Journalist and photographer Sue Carpenter first met the teenage Belmaya Nepali in 2006 when Sue moved to Pokhara, Nepal for a year to run a photo project working with disadvantaged Nepali girls. Fast forward to 2013 and Sue, now a filmmaker, reconnects with Belmaya, and they begin to collaborate on a film project together. The resulting feature docI Am Belmayahas recently been released in the UK, and has garnered huge audience love, as well as two nominations for the BIFA awards. The film, directed by Carpenter with Belmaya credited as co-director, chronicles Belmaya’s transformation from an uneducated teen bride and mother to an empowered filmmaker speaking at international film festivals about the need to educate girls. It’s a truly inspiring watch, not least for the chance to see Belmaya’s education in filmmaking unfold on screen, through her own lens. I spoke on zoom with Sue about the making of the film, and her remarkable collaboration with Belmaya, half her age and half a world away. Our chat can be seen in its entirety on youtube – below is an edited transcript.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about how your partnership with Belmaya evolved to her becoming co-director?
Sue Carpenter: I always wanted her to have a voice and for it not to be my film about her, but for it to be her film or at least a co-creator in some way. And I didn’t know quite how that would be. But I certainly envisioned including her footage and interweaving that with the footage of her. But a lot of the early footage we had, some of it is very very powerful, were of things going wrong in her domestic life, at the same time that she is learning and becoming more powerful in her own career. That footage was always of her. So I had to kind of root around to give her an equal and powerful voice in that first section training of the film while she was training. And we found those training videos of her with her fellow student where they are interviewing each other. And I like that because instead of the powerful director person saying “what don’t you like about your husband” (although that is probably not a question that we would ask!), her peer says “What don’t you like about your husband?” And she says “Oh I don’t like it when he drinks and smokes and gets drunk.” And it just feels so much more natural there and you feel she has agency. She is saying it because she wants to say it. She tells him she’s not gonna answer a question if she doesn’t want to. With a director-subject relationship she wouldn’t be able to say that – she would feel obliged to speak. So I tried to give her those moments in that first section. And then after the crisis point when the film really takes off more she is much more at the helm. She was taking more footage and she was making much more decisions about what to film.
CN: Will you continue to collaborate with Belmaya?
SC: Yes I very much want to. What we’ve done with this film is we’ve had lots of fundraising online screenings working with in tandem with some British charities working in Nepal. And Belmaya has had about five or six commissions through those charities saying “would she make a film about our projects?”
CN: After being a labour of love for so many years the film is out there and it has been very warmly received – what’s that like?
SC: In a way the very first review I got, which was five stars, had the biggest impact on me because I had no idea at that stage whether it was going to be received well in the industry or by anybody. I actually cried. It was a really lovely review in the UK Film Review – they actually got what it was all about. It was a relief and gratifying.
I am Belmaya is available to watch on demand on BFI Iplayer and Curzon Home Cinemas, and is screening through November at selected cinemas. See here for full details.
When filmmaker Nira Burstein picked up a Black Magic camera, she knew where she wanted to point it: at her own family. Over the course of six years she would re-enter her cluttered childhood home in the Queens borough of New York City, on a cul de sac called Charm Circle, where her parents eked out a precarious existence. Against the background of her younger sister’s impending polyamorous wedding, and through childhood home videos, Burstein explores the dysfunction and mental illness which have been a constant in her family. Charm Circle is an intimate, emotional and often funny foray into Burstein’s family life, richly deserving of the audience award it won at Sheffield DocFest, where it had its world premiere and was a word of mouth hit. I met with Burstein during the festival to ask her about the making of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Could you talk me through the process of moving out and whether you began to look through your family differently once you left home and how the film came about?
Nira Burstein: I moved out when I was 18 or 19 and it took me a while to want to go back again. As the years went on after I left, it seemed to feel increasingly worse going over there. Bringing the camera in was a way to bring in something that I enjoy doing to their house. And in a selfish way I thought ‘if I’m going to be here I have to figure out a way to feel welcome’. The filming started in 2015. I would go over maybe every two or three months. And then as I saw a story element developing I would spend more time there. I thought ‘I need to be around to get this while it was happening. No one’s reaction is ever the same in hindsight so you have to get it in the moment.’
