Rob Lemkin always does a lot of reading in preparation for his films. As an Oxford-based filmmaker, perhaps it’s par for the course. In the years he spent making the award winning Enemies of the People, as well as his earlier 1990s BBC films about colonialism in Southeast Asia, he came to realise that there were very few films that really query colonialism. “So I kind of gravitated towards thinking about readings that I had done and thinking about how Heart of Darkness has been a universal text that still stands, notwithstanding all of the criticisms that are made of Conrad’s racism, language and so on and so forth.”
In the course of further research into Heart of Darkness, Lemkin discovered the story of a rogue French army commander, Paul Voulet, who was slaughtering his way through Niger in 1898 at the same time that Conrad was writing his book. Lemkin persuaded the BFI to fund him to go to Niger to see what he could find out about Voulet.
During his recce trip he found that the Voulet story was still incredibly present, not least because Voulet’s terrible path of murderous destruction led to the highway that runs through the country. “The idea that that his journey still existed now as a road just felt to me like wow this was a way of really connecting Colonialism to a universal present,” Lemkin says.
After his recce trip, Lemkin was wondering how to approach the film when his partner came across Femi Nylander performing in a pub down the road from their home. “He was performing songs including one about the Congo, which obviously is where Conrad’s book is set. She came back and she said ‘maybe you should look at him’”. Nylander is a British-Nigerian poet-activist who had recently been active in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Soon Lemkin and Nylander decided to make the film together.
In African Apocalypse, which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Nylander follows the path of Voulet’s destruction, with the help of two local guides. On top of scenes of their journey, and various encounters with the locals, we hear Nylander’s thoughts as he reads the diaries of Voulet. In the verité footage, however, when interacting with descendants of his victims – who are clearly still traumatised – Nylander often seems impassive.
Extraordinarily, in the middle of the film, the two guides confront him about his lack of emotion. “I think it’s a testament to him and to his courage that he was happy to have that scene included, because it was a bit of a forceful personality critique,” says Lemkin. “He is a young guy for whom colonialism is an enormous issue amongst the student population. In the environment of the student hothouse, world colonialism is an issue, a subject, a topic for discussion, a thing. You don’t actually breathe it, touch it and feel it; you read it, you watch about it, you talk about it.”
Lemkin says that whilst Nylander is very effective at being forceful in television discussions, he found it much more difficult on the road with limited language and various pressures. “I realised that Femi would need a lot of orientation because suddenly were not in the Oxford Union or in some student hub. And it’s raw but it’s also random and there’s a lot of different kinds of things that are going on– present tense issues and awareness of historical issues.”
Lemkin says Femi found it quite hard to be constantly under the scrutiny of the camera. “It’s a difficult pressure to be on for anyone,” he says. “When he was going into the real community he still had the feeling that he was a consumer of testimonies. One of the things that we were able to deploy as a mechanism is trying to ask: How does a young black person coming from a formerly colonised country deal with this kind of history?”
This question works as a motif that threads through the narrative, Lemkin says. “Although at the time when we shot that scene, I wasn’t really thinking about it in such a motif and narrative kind of way. I was just thinking more about the fact that in reality both of the guides and myself were feeling a sense of frustration about the fact that he did not seem to be able to or want to connect in a totally full throttle human way with the groups of people that we were meeting.”
Lemkin says that although Nylander had learned rudimentary Hausa and French for the trip, the rushes reveal that the people really couldn’t understand him. “It’s kind of google translate hausa and they’re not getting it. And the people that we are speaking to are not necessarily literate people, so there’s quite a gap. But I think they also feel a sense of feeling like they can educate Femi with what they say to him in a way that responding to me as a white person there is a different power dynamic.”
By interweaving Nylander’s voiceover with the verité footage, and existing archive, the final film is an engrossing narrative with many layers which succeeds, as Lemkin intended in querying colonialism and bringing its often terrible legacy into the here and now.
Lemkin’s aesthetic approach to filming was to treat the shoot like a road movie. “We wanted to really capture the sense that we were going from encounter to encounter, and it was actually going into places where Femi was meeting people for the first time. This was really critical for me. Even Claude (Garnier, the DoP) was saying ‘do we really have to film them going in?’ and I said ‘yes we really have to film them going in’. And we use that a lot of the time just because I think it gives you a feeling of the freshness and unpredictability of the encounter”.
The meetings that we see Nylander have are the result of Lemkin’s two previous trips to Niger, where he spent a lot of time scouting the right people to talk to. “What appears to be a spontaneous journey isn’t,” he admits. “It was very important to have actual community meetings very well established so we could put in archive and make it feel it was something that you are mentally flipping to and from across time all the way through.”
