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.
In fifteen years of directing documentaries, Paddy Wivell has made a name for himself for the seemingly effortless way he connects with his subjects, from African tribes, to Orthodox Jews, to psychiatric inpatients. His warmth and curiosity elicits often astonishing intimacy from his subjects – a skill on ready display in his new Channel 4 series, Prison. The three parter uses a 360 degree approach to take us deep inside Durham Prison where a constantly revolving population of nearly 1000 men do daily battle with a skeletal staff long on patience but short on resources. It’s a layered, sometimes shocking peek into a world most of us know little about other than crisis-screaming headlines.
I sat down with Paddy as he was finishing up in post, to find out the making of it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity:
CN: Can you talk me through the access?
PW: In England and Wales I think it’s been about five years since a documentary team have been allowed in to a prison – they’ve had such terrible negative headlines for such a long time. But Spring Films managed to locate a particular individual called Ian Blakeman who was then an executive governor of the Northeast Prisons. He could see the value of allowing a documentary team in. He introduced me to one prison that didn’t feel right – they didn’t feel confident or open enough. And then he suggested I go to Durham Prison. And as soon as I went there I knew that it was a great environment. The governor, Tim Allen, said “we’re getting such bad press, I don’t know why we don’t just open our doors and you can see what we’re doing in the face of extraordinary challenges”. He had complete faith in his staff. He’d been governor there ten years and felt confident and robust. And we got on really well.
CN: How did you approach making the series?
PW: I knew that I had to make a series that was specific to the prison that I was in, but that also spoke to the national crisis. And so as I started to get access around the prison, doing my research, it started to form in my mind that it would be good to do something based around different themes – so that each week the audience would feel like they were coming back to something different. And if you look at the indices of the crisis, you would find that mental health, drugs, incidents of violence are the themes people talk about: the trouble preventing drugs getting into the system, the prevalence of spice in prisons all across the country; the incredibly alarming rates of self harm which have tripled in five years; incidents of violence of prisoners on other prisoners but also on officers. So there was a ready made map of the series for me. I then just needed to find prisoners and staff who could start colouring in those sketches.
CN: How did the consent work? Do you gain it from each prisoner before you start filming? Sometimes it seemed like you would go up to a cell and film from the get go.
Paddy: Everybody who is on it consents. But sometimes I do just film from the get go and see how they go with it and then build consent off that first meeting. I had an amazing assistant producer, Josh Allott, who would be around all the wings with us as we were filming, getting consent from every prisoner. And he was just extraordinary. Because it was a big concern that we would end up having to blur everyone. And every prisoner you end up getting their consent but also you have to be across the legal proceedings – you have to avoid sub judice. If they are charged and not sentenced you can’t put them on the television. They have to be sentenced. So we’ve done a lot of work in post with the courts and prison service to make sure we’re completely across everyone that features. So in the background shots there are only a relatively few number of people blurred. If you look at other prison documentaries it’s a blurfest – the whole thing’s a nightmare!
CN: You came across as a bit of an anthropologist in there – did you feel like one?
PW: I was just really excited because I really felt like there were unchartered territories in prison documentaries. Always the space that excites me is the space I wanted to go but hadn’t had the opportunity to know. I always felt that a lot of the prison documentaries I’ve seen, the emphasis is so weighted on the shoulders of the staff members that you don’t really get the POV from the prisoners themselves. And I wanted a series that had equal weight among prisoners and staff. They both kind of cohabit the same space and they both have views on the crisis but from very different perspectives. So what might be a crisis to the officers might actually be seen by some of the prisoners as an opportunity. And I wanted that to be impressed somehow….Every day I l hear all these headlines and listen to the Today programme about the crisis in prisons but it’s from such a particular perspective. And it felt like there is a whole class of people who are not being spoken to or heard. It’s fresh territory.
CN: What was your responsibility when prisoners confided in you about all of their shenanigans? Obviously it’s going to come out on telly if the staff don’t know it already.
PW: They sort of know it already. But there’s a difference between knowing something and being able to prevent it. They know they stuff all these things up their bums to come in – they know the techniques. But they have six staff to two hundred prisoners. The prisoners have 24 hours a day to dream of ways to bring drugs into prisons or to hide contraband. It’s a never ending battle with the staff. What I wanted to avoid going in there was setting out too many rules to make my life more difficult. I didn’t ask the question “what do I do if someone”…I didn’t want them to tell me “you have to tell us”. But I did have my own sort of system. So if I felt that someone was in danger, of if I saw weapons, there were times I needed to tell staff. But the prisoners needed to feel confident that I wasn’t running with all the information to members of staff. There was this time when the prisoners showed me all their contraband and then they had their cells searched a week later by the intelligence unit. And then the word got out that we were a grass. So that was quite an awkward position – but I also quite like it when the lines get a little bit blurred. You can sort of incorporate that into the film.
CN: There are a lot of quite funny scenes.
There is a lot of humour. A lot of times in these institutions you think it is totally bleak. But inherently when you’ve got a lot of rule-breaking people in a rule-based environment trying to transgress the rules it provides quite a lot of humour and levity. And there’s a sort of David and Goliath dynamic going on which is quite pleasing.
CN: It’s relatively rare to see a series filmed in Durham. What was it like filming up there?
PW: Love it. It’s so refreshing. The Northeast has such warmth. And in a way there’s something quite nostalgic about the Northeast because they don’t have the same problems that southern prisons do – or almost any other region. The gang issues don’t affect the Northeast in quite the same way. So I think I benefited. The prisoners were pretty friendly. It wasn’t quite the same edge I don’t think.
