Category Archives: Interview

James Jones and Olivier Sarbil: How We Made ‘On the President’s Orders’

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.”

James Jones

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 North American premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada on Saturday, 27 April.

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Henry Singer Interview: The Making of The Trial of Ratko Mladic

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.

Henry Singer

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.

©Int’l Commission for Missing Persons

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.

Zara Balfour on Children of the Snow Land

Imagine you live in one of the most remote places on earth. At age four you are sent away to school, many miles away from your mountain home. You don’t return for more than a decade. What would that reunion be like?  That’s the question at the centre of Children of the Snow Land, a new multi award winning documentary co-directed by Zara Balfour and Marcus Stephenson.

I first saw the film last year at the wonderful Valletta Film Festival, where it won not one but two awards. The film has now won ten festival awards, as audiences globally respond to its poignant themes and stunning footage, much of it shot by the film’s three main contributors who the directors taught to film themselves.

I interviewed Zara about the making of the film – as usual this has been cut for clarity and length:


CN: How on earth did you find this story in such a remote location?

ZB: I think it was fate. My co director Marcus and I went off to Nepal for a corporate job, filming charities. And we loved the charity in  Nepal; we got along really well with them. We stayed in touch with them and they told us they started funding this going home trip for these kids from the Himalayas who didn’t see their families for 12 years. And they had decided they would sponsor all the kids aged 16 finishing their compulsory schooling to go home for three months. And we were just blown away by it.

I’ve always wanted to make documentaries, and have done a lot of short documentaries but really had a longing to get into longer form documentary. And I love Nepal hugely. So we went out and thought basically let’s see if there’s a story here. Let’s see if it’s true that the kids haven’t seen their parents for 12 years, and can they express it and are they willing to express it on camera? So we went over there and thought, well, a worse case scenario we’d make a fundraising film for the school and that will be that. And the kids were amazing. They were very open, hadn’t seen their parents in all that time. Very warm and wanted to learn. We taught them filmmaking and they wanted to learn.

Zara Balfour

CN: Talk me through a bit about  how you taught them filmmaking.

ZB: Our first trip was basically working out who our characters were going to be – which children were most going to be able to express their story and also have an interest in filming themselves. We then went back a few months later and took some cameras and solar chargers. We basically gave them GoPro kits and solar chargers and batteries and loads and loads of memory cards. There was no way to back it up. It was very unlike most film shoots. It had to be so light because their walk (back home) was so long and so hard. And it has to be kit that’s capable of being charged. We went with them for some of the way and took slightly bigger cameras with bigger chargers, solar charges and such. And they carried on for three months out there. So the film is a combination of our footage, footage shot by Mark Hakansson our cameraman and photographer, and their footage. The training was a few days in Kathmandu. It wasn’t hugely extensive. We introduced them to YouTube.


Nima Gurung with his camera

CN: What was their experience of technology up to that point?

ZB: Nothing; they literally had nothing.  The school didn’t even have a computer room at that point. And they didn’t have any smartphones or anything like that. They do now. And they’d never seen YouTube. So we introduced them to people like JacksGap, and those guys that are travelling and doing their own stories, and they loved it. They were like sponges, they really were. And when the earthquake hit, I had some friends that were going out who work with the Disasters Emergencies Committee. They went out to help after the earthquake and as they were out there they actually  helped us get some of the footage back. So we got the footage back much earlier than we were going to.

CN: How were they able to communicate when they were up in the remote mountains with their families?

ZB: We said when you come back, bring back whatever you can. I will never forget watching the memory cards that first day. We were just blown away.

CN: What was it like being there for the reunions? The reunions are not in fact a very visible part of the film.

ZB: It was surprising. Coming from our background, if we see someone we haven’t seen for some time we just want to cry and hug them so much. But they weren’t like that; they had this very kind of shy nature. They were very stoic and don’t show their emotions. We found that the adult and the child way of dealing with the separation was very different. The kids hang onto the memory of the parents and think about it every day. The parents, in order to deal with the pain of separation basically cut off and didn’t think about it. So they were quite cold, at least to our western eyes.


Tsering Deki

CN: It seems like it should have been the opposite – you would think it was the other way around.

ZB: They couldn’t afford themselves the luxury of thinking about it too much – it was just too painful. So when they saw each other there was this strange formality.

CN: How did you swing this with a full time day job?

It has been tough. It was great having the support through post production with McCann. They basically accepted that during my day job I would be in the edit working on the film a lot. And took quite a lot of chunks of time off. It took four years to make it – two years worth of shooting and two years of post production. They’ve been incredible and really really helpful. For Marcus he’s been making a TV show, Stately Homes with Phil Spencer. So he’s had to do that and take breaks.

CN: What was it like winning two awards at the Valletta Film Festival?

It was incredible. We were in the teen section which was a mix of documentary and drama. And it was amazing that we won that. Not only that but we won the audience pick for the whole festival. I was completely blown away by that because we were a small film made by independent means. And there were so many films there by well known filmmakers with a lot of industry support behind them. It was a tremendous validation of what we’d done and an amazing honour.

Children of the Snow Land is screening at selected cinemas including Bertha Dochouse from 5 March. See their website for details.

BBC Storyville’s Mandy Chang: “A lot of people want to make single authored documentaries. We welcome them with open arms.”

