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.
Alden is an ambitious Wall Street psychologist, while Rochelle struggles as a carer on a zero hours contract and Keith tries to make sense of his life behind bars, as a result of Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Through their stories, and four others, Katharine Round humanises the bleak fact that growing inequality is driving a terrible wedge through modern society. Jumping back and forth in time, and between characters and experts, this is an engrossing, cinematic, thought-provoking essay which flags up some root causes of today’s societal woes – and raises disturbing questions about the future. Inspired by the bestselling book The Spirit Level, The Divide demonstrates the terrible impact that decades of misguided economic decisions is having on modern lives – and the truth behind the adage that money can’t buy happiness.
CN: I found it a really powerful film. I understand how it was inspired by The Spirit Level, but of course it’s a very different entity, isn’t it?
KR: Yeah, it’s a very different entity…I thought it was quite a fascinating book. The challenge of course was how do you make something like that into a film that anybody would want to watch outside of that field? In a way I’d always thought it had to be done through character because that is where I think film is strongest. So that seemed like the obvious approach but perhaps to others they did expect it to have lots of graphs and analysis. But I thought the book had done that very adequately.
CN: How hard was it to find these characters and to settle on these characters given that the whole world is your universe?
KR: It was impossible. You know, I’m not going to lie. Normally when you make the film you find the character and then you draw the themes out from the character…But in a way I was looking at it the other way around. So it was how do you something that feels like it’s coming from the personal but illuminating the big picture. It’s a sort of tonal thing….So it did take a very long time.
CN: Where did you get the funding for the film?
KR: We raised initial finances through crowdfunding. At the time it was the most successful campaign on Indiegogo for a UK documentary. And so we raised a fair amount of money but only really enough to pay the bare bones of what was going on. Certainly not enough for me to get paid or lots of other things. But everyone else pretty much managed to get paid which is very important. But it was, and still continues to be, a financial struggle this project, because you underestimate the scale of what you are trying to do.
CN: It does seem so painful to me. Now it’s great because the film is coming out and everything, but how painful are these things to make?
KR: In some ways it’s a joy. Meeting all these people is very pleasant. But it’s a very long investment that you’re making. And certainly for the first year or couple of years of that casting process it was tough. There were lots of things happening, very negative programmes coming out in the British media, People Like Us, Benefits Street, you know. I was obviously trying to make something very very different but it was hard to engage people in that. You know they don’t see you as any different from anyone else in that way. Why would they or should they?
CN: I can imagine once you settled into your seven characters it became a much more comfortable experience.
KR: When we edited it, it was actually quite a pleasurable experience. We had all this experience and it was how you kind of navigate it. And John Mister, he was my editor and he’s amazing. And so smart and so unphased at the scale of this task and how to weave together these people into a kind of coherent narrative.
CN: How did you shoot the film?
KR: I wanted to have quite a particular shooting style where we’d reference a lot of characters in a very similar kind of framing or position. So everyone is filmed in their mirrors; a lot of people filmed in their cars. A lot of people filmed in quite long shots. I wanted the audience to take away the idea that the people in the film are not necessarily that different from each other fundamentally. They’re in different circumstances and that shapes their opinions but fundamentally a lot of what they are looking for, security, a good life for their children, stable income for themselves, a lot of things are very universal.
The Divide is screening at selected cinemas from 22 April, and goes on nationwide release from 31 May.
It’s not surprising that in entrusting the storytelling of its darkest hour, the BBC has chosen documentary director Olly Lambert. For fifteen years Lambert has steadily forged a reputation as one of the most talented and nuanced directors working in factual television today. Whether piecing together stories from both sides of the divide in Syria (in the multi award winning Syria: Across the Lines) to putting a human face on the many families caught up in the London riots (or torn apart in divorce), Lambert is very adept at drawing out difficult stories from often traumatized interviewees.
It’s a skill he’d need in spades for tonight’s film, Abused: The Untold Story. The abuser left out of the title is, of course, BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile, the unfathomably long running serial abuser, the paedophile who lived for decades as a celebrated children’s entertainer, and went to his grave with his crimes still a secret. Lambert’s feature length doc dissects how the abuse finally came to light after Savile’s death. Most importantly it gives voice to a number of Savile’s victims, some speaking publicly for the first time. I spoke with Olly by telephone about the process of bringing their stories to the screen.
