Journalist and photographer Sue Carpenter first met the teenage Belmaya Nepali in 2006 when Sue moved to Pokhara, Nepal for a year to run a photo project working with disadvantaged Nepali girls. Fast forward to 2013 and Sue, now a filmmaker, reconnects with Belmaya, and they begin to collaborate on a film project together. The resulting feature docI Am Belmayahas recently been released in the UK, and has garnered huge audience love, as well as two nominations for the BIFA awards. The film, directed by Carpenter with Belmaya credited as co-director, chronicles Belmaya’s transformation from an uneducated teen bride and mother to an empowered filmmaker speaking at international film festivals about the need to educate girls. It’s a truly inspiring watch, not least for the chance to see Belmaya’s education in filmmaking unfold on screen, through her own lens. I spoke on zoom with Sue about the making of the film, and her remarkable collaboration with Belmaya, half her age and half a world away. Our chat can be seen in its entirety on youtube – below is an edited transcript.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about how your partnership with Belmaya evolved to her becoming co-director?
Sue Carpenter: I always wanted her to have a voice and for it not to be my film about her, but for it to be her film or at least a co-creator in some way. And I didn’t know quite how that would be. But I certainly envisioned including her footage and interweaving that with the footage of her. But a lot of the early footage we had, some of it is very very powerful, were of things going wrong in her domestic life, at the same time that she is learning and becoming more powerful in her own career. That footage was always of her. So I had to kind of root around to give her an equal and powerful voice in that first section training of the film while she was training. And we found those training videos of her with her fellow student where they are interviewing each other. And I like that because instead of the powerful director person saying “what don’t you like about your husband” (although that is probably not a question that we would ask!), her peer says “What don’t you like about your husband?” And she says “Oh I don’t like it when he drinks and smokes and gets drunk.” And it just feels so much more natural there and you feel she has agency. She is saying it because she wants to say it. She tells him she’s not gonna answer a question if she doesn’t want to. With a director-subject relationship she wouldn’t be able to say that – she would feel obliged to speak. So I tried to give her those moments in that first section. And then after the crisis point when the film really takes off more she is much more at the helm. She was taking more footage and she was making much more decisions about what to film.
CN: Will you continue to collaborate with Belmaya?
SC: Yes I very much want to. What we’ve done with this film is we’ve had lots of fundraising online screenings working with in tandem with some British charities working in Nepal. And Belmaya has had about five or six commissions through those charities saying “would she make a film about our projects?”
CN: After being a labour of love for so many years the film is out there and it has been very warmly received – what’s that like?
SC: In a way the very first review I got, which was five stars, had the biggest impact on me because I had no idea at that stage whether it was going to be received well in the industry or by anybody. I actually cried. It was a really lovely review in the UK Film Review – they actually got what it was all about. It was a relief and gratifying.
I am Belmaya is available to watch on demand on BFI Iplayer and Curzon Home Cinemas, and is screening through November at selected cinemas. See here for full details.
When filmmaker Nira Burstein picked up a Black Magic camera, she knew where she wanted to point it: at her own family. Over the course of six years she would re-enter her cluttered childhood home in the Queens borough of New York City, on a cul de sac called Charm Circle, where her parents eked out a precarious existence. Against the background of her younger sister’s impending polyamorous wedding, and through childhood home videos, Burstein explores the dysfunction and mental illness which have been a constant in her family. Charm Circle is an intimate, emotional and often funny foray into Burstein’s family life, richly deserving of the audience award it won at Sheffield DocFest, where it had its world premiere and was a word of mouth hit. I met with Burstein during the festival to ask her about the making of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Could you talk me through the process of moving out and whether you began to look through your family differently once you left home and how the film came about?
Nira Burstein: I moved out when I was 18 or 19 and it took me a while to want to go back again. As the years went on after I left, it seemed to feel increasingly worse going over there. Bringing the camera in was a way to bring in something that I enjoy doing to their house. And in a selfish way I thought ‘if I’m going to be here I have to figure out a way to feel welcome’. The filming started in 2015. I would go over maybe every two or three months. And then as I saw a story element developing I would spend more time there. I thought ‘I need to be around to get this while it was happening. No one’s reaction is ever the same in hindsight so you have to get it in the moment.’
CN: How did you go about getting their participation and being on board with it? I know you have one scene where your dad is snapping at you about filming and it’s great to have that in there. Talk me a little bit through their cooperation and did you feel like they ever acted differently because you had the camera there?
NB: I honestly think it was very natural. I don’t think they treated me any differently with the camera or without a camera. I had just bought the camera and I was really wanting to shoot and make something. I don’t know if any of us knew that it would get quite as involved as it did. But my parents have always been really supportive about my projects and have participated in other ways.
There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything is a blessing.
CN: That’s what’s so great about the film is that it’s clearly a loving family but with a lot of problems.
NB: Yes it’s very much the way things are. What I am so grateful for about my family is how much love there is. I think that is what gives people space to watch this movie even in the more difficult moments, because that does exist. And I think that’s the way that people feel safe about it. I am very inspired by my parents. I think they have a wonderful spirit for what they have been through and their sense of humour is incredible.
CN: Did you get them to talk about things that they wouldn’t usually have talked about, as is often the case in autobiographical filmmaking? Like the disparity in their sex drives – I felt like your mum was getting that on the record.
NB: I definitely feel that my mum felt this was a platform to let things out that she maybe hasn’t had a chance to say. And whether it was just meant for me or whether she meant it for the whole world I’m not really sure. Ultimately she’s okay with sharing all of it.