When it launched more than twenty years ago, the BBC’s Storyville strand stood alone as a home in the UK for independently made feature documentaries. Created and nurtured by the revered Nick Fraser, Storyville established a reputation in the global doc community for promoting authored storytelling, nurturing the likes of Sean McAllister, Alex Gibney, Kim Longinotto and Daisy Asquith. (Fraser also commissioned a doc I produced, Secrets of the Tribe, championing it over the many years it took to make).

While it still remains one of the few spaces on British television for feature docs, it’s now battling it out in a rapidly changing online universe where SVODs have become major players in longform documentaries. Mandy Chang has energetically taken up the Storyville reins, relocating to London from her job as Head of Arts at ABC Australia to head the strand. An accomplished filmmaker turned commissioner, Chang is determined that Storyville evolves with the times. On the day after the announcement of the Sundance doc lineup, which includes three Storyville films, I met with her to discuss the strand.

As usual this has been edited for length and clarity:

Carol Nahra: So you have been heading Storyville since October 2017. How has it been so far?

Mandy Chang: It’s been a huge period of assimilating a lot of information about filmmakers all around the globe; about who the major funders are, not just the broadcasters but not for profit organisations, and philanthropists as well. Because we fund via a patchwork of funding — we never fully fund Storyville; we just don’t have a big enough overall budget.

 

Mandy Chang

CN: What are your priorities for the strand?

MC: Diversity is really really important to me. It’s not just about picking the best films by the most experienced most famous documentary directors. It’s also about finding new talent and growing that talent and those relationships. It’s just hugely complex: the whole ecosystem of documentaries across the world. And the different ways that different broadcasters do things in different countries. To get on top of that has been my goal this year. Next year it’s about strategising and really making an impact with Storyville and where we are going with Storyville into the future. Because the whole marketplace is just changing so quickly. Everything is moving so quickly under our feet.

CN: How does one navigate the new world? I assume you are talking about SVODs like Netflix.

MC: Yes. First of all there’s a lot more competition. Storyville used to be in this very privileged place where it kind of had the pick of all the best stories. And now we have to fight to do that. We go to all these pitching forums and the filmmakers are selling their films and themselves to us. We also have to sell ourselves and what we can bring to their films back to them. And I think that’s new – I don’t think people had to work as hard to do that as before. And I’m acutely conscious of it. Filmmakers have higher expectations of what they want from whoever is putting their film on their platform. Now filmmakers are starting to realise that with those big SVOD organisations, they may not get publicity – they might just be a tile on that great big platform, and their film might disappear way down the trail. Because it’s not the latest thing, or it’s more niche. I think that’s where the BBC can really bring that personalised approach to the film. We really look after our filmmakers. We try to partner them up with people who can bring impact to their films. And we foster a relationship that we want to be ongoing.

Henry Singer’s The Trial of Ratko Mladic is an upcoming Storyville
© ICTY

CN: You talk about partnering up. What do you do in terms of extending the life of the film? Because of course the big hit with Storyville is the broadcast, and then the relatively short IPlayer life. I’m sure an attraction about Netflix is that it will have a longer life on there, whatever the contract is. So how does that work for you in terms of enticing filmmakers?

The other thing that we are doing with Storyville is BBC Three and BBC News often take those films and do cut downs of them. So they appear on other platforms where they might  get completely different audiences. Whether it’s current affairs or a younger audience. Again that’s after negotiation with the filmmakers because some filmmakers don’t want spoilers. But it’s a way of getting out there and getting the attention. Because we can’t always rely on the traditional press and publicity departments because they are so overloaded anyway.

CN: What was it like stepping into Nick’s shoes?

MC: It was really tough.  I have huge respect and awe of Nick. He has left an incredible legacy for the Storyville brand. I feel very lucky that I don’t have to start from the beginning – he has created this very powerful strand that people know all over the world. You can’t underestimate the value of that. So it’s building on that and bringing my own sensibilities to it without losing the good things – and there are many many good things that Storyville has. And Nick is an intellectual giant. He is always sending me links to books and articles. He’s very aware of the world – he’s a very sophisticated thinker.

As all these right wing government and forces are menacing the world, it’s really interesting that there are a lot of very young women with big voices who want to tell stories.

Mandy Chang

CN: Can you name a new filmmaker that you’re working with?

MC: A really good example of someone new that I’m really excited about who is a new voice and has access to stories we don’t usually get access to is a woman called Nanfu Wang. Nanfu has made four films in four years about China. She brings a kind of inside track to China and a subversiveness that not many filmmakers can bring. She also lives in New York so she has the security of being able to go to China and make her films and get that kind of access that really gives us those insights. She has put herself in danger but it’s not the same as living in China. She’s made a really fantastic film about the one child policy in China called One Child Nation. She’s really young and an extraordinary woman. She was a victim of the one child policy….grew up in a rural village and now making international films which get into Sundance. She’s a major talent on the international scene.

There are lots of young women making stories about their own countries. It’s a really important time as all these right wing government and forces are menacing the world. It’s really interesting that there are a lot of very young women with big voices who want to tell stories. I’ve really noticed it. And I really want to support it as well.

Nanfu Wang

CN: Do you have other Storyville films at Sundance?