CN: It’s a dark topic to immerse yourself in for eighteen months.
OL: Weirdly, now that it is all done – we only finished it on Saturday – there is actually something strangely inspiring about the people in it. What I think comes across is they are so strong. There is nothing victimy about the people. Your starting point with them is a very dark place, the darkest moment of their life, usually. But the fact that they’re able to speak about it really clearly and really powerfully with a bit of distance is an obvious testament to how far they are able to move on from it, and how the very act of talking about it is such a release; almost a physical release. So that sort of becomes part of the film. The act of talking becomes profoundly cathartic. And in a few cases actually quite life changing. So even though it is a dark place to go to I think I’ll be able to look back at it and think “well that was worth doing; it was worth going there”.
CN:You said that with a couple of interviewees it was actually life-changing. Can you elaborate on that?
There was one woman, Dee. She’s found the very act of speaking to a stranger, who is also a man, and being able to tell everything that happened to her for the very first time, made her realise she could say it. And she wouldn’t be causing disgust in me, and she actually realised that she was accepted and that it wasn’t her fault and that there was somebody who would listen. Speaking about it in that way to a stranger, and being part of a chorus of voices within the film that all speak of the same experience, has just been really profound for her. She’s a completely different person to the person I met a year ago. It’s very moving. She’s just transformed.
CN: That is very moving. And it is very sad that it has come presumably decades after the abuse.
OL: Yes, absolutely. She’s an interesting story because when it was Savile’s funeral, she watched it. And she said that she didn’t feel anything about it. She said that she should have felt glad that he was dead. But at the time that he was buried she didn’t realise there were more people like her; she thought she was the only one. It was only when other people started coming forward that this kind of little solidarity developed between people.
CN: Can you talk about how you approach having Savile appear in the film?
OL: There are no images of Saville’s face. One of the first victims I met talked really powerfully about how distressing it was that whenever there was something on the news, that was effectively her story, a story about her, that changed her life. She was exactly the sort of person who should be engaging with the story and yet she wasn’t able to watch it on television because news editors, sort of understandably, but a bit thoughtlessly, would reach for the most garish gross images of Savile as an old man with these sorts of rose tinted glasses and looking very menacing. And of course that makes it very colourful for everyone else but for her it was like just being confronted with someone who had just fucked up her life. Like being confronted by her rapist. There are a few fleeting images of him as a kind of ghost in a way. And it made the film very difficult to edit. Because obviously having images of him would have been the perfect thing to cut to. But it felt absolutely wrong direction to go in. So that means that the film is viewable, or more viewable, to exactly the kind of people who’d be most affected, so it’s keeping them in mind. It’s also honoring the wishes of the people in the film that don’t want to confront his face any more.
CN: What was the biggest surprise to you in the making of the film?
OL: The thing that really jumped out from the very first conversation I had with a victim of Savile was the way that this single event, which might have been a matter of minutes, decades ago, was how they had completely reshaped a person’s life. Had configured everything in their life. In the case of one person, there was a very serious sexual assault which probably took about ten minutes. Immediately, that little girl never really trusted her mum again, because she felt that her mum had allowed it to happen in some way. She cannot have a relationship with a man; she couldn’t have a physical intimacy. She tried to have a relationship with a woman and couldn’t really have physical intimacy. Because of the nature of the assault she had a phobia of being sick, or being around people being sick. And that meant she would never get on an airplane. So she wouldn’t travel. And you know it’s completely present when you’re sitting in the room with her. You sit down with her in her home, there’s nothing remotely “historical” about her abuse. She’s absolutely living it every day… That was the thing that stuck with me that I didn’t really feel had been covered. So that really became the focus of the film – the way that these assaults ricochet down an entire lifetime. And they’re still being played out now in real time. And the film shows that.
I enjoyed a fantastic few hours navigating the world yesterday from the comfort of a central London cinema seat, at the annual National Film and Television School graduation show. My documentary students and I sat through films by eight emerging documentary directors. Only two of them were women, but I am pleased to say that we all agreed that they were the strongest of a very impressive crop. In The Pacemaker, director Selah Hennessy follows 96 year old British newcomer Charles Eugster as he prepares for the 100m race at the World Masters Athletics Championship, only to find that he’s up against a formidable 98 year old who boasts a number of world records. Very well paced, full of warmth and humour, the film was a delight from start to finish.
