Tag Archives: Independent documentary

Katharine Round: Making The Divide

Alden is an ambitious Wall Street psychologist, while Rochelle struggles as a carer on a zero hours contract and Keith tries to make sense of his life behind bars, as a result of Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Through their stories, and four others, Katharine Round humanises the bleak fact that growing inequality is driving a terrible wedge through modern society. Jumping back and forth in time, and between characters and experts, this is an engrossing, cinematic, thought-provoking essay which flags up some root causes of today’s societal woes – and raises disturbing questions about the future. Inspired by the bestselling book The Spirit Level, The Divide demonstrates the terrible impact that decades of misguided economic decisions is having on modern lives – and the truth behind the adage that money can’t buy happiness.

As it is garnering press accolades and released in cinemas throughout the UK, I spoke to director Katharine Round about the making of the film.

CN: I found it a really powerful film. I understand how it was inspired by The Spirit Level, but of course it’s a very different entity, isn’t it?

KR: Yeah, it’s a very different entity…I thought it was quite a fascinating book. The challenge of course was how do you make something like that into a film that anybody would want to watch outside of that field?  In a way I’d always thought it had to be done through character because that is where I think film is strongest. So that seemed like the obvious approach but perhaps to others they did expect it to have lots of graphs and analysis. But I thought the book had done that very adequately.

Darren on swing

 

CN: How hard was it to find these characters and to settle on these characters given that the whole world is your universe?

KR: It was impossible. You know, I’m not going to lie. Normally when you make the film you find the character and then you draw the themes out from the character…But in a way I was looking at it the other way around. So it was how do you something that feels like it’s coming from the personal but illuminating the big picture. It’s a sort of tonal thing….So it did take a very long time.

CN: Where did you get the funding for the film?

KR: We raised initial finances through crowdfunding. At the time it was the most successful campaign on Indiegogo for a UK documentary. And so we raised a fair amount of money but only really enough to pay the bare bones of what was going on. Certainly not enough for me to get paid or lots of other things. But everyone else pretty much managed to get paid which is very important. But it was, and still continues to be, a financial struggle this project, because you underestimate the scale of what you are trying to do.

katharine
Katharine Round

CN: It does seem so painful to me. Now it’s great because the film is coming out and everything, but how painful are these things to make?

KR: In some ways it’s a joy. Meeting all these people is very pleasant. But it’s a very long investment that you’re making. And certainly for the first year or couple of years of that casting process it was tough. There were lots of things happening, very negative programmes coming out in the British media, People Like Us, Benefits Street, you know. I was obviously trying to make something very very different but it was hard to engage people in that. You know they don’t see you as any different from anyone else in that way. Why would they or should they?

CN: I can imagine once you settled into your seven characters it became a much more comfortable experience.

KR: When we edited it, it was actually quite a pleasurable experience. We had all this experience and it was how you kind of navigate it. And John Mister, he was my editor and he’s amazing. And so smart and so unphased at the scale of this task and how to weave together these people into a kind of coherent narrative.

CN: How did you shoot the film?

KR:  I wanted to have quite a particular shooting style where we’d reference a lot of characters in a very similar kind of framing or position. So everyone is filmed in their mirrors; a lot of people filmed in their cars. A lot of people filmed in quite long shots. I wanted the audience to take away the idea that the people in the film are not necessarily that different from each other fundamentally. They’re in different circumstances and that shapes their opinions but fundamentally a lot of what they are looking for, security, a good life for their children, stable income for themselves, a lot of things are very universal. 

The Divide is screening at selected cinemas from 22 April, and goes on nationwide release from 31 May.

 

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Sean McAllister on his Syrian Labour of Love

British documentary Sean McAllister is known for launching himself into foreign lands, often in the midst of war, and finding unforgettable personal stories. Whether it’s via a piano player in Baghdad, a postal worker in Japan, Sean’s own “minders” in Iraq, these are stories of ordinary people – though always strong characters – struggling to survive in an often unkind world. Sean’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is perhaps his best yet. It begins as a very local story about Amer and Raghda, a couple who met as political prisoners in Syria and went on to have four sons together. When Sean is arrested with footage of them in his camara, the family has to abruptly flee to Lebanon, and the film  turns into a larger story about lives in exile.  Sean continues to follow them as they struggle to find solid footing, not least in their marriage,  whilst watching a deteriorating Syria from afar.