CN: What was it like for you looking through all those home videos? I imagine it was a bit painful to see your parents, as it was striking in the film how much they have changed, and how much more mainstream they seemed thirty years ago.
NB: This was part of the journey that went on behind the camera: me recognising how one can take for granted their childhood and not realise how that ends up playing a part in everyone’s life. And realising how much this thing they went through affected them; it changed them.
CN: Which thing is that?
NB: Specifically I think taking care of my older sister (who has lifelong learning disabilities). There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything’s a blessing. And that’s all true but it’s still really hard.
CN: You look back on your childhood as a happy one, do you?
NB: Yes for the most part. When I was eight, and this is in the movie, for various reasons my childhood just kind of stopped. It just became a lot of responsibility. But there was still a lot of happiness and fun after that.
CN: You’ve described how the camera was useful for you, giving something that you like to do when you visit them and I totally get that. Is there anything that you are hoping that the film does in a larger sense now that it’s made? Is there an impact that you hope it has?
NB: The personal is universal. If we can be okay about sharing personal stuff then it opens a conversation. And so I do hope that the film gets seen. I hope that it brings some joy and brings about a conversation they might not have had otherwise. We don’t really know what’s going on with the person across the room or on the sofa or wherever they are.
Having begun her career working at BBC Storyville seventeen years ago, Shanida Scotland has now arrived at Doc Society, via the Guardian. In a recent zoom call, she reflected on her journey. Her voice has been slightly edited for length.
Storyville was such an incredible time for me and such an incredible place to be. Nick (Fraser) worked in a very collegiate manner. So on the one hand within the Storyville bubble I had some voice and I was able to develop a voice and develop my own language and thoughts and feelings around documentary filmmaking and the sorts of films that we did. Within the wider institutional space of the BBC, that’s a different story. I guess it’s that that I have been reflecting on since since the George Floyd protests, but obviously since before that as well.
After Storyville I went to the Guardian. That’s where it became clear to me what it takes to try to have a voice in institutional spaces. The idea of an industry or company or organisation believing or wanting to be deeply progressive, but also sometimes wanting to balance that with financial consideration. It was a great place to be and it was an interesting place to be.
Thinking through the work of image making within a new space is just an experience that I will treasure forever. It forced really strong discussions and revelations and thought processes around the work of image making when it pertains to black people, people of colour. When you are telling the story about police brutality, you need to consider that sometimes the only image of a black person in the paper and the online space might be a dead or brutalised black body. And one of the things I was really pleased to do when I was there was have Lubaina Himid come to the building to be an artist of residents of sorts. She is interrogating image making in the Guardian space specifically but also in the journalistic space around black people.
When you are telling the story about police brutality, you need to consider that sometimes the only image of a black person in the paper and the online space might be a dead or brutalised black body.
The Guardian was an enriching place to be: a place to test thoughts and beliefs around story and narrative, character driven elements that I had been building and working through at Storyville but in a much more agile shorter more reactive space. And I especially loved working on Windrush. I made a short documentary about Paulette Wilson the Windrush activist and of course a victim of the Windrush scandal for the Guardian. I wanted to explore the story from the Caribbean and looking back at the motherland if you like. My grandad was ill and dying at the time and he was in a hospital room that was opposite the Houses of Parliament and the scandal was happening at the time. And I thought of how across the river decisions were being made to deport Caribbean people and what it must be like.
Since about 2017 I’ve been experimenting with audio documentary. I was interested in what does my voice as a black person sound like in the space? I made a James Baldwin piece for the BBC which then developed into a strand called Afterwords, which continues. It’s really nice that the idea developed that something that can live and breathe on its own.
Over the summer I also worked on Mothers of Invention which is Doc Society’s only podcast, about feminist responses to the climate crisis. That was my first experience working with Doc Society. I always love the way that Doc Society were slightly ferocious defenders of documentarians and documentary filmmakers and image making. The importance of image making seemed to always be at the forefront of their consideration of documentary projects and film producers. And it was incredibly enriching working with that women- led team. But also on the specific season season three of the podcast it was working entirely with women of colour on our team. Which was great and wonderful.
Now as Head of Film I am looking after and distributing the BFI money. I started in October. In the UK the Doc Society distributes all of the BFI’s documentary funding. We do that through two key funds. The first is Made of Truth, which is the short filmmaking fund for emerging documentary filmmakers. There is an elasticity to that in that it can be character driven, essay style, observational. It’s really a space to solidify the work of emerging documentary filmmakers. Each film can get up to £15,000. They have just closed the funding round. And also through the Features Fund, for tried and tested filmmakers in the community who are trying to get their next feature documentary work off the ground. That round also just closed: it was a really strong selection of top topics and filmmakers who are really thinking about the world that we are living in right now through the most intriguing and thoughtful and illuminating actually unexpected ways. That’s really exciting – it’s like my Storyville sweet spot.
The way the role morphed ahead of me joining the team was actually Doc Society’s commitment for equity and human economic justice and climate justice. And so Doc Society had updated its mission statement at the end of summer to further commit themselves to that equity lens. And what that means pursuant to my role is that I will be looking at all of that strategy through an equity lens. Which is great – I love that.
When you think about the 80s and 90s and the Black Audio Film Collective and all that, there is so much brilliant work, but it’s also quite male led. The Black British female voice is really missing. It’s something that I’ve specifically had discussions around as we thought about recent funding rounds. There are voices that will be coming up, that are emerging but doing really interesting things.
