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.
During the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, one of the most acclaimed dramatic features was British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a coming-of-age story acclaimed by critics for its “visually fascinating aesthetic.” But far away from the buzz surrounding such Oscar hopefuls, in the relative quiet of the Documentary Competition, I found a clutch of coming-of-age films that equally shone. Together, they employ a battery of storytelling techniques to bring their young protagonists’ lives to the big screen.
All This Panic, a feature debut by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jenny Gage (director) and Tom Betterton (DP), follows a handful of private school-educated teenage girls in Brooklyn over three years of their late teens. Ginger is “terrified of getting old,” clashes with everyone in her family, and finds herself adrift as her friends begin university without her. Her father tells her she can stay in the house, musing that they used to be best friends but have spent the last six years fighting (a haunting line that brings chills to those of us with young daughters with whom we are still on good terms). The other main subject, Lena, is self-possessed and articulate, and at the film’s outset, preoccupied with having her first stab at love. But Lena also has bigger issues on her mind: Her brother has significant behavioral problems, and both her parents—now separated—are living turbulent lives. Indeed, despite their privileged education, most of the girls here are dealing with significant issues, from broken families to self-harm and emerging sexuality. Photographers-turned-filmmakers Gage and Betterton manage, without formal interview or narration, to capture the complexity of teenage lives with the film’s striking visual style.All This Panic is beautifully shot, very close up, and in a dreamy-yet-pacey style that mirrors the girls’ inner lives, consumed with whom they are and whom they might become. The film is very effective at evoking the storminess of the high school years, as well as the fleetingness of this period.
Covering similar territory, in at times a strikingly similar visual style, is Alma Har’el’s Lovetrue. She interweaves the stories of three young subjects spread out across the US: a young erotic dancer in Alaska, a surfer-turned-single dad in Hawaii, and a teenage girl in a New York City family of singers whose parents have dramatically split. Each is navigating difficult relationships and trying to make sense of a world that often seems cruel. Har’el’s 2011 debut feature, Bombay Beach, was an innovative hybrid, with her rural Californian characters often breaking out in dance. She continues to break new ground inLovetrue, which features enacted scenes (filmed in a home-movie style reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell) that include both flashbacks and flashforwards, often with the subjects interacting with their dramatic counterparts (see featured photo above). While I admired the beauty and innovation of the film, the stories of the three protagonists were strong enough that in the end I felt the dramatic elements were sometimes more of a distraction than a service.
Less innovative in style, but no less compelling, were two additional coming-of-age films in the documentary competition. Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams takes us inside a detention center for 18-year-old Iranian girls. Their crimes sound shocking—they range from larceny to murder—but their back stories, revealed matter-of-factly to a sympathetic Oskouei, are even more disturbing. Together they paint a portrait of the most dysfunctional rung of Iranian society, where drug addiction rules and families violently turn on each other. But inside the center, the girls act much as any other high-spirited teenage girls living together, and the film says more about what we have in common than our differences. The press notes say that Oskouei worked for seven years to gain access to the institution, an effort that more than pays off for a film that has already garnered both an Amnesty International Award and a True Vision Award and went on to take the LFF’s Grierson Documentary Competition Award.
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum are the French students who are the focus of Claire Simon’s observational documentary The Graduation. They have come from all over France to take an astonishing entrance exam to the country’s most prestigious film school, La Femis. Over three months the wanna-be auteurs undergo a host of tasks, mulled over by the film’s real stars – the industry figures who serve as the selection committee, offering up withering critiques once the candidates have left the room. I emerged in awe of the articulacy of the candidates, and in wonder at the complete Frenchness of the whole scene, which comes with more than its share of chain-smoking and Gallic shrugs.
Not surprisingly, many of the festival’s fare across the genres reflected the turbulent times in which we live, with a host of films focused on stories of migration and war. Among these was the winner of the short film category, the documentary 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo. Finding his apartment smack-dab on the frontline when war breaks out in Syria’s largest city in August 2012, photographer Issa Touma begins filming from his window; this compelling short is an intriguing insight into the opening days of the ongoing destruction of Aleppo.