CN: What was the biggest surprise for you making the series?
PW: I didn’t think I’d spend so much time talking about anal cavities!
The first episode of Prison airs 9pm Thursday, 19 July on Channel 4.
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to slow down, be mindful and connect with your inner self, I’ve got the doc for you. As I wrote about recently in Documentary Magazine, one of the London Film Festival’s stand out films for me was Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis’ Walk With Me, which opens in UK cinemas this week. The film takes us to southern France, deep inside the monastic community of Plum Village, where the Zen Buddhist inhabitants are utterly focused on leading mindful lives. The community is guided by the revered Thich Nhat Hanh, whose readings are brought to life in voiceover by Benedict Cumberbatch.
Immersive is an overused term these days, but this film comes close to doing the term justice. Four years in the making, the co-directors learned they needed to become members of the community before they could tell its story. I spoke with Francis about the making of it before the film’s screening at the London Film Festival.
(Transcript edited for length and clarity.)
Carol Nahra: There are a lot of films out there at the moment where of course you would say it’s better to see on the big screen, but this in particular seems to have been made with a cinematic experience in mind.
Marc J. Francis: This really was a subject that lent itself to the big screen experience. Because our intention was to make a film which could be experiential, as a film that you kind of feel. So what does it feel like to be a part of this community that commits their lives to cultivating mindfulness?
CN: The audio is amazing. It seems as important as the visual in some ways.
MF: Yeah, we invested heavily on the sound. We really wanted the sound to play as big a part if not a bigger part as the visual experience. Because bringing you inside into the film really enhances that experience. And it is about, what they do is about how deeply do they listen.
CN: Tell me a bit about your coming to this topic.
MF: I came to it through Max Pugh, the co director, whose brother became a monk about eight years ago….There was a point where the monastery was starting to think about letting in cameras for the very first time. Thich Nhat Hanh always shied away from publicity throughout his life; never really wanted it. But he felt that maybe now was the time to try and be more open. The stipulation of Thich Nhat Hanh was to find a way to make it about community; don’t make it about me.
CN: You had access but it still took four years to make. What took all the time?
MF: It’s not a conventional film in the sense that you are not focusing on one to three characters and following their narrative arc. And that you’ve got your A to B and end up at C. It’s trying to create narrative out of a mood or feeling. So to do that was extremely difficult. Plus because we wanted to find a way to translate the energy of mindfulness as we experienced it at the monastery to the audience, the only way to do that was if we invested time in the monastery ourselves and started to practice, to tune into that energy field and feel it and edit in a way that reflects that mood and pace. And that is no easy thing to do – to find a way to keep your stress and your anxieties at bay and find a sense of inner presence and stillness and reflect that to the audience.
CN: So presumably that meant engaging before you picked up the camera, or putting the camera down to engage in the practices of the community?
MF: Yeah, well we started off with a camera. And then that didn’t work. Because we weren’t getting any cooperation. Only when they got a sense that we weren’t on a deadline, and we weren’t having a goal and we weren’t saying on a Monday okay by Friday we need these three scenes – if we ever did that we would fail. But if we let go of the goal and just started to feel present…We just kept our cameras at bay and in the event that something revealed itself to us we were unable to capture it. And the more that we did that the more open they became and the more the trusted us and our ability to capture that kind of vibration. A bit like don’t make a film about a kung fu master if you haven’t even tried kung fu itself.
CN: So what was that like for you? Because you come from strong narrative storytelling background and this whole process as you describe it must have been very intense for you.
MF: Yes it was very intense, you’d step into the great unknown of no direction. And you really don’t know what’s going to happen. A director wants to be in control. So to let go of these ideas of control and step more into a place of trust was a great learning curve. That ended up becoming a manual for life.
CN: So what will you be taking forward with you? Will you be living differently?
MF: I already am. One of the reasons I was attracted to the project in the first place was because I could see that the life of an independent filmmaker is a tricky one. There are highs and lows, there are disappointments. You get great moments and you get bad moments. And how does one find a sense of inner balance within that storm so that you’re not finding yourselves getting highly anxious when things aren’t going well or over excited when things seem to be going well? How can I make a film, how can I make a career for myself as an artist and as a family man in this career where I enjoy the process? And I’m happier inside myself for the process? These are the questions I was starting to ask myself before the film came along. I don’t want to win an Oscar and be depressed about it or stressed about it. That kind of thing. That feeling should be with me every day – whether I win one or not is not the point. So I got a sense that when I arrived to Plum Village for the first time that there were some really amazing things going on here that could be extremely beneficial to how I want to live my life.
Has the film been well received?
It has. I think there is a time now where people are getting a bit overwhelmed with what is going on politically. This Trump anger, this divisiveness which is coming through our feeds, it’s like do I want to go to the cinema and be reminded more about what is going on or can I go to the cinema and have an opportunity to breath and get back to myself or try to step away from it in some way? So seeing the film in that wider context is like an antidote to the larger context of what is in our faces on a day to day basis.
For a good portion of the nine month fight to defeat ISIS in Mosul, veteran French cameraman Olivier Sarbil was embedded with a small elite team of Iraqi Special Forces. Airing this week on PBS’ Frontline (and on Britain’s Channel 4 in November), Sarbil’s film MOSUL combines beautifully shot actuality footage with direct interviews with the soldiers in their home. The often uncomfortably close up scenes take us directly into the fight against ISIS, focusing on four young soldiers. Having screened to packed, rapturous houses at European screenings, it has been entered for an Academy Award nomination in the short film category. I spoke with Olivier and his co-director and producer James Jones in London to find out how they made such a powerful film with minimal crew and little knowledge of Arabic.
