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Olly Lambert on Abused: The Untold Story

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.

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Olly Lambert

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.

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Dee – (C) Minnow Films – Photographer: Richard Ansett

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.

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Kevin – (C) Minnow Films – Photographer: Richard Ansett

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.

Abused: The Untold Story airs 11 April on BBC One at 8.30pm and will then be available on IPlayer.

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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015: Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher

Twenty minutes into Kim Longinotto’s latest film, Dreamcatcher, which is screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest, a chilling scene takes place. The setting is an after-school club at a Chicago high school, where at-risk teenage girls are being counseled on how to say “No” to boys. As the teenagers munch through copious amounts of junk food, a girl confesses that she was raped at the age of 11 at a friend’s house. Another girl interrupts to tell a story of long-term abuse by a family friend, then another story of abuse follows, each more harrowing than the one before it. It’s astonishing to hear the details of these unreported crimes, and as they quickly pile up, to realize how endemic it is to these girls’ worlds. It’s the sort of scene that stays with you for a very long time.

For anyone familiar with London-based Longinotto’s extraordinary body of work, however, such moments are to be expected. Her subjects often take advantage of the presence of the camera to make their marginalized voices heard. While she is considered an “observational” filmmaker, and avoids interfering in the action while filming, she is well aware that by being there, she very much changes what is taking place. “It’s something that has happened a lot with making films,” she says. “People grab the opportunity to have a witness. It’s not ‘fly-on-the-wall’— a term I hate. You’re going in as someone who is going to make something with them. They feel part of it.”

Having seen most of Longinotto’s films, I point out to the filmmaker that my strongest memory of such a moment was the 8-year-old girl Fouzia in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), who uses the camera to recite the titular poem, protesting the practice of female genital mutilation.

“Yes, The Day Will Never Forget poem is exactly like that scene; they grab their chance,” Longinotto exclaims. “Students at film school often say, ‘Being a documentary maker, I feel bad that we’re going in and we’re taking advantage of people.’ And I always say, ‘Well, why do you think that? Is it because you’ve been watching reality TV? That’s not the only way of doing it.’ If you are using that analogy, Fouzia completely used me: She told me where to stand, she bullied me into going into her house, and she wanted me there because she knew her mum would listen. So she used me, but I loved being used. We used each other. You wouldn’t even use the word ‘use.’ We were working together.”

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Kim Longinotto

Indeed, when Longinotto first met the Chicago teenagers, she encouraged them to take control. “I said to them, ‘Look, this is your film and I really want you to feel good about the film and be part of it. And you will have the film when it’s finished. And we’re doing it together; I’m relying on you. I’m not going to interview any of you. This is your film, so you do whatever you want.'”

Longinotto also showed the girls excerpts from two of her films that feature strong women working to fight abuse: Rough Aunties (2008) and Sisters-in-Law (2005). “They all went very quiet and went off and didn’t say anything, but we all had a bit of a hug because it was quite emotional,” says Longinotto. When it came to filming the girls in the after-school club, Longinotto felt that they had built up a trust that allowed for intimacy: “I knew in that scene, I could go really close and film them. I was half a meter away from them; you can see how closely it was filmed. And there was this real level of trust.”

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The in-class confessions came as a surprise to the girls’ mentor, Brenda, who had been running the group for two years and was trying to prevent the girls from being abused, not fully realizing the extent to which they already had been. Brenda is the “dreamcatcher” of the title—a mesmerizing woman who has overcome a horrific life on the streets to devote herself to encouraging girls to do the same. Articulate, impassioned, non-judgemental and utterly focused, Brenda exuded a strength in character that convinced producer Lisa Stevens that hers was a story well worth telling.