MC: We have Mads Brügger’s film called Cold Case Hammarskjöld, about the death of the UN Secretary General. Mads is very provocative but brings humour to his storytelling. The team dig very very deep and what they have uncovered is extraordinary and very very horrifying. There’s also an Israeli film called Advocate, about an amazing woman named Lea Tsemel who is a lawyer who represents Palestinian people in Israel. Her story itself is amazing, but the story that unfolds in the film, is really shocking about a 13 year-old Palestinian boy who goes on trial for something he wasn’t guilty of.

I have noticed this year there’s a trend at Sundance as well to be going for more international stories. And more provocative international stories. All three films I found overseas at international markets literally by talking to people face to face.

CN: How many British filmmakers do you commission?

It varies but usually between 3 – 6 a year are British, out of 18 films. The British filmmakers come to us as they know we are there. There are a lot of people who want to make single authored documentaries and know they are never going to get that away on mainstream spaces. So they come to us and we welcome them with open arms.

CN: Anything else you’d like to say?

No except that I think Storyville does need to keep growing and changing. And I think that broadcasters will need to start growing and changing. They are going to need to move a lot quicker in the future. It’s very siloed at the BBC – I mean this is very political but I do think we need to be more joined up. We need to be talking to each other more. I think the model of copro is a really useful model for a cash strapped BBC. And they could learn a lot from the model that Storyville has where we make a very small amount of money go a long long way.

 

 

Preview: Global Health Film Festival 2018

While Donald Trump refuses to accept climate change as a reality, it doesn’t take a stable genius to understand that we are all interconnected. And most of us now also grasp that the damage that we are doing to the environment is in turn having a very real impact on human health — the study of this is known as Planetary Health. Next week’s Global Health Film Festival will award a £10,000 Planetary Health prize to a film to help it achieve impact – getting it in front of those who need to see it the most. The subjects of the four films up for the award range from the Ebola pandemic, to chemical pollution in the US, plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean and an agrarian crisis in India.

 

Survivors focuses on the Ebola pandemic

Throughout its programming the Global Health Film Festival focuses on the interconnectivity of the human experience. When I attended the festival last year – its third edition – I was really blown away by the atmosphere (as I enthused in the below highlights reel). A stimulating, diverse range of health professionals, journalists, filmmakers and students descended on the Barbican for two days. In a single afternoon I went from attending an NHS session fronted by Jon Snow to immersing myself in fascinating VR installations, to watching a film I still think about, twelve months on.

 

The festival’s fourth edition kicks off next weekend.  Transferring to Bloomsbury with the Wellcome Collection as its hub, it promises to be equally engrossing and inclusive, with a number of intriguing themes. According to Festival Director Gerri McHugh, in addition to the planetary health strand, this year’s programme highlights the lack of access to healthcare throughout the world. “Inequity in health care is not just a developing world issue. There is poverty and hunger and exclusion in every city in the UK and just about any part of the world,” she says.  “Some of those inequities in the developed world are actually far harder to tackle than the inequities that we have in the developing world. They’re quite hidden – society hides them.” A related theme is how belief systems interact with health choices.

Global Health Films Director Gerri McHugh

The US comes under particular scrutiny in the programme. No Greater Law features a sheriff in Idaho determined to try to get a law changed that allows a group of evangelicals to refuse any health treatments for their ailing children – even as the bodies mount in their graveyard. A short, Restoring Dignity, will look at period poverty amongst teenagers in the US – something which should resonate with a group of American high school students attending the festival. Their inclusion is a deliberate attempt to broaden the range of delegates.  “Often in a meeting like this the demographic breaks down to the giants and leaders in the industry and then the early career professionals,” says McHugh. “And whilst we have quite a lot of that in the film festival we also want to plug the gaps in between. So we’re increasingly bringing in mid career professionals but also increasingly a focus on even younger people. We have a collaboration with Brookline High School in Boston, Massachusetts, who bring a class of 16-18 year olds to London specifically for the film festival every year. We work hard to involve them as much as we can in all different parts of the programme.”

Another timely theme of the two-day festival is unresolved trauma, mental health and post traumatic stress disorder. On Sunday, 9 December I’ll be chairing a panel following a screening of Evelyn, in which Oscar-winning director Orlando von Einsiedel probes the long ignored impact of his brother’s suicide on his family more than a decade ago.

 

The festival will again have a strong focus on virtual reality, in partnership with Crossover Labs. A number of installations echo the themes of Evelyn.  When Dan Hett lost his brother in the Manchester Arena attack, he used his skills as a game developer to create The Loss Levels as a way to document and share his experience.  Homestay places viewers amongst a Canadian family mourning the loss of their exchange student, while Is Anna OK? considers the experiences of two sisters, one of whom suffers from traumatic brain injury.

The Global Health Film Festival takes place Saturday, December 8 – Sunday, December 9. The festival sells day passes; some single tickets to screenings are available. 

Prison Director Paddy Wivell: “I didn’t think I’d spend so much time talking about anal cavities”

In fifteen years of directing documentaries, Paddy Wivell has made a name for himself for the seemingly effortless way he connects with his subjects, from African tribes, to Orthodox Jews, to psychiatric inpatients. His warmth and curiosity elicits often astonishing intimacy from his subjects – a skill on ready display in his new Channel 4 series, Prison. The three parter uses a 360 degree approach to take us deep inside Durham Prison where a constantly revolving population of nearly 1000 men do daily battle with a skeletal staff long on patience but short on resources. It’s a layered, sometimes shocking peek into a world most of us know little about other than crisis-screaming headlines.

