And it isn’t really like that, life is never quite as it was before. Breast cancer hugely changes your identity, but I don’t want to be completely defined by it. Scrutinising my experience of cancer in such forensic detail has been liberating in some ways but I’m now ready to move on to new challenges. I don’t feel like a ‘cancer survivor’ or a ‘warrior’ or very brave … I’m just very glad to be on the other side of it when so many people don’t make it that far. We will all encounter illness and death at some point in our lives, and yet we struggle to find the language to deal with it. My film begins with a very personal journey but as cancer affects one in two of us over the course of a lifetime, I really hope that it might be useful for anyone whose lives have been touched by cancer.
Hot on the heels of their Emmy award-winning documentary Mosul, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil have delivered another masterful foray into the dark side of human behaviour. On the President’s Orders takes viewers to the Philippines where President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has led police to murder thousands of drug users and dealers. Arriving to embed themselves with a police force in Caloocan just as Duterte pledges a killing moratorium driving the violence underground, Jones and Sarbil’s film is an astonishingly framed narrative which manages to tell a story full of menace and intrigue. In the lead up to their festival run, before it airs on PBS, BBC Storyville and Arte France, I sat down with the filmmaking partners to discuss how they made it. This has been condensed for length and clarity:
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me how you came to this story?
James Jones: Yes, we were finishing Mosul together and thinking what story we wanted to do and which subject might play to our strengths. I think we had both been aware of the mass executions in the Phillipines. We’d seen some great photojournalism. Basically we went out to Manila to try to get access to the cops. A lot of the coverage had been quite formulaic – dead bodies in the street and sobbing families. We didn’t really get under the skin of it, understand who was doing the killing, the rationale behind the murder. We wanted to see it from the police’s perspective – not sympathising with it but understanding how they could justify this mass murder. And so we showed up in Caloocan which is the hot spot. And Duterte the President had had to basically pause the drugs war and say ‘we’re going to clean it up’. So we actually had very little faith that they were going to give us access. We’d come halfway across the world – they would guess why we were choosing them. But we were lucky, we met the police chief, who quite liked the attention. And there was a kind of push from above to show that they had changed – the drugs war was going to be cleaner. So we just had full access and spent the next six months going back and forth.
Olivier Sarbil: We didn’t go through the official media centre for the police. We tried to get the access directly with the commander because we knew that if we had something too official obviously we would be on the radar of the police; obviously it would be more difficult.
JJ: It was great on the one hand because we had no official oversight. We were able to do whatever we wanted. But there was also this worry that because we had nothing on paper he could just wake up one morning and get fed up with us and kick us out.
CN: How would you define what plays to your strengths?
JJ: I’ve done a film about police shooting in America. So journalistically I was drawn to it and Olivier was drawn to it. And I think in terms of the type of filming Olivier had done in Mosul in terms of getting access to a group of men, it felt like a combination of the two of us. We could win their trust. We could get access that no one had got before. And Olivier would shoot it in a way that was incredibly cinematic. So it felt like on one level an important story – an injustice that we wanted to expose – but also filmically it was set up for film noirish atmospheric: quite dark and beautiful images.
CN: That of course is what is really striking and will gain some attention. How did you go about planning the look of the film?
OS: It’s a story filled with violence and darkness. For the film, we went for carefully composed shots. We wanted to create a style with a dramatic mood and an emotional connection with the city to enhance our characters’ feelings and the story.
CN: You had to build this picture of menace. Did you discuss how you were going to do this as you were shooting?
OS: First we had the shooting recce. We discovered the country and all the lighting and how we would be able to visually tell the story. So we had a pretty clear idea of what will work and how we will make it cinematically. And actually on a daily basis we were working and trying to edit short sequences to see how it works. So as soon as we decided to have a style for the film – the look – we really kept to it.
JJ: We wanted actuality, but actually the thing that was happening while we were there was the killing was going underground. Had we gone six months to a year earlier, there would have been more operations where they just bust into slums in uniform and shot people. Whereas now they were being a bit smarter and it was vigilantes or plainclothes off duty cops executing people on a motorbike. So the challenge was to kind of capture the fact that people thought the police were behind it – and even the cops privately were admitting to us that they were behind it. There were these clues along the way but it was a balance of not damning them by innuendo but making it feel solid that you knew that these guys were the killers.
OS: We didn’t want also to just be focused – if we had the chance to have more actuality with the police we would have followed them. But at the same time we didn’t want to make the film running after the police. We wanted to spend six months with the cops plus going underground, behind the scenes of the killing, and to have a chance to know the people a little bit better.