(Edited for length and clarity)
Carol Nahra: This is your first time working together, isn’t it? How did that come about?
James Jones: Basically, Olivier had been a freelance cameraman in news, shooting this extraordinarily beautiful stuff that didn’t become anything bigger, so it was kind of wasted. So he was kind of known in that world for shooting really beautifully but hadn’t done that longer form stuff. So he went out to Mosul for Channel 4 News to doa long news piece. And then PBS had a film fall through and needed to fill half a slot and Dan Edge, the senior producer called me and said ‘We’ve got this amazing footage, we’ve got two weeks until broadcast, can you come and like help.’ And I had just finishedUnarmed Black Male so thought why not. The film (Hunting Isis) was very good but it was lots of commentary. But I think all of us came away from it thinking this could be so much bigger. He shoots so beautifully, he’s got this amazing access, where no one else on earth is filming, and the guys seem to trust him. So we were all like let’s send Olivier back and I will come on as a producer (Olivier shot the frontline scenes solo while James and a fixer joined him for the interviews).
Carol: How did you approach this shoot and gain the trust of the soldiers?
Olivier Sarbil: Somehow we started to build a trust between me and the commander….For me it was important that I wasn’t going to do a news report – I was going to tell their story, the story of the battalion. And I don’t speak Arabic so it’s all about how I smile, the body language. I’m covered in scars, it helps, from shooting the war in Libya. I myself am a former Marine – maybe it helps me, cause they understand I know how those guys work in the field. And it was a very long process, for weeks eating beans and rice with them every day, shooting almost nothing. I didn’t want them to feel frightened by the camera. I really wanted them to feel Olivier is there but he’s almost invisible.
James: He doesn’t speak Arabic, he didn’t have a fixer or translator with him….He’s so unobtrusive, they know he can’t understand what they’re saying, so they’re completely uninhibited. It’s like a documentary experiment. It’s like totally fly on the wall – if they’re calling their girlfriend or roughing up a prisoner, they just do it.
Carol: It was translated when you got back, correct? So there must have been moments where you thought ‘Oh my god I’m glad I didn’t know what they were saying!’
Olivier: That was one of the most amazing moments. When I was going back and I had all that footage, and finally I could understand what they were talking about.
Carol: What was the most shocking thing that you realised much later what they were saying?
Olivier: I would not say shocking because I had an idea, but for example, there is a scene in a school where they are talking with a kid. I didn’t know they were threatening him. I had no idea…. You really have to trust your instinct and your gut. The thing that is really interesting is if I had a fixer or a translator, it would have killed the connection between me and them. I think I would have missed some key scene because my fixer might have said ‘ they are just talking rubbish, don’t worry about it’ and maybe I would have been tempted to turn away the camera. Because I didn’t know, it’s like I’m being deaf, so you have to develop other senses. It’s a very interesting process.
Carol: How did you conduct the interviews?
James: When they’d more or less declared victory in Mosul. Even then they were still on rotation. There was a week window – we didn’t know when that would be. As it happens it came in the middle of Ramadan, in the middle of summer;it was really hot. Half of them were wounded; half weren’t picking up their phone. It was just like a nightmare. It was actually a miracle that we got it. They were scattered all over Iraq. We didn’t want to think about what the film would be if we hadn’t got everybody. Each of them told crucial bits of the story – losing any one of them would have made it really hard. We probably would have had to use commentary.
Carol: What has been the reaction to the film at screenings?
James: It has been amazing. But the one criticism we’ve heard is some people have said “Is it too beautiful? It’s about the horrors of war, but does it look too beautiful?!”
Olivier: It’s an argument that unfortunately I’ve heard a few times. Some people are saying that because it’s war you don’t have to be worrying about the aesthetic of the shot. Which I find disturbing to a degree. Because it’s something that you don’t have in photojournalism. All the best photojournalists are painting with their pictures the misery, the death, the suffering with beautiful pictures. And no one told them ‘Why are your pictures so nice?’ But in fact I think the reality that you see for example in a news story that is not actually the reality. The way they build a news story with a shaky shot, it’s not reality.
James: It’s a cheap trick. To tell audiences it is dangerous, it has to feel wobbly. And actually there are a lot of tricks. Where this, it is well composed and it’s beautiful, and it looks sometimes like fiction. But I don’t think that that means it doesn’t seem visceral, or tense.
Carol: It’s beautifully shot and reminded me of Cartel Land. I’m amazed how you did it – because there is a fair amount of turmoil going on and you did the sound and everything too.
Olivier: I’m not a war junkie. The only reason I went to that battle is there was a story to be told. I said to Dan and James, we had to tell it in a way that was not just another bang bang. And there is bang bang – this is a war story – but I wanted to get more into the mind of those guys, to be more human, more intimate.
James: It’s a film about shades of grey – the horror of war. These kinds of guys going through really extreme things. What we were keen to do was to treat the soldiers with the same respect that we treat British or American soldiers. We wanted to go home with them, interview them, see their lives… It’s interesting, at a time when Trump is banning Muslims for all being terrorists, these men are fighting against ISIS. They are fighting our battle. We left Iraq to them. They are sacrificing themselves to fight ISIS. There’s this kind of irony that all Muslims are seen as enemies but these guys are doing great work.