Such personal connections are necessary for the viewer to then be able to connect with the archive, Lemkin says. “Otherwise you could just end up feeling that the whole thing was theoretical and abstract and academic. Not like I don’t like academic, but I think it’s important that it’s rooted in human experience.”
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.
One Man and His Shoes, a new feature length doc from South London filmmaker Yemi Bamiro, tells the often astonishing story of the rise of the Air Jordan brand, the first mega superstar endorsement that remains a cultural phenomenon. Thanks in large part to a series of iconic ads made with director Spike Lee, the shoes became a highly coveted status symbol which has endured for decades, and taken some dark turns, not least the murder of teenagers for the trainers.
Made independently over seven years, Bamiro interweaves a number of themes, from America’s love affair with consumerism to the mass-market 1980s breakthrough of African Americans such as Jordan, Eddie Murphy and Prince. In the wake of its screening at the BFI London Film Festival, I spoke with Bamiro via Zoom about the making of it. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra (CN): I enjoyed the film and as an American of a certain age this is my era. But how did you, a much younger Brit, come to be telling the story?
Yemi Bamiro (YB): I guess I started thinking about the story in 2012-2013 when I was thinking up ideas for longer form films. I had always been interested in trainers. The first iteration of this film was going to be about Air Jordan collectors because I felt that I had never seen anything like that before – I was interested in the culture and their enthusiasm and their obsessiveness over this one brand. So I started to make that film, and some of the collectors that I profiled are actually made the cut for the feature film. But I realised maybe after a year that I needed more to sustain a feature length narrative arc. So then I started thinking about the origin story of the Air Jordan. I started to seriously think about Michael Jordan in terms of marketing and how much that has given the world, given that that was the first foray into superstar endorsement deals. And that’s pretty much how the story came about. I knew that it was an idea that I wouldn’t get bored of after a couple of years, that it would be something that I would be able to stick with. And I thought that was important given the fact that I realised it was going to be take a long time to make this film independently.
CN: How easy was it to get access to your interviewees? What was that like as an outsider?
YB: The access was pretty straightforward but I only say that because we had the luxury of time. Everyone that you asked to put in your documentary is not necessarily going to say yes straight away. They want to know who else is in your films. I think if someone had given us a pot of money in 2013 and said deliver this film in 2015 I think you know we might not necessarily have had the contributors that we ended up having in the film. Because when you ask somebody to be in your documentary they might say no and you have to persevere and keep knocking and gently knocking until they say yes. I am not really a person who goes away easily given I was so invested in this project.
CN: Did you try to get Michael Jordan or Spike Lee?
YB: I never entertained the idea of getting Michael Jordan because it would’ve completely changed what the film is. The film is about Michael Jordan in part, but it’s essentially about his sneakers; it’s about marketing; it’s about all of those interesting facets centred around this phenomenon. You couldn’t have Michael Jordan in your film as a talking head: he would have to be beginning middle and end. We did definitely try to get to Spike Lee but he is an Oscar winning director and he’s got lots of things on. So we didn’t get him.
CN: You made this independently. Where did you get money from?
YB: We self-funded it for many years. After about two years I met this guy, James Ramkoleea, who is now really good friend of mine in my NCT classes. And he lives locally and is an Arsenal supporter and we just started speaking about our lives and I told him about this film. He said ‘I’ve always wanted to invest in film’. I kind of laughed at him and then over the next six months he kept prodding me about getting involved in this film. Then he gave us a chunk of money and invested in the film! And his contribution and him coming on board as an exec producer was the thing that allowed us to get the film across the line. We got in to SXSW and that pretty much changed everything for us.
We met Christo in like 2016 when we got into MeetMarket at Sheffield Docfest. And I think we basically felt a little bit fatigued because we had met everybody, but we only met a few people who were really champions of the film, that really got it. And Christo was one of them. We made the decision in 2017 to go back to all the people who have just championed this film. Christo was one of the people that believed in the idea and bought into it so I think we formalised everything in terms of him coming on board with Dartmouth in 2018.
CN: At what point did you become aware of The Last Dance series? You must’ve both been moving ahead at the same time.
YB: I knew that ESPN and Netflix were making this mammoth 10 hour special on Michael Jordan. I think I became aware of it maybe two years ago. I didn’t think anything of it because I always hoped that our film would be out in the world and we would be quite clear down the road before that mammoth came along, you know? But then the global pandemic happened and SXSW got cancelled and ESPN obviously pushed it forward because they had huge programming slots in their schedule because of no live sport.
It was like the number one trending topic on Twitter every week that they dropped an episode. It was too close to home for me – I couldn’t engage with it because I was thinking what’s the point of us even putting this film out when this thing has stolen all of our thunder? But thankfully the Last Dance team had a different objective. Their objective was about Michael Jordan and his last season with the Bulls and our film was completely different. So we are able to co-exist.