Equally enjoyable, and provoking abundant laughs in its own right, was Miriam Ernst’s charming 40 minute film The Sunflower Inn. Beautifully observed, it follows the activities of a Rome pizzeria staffed primarily by Down’s Syndrome waiters and waitresses, who enjoy mucho hugs and dalliances whilst learning how to be professional waiters.
A third standout is Tariq Elmeri’s eye opening half hour documentary Forest Gate Girls, in which he has gained access to an all girls Muslim school in East London. The insights into the developing minds of the highly articulate and reflective fifteen year old girls about their relationship with Islam and with Britain felt at times revelatory.
I would have thought it would be difficult to top last year’s films, which I wrote about with equal effusiveness, but once again the NFTS has shown its training in the art of observational film making is second to none.
When your office door is just metres away from your neighbours, you don’t have much need for their landline: it’s easy to stroll across the hall for a chat, or send an email. But the staff of the Paris-based television production company Premieres Lignes were to come to regret not having their colleagues’ number on the morning of January 7 last year. As two gunmen entered the building and stumbled around looking for the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, alarmed Premieres Lignes staff locked their own office door, headed to the roof, and waited helplessly as the massacre unfolded below. Their continuing regrets over their lack of heroic action is one of the most compelling sequences in a remarkable film airing tonight on BBC’s This World. Directed by five time BAFTA winner Dan Reed, Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks lays out in forensic detail the sequence of events that kicked off with the terrible massacre in the magazine’s meeting room.
Reed is no stranger to this territory, having similarly masterfully dissected terrorism attacks in Mumbai, Moscow and Nairobi. He is one of the most accomplished documentary makers working in Britain today (his recent masterclass at Sheffield Doc/Fest is well worth a listen). Docs on Screens spoke with Dan about the making of the Charlie Hebdo film, and what it’s like to continually work in this dark terrain:
Carol Nahra: You start out the film with an acknowledgement of the November attacks. How much did that tragedy affect the making of the film?
Dan Reed: The very last guy we happened to interview was the chief medical officer of the Paris fire service, who was at Charlie Hebdo and is one of the first people into the room. It was Friday the 13th of November, which is the date of the Paris attack, and we were chatting away at the end of the interview. I was saying “Something is going to happen again soon, I can feel it in my bones. It will either happen in Paris or London, there’s going to be another devastating attack soon. And there is no reason why it wouldn’t happen in a way, because nothing has changed to prevent it happening”. Literally, 200 metres from the studio where we shot our interview – which was our regular hangout in Paris where we shot most of our interviews – three or four hours later gunmen turned up and killed 19 people at a cafe on the corner. And the Bataclan was a short walk from Charlie Hebdo. My office in Paris was literally three metres away from the attack where Charlie Hebdo happened. I was working with that TV company (Premieres Lignes). So it all felt very very close… So we had to reference it back and say to people “look this is a film about what happened in November”. And then we had to find a way in the preamble and the wrap up to make a distinction between the attacks.
CN: So much has been published in the media regarding Charlie Hebdo. What was your aim with this film?
DR: For one thing, to try and actually research the story properly, and figure out what exactly happened. We went into mind numbing detail about what actually happened, when and where. There is always drama in the two story of things…in the unfolding of events. There is often a lot of dead time, when people are waiting for police to arrive, and those are dramatic pauses…We did a lot of research to allow us to understand the drama of the story. We also got hold of a lot of images which had never been seen before – a lot of still images from the security cameras at Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish grocery. There are quite a few kind of scoops and untold bits in our story…So it’s kind of untangling the truth from the lies and the misperceptions and really establishing a proper timeline for the story, that took a lot of work. A lot of these people hadn’t spoken before, or hadn’t spoken at the time.
“There’s this strange process where you start from completely on the outside of events, and six, eight months later by the time you’ve corralled all these people together and got them to talk to you, you end up like a single point of contact for all these experiences.”
CN: Yes and they’re talking about very traumatic, harrowing and recent events. So what was that like?
