A few months ago I joined the team at Bertha Dochouse, helping to programme their amazing array of international documentaries which screen in their dedicated cinema in Bloomsbury, London. It’s a wonderful complement to my university teaching. It’s a privilege to be able to watch so many documentaries from around the world – and connect with the filmmakers who made them.
Here’s a good example of those films: Turtle Rock. Stunningly shot in black and white, this slow cinema voyage takes viewers to Turtle Rock, a remote, mountainous village in China. Filmmaker Xiao Xiao grew up here, and for this sumptuous film he returns to follow the village’s seven families through four seasons.
It’s a simple, physical existence for these Bhuddist bamboo farmers – everything needs to be carried, made, cooked with the simplest of tools. In Turtle Rock, the cinematography is the star: each frame is beautifully composed and a pleasure to see on the big screen.
We sent through some questions for Filmmaker Xiao Xiao, about how he made the film:
1. Can you tell us a bit about how and why you came to make this film?
This documentary derives from my own nostalgia. After I was born, my grandmother and uncle raised me in this village till I was six, of school age. After I went back home with my parents, I returned to the village every year and stayed for a while. Turtle Rock is my hometown spiritually. As time goes by, a lot of changes have taken place there, with more and more modern buildings and facilities, and less and less residence. I strongly felt like preserving some of the images as well as my memories of this place. From 2015, with such motivation, I frequently went back alone to the village and stayed with my uncle’s family for more than two years, filming and recording their lives.
2. Filming in black and white is very striking. Can you discuss your aesthetic approach? Did you have any self-imposed rules while shooting?
This documentary was filmed by the format of black and white, instead of post effect. I have several reasons for shooting it in black and white. There are a lot of similar villages in China. Like this one, along with the process of modernisation and urbanisation, they quickly lost vitality and character – generations of young people have migrated to the cities while agricultural society became grotesque under the “modern constructions”. Secondly, I view the images without colours to be far from the real world, and near to the spiritual reality. Especially among the secular mundane images, I believe black and white represents purer spirituality. And I also hoped that the audience could experience their lives like memories.
3. What kind of equipment did you use to film this?
I used a mini SONY SLR camera because I wanted to minimize the disturbance I brought to my filming objects. I also used a stabilizer to obtain smoother and slower effects.
4. Will you continue to make films about your village, Turtle Rock?
I went back to the village time by time without preplanned schedules or presuppositions. Filming this place has become a “return” to myself, not only in terms of affection, but also a process of tracing the sources of artistic production.
5. This has been described as “slow cinema”. Is that how you would describe it? Was that what you had in mind while you were editing it?
I had in mind a relatively slow cinema before shooting: slow story-telling, and slow moving images. It is because the lives there are “spontaneous” in terms of natural rhythms – people follow the seasons in farming activities and they go by the sun in their daily schedule. It is a slow lifestyle of cycles. Compared to the pace of time and work there, this documentary of
less than two hours is very fast and abridged. Of course when I myself review the work, I find some places could have been “faster”, but I do not intend to revise it. I am rather content with my simple and immature thoughts of my first work without any intention of marketing or commercial gain.
6. What do you hope that audiences in the UK might gain from watching this?
It is a documentary of a lifestyle without targeting any regional audience – I believe it is comprehensible for all, but with very different angles. I remember that during a screening in Sheffield, a British man with a long beard said to me, “It is the same everywhere in the world, people are fond of talking nonsense”.
Turtle Rock is screening at Bertha Dochouse on Sunday, January 26th and Tuesday, 4th February. Check out their Instagram feed here.
Beautifully shot and multilayered, the new documentary Mother centres on a care home in Thailand, which provides intensive one-on-one 24 hour care for 14 Western dementia patients. At the heart of the film is Pomm, who we see lovingly doting on Alzehimer’s sufferer Elisabeth. But Pomm’s reality is that at the same time she looks after her patient, she is always thinking of her three children, who live many hours away. I recently spoke over the phone with the film’s director Kirstof Bilsen, about the themes of the film, and how he came to make a film set so far from his native Belgium.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me a bit about its origins?