We then very much existed in the slipstream of The Last Dance because I think it showed that there was an appetite for all things Michael Jordan, nostalgia, 1990s NBA basketball. And we just happened to have a film that dealt with all of those things at a time when everybody was at home and wanting content so I think we got really lucky. That’s how we sold our US TV rights to Vice – they saw the reception that The Last Dance got.
One Man and His Shoes is playing in UK cinemas from 23 October, and on demand from 26 October.
I have learned over the years to be sure to watch anything that London-based producer Simon Chinn works on. From Man on Wire and Searching for Sugar Man, both of which won Oscars for Best Documentary Feature, to the Imposter and Project Nim, he has been instrumental in transforming the feature doc landscape. With his company Lightbox, formed in 2014 with his LA-based cousin Jonathan Chinn, he makes quality docs for a wide range of broadcasters and platforms. Recent projects includes the fascinating series Diagnosis, based on the NYT column, the Harvey Weinstein doc Untouchable, and the gripping Netflix documentary Tell Me Who I Am. Some weeks ago, I spoke to him on the telephone about what it’s like serving so many masters. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Tell me about your recent projects.
Simon Chinn: Our Weinstein doc was a BBC Two commission that we then enlarged with other investment. We got private investment from someone who is actively getting into the film and television business. That was an interesting hybrid project, which so many of these feature docs can be, where it’s literally trying to sort of make what is very traditional television money work alongside more film money, which is based on theatrical sales projections and presales. It’s a challenging thing to do, for sure….The budget on the Weinstein doc was in excess of a million pounds – the BBC put a third in. They are getting something they couldn’t get if we didn’t broker in that way.
CN: Is it safe to say that for the quality and the ambition of the nonfiction slate that you are developing, a BBC commission is never going to cover the whole budget?
SC: I wouldn’t say that necessarily. There are projects that we could do with the BBC fully funding. I wouldn’t discount that. But not the feature docs, not the really premium documentaries that we do. But we are exploring other kinds of ideas – probably more series ideas. That model has worked well for plenty of companies. Look at someone like The Garden, those rig shows that they make, absolutely great and they make them essentially on a UK terrestrial license fee. They might not make anything on production but they do very very well on the back end. I think that is a model that we would certainly not discount and are actually exploring.
CN: How do you find that the BBC presents itself as different from Netflix?
SC: The BBC looks at places like Netflix and Amazon and sees – like many of us consumers see – receptacles of content libraries. We see how much content they are making. And to some extent how uncurated it can sometimes feel. And I suppose the broadcasters that are much more in the business of curation, that are steeped in that ethos and developing projects carefully with producers, shaping them for their audiences and all of that, it does feel like a different offering to what you often imagine is going on in the sort of big, slightly impersonal places where they are just acquiring and financing huge amount of content. I suppose the problem with that rhetoric is that it doesn’t quite check out based on experience. We work a lot with the premium documentary group at Netflix, run by Lisa Nishimura and executives like Kate Townsend; these guys are actually very smart filmmakers in their own right. My experience on the last two projects we have done with them is that they have absolutely been vital creatively. They have been incredibly hands on in a positive way. I am honestly saying that. There are many broadcaster experiences I have had where I sort of think the executives can sometimes make the films or the programmes worse, but I have not had that experience with Netflix. Netflix is many things; that’s the point. Much like there are many different parts of the BBC. Some of them are tiny bit more cookie cutter or doing things in so much volume that they haven’t got the bandwidth to actually shape anything. But that hasn’t been my experience.
The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them?
CN: Where does public service fit in?
SC: The BBC have to position themselves as offering something different and better, otherwise why bother with them? They do have a tradition of working closely with programme makers and filmmakers to shape their content. And that’s great – and I think there are some very smart executives at the BBC. I actually think that the offering that they should be making to producers is arguably more of a commercial offering. Because the truth of the matter is that because of the terms of trade and because of their ability to co-produce, their involvement from a commercial point of view in the Weinstein project was great. They put up a third of the budget; they took a small piece of the back end – the terms of trade legislate against them doing anything different. And it was very helpful. They put up a very good chunk of the license fee, and their branding is all over it and they felt that they had significant editorial input, which was not unhelpful. So all good then. The point is that generally the terms of trade make British broadcasters very attractive as co producing partners.
CN: Isn’t the Weinstein model how Storyville has been acting for years?
SC: Yes, the difference is that for the Weinstein model, the BBC put up a third of a million pound budget – that’s not to be sniffed at (and is more than Storyville budgets). The BBC linear offering has things going for it that Netflix doesn’t. Stuff can really hit on Netflix but also stuff can get lost. Not to say that that isn’t true of the BBC. But if they want to make noise about something they can do so in a way that perhaps Netflix finds sometimes difficult.