Being one of the only documentary women of colour in the UK it’s taken a long time to gain voice. And that is a problem that I think documentary in this country needs to reckon with. Not with me, necessarily, but it shouldn’t take this long.
Rob Lemkin always does a lot of reading in preparation for his films. As an Oxford-based filmmaker, perhaps it’s par for the course. In the years he spent making the award winning Enemies of the People, as well as his earlier 1990s BBC films about colonialism in Southeast Asia, he came to realise that there were very few films that really query colonialism. “So I kind of gravitated towards thinking about readings that I had done and thinking about how Heart of Darkness has been a universal text that still stands, notwithstanding all of the criticisms that are made of Conrad’s racism, language and so on and so forth.”
In the course of further research into Heart of Darkness, Lemkin discovered the story of a rogue French army commander, Paul Voulet, who was slaughtering his way through Niger in 1898 at the same time that Conrad was writing his book. Lemkin persuaded the BFI to fund him to go to Niger to see what he could find out about Voulet.
During his recce trip he found that the Voulet story was still incredibly present, not least because Voulet’s terrible path of murderous destruction led to the highway that runs through the country. “The idea that that his journey still existed now as a road just felt to me like wow this was a way of really connecting Colonialism to a universal present,” Lemkin says.
After his recce trip, Lemkin was wondering how to approach the film when his partner came across Femi Nylander performing in a pub down the road from their home. “He was performing songs including one about the Congo, which obviously is where Conrad’s book is set. She came back and she said ‘maybe you should look at him’”. Nylander is a British-Nigerian poet-activist who had recently been active in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Soon Lemkin and Nylander decided to make the film together.
In African Apocalypse, which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Nylander follows the path of Voulet’s destruction, with the help of two local guides. On top of scenes of their journey, and various encounters with the locals, we hear Nylander’s thoughts as he reads the diaries of Voulet. In the verité footage, however, when interacting with descendants of his victims – who are clearly still traumatised – Nylander often seems impassive.
Extraordinarily, in the middle of the film, the two guides confront him about his lack of emotion. “I think it’s a testament to him and to his courage that he was happy to have that scene included, because it was a bit of a forceful personality critique,” says Lemkin. “He is a young guy for whom colonialism is an enormous issue amongst the student population. In the environment of the student hothouse, world colonialism is an issue, a subject, a topic for discussion, a thing. You don’t actually breathe it, touch it and feel it; you read it, you watch about it, you talk about it.”
Lemkin says that whilst Nylander is very effective at being forceful in television discussions, he found it much more difficult on the road with limited language and various pressures. “I realised that Femi would need a lot of orientation because suddenly were not in the Oxford Union or in some student hub. And it’s raw but it’s also random and there’s a lot of different kinds of things that are going on– present tense issues and awareness of historical issues.”
Lemkin says Femi found it quite hard to be constantly under the scrutiny of the camera. “It’s a difficult pressure to be on for anyone,” he says. “When he was going into the real community he still had the feeling that he was a consumer of testimonies. One of the things that we were able to deploy as a mechanism is trying to ask: How does a young black person coming from a formerly colonised country deal with this kind of history?”
This question works as a motif that threads through the narrative, Lemkin says. “Although at the time when we shot that scene, I wasn’t really thinking about it in such a motif and narrative kind of way. I was just thinking more about the fact that in reality both of the guides and myself were feeling a sense of frustration about the fact that he did not seem to be able to or want to connect in a totally full throttle human way with the groups of people that we were meeting.”
Lemkin says that although Nylander had learned rudimentary Hausa and French for the trip, the rushes reveal that the people really couldn’t understand him. “It’s kind of google translate hausa and they’re not getting it. And the people that we are speaking to are not necessarily literate people, so there’s quite a gap. But I think they also feel a sense of feeling like they can educate Femi with what they say to him in a way that responding to me as a white person there is a different power dynamic.”
By interweaving Nylander’s voiceover with the verité footage, and existing archive, the final film is an engrossing narrative with many layers which succeeds, as Lemkin intended in querying colonialism and bringing its often terrible legacy into the here and now.
Lemkin’s aesthetic approach to filming was to treat the shoot like a road movie. “We wanted to really capture the sense that we were going from encounter to encounter, and it was actually going into places where Femi was meeting people for the first time. This was really critical for me. Even Claude (Garnier, the DoP) was saying ‘do we really have to film them going in?’ and I said ‘yes we really have to film them going in’. And we use that a lot of the time just because I think it gives you a feeling of the freshness and unpredictability of the encounter”.
The meetings that we see Nylander have are the result of Lemkin’s two previous trips to Niger, where he spent a lot of time scouting the right people to talk to. “What appears to be a spontaneous journey isn’t,” he admits. “It was very important to have actual community meetings very well established so we could put in archive and make it feel it was something that you are mentally flipping to and from across time all the way through.”
Such personal connections are necessary for the viewer to then be able to connect with the archive, Lemkin says. “Otherwise you could just end up feeling that the whole thing was theoretical and abstract and academic. Not like I don’t like academic, but I think it’s important that it’s rooted in human experience.”