Kristof Bilsen: I am always looking for stories that are micro but work on a macro level too. So far I focus on people stuck in a certain reality. In Elephant’s Dream it was people in a post colonial situation, and public sectors workers stuck in a job which didn’t exist. With this film it was to do with my mother; it was very personal. She was suffering a combination of dementia, though not literally Alzheimer’s, for quite a lot of time. We lost her this spring. She was going downhill for many years. Eventually we felt there was a point of no return coming: what would be the best for Mom? Would it be informal care at home? An old-people’s home, care centre? If so what would then be the consequences?
So yes, I threw myself into researching various approaches to elderly care and one of them was thinking “beyond” borders. In my research I found out about this place in Northern Thailand, where only 14 patients get 24/7 care by means of 3 caregivers per patient who do a rota. We initially went there for a two week research trip, where I made a seven minute short, which was really a portrait of place. But while researching and shooting that short I found and fell in love with Pomm. I mainly fell in love with her and Elisabeth because I mainly saw a grandmother and a child rather than a Thai woman and a patient, or a ‘guest’ as they call them. That for me was revelatory as I thought ‘that could be a story’. She could be a character. Without really knowing her back story, it was just the dynamic and bond that struck me as a good way into the story.
CN: Did you know going in that you would focus so much on Pomm and what’s it like to be a mother away from her children?
KB: What I prefer most in making documentary is to trust the process. A story leads you where you need to be. In the case of Pomm that was really key to the film. Pomm quite soon started talking about her children, started talking about what she had to cope with as a single mother. And sort of almost gently diverted me to this is actually the story that we are telling. To really be humble to the process.
CN: We also follow the story of Maya, who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s, and is being moved by her family to Thailand. How did you begin to incorporate Maya’s storyline?
The Alzheimer’s patients are at a certain stage quite down the line. You are limited to what you can film..How much can you empathise? The urge for me was to ideally follow a patient coming from Europe or specifically from Switzerland. It was serendipity because we were gently warned ‘well if want to film a patient, just be aware that it is a very stressful time’. It’s very problematic for a family to allow someone to film like that. They are stigmatised, get a lot of judgements from people in the West, you could say the Christian guilt thing – how do you dare to outsource someone all the way out to Thailand? And then suddenly there was this email coming from the man running the centre, who said ‘well actually you might be lucky, there is this family who will have their wife/mother – Maya – going there. And they are happy to meet you in theory’. So I went to Zurich and met them. Fortunately I had the 7 minute short I could show them, so they at least had a flavour of what I was up to. Plus I was very upfront about my own messy situation – we have our mother, and we are struggling and it’s huge taboo when it’s no longer home care. It was just being very up front and honest with them, and they were like let’s go on the journey together.
CN: How do you go about getting access to patients with dementia who can’t give informed consent?
KB: Well it was quite straightforward, being very transparent and common sense. That is my responsibility as a filmmaker in terms of representation. But then also for the organisation themselves, they had in the past a bit of media attention, specifically in Germany and Switzerland, and some radio pieces here and there, so they know what media can and cannot do. They were themselves quite confident in terms of the situation. But in terms of the patients it was always just a matter of being very clear to the family members – we are filming your beloved mother for example, in the case of Elisabeth – are you okay with us filming – and they would write informed consent.
CN: Did Maya notice your presence at all?
She did. But it was always a mystery how much. It’s interesting because what filming does and what editing does is you really empathise with them – with Maya in the film. Sometimes I feel that it might make them seem more conscious than they are, in the film, on the filmic frame, than in reality.
CN: Do you mean it makes it look like there is more cognitively going on than there is?
Yes, yes. Just because we do the drama shots – you see them leaving and the reactions of Maya. It’s all true but there is at the same time the deep mystery of how conscious are Alzheimer’s patients. How aware are they of the dynamics? I don’t mind that it adds to the empathy. We would also partake in giving care, that was part of the filming process.
CN: How long did it take you to film this?
KB: For me it’s really important that I take my time, that it’s a mixture of poetical and observational but also that the characters get the agency they deserve…So I think I really needed time to tell the story properly – you can’t do it in half a year. Filming technically started in fall 2016 and ended spring 2018. And then there was an editing process of four months. In total we did three trips. It’s not like there’s an incredibly amount of rushes – it felt quite sane. We shot about 50-60 hours, which allowed us to really be with them and be with Pomm, and be with her.
CN: What is your ideal care scenario?