If you’re not fortunate enough to be attending Sheffield Doc/Fest this week, but are in the market for some great docs, here is a list of films that have played at the festival that you can now stream on Netflix or BBC IPlayer. Descriptions are from the copy I originally wrote for Doc/Fest.
Excited at having landed a place at the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark’s elation evaporated when she was raped before classes began. She is far from alone: studies show that 20% of women will suffer a sexual attack at university. In a masterful, wide-ranging investigation, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering present dozens of testimonials detailing how universities of every shape and size collude to cover up sexual crimes on their campuses, creating an ideal “hunting ground” for serial offenders. Fear of damaging their reputation – and enrolment – drives shocking behaviour throughout the universities, with the fraternity and athletic communities covering up the most grievous assaults. For many victims, the institutional denial proves even more painful than the crime itself. But hope is in sight as Annie and other victims begin to fight back through the courts, hitting universities where it hurts – by threatening their revenue streams.
It became known in America as the “loud music trial”. In an encounter which lasted a scant three and a half minutes, a middle aged white man named Mike Dunn repeatedly fired into a car of unarmed black teenagers, after they refused to turn down their rap music, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis. Now the case has come to trial, and the nation is watching. Dunn’s attorney is using Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law to argue self defence. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, in which a white man walked free in Florida after gunning down an unarmed teenager, tensions are running high. Director Marc Silver skilfully weaves a compelling narrative through beautifully shot courtroom scenes, interviews with the victim’s parents and friends, and shocking telephone conversations between incarcerated Dunn and his distraught fiancee. A riveting look at a flawed legal system in a country where race relations are balanced on a knife’s edge.
In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman (main pic above) takes us deep into the world of Mexican drug cartels by embedding himself with two vigilante groups on either side of the US-Mexico border. Camouflaged to help spy on drug runners, veteran Tim Foley is a man who wears his hard past on his face. Meanwhile, across the Rio Grande, surgeon Dr. Jose Mireles looks straight out of central casting, with chiselled features and a prominent moustache. As head of the Autodefansas, he is leading a group of men determined to obliterate the region’s most dangerous drug cartel, the Knights Templar. Heineman repeatedly places himself in harm’s way, filming the chaos as the group begin taking over towns – in so doing adapting many of the violent tactics of the drug lords they’re trying to overpower. A visceral journey into North America’s heart of darkness, Cartel Land will be talked about for years to come.
Sixto Rodriguez was discovered by two music producers, whilst living on the streets of Detroit in the late 60s. They quickly recognised him as an inner city poet, his poignant lyrics about working class lives reminiscent of Bob Dylan. They made two albums with Rodriguez, and never understood why they were total flops. Unbeknownst to them, in a pre-Internet, apartheid age, a bootleg copy of a Rodriguez album made him an inspiration to a generation of South Africans just beginning to test the ties that bind. Yet all that his South African fans knew about Rodriguez, was that he had spectacularly killed himself on stage. After years of wondering, two of his biggest devotees set out to learn more, and eventually discover the shocking truth behind the legend. This beautifully crafted film scooped two major awards at the Sundance Film Festival, and shows in its edge-of-the-seat storytelling, just how powerfully a documentary narrative can grip.
Few people cite Scientology as a force for good in their lives – outside of Scientologists themselves, of course. But it was communal hatred of the creepy cult – and their bullying, litigious online presence – that forced the hacktivist group Anonymous from a culture of pranksters to an influential cyber-army. As a number of the group’s most prominent activists face over-the-top prison sentences, director Brian Knappenberger explores the history of the radical collective, and how it rose from a patchwork of bloggers, to become an influential change-agent in the Arab spring. Inevitably with such an amorphous, all embracing group, schisms endure. Most want to use their numbers to promote civil disobedience and curb some of the world’s excesses. But others simply want to continue to cause anarchic mischief online, or as one of this doc’s many entertaining commentators puts it: “If you’re not out there making epileptics have seizures, then you’re a moral fag”.
Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.
At some point you would have thought New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who was an aggressive prosecutor of prostitution rings, might have written a note to self: Do Not Buy Hookers (no matter how high class). But no, alas, an FBI sting of a pricey escort service led to Spitzer’s fall and resignation after barely a year in the guv’s chair. Unfortunately for us small people, Spitzer was one of the good guys: he had built a career tackling excesses in the banking industry (before anyone else did), as well as going after environmental polluters and other baddies. Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney pieces together the rise and fall of Spitzer, and the long line of powerful enemies he left in his testosterone-fuelled wake. Accompanied by a breezy soundtrack, a range of entertaining interviews – including his chief nemeses, favourite call girl, and Spitzer himself – fill us in on one spectacular fall from grace.
In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus , we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.
As a magician “The Amazing Randi” spent decades wowing audiences with astonishing feats. But as Randi’s fanbase grew, he became uneasy at how conmen and faith healers used the tricks of his trade to deceive the masses for profit. Randi made it his life mission to expose psychics, even using the bullhorn of the Johnny Carson show to do so. Directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom take us through a hugely enjoyable series of Randi’s exposes, from the spoon bending of Uri Geller, to a televisual faith healer aided by an earpiece and a compliant wife. As he continuously worked to debunk the psychics, Randi met angry denial at all levels – even from the gullible scientists he did his best to aid and abet. As he eases into his twilight years still fighting deceit, Randi finds that a deception at the heart of his personal life might prove the costliest trick of all.