Stevens met Brenda through her coworker Stephanie, when producing the feature-length doc Crackhouse USA (2010); Stephanie’s son is currently serving 42 years in prison. Recognizing the strength of both the characters and the story, Stevens nurtured the relationship for several years, ultimately bringing the idea to Teddy Leifer of Rise Films, with whom Longinotto made Rough Aunties (2008). A trailer that Stevens shot of Brenda was integral to convincing Longinotto to come aboard the project. “If I’m being totally honest about it, I thought, ‘A film about prostitutes? Do I really want to do this?'” the filmmaker recalls. “I find films dispiriting, if there’s nothing to hope for or fight for. But when I saw the trailer, and saw her feisty and full of energy and joy—Brenda and Stephanie both are—and that they are actually doing things, they are changing lives, I thought, ‘I really want to do this.'”

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Lisa Stevens

Longinotto, Stevens and a sound recordist traveled to Chicago for a ten-week shoot. Dreamcatcher was a far cry from the other US-focused film Longinotto had directed—Rock Wives (1996), which looked at the privileged lives of wives and girlfriends of rock stars. Indeed, she found Chicago to have much in common with Durban, South Africa, the location for Rough Aunties: “The neighborhoods where we were living, the largely white neighborhoods, everything worked, the pavements were nice, the roads were nice, there was lighting,” she recalls. “And then you’d go into the black neighborhoods and a lot of the houses were boarded up. There were actually plants growing out of the middle of the road…It’s surprising because America is the richest country in the world, supposedly. And Chicago is where Obama lives. It takes your breath away.”

Dreamcatcher was edited by Ollie Huddleston, with whom Longinotto has made eight films. When I visited them halfway through the ten-week edit, it was clear, as Longinotto is quick to point out, that they are equal partners in the post-production process. They were working their way through a second viewing of the rushes—an impressively restrained 30 hours. “That’s what’s fantastic for me, because she really shoots very little,” Huddleston says. “And she knows why she shot it and she shot it with a beginning, middle and end-ish in mind—or some idea that you need one.” Longinotto frequently sits back while Huddleston brings his considerable story-making skills to each sequence, their discussion focused on what each scene contributes to the story. They often finish each other’s thoughts, in a shorthand that speaks to the many months they have passed together in close proximity. “I think editing is the bomb. It’s the most important thing,” says Longinotto. “I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else.”

Dreamcatcher follows Brenda in her day job, counseling incarcerated prostitutes, and at night on the streets, as she speaks to women in a roving van, an all-night cafe, or anywhere that can provide a brief respite from the ever watchful 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. There is nothing that her girls can tell her that she hasn’t seen before, or witnessed herself firsthand, nor seemingly any subject that is off limits. The film is full of revelations.

Like many of Longinotto’s films, Dreamcatcher is a story where many men do not come out well; the Chicago of the film is a world of baby daddies and violent pimps. Homer, the film’s major male character, is a reformed pimp who now works with Brenda as a public speaker, but, rather creepily, says he has few regrets about his past.

Dreamcatcher is an important contribution to Longinotto’s life work documenting the attempts of girls and women to recast themselves in a world dominated by men. It’s a compelling, harrowing and utterly uplifting story of redemption that should have a long life as a resource for those working to help those with lives mired in prostitution and substance abuse.

Longinotto’s hope is that the film, above all, will bring awareness to the inherent hopelessness of criminalizing prostitutes. “I want the film to decriminalize the women—that’s what I want,” she maintains. “And help them when they’re in jail. I don’t feel comfortable with using a film to criminalize anyone. I think films have to be seen in a wider way. It’s about changing a mindset and opening windows and getting people to think more humanely and differently.”

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This article first ran in Documentary Magazine and on my blog in the run up to its Sundance World premiere in January…

Amir Amirani: How I Made ‘We Are Many’

February, 2003. Filmmaker Amir Amirani is participating in the Berlinale Talents summit.  As the days progress he becomes aware of the momentum building up for a demonstration against the looming war in Iraq.  Vehemently opposed to the war, he has a hard time deciding whether to stay in Berlin or return to London to take part in what would be his first political act. In the end, he stays in Berlin, and marches with half a million others. But when he returns to London, and hears about the three million strong London march – the biggest in the city’s history – he is filled with regret for missing that moment in London’s history. Over the next two years, that regret niggles away at him. Eventually the niggle turns into a full blown itch, and he starts reading up on the demonstration, and how many people mobilized around the world to protest.  One day, whilst recording a radio programme for the BBC, Amirani has a moment of clarity and realizes what he needed to do is make a film about it.