KB: Ideally there really would be a world where there is space and time to give care. So if you give home care you would be supported by nurses that you know and that are affordable and you can really be a team. And you still keep a certain sense of privacy of your family, but you are also are a community. That is an ideal scenario – not an exhaustion route for the beloved partner or children to give care and not be able to talk about it.
CN: What are you hoping people will take away from the film?
KB: I would say a sense of empathy, open to discussion, to see that it’s not something that you need to hide away from – it’s just the continuum of life. We’re also expecting a little one, a little daughter in February. We are going to childcare places and I’m seeing children and toddlers. And the image of someone being so dependent is an image very familiar to me when I see people with dementia or Alzheimers, or more specfically my mother in the weeks before she passed away, that I still had the honour to feed her. For a lot of people that is unimaginable – feeding your parents? Now for me that taboo is gone – I am familiar with that concept. I would like for people to be much more open and kind to the continuum of life.
Mother is playing this week at Bertha Dochouse and JW3 Finchley in October. See Mother website for trailer and full list of screenings.
Henry Singer has been making films in Britain for more than twenty-five years. His body of work is extraordinary – his talent is in telling unusual stories in great detail, with tremendous nuance and respect. He is responsible for some of the most important films made over the past decade or so, including The Falling Man, considered by many to be the classic non-fiction film on 9/11, and The Untold Story of Baby P, about the terrible fallout from the death of a seventeen month toddler in north London back in 2006.
His latest film, co-directed with Rob Miller, is an examination of the Trial of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general found guilty of genocide and nine other war crimes in November 2017 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Filmed over five years, it tells the story of the trial from both the prosecution and defence sides. I sat down recently with Henry to discuss the film. As usual, this has been condensed for length and clarity.
CN: How did you come to this topic?
The idea came from an executive producer at BBC Bristol – he thought it would be an important idea for a film. He asked me if I wanted to direct it but I said no as I’d just got on commission for a film on Baby P, a big feature length doc for BBC1. But I did say to him –‘Look, if you have trouble getting a commission internally from the BBC I’d be interested in taking it over as an independent’. I knew given the state of British broadcasting at the moment that it would be very hard for him internally to get money for a film that would take years to make that would be partly subtitled. Big important, feature docs commissioned by the BBC are generally made on British subjects; big international films are of less of interest to the broadcaster.
The producer of the film, who did an extraordinary job negotiating access to the court, along with the exec, was somebody that I’ve worked with a lot — Rob Miller. He started off as my assistant producer years ago on a 90 minute film on a working man’s club in Bradford. He was my AP, then he became my co-producer then he produced me. He was the in-house producer at the BBC Bristol and he is the one who supervised the initial shoot – the opening of the trial. The BBC Bristol exec called me up a few month later and said ‘Henry, the film is yours if you want it as an independent’. And I was thrilled because, of course, I knew Rob and had worked very intimately with him, and knew what a talent he was, and because it was an incredibly important story – really, history in the making. So I leapt in on a heartbeat.
CN: How did you come to be co-directors?
At that time the trial was supposed to take two more years. The trial ended up taking five years in the film and sort of took over my life. And I was making this film as I was making other films for the BBC I did one on Baby P, a film on the The Rochdale sex abuse scandal and the death of Diana Princess of Wales and the week that followed.
In amongst that I was juggling the Mladic film with Rob. And Rob had directed parts of the opening of the trial and we realised that it would be incredibly difficult for me to direct it on my own. And so we decided early on that we would co-direct it. It really worked out wonderfully. I don’t know if I could codirect with too many people. We know each other very very well; we share responsibility and we are very close friends. It really worked out extraordinarily well.
CN: The numbers involved in the trial are hugely daunting, aren’t they?
HS: Hugely daunting. It took place for four or five days a week for over five years and there were over 560 witnesses by the end and 10,000 artifacts – not that the latter played much of a role in the film. We obviously couldn’t film every day – no one could have afforded that. So we had to be really strategic in terms of what we filmed and when we filmed. A trial like this isn’t like the O.J. Simpson trial where there are two or three or four key witnesses around whom the trial pivots and will be decided. These huge war crime trials are almost like a tableau, a mosaic, where every witness called by the prosecution and by the defence plays a small but crucial role in putting together a larger narrative –one of guilt or one of one innocence. But there are some witnesses that play a slightly bigger role – either factually or should I say legally, or emotionally in terms of getting the judges’ attention, and we filmed quite a number of those, some of whom became the foundation for the film.