CN: How did you go about getting their participation and being on board with it? I know you have one scene where your dad is snapping at you about filming and it’s great to have that in there. Talk me a little bit through their cooperation and did you feel like they ever acted differently because you had the camera there?
NB: I honestly think it was very natural. I don’t think they treated me any differently with the camera or without a camera. I had just bought the camera and I was really wanting to shoot and make something. I don’t know if any of us knew that it would get quite as involved as it did. But my parents have always been really supportive about my projects and have participated in other ways.
There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything is a blessing.
CN: That’s what’s so great about the film is that it’s clearly a loving family but with a lot of problems.
NB: Yes it’s very much the way things are. What I am so grateful for about my family is how much love there is. I think that is what gives people space to watch this movie even in the more difficult moments, because that does exist. And I think that’s the way that people feel safe about it. I am very inspired by my parents. I think they have a wonderful spirit for what they have been through and their sense of humour is incredible.
CN: Did you get them to talk about things that they wouldn’t usually have talked about, as is often the case in autobiographical filmmaking? Like the disparity in their sex drives – I felt like your mum was getting that on the record.
NB: I definitely feel that my mum felt this was a platform to let things out that she maybe hasn’t had a chance to say. And whether it was just meant for me or whether she meant it for the whole world I’m not really sure. Ultimately she’s okay with sharing all of it.
CN: What was it like for you looking through all those home videos? I imagine it was a bit painful to see your parents, as it was striking in the film how much they have changed, and how much more mainstream they seemed thirty years ago.
NB: This was part of the journey that went on behind the camera: me recognising how one can take for granted their childhood and not realise how that ends up playing a part in everyone’s life. And realising how much this thing they went through affected them; it changed them.
CN: Which thing is that?
NB: Specifically I think taking care of my older sister (who has lifelong learning disabilities). There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything’s a blessing. And that’s all true but it’s still really hard.
CN: You look back on your childhood as a happy one, do you?
NB: Yes for the most part. When I was eight, and this is in the movie, for various reasons my childhood just kind of stopped. It just became a lot of responsibility. But there was still a lot of happiness and fun after that.
CN: You’ve described how the camera was useful for you, giving something that you like to do when you visit them and I totally get that. Is there anything that you are hoping that the film does in a larger sense now that it’s made? Is there an impact that you hope it has?
NB: The personal is universal. If we can be okay about sharing personal stuff then it opens a conversation. And so I do hope that the film gets seen. I hope that it brings some joy and brings about a conversation they might not have had otherwise. We don’t really know what’s going on with the person across the room or on the sofa or wherever they are.
The Painter and the Thief not only tells a remarkable story but it does so in a remarkable way. The film chronicles the unlikely friendship between the Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and heroin addict Karl-Bertil Nordland – a friendship which develops after Nordland is jailed for the brazen theft of two of Kysilkova’s paintings from a gallery. Norwegian Director Benjamin Ree follows his two protagonists for three and a half years, as Nordland becomes a new muse for Kysilkova, even as he indulges in increasingly self-destructive behaviour. But what really sets this film apart is its approach to storytelling – Ree has viewers inhabit the perspectives of both Nordland and Kysilkova, going back to replay scenes with different narrative overlays. It’s an exciting film which keeps you guessing, and in my books makes Ree (who is 31 and also made the excellent Magnus) a filmmaker to watch. I spoke to him via zoom while the film had its BFI London Film Festival run, where it won Best Documentary. The following interview contains spoilers and has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: At what stage was their relationship when you started filming them?
Benjamin Ree: I started filming them the fourth time they met. I read about the story in the newspapers in Norway and it always takes a bit of time to get access – in this case getting access to a thief who didn’t know anything about me! I was really fortunate because a friend of mine had documented Barbora’s life a lot – taking photos of her paintings being made, filming her exhibition – we even had surveillance footage! Barbora had brought with her an audio recording recorder to the trial because she doesn’t understand the region so she recorded the whole trial and also during the break when she approached Karl-Bertil. So there was so much footage there from the very beginning. It was just pure luck to have such great footage before I came along.