A decade later, and with the participation of a huge range of subjects including Damon Albarn, John Le Carre, Brian Eno, Danny Glover, Richard Branson, Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach,  and Hans Blix, We Are Many is about to get a UK cinema release. It’s a masterfully told, moving story – the film received extended standing ovations when it had its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Below Amirani tells me about the long journey he’s been on to make this film.

Amir Amirani: In 2005 I had one of those lightbulb moments, and thought ‘hang on a minute’.  The demonstration happened in London; it happened in Berlin; it happened in a few other places. This was a coordinated global day. This must have been the biggest demonstration in history. That is a story.

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 15:  Protesters carry an inflatable globe during an anti-war demonstration February 15, 2003 in New York City. Tens of thousands attended the rally which coincided with peace demonstrations around the world.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Preparations for demonstration in NYC: Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Carol Nahra: And what were the biggest challenges in the making of it?

AA: The first challenge was piecing the story together because no one had done it before. So I had to track down the activists and meet them here. But it was global – it happened in 72 countries; thirty million people took part. How do I find my characters? How do I piece together the background of how this day happened? That took nearly four years… I ended up filming in seven countries. The challenges  were finding the people, piecing the stories together, hearing whose idea was it, how did the idea spread, who were the protagonists in each of those countries. Then doing lots and lots of research, going and meeting those people, writing treatment and so on. But also I had no money at this stage.

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Amir Amirani

CN: That’s what I was wondering.

AA: Between 2006 and 2011, I wasn’t working full time on the project. So over those four or five years I basically had to supplement my living to pay my bills. I had to remortgage three times. In 2010, I pitched it around a few places. It was Best International Project showcased at Sunnyside of the Doc. Lots of interest, no money. From 2011 I thought I’d do Kickstarter campaign. The money came through in the beginning of 2012.

CN: How much did you make?

AA: $92,000. At the time it didn’t exist here – it was only in America. I had to get a fiscal sponsor over there. It ended up being £52,000…Also, Stephen Fry tweeted the Kickstarter campaign. And then (comedian) Omid Djalili matched what I raised on Kickstarter.

CN: What did you spend the money on?

AA: I paid myself a smidge from that to just start living. With the Kickstarter we had to buy the Avid kit. I knew immediately we wouldn’t be able to hire an edit suite or Avid equipment. So we bought the kit. I had to make the £50,000 on Kickstarter stretch as far as it possibly could, until Omid’s money came through. That has been the pattern ever since: money would come through, we’d spend it, it would run out, until another investor came along. The budget has ended up being a little over £500,000. With the true value probably over a million.

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Executive Producer Omid Djalili at world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest

CN: You were aiming for the 10 year anniversary of the demonstration. I saw you when you  had missed that and you were quite low.

AA: That was a key moment. When we didn’t make the anniversary we had completely run out of money at that time. And we had missed the deadline. And on top of that, we didn’t know where to turn next. For two months I couldn’t do anything. Then one of the investors came through with a bit more money and we were able to finish it.

CN: What are you most proud of in this whole journey you’ve been on?

AA: That I didn’t give up – because of the number of times I was close to throwing in the towel. Because financially it was a disaster. It’s taken many years of my life. But I’m very proud of the film. I’m very proud that I didn’t give up and I was able to tell the story.

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On May 21 We Are Many screens at 100 cinemas throughout the UK. Post screening there will be a satellite event broadcast from Curzon Mayfair, London with Jon Snow in discussion with Amirani, Djalili, convenor of the Stop The War Coalition Lindsey German, professor of international law at UCL Philippe Sands and actor Greg Wise.  The film will then have a limited UK release.