While nonfiction media is never going to dominate at the BFI London Film Festival, where the focus remains firmly on the dramas and the red carpet, it can be said that there has never been a better time for cinema documentaries in London. There has been a boom in arthouse cinemas opening up in the last few years (my North London neighborhood, Crouch End, which formerly had none now has three within a mile). And in order to differentiate from the temptation to remain at home in front of the television, cinemas are featuring many documentaries with Q&As or panel discussions afterwards. During the LFF I took a side trip half a mile away to the Bertha Dochouse, which has been exclusively showing documentaries for more than a year. There I hosted a panel following the screening of yet another coming-of-age documentary, Driving with Selvi. Directed by Canadian Elisa Paloschi, it’s an inspiring tale of how a child bride in India escaped her life to become a taxi driver. Having spent ten years filming Selvi, Paloschi eschews dwelling on the abuse that she suffered as a child bride, focusing instead on the confidence she gained as a taxi driver and through a second marriage, this time for love. This week I’ll be returning to moderate another panel, following Rokhsareh Ghaem Magham’s multi award-winning Sonita, yet another tale of an inspiring young woman whose story continues to put “bums on seats,” as they say here.
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.
Santana’s latest programme, Inside Birmingham Children’s Hospital, is currently running on Channel 4. The series, made by fixed rig experts Dragonfly TV, uses a wide range of filming techniques to supplement a 80 plus camera hospital rig, including mobile phone footage, still photography, single camera crews, as well as patient car footage using GoPros. The viewer feels like a privileged observer to the difficult and very inspirational journeys that families undergo when facing health crises, and I can’t recommend it enough as an example of riveting public service television. I spoke on the telephone to Sam about how his working life has changed with the advent of the fixed rig:
In a nut shell, what is the difference between editing from the rig and traditional factual editing?
Anything in fixed rig is completely different from anything in traditional factual editing. The main difference is there is no producer. You don’t produce your actuality because there is no producer or director filming – it’s a fixed camera. From a technical point of view, with traditional factual when a director brings you his or her rushes you can immediately look at them. You cannot do that with a rig. There’s quite a lot of groundwork you have to do before you can start looking at the material – organising the material, pulling the right microphones, syncing the cameras up. So from a technical point of view that is a big difference. Also, when you’re editing something that has been shot traditionally with a director on a single camera, you have an expectation at the beginning of editing a particular scene that you know how that scene is going to turn out, because the director has shot it with an idea. When you edit a scene that is shot on the rig, you have no idea how it is going to end, you don’t know if it’s going to deliver, and so really it’s in the lap of the editor to try to make it work in one way or another.
What do you enjoy most about editing from the rig?
Really what I enjoy most about it is how really organic is. How pure it is. Because of the fact that you have to go through all those hours and hours of material, not knowing how anything is going to turn out, not having any control over what people are going to say. Because people will forget the cameras are there. I’ve done probably over 40 episodes of 24 Hours in A & E, and Children’s Hospital, and more, and all the time people forget the camera. They may be quite self-aware at the beginning but they forget it. And I think that’s what makes it so pure, so different. And on top of that you have so many camera choices and so many angles. At times it feels that, although you are cutting real life, you feel you’re cutting drama.
What are the biggest challenges?
One of the biggest cons of rig documentary editing is the sheer volume of material and the fact that actually you need the luck of the draw. Because as I was saying before, when the director goes to film, he or she has met a family, a set of contributors. And that’s why they’ve decided to follow a story -because of the research they’ve done before. With most rigs, that research doesn’t happen. So you meet somebody there and then and you just embark on that mini journey with them. And you don’t know how things are going to end. And sometimes you have less choice of who you are going to feature in your programme and therefore that makes things more complicated. So a story that on paper may feel great because it looks big that happened on the rig, it may not then have the dramatic storytelling that you would like it to have.
For 24 Hours in A&E, you get all of your 24 hours of footage, and then, once you’ve looked through it, producers have to go out and do those follow-up interviews and dig out those background stories, correct?
Yes, for example there’s a particular story in 24 Hours in A&E, one of the last ones I worked on, where you had this tiny story of a young lad who had broken his leg. The doctor thought he was faking it, he was like three or four years of age. So medically it had nothing, you know? It was just a tiny thing. But then because we thought he was funny and quirky on the rig, we then went and interviewed the grandmother who brought him, and she gave an incredible interview that explained to you so many different things and the unconditional love which she had. It transformed the rig material. And a story that was only seven minutes in terms of screen time completely kidnapped the film I think.