DR: Again, there’s this strange process where you start from completely on the outside of events, and six, eight months later by the time you’ve corralled all these people together and got them to talk to you, you end up like a single point of contact for all these experiences…Every eyewitness is trapped in their often very narrow perspective. And often has a lot of misperceptions, a lot of questions, a lot of frustrating gaps that we’re able to fill in. So the satisfaction of being able to, if you like, piece together the narrative not only for filmmaking but also for sharing with the other victims – the survivors – that’s satisfying. I happen to speak French fluently, because I grew up speaking French. And that really helps. You’re immersed in this world of trauma and loss and people who can’t get these violent images out of their heads. It’s familiar territory I’m afraid.
CN: Can I ask you about Premieres Lignes. They’re your co-production partners, is that right? What was it like for them continuing to work in the same building?
DR: Really really hard. I don’t think I’m betraying confidence by saying there are a number of people within that company who would very much like to move, and of course it’s difficult and very expensive and may not even be a good idea. Very much to varying degrees some of them are definitely haunted by what happened and are reminded every day. It’s difficult not to be.
CN: It’s quite different from some of your other “Terror” films. Terror in the Mall had such abundant multi camera archive. Can you talk a little bit about the archive collection process for this?
DR: The key word is frustrating because I knew in particular that security camera footage existed from a number of locations where the attacks had happened. Because the footage was immediately impounded by the police, and because the prevailing attitude is “don’t let people see anything”, it was impossible to prise the moving pictures from the French authorities. And that was very frustrating because of course we would have used it responsibly.
“There is a huge world of difference between having something shocking in a twenty second clip on the web, and having it in a documentary where the people involved speak, and it’s done with care and compassion and sensibility.”
CN: So there’s a lot of footage that you couldn’t get?
DR: We just literally couldn’t get. There’s a really, really strong taboo in France against any images showing pain and suffering. I found it kind of unhelpful in some ways…I think you can understand, but at the same time that really blocks a huge amount of journalism and seals off a lot of images. We live in a world where images are often the key to understanding situations. If they are used responsibly in the form of a longform narrative in particular then I think you can definitely justify the use of quite shocking images, if they’re in a context which creates understanding rather than used for just shock purposes. There is a huge world of difference between having something shocking in a twenty second clip on the web, and having it in a documentary where the people involved speak, and it’s done with care and compassion and sensibility. But no matter how you treat the material, the French are like not into that at all… Notwithstanding that I think we got a huge amount. It’s a more emotional story in a way than the others.
CN: Is doing film after film of darkness taking its toll on you?
DR: I don’t think I can do another one like this. I said this after Nairobi – I was being interviewed by the New York Times, saying “this broke my heart and I don’t think I can do another”. And here I am. But in fact I just turned down Terror in Paris 2 for the BBC, because I said “I can’t do this again. I can’t do this again in the same place.” The nature of the material, the darkness is enveloping, and you can kind of get lost in it. I think I can safely say I’m not going to do another blow by blow like these for a while.
Three Days of Terror: The Charlie Hebdo Attacks airs 6 January on BBC Two at 9pm.
The single documentary The Age of Loneliness looks at the “epidemic” of loneliness in Britain, telling the stories of 14 very different contributors. It’s a profoundly moving exploration of an often taboo subject – and one that resonates with most of us, whether we’re currently lonely, have been in the past, or worry about the future when we might be. Docs on Screens spoke to veteran director Sue Bourne about the film, which airs 7 January on BBC One.
Carol Nahra: You were very careful to get a good range of people. How did you go about finding your contributors?
Sue Bourne: Four months research. It just took us forever (laughs). I said ‘I’m not doing a film just about lonely old people – that’s boring and it’s obvious and that isn’t the problem. It’s an epidemic, and it’s about all ages and there’s something happening’. It was very much for me about a societal change and what was going on. But then I’m not doing a Panorama so I just wanted to give a voice to all those different people. So I said I want a voice from every decade, from every age group. So I drew up my list and then we just hit it for four months. We were in touch with 500 odd people to narrow it down to the 14 who appeared. Charities, blogs, internet, just everything. The thing about lonely people is they’re not out there shouting about it from the rooftop. And so that’s hard. And a lot of the people we met were just too vulnerable to go on telly.
CN: The ones featured are also vulnerable. You have very emotional scenes where it seems to me they are often articulating their loneliness for the first time, which I found quite painful. How did you find interviewing them?