CN: Were there any restrictions on what you filmed?
HS: No, I don’t think there was. One of the reasons we got access and maintained access is that we wanted to shoot both sides. That had never been done before. And, in fact, if you look at the films that have been made of the Balkans conflict, representing both sides really doesn’t exist. I think that was one of the reasons the court – I’m talking about the ICTY now, the judges and what’s called the registry, the body that runs the institution – thought it could be an important, a significant film. This did mean that we had to create a Chinese wall between the two sides. We never spoke to the defence about our conversations with the prosecution. We never spoke to the prosecution about our conversations with the defence. In fact, the two sides very rarely meet except in court.
CN: It’s striking how professional both sides are, particularly the defence team. Was it more difficult for you filming the defence side given the charges?
HS: Because it was a trial, you had to approach the subject with real objectivity – an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Obviously, that was incredibly hard with someone like Mladic, who had a terrible reputation across the world as the so-called Butcher of Bosnia. But you very quickly checked that at the door because first, it was a trial, and if you were going to be fair and objective and try to make a proper film of it, you couldn’t go in it with bias. And second, we had a lot of respect for the defence. They absolutely believed their client was innocent and we watched them work excruciatingly hard over months and years. And, of course, everybody must have legal representation – our systems of justice are built on that.
CN: How much did you know about this conflict before you began?
HS: Very little. Of course, you remember Sarajevo, you remember the images of Sarajevo, but I’d be lying if I told you it’s a story that has stayed with me. Of course, I knew a bit about Srebrenica – how could you not? But I didn’t know any more than your average consumer of news. So I was drawn to the story, not because of some familiarity with it, but because it was obvious the trial was a very, very important moment in European history – or rather, world history – and the issues that the trial and film would provoke – accountability, justice, immunity – are incredibly significant, even more now than when we started, given what’s happening in places like Syria, Yemen and Myanmar. I also like to make films about stories that are not known, or stories that we prefer not to look at, that we avoid. That trial and that war, even though it was this huge moment in European history – most people know very little about it nor do they particularly care about it. Which is rather extraordinary, given that it’s the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War II and involved a genocide, or at least a an alleged genocide. So it fit into my sensibility of wanting to do significant work about things that we don’t know about or that we choose to look the other way about.
CN: How did the edit go? You told me you had shot 400 hours?
There’s a cliche that documentary films are made in the cutting room. It may be a cliché, but it was certainly true of this one. Because we had this massive amount of material. We shot close to 450 hours, we had access to all the court testimony over five years, and there was, of course, the archive. We began by cutting all the sequences from our material that we thought might work themselves into the film – this took three or four months. Over time we reduced that, reduced that, reduced that, and the narrative of the film started to emerge. As we did that, we started pulling the court testimony – the ICTY films the entire trial – from the witnesses who were in those sequences. And of course, we started to pull in archive to tell the backstories – the backstory of the war in Bosnia, of Mladic, of Srebrenica, etc. It was an extraordinary long edit because of the volume of the material, and because of the complexity of the trial and because of the complexity of the region. And we wanted to ‘show’ the film, rather than ‘tell’ it, to use another well-worn cliché. But we were really fortunate to have hugely talented editor in Anna Price, and other really talented colleagues – co-producer Ida Bruusgaard, archive producer Geoff Walton, and too many others to name.
CN: Can you talk about the aesthetic? You went to some lengths to show how beautiful the countryside is – what was your thinking there?
HS: The thinking there was to create a contrast with the handheld, always moving – sometimes even frantic footage of material around the court with the prosecution and defence, and the even more, sort of, ‘thin’ and bland footage of the court testimony. It’s a sort of gritty, handheld on the shoulder documentary look. It’s very immediate – it’s now, it’s strip lighting, etc. That was the feeling at and around the court.
In Bosnia, we wanted a very different feel. We wanted to get across the layers of history, a country that has so much history, so much bloodshed, so many narratives, so many myths. It’s a place, more than any place I’ve been, where the past is the present. So we wanted a much more layered, graded feel. You’ve got the sort of black and white gritty truth of the court – the film is really about the nature of truth – but in Bosnia truth is very grey, and the truths are very different there depending which side you are on. It’s truth mediated by culture, by history. And Mladic is a great example of that, because to his Serb supporters, he’s already a mythical figure, the saviour of his people, whereas to his victims and many others, he’s a mass killer.