 

I sat down with Paddy as he was finishing up in post, to find out the making of it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:

CN: Can you talk me through the access?

PW: In England and Wales I think it’s been about five years since a documentary team have been allowed in to a prison – they’ve had such terrible negative headlines for such a long time. But Spring Films managed to locate a particular individual called Ian Blakeman who was then an executive governor of the Northeast Prisons. He could see the value of allowing a documentary team in. He introduced me to one prison that didn’t feel right – they didn’t feel confident or open enough. And then he suggested I go to Durham Prison. And as soon as I went there I knew that it was a great environment. The governor, Tim Allen, said “we’re getting such bad press, I don’t know why we don’t just open our doors and you can see what we’re doing in the face of extraordinary challenges”. He had complete faith in his staff.  He’d been governor there ten years and felt confident and robust. And we got on really well.

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Paddy Wivell on location

CN: How did you approach making the series?  

PW: I knew that I had to make a series that was specific to the prison that I was in, but that also spoke to the national crisis. And so as I started to get access around the prison, doing my research, it started to form in my mind that it would be good to do something based around different themes – so that each week the audience would feel like they were coming back to something different. And if you look at the indices of the crisis, you would find that mental health, drugs, incidents of violence are the themes people talk about: the trouble preventing drugs getting into the system, the prevalence of spice in prisons all across the country; the incredibly alarming rates of self harm which have tripled in five years; incidents of violence of prisoners on other prisoners but also on officers. So there was a ready made map of the series for me. I then just needed to find prisoners and staff who could start colouring in those sketches.

CN: How did the consent work? Do you gain it from each prisoner before you start filming? Sometimes it seemed like you would go up to a cell and film from the get go.

Paddy: Everybody who is on it consents. But sometimes I do just film from the get go and see how they go with it and then build consent off that first meeting. I had an amazing assistant producer, Josh Allott, who would be around all the wings with us as we were filming, getting consent from every prisoner. And he was just extraordinary. Because it was a big concern that we would end up having to blur everyone. And every prisoner you end up getting their consent but also you have to be across the legal proceedings – you have to avoid sub judice. If they are charged and not sentenced you can’t put them on the television. They have to be sentenced. So we’ve done a lot of work in post with the courts and prison service to make sure we’re completely across everyone that features. So in the background shots there are only a relatively few number of people blurred. If you look at other prison documentaries it’s a blurfest – the whole thing’s a nightmare!

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Prisoner Futers

 

CN: You came across as a bit of an anthropologist in there – did you feel like one?

PW: I was just really excited because I really felt like there were unchartered territories in prison documentaries. Always the space that excites me is the space I wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity to know. I always felt that a lot of the prison documentaries I’ve seen, the emphasis is so weighted on the shoulders of the staff members that you don’t really get the POV from the prisoners themselves. And I wanted a series that had equal weight among prisoners and staff. They both kind of cohabit the same space and they both have views on the crisis but from very different perspectives. So what might be a crisis to the officers might actually be seen by some of the prisoners as an opportunity. And I wanted that to be impressed somehow….Every day I l hear all these headlines and listen to the Today programme about the crisis in prisons but it’s from such a particular perspective. And it felt like there is a whole class of people who are not being spoken to or heard. It’s fresh territory.

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Prison Officer Matthews

CN: What was your responsibility when prisoners confided in you about all of their shenanigans? Obviously it’s going to come out on telly if the staff don’t know it already.

PW: They sort of know it already. But there’s a difference between knowing something and being able to prevent it. They know they stuff all these things up their bums to come in – they know the techniques. But they have six staff to two hundred prisoners. The prisoners have 24 hours a day to dream of ways to bring drugs into prisons or to hide contraband. It’s a never ending battle with the staff. What I wanted to avoid going in there was setting out too many rules to make my life more difficult. I didn’t ask the question “what do I do if someone”…I didn’t want them to tell me “you have to tell us”. But I did have my own sort of system. So if I felt that someone was in danger, of if I saw weapons, there were times I needed to tell staff. But the prisoners needed to feel confident that I wasn’t running with all the information to members of staff. There was this time when the prisoners showed me all their contraband and then they had their cells searched a week later by the intelligence unit. And then the word got out that we were a grass. So that was quite an awkward position – but I also quite like it when the lines get a little bit blurred. You can sort of incorporate that into the film.

CN: There are a lot of quite funny scenes.

There is a lot of humour. A lot of times in these institutions you think it is totally bleak. But inherently when you’ve got a lot of rule-breaking people in a rule-based environment trying to transgress the rules it provides quite a lot of humour and levity. And there’s a sort of David and Goliath dynamic going on which is quite pleasing.

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Prisoner Scotty Storey

CN: It’s relatively rare to see a series filmed in Durham. What was it like filming up there?

PW: Love it. It’s so refreshing. The Northeast has such warmth. And in a way there’s something quite nostalgic about the Northeast because they don’t have the same problems that southern prisons do – or almost any other region. The gang issues don’t affect the Northeast in quite the same way. So I think I benefited. The prisoners were pretty friendly. It wasn’t quite the same edge I don’t think.

CN: What was the biggest surprise for you making the series?

PW: I didn’t think I’d spend so much time talking about anal cavities!


The first episode of Prison airs 9pm Thursday, 19 July on Channel 4.

Little Dot’s Adam Gee: “I have made a real effort not to commission the usual suspects.”