SB: Well, basically I think they were wonderful, all of them. I think they were brave. Because no one wants to admit to being lonely because in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘well, why am I lonely? Is it because I am horrible? Why am I Johnny no mates? What’s happened?’ Some of them they have lost their partner so it was obvious why they were lonely. But other people were lonely and wondering if it was their fault, are they to blame. There was certainly one person I thought would be very good for the part because they epitomised a very large group. And I phoned them up and said ‘I want you to be in the film but you have to be honest. And I think your default position is to put on a brave face. And frankly you’re going to have to take that off. And bare your soul. Because if you put the brave face on you’re not telling the truth and the one thing I want this film to be is truthful’. So I was asking a lot….but I think it’s one of the most moving interviews in the film.
CN: Which interview was it?
SB: It was Jaye, the single girl. Because she wants to be a jolly person. But I thought the interview she gave was so honest. It was extraordinary She was really brave to be so honest. But I knew what her default position was – she was battling through life being jolly saying ‘I can cope with it. I can cope with it’. But inside it was tough.
CN: Are you a lonely person?
SB: No. I think I’m alone. My daughter’s dad, my ex partner, is dead. All my parents are dead. I have no brothers and sisters and really no family to talk to. So really it’s just me and my kid and she’s in her twenties and I don’t want to be a needy mother. So I’m acutely aware of the life ahead of me. That it will involve aloneness. So I better get used to it. So I try to train myself to be a bit more positive about it (laughs).
CN: Is that what brought you to the topic?
SB: I think so…In Fashionistas (which profiled six extraordinary older women) I wanted to find role models for the next 30 odd years, who were going to be upbeat and enjoying life and squeezing the pips out of it. Because that’s what I wanted to do. And then again a lot of them were on their own, so what I got from that is you need a particular spirit if you can find it to carry you through life because it ain’t easy and you might well be on your own.
CN: Did you ever think of matching people up? Cause it seems like there’s some people who would benefit from each other’s company in The Age of Loneliness.
SB: Well in a way sometimes you look at these films that we do and it’s like – I feel like a social worker. Because what I’m doing is I’m opening them out. I’m giving them a voice. Then I want other people to talk. I want people to look and think ‘why is nothing being done to help them?’. I now want to do Contact the Elderly tea parties because I think that it’s just wonderful. It transforms their lives for one afternoon a month and that’s all it takes…We have to be kinder. That is the wettest things a filmmaker can say – “I just want people to be kinder” – but I do!
CN: I can imagine that a doc about loneliness might not make for like the most filmic pitch.
SB: It took a bit of time and eventually I got in front of Charlotte (Moore) and said ‘Please, just give me this commission’. And she said ‘Okay, it’s yours, go.’
CN: It’s beautifully shot. It looks lovely.
SB: I had (producer) Daniel (Dewsbury) at my side from February. We did all the research together; we talked constantly about what we were trying to achieve, four months of that. And then I decided not to use a cameraman but to use him, and gave him a beautiful camera, nice lenses, and three months to shoot it. And we were this tiny little team. And it paid off. And then we got the drones (used for aerial shots throughout the film). I don’t like gimmicks. I always thought I only want to shoot it if it’s relevant to loneliness. But for me the drones were critical because I wanted to say “It’s everywhere in Britain – anywhere you look you’re going to find loneliness”.
The Age of Loneliness is on BBC One at 10.35 pm, Thursday, 7 January.
Over the last few years, British filmmaker Jeanie Finlay forged a reputation for making fabulous films about stories from the fringes of the music industry. The Great Hip Hop Hoax told how a couple of Scottish lads got a record deal by posing as Californian hip hop artists, and Sound it Out profiled the last surviving vinyl shop in the northeast of England.
As a teenager in 1960s Alabama, Jimmy Ellis’ wonderful singing voice was unlike any other. Except, that is, for one Elvis Presley. Hampered by his over-resemblance to the King, Jimmy’s own singing career floundered. Then, in 1979 he found fame as a masked singer called “Orion”, a persona deliberately evolved to create intrigue in the wake of Presley’s death. Over the next years he played to legions of grieving Elvis fans, and developed his own fanatical fan base, many of whom remained in willful denial about the true identity of their idol. With his contract stipulating he never remove his mask in public, Ellis’ success came at a high price for the singer still hoping to succeed on his own terms. Jeanie Finlay’s nuanced portrait of Ellis serves as a riveting cautionary tale of the music industry, and a memorable exploration of identity.