And at the heart of the feeling we were trying to get across in Bosnia is the land. Land, territory, is obviously what wars are fought over, and it was true in this case. But the land is significant because so much blood has been spilled on it, not just in the 90s, but through the centuries. And it’s symbolic of people’s belief systems. So we were trying, in a sense, to juxtapose that gritty black and white truth in the court with a much more nuanced sense of truth in the countryside. I’m not sure that comes across, but that was the intention.
Imagine you live in one of the most remote places on earth. At age four you are sent away to school, many miles away from your mountain home. You don’t return for more than a decade. What would that reunion be like? That’s the question at the centre of Children of the Snow Land, a new multi award winning documentary co-directed by Zara Balfour and Marcus Stephenson.
I first saw the film last year at the wonderful Valletta Film Festival, where it won not one but two awards. The film has now won ten festival awards, as audiences globally respond to its poignant themes and stunning footage, much of it shot by the film’s three main contributors who the directors taught to film themselves.
I interviewed Zara about the making of the film – as usual this has been cut for clarity and length:
CN: How on earth did you find this story in such a remote location?
ZB: I think it was fate. My co director Marcus and I went off to Nepal for a corporate job, filming charities. And we loved the charity in Nepal; we got along really well with them. We stayed in touch with them and they told us they started funding this going home trip for these kids from the Himalayas who didn’t see their families for 12 years. And they had decided they would sponsor all the kids aged 16 finishing their compulsory schooling to go home for three months. And we were just blown away by it.
I’ve always wanted to make documentaries, and have done a lot of short documentaries but really had a longing to get into longer form documentary. And I love Nepal hugely. So we went out and thought basically let’s see if there’s a story here. Let’s see if it’s true that the kids haven’t seen their parents for 12 years, and can they express it and are they willing to express it on camera? So we went over there and thought, well, a worse case scenario we’d make a fundraising film for the school and that will be that. And the kids were amazing. They were very open, hadn’t seen their parents in all that time. Very warm and wanted to learn. We taught them filmmaking and they wanted to learn.
CN: Talk me through a bit about how you taught them filmmaking.
ZB: Our first trip was basically working out who our characters were going to be – which children were most going to be able to express their story and also have an interest in filming themselves. We then went back a few months later and took some cameras and solar chargers. We basically gave them GoPro kits and solar chargers and batteries and loads and loads of memory cards. There was no way to back it up. It was very unlike most film shoots. It had to be so light because their walk (back home) was so long and so hard. And it has to be kit that’s capable of being charged. We went with them for some of the way and took slightly bigger cameras with bigger chargers, solar charges and such. And they carried on for three months out there. So the film is a combination of our footage, footage shot by Mark Hakansson our cameraman and photographer, and their footage. The training was a few days in Kathmandu. It wasn’t hugely extensive. We introduced them to YouTube.
CN: What was their experience of technology up to that point?
ZB: Nothing; they literally had nothing. The school didn’t even have a computer room at that point. And they didn’t have any smartphones or anything like that. They do now. And they’d never seen YouTube. So we introduced them to people like JacksGap, and those guys that are travelling and doing their own stories, and they loved it. They were like sponges, they really were. And when the earthquake hit, I had some friends that were going out who work with the Disasters Emergencies Committee. They went out to help after the earthquake and as they were out there they actually helped us get some of the footage back. So we got the footage back much earlier than we were going to.
CN: How were they able to communicate when they were up in the remote mountains with their families?
ZB: We said when you come back, bring back whatever you can. I will never forget watching the memory cards that first day. We were just blown away.
CN: What was it like being there for the reunions? The reunions are not in fact a very visible part of the film.
ZB: It was surprising. Coming from our background, if we see someone we haven’t seen for some time we just want to cry and hug them so much. But they weren’t like that; they had this very kind of shy nature. They were very stoic and don’t show their emotions. We found that the adult and the child way of dealing with the separation was very different. The kids hang onto the memory of the parents and think about it every day. The parents, in order to deal with the pain of separation basically cut off and didn’t think about it. So they were quite cold, at least to our western eyes.
CN: It seems like it should have been the opposite – you would think it was the other way around.