In more than a decade at Channel 4 heading up factual multiplatform content, Adam Gee commissioned many multi-award winning productions, including Embarrassing Bodies and the Big Fish Fight. After a stint launching All 4’s short form video service, he is now commissioning for Little Dot Studios, who have earned astonishing viewing numbers with their flagship Real Stories documentary channel. A regular guest speaker for my digital engagement class, Adam excels at spotting trends and keeping ahead of the game in a dizzying, fast-changing media landscape. I chatted with him about his work finding new pathways for documentary filmmakers. 

Adam Gee by Matt Locke
Adam Gee

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about your role at Little Dot?

Adam Gee: I was brought in last summer to commission the first original content for Little Dot’s Real Stories, their documentary channel, which is the biggest of their portfolio of channels. It’s a very pure form of commissioning in that I was given a blank sheet, a pot of money and instructions to fill up the blank sheet with stuff that would fit properly onto the channel. So I set about basing the brief on the data underlying the channel. The data makes it really clear both who your audience is and what they actually like. This does not constrict your commissioning, it just shows where the most fertile territory lies.

CN: What kind of films do you commission?

AG: One of the things that characterises Real Stories is by and large they are uplifting and inspirational and have a feel-good vibe about them. And that is probably to some degree a product of the time – I think people are quite up for hearing things which are uplifting about humanity. So I commissioned eleven documentaries in the second half of 2017. I’ve just started on the next five. They are very varied subjects which range from restorative justice to proxy marriage to social media addiction and all things in between. They also range from traditional observational documentary to things that are much closer to the border of factual entertainment. And to some degree they have been done in the spirit of experimentation, to see what fits happily onto the channel which has been built up on acquisitions, what people find an easy transition to if they’re watching the 60 minute, relatively high budget documentaries which are the foundations of the channel.

 

“There are plenty of places you can go to make documentaries about ISIS or fetishes and this doesn’t need to be one of them.”

 

CN: What don’t you commission?

YouTube is the core online presence of Real Stories and there are certain subject areas which are vulnerable on YouTube to being demonetised or slapped with an 18 certificate – in other words, are vulnerable to being made invisible. So I was careful to stay a long way inland from those borders so the investment wasn’t at risk in that way. There are plenty of places you can go to make documentaries about ISIS or fetishes and this doesn’t need to be one of them. My favourite part of the brief is the slide that says what we don’t want at the moment. And that reads pretty much like my Channel 4 job description – sex, drugs and rock and roll. I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt and am happy to move on.

CN: Who have made the films?

AG: By and large these commissions have been done with small indies and individual filmmakers. I have made a real effort that they not be the usual suspects. So when I read down a list of the commissions to date, the first ones were directed by the founder of a new BAME-owned company (Andy Mundy Castle, Brittle Bone Rapper); a woman returner who’s coming back from a career break (Debbie Howard, Absent From Our Own Wedding, below); a woman who has been in Holloway prison twice for gang-related offences but is now on the straight and narrow (Nicole Stanbury, Sorry I Shot You).

Sorry I Shot You Real Stories Original copy

A number are first-time commissions. Taken as a whole, they are quite a weird and wonderful bunch that are really talented and have delivered without exception. At a tight tariff like the UK online video one, if you’re not going to take a risk on emerging talent then, when will you ever? 

As well as straight-forward commissions, we have experimented with something a bit more like completion funding. Travelling on Trash is an example of this – constructed out of contemporaneous social video material. So the ability to have some flexibility of approach like that is also very interesting and helpful.

 

CN: Looking back on your time at Channel 4, what is your perspective on where multiplatform commissioning is in the UK right now in terms of health?

AG: I think the focus in the UK, as everywhere else, is on the online video wars – surviving and with a bit of luck thriving on this global battlefield. Multiplatform filmmaking is somewhat on the back burner because online video is so much the business imperative. There is still some really interesting stuff being done but it’s on nothing like the scale that it was in its peak in the UK. That said, it is still a powerful form and I have no doubt more juice will be squeezed out of it in due course.

CN: What are you most proud of from your days multiplatform commissioning?

AG: I think the thing that particularly stands out would probably be Embarrassing Bodies, because it was such a perfect blend of entertainment and public value. And the integrated roles played by television and interactive media were totally hitting the sweet spot, so that people were engaging with their health in a way they didn’t normally.  At its peak, there were 70 million visits a year to the web site. It was the number one competitor to the NHS online, and, more importantly, it was also the number one referrer. So there is this sweet spot between popular TV and interactive media which Embarrassing Bodies perfectly typified – the TV prompting emotion and action, the online giving the opportunity to act on them immediately. It was also a great platform for experimenting because it was on such a massive scale.

 

CN: Do you envision a time when public service broadcasters will return to that kind of experimentation?

AG: I think multiplatform television is far from played out. It’s a very powerful combination of media. I have no doubt that at some point people will return to it and fulfil its full promise. I’ve seen some really good stuff in the last couple of years, but done on a more modest budget. And in fact the things that I’ve seen in recent times have come from perhaps unlikely sources such as LADbible, for example, which did an ambitious campaign around plastic pollution which was really imaginative and cost effective.

CN: Moving on to online video. Can you tell me what you learnt from your time at Channel 4 launching short form video?