They knew how to make an impact: Pussy Riot’s performance inside a Russian cathedral might have lasted just a few seconds, but its repercussions continue to rock the Russian state. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s absorbing documentary brings us straight into the centre of the ensuing trial, where three members stand accused of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”. The filmmakers obtain astonishing access to the legal system, including the courtroom, where the girls murmur from within the confines of a glass cage at the sometimes farcical mayhem around them. Reviled by much of the Russian public, with even their closest family struggling to defend their actions, they stand firm by their convictions – and hatred of Putin. A truly compelling immersion into the clash between a generation determined to challenge an oppressive status quo, with those who are equally determined to maintain it.
For the fifteenth year running I’ve had the good fortune to watch a good chunk of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s programme to help write the film catalogue. Of the 35 features that I’ve seen, here are five of my favourite:
This powerful vérité documentary (pictured above) tells the story of American Joe Carman. The 40-year-old blue collar worker gave up cage fighting years ago, but claims it’s the only arena where he feels confident. When he returns to fighting without the blessing of his wife and four daughters, his dangerous hobby soon threatens to tear the family apart.
A groundbreaking observational documentary with the feel of an indie drama. Dina and her fiancé Scott, both neurodivergent, have moved in together to ready for their upcoming wedding, and have set about the messy business of forging lives. In increasingly intimate scenes, Dina is determined to let Scott know that her difficult past doesn’t stop her wanting a passionate future.
Facing a catastrophic decline in wild animals, big game hunters and conservationists often make uneasy bedfellows, as highlighted in this gripping documentary. South African rhino breeder John is convinced that legalising the sale of rhino horns will save the species from extinction. Meanwhile, American hunter Philip ventures to the remote wilderness of Nambia and Zimbabwe in his personal quest to hunt the “big five” in their natural environment.
In Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s mesmerising compilation of dash cam footage, we are spectators to a series of extraordinary moments. From reckless drivers and hammer wielding thugs, to extreme acts of nature and the occasional wild bear, this film is an eccentric portrait of contemporary Russia, as seen, all too briefly, through the front windscreen.
A profoundly personal film from one of Britain’s most talented documentary directors. To establish a better rapport, Morgan Matthews begins filming his dad, and carries on for a decade. Once a high flyer, Geoffrey lives precariously with his eccentric partner Anna. As revealed in very intimate scenes, Geoffrey has more than a few regrets, not least his emotional distance from his six children.
We know we are all on a one way journey to the grave, but it’s not something most of us care to dwell on. Not so for filmmaker Sue Bourne, who has spent the last year traveling around the UK making a film about people who have been given a terminal diagnosis. A Time to Live manages an extraordinary feat: it’s a life affirming film about dying. But Bourne would be the first to argue that it’s not about death, but, as the title indicates, about living: in story after story, we are introduced to people who have heard the most unbearable of news, and are now navigating a new normal.
Bourne and editor Sam Santana (both have featured in Docs on Screens; this is their first film together) did a Q&A with journalist Stephen Armstrong following a London BAFTA preview screening last week. In introducing the film, BBC Two Controller Patrick Holland said that Bourne is “forensic and unrelenting when she mines the emotion of a very specific experience to reveal wider, universal truths.”
When Bourne approached Holland to say that she wanted to make a film about people make the most of their limited time left, he was quickly on board: “It was one of the easiest commissioning decisions I’ve ever had to make.”
A Time to Live tells the story of twelve people of various ages, and their responses to being told they don’t have long to live. Bourne deliberately sought a selection of people who have acted out in surprising ways, including Annabel (pictured below), a woman whose first act upon receiving her prognosis was to leave her husband.
“I mean what was interesting about Annabel’s story is that it was quite radical,” said Bourne. “I think she had been quite a timid person…what cancer did was it emboldened her. And she thought ‘Bloody hell, if I’ve only got a short time left, I really should do all those things I’ve been thinking about’.”
To make the film, Bourne kept to a small nimble team, as she recounted to the Bafta audience: “Natalie (Walter) joined in and the two of us did all the research to find the people. I don’t like filming until I knew exactly what is going to go in the film. Natalie not only shot it but also oversaw the whole sound; it was remarkable. And then we set off on this van around the country to film all twelve people. And we had to be flexible because these were really ill people…We just moved around the country more or less for three months. We all had flu injections and boxes of supplements because we couldn’t go into their house and be any risk to them at all.”
Shooting completed, Bourne and Santana holed up in Bourne’s house for a ten week edit. It was a new experience for Santana, used to cutting rigged and other narrative driven films: “For me it was the first time cutting a film without what you call evolving narrative or process or intercutting, where you start one character’s storyline and then intercut to another. We didn’t do it…So we kind of felt that we needed to make subtle transitions.”
On the whole the transitions did not employ Bourne’s voiceover, often a prominent feature: “Usually in my films there is quite a lot of commentary. Because I’m kind of the narrative thread, weaving through it. But it became quite apparent early on that I didn’t need to say anything. This was their story.”
As a one woman show at Wellpark Productions, Bourne continues to be the main interface with her contributors, and the edit was frequently interrupted. “Sometimes we’d get news that was not particularly good,” said Santana. “People who we were just about to cut their story or had just completed their story. And we just had to work really hard and keep plowing on. That would be tough.” Bourne added: “And then actually you’re motivated, and you go, okay we really need to tell this person’s story.”
The film proceeds from one story to the next, without interweaving. Remarkably, there are no hospitals or footage of anything medical. The interviews are solely with the twelve contributors – supportive spouses and family are seen but barely heard. At the end, there is no revealing of who has died since filming ended – Bourne wanted their stories to be about their lives rather than their deaths.