CN: I have read that you’re inspired by observational documentary filmmakers like Steve James. But was there any point in time when you thought that you might become part of the story? Because clearly you must have interacted with them all the time during the shoot.
BR: During filming we did a lot of interviews and and we hear my questions and of course we could have chosen another approach to this where I am more visible. But I do believe that I am very there in the film as well. What I do with those interviews is I convert that to cinematic language. The film is very self reflective in a way but it but it is self reflective in a way that I haven’t seen before in a verité documentary film. I am very present in the whole film because we force the audience to think about the filmmaking process, having overlapping scenes. And some people become a bit uncomfortable with that, some love it, but I think it’s fun to try something new in a verité documentary.
CN: Absolutely and I am in the category of loving it and I really enjoyed the non-linear storytelling and the fact that it always kept you guessing. Did you have any idea when you were shooting it that you were going to be doing this in the edit?
BR: It was kind of two choices that made the structure happen. For me dramaturgy is not only an artistic choice in documentary, it is also an ethical choice. And that’s very important to keep in mind. So during filming we really wanted to portray Karl‑Bertil in a complex way to show how funny he is, how intelligent, how self-destructive and sad he is. And the only way to really get to know Karl-Bertil was to show the world from his point of view. And in the editing room we found the way to do it: that we wanted overlapping scenes. And the reason that we do that is because the themes of the film is what we humans do in order to be seen and appreciated. We would explore the film’s themes in a playful, fun and complex way to see the scenes over again so we had both of the subjects’ points of view of each other. And I think that was really relevant for this film. But it was in the editing room we found out how to do it.
CN: How did you get involved with Morgan Neville and what role did he play?
Ben: Morgan Neville saw the film at Sundance, so he came into it after the film. He loved the film and wanted to support it. I asked him if he wanted to become an ambassador. But in film words we don’t call it an ambassador, we call it executive producer!
CN: In the film Karl-Bertil has a bad accident. How soon did you talk to Karl-Bertil before he had it, and what was that like for you?
BR: It was not right before he had his accident. There was a period when he almost died several times and it was almost pure luck that he survived that accident. And Karl-Bertil and I had several conversations, and I said to him and he agreed both of us thought that he was going to die during filming. And I told him ‘if you die we’re not gonna make this film’ and Karl-Bertil responded by saying ‘if I die you have to promise to me to make this film’. So those are some of the conversations that we had. I was nervous all the time. I was waking up in the middle of the night worrying about him. There were of course long periods of time when I couldn’t reach him at all.
CN: When he sees the portrait and cries in that very moving scene, was he using at the time? He seemed quite out of it.
BR: For me that is a great scene filmed by Kristoffer Kumar. Karl-Bertil explains that this is maybe the first time he has been seen in his life, and that’s why he behaved that way. But the first half of the film yes he’s on drugs all the time.
CN: Is he doing okay now?
BR: He’s doing great today. He’s not single anymore. Bad guys like that don’t stay single for long! He has finished his second year at a school of sport science and he has got a new job. He’s not counting months anymore of being sober, he is counting years. I’m extremely proud of him and I think that the journey he goes through from the lowest point in the film, almost dying and being addicted to heroin, to where he is today is the most impressive thing I have experienced ever in my life.
As we remain in lockdown for the foreseeable future it’s sometimes hard to focus on the positive. But I know what has given me a great deal of enjoyment and fulfillment during these strange, endless weeks. In late March, in the first days of lockdown, we launched a podcast at Bertha DocHouse, where I work as a Programming Associate. So every two weeks for the last couple of months I have had the chance to talk with one of my favourite documentary makers about their working lives. All four of my guests to date have a number of films available online to stream – so the idea is that you can dig deep into their body of work before listening to our chat. It’s been a fascinating journey – I hope you will subscribe and share with any doc lovers out there. It’s available on Apple Podcasts and just about any other podcasting platform.
Here are the first four episode guests, starting with the most recent:
In a documentary-making career spanning a quarter century, Dan Reed has established a reputation as one of the most dedicated and talented filmmakers working in Britain today. With a slew of awards under his belt, he is also one of the most heralded.