A SYRIAN LOVE STORY 10
Sean and Bob
I spoke to Sean a few days before the film’s world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and he explained a bit about the circuitous way the film was made:

It’s been a long time in the making. Is this your longest project?

Yes, it’s a labour of love, isn’t it? It didn’t get commissioned. That’s why it went on and on and on. I suppose the interesting side of it is that I’d given up on it actually. Then Matt Scholes, who graduated from Sheffield University film school, read an interview with me about it, and contacted me and said rather than working in the industry I’d like to edit this material of yours. I said I’ve given up on it – it’s not happening. And he said, well let me just have a look at it. And he went off for three months and started cutting it together and got me excited again. So I went off filming again because of him.

That’s amazing. At what point had you given up on it?

I gave up on it so many times. But the most significant point probably was two years ago, when I finished my Yemen film. I took off from Syria and went to Yemen and made The Reluctant Revolutionary.  Nick (Fraser, of BBC Storyville) had sort of wanted a film from Syria. I gave him the Yemen film. I think he felt after the Yemen film and post Arab spring that it wasn’t so interesting to have an Arab spring film again…So he then sent me off to Greece to make a film. So I used the development money in Greece to fly off to Lebanon to film them, with the development money from Greece.

A SYRIAN LOVE STORY 04
Amer and Bob speak to imprisoned Raghda
There’s no Greece film, huh?

There’s no Greece film. But like at the beginning, when I wanted to go to Syria and couldn’t get Syria commissioned, they sent me to Dubai. So I used the Dubai development to go to Damascus. So where there’s a will there’s a way. At the end of the day Nick saw there was nothing happening in Greece, and I was very passionate about this. And by then it wasn’t Arab spring; it was a different story. The arc of it had changed over the course of five years; it became a story of exile. It became something a bit more unusual because of the time frame. And this was all possible because Matt had got on board to construct the material, so we had stuff to show. And then when the BBC came on board, we pitched to the BFI. It’s perfect for a BFI pitch because they need to see what they’re getting into. And we had certain scenes cut, and they were excited.

The family’s story arc changed thanks to you, probably in a more direct way than has previously happened in your films.

I just came back from the border, screening the film with Raghda, and one of my questions (in preparation for post screening Q&As) was did she blame me for life today? Because I got arrested and they were all thrown into exile….And she laughed and said “I cried when you were arrested, I cried for you. The only people I blame in any of this are the regime.”

A Syrian Love Story has its world premiere screenings 7 and 9 June at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It will then be playing at festivals internationally and following a cinema release will be broadcast on BBC Storyville in early 2016.

More of the Best of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015

As promised, here are more of my favourites from the films I’ve already seen, and written about, for Sheffield Doc/Fest:

Good Girl

An acclaimed filmmaker from a young age, Solveig Melkeraaen Is used to being in control of her life in Norway. When she is felled by a serious depression, which sees her undergoing electroshock therapy treatment in a psychiatric institute, she turns the camera on herself, in an attempt to take back control. In this intimate and brave exploration of depression, we follow her on the road to recovery, as she teases out the reasons for her breakdown – a journey which sees her trying to puncture the stigma and silence that so often accompanies mental illness. Surrounded by her supportive siblings and loving partner, Solveig seems to be well on her way to recovery — until a relapse threatens her fragile progress. Unflinching, blackly funny, and beautifully filmed – with highly stylised dramatic sequences – Good Girl breaks new boundaries in autobiographical filmmaking, and shines a light on how this devastating illness weaves its destructive path.