CN: What is your ideal kind of production deal these days?
SC: There is no ideal; it’s all different. There are advantages and disadvantages to every model. My ideal production is one where we have enough funds to do what we want to do where we can also make our margins, and we are completely creatively aligned with the buyers. Certainly there are places I can think of where that’s the case. Certainly Nat Geo is a great example of a buyer we have loved working with for all these reasons.
In its 26 years, Sheffield Doc/Fest has steadily put on weight, expanding and maturing into a festival that tries to offer a little something for everyone interested in the art of nonfiction storytelling. Having attended every year but one since 1997, I have enjoyed a long relationship with the festival. I’m currently an Advisory Board Member, and I write some of the film copy; in years past I also ran the festival’s now defunct daily newspaper, helped to program, and produced a number of panels. I have easily watched more than 1,000 Doc/Fest films over the years, and I am a better person for it.
This year’s Doc/Fest, entitled Ways of Seeing, seemed to unfurl in stages over its six days, putting on different faces for its nearly 3,500 delegates from 59 countries. I attended over the weekend, which was dominated by young, aspiring filmmakers attending packed-out screenings. They had a chance to worship at the altar of Werner Herzog, looking back on his career and discussing his latest film, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. Asif Kapadia gave a masterclass for his latest film, Diego Maradona, which opened the festival. Nick Broomfield was also in attendance with his story of Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne, whose lives intersected with Broomfield’s as a young man. Paul Greengrass was also on hand to discuss how docs have influenced his career as a feature film director.
Many of the screenings generated a buzz. I heard the most rapturous feedback for For Sama, which added the Sheffield Doc/Fest Audience Award to its growing number of awards. Jeanie Finlay, who, as a northerner, lives close to Sheffield, had two well received films in the program: Seahorse, which tells the story of a man giving birth, and Game of Thrones: The Last Watch.
By midday Monday, when I had to return to London, Doc/Fest had morphed into the British television event that has always been at its core. Industry execs and decision-makers travelled north by train to participate in panel discussions and pitching forums. The frenetic MeetMarket, now in its 15th year, hosted 62 projects, whose makers speed-dated their way through an assembly of potential funders, broadcasters and consultants. Industry talks included sessions on how to tell new climate stories, repurposing celebrities for new projects, commissioning priorities across British broadcasting, the surge in podcasting and short-term video, directors’ well-being, and a case study of Michael Apted’s Up Series, the latest installment of which, 63-Up, broadcast the previous week on ITV (see here for an interview in Documentary with Apted for a previous Up edition).
As always these days, the massive growth in the streaming industry loomed large over talks about the state of British documentary. In a fascinating session on developing policy frameworks for feature docs, producer Elhum Shakerifar noted how difficult it is to get feature docs seen that aren’t celebrity-driven. She complained of the Netflix effect, where documentary directors develop unrealistic expectations of their film’s potential. “People hear of others receiving $1.2 million for their film,” she said. “It’s incredibly disruptive when you are making long-term observational documentaries that don’t get sold to Netflix, and maybe never will. And maybe you know that, but nobody else believes it. It’s really hard because one of the things you are doing is managing everybody’s expectations, while keeping everything stable and ethical at the same time. So for me the Netflix effect is this dream thing that has been waved in front of filmmakers, and is really making it difficult as a producer to manage expectations.”
Fellow panelist and producer Christo Hird agreed, adding that documentaries are valuable in many ways but people need to understand that they are not profitable. The Doc Society’s Lisa Marie Russo said that part of the problem with training documentary producers is that “Documentary people can come from anywhere; fiction people usually work their way up the food chain.” The panel was trying to formulate some policy recommendations for feature documentary in the wake of Whicker’s Foundation research, showing that 65 percent of feature doc producers’ time is unpaid. The panel’s chair, Steve Presence, is heading up a UK government-funded research project into British feature docs, which is running its own survey of the state of play.
While I enjoyed dipping into the festival film program, and industry sessions, my goal this year was to really experience Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities, its ever-expanding platform for nonfiction interactive and immersive artworks. Its popularity over the last few years has often outpaced the ability of the festival to meet demand, and last year I managed to try out only a couple of VR projects, losing out on the more popular ones to attendees with sharper elbows.
Clutching my press pass, I was able to sample the projects at both Alternate Realities sites before they opened to the public. At the Hallam Performance Lab’s VR Cinema, a dozen chairs were grouped in a circle, each equipped with VR headsets, headphones and a dedicated festival volunteer. Twelve curated projects under the banner of Converging Sensibilities highlighted racial injustice and modernism.