I spoke with Jeanie on the telephone, just before she left to take the film on a tour of the American South:
How did you come to this story?
I discovered an Orion record at a car boot sale with my husband 12 years ago. And was just intrigued by this kooky masked man. We took it home and played it. It was confusing: what is this? Because it wasn’t Elvis songs but it sounded like Elvis and the mask was intriguing. And then we did some research and discovered Orion’s whole story. It was a total chance discovery. I wasn’t making films then; I was an artist. Cut forward six years and I’d made Teenland and Goth Cruise and I thought what am I going to make next? I’ll make Orion. But I couldn’t get anyone to fund it. So I got a bit of development money and I shot most of the film on that initial development.
I was told by a senior programmer “If you continue to make music oriented work, no one will fund you. You’ll get shown at festivals but only in a side bar, and you’ll never be taken seriously.”
It seems like such a great story. Why was it so difficult to get funded?
Part of it was timing. No one knew who I was. It is a guy who is not famous. The story takes quite a lot of explaining. It’s an easy story to dismiss as Americana. Some of the funders told me “We don’t fund Americana. This is Americana.” Also, six years ago, I was trying to make it pre Sugarman and pre 20 Feet From Stardom. At that time I did a panel for Sheffield Doc/Fest called “Just Don’t Call it a Music Doc”. Because I was told by a senior programmer “If you continue to make music oriented work, no one will fund you. You’ll get shown at festivals but only in a side bar, and you’ll never be taken seriously.” Obviously films like Amy, 20 Feet From Stardom, and Sugarman have changed that discussion. I was always convinced that it was a really great American tragedy.
What kind of response are you getting from audiences, and particularly from Elvis fans to the film?
It’s quite interesting trying to reach Elvis fans. We’ve been going through Elvis tribute artists because they have access to a whole community. But actually going to Elvis fans is tricky. Because they love Elvis, and they have their favourite Elvis Tribute Artists, but they don’t want anyone else. So they are really not interested in Orion. So we’ve been doing some targeted ads on Facebook, and we’ve had no end of abuse from Elvis fans who haven’t heard of Orion and think this is someone trying to pull a scam!
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, Monday, 16 November at 10pm on BBC Four.
The worlds of gaming and documentary coalesce in a fascinating new project by a Grand Theft Auto producer. In 1979 Revolution, the story of the Iranian revolution is played out in a vibrant immersive experience that puts you in the middle of the crowd, and having to make a series of life and death decisions. Using extensive research, including audio interviews, still photography and academic consultants, the team takes users through a survival game that incorporates chaotic street scenes, and backroom interrogations. Told through the eyes of Reza, a young photojournalist living in Tehran, the project was developed in collaboration with contributors such as photographer Michel Setboun, whose photographs form an integral part of the experience. As described in Ink Stories’ website, Reza’s journey is a turbulent one: “Surrounded by a group of impassioned key figures involved in overthrowing the regime – Reza’s engagement becomes a high stakes chess match of decision making – whereby everything is at risk.”
At Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Interactive Exhibit, I spoke with Ink Stories founder Navid Khonsari about the project, asking him whether, by gamifying such events, he runs the risk of criticism. Here’s what he had to say:
Our goal is to educate people whose opinion of gaming is limited. So that’s part of the challenge – and it’s a challenge. Interactive documentaries are the step between us and documentaries, and we’re actually the full monty. With this we’re creating a new genre – we’re calling it vérité games. So the challenge of that has been great. If you really want to have an impact you have to follow that old saying of live a day in another person’s shoes. This lets you live, you make choices. When you are on the frontline with your brother and your cousin, and that relationship has been developed over an hour and forty five minutes, and they start shooting and you have to decide who you are going to push out of the way, that’s real. The suspense and the drama comes from that. And quite simply it has a greater outreach than interactive documentary.
Khonsari is convinced that the experience will appeal not only to the gaming generation, but also to an older generation interested in the topic: “We don’t alter the history that has taken place – that is defined as it is. But what we are doing is allowing you to have your own narrative in there, based on people’s experiences. What would it be like to be on those streets, to be those people that believe in the possibility of change? And then to have people go for it, fight for it, have it turn somewhat chaotic, and yet in their opinion all succeed because the Shah leaves. And then the aftermath winds up becoming that the most powerful, the most vicious of those who help the revolution succeed winds up taking over.”