Carol Nahra

3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

It became known in America as the “loud music trial”. In an encounter which lasted a scant three and a half minutes, a middle aged white man named Mike Dunn repeatedly fired into a car of unarmed black teenagers, after they refused to turn down their rap music, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis. Now the case has come to trial, and the nation is watching. Dunn’s attorney is using Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law to argue self defence. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, in which a white man walked free in Florida after gunning down an unarmed teenager, tensions are running high. Director Marc Silver skilfully weaves a compelling narrative through beautifully shot courtroom scenes, interviews with the victim’s parents and friends, and shocking telephone conversations between incarcerated Dunn and his distraught fiancee. A riveting look at a flawed legal system in a country where race relations are balanced on a knife’s edge.

Carol Nahra

Orion: The Man Who Would Be King

As a teenager in 1960s Alabama, Jimmy Ellis’ wonderful singing voice was unlike any other. Except, that is, for one Elvis Presley. Hampered by his over-resemblance to the King, Jimmy’s own singing career floundered. Then, in 1979 he found fame as a masked singer called “Orion”, a persona deliberately evolved to create intrigue in the wake of Presley’s death. Over the next years he played to legions of grieving Elvis fans, and developed his own fanatical fan base, many of whom remained in wilful denial about the true identity of their idol. With his contract stipulating he never remove his mask in public, Ellis’ success came at a high price for the singer still hoping to succeed on his own terms. Jeanie Finlay’s nuanced portrait of Ellis serves as a riveting cautionary tale of the music industry, and a memorable exploration of identity.

Carol Nahra

Best of Enemies

ABC NEWS - ELECTION COVERAGE 1968 -

The year is 1968 – one of the most turbulent in 20th century America. The three television networks are competing for supremacy of the airwaves in the run up to the presidential election. Lagging a distant third, ABC takes an audacious punt, and schedules a series of head to head debates during the Republican and Democratic conventions. Duking it out were two heavyweight thinkers – the rightwing William F. Buckley Jr and the liberal Gore Vidal. Buckley saw Vidal as a moral degenerative; Vidal considered Buckley’s views to be dangerously anti-democratic. Both recognized the power of television in the changing media landscape, and soon a nation was transfixed. Robert Gordon and Academy award-winning director Morgan Neville bring an abundance of fantastic archive, and interviews with cultural commentators – including the late great Christopher Hitchens – to tell the story of a famously acidic rivalry which would endure for decades.

Carol Nahra

 The Divide

Alden is an ambitious Wall Street psychologist, while Rochelle struggles as a carer on a zero hours contract and Keith tries to make sense of his life behind bars, as a result of Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Through their stories, and four others, Katharine Round humanises the bleak fact that growing inequality is driving a terrible wedge through modern society. Jumping back and forth in time, and between characters and experts, this is an engrossing, cinematic, thought-provoking essay which flags up some root causes of today’s societal woes – and raises disturbing questions about the future. Inspired by the best-selling book The Spirit Level, The Divide demonstrates the terrible impact that decades of misguided economic decisions is having on modern lives – and the truth behind the adage that money can’t buy happiness.

Carol Nahra

Cartel Land


1401x788-15282-1-1100.jpg (1401×788)

In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman takes us deep into the world of Mexican drug cartels by embedding himself with two vigilante groups on either side of the US-Mexico border. Camouflaged to help spy on drug runners, veteran Tim Foley is a man who wears his hard past on his face. Meanwhile, across the Rio Grande, surgeon Dr. Jose Mireles looks straight out of central casting, with chiselled features and a prominent moustache. As head of the Autodefansas, he is leading a group of men determined to obliterate the region’s most dangerous drug cartel, the Knights Templar. Heineman repeatedly places himself in harm’s way, filming the chaos as the group begin taking over towns – in so doing adapting many of the violent tactics of the drug lords they’re trying to overpower. A visceral journey into North America’s heart of darkness, Cartel Land will be talked about for years to come.