Long known in the UK, Dan came to worldwide prominence last year with his devastating portrait of sexual abuse Leaving Neverland. The two-part Channel 4/HBO film won a number of awards and was widely hailed by viewers and critics as a forensic examination of the longterm trauma of sexual abuse.
At the same time, Dan found himself bombarded by a global legion of Michael Jackson supporters, many of whom had never watched the film.
As Dan himself admits, he’s no stranger to navigating difficult terrain. From his work amongst gang members in South Africa in Cape of Fear (1994), to covering both sides of the Balkan conflict in The Valley (2000), he has often placed himself in dangerous positions.
In recent years, Dan has explored complex stories of trauma through intimate personal testimony. The films use user-generated content, CCTV and interviews to powerful effect, depicting the timeline of terrorism events as they erupt across everyday settings: an opera in Moscow, a mall in Nairobi, luxury hotels in Mumbai, and the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo.
Alongside his terrorism films, Dan has built up a stable of observational documentaries, embedding himself amongst Russian gangsters, drug abusers and escorts. The Paedophile Hunter (Channel 4, 2014) won two BAFTAs and a Grierson award for its portrait of paedophile vigilante Stinson Hunter.
In more than twenty years as a filmmaker, Daisy Asquith has told human stories the length and breadth of the UK, and beyond.
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. She forms tight bonds with her subjects, some of whom she has been filming for many years.
In Crazy About 1D for Channel 4, Daisy memorably explored the legion of passionate One Direction fans. The response to her film was so vitriolic that she decided it was worthy of further study. The resulting PhD thesis This is Not Us focuses on performance, relationships and shame in documentary filmmaking. Daisy now runs the MA in Screen Documentary at Goldsmiths.
Daisy’s most recent work includes her moving personal documentaryAfter the Dance. From behind her camera 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.
Daisy has also directed the archive based Queerama. Released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 the film edits together 100 queer films to an original soundtrack by John Grant, Goldfrapp and Hercules & Love Affair.
Orlando von Einsiedel is drawn to telling inspiring stories of humble heroism from around the world, often combining intimate personal narratives with macro level politics, powerful visual aesthetics and on-the-ground journalistic muck-racking. He has worked in impenetrable and difficult environments, from pirate boats to war zones, and has won over 100 international film and advertising awards.
Orlando’s debut feature documentary VIRUNGA charted the story of a group of courageous park rangers risking their lives to build a better future in the Democratic Republic of Congo. BAFTA and Academy Award nominated, the documentary won over 50 international awards including an EMMY, a Grierson and a duPont-Columbia Award for outstanding journalism. The film was also recognised for its role in protecting the Virunga National Park winning a Peabody, a Television Academy Honor and the prestigious 2015 Doc Impact Award.
Orlando’s forty minute film THE WHITE HELMETS follows the lives of a group of heroic Syrian civilian rescue workers in 2016. The film was released as a Netflix Original and won the Academy Award for best documentary short. It was also nominated for two EMMYs, including one for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking.
His subsequent feature EVELYN, a deeply personal story and road trip odyssey about the loss of his brother to suicide, won the 2018 British Independent Film Award (BIFA) for Best Documentary. The Evening Standard newspaper called it “Phenomenal” and “Life-changing”.
Victoria Mapplebeck doesn’t shy away from telling difficult stories about her personal life. In her first smartphone short 160 Characters, Victoria documents the highs and lows of raising her son alone.
She took the journey even further in the BAFTA-winning film Missed Call, made in collaboration with her teenage son Jim, as they decide to reconnect with a father who’s been gone over a decade.
Victoria was nearing completion of Missed Call when a routine mammogram revealed she had breast cancer. She decided to keep filming, using her iPhone to chronicle life after the diagnosis, as she undergoes chemo and months of uncertainty. The resulting film, The Waiting Room, is a nuanced and intimate account of the toll of undergoing cancer treatment. An accompanying VR piece takes you even further inside Victoria’s perspective.