Here’s a BBC item from its premiere at Sundance that gives you a glimpse of the game, and includes an interview with co-creator Vassiliki Khonsari:
With the support of the Sundance Institute, the team has crowdsourced memories of the revolution, and will be engaging in extensive outreach at they roll it out. For more information, check out the Ink Stories website – which features abundant press about a project which promises to break new ground in interactive learning.
British documentary Sean McAllister is known for launching himself into foreign lands, often in the midst of war, and finding unforgettable personal stories. Whether it’s via a piano player in Baghdad, a postal worker in Japan, Sean’s own “minders” in Iraq, these are stories of ordinary people – though always strong characters – struggling to survive in an often unkind world. Sean’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is perhaps his best yet. It begins as a very local story about Amer and Raghda, a couple who met as political prisoners in Syria and went on to have four sons together. When Sean is arrested with footage of them in his camara, the family has to abruptly flee to Lebanon, and the film turns into a larger story about lives in exile. Sean continues to follow them as they struggle to find solid footing, not least in their marriage, whilst watching a deteriorating Syria from afar.
I spoke to Sean a few days before the film’s world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and he explained a bit about the circuitous way the film was made:
It’s been a long time in the making. Is this your longest project?
Yes, it’s a labour of love, isn’t it? It didn’t get commissioned. That’s why it went on and on and on. I suppose the interesting side of it is that I’d given up on it actually. Then Matt Scholes, who graduated from Sheffield University film school, read an interview with me about it, and contacted me and said rather than working in the industry I’d like to edit this material of yours. I said I’ve given up on it – it’s not happening. And he said, well let me just have a look at it. And he went off for three months and started cutting it together and got me excited again. So I went off filming again because of him.
That’s amazing. At what point had you given up on it?
I gave up on it so many times. But the most significant point probably was two years ago, when I finished my Yemen film. I took off from Syria and went to Yemen and made The Reluctant Revolutionary. Nick (Fraser, of BBC Storyville) had sort of wanted a film from Syria. I gave him the Yemen film. I think he felt after the Yemen film and post Arab spring that it wasn’t so interesting to have an Arab spring film again…So he then sent me off to Greece to make a film. So I used the development money in Greece to fly off to Lebanon to film them, with the development money from Greece.
There’s no Greece film, huh?
There’s no Greece film. But like at the beginning, when I wanted to go to Syria and couldn’t get Syria commissioned, they sent me to Dubai. So I used the Dubai development to go to Damascus. So where there’s a will there’s a way. At the end of the day Nick saw there was nothing happening in Greece, and I was very passionate about this. And by then it wasn’t Arab spring; it was a different story. The arc of it had changed over the course of five years; it became a story of exile. It became something a bit more unusual because of the time frame. And this was all possible because Matt had got on board to construct the material, so we had stuff to show. And then when the BBC came on board, we pitched to the BFI. It’s perfect for a BFI pitch because they need to see what they’re getting into. And we had certain scenes cut, and they were excited.
The family’s story arc changed thanks to you, probably in a more direct way than has previously happened in your films.
I just came back from the border, screening the film with Raghda, and one of my questions (in preparation for post screening Q&As) was did she blame me for life today? Because I got arrested and they were all thrown into exile….And she laughed and said “I cried when you were arrested, I cried for you. The only people I blame in any of this are the regime.”
A Syrian Love Story has its world premiere screenings 7 and 9 June at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It will then be playing at festivals internationally and following a cinema release will be broadcast on BBC Storyville in early 2016.
As promised, here are more of my favourites from the films I’ve already seen, and written about, for Sheffield Doc/Fest:
An acclaimed filmmaker from a young age, Solveig Melkeraaen Is used to being in control of her life in Norway. When she is felled by a serious depression, which sees her undergoing electroshock therapy treatment in a psychiatric institute, she turns the camera on herself, in an attempt to take back control. In this intimate and brave exploration of depression, we follow her on the road to recovery, as she teases out the reasons for her breakdown – a journey which sees her trying to puncture the stigma and silence that so often accompanies mental illness. Surrounded by her supportive siblings and loving partner, Solveig seems to be well on her way to recovery — until a relapse threatens her fragile progress. Unflinching, blackly funny, and beautifully filmed – with highly stylised dramatic sequences – Good Girl breaks new boundaries in autobiographical filmmaking, and shines a light on how this devastating illness weaves its destructive path.