Carol Nahra

Dreamcatcher

Here is my Doc/Fest write-up. I’ve also written about the making of this film in another post:

Brenda is a mesmerising woman who has overcome a horrific life on the streets of Chicago. She now has a singular focus: to help other women do the same. Kim Longinotto follows Brenda in her day job, counselling incarcerated prostitutes and at-risk teenagers, and at night as Brenda takes to a van to provide brief respite to women from the watchful eyes of controlling pimps. Brenda’s ever-changing array of wigs are testimony to the many facets of her character, as she shifts between champion, motivational speaker, sympathetic ear and confessor. As often is the case in Longinotto’s films, the presence of the camera stirs many to speak up about their blighted lives in powerfully moving scenes. Made with longtime editor Ollie Huddleston, Dreamcatcher is an electrifying contribution to Longinotto’s life work documenting women’s attempt to recast themselves in a world dominated by men – and a devastating insight into America’s urban underclass.

Carol Nahra

 How to Change the World

how to save the world

The idea was simple: send a boat to bear witness, in the Quaker tradition, at the scene of a crime. When journalist turned environmentalist Bob Hunter carried out this plan, with a handful of other peaceniks, an ecological revolution was born. How to Change the World takes us through the eventful early years of Greenpeace, from hiring a fishing boat to sail into nuclear testing waters in 1971, to the establishment of Greenpeace International in 1979. Director Jerry Rothwell’s confident, breezy and layered style suits the group itself – an unlikely collection of mystics and mechanics. The huge media interest they attracted from their first save-the-whale-mission thrust the group into the international limelight, and fractures quickly developed. Rich archive and animation is interwoven with outspoken and sometimes conflicting interviews with Greanpeace founders, including Sea Shephard head Paul Watson, who admits he never bought into the “bear witness” ethos.

Carol Nahra

SXSW Preview: The Last Man On The Moon

March’s South by Southwest in Austin will host the North American premiere of The Last Man On The Moon, a stirring biopic of astronaut Gene Cernan, which needs to be seen on the big screen. In the film, Cernan looks back on his eventful life, and the highs and lows of being one of the first NASA astronauts – and the ensuing decades in the media spotlight.

Having sold out its world premiere screenings at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it proved one of the most popular films, The Last Man on the Moon is sure to draw a great deal of interest when screening in Cernan’s home state of Texas. British director Mark Craig is a regular guest speaker for my documentary film students. They always are particularly moved by his short Grierson-award winning film, Talk to Me, where he tells the story of his life through twenty years of answering machine messages.

mark craig
Mark Craig

Last time Mark spoke to my class, I grabbed him for a few minutes to talk about The Last Man on the Moon:

What was it like getting Cernan on board?

It was tough, because you’re talking about a guy who’s at an elderly stage of life. He had had so many cameras shoved in his face for so many years, and asked the same questions again and again and again. He didn’t really feel the need to invest so much of his time on a project, I’m assuming. But we slowly managed to convince him that we wanted to do this in a much more vivid and immersive and emotive way. I didn’t want to dwell on all the history of the science and all the other stuff — I just wanted his personal story. And he began to see it as a legacy that he could offer up to future generations that weren’t around when he did go to the moon, or weren’t even born today.

Gene Cernan on the moon

What was he like to work with when he did come on board?

He is the most dynamic, energetic charismatic old man – if I can call him that – that I ever worked with. His energy levels were incredible. The filming day can be a very long one, and it starts before the sun comes up. He was a real trooper – he gave and gave and gave, of his time, of his energy, of his emotion and of his access.

The film has really stunning cinematography. Can you talk a little about the visual approach to making it?

Because we always knew that it would be a cinema documentary, I was always keen to get a cinematographer with movie credits, and a movie approach more than anything. I wanted it to really work on the screen. I had seen Tim Cragg‘s work in another documentary, at a previous Sheffield Doc/Fest. I could see he had great movement with the camera. He could really follow the action and had a great fluid panning style. Straight away he was just cinematic, and I thought he’s the man for me.

Was it liberating making a film without television money?

It was. In TV there is a lot of guiding and steering and mentoring from the channel, from the execs, to make it fit the remit of that channel. You’re always serving the requirements of that channel, of that slot, the ad sales, etc. So it was very liberating to be free of that and just be faithful to the story, and the character and tell that story in the most interesting and engaging way that one could. We didn’t know where it was going to end up, we just wanted to make it as pure a film as possible.