“They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back.”
CN: So you were there off and on for six months. How did you plan that schedule?
JJ: We had twelve weeks on the ground, which is a good amount of time. And Olivier doesn’t shoot very much in a day. Visually it’s all very well covered but he’s not someone who just rolls for three hours. So twelve weeks on the ground. Four trips of three weeks. So for the first three trips filming almost entirely with the police and a bit with the funeral parlour director. And then on the last near the end of the penultimate trip we started filming with Axel and the family in the slums.
OS: It was a bit risky to suddenly leave the cops and go to the slums. We were quite conspicuous.
CN: What did everyone make of you?
JJ: They quite liked Olivier and were impressed by his military background and the fact that he had been in Mosul. They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back. They thought we were more of a news crew but we kept coming back and we’d want to film stuff that to them felt quite inconsequential, which is often the way with documentaries.
CN: Was it just the two of you?
JJ: And local fixers. I was doing sound; Olivier was shooting. Which worked, was a perfect set up for the environment. We would put a radio mic on our main characters and a boom on a stick. In the slums we weren’t out on the streets with our characters that much. We did drone footage later on – a note from one of our commissioners was they wanted to get a sense of the space. With our characters in the slums we mainly filmed inside their flats. And we tried to get in and out as unobtrusively as possible. And the kit would be hidden in bags and we would dash quite quickly.
OS: One of the reasons the filming was stressful was by definition you might think the police were following where we were going.
CN: You were again working in a language not your own, although lots of people do speak English in the Philippines. But there were nonetheless some revelations in what they were saying that I assume you found out back in the edit?
JJ: It was kind of ideal in a way that we could communicate with them well enough in English. So we could establish a proper relationship and give instructions or get information. But because they knew that we didn’t understand Tagalong, they would be quite indiscreet. And say things like ‘I asked the boss if we could go overboard, and he said no’, ie we are not allowed to kill this one. Or ‘the killings have caught up with us sir’, or ‘there are things we should talk about later’. So those little moments which as you say when we are filming we have no idea about but when we get the transcript back realise it’s gold and that there’s something else going on.
OS: Because they got so used to seeing us in the station – at some point we could just walk in and walk out, sit on the sofa, spend the day in the police station, going from one building to another, and no one would ask the question: what are we doing there? We built that trust with the police officers, and sometimes they’d forget that we were there. That’s the magic in observational documentary.
On the President’s Orders, a Mongoose Pictures production, has its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, running 6-11 June 2019.
Henry Singer has been making films in Britain for more than twenty-five years. His body of work is extraordinary – his talent is in telling unusual stories in great detail, with tremendous nuance and respect. He is responsible for some of the most important films made over the past decade or so, including The Falling Man, considered by many to be the classic non-fiction film on 9/11, and The Untold Story of Baby P, about the terrible fallout from the death of a seventeen month toddler in north London back in 2006.
His latest film, co-directed with Rob Miller, is an examination of the Trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general found guilty of genocide and nine other war crimes in November 2017 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Filmed over five years, it tells the story of the trial from both the prosecution and defence sides. I sat down recently with Henry to discuss the film. As usual, this has been condensed for length and clarity.
CN: How did you come to this topic?
The idea came from an executive producer at BBC Bristol – he thought it would be an important idea for a film. He asked me if I wanted to direct it but I said no as I’d just got on commission for a film on Baby P, a big feature length doc for BBC1. But I did say to him –‘Look, if you have trouble getting a commission internally from the BBC I’d be interested in taking it over as an independent’. I knew given the state of British broadcasting at the moment that it would be very hard for him internally to get money for a film that would take years to make that would be partly subtitled. Big important, feature docs commissioned by the BBC are generally made on British subjects; big international films are of less of interest to the broadcaster.
The producer of the film, who did an extraordinary job negotiating access to the court, along with the exec, was somebody that I’ve worked with a lot — Rob Miller. He started off as my assistant producer years ago on a 90 minute film on a working man’s club in Bradford. He was my AP, then he became my co-producer then he produced me. He was the in-house producer at the BBC Bristol and he is the one who supervised the initial shoot – the opening of the trial. The BBC Bristol exec called me up a few month later and said ‘Henry, the film is yours if you want it as an independent’. And I was thrilled because, of course, I knew Rob and had worked very intimately with him, and knew what a talent he was, and because it was an incredibly important story – really, history in the making. So I leapt in on a heartbeat.
CN: How did you come to be co-directors?