The film’s power is in its universality. As Holland noted in his Bafta intro: “We are all of course life limited. What Sue’s film does is make all of us reflect on our own choices. On what a good life means. And what you can do to make a difference to ourselves and others. It’s a profound and challenging film.”
A Time to Live airs on BBC Two on Wednesday, 17 May, 9pm. Extended contributor interviews, made in conjunction with the Open University, will be available via the website after broadcast.
Two British documentaries airing this week provide nuanced and balanced glimpses of a frightened American psyche. In Unarmed Black Male, screening on BBC Two’s This World strand on Wednesday, James Jones takes a 360° approach to telling the story of the trial of Stephen Rankin, a policeman accused of murdering a black teenager. The following night Channel 4’s Cutting Edge strand airs The Gun Shop, where director John Douglas brings a mini fixed rig to an American gun store. (The films are part of a noticeable uptick in British television programmes examining all things American in the run up to the November 9 election, which continues to grip and horrify Europe). I spoke to both directors as they were putting the finishing touches on their films.
For Jones, his focus on the Portsmouth Virginia shooting stemmed from his interest in the growth of police shootings in America documented by citizens. He was thinking of approaching it in a similar way to films he made in both North Korea and Saudi Arabia, where he employed an abundance of both curated and collected footage by ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. “I wanted to make a film about how technology is changing awareness of American police shootings,” he says.“In the past the police statement has been taken as gospel truth. So there was the idea that people being able to film it on mobile phones was transforming our perception of this issue.” Whilst scouting such stories, Jones came across details of William Chapman’s murder via the Guardian’s acclaimed interactive journalism project The Counted. In a brief early morning encounter outside a Walmart store in Virginia, police officer Rankin had shot and killed Chapman at close range. Extraordinarily enough in the US, Rankin was actually going on trial in the summer for first degree murder. Like many American trials, it would be filmed. Jones had his story.
In a documentary that never drags in the course of 90 minutes, Jones secures an enormous range of interviews from those caught up in in the highly emotionally charged events — including Rankin’s only interview to date. The interview came about through dogged persistence, by befriending both Rankin’s wife Dawn, who features prominently in the film, and then Rankin himself. Jones found that both were really wanting to tell their side of the story: “They felt very beaten up by the local media and it felt like she was almost like waiting for the call,” he says.
The Rankin interview succeeds in instilling viewer empathy for a man on trial for his freedom after seemingly just doing his job (Rankin argued he fired in self defense after Chapman dislodged Rankin’s Taser). But soon the film offers up two astonishing interviews providing a very different perspective. First Rankin’s ex-wife describes his obsession with guns, including continuously discussing scenarios where he would discharge against an unarmed suspect. Then Rankin’s former boss, Ken King, a highly distinguished officer, is interviewed saying: “(Rankin) was one of these guys who could cause a riot at a church social. He could go to any event and it would just escalate out of control.” It’s jaw dropping, powerful testimony which is impossible to dismiss.
Jones said that neither Dawn nor Rankin were aware of these damning testimonials when he interviewed them, but he has since talked Dawn through it. “She’s going to hate some of it, she really will,” he admits. “But I think the thing is, on their own terms they come across as sympathetic. The film is much more fair and balanced for having them in it. And you get a sense that there are two families’ lives destroyed by this, whatever the details of the shooting.”
The film goes on to show the ripples of misery stemming from the Walmart shooting, following the quest of Chapman’s family for justice, as well as a mother from Kazakhstan whose inebriated unarmed son also was killed by Rankin, who was never charged. To round out this story, Jones and his team managed the impressive feat of tracking down two of the anonymous jurors, one black and one white, who describe in detail some of the thoughts behind their deliberations, to which they each clearly brought their own personal experience to bear. “The white juror that we interviewed certainly had had experiences in her life that she told us about that shaped her worldview and her view of someone like William Chapman,” says Jones. “So that was key to the jury’s deliberations. And that’s quite scary that that would be the case.”
Indeed, like so many films about the US, Unarmed Black Male offers up a vision of dysfunctional race relations. What did Jones himself make of racial tensions? “The divide felt very stark. As an English person who lives in London where you are surrounded by people from all over the world and there are very few ghettoised neighbourhoods, it’s all a kind of melting pot, going to the south of America was a culture shock. You’d go into neighbourhoods and you’re the only white person there. And you’re viewed with great suspicion at first because white people usually spell trouble in that neighbourhood. So I was shocked that the legacy of segregation was so visible.”
Coming as a stranger into a volatile story, Jones is delighted by just how many people agreed to take part. “We were really happy with the way the film turned out. I don’t know if it’s America, or the South, but everyone was willing to talk to us. And that just never happens. Usually you’ve got like a one in three chance of people agreeing, but for one reason or another they really did want to tell their story.”
In the end, the type of mobile phone footage that was the seed for this film instead becomes a grim drumbeat of misery. In between scenes from the Rankin storyline, Jones uses such video to catalogue the many police shootings of black victims which took place, even in the relatively short time span of the film.
Made using very different techniques, The Gun Shop nonetheless sheds light on similar terrain, notably the current climate of fear in the US which contributes to a gun death rate at least ten times higher than the rest of the developed world. Director John Douglas says that he and the development team at Rogan Productions were very keen to find a shop whichb flew in the face of British perceptions: “It felt like we should try and move away from very stereotypical views of gun shops and gun owners. So finding somewhere where the shop was based in a community but was diverse, had young and old, and wasn’t just the community you’d normally expect.”