3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
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.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
As a teenager in 1960s Alabama, Jimmy Ellis’ wonderful singing voice was unlike any other. Except, that is, for one Elvis Presley. Hampered by his over-resemblance to the King, Jimmy’s own singing career floundered. Then, in 1979 he found fame as a masked singer called “Orion”, a persona deliberately evolved to create intrigue in the wake of Presley’s death. Over the next years he played to legions of grieving Elvis fans, and developed his own fanatical fan base, many of whom remained in wilful denial about the true identity of their idol. With his contract stipulating he never remove his mask in public, Ellis’ success came at a high price for the singer still hoping to succeed on his own terms. Jeanie Finlay’s nuanced portrait of Ellis serves as a riveting cautionary tale of the music industry, and a memorable exploration of identity.
Best of Enemies
The year is 1968 – one of the most turbulent in 20th century America. The three television networks are competing for supremacy of the airwaves in the run up to the presidential election. Lagging a distant third, ABC takes an audacious punt, and schedules a series of head to head debates during the Republican and Democratic conventions. Duking it out were two heavyweight thinkers – the rightwing William F. Buckley Jr and the liberal Gore Vidal. Buckley saw Vidal as a moral degenerative; Vidal considered Buckley’s views to be dangerously anti-democratic. Both recognized the power of television in the changing media landscape, and soon a nation was transfixed. Robert Gordon and Academy award-winning director Morgan Neville bring an abundance of fantastic archive, and interviews with cultural commentators – including the late great Christopher Hitchens – to tell the story of a famously acidic rivalry which would endure for decades.
Alden is an ambitious Wall Street psychologist, while Rochelle struggles as a carer on a zero hours contract and Keith tries to make sense of his life behind bars, as a result of Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Through their stories, and four others, Katharine Round humanises the bleak fact that growing inequality is driving a terrible wedge through modern society. Jumping back and forth in time, and between characters and experts, this is an engrossing, cinematic, thought-provoking essay which flags up some root causes of today’s societal woes – and raises disturbing questions about the future. Inspired by the best-selling book The Spirit Level, The Divide demonstrates the terrible impact that decades of misguided economic decisions is having on modern lives – and the truth behind the adage that money can’t buy happiness.
In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman 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.
Here is my Doc/Fest write-up. I’ve also written about the making of this film in another post:
Brenda is a mesmerising woman who has overcome a horrific life on the streets of Chicago. She now has a singular focus: to help other women do the same. Kim Longinotto follows Brenda in her day job, counselling incarcerated prostitutes and at-risk teenagers, and at night as Brenda takes to a van to provide brief respite to women from the watchful eyes of controlling pimps. Brenda’s ever-changing array of wigs are testimony to the many facets of her character, as she shifts between champion, motivational speaker, sympathetic ear and confessor. As often is the case in Longinotto’s films, the presence of the camera stirs many to speak up about their blighted lives in powerfully moving scenes. Made with longtime editor Ollie Huddleston, Dreamcatcher is an electrifying contribution to Longinotto’s life work documenting women’s attempt to recast themselves in a world dominated by men – and a devastating insight into America’s urban underclass.
How to Change the World
The idea was simple: send a boat to bear witness, in the Quaker tradition, at the scene of a crime. When journalist turned environmentalist Bob Hunter carried out this plan, with a handful of other peaceniks, an ecological revolution was born. How to Change the World takes us through the eventful early years of Greenpeace, from hiring a fishing boat to sail into nuclear testing waters in 1971, to the establishment of Greenpeace International in 1979. Director Jerry Rothwell’s confident, breezy and layered style suits the group itself – an unlikely collection of mystics and mechanics. The huge media interest they attracted from their first save-the-whale-mission thrust the group into the international limelight, and fractures quickly developed. Rich archive and animation is interwoven with outspoken and sometimes conflicting interviews with Greanpeace founders, including Sea Shephard head Paul Watson, who admits he never bought into the “bear witness” ethos.