The Painter and the Thief not only tells a remarkable story but it does so in a remarkable way. The film chronicles the unlikely friendship between the Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and heroin addict Karl-Bertil Nordland – a friendship which develops after Nordland is jailed for the brazen theft of two of Kysilkova’s paintings from a gallery. Norwegian Director Benjamin Ree follows his two protagonists for three and a half years, as Nordland becomes a new muse for Kysilkova, even as he indulges in increasingly self-destructive behaviour. But what really sets this film apart is its approach to storytelling – Ree has viewers inhabit the perspectives of both Nordland and Kysilkova, going back to replay scenes with different narrative overlays. It’s an exciting film which keeps you guessing, and in my books makes Ree (who is 31 and also made the excellent Magnus) a filmmaker to watch. I spoke to him via zoom while the film had its BFI London Film Festival run, where it won Best Documentary. The following interview contains spoilers and has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: At what stage was their relationship when you started filming them?
Benjamin Ree: I started filming them the fourth time they met. I read about the story in the newspapers in Norway and it always takes a bit of time to get access – in this case getting access to a thief who didn’t know anything about me! I was really fortunate because a friend of mine had documented Barbora’s life a lot – taking photos of her paintings being made, filming her exhibition – we even had surveillance footage! Barbora had brought with her an audio recording recorder to the trial because she doesn’t understand the region so she recorded the whole trial and also during the break when she approached Karl-Bertil. So there was so much footage there from the very beginning. It was just pure luck to have such great footage before I came along.
CN: I have read that you’re inspired by observational documentary filmmakers like Steve James. But was there any point in time when you thought that you might become part of the story? Because clearly you must have interacted with them all the time during the shoot.
BR: During filming we did a lot of interviews and and we hear my questions and of course we could have chosen another approach to this where I am more visible. But I do believe that I am very there in the film as well. What I do with those interviews is I convert that to cinematic language. The film is very self reflective in a way but it but it is self reflective in a way that I haven’t seen before in a verité documentary film. I am very present in the whole film because we force the audience to think about the filmmaking process, having overlapping scenes. And some people become a bit uncomfortable with that, some love it, but I think it’s fun to try something new in a verité documentary.
CN: Absolutely and I am in the category of loving it and I really enjoyed the non-linear storytelling and the fact that it always kept you guessing. Did you have any idea when you were shooting it that you were going to be doing this in the edit?
BR: It was kind of two choices that made the structure happen. For me dramaturgy is not only an artistic choice in documentary, it is also an ethical choice. And that’s very important to keep in mind. So during filming we really wanted to portray Karl‑Bertil in a complex way to show how funny he is, how intelligent, how self-destructive and sad he is. And the only way to really get to know Karl-Bertil was to show the world from his point of view. And in the editing room we found the way to do it: that we wanted overlapping scenes. And the reason that we do that is because the themes of the film is what we humans do in order to be seen and appreciated. We would explore the film’s themes in a playful, fun and complex way to see the scenes over again so we had both of the subjects’ points of view of each other. And I think that was really relevant for this film. But it was in the editing room we found out how to do it.
CN: How did you get involved with Morgan Neville and what role did he play?
Ben: Morgan Neville saw the film at Sundance, so he came into it after the film. He loved the film and wanted to support it. I asked him if he wanted to become an ambassador. But in film words we don’t call it an ambassador, we call it executive producer!
CN: In the film Karl-Bertil has a bad accident. How soon did you talk to Karl-Bertil before he had it, and what was that like for you?
BR: It was not right before he had his accident. There was a period when he almost died several times and it was almost pure luck that he survived that accident. And Karl-Bertil and I had several conversations, and I said to him and he agreed both of us thought that he was going to die during filming. And I told him ‘if you die we’re not gonna make this film’ and Karl-Bertil responded by saying ‘if I die you have to promise to me to make this film’. So those are some of the conversations that we had. I was nervous all the time. I was waking up in the middle of the night worrying about him. There were of course long periods of time when I couldn’t reach him at all.
CN: When he sees the portrait and cries in that very moving scene, was he using at the time? He seemed quite out of it.
BR: For me that is a great scene filmed by Kristoffer Kumar. Karl-Bertil explains that this is maybe the first time he has been seen in his life, and that’s why he behaved that way. But the first half of the film yes he’s on drugs all the time.
CN: Is he doing okay now?
BR: He’s doing great today. He’s not single anymore. Bad guys like that don’t stay single for long! He has finished his second year at a school of sport science and he has got a new job. He’s not counting months anymore of being sober, he is counting years. I’m extremely proud of him and I think that the journey he goes through from the lowest point in the film, almost dying and being addicted to heroin, to where he is today is the most impressive thing I have experienced ever in my life.
One Man and His Shoes, a new feature length doc from South London filmmaker Yemi Bamiro, tells the often astonishing story of the rise of the Air Jordan brand, the first mega superstar endorsement that remains a cultural phenomenon. Thanks in large part to a series of iconic ads made with director Spike Lee, the shoes became a highly coveted status symbol which has endured for decades, and taken some dark turns, not least the murder of teenagers for the trainers.
Made independently over seven years, Bamiro interweaves a number of themes, from America’s love affair with consumerism to the mass-market 1980s breakthrough of African Americans such as Jordan, Eddie Murphy and Prince. In the wake of its screening at the BFI London Film Festival, I spoke with Bamiro via Zoom about the making of it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra (CN): I enjoyed the film and as an American of a certain age this is my era. But how did you, a much younger Brit, come to be telling the story?