ZB: They couldn’t afford themselves the luxury of thinking about it too much – it was just too painful. So when they saw each other there was this strange formality.
CN: How did you swing this with a full time day job?
It has been tough. It was great having the support through post production with McCann. They basically accepted that during my day job I would be in the edit working on the film a lot. And took quite a lot of chunks of time off. It took four years to make it – two years worth of shooting and two years of post production. They’ve been incredible and really really helpful. For Marcus he’s been making a TV show, Stately Homes with Phil Spencer. So he’s had to do that and take breaks.
CN: What was it like winning two awards at the Valletta Film Festival?
It was incredible. We were in the teen section which was a mix of documentary and drama. And it was amazing that we won that. Not only that but we won the audience pick for the whole festival. I was completely blown away by that because we were a small film made by independent means. And there were so many films there by well known filmmakers with a lot of industry support behind them. It was a tremendous validation of what we’d done and an amazing honour.
It’s been a busy three years for Charlie Phillipssince we last spoke, not long after he became Head of Docs at the Guardian. With so much changing in the land of online documentaries, I thought it was time for a check in with him about how the Guardian has evolved. Here’s an edited transcript of a recent conversation.
Carol Nahra: Talk me through what has worked and what hasn’t at the Guardian?
Charlie Phillips: In the early days we were trying different things out and we were initially doing shorter docs than what we’re doing now. Everything was around 10 minutes or something. It was always my hunch that what would work better for us would be to do stuff that you needed a certain investment in it. Films that were more like 20-30 minutes, and it was signposted that it was going to be really compelling. You’d have to sit back and concentrate and give it time to watch things through. If you made that promise to people that it was going to be worth 25 minutes of your time then they are more like to watch it, rather than giving them the impression that you can watch it really quickly on your mobile.
We also shifted from trying to do loads of films – we were initially trying to put them out every one to two weeks – to say it’s better if we do one approximately every three weeks or even four. Then we give it a massive publicity blitz, give it loads of love, make sure it’s the best it can be.
CN: How do you do that?
CP: We put a lot more time and effort into the promotion. We treat them like event releases, which is why you get a massive banner advert whenever we release a doc, on the front page of the site. They’ve got a different player. So it is more of a kind of immersive experience watching the films. It’s different than everything else we put out – so the whole experience watching is different. They’re higher resolution, we chapterise the films. And also it was my belief that this should be a really global strand. So we really doubled down to ensure that we cover as many countries as possible.
CN: How do you define success, and a good recent film that was successful?
CP: For me the main marker of success is that we put out a film that we are proud of and that has told an untold story. We then also want the films to be seen by lots of people. And we get pretty decent viewing figures – our viewing figures are constantly higher than I ever thought we’d get.
The film we did about Qandeel Baloch has done exceptionally well. Over 200,000 just on Youtube alone and a couple of hundred thousand more on site. That was a pleasant surprise, because it’s primarily a non English language, it’s about what would be a remote place. It’s about a feminist, almost entirely told through social media video and graphics. In some ways the aesthetic of it is quite scrappy, in a good way. But people really took to because it was about a young woman who was killed because of the politics around her. That was really gratifying for a film which is set in Pakistan, for which only a limited amount of original material was shot, and in many ways is quite experimental. We put in a lot of time and effort working with the filmmaker to get it right – it went through a lot of cuts. That was a Bertha partnership.
CN: Congratulations on the Grierson for Fish Story (Best Documentary Short). Of course that’s very different in tone and feel from everything else.
CP: Yeah that was a really rare one for us because we took it as an acquisition rather than as a commission. But I knew it would work for us, a) cause it’s a brilliant film but b) because it has a relationship with journalism. It is in fact an investigative journalism film, it’s just that Charlie (Lyne, the director) is also kind of deconstructing investigative journalism at the same time and doing it in a funny way. It’s just a brilliant film, and it resonates with people and it’s obviously very poignant and clever. There is a part of the Guardian’s general identity which is about being lighthearted and fun. We couldn’t do a whole strand of films like Fish Story, much as I’d like to, but it’s definitely part of our remit to do the occasional thing like that.
CN: What’s been the biggest surprise for you on this journey?
CP: I think genuinely that people want to watch the films. The hunch that on a news and journalism platform that you could get really good audiences for short documentaries that look like documentary films rather than news reports. I think we’ve shown you can get a pretty mainstream audience for what’s often quite challenging and hard hitting stuff.