During the global lockdown caused by COVID-19, Victoria is continuing to film. As she told me in this interview “There’s something about scrutinizing the hell out of difficult stuff that I find helps. It maybe doesn’t help everybody but it helps me. It’s almost like it brings emotional dramas into closeup and puts it at a distance at the same time.”
The last time I interviewed Paddy Wivell, he was just putting the finishing touches on the first series of Prison. The three part series, filmed in Durham Prison, was a revelatory look at a system in crisis. It took a themed approach, with an episode each focused on mental health, drugs and violence. It won both the Grierson and Royal Television Society awards for Best Documentary Series.
Now Paddy has turned his attention to women prisoners, filming for months in HMP Foston Hall in Derbyshire. I caught up with him over the telephone to find out more about Prison: Series 2.
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me about the approach to this series?
Paddy Wivell: It felt like a natural progression after the Durham series to then look at the women’s estate. There are 80,000 male prisoners (in England and Wales) and something like 4,000 female. So I knew I would be encountering something quite different. I wanted to take a sort of present tense approach – looking at the culture within the environment. But actually what I did find was the women’s backgrounds became seemingly more relevant as I started to pick up on some of the main themes. You just couldn’t look away from the effects of trauma played out in the lives of the women in terms of sexual and domestic abuse. It felt really important to then spend some of the time with the women looking back at what brought them into prison.
Each film again has a theme. The first film is really looking at short sentences. Something like 75% of women in prison spend less than 12 months in prison. And within that to be able to look at issues like drugs, relationships, trauma within a setting where women are coming in and out routinely. And ultimately sort of questioning the validity of a system that doesn’t seem to rehabilitate or help women with the kind of difficulties that they come into prison with. Because the prison has a very short window, you’re not doing anything to rectify or help with the problems. So that’s one of the films.
And then another film looks at the issue of trauma in more detail through a prisoner led therapeutic course called Healing Trauma. So that’s a map of the three films. Although the approach was similar to the first series, the content feels very very different.
CN: So much of the series is dependent on your interactions with your contributors. I’m wondering if your interactions were different than with the men and how you were received?
PW: To be honest with you it was much more gratifying. Women handle incarceration very differently to men and the fact is that they do it through relationships with each other. So in terms of filmmaking in many ways it was far richer than the first series. Because women want to communicate.
That’s not to say that it wasn’t quite difficult at first just gaining the trust of the prison as a whole. Obviously a lot of women in there have had very difficult experiences with men. So when somebody like me comes in it takes a long time to build a sense of trust, and a feeling that they’re going to be safe with us wandering around. So that took some time. But once I found the contributors who could speak to these wider themes it was immensely gratifying because the conversations were richer and more detailed. So I think what it might lack in the sense of a system in crisis it absolutely points to a sort of richness of humanity.
CN: Did you get a sense that there was a way that the men could be learning from the women?
PW: Definitely. I think there is a certain sort of narrative that is applied to women in prison that isn’t necessarily applied around men. There is a public recognition that for most of the women in prison that they’ve had worse crimes visited upon them than they have actually perpetrated. And trauma has a huge effect and there is a sense that a lot of women are going to prison and being punished when they’ve already been punished throughout their lives. Because these narratives aren’t as prevalent with a male population it doesn’t mean to say that it doesn’t exist. I would say obviously huge numbers of men have had the same issues.
But one of the other really shocking things is what happens when women are released. There are only six hostels nationally with 100 places a huge amount of women are being released homeless. So there is a real problem in sending people back outside without proper accommodation or support. There is a big push that hasn’t really materialised as much as it should do where women carry out their sentences in the community instead. And get support for issues that are common to them, like substance misuse debt or homelessness
CN: I know that it was tricky in the first series getting your third episode to broadcast because of people getting caught up in the legal system. Have you had any issues with this series?
PW: Anybody that’s released can pick up a charge at any time so it’s always quite anxiety inducing. We have to do a check a week before the TX, and the first program can go out. We will keep our fingers crossed for the next two!
The first episode of the second series of Prison goes out on Channel 4, 9pm Monday, 17 February.
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.