It was exciting and a pleasure to set up the factual short form video service on All 4 for Channel 4 because it was to a large extent a matter of range-finding creatively, developing a distinctive editorial tone and voice. Also, it was an exciting area because, as I mentioned earlier, it is by its nature on quite a tight tariff, so it’s a great place to take risks with new talent and new approaches.

CN: And as you’ve shown in my classes you were really gratified by the number of people watching the content.

AG: It quickly became apparent what a large canvas one had to play on. The last piece of content I commissioned for All 4, when Channel 4 put it onto social media on Facebook, got 124 million views in ten days (Naked and Invisible, above). And that really underlined what kind of scale you’re playing on. I see the same kind of thing now at Little Dot Studios, where we have conversations with indies who have licensed their films to the Real Stories documentary channel. And when they come in they often seem as interested when you tell them “Oh, you know that film you let us have three months ago – that’s had another million views”.  The money they get as a result of that is a nice cherry on the cake, but the increased exposure seems to fire them up just as much – getting more eyeballs on something they’ve poured blood sweat and tears into rather than it languishing in a cupboard or buried deep in a website or catalogue.

Adam’s latest commission, Vanished: The Surrey School Girl, can be found here.


Interested in documentaries? Live in London? I’ll be teaching an evening doc appreciation course in June and July at the Crouch End Picturehouse.

What’s Up at Guardian Docs?

It’s been a busy three years for Charlie Phillips since we last spoke, not long after he became Head of Docs at the Guardian. With so much changing in the land of online documentaries, I thought it was time for a check in with him about how the Guardian has evolved. Here’s an edited transcript of a recent conversation.

Carol Nahra: Talk me through what has worked and what hasn’t at the Guardian?

Charlie Phillips: In the early days we were trying different things out and we were initially doing shorter docs than what we’re doing now. Everything was around 10 minutes or something. It was always my hunch that what would work better for us would be to do stuff that you needed a certain investment in it. Films that were more like 20-30 minutes, and it was signposted that it was going to be really compelling. You’d have to sit back and concentrate and give it time to watch things through. If you made that promise to people that it was going to be worth 25 minutes of your time then they are more like to watch it, rather than giving them the impression that you can watch it really quickly on your mobile.

We also shifted from trying to do loads of films – we were initially trying to put them out every one to two weeks – to say it’s better if we do one approximately every three weeks or even four. Then we give it a massive publicity blitz, give it loads of love, make sure it’s the best it can be. 

CN: How do you do that?

CP: We put a lot more time and effort into the promotion. We treat them like event releases, which is why you get a massive banner advert whenever we release a doc, on the front page of the site. They’ve got a different player. So it is more of a kind of immersive experience watching the films. It’s different than everything else we put out – so the whole experience watching is different. They’re higher resolution, we chapterise the films. And also it was my belief that this should be a really global strand. So we really doubled down to ensure that we cover as many countries as possible.

CN: How do you define success, and a good recent film that was successful?

CP: For me the main marker of success is that we put out a film that we are proud of and that has told an untold story. We then also want the films to be seen by lots of people. And we get pretty decent viewing figures – our viewing figures are constantly higher than I ever thought we’d get.

The film we did about Qandeel Baloch has done exceptionally well. Over 200,000 just on Youtube alone and a couple of hundred thousand more on site. That was a pleasant surprise, because it’s primarily a non English language, it’s about what would be a remote place. It’s about a feminist, almost entirely told through social media video and graphics. In some ways the aesthetic of it is quite scrappy, in a good way. But people really took to because it was about a young woman who was killed because of the politics around her. That was really gratifying for a film which is set in Pakistan, for which only a limited amount of original material was shot,  and in many ways is quite experimental. We put in a lot of time and effort working with the filmmaker to get it right – it went through a lot of cuts. That was a Bertha partnership.

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Q

CN: Congratulations on the Grierson for Fish Story (Best Documentary Short). Of course that’s very different in tone and feel from everything else.

CP: Yeah that was a really rare one for us because we took it as an acquisition rather than as a commission. But I knew it would work for us, a) cause it’s a brilliant film but b) because it has a relationship with journalism. It is in fact an investigative journalism film, it’s just that Charlie (Lyne, the director) is also kind of deconstructing investigative journalism at the same time and doing it in a funny way. It’s just a brilliant film, and it resonates with people and it’s obviously very poignant and clever. There is a part of the Guardian’s general identity which is about being lighthearted and fun. We couldn’t do a whole strand of films like Fish Story, much as I’d like to, but it’s definitely part of our remit to do the occasional thing like that.

 

CN: What’s been the biggest surprise for you on this journey?

CP: I think genuinely that people want to watch the films. The hunch that on a news and journalism platform that you could get really good audiences for short documentaries that look like documentary films rather than news reports. I think we’ve shown you can get a pretty mainstream audience for what’s often quite challenging and hard hitting stuff.

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Charlie Phillips writes a new monthly column in The Observer. The Guardian will be screening a number of their films with Doc Heads on 21 February at Union Chapel, Islington.

 

Walk With Me: Marc J. Francis on Making a Film About Mindfulness

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to slow down, be mindful and connect with your inner self, I’ve got the doc for you. As I wrote about recently in Documentary Magazine, one of the London Film Festival’s stand out films for me was Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis’ Walk With Me, which opens in UK cinemas this week. The film takes us to southern France, deep inside the monastic community of Plum Village, where the Zen Buddhist inhabitants are utterly focused on leading mindful lives. The community is guided by the revered Thich Nhat Hanh, whose readings are brought to life in voiceover by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Immersive is an overused term these days, but this film comes close to doing the term justice. Four years in the making, the co-directors learned they needed to become members of the community before they could tell its story. I spoke with Francis about the making of it before the film’s screening at the London Film Festival.