Yemi Bamiro (YB): I guess I started thinking about the story in 2012-2013 when I was thinking up ideas for longer form films. I had always been interested in trainers. The first iteration of this film was going to be about Air Jordan collectors because I felt that I had never seen anything like that before – I was interested in the culture and their enthusiasm and their obsessiveness over this one brand. So I started to make that film, and some of the collectors that I profiled are actually made the cut for the feature film. But I realised maybe after a year that I needed more to sustain a feature length narrative arc. So then I started thinking about the origin story of the Air Jordan. I started to seriously think about Michael Jordan in terms of marketing and how much that has given the world, given that that was the first foray into superstar endorsement deals. And that’s pretty much how the story came about. I knew that it was an idea that I wouldn’t get bored of after a couple of years, that it would be something that I would be able to stick with. And I thought that was important given the fact that I realised it was going to be take a long time to make this film independently.
CN: How easy was it to get access to your interviewees? What was that like as an outsider?
YB: The access was pretty straightforward but I only say that because we had the luxury of time. Everyone that you asked to put in your documentary is not necessarily going to say yes straight away. They want to know who else is in your films. I think if someone had given us a pot of money in 2013 and said deliver this film in 2015 I think you know we might not necessarily have had the contributors that we ended up having in the film. Because when you ask somebody to be in your documentary they might say no and you have to persevere and keep knocking and gently knocking until they say yes. I am not really a person who goes away easily given I was so invested in this project.
CN: Did you try to get Michael Jordan or Spike Lee?
YB: I never entertained the idea of getting Michael Jordan because it would’ve completely changed what the film is. The film is about Michael Jordan in part, but it’s essentially about his sneakers; it’s about marketing; it’s about all of those interesting facets centred around this phenomenon. You couldn’t have Michael Jordan in your film as a talking head: he would have to be beginning middle and end. We did definitely try to get to Spike Lee but he is an Oscar winning director and he’s got lots of things on. So we didn’t get him.
CN: You made this independently. Where did you get money from?
YB: We self-funded it for many years. After about two years I met this guy, James Ramkoleea, who is now really good friend of mine in my NCT classes. And he lives locally and is an Arsenal supporter and we just started speaking about our lives and I told him about this film. He said ‘I’ve always wanted to invest in film’. I kind of laughed at him and then over the next six months he kept prodding me about getting involved in this film. Then he gave us a chunk of money and invested in the film! And his contribution and him coming on board as an exec producer was the thing that allowed us to get the film across the line. We got in to SXSW and that pretty much changed everything for us.
We met Christo in like 2016 when we got into MeetMarket at Sheffield Docfest. And I think we basically felt a little bit fatigued because we had met everybody, but we only met a few people who were really champions of the film, that really got it. And Christo was one of them. We made the decision in 2017 to go back to all the people who have just championed this film. Christo was one of the people that believed in the idea and bought into it so I think we formalised everything in terms of him coming on board with Dartmouth in 2018.
CN: At what point did you become aware of The Last Dance series? You must’ve both been moving ahead at the same time.
YB: I knew that ESPN and Netflix were making this mammoth 10 hour special on Michael Jordan. I think I became aware of it maybe two years ago. I didn’t think anything of it because I always hoped that our film would be out in the world and we would be quite clear down the road before that mammoth came along, you know? But then the global pandemic happened and SXSW got cancelled and ESPN obviously pushed it forward because they had huge programming slots in their schedule because of no live sport.
It was like the number one trending topic on Twitter every week that they dropped an episode. It was too close to home for me – I couldn’t engage with it because I was thinking what’s the point of us even putting this film out when this thing has stolen all of our thunder? But thankfully the Last Dance team had a different objective. Their objective was about Michael Jordan and his last season with the Bulls and our film was completely different. So we are able to co-exist.
We then very much existed in the slipstream of The Last Dance because I think it showed that there was an appetite for all things Michael Jordan, nostalgia, 1990s NBA basketball. And we just happened to have a film that dealt with all of those things at a time when everybody was at home and wanting content so I think we got really lucky. That’s how we sold our US TV rights to Vice – they saw the reception that The Last Dance got.
One Man and His Shoes is playing in UK cinemas from 23 October, and on demand from 26 October.
The last time I interviewed Paddy Wivell, he was just putting the finishing touches on the first series of Prison. The three part series, filmed in Durham Prison, was a revelatory look at a system in crisis. It took a themed approach, with an episode each focused on mental health, drugs and violence. It won both the Grierson and Royal Television Society awards for Best Documentary Series.
Now Paddy has turned his attention to women prisoners, filming for months in HMP Foston Hall in Derbyshire. I caught up with him over the telephone to find out more about Prison: Series 2.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about the approach to this series?
Paddy Wivell: It felt like a natural progression after the Durham series to then look at the women’s estate. There are 80,000 male prisoners (in England and Wales) and something like 4,000 female. So I knew I would be encountering something quite different. I wanted to take a sort of present tense approach – looking at the culture within the environment. But actually what I did find was the women’s backgrounds became seemingly more relevant as I started to pick up on some of the main themes. You just couldn’t look away from the effects of trauma played out in the lives of the women in terms of sexual and domestic abuse. It felt really important to then spend some of the time with the women looking back at what brought them into prison.
Each film again has a theme. The first film is really looking at short sentences. Something like 75% of women in prison spend less than 12 months in prison. And within that to be able to look at issues like drugs, relationships, trauma within a setting where women are coming in and out routinely. And ultimately sort of questioning the validity of a system that doesn’t seem to rehabilitate or help women with the kind of difficulties that they come into prison with. Because the prison has a very short window, you’re not doing anything to rectify or help with the problems. So that’s one of the films.