The shop they settled on, in Battle Creek, Michigan has a shooting range and runs educational classes, in addition to a constant stream of varied customers. I wondered what the owners of the gun shop made of the fixed rig style of programming they were proposing – using mounted cameras operated remotely – which is unknown in the US? “Yeah it is unknown,” Douglas agreed. “The sort of reactions we would get would be people would think it was like a reality show or Big Brother. It took a while. We showed them some 24 Hours in A&E and some other things I’d worked on which were not rigged but not sensationalising and treated people with respect. So I think that helped.”
For the six day rig shoot they kitted out the shop with 12 cameras (three would shoot at any one time); Douglas directing from a backroom gallery. Assistant Producer Rebecca Coxon manned the shop floor, seeking consent and fitting customers with radio mics. In a week of follow up filming they delved more into some of the stories, which together paint a rich tapestry of reasons underlying why so many Americans are arming themselves.
Back in London, working with experienced fixed rig editor Sam Santana (see this Docs on Screens interview), Douglas was painstakingly working to make a film which took a nonjudgmental tone. “It would be really easy to make an anti gun film. Really easy,” says Douglas. “But the way that I’ve hoped we approached it in this documentary — and to some degree all documentaries — is always to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes a bit. Because clearly whether anti gun or pro gun there’s not all that anger and rhetoric because they’re bad people and they only want to hate one another and they want to ruin everyone else’s life. They’re doing it because they feel really passionate about the issue.”
Unarmed Black Male airs Wednesday, November 2nd at 9pm on BBC Two. The Gun Shop airs Thursday, November 3rd at 9pm on Channel 4.
In August 1966, the University of Texas at Austin found itself at the mercy of a sniper perched at the top of a tower at the center of the campus. Ninety-six terrifying minutes later, more than a dozen were dead, many more injured and an entire community was traumatized. It was the first mass shooting at a school in America—and, of course, far from the last.
From its opening moments, the mesmerizing Tower pulls viewers directly into the horror of the unfolding murder spree. Its dazzling use of rotoscopic animation and vivid eyewitness testimony contribute to one of the most effective accountings of a historical event that I’ve ever seen in a documentary. At the BFI London Film Festival press screening I attended, the film drew rare applause. And no wonder: by the end of the film you feel like you have been there, and that you had a lucky escape.
I sat down with director Keith Maitland to learn more about his creative approach to making Tower. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The opening of the film puts you directly in the action straight away. I was wondering if you creatively had a mantra that carried you through. Can you talk me through it?
Keith Maitland: A couple things from the very outset that struck me were, I would never be able to include everything, and I wanted the film to speak to people emotionally and from a human place. So, I would err on the side of character and humanity and emotion over information. I wanted to trust the audience because I like it when filmmakers trust me to put it together. And I wanted the viewer to feel the way those people felt, which was that this came out of the blue. And so, any deep backstory, any setup, anything that would tip your hat that this is about to happen just didn’t need to be there.
What really struck me in the first half of the film was the set-up with the animated interviewees looking directly at the camera with youthful voices, which I soon realized were acted. Can you talk me through how you developed that approach?
I knew immediately when I decided to make the film that I wanted to make it animated. And I did that primarily because I knew that there was no way I’d be able to film the recreations on campus in live action in a compelling and cinematic way—[it would have been ] just too big a task. Animation was a great tool to overcome some of those hurdles. A lot of documentaries use animation, but what oftentimes makes it feel less effective to me is that it’s used strictly as B‑roll. And if we just showed these people running from place to place, it would feel like B‑roll, and I wanted the animation to feel like A‑roll. And I wanted it to carry us along like a great animated film, where you stop thinking about the animation. I also wanted to make this film for teenagers. I wanted them to see themselves up on the screen and not see a 68‑year‑old woman talking about an 18‑year‑old girl.
What’s also interesting is that the animation is so effective at masking who are your current interviews and who are your archival interviews.
Yes, two of the main interviews, Allen Crumb, the bookstore manager, and Houston McCoy, the blond cop, passed away before I started the project. But for every other character, the dialogue or monologue is taken directly from interviews that I did and then scripted. In the first hour of the film, I took those 20 hours of interviews that I had done and edited that down and scripted it out in Final Draft just like a narrative screenplay—with a nod to the idea that these are 50-years-later stories and a recognition that it’s all based on memory.
You interviewed quite a few people for this, yet there are really just a handful of main interviews.
There are eight main characters and five man-on-the-street kind of characters. But we did on-camera interviews with about three-dozen people. And I’ve done telephone interviews with about 120. And then other people on my team have interviewed at least another 80. We’ve collected over 200 stories.
What do you do with all that material?
We just got a grant from the City of Austin to develop an online home for all the stories. It will be map‑based, and I think it’ll be called Tower Together. People will be able to upload their stories. Every time the film plays publicly, or word gets out in the media, our email lights up and we get two or three more people who say, “Oh, I was there.”
It’s great when you start to reveal the real people behind the interviews. I’ve seen it before as a mechanism and it seemed to me that in Tower there was a good half an hour before the end of the film when you started to do it. Can you talk me through that?
The first hour of the film gets a lot of attention. In some people’s eyes, it’s basically an animated action movie of that day. The part of the film that matters most to me is the last half-hour of the film. It’s one thing to recount in an emotional and humanistic way this horrible action, but what was most interesting and most intriguing and I think most important was, How did this affect people over the course of their entire lives? I didn’t want to make a recreation and then at the end cut to a photograph of the person that acknowledges that this is a real person. I wanted to hand off in the same way that says, This is an event that weighs heavily on somebody’s life and deserves a full examination. There’s the rest of their lives. And I wanted to remind people at the height of the intensity that these were real people. And so, where those reveals happen was strategic. You’re actually the first person who’s seen that it wasn’t that late into it. Most people say, “You waited such a long time to reveal those people.” It was a balancing act all the way through. I hoped that when the film was done, people wouldn’t be able to remember which parts were archival footage and which parts were animation.
