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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.