And then another film looks at the issue of trauma in more detail through a prisoner led therapeutic course called Healing Trauma. So that’s a map of the three films. Although the approach was similar to the first series, the content feels very very different.
CN: So much of the series is dependent on your interactions with your contributors. I’m wondering if your interactions were different than with the men and how you were received?
PW: To be honest with you it was much more gratifying. Women handle incarceration very differently to men and the fact is that they do it through relationships with each other. So in terms of filmmaking in many ways it was far richer than the first series. Because women want to communicate.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t quite difficult at first just gaining the trust of the prison as a whole. Obviously a lot of women in there have had very difficult experiences with men. So when somebody like me comes in it takes a long time to build a sense of trust, and a feeling that they’re going to be safe with us wandering around. So that took some time. But once I found the contributors who could speak to these wider themes it was immensely gratifying because the conversations were richer and more detailed. So I think what it might lack in the sense of a system in crisis it absolutely points to a sort of richness of humanity.
CN: Did you get a sense that there was a way that the men could be learning from the women?
PW: Definitely. I think there is a certain sort of narrative that is applied to women in prison that isn’t necessarily applied around men. There is a public recognition that for most of the women in prison that they’ve had worse crimes visited upon them than they have actually perpetrated. And trauma has a huge effect and there is a sense that a lot of women are going to prison and being punished when they’ve already been punished throughout their lives. Because these narratives aren’t as prevalent with a male population it doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t exist. I would say obviously huge numbers of men have had the same issues.
But one of the other really shocking things is what happens when women are released. There are only six hostels nationally with 100 places a huge amount of women are being released homeless. So there is a real problem in sending people back outside without proper accommodation or support. There is a big push that hasn’t really materialised as much as it should do where women carry out their sentences in the community instead. And get support for issues that are common to them, like substance misuse debt or homelessness
CN: I know that it was tricky in the first series getting your third episode to broadcast because of people getting caught up in the legal system. Have you had any issues with this series?
PW: Anybody that’s released can pick up a charge at any time so it’s always quite anxiety inducing. We have to do a check a week before the TX, and the first program can go out. We will keep our fingers crossed for the next two!
The first episode of the second series of Prison goes out on Channel 4, 9pm Monday, 17 February.
A few months ago I joined the team at Bertha Dochouse, helping to programme their amazing array of international documentaries which screen in their dedicated cinema in Bloomsbury, London. It’s a wonderful complement to my university teaching. It’s a privilege to be able to watch so many documentaries from around the world – and connect with the filmmakers who made them.
Here’s a good example of those films: Turtle Rock. Stunningly shot in black and white, this slow cinema voyage takes viewers to Turtle Rock, a remote, mountainous village in China. Filmmaker Xiao Xiao grew up here, and for this sumptuous film he returns to follow the village’s seven families through four seasons.
It’s a simple, physical existence for these Bhuddist bamboo farmers – everything needs to be carried, made, cooked with the simplest of tools. In Turtle Rock, the cinematography is the star: each frame is beautifully composed and a pleasure to see on the big screen.
We sent through some questions for Filmmaker Xiao Xiao, about how he made the film:
1. Can you tell us a bit about how and why you came to make this film?
This documentary derives from my own nostalgia. After I was born, my grandmother and uncle raised me in this village till I was six, of school age. After I went back home with my parents, I returned to the village every year and stayed for a while. Turtle Rock is my hometown spiritually. As time goes by, a lot of changes have taken place there, with more and more modern buildings and facilities, and less and less residence. I strongly felt like preserving some of the images as well as my memories of this place. From 2015, with such motivation, I frequently went back alone to the village and stayed with my uncle’s family for more than two years, filming and recording their lives.
2. Filming in black and white is very striking. Can you discuss your aesthetic approach? Did you have any self-imposed rules while shooting?
This documentary was filmed by the format of black and white, instead of post effect. I have several reasons for shooting it in black and white. There are a lot of similar villages in China. Like this one, along with the process of modernisation and urbanisation, they quickly lost vitality and character – generations of young people have migrated to the cities while agricultural society became grotesque under the “modern constructions”. Secondly, I view the images without colours to be far from the real world, and near to the spiritual reality. Especially among the secular mundane images, I believe black and white represents purer spirituality. And I also hoped that the audience could experience their lives like memories.
3. What kind of equipment did you use to film this?
I used a mini SONY SLR camera because I wanted to minimize the disturbance I brought to my filming objects. I also used a stabilizer to obtain smoother and slower effects.
4. Will you continue to make films about your village, Turtle Rock?
I went back to the village time by time without preplanned schedules or presuppositions. Filming this place has become a “return” to myself, not only in terms of affection, but also a process of tracing the sources of artistic production.
5. This has been described as “slow cinema”. Is that how you would describe it? Was that what you had in mind while you were editing it?
I had in mind a relatively slow cinema before shooting: slow story-telling, and slow moving images. It is because the lives there are “spontaneous” in terms of natural rhythms – people follow the seasons in farming activities and they go by the sun in their daily schedule. It is a slow lifestyle of cycles. Compared to the pace of time and work there, this documentary of
less than two hours is very fast and abridged. Of course when I myself review the work, I find some places could have been “faster”, but I do not intend to revise it. I am rather content with my simple and immature thoughts of my first work without any intention of marketing or commercial gain.
6. What do you hope that audiences in the UK might gain from watching this?
It is a documentary of a lifestyle without targeting any regional audience – I believe it is comprehensible for all, but with very different angles. I remember that during a screening in Sheffield, a British man with a long beard said to me, “It is the same everywhere in the world, people are fond of talking nonsense”.