(Transcript edited for length and clarity.)

Carol Nahra: There are a lot of films out there at the moment where of course you would say it’s better to see on the big screen, but this in particular seems to have been made with a cinematic experience in mind.

Marc J. Francis: This really was a subject that lent itself to the big screen experience. Because our intention was to make a film which could be experiential, as a film that you kind of feel. So what does it feel like to be a part of this community that commits their lives to cultivating mindfulness?

CN: The audio is amazing. It seems as important as the visual in some ways.

MF: Yeah, we invested heavily on the sound. We really wanted the sound to play as big a part if not a bigger part as the visual experience. Because bringing you inside into the film really enhances that experience. And it is about, what they do is about how deeply do they listen.

CN: Tell me a bit about your coming to this topic.

MF: I came to it through Max Pugh, the co director, whose brother became a monk about eight years ago….There was a point where the monastery was starting to think about letting in cameras for the very first time. Thich Nhat Hanh always shied away from publicity throughout his life; never really wanted it. But he felt that maybe now was the time to try and be more open. The stipulation of Thich Nhat Hanh was to find a way to make it about community; don’t make it about me.

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Thich Nhat Hanh

 

CN: You had access but it still took four years to make. What took all the time?

MF: It’s not a conventional film in the sense that you are not focusing on one to three characters and following their narrative arc. And that you’ve got your A to B and end up at C. It’s trying to create narrative out of a mood or feeling. So to do that was extremely difficult. Plus because we wanted to find a way to translate the energy of mindfulness as we experienced it at the monastery to the audience, the only way to do that was if we invested time in the monastery ourselves and started to practice, to tune into that energy field and feel it and edit in a way that reflects that mood and pace. And that is no easy thing to do – to find a way to keep your stress and your anxieties at bay and find a sense of inner presence and stillness and reflect that to the audience.

CN: So presumably that meant engaging before you picked up the camera, or putting the camera down to engage in the practices of the community?

MF: Yeah, well we started off with a camera. And then that didn’t work. Because we weren’t getting any cooperation. Only when they got a sense that we weren’t on a deadline, and we weren’t having a goal and we weren’t saying on a Monday okay by Friday we need these three scenes – if we ever did that we would fail. But if we let go of the goal and just started to feel present…We just kept our cameras at bay and in the event that something revealed itself to us we were unable to capture it. And the more that we did that the more open they became and the more the trusted us and our ability to capture that kind of vibration. A bit like don’t make a film about a kung fu master if you haven’t even tried kung fu itself.

CN: So what was that like for you? Because you come from strong narrative storytelling background and this whole process as you describe it must have been very intense for you.

MF: Yes it was very intense, you’d step into the great unknown of no direction. And you really don’t know what’s going to happen. A director wants to be in control. So to let go of these ideas of control and step more into a place of trust was a great learning curve. That ended up becoming a manual for life.

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Marc Francis

CN: So what will you be taking forward with you? Will you be living differently?

MF: I already am. One of the reasons I was attracted to the project in the first place was because I could see that the life of an independent filmmaker is a tricky one. There are highs and lows, there are disappointments. You get great moments and you get bad moments. And how does one find a sense of inner balance within that storm so that you’re not finding yourselves getting highly anxious when things aren’t going well or over excited when things seem to be going well? How can I make a film, how can I make a career for myself as an artist and as a family man in this career where I enjoy the process? And I’m happier inside myself for the process? These are the questions I was starting to ask myself before the film came along. I don’t want to win an Oscar and be depressed about it or stressed about it. That kind of thing. That feeling should be with me every day – whether I win one or not is not the point. So I got a sense that when I arrived to Plum Village for the first time that there were some really amazing things going on here that could be extremely beneficial to how I want to live my life.

Has the film been well received?

It has. I think there is a time now where people are getting a bit overwhelmed with what is going on politically. This Trump anger, this divisiveness which is coming through our feeds, it’s like do I want to go to the cinema and be reminded more about what is going on or can I go to the cinema and have an opportunity to breath and get back to myself or try to step away from it in some way? So seeing the film in that wider context is like an antidote to the larger context of what is in our faces on a day to day basis.

Walk With Me opens in cinemas across the UK on 5 January.

 

On the Frontline in MOSUL: A Conversation with Olivier Sarbil and James Jones

For a good portion of the nine month fight to defeat ISIS in Mosul, veteran French cameraman Olivier Sarbil was embedded with a small elite team of Iraqi Special Forces. Airing this week on PBS’ Frontline (and on Britain’s Channel 4 in November), Sarbil’s film MOSUL combines beautifully shot actuality footage with direct interviews with the soldiers in their home. The often uncomfortably close up scenes take us directly into the fight against ISIS, focusing on four young soldiers. Having screened to packed, rapturous houses at European screenings, it has been entered for an Academy Award nomination in the short film category.  I spoke with Olivier and his co-director and producer James Jones in London to find out how they made such a powerful film with minimal crew and little knowledge of Arabic. 

(Edited for length and clarity)       

Carol Nahra: This is your first time working together, isn’t it? How did that come about?