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.
One of the surprise hits of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it had its world premiere, Addicted to Sheep is that increasingly rare specimen: an observational documentary, largely made in the cinéma vérité tradition. On the big screen it’s a treat for the senses, immersing you in the lives of a family of tenant sheep farmers in the north of England. Currently screening in UK cinemas, it’s been getting rave critical reviews. I recently did a post-screening Q&A with the director Magali Pettier at Bertha Dochouse. Here’s a brief excerpt:
There were quite a few scenes in there when they clearly could use another hand. Did they ever say, ‘Magali, could you help me with this’?
Yes, and I do feel it sometimes, especially with the scene with the gate [where the farmer struggles at some length to fix a gate]. But my role as a filmmaker is to observe and see what is happening. If he had fallen and broken his leg of course I would go and help. But you shouldn’t intervene, and my aim is to film what is happening, and if I hadn’t been there, there wouldn’t be anyone to help him. He wasn’t in any danger. I think sometimes, having been brought up on a farm, I knew when to be there to help, and when to be quiet, because there are some very tense moments and you have to make yourself very small.
They certainly didn’t expect you to be spending Christmas Day with them!
They certainly didn’t. It didn’t take too much convincing and they said yes you can come while we open presents but after that we’d like to have the day to ourselves. They did make me feel like part of the family, and I stayed in the house with them when I was filming them.
It’s quite impressive, and in some ways these days slightly old-fashioned to have such an observational style. You had some interviews on the go, to give context to their lives. Otherwise it’s very minimalist. Have you been surprised how well the film has been received by audiences?
So far we’ve had a really good response. People appreciate they are not being told something all the time. It is filmed in a way that allows them to experience that environment and they feel like they’ve been there and that they know the family. For me that was the aim. I wanted the film to touch on social issues but I didn’t want it to be about social issues. I wanted people to think about it, and open up a conversation, but I wasn’t going to make a campaigning film. I wanted it to be about real people.
How do you know, in a film like this, that it’s time to stop filming?
I spent about 45 days over 18 months there. I could tell they wanted to get on with their lives! And going to those places and having me always behind or in front of them, or sometimes with a radio mic on them, I could really feel it when there was stress on the farm, that it was time. I had asked enough of the family, and we had to make the film with what we had.
And the family is happy with the film?
They liked it. But they said at first that they were not sure what the community would think. But we had a preview in the community with feedback forms and everyone agreed it was a good representation of the area. So that gave them confidence that it was okay – the community liked it so it was fine.
Check out this link for upcoming screenings of Addicted to Sheep.
A film about an eccentric early adopter of autobiographical filmmaking kicks off the Open City Documentary Festival tonight. Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, directed by Matthew Bate (who made the fabulous Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure) tells the story of how Klemke for 35 years has documented his own underachieving life – in end of year video diaries detailing his spiraling girth and roller coaster love life. It’s just one of many intelligent, thought provoking docs dominating the festival, whose 5th edition sees it expand to cinemas across London.
Since its inaugural year in 2011 the festival has grown four-fold in numbers, from 1,000 to 4,000, according to festival founder and director Michael Stewart: “We’re trying to grow about 20% in terms of audience each year, up to the point where we have the right kind of audience. We’re not in the business being a 100,000 person festival,” he says.
The festival maintains a principle of showing films which otherwise wouldn’t get distribution in Britain. Whilst the first year showed an overambitious 180 films, the festival has decreased the number of films, in order to ensure each one receives the attention it deserves, according to Stewart. University College London continues to fund about a third of the festival, but this year all screenings have shifted from the university’s lecture theatres to cinemas. The ICA, Bertha Dochouse, Regent Street and Picturehouse Central are among the venues, which Stewart hopes will draw a diverse crowd of doc lovers.
It remains to be seen whether the geographical expansion of the festival will detract from its feel: “How you build a festival in the middle of London and which is all over London but has a festival hub atmosphere is a challenge,” admits Stewart. “We’re working on that.”
Open City is also running a number of industry events, including a session on Wednesday, A Smart Portrait of London, on the data generated by digitization of our cities. The industry events also include a number of radio sessions, as well as making online docs for the likes of the Guardian, Vice and Dazed. According to Stewart, practitioners in London are hungry for such fare: “What we have put on for industry has really expanded. We’ve got a whole week of events, doing things which people can’t get elsewhere. There are 100,000 people working in the digital film industry in London and they’re not served properly. They don’t all go to Sheffield by any means.”