Turtle Rock is screening at Bertha Dochouse on Sunday, January 26th and Tuesday, 4th February. Check out their Instagram feed here.
Fifteen years ago Morgan Spurlock burst into cinemas with the ultimate adventure in immersive documentary: he spent a month eating McDonald’s. The resulting film, Super Size Me, made him an enduring household name – to this day, my twenty year old students know who he is.
While in the intervening years he has directed and overseen a raft of nonfiction programming, Spurlock hasn’t returned to the world of fast food until recently. In Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken he investigates the dishonesty behind the massive chicken fast food industry. By becoming a chicken shop owner himself, Spurlock shines a light on the endemic cruelties in mass chicken rearing, the shocking way farmers are treated, and how the fast food industry has employed an enormous bag of tricks to fool people into thinking that chicken is a healthy choice.
Not long after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, Spurlock outed himself in a blog as guilty of sexually inappropriate behaviour and part of the #MeToo problem. The resulting furore led to the pulling of the film from the Sundance lineup and the shutting down of his 65-strong production company Warrior Poets.
Two years on, Super Size Me 2 has been picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and Spurlock is back in the public gaze. I spoke to him via FaceTime about the journey he’s been on.
As usual, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: I can’t really think of someone who is so well known based off of one film, in terms of Supersize Me making you into such a household name. Is that both a blessing and a curse? What was it like for you going into this project as Morgan Spurlock?
Morgan Spurlock: The minute you call up, certain people know who you are. Or the minute you make the second phone call they’ll know who you are and will have questions about it. It’s a blessing because it opens a lot of doors; it’s a curse because it closes a lot of doors (laughs). You have to lean into the upside of the doors that are actually opened. I think that I’ve always been able to do what I do because I’m blessed with great field producers who are able to go out and be the boots on the ground and it doesn’t have to be me all the time.
CN: Am wondering at what point this became Super Size Me 2?
MS: We were always going to call this Super Size Me 2. But the whole time we were doing it we just called ourselves Chicken just so that it was never tied to me or the other film in an overt way. But it was always going to be Super Size Me 2.
CN: Why was that? You have done a fair number of films in between. Why this one – obviously it’s the same terrain in terms of fast food but it’s not otherwise at all similar in structure to Super Size Me. So what was your thinking there?
MS: I think cause it is so very much a look into the fast food industry and the impact that’s had on how we eat and how we live. Especially because the door got opened by me getting a letter from Hardees wanting me to come be in their commercial, which I thought was the most ridiculous thing ever.
CN: Did you at any point think “I’m going to spend a month eating chicken”?
MS: I knew I was going to eat a lot of chicken but I knew I didn’t want to do that same type of thing. I knew that just going into a place and just eating the food wasn’t the story. Especially once we got into the greenwashing of it, and understanding the journey was going to show where most meat on the planet comes from. We eat 50 billion chickens a year – how do they get from the egg to your plate? And telling that journey.
I was like a lot of people – I thought if you’re still a farmer in the United States that you are doing something to really survive and do well. You’re somehow working the system in a way that is enabling you to thrive. And I hadn’t really understood the level of indentured servitude these guys are going through.
CN: Looking back at the years since the original film came out, how do you think the appetite for nonfiction storytelling has changed?
MS: Oh my gosh, well Americans finally woke up and realised it was a great way to watch movies and tell stories! It was fantastic. American audiences finally caught up with European audiences and suddenly you could see them on primetime television, thanks to HBO, Netflix and Showtime. There has been this great kind of normalisation and commodification of nonfiction which has been awesome. And I think that people finally saw that these can be as compelling, as entertaining, as rich a tapestry as a scripted project. And that’s been fantastic for filmmakers, period. No matter where you are around the world it’s been fantastic for nonfiction filmmakers. And I think that it continues to grow. We’re in this amazing time for television now where I don’t think there has been better television being made. I don’t think there has been a time where there has been better nonfiction being made. So it is a golden age across the board I feel now.
CN: What are your plans for Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken? I understand the gap that you’ve had and why you’ve had this gap. Are you able to pick up the momentum of where you left off in your plans to tackle the chicken industry?
MS: Well, luckily on the heels of the film opening up we did a pop up of the Holy chicken restaurant in NYC. We had an investor group who came on who wanted to get behind the restaurant and turn them into permanent locations. So the goal is to continue to use the momentum of the film and the momentum of the story to start to open these locations which continue to tell a conversation to folks. The film does a great job of opening the door. These people getting to actually sit in a restaurant and actually meet their chicken farmer and eat a sandwich and understanding in a deeper level where that food is coming from is transformative. So the more that I can slowly roll these out around the country will be amazing. And I think we can still do that.
CN: And what would be your best outcome for this in terms of the chicken industry?
MS: The goal from the beginning and the goal moving forward is if I can create more independent chicken farmers – right now one percent of the chicken we buy in the United States comes from independent chicken farmers – 99 percent comes from these giant mega chicken corporations. So, if I can create one percent more independent chicken farmers; so they are not under the thumb of Tyson, Purdue, Cook Food, Sanderson, then that’s a pretty great accomplishment. So, for me it’s how can I empower more of those guys to not feel stuck in these situations where they are not making a living, not making any money, living hundreds sometimes millions of dollars in debt, then I think we’ll be on the right track.
CN: Finally I wanted to ask you a little bit about what it’s like for you now not having the big production company. What’s it like for you moving now more freely, whether or not you would have liked the circumstances behind which it came about?