James Jones: Basically, Olivier had been a freelance cameraman in news, shooting this extraordinarily beautiful stuff that didn’t become anything bigger, so it was kind of wasted. So he was kind of known in that world for shooting really beautifully but hadn’t done that longer form stuff. So he went out to Mosul for Channel 4 News to doa long news piece. And then PBS had a film fall through and needed to fill half a slot and Dan Edge, the senior producer called me and said ‘We’ve got this amazing footage, we’ve got two weeks until broadcast, can you come and like help.’ And I had just finishedUnarmed Black Male so thought why not. The film (Hunting Isis) was very good but it was lots of commentary. But I think all of us came away from it thinking this could be so much bigger. He shoots so beautifully, he’s got this amazing access, where no one else on earth is filming, and the guys seem to trust him. So we were all like let’s send Olivier back and I will come on as a producer (Olivier shot the frontline scenes solo while James and a fixer joined him for the interviews). 

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Olivier Sarbil and James Jones in London

Carol: How did you approach this shoot and gain the trust of the soldiers?

Olivier Sarbil: Somehow we started to build a trust between me and the commander….For me it was important that I wasn’t going to do a news report – I was going to tell their story, the story of the battalion. And I don’t speak Arabic so it’s all about how I smile, the body language. I’m covered in scars, it helps, from shooting the war in Libya. I myself am a former Marine – maybe it helps me, cause they understand I know how those guys work in the field. And it was a very long process, for weeks eating beans and rice with them every day, shooting almost nothing. I didn’t want them to feel frightened by the camera. I really wanted them to feel Olivier is there but he’s almost invisible.

James: He doesn’t speak Arabic, he didn’t have a fixer or translator with him….He’s so unobtrusive, they know he can’t understand what they’re saying, so they’re completely uninhibited. It’s like a documentary experiment. It’s like totally fly on the wall – if they’re calling their girlfriend or roughing up a prisoner, they just do it.

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Carol: It was translated when you got back, correct? So there must have been moments where you thought ‘Oh my god I’m glad I didn’t know what they were saying!’

Olivier: That was one of the most amazing moments. When I was going back and I had all that footage, and finally I could understand what they were talking about.

Carol: What was the most shocking thing that you realised much later what they were saying?

Olivier: I would not say shocking because I had an idea, but for example, there is a scene in a school where they are talking with a kid. I didn’t know they were threatening him.  I had no idea…. You really have to trust your instinct and your gut. The thing that is really interesting is if I had a fixer or a translator, it would have killed the connection between me and them. I think I would have missed some key scene because my fixer might have said ‘ they are just talking rubbish, don’t worry about it’ and maybe I would have been tempted to turn away the camera. Because I didn’t know, it’s like I’m being deaf, so you have to develop other senses. It’s a very interesting process.

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Carol:  How did you conduct the interviews?

James: When they’d more or less declared victory in Mosul. Even then they were still on rotation. There was a week window – we didn’t know when that would be. As it happens it came in the middle of Ramadan, in the middle of summer; it was really hot. Half of them were wounded; half weren’t picking up their phone. It was just like a nightmare. It was actually a miracle that we got it. They were scattered all over Iraq. We didn’t want to think about what the film would be if we hadn’t got everybody. Each of them told crucial bits of the story – losing any one of them would have made it really hard. We probably would have had to use commentary.

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Carol: What has been the reaction to the film at screenings?

James: It has been amazing. But the one criticism we’ve heard is some people have said “Is it too beautiful?  It’s about the horrors of war, but does it look too beautiful?!”

Olivier: It’s an argument that unfortunately I’ve heard a few times. Some people are saying that because it’s war you don’t have to be worrying about the aesthetic of the shot. Which I find disturbing to a degree. Because it’s something that you don’t have in photojournalism. All the best photojournalists are painting with their pictures the miserythe death, the suffering with beautiful pictures. And no one told them ‘Why are your pictures so nice?’ But in fact I think the reality that you see for example in a news story that is not actually the reality. The way they build a news story with a shaky shot, it’s not reality.

James: It’s a cheap trick. To tell audiences it is dangerous, it has to feel wobbly. And actually there are a lot of tricks. Where this, it is well composed and it’s beautiful, and it looks sometimes like fiction. But I don’t think that that means it doesn’t seem visceral, or tense.

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Carol: It’s beautifully shot and reminded me of Cartel Land. I’m amazed how you did it – because there is a fair amount of turmoil going on and you did the sound and everything too.

Olivier: I’m not a war junkie. The only reason I went to that battle is there was a story to be told. I said to Dan and James, we had to tell it in a way that was not just another bang bang. And there is bang bang – this is a war story – but I wanted to get more into the mind of those guys, to be more human, more intimate.

James: It’s a film about shades of grey – the horror of war. These kinds of guys going through really extreme things. What we were keen to do was to treat the soldiers with the same respect that we treat British or American soldiers. We wanted to go home with them, interview them, see their lives… It’s interesting, at a time when Trump is banning Muslims for all being terrorists, these men are fighting against ISIS. They are fighting our battle. We left Iraq to them. They are sacrificing themselves to fight ISIS. There’s this kind of irony that all Muslims are seen as enemies but these guys are doing great work.

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MOSUL airs 18 October on Frontline, and on Channel 4 in the UK 7 November (title The Fight for Mosul). Location photos © Olivier Sarbil – Mosul