At that time the trial was supposed to take two more years. The trial ended up taking five years in the film and sort of took over my life. And I was making this film as I was making other films for the BBC I did one on Baby P, a film on the The Rochdale sex abuse scandal and the death of Diana Princess of Wales and the week that followed.
In amongst that I was juggling the Mladic film with Rob. And Rob had directed parts of the opening of the trial and we realised that it would be incredibly difficult for me to direct it on my own. And so we decided early on that we would co-direct it. It really worked out wonderfully. I don’t know if I could codirect with too many people. We know each other very very well; we share responsibility and we are very close friends. It really worked out extraordinarily well.
CN: The numbers involved in the trial are hugely daunting, aren’t they?
HS: Hugely daunting. It took place for four or five days a week for over five years and there were over 560 witnesses by the end and 10,000 artifacts – not that the latter played much of a role in the film. We obviously couldn’t film every day – no one could have afforded that. So we had to be really strategic in terms of what we filmed and when we filmed. A trial like this isn’t like the O.J. Simpson trial where there are two or three or four key witnesses around whom the trial pivots and will be decided. These huge war crime trials are almost like a tableau, a mosaic, where every witness called by the prosecution and by the defence plays a small but crucial role in putting together a larger narrative –one of guilt or one of one innocence. But there are some witnesses that play a slightly bigger role – either factually or should I say legally, or emotionally in terms of getting the judges’ attention, and we filmed quite a number of those, some of whom became the foundation for the film.
CN: Were there any restrictions on what you filmed?
HS: No, I don’t think there was. One of the reasons we got access and maintained access is that we wanted to shoot both sides. That had never been done before. And, in fact, if you look at the films that have been made of the Balkans conflict, representing both sides really doesn’t exist. I think that was one of the reasons the court – I’m talking about the ICTY now, the judges and what’s called the registry, the body that runs the institution – thought it could be an important, a significant film. This did mean that we had to create a Chinese wall between the two sides. We never spoke to the defence about our conversations with the prosecution. We never spoke to the prosecution about our conversations with the defence. In fact, the two sides very rarely meet except in court.
CN: It’s striking how professional both sides are, particularly the defence team. Was it more difficult for you filming the defence side given the charges?
HS: Because it was a trial, you had to approach the subject with real objectivity – an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Obviously, that was incredibly hard with someone like Mladic, who had a terrible reputation across the world as the so-called Butcher of Bosnia. But you very quickly checked that at the door because first, it was a trial, and if you were going to be fair and objective and try to make a proper film of it, you couldn’t go in it with bias. And second, we had a lot of respect for the defence. They absolutely believed their client was innocent and we watched them work excruciatingly hard over months and years. And, of course, everybody must have legal representation – our systems of justice are built on that.
CN: How much did you know about this conflict before you began?
HS: Very little. Of course, you remember Sarajevo, you remember the images of Sarajevo, but I’d be lying if I told you it’s a story that has stayed with me. Of course, I knew a bit about Srebrenica – how could you not? But I didn’t know any more than your average consumer of news. So I was drawn to the story, not because of some familiarity with it, but because it was obvious the trial was a very, very important moment in European history – or rather, world history – and the issues that the trial and film would provoke – accountability, justice, immunity – are incredibly significant, even more now than when we started, given what’s happening in places like Syria, Yemen and Myanmar. I also like to make films about stories that are not known, or stories that we prefer not to look at, that we avoid. That trial and that war, even though it was this huge moment in European history – most people know very little about it nor do they particularly care about it. Which is rather extraordinary, given that it’s the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II and involved a genocide, or at least a an alleged genocide. So it fit into my sensibility of wanting to do significant work about things that we don’t know about or that we choose to look the other way about.
CN: How did the edit go? You told me you had shot 400 hours?
There’s a cliche that documentary films are made in the cutting room. It may be a cliché, but it was certainly true of this one. Because we had this massive amount of material. We shot close to 450 hours, we had access to all the court testimony over five years, and there was, of course, the archive. We began by cutting all the sequences from our material that we thought might work themselves into the film – this took three or four months. Over time we reduced that, reduced that, reduced that, and the narrative of the film started to emerge. As we did that, we started pulling the court testimony – the ICTY films the entire trial – from the witnesses who were in those sequences. And of course, we started to pull in archive to tell the backstories – the backstory of the war in Bosnia, of Mladic, of Srebrenica, etc. It was an extraordinary long edit because of the volume of the material, and because of the complexity of the trial and because of the complexity of the region. And we wanted to ‘show’ the film, rather than ‘tell’ it, to use another well-worn cliché. But we were really fortunate to have hugely talented editor in Anna Price, and other really talented colleagues – co-producer Ida Bruusgaard, archive producer Geoff Walton, and too many others to name.