I remember exactly where I was when I first learned about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann from a holiday resort in Portugal. Not because the news should have had the impact of a flashbulb memory – I didn’t yet know anything about her or her family. I remember it rather because as I watched a news interview with the parents on TV, I was in my local hospital, cradling my 14 month old son Dillon. He would die the next day, as a result of complications from the rare brain condition he had suffered from since birth.
And yet as I sat there, knowing that Dillon was dying, that these were in fact his final hours, my thought was: “there but for the grace of God go I”. Because the McCanns had a gorgeous lovely happy three year old who had vanished, and their lives must be a living hell. I myself had a gorgeous lovely happy two year old at home waiting for me, and couldn’t bear the thought of anything happening to him.
With Dillon, the pain was different. He had always been ill, and we had long known his time with us would be limited. It was a different type of pain. And when you are a parent living a nightmare, your life can easily become a study of relativity: who has it worse than you? As far as I was concerned, the McCanns were in the minority of people who had it worse than we did.
After Dillon died, I watched the McCanns deal with endless media scrutiny which went on for many years, and brought no one any closer to understanding what had happened to their little girl. They had initially welcomed media attention, hoping that it would help them find their daughter. But it spiraled out of control. The public’s never ending appetite for the story, and the British tabloid’s press willingness to cash in on it, soon turned into a living hell for them. At one point even the McCanns themselves became suspects. Each time they pop up in the news, I always think of the Dorothy Parker line “what fresh hell is this?” I was able to grieve and try to move on with my life. Their torment continued.
I have always been a fan of true crime. My first docsonscreens blog waxed lyrical about my love of it over the years, and of how it had been rekindled by the podcast Serial. I enjoy the twists and turns of modern day factual storytelling; it’s a central theme in my media teaching. The feature doc, The Imposter, which does this to perfection, is a mainstay of my documentary class – students always engage with the way that it leads them through the story. I’m also okay with ambiguity, with not knowing how something turned out – both Serial and The Imposter are filled with it.
But the new Netflix series about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann leaves me feeling queasy. The McCanns have refused to take part in it, and urged others to abstain as well. Yet the series has been made, with Netflix forking out a fortune in documentary terms for the telling of it over eight long hours, with some forty interviews. I’m sure it will be glossy and compelling. I’m sure it will lead a younger generation of viewers through many twists and turns, spinning an often jaw dropping true life tale.
I’m also sure that it will bring fresh pain to a family that has now endured 12 years of agony – with Madeleine’s twin siblings growing up in the terrible shadow of their vanished older sister. And I’m sure that at the end of those eight compelling hours, viewers will be no closer to knowing what happened to her. I get why the series has been made – business is business after all. But to bring fresh hell to a family that has suffered for so many years, and to do so merely for entertainment, is something I just can’t support. I won’t be watching.
As Zara Balfour was getting ready for a limited cinema release of her award winning documentary Children of the Snow Land recently she received an unexpected blow: ourscreen, the platform which allows for one off community screenings was introducing a fee for new films. And for a documentary made on a shoestring, the price was enormous – £2,750 plus VAT. It was a death knell for any plans to use ourscreen to increase the numbers of communities who could watch the film.
“It completely excludes us from using it,” Balfour said. “It’s such a shame as it means community groups won’t be able to do their own special screenings of the film in cinemas. It’s such a high price point, it really sets the entry level at a place that just wouldn’t make financial sense for independent films.”
The fee was all the more of a shock given that it was introduced out of nowhere for Balfour’s distribution company, Dartmouth Films. “We’d been talking with them for a while about Zara’s film,” says Wayne D’Cruz, Dartmouth Film’s distribution coordinator. “ As of last week we were informed that a new model was meant to come into place, with the fee of £2,750. It’s simply exorbitant for any independent film distributor. More so with documentaries.”
Dartmouth Films has worked a number of times with ourscreen, to complement their distribution of feature length independent documentaries like The Ponds, and A Cambodian Spring. The company’s most successful use of the service has been for the documentary Resilience, which has had some sixteen screenings.