Open City closes on Sunday evening with a moving personal doc from Scottish filmmaker Karen Guthrie, The Closer We Get, in which Guthrie returns home to look after her ailing mother and explores some painful family secrets.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In nearly twenty years as a filmmaker, Daisy Asquith has told human stories the length and breadth of the UK, and beyond – not least in Crazy About One Direction, where she memorably explored the legion of passionate One Direction fans. She has also taken viewers into the world of clowns, young mums, Holocaust survivors and house clearers, in empathetic, nuanced portraits which have earned her multiple awards.
Her latest film is a departure for Asquith, in that for the first time she points her lens at her own family. In My Mother the Secret Baby, she embarks on a journey with her mum to find out more about her grandparents, who gave her mother up for adoption after she was born illegitimately in Ireland in the 1940s. In going in search of details about her birth grandfather, Asquith alienates a number of her Irish relatives, who vehemently resist airing their family’s secrets in public – their objections becoming part of the narrative of the film. I spoke to Daisy about the film, and what it was like making a film about her own family.
Can you tell me a bit about the origin of the film?
I had a lot of wobbles over whether or not to make the film, because one of my aunts…is really really against my talking about our illegitimacy in public; she wanted it kept private and a secret. So I kept chickening out basically. (BBC) Storyville have supported it very patiently for about five years. I kept saying I’m not doing it. And they would say, hmm okay and then three months later it was back on again.
Is this a journey that your mum would have taken if the film wasn’t driving it?
No, she says she wouldn’t have done it. And that kept confusing me too – that I was dragging her into it. But I think it just needed all that time. We needed loads of time. She kept changing her mind as well. I tried not to push her and to be patient really. And they allowed me to do that. She came to the realisation that she really did want to know more about her father. And now she’s so delighted that she made that decision. She loves the film and she loves the information that she has about who she is – who her father was. It’s somehow kind of filled in loads of gaps that you wouldn’t expect – why you are like you are. I think it has made her happy, actually.
You’ve pushed some family away, and others have become closer, like your aunt who is in it.
Yes, my Aunt Siobhan has been incredible. Her courage – I don’t know how she is so courageous. She is the one who has given us the confidence to do it. She kept saying ‘you have the right to know,’ and not backing down either.
And has that led to her having difficulties with her own siblings?
Yes, it has caused her all kinds of trouble.
What was it like discovering your main characters, Johnny and his wife?
It was delightful. When I first saw Johnny and he sort of emerged from his milking shed with hay sticking out of his hat, I thought, this is just amazing. I fell in love with him really. Luckily he likes me. I must be quite challenging for him, but he seems to like it and handle it, and is in full control of me when I’m over there.
You have made a lot of films – is this the first autobiographical film that you have made?
Overtly, yes. You could say all of your films have much subjective stuff in them, but yes overtly it is the first autobiographical film. It is so different. And of course they pressured me to be in it, which is of course out of my comfort zone.
You weren’t in it that much!
I don’t’ think I needed to be in it that much – do you?
Well I have a sense of who you are already. But I do usually find myself craving to see more of the strong personality behind the camera.
I think it is a bit of a cop out to hide and not do that and pretend that you weren’t affecting everything all of the time, so maybe I didn’t do it enough.
Can you expand on how it was different making this film?
You can’t see clearly when it is your family. It’s too emotional. You get sucked up into lots of different people’s feelings, all of whom you love and all of whom are not going to mince their words in their criticism of you. I try to treat the people whom I film with huge respect and some love, and to try to collaborate with them. But actually what happened was my vision was fogged by it. I had to separate how I felt about them being angry with me to how I present them in the film.
Will any of them end up watching it and coming around?
I want them to watch it – I’ve offered. They have not taken me up on my offer yet. But you never know. I’m hoping it is way better than they imagine.
My Mother the Secret Baby premieres at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival the 26th March (under the title After the Dance) and will be broadcast on BBC Storyville, 30th March, 10pm. There will be a special screening at the new Bertha DocHouse in London on 31 March at 7pm, which will include a post screening Q&A with Asquith.