CN: Can you talk about the aesthetic? You went to some lengths to show how beautiful the countryside is – what was your thinking there?
HS: The thinking there was to create a contrast with the handheld, always moving – sometimes even frantic footage of material around the court with the prosecution and defence, and the even more, sort of, ‘thin’ and bland footage of the court testimony. It’s a sort of gritty, handheld on the shoulder documentary look. It’s very immediate – it’s now, it’s strip lighting, etc. That was the feeling at and around the court.
In Bosnia, we wanted a very different feel. We wanted to get across the layers of history, a country that has so much history, so much bloodshed, so many narratives, so many myths. It’s a place, more than any place I’ve been, where the past is the present. So we wanted a much more layered, graded feel. You’ve got the sort of black and white gritty truth of the court – the film is really about the nature of truth – but in Bosnia truth is very grey, and the truths are very different there depending which side you are on. It’s truth mediated by culture, by history. And Mladic is a great example of that, because to his Serb supporters, he’s already a mythical figure, the saviour of his people, whereas to his victims and many others, he’s a mass killer.
And at the heart of the feeling we were trying to get across in Bosnia is the land. Land, territory, is obviously what wars are fought over, and it was true in this case. But the land is significant because so much blood has been spilled on it, not just in the 90s, but through the centuries. And it’s symbolic of people’s belief systems. So we were trying, in a sense, to juxtapose that gritty black and white truth in the court with a much more nuanced sense of truth in the countryside. I’m not sure that comes across, but that was the intention.
I remember exactly where I was when I first learned about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a holiday resort in Portugal. Not because the news should have had the impact of a flashbulb memory – I didn’t yet know anything about her or her family. I remember it rather because as I watched a news interview with the parents on TV, I was in my local hospital, cradling my 14 month old son Dillon. He would die the next day, as a result of complications from the rare brain condition he had suffered from since birth.
And yet as I sat there, knowing that Dillon was dying, that these were in fact his final hours, my thought was: “there but for the grace of God go I”. Because the McCanns had a gorgeous lovely happy three year old who had vanished, and their lives must be a living hell. I myself had a gorgeous lovely happy two year old at home waiting for me, and couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him.
With Dillon, the pain was different. He had always been ill, and we had long known his time with us would be limited. It was a different type of pain. And when you are a parent living a nightmare, your life can easily become a study of relativity: who has it worse than you? As far as I was concerned, the McCanns were in the minority of people who had it worse than we did.
After Dillon died, I watched the McCanns deal with endless media scrutiny which went on for many years, and brought no one any closer to understanding what had happened to their little girl. They had initially welcomed media attention, hoping that it would help them find their daughter. But it spiraled out of control. The public’s never ending appetite for the story, and the British tabloid’s press willingness to cash in on it, soon turned into a living hell for them. At one point even the McCanns themselves became suspects. Each time they pop up in the news, I always think of the Dorothy Parker line “what fresh hell is this?” I was able to grieve and try to move on with my life. Their torment continued.
I have always been a fan of true crime. My first docsonscreens blog waxed lyrical about my love of it over the years, and of how it had been rekindled by the podcast Serial. I enjoy the twists and turns of modern day factual storytelling; it’s a central theme in my media teaching. The feature doc, The Imposter, which does this to perfection, is a mainstay of my documentary class – students always engage with the way that it leads them through the story. I’m also okay with ambiguity, with not knowing how something turned out – both Serial and The Imposter are filled with it.
But the new Netflix series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann leaves me feeling queasy. The McCanns have refused to take part in it, and urged others to abstain as well. Yet the series has been made, with Netflix forking out a fortune in documentary terms for the telling of it over eight long hours, with some forty interviews. I’m sure it will be glossy and compelling. I’m sure it will lead a younger generation of viewers through many twists and turns, spinning an often jaw dropping true life tale.
I’m also sure that it will bring fresh pain to a family that has now endured 12 years of agony – with Madeleine’s twin siblings growing up in the terrible shadow of their vanished older sister. And I’m sure that at the end of those eight compelling hours, viewers will be no closer to knowing what happened to her. I get why the series has been made – business is business after all. But to bring fresh hell to a family that has suffered for so many years, and to do so merely for entertainment, is something I just can’t support. I won’t be watching.