I began with 4 Feet: Blind Date, and was completely taken into a world where I sat beside “Juana,” a wheelchair-bound teenage girl as she pushed back against her mum at the breakfast table and foraged ahead on a blind date, determined to explore her sexuality. The camera places us in next to Juana, as it jumps back and forth in time between her awkward date with Felipe, and the days leading up to it. I was only halfway through it when I started to wonder about its placement in a documentary festival, as it was clearly a scripted drama, albeit one steeped in realism. Its lead writer, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, is a wheelchair-user, and the entire project (this is the first in a series of VR films about “Juana” ) came about as a result of a TED Talk she gave. Writing about it several weeks later, I’m struck by how clearly I remember the film, and felt a part of Juana’s world, for a short time.
I also really enjoyed Nyasha Kadandara’s Le Lac, from the Climate and Care strand of the VR cinema, which won the Digital Narrative Award. In ten minutes it tells the story of the impact OF the massive shrinking of Lake Chad, from the perspective of the lake itself.
The other project that really stayed with me from the VR cinema is Roger Ross Williams’ Traveling While Black. A beautifully constructed and multilayered experience, made for New York Times’ OpDocs (the 300th in the strand), it tells the story of The Green Book. Beginning in an empty cinema, scene by scene takes us closer and closer to the experience, until the film culminates with us sitting across from Tamir Rice’s mother, as she is sympathetically quizzed about the police murder of her son. There were so many nice touches throughout, including the wall of the DC diner that serves as the set giving way to a dramatized past, actors depicting the interviewees telling their stories. Artful, visceral and heartbreaking, it’s hard to imagine a 20 minutes better spent for anyone interested in the African American experience.
While the VR cinema was straightforward 360-degree video with headsets, the second location for the Alternate Realities was much more complicated and sometimes more about the form than the storytelling. The Subconscious Sensibilities collection consisted of 14 multidisciplinary installations that invited users to “showcase the stories of others and explore the elusive story of the self.” A few of these, sampled briefly, I just didn’t get. Among them was Algorithmic Perfumery, which asked a lot of questions via a device to produce a small perfume bottle with an original scent for every visitor. Mine came out smelling strongly of apple, with little explanation. Others I spoke to shared my bewilderment—and annoyance at how many questions it has asked. But the project won the Audience Award, so clearly hit its mark among many of the delegates delighted with their small bottles. I was similarly underwhelmed by To Call a Horse a Deer, a game that calls for you to lie quickly, which I immediately felt too old and too honest to do. Both projects I felt strayed too much from the theme of nonfiction storytelling.
Aftermath: Euromaiden promised to take you to the heart of a deadly protest in Independence Square, Kiev. Through the VR headset I wandered through the Square and its environs, all eerily deserted. It was a strange set-up for a project describing massive crowds and a deadly protest, and while there was archive to engage with that helped bring it to life, the impression I am left with is of that quiet emptiness.
I had better luck with the thoroughly engrossing Accused #2: Walter Sisulu, which capitalizes on 256 hours of audio from the early 1960s trial that ended with Nelson Mandela, Sisulu and eight other activists receiving sentences of life imprisonment. Pairing audio sequences with black-and-white animation, the experience succeeds in immersing us in this moment in history and shining a light on the Sisulu’s heroism, whose life played out in the shadow of Mandela. I was also charmed by the storytelling in My Mother’s Kitchen, through which you can hear eight LGBTQI+ people discuss childhood memories through the lens of the layout of their respective mother’s kitchen.
My favorite of the Subconscious Sensibilities was Darren Emerson’s Common Ground, which powerfully and innovatively tells the story of the largest housing estate in Europe, the Aylesbury Estate, now being cleared to make way for developers. In an early gripping sequence, the idealistic plans for the community merge with animated photos of the reality, with a cogent explanation of what went wrong in the design. After that, a number of the residents told their sometimes harrowing stories, bringing us into their flats. I was able to engage by grasping photos, pressing elevator buttons, and spraying graffitti on the walls of the stairwells. The video archive, residents’ testimonials and expert interviews effectively intermingled to tell a story that kept me completely engaged for the entire 30 minutes. Common Ground really complemented the themes of Push, playing in the festival program, an alarming, masterfully made film by Fredrik Gertten about the global housing crisis.
Finally, the winner of the Best Digital Experience Award, Echo, very effectively brought home how easily it is to “deep fake.” After my face was scanned, and I chose someone’s story to tell, I watched on a large screen as the person’s face as they told their story, changed into my own—alarming and sinister as it’s all too easy to imagine the technology in the hands of the Dark Web. (See my Instagram film of it here).