MS: Yeah well it’s another one of those things where it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because suddenly, as you said, to not have all that infrastructure and have to deal with the support to make payroll for 65 people every two weeks – that’s a stressful, stressful burden. For that suddenly to be gone is awesome. But at the same time to kind of lose that support system of development, of production, of editorial, so suddenly it goes back to being a one man band…I’m literally back to my roots, what do I want to do, what stories do I want to tell? It’s great but to go from a place where I can chase so many different things at once, it’s hard to kind of go back to thinking I can now only chase one or two things at a time.
CN: Because you are a personal documentary maker, have you thought about doing any kind of personal film around the #MeToo movement?
MS: I’ve been asked by a few different folks about doing that, and it’s something that…you know, I’ve been approached but nothing has made me want to tell that story right now. There are other things I’d rather talk about.
SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! is released on iTunes and On Demand from 9th December 2019
I have learned over the years to be sure to watch anything that London-based producer Simon Chinn works on. From Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, both of which won Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, to the Imposter and Project Nim, he has been instrumental in transforming the feature doc landscape. With his company Lightbox, formed in 2014 with his LA-based cousin Jonathan Chinn, he makes quality docs for a wide range of broadcasters and platforms. Recent projects includes the fascinating series Diagnosis, based on the NYT column, the Harvey Weinstein doc Untouchable, and the gripping Netflix documentary Tell Me Who I Am. Some weeks ago, I spoke to him on the telephone about what it’s like serving so many masters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Tell me about your recent projects.
Simon Chinn: Our Weinstein doc was a BBC Two commission that we then enlarged with other investment. We got private investment from someone who is actively getting into the film and television business. That was an interesting hybrid project, which so many of these feature docs can be, where it’s literally trying to sort of make what is very traditional television money work alongside more film money, which is based on theatrical sales projections and presales. It’s a challenging thing to do, for sure….The budget on the Weinstein doc was in excess of a million pounds – the BBC put a third in. They are getting something they couldn’t get if we didn’t broker in that way.
CN: Is it safe to say that for the quality and the ambition of the nonfiction slate that you are developing, a BBC commission is never going to cover the whole budget?
SC: I wouldn’t say that necessarily. There are projects that we could do with the BBC fully funding. I wouldn’t discount that. But not the feature docs, not the really premium documentaries that we do. But we are exploring other kinds of ideas – probably more series ideas. That model has worked well for plenty of companies. Look at someone like The Garden, those rig shows that they make, absolutely great and they make them essentially on a UK terrestrial license fee. They might not make anything on production but they do very very well on the back end. I think that is a model that we would certainly not discount and are actually exploring.
CN: How do you find that the BBC presents itself as different from Netflix?
SC: The BBC looks at places like Netflix and Amazon and sees – like many of us consumers see – receptacles of content libraries. We see how much content they are making. And to some extent how uncurated it can sometimes feel. And I suppose the broadcasters that are much more in the business of curation, that are steeped in that ethos and developing projects carefully with producers, shaping them for their audiences and all of that, it does feel like a different offering to what you often imagine is going on in the sort of big, slightly impersonal places where they are just acquiring and financing huge amount of content. I suppose the problem with that rhetoric is that it doesn’t quite check out based on experience. We work a lot with the premium documentary group at Netflix, run by Lisa Nishimura and executives like Kate Townsend; these guys are actually very smart filmmakers in their own right. My experience on the last two projects we have done with them is that they have absolutely been vital creatively. They have been incredibly hands on in a positive way. I am honestly saying that. There are many broadcaster experiences I have had where I sort of think the executives can sometimes make the films or the programmes worse, but I have not had that experience with Netflix. Netflix is many things; that’s the point. Much like there are many different parts of the BBC. Some of them are tiny bit more cookie cutter or doing things in so much volume that they haven’t got the bandwidth to actually shape anything. But that hasn’t been my experience.
The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them?
CN: Where does public service fit in?
SC: The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them? They do have a tradition of working closely with programme makers and filmmakers to shape their content. And that’s great – and I think there are some very smart executives at the BBC. I actually think that the offering that they should be making to producers is arguably more of a commercial offering. Because the truth of the matter is that because of the terms of trade and because of their ability to co-produce, their involvement from a commercial point of view in the Weinstein project was great. They put up a third of the budget; they took a small piece of the back end – the terms of trade legislate against them doing anything different. And it was very helpful. They put up a very good chunk of the license fee, and their branding is all over it and they felt that they had significant editorial input, which was not unhelpful. So all good then. The point is that generally the terms of trade make British broadcasters very attractive as co producing partners.
CN: Isn’t the Weinstein model how Storyville has been acting for years?
SC: Yes, the difference is that for the Weinstein model, the BBC put up a third of a million pound budget – that’s not to be sniffed at (and is more than Storyville budgets). The BBC linear offering has things going for it that Netflix doesn’t. Stuff can really hit on Netflix but also stuff can get lost. Not to say that that isn’t true of the BBC. But if they want to make noise about something they can do so in a way that perhaps Netflix finds sometimes difficult.
CN: What is your ideal kind of production deal these days?
SC: There is no ideal; it’s all different. There are advantages and disadvantages to every model. My ideal production is one where we have enough funds to do what we want to do where we can also make our margins, and we are completely creatively aligned with the buyers. Certainly there are places I can think of where that’s the case. Certainly Nat Geo is a great example of a buyer we have loved working with for all these reasons.