Ourscreen helped increase the visibility of documentaries which can be difficult to see on the big screen, according to Dartmouth Film’s founder Christo Hird: “Ourscreen was a valuable addition to the ways of getting independent specialist documentaries to audiences: if there was a proven audience for a film in a particular area the film would be shown,” says Hird. “It was a way in which the filmmaker – at no risk to the exhibitor – could back their hunch that people wanted to see their film.
D’Cruz says that the amount of return for ourscreen screenings can vary greatly, depending on the minimum guarantee requested by the cinemas. “With certain cinemas there have been times when we’ve sold out a cinema, offered a Q&A and we’ve only got £100 because of their fluctuating MGs (minimum guarantees).”
The move is a sign of the difficulty in making margins works between distributors, cinemas and platforms like ourscreen. The platform employs a crowdsourced model of screenings. It works with a number of cinemas and offers a 500+ catalogue of films to customers who organise screenings. More than a hundred of the catalogue are documentaries. If the customers sells enough tickets, the screening goes ahead.
According to Alex Huxley, ourscreen’s communication and publicity manager, the ourscreen model works best “with a title with a clear special interest audience and a target of around 20+ screenings. This hasn’t changed, and with this way of working we hope to provide filmmakers the opportunity to retain a high level of ownership, control and flexibility over their film.”
Huxley refused to confirm if the £2,750 plus VAT quoted for Children of the Snow Land would be a standard fee, saying the fees are “private and confidential”. He emphasised that the new fee reflects the costs of providing a range of services, including the web pages and logistical coordination of bookings. The new fee will be in part offset by offering films an increased share of the box office after the crowdfunded threshold has been reached.
According to Hird, this will not make a difference, as the new catalogue fee is insurmountable, and not close to something independent documentaries would be able to afford: “The new pricing structure makes no sense in the context of the way the vast majority of independent documentaries are made and funded.”
D’Cruz agrees, noting “I remain of the opinion that ourscreen is a great tool to democratise cinema programming, sharing that ‘power’ with cinema-goers. However, for it to be sustainable for all parties involved, concerns of independent distributors also need to be adequately represented with any change in model.”
That ourscreen might reconsider the size of its new fee, or introduce a sliding scale, is certainly possible, particularly if the company sees a drastic reduction in the number of films signing up. As Huxley notes: “Like any company or individual operating in this space we will always discuss and negotiate new ways of working with our partners. Depending on the project we will of course consider this on a case by case basis.”
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.
For the fifteenth year running I’ve had the good fortune to watch a good chunk of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s programme to help write the film catalogue. Of the 35 features that I’ve seen, here are five of my favourite:
This powerful vérité documentary (pictured above) tells the story of American Joe Carman. The 40-year-old blue collar worker gave up cage fighting years ago, but claims it’s the only arena where he feels confident. When he returns to fighting without the blessing of his wife and four daughters, his dangerous hobby soon threatens to tear the family apart.
A groundbreaking observational documentary with the feel of an indie drama. Dina and her fiancé Scott, both neurodivergent, have moved in together to ready for their upcoming wedding, and have set about the messy business of forging lives. In increasingly intimate scenes, Dina is determined to let Scott know that her difficult past doesn’t stop her wanting a passionate future.
Facing a catastrophic decline in wild animals, big game hunters and conservationists often make uneasy bedfellows, as highlighted in this gripping documentary. South African rhino breeder John is convinced that legalising the sale of rhino horns will save the species from extinction. Meanwhile, American hunter Philip ventures to the remote wilderness of Nambia and Zimbabwe in his personal quest to hunt the “big five” in their natural environment.
In Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s mesmerising compilation of dash cam footage, we are spectators to a series of extraordinary moments. From reckless drivers and hammer wielding thugs, to extreme acts of nature and the occasional wild bear, this film is an eccentric portrait of contemporary Russia, as seen, all too briefly, through the front windscreen.
A profoundly personal film from one of Britain’s most talented documentary directors. To establish a better rapport, Morgan Matthews begins filming his dad, and carries on for a decade. Once a high flyer, Geoffrey lives precariously with his eccentric partner Anna. As revealed in very intimate scenes, Geoffrey has more than a few regrets, not least his emotional distance from his six children.