The takeaway from my four hours of Alternate Realities underscored what I already felt about forms of immersion and documentary. Done well, and with a strong story at their heart, they are immensely powerful, delivering long-lasting impressions. There is a lot of controversy around describing VR as an empathy machine, but I do believe that it can go further at putting ourselves in others’ shoes. There is a striking sequence in Greg Barker’s The Final Year, where UN Ambassador Samantha Power emerges from a UN showcase having just viewed Clouds Over Sidra. “Do you have 15 minutes?” she asks the ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “They’ll put a pair of glasses on you and take you into the Za’atari refugee camp.” As the ambassador begins to walk away from her, she pulls him back and says, “Seriously, if you do nothing else that I ever ask you to do, please do this thing. It’s amazing.”
Indeed 360 video experiences like Clouds Over Sidra can immediately appeal across a wide variety of ages and cultures. Once I had my 12-year-old watch it with a VR headset, which he wordlessly handed back to me afterwards. But two years later I overheard him describing it in detail to a friend, to my immense gratification. Projects like Traveling While Black can convey a lot of information and leave a lasting impression in a short amount of time through the relatively simple medium of 360-degree viewing. I can envision its increasing use in classrooms as a way to make an impact quickly and rise above the noise.
Doc/Fest just announced a new festival director: Cintia Gill. Elizabeth McIntyre stepped down shortly after last year’s festival, with interim director Melanie Iredale steering this year’s edition.
Hot on the heels of their Emmy award-winning documentary Mosul, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil have delivered another masterful foray into the dark side of human behaviour. On the President’s Orders takes viewers to the Philippines where President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has led police to murder thousands of drug users and dealers. Arriving to embed themselves with a police force in Caloocan just as Duterte pledges a killing moratorium driving the violence underground, Jones and Sarbil’s film is an astonishingly framed narrative which manages to tell a story full of menace and intrigue. In the lead up to their festival run, before it airs on PBS, BBC Storyville and Arte France, I sat down with the filmmaking partners to discuss how they made it. This has been condensed for length and clarity:
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me how you came to this story?
James Jones: Yes, we were finishing Mosul together and thinking what story we wanted to do and which subject might play to our strengths. I think we had both been aware of the mass executions in the Phillipines. We’d seen some great photojournalism. Basically we went out to Manila to try to get access to the cops. A lot of the coverage had been quite formulaic – dead bodies in the street and sobbing families. We didn’t really get under the skin of it, understand who was doing the killing, the rationale behind the murder. We wanted to see it from the police’s perspective – not sympathising with it but understanding how they could justify this mass murder. And so we showed up in Caloocan which is the hot spot. And Duterte the President had had to basically pause the drugs war and say ‘we’re going to clean it up’. So we actually had very little faith that they were going to give us access. We’d come halfway across the world – they would guess why we were choosing them. But we were lucky, we met the police chief, who quite liked the attention. And there was a kind of push from above to show that they had changed – the drugs war was going to be cleaner. So we just had full access and spent the next six months going back and forth.
Olivier Sarbil: We didn’t go through the official media centre for the police. We tried to get the access directly with the commander because we knew that if we had something too official obviously we would be on the radar of the police; obviously it would be more difficult.
JJ: It was great on the one hand because we had no official oversight. We were able to do whatever we wanted. But there was also this worry that because we had nothing on paper he could just wake up one morning and get fed up with us and kick us out.
CN: How would you define what plays to your strengths?
JJ: I’ve done a film about police shooting in America. So journalistically I was drawn to it and Olivier was drawn to it. And I think in terms of the type of filming Olivier had done in Mosul in terms of getting access to a group of men, it felt like a combination of the two of us. We could win their trust. We could get access that no one had got before. And Olivier would shoot it in a way that was incredibly cinematic. So it felt like on one level an important story – an injustice that we wanted to expose – but also filmically it was set up for film noirish atmospheric: quite dark and beautiful images.
CN: That of course is what is really striking and will gain some attention. How did you go about planning the look of the film?
OS: It’s a story filled with violence and darkness. For the film, we went for carefully composed shots. We wanted to create a style with a dramatic mood and an emotional connection with the city to enhance our characters’ feelings and the story.
CN: You had to build this picture of menace. Did you discuss how you were going to do this as you were shooting?
OS: First we had the shooting recce. We discovered the country and all the lighting and how we would be able to visually tell the story. So we had a pretty clear idea of what will work and how we will make it cinematically. And actually on a daily basis we were working and trying to edit short sequences to see how it works. So as soon as we decided to have a style for the film – the look – we really kept to it.
JJ: We wanted actuality, but actually the thing that was happening while we were there was the killing was going underground. Had we gone six months to a year earlier, there would have been more operations where they just bust into slums in uniform and shot people. Whereas now they were being a bit smarter and it was vigilantes or plainclothes off duty cops executing people on a motorbike. So the challenge was to kind of capture the fact that people thought the police were behind it – and even the cops privately were admitting to us that they were behind it. There were these clues along the way but it was a balance of not damning them by innuendo but making it feel solid that you knew that these guys were the killers.