Would you describe this type of animation to the layperson?
Rotoscoping is a technique that is over a hundred years old. You film and edit the scenes in live action; we did it on video where we shot on a Canon C100 camera. When you see somebody walking across the screen holding books, wearing a period 1966 outfit, there is an actor holding those props and wearing that outfit. Because I knew the university wouldn’t allow us to shoot on campus, most of the film is acted out in my backyard about two miles from the university in East Austin.
Were the actors the same as the voice actors?
Yes. There was a while where we tried to cast some celebrities. But we had a hard time explaining the concept to people, and we had no money to offer. So it was going have to be someone who got it and was passionate about it. And that’s why Luke Wilson came onboard as an executive producer very early on: He grew up in Texas, like me, and had heard of the story and was interested.
What animated films were an inspiration to you?
A film that was certainly an inspiration for me was Waltz with Bashir. I saw Ari Folman, the director, pitch that when it was still in its concept stage at Hot Docs in Toronto in 2004. That [film] was like a light bulb—and that’s actually what encouraged me to use animation in my first documentary. But I would say like that the film and the quality of the animation that I take direct inspiration from is Waking Life, by Richard Linklater. And as somebody who lives in Austin, I interned for Linklater 20 years ago, just before he did that film…Rick has made such an impact on the world of independent film since 1991. But creatively the inspiration from Waking Life is because that film is about dreams, and he let this animation embrace its dreamlike quality. There’s a looseness to it, but it’s still tied to humanity because there are actors in live video underneath that animation.
The end scenes, where you have an archive of people coming out in the square and no one is really saying anything, are very moving. It shows what a novel situation it was.
I appreciate that. When I saw that footage, I saw something that I had experienced myself on September 12, 2001. I was walking through Lower Manhattan and I witnessed something that I had never seen before, which was thousands of New York City residents on the street with nothing to do, going nowhere in particular, and making eye contact with each other…I think there’s that same sense of, What do we do now? What can you say in a situation like that? And what can you expect someone else to say to you? I think that expectation was just wiped away.
What was the hardest thing about making this film?
So many things. The very hardest thing was choosing which stories to include and knowing that we were excluding stories and even continuing to collect stories beyond the point of being able to include them and finding things that we wish we could get in there. From the human side, it was definitely just whittling down this massive event and asking people to look backwards 50 years into this most traumatic moment and knowing that some people would be disappointed that their story wasn’t included. From a production standpoint, [the challenge was] convincing producers—not my production team, but financial producers to come aboard. We still haven’t completed our budget. When I pitched this to producers initially, people said to me, “Who’s going to care about this outside of Texas?” But now we have a release in Jerusalem. And we’re playing five [other] cities in Israel. We’re playing in seven cities in Canada. Here we are in London. I’ve screened the film in the Czech Republic, in Australia and New Zealand. It’s screening in Iran in December. It’s screened in South America. It’s actually played more international festivals than domestic festivals.
Has your background in drama helped your storytelling?
I think so. I don’t come to documentary through a kind of classic documentary upbringing. I’ve worked in narrative film and have written screenplays. And I stepped into documentary ten years ago because I felt ready to direct a film, but I didn’t have a script that I loved that I could produce for no money by myself…And I fell in love with telling real stories. There’s a part of me that felt a little silly that I was working so hard to create something out of nothing, and when you look around, there are so many incredible stories waiting to be told.
Tower is currently screening in New York and Los Angeles. This interview can also be found on the IDA website, documentary.org.
For quite a few years I’ve had the good fortune to preview large chunks of the Sheffield Doc/Fest programme, in order to help write the film catalogue. Of the thirty-five films I watched for this year’s festival, which opens on Friday, here are a few of my favourite:
Talented but isolated, New Orleans care worker Samantha spends her spare time uploading acapella videos of her original songs to YouTube, to a smattering of viewers. Unknown to her, in a far away kibbutz, Israeli mash up artist Kutiman is composing his next viral sensation – with Samantha as the star. Following them both, director Ido Haar brings us a gratifyingly heartwarming fairy tale from the digital age.
Two years after resigning from Congress for tweeting a picture of his bulging yfront, Anthony Weiner is running for Mayor of New York. His loyal wife Huma is at his side, and the tenacious politician has even invited a documentary crew along for the ride. The trouble is, he’s neglected to curb his digital dalliances, giving us jaw-dropping access to a campaign that is soon in total meltdown.
Immerse yourself us in the world of modern dance through the vision of Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Through extensive archive, observational footage and beautifully filmed dance sequences, Doc/Fest returnee Tomer Heymann focuses on the fascinating stories underpinning Naharin’s creative process, and how an untrained veteran spurned the tutelage of the dance world’s maestros to become one of the most talented choreographers working today.
In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus ,we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.
After years of silence as a child, Owen Suskind amazed his family by beginning to communicate through his biggest passion: Disney films. Now leaving home, Owen is learning that not every step in life has a Disney guru. Director Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda) returns to Doc/Fest with a masterful film about how one close-knit family navigates life with autism.
Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.
Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from 10-15 June. I’ll be moderating a discussion about the power of drones, and the themes stemming from National Bird on Tuesday afternoon.