Tag Archives: Bertha DocHouse

Coming of Age Docs Shine at BFI LFF

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.

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Ginger, from All This Panic

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.

 

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Starless Dreams

 

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.

This article also ran on www.documentary.org

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Addicted to Sheep: Interview with Magali Pettier

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.

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Magali Pettier

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.

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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.

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London’s Open City Documentary Festival

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.”

Michael Stewart
Michael Stewart
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.”

The Closer We Get
The Closer We Get
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.

Check out the Open City web site for a complete schedule.

Amir Amirani: How I Made ‘We Are Many’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Amir Amirani

CN: That’s what I was wondering.

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

CN: How much did you make?

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

CN: What did you spend the money on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Daisy Asquith Gets Personal

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.

Daisy, middle, with her cousin Johnny and his wife Mary
Daisy, centre, with Johnny and wife Mary

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.

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Johnny and Mary in NYC

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.

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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.

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