OS: We didn’t want also to just be focused – if we had the chance to have more actuality with the police we would have followed them. But at the same time we didn’t want to make the film running after the police. We wanted to spend six months with the cops plus going underground, behind the scenes of the killing, and to have a chance to know the people a little bit better.
“They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back.”
CN: So you were there off and on for six months. How did you plan that schedule?
JJ: We had twelve weeks on the ground, which is a good amount of time. And Olivier doesn’t shoot very much in a day. Visually it’s all very well covered but he’s not someone who just rolls for three hours. So twelve weeks on the ground. Four trips of three weeks. So for the first three trips filming almost entirely with the police and a bit with the funeral parlour director. And then on the last near the end of the penultimate trip we started filming with Axel and the family in the slums.
OS: It was a bit risky to suddenly leave the cops and go to the slums. We were quite conspicuous.
CN: What did everyone make of you?
JJ: They quite liked Olivier and were impressed by his military background and the fact that he had been in Mosul. They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back. They thought we were more of a news crew but we kept coming back and we’d want to film stuff that to them felt quite inconsequential, which is often the way with documentaries.
CN: Was it just the two of you?
JJ: And local fixers. I was doing sound; Olivier was shooting. Which worked, was a perfect set up for the environment. We would put a radio mic on our main characters and a boom on a stick. In the slums we weren’t out on the streets with our characters that much. We did drone footage later on – a note from one of our commissioners was they wanted to get a sense of the space. With our characters in the slums we mainly filmed inside their flats. And we tried to get in and out as unobtrusively as possible. And the kit would be hidden in bags and we would dash quite quickly.
OS: One of the reasons the filming was stressful was by definition you might think the police were following where we were going.
CN: You were again working in a language not your own, although lots of people do speak English in the Philippines. But there were nonetheless some revelations in what they were saying that I assume you found out back in the edit?
JJ: It was kind of ideal in a way that we could communicate with them well enough in English. So we could establish a proper relationship and give instructions or get information. But because they knew that we didn’t understand Tagalong, they would be quite indiscreet. And say things like ‘I asked the boss if we could go overboard, and he said no’, ie we are not allowed to kill this one. Or ‘the killings have caught up with us sir’, or ‘there are things we should talk about later’. So those little moments which as you say when we are filming we have no idea about but when we get the transcript back realise it’s gold and that there’s something else going on.
OS: Because they got so used to seeing us in the station – at some point we could just walk in and walk out, sit on the sofa, spend the day in the police station, going from one building to another, and no one would ask the question: what are we doing there? We built that trust with the police officers, and sometimes they’d forget that we were there. That’s the magic in observational documentary.
On the President’s Orders, a Mongoose Pictures production, has its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, running 6-11 June 2019.
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.
When it launched more than twenty years ago, the BBC’s Storyville strand stood alone as a home in the UK for independently made feature documentaries. Created and nurtured by the revered Nick Fraser, Storyville established a reputation in the global doc community for promoting authored storytelling, nurturing the likes of Sean McAllister, Alex Gibney, Kim Longinotto and Daisy Asquith. (Fraser also commissioned a doc I produced, Secrets of the Tribe, championing it over the many years it took to make).
While it still remains one of the few spaces on British television for feature docs, it’s now battling it out in a rapidly changing online universe where SVODs have become major players in longform documentaries. Mandy Chang has energetically taken up the Storyville reins, relocating to London from her job as Head of Arts at ABC Australia to head the strand. An accomplished filmmaker turned commissioner, Chang is determined that Storyville evolves with the times. On the day after the announcement of the Sundance doc lineup, which includes three Storyville films, I met with her to discuss the strand.
As usual this has been edited for length and clarity:
Carol Nahra: So you have been heading Storyville since October 2017. How has it been so far?
Mandy Chang: It’s been a huge period of assimilating a lot of information about filmmakers all around the globe; about who the major funders are, not just the broadcasters but not for profit organisations, and philanthropists as well. Because we fund via a patchwork of funding — we never fully fund Storyville; we just don’t have a big enough overall budget.
CN: What are your priorities for the strand?
MC: Diversity is really really important to me. It’s not just about picking the best films by the most experienced most famous documentary directors. It’s also about finding new talent and growing that talent and those relationships. It’s just hugely complex: the whole ecosystem of documentaries across the world. And the different ways that different broadcasters do things in different countries. To get on top of that has been my goal this year. Next year it’s about strategising and really making an impact with Storyville and where we are going with Storyville into the future. Because the whole marketplace is just changing so quickly. Everything is moving so quickly under our feet.