How much do you think your fixed rig experience is informing jobs you do that aren’t fixed rig?
I think whenever you go back to traditional observational documentary making there are things that you have to untrain yourself about. Because the rig provides you with an amazing amount of multicamera footage to cut to. It’s easier to create dramatic pauses on a rig than on single camera. And so you have to sort of make sure that when you go back to single camera observational documentary making that you forget the rig quickly. Because if you don’t you won’t get it done.
Where is the fixed rig genre heading?
I’m hoping that the rig will provide us a way in the future to blend itself to the old techniques. You know that if someone is talking to you, you can use their voice to take you to the rig and use the rig as an example of what that person is saying. At the moment the rig is used as a bed of shots and actuality, which is unadulterated by anyone else’s voices apart from the interview. It will be interesting to see where the rig takes us in the future.
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.
In a relatively short amount of time – six years or so – James Jones has carved a name for himself in international current affairs stories, making films for both sides of the Atlantic. most frequently for PBS’s Frontline. Fresh from looking at North Korea, the London based filmmaker’s latest project ventures into another secretive country: Saudi Arabia. The film, versions of which screen on both ITV and Frontline, uses secret filming by activists to spotlight how a quarter of the population lives in abject poverty, despite its massive wealth. The film takes a hard look at the human rights abuses perpetuated by Saudi’s rulers, abuses that the West has been far too eager to turn a blind eye to, as long as the oil and weapons flow freely. The UK version also investigates how religious leaders in Saudi are masterminding religious extremism that extends far beyond its borders (it is no coincidence that fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 bombers were Saudi citizens). Taking us into a land where activists risk their lives with every move they make, this film should be compulsive viewing, and serve as a wake-up call as global terrorism escalates. Docs on Screens spoke with James about the making of it:
Why this film now?
So the starting point really in the UK was when Raif Badawi the young blogger was flogged in January 2015. And a couple of weeks later the Saudi king died. And you just saw world leaders, David Cameron, Prince Charles, President Obama, all flock to Riyadh to pay their respects….And it just made me think. I’ve made films in Iraq, North Korea, all these places with kind of questionable human rights records. But the difference between North Korea and Saudi Arabia – North Korea is a pariah state. Everyone knows they have gulags; it’s beyond the pale. And yet we were being incredibly respectful towards a regime that has a very questionable human rights record. And so really I thought – there are people in Saudi Arabia who share our values: are pro freedom of speech, are pro women’s equal rights, all of these things. And yet they’re the ones being locked up or lashed or executed. And so we wanted to go and try to use the same model that we tried out in North Korea in Saudi Arabia. We knew politically it would be a lot more sensitive but we thought it was kind of worthwhile because it mattered more.
There are people in Saudi Arabia who share our values: are pro freedom of speech, are pro women’s equal rights, all of these things. And yet they’re the ones being locked up or lashed or executed.
And that model is giving activists cameras to film secretly?
Yes tapping into a network of activists that already kind of exists. And then sharing our technology in terms of the undercover camera and expertise in trying to focus their efforts in telling a story that would be kind of coherent and gripping for the world. Unlike North Korea, in Saudi Arabia people have mobile phones so that made our job a lot easier.
What is the difference between the US and UK versions?
The PBS story is entirely looking at the activists on the ground. So it is all about this network, their footage, and different movements for change and currents for reform and complexity. So it doesn’t go into the same detail about the ideology driving terrorism. The geopolitics of it all is quite kind of focused on the domestic movements. Which in a way makes it kind of more of a coherent narrative.
So the angle of the PBS film is that it’s the movement of activists but not so much the criticism of the West?
Exactly. So not really going into the central hypocrisy but just telling the story on the ground. And going into more detail, so there’s more context in terms of the different problems Saudi Arabia is facing: the oil price crashing which has led to big cuts, they are fighting expensive wars abroad, etc. And so we have people telling us how it is basically a perfect storm once you combine those elements with people who are unhappy who are protesting.
You have made several films which have been reversioned in the US and UK. What generally do those differences tend to be?
Certainly the Frontline audience is pretty well informed. Their foreign coverage is pretty strong, pretty comprehensive. I think Frontline is great because they tell their stories very clearly. In the UK there’s more of a willingness to be provocative about a subject that matters. British television is just as rigorous, but you can afford to be more bold and more cheeky.
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.