CN: How does one navigate the new world? I assume you are talking about SVODs like Netflix.
MC: Yes. First of all there’s a lot more competition. Storyville used to be in this very privileged place where it kind of had the pick of all the best stories. And now we have to fight to do that. We go to all these pitching forums and the filmmakers are selling their films and themselves to us. We also have to sell ourselves and what we can bring to their films back to them. And I think that’s new – I don’t think people had to work as hard to do that as before. And I’m acutely conscious of it. Filmmakers have higher expectations of what they want from whoever is putting their film on their platform. Now filmmakers are starting to realise that with those big SVOD organisations, they may not get publicity – they might just be a tile on that great big platform, and their film might disappear way down the trail. Because it’s not the latest thing, or it’s more niche. I think that’s where the BBC can really bring that personalised approach to the film. We really look after our filmmakers. We try to partner them up with people who can bring impact to their films. And we foster a relationship that we want to be ongoing.
CN: You talk about partnering up. What do you do in terms of extending the life of the film? Because of course the big hit with Storyville is the broadcast, and then the relatively short IPlayer life. I’m sure an attraction about Netflix is that it will have a longer life on there, whatever the contract is. So how does that work for you in terms of enticing filmmakers?
The other thing that we are doing with Storyville is BBC Three and BBC News often take those films and do cut downs of them. So they appear on other platforms where they might get completely different audiences. Whether it’s current affairs or a younger audience. Again that’s after negotiation with the filmmakers because some filmmakers don’t want spoilers. But it’s a way of getting out there and getting the attention. Because we can’t always rely on the traditional press and publicity departments because they are so overloaded anyway.
CN: What was it like stepping into Nick’s shoes?
MC: It was really tough. I have huge respect and awe of Nick. He has left an incredible legacy for the Storyville brand. I feel very lucky that I don’t have to start from the beginning – he has created this very powerful strand that people know all over the world. You can’t underestimate the value of that. So it’s building on that and bringing my own sensibilities to it without losing the good things – and there are many many good things that Storyville has. And Nick is an intellectual giant. He is always sending me links to books and articles. He’s very aware of the world – he’s a very sophisticated thinker.
As all these right wing government and forces are menacing the world, it’s really interesting that there are a lot of very young women with big voices who want to tell stories.
CN: Can you name a new filmmaker that you’re working with?
MC: A really good example of someone new that I’m really excited about who is a new voice and has access to stories we don’t usually get access to is a woman called Nanfu Wang. Nanfu has made four films in four years about China. She brings a kind of inside track to China and a subversiveness that not many filmmakers can bring. She also lives in New York so she has the security of being able to go to China and make her films and get that kind of access that really gives us those insights. She has put herself in danger but it’s not the same as living in China. She’s made a really fantastic film about the one child policy in China called One Child Nation. She’s really young and an extraordinary woman. She was a victim of the one child policy….grew up in a rural village and now making international films which get into Sundance. She’s a major talent on the international scene.
There are lots of young women making stories about their own countries. It’s a really important time as all these right wing government and forces are menacing the world. It’s really interesting that there are a lot of very young women with big voices who want to tell stories. I’ve really noticed it. And I really want to support it as well.
CN: Do you have other Storyville films at Sundance?
MC: We have Mads Brügger’s film called Cold Case Hammarskjöld, about the death of the UN Secretary General. Mads is very provocative but brings humour to his storytelling. The team dig very very deep and what they have uncovered is extraordinary and very very horrifying. There’s also an Israeli film called Advocate, about an amazing woman named Lea Tsemel who is a lawyer who represents Palestinian people in Israel. Her story itself is amazing, but the story that unfolds in the film, is really shocking about a 13 year-old Palestinian boy who goes on trial for something he wasn’t guilty of.
I have noticed this year there’s a trend at Sundance as well to be going for more international stories. And more provocative international stories. All three films I found overseas at international markets literally by talking to people face to face.
CN: How many British filmmakers do you commission?
It varies but usually between 3 – 6 a year are British, out of 18 films. The British filmmakers come to us as they know we are there. There are a lot of people who want to make single authored documentaries and know they are never going to get that away on mainstream spaces. So they come to us and we welcome them with open arms.
CN: Anything else you’d like to say?
No except that I think Storyville does need to keep growing and changing. And I think that broadcasters will need to start growing and changing. They are going to need to move a lot quicker in the future. It’s very siloed at the BBC – I mean this is very political but I do think we need to be more joined up. We need to be talking to each other more. I think the model of copro is a really useful model for a cash strapped BBC. And they could learn a lot from the model that Storyville has where we make a very small amount of money go a long long way.