Who has funded it?

It was a mixture of private investors. A lot of whom came from contacts that our executive, Mark Stewart knew. Without him and his company MSP getting involved in the project I’m not sure the film would have ever happened. Certainly not at the scale it ended up being. After we then had a rough cut which we then began showing to people in the space community, a couple more investors emerged who were very keen to make sure it got finished to the standard we wanted it to be.

Gene Cernan and Mark Craig
Gene Cernan and Mark Craig

It’s got some great archive. Can you tell what it was like plowing through all the sometimes iconic space archive from the 60s?

The thing about Apollo and going to the moon, it was very well documented at the time. Hundreds of hours was shot over a whole decade. And a lot of that was being used in many other documentaries. But we didn’t want to just rehash the same old second or third generation stuff you see on TV. It was fantastic to be able to discover stuff that we hadn’t known of before, and that meant a lot of research, going through logs and liaising with NASA’s archive, and then a lot of time was spent making sure that archive was beautifully transferred and graded and woven with the stuff that we shot along with some animation and visual effects. So hopefully it’s a very rich mix of material to view and tell the story.

SONY DSC

What’s been the most exciting moment related to LMOTM for you so far?

I so enjoyed the process of meeting some of these legendary characters. Inevitably there comes that moment where you take your film and show it to an audience for the very first time. And that’s always a big moment of excitement and nervousness. It just so happened that the first time we showed the film was on the occasion of Gene Cernan’s 80th birthday, and a surprise party was organised by his family. And we the filmmakers were invited to be part of that. So we all assembled at the Johnson space center in Houston and showed our film. And in the audience was not only Gene Cernan and his entire family, but three guys who had walked on the moon, Jim Lovell of Apollo 13, flight director Gene Kranz, and some extremely top brass NASA management. I was thinking: ‘Oh God, I really hope we’ve got everything right’. Thankfully they gave it the thumbs up and were quite moved by the film, and were glad that it had been made. We left happy – that was a big night.

The Last Man On The Moon screens Friday, March 13, Saturday, March 14 and Wednesday March 18 at South by Southwest.

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One Rogue Reporter in a Tabloid World

Disgusted at some of the tabloid shenanigans he undertook as a reporter on the Daily Star, and the paper’s ongoing anti-Muslim slant,  Rich Peppiatt quit – only to find his resignation letter go viral. His departure coincided with an extraordinary period of scrutiny for the British press, as a scandal involving rampant phone hacking bled into the drawn out Leveson Inquiry. Four years on, and Peppiatt has made a documentary poking at the British tabloid press, and the culture which he claims all too often allows truth to be jettisoned for the sake of newsstand sales.

One Rogue Reporter is in the vein of documentary provocateurs like Michael Moore and The Yes Men – men pulling off outrageous comical exploits to make a larger point about injustice. In the film, Peppiatt conducts a series of stunts targeting some of the biggest names in the tabloid press – who Peppiatt found to be particularly egregious in their Leveson testimonies – including former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and Mail Online editor Martin Clarke. Providing the commentary in between the capers are a range of interested parties, from the Guardian’s Nick Davies, who broke the hacking story, to actor Hugh Grant, a leader in the campaign for press reform. Combined with some brilliant Hollywood archive, it makes for a combination usually very difficult to achieve in documentary – entertaining and thought provoking. It’s a film marked clearly for the general population, aiming to make some serious points about press hypocrisies, while having some fun along the way. It seems to be succeeding – one fan has seen the film seven times since its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.

At a recent screening of the film at Somerset House, running as part of their Unorthodocs strand, it quickly became evident that Peppiatt gives good Q&A. Together he and co-director Tom Jenkinson kept the diverse audience entertained in a session lasting nearly as long as the film. Here’s what Peppiatt had to say about the making of it, and the unique, often poisonous climate of British tabloid journalism:

The whole Leveson inquiry was quite academic and insular  – media types all navel gazing about their own industry. And we wanted to try to make  a film that was a bit broader than that, that our mates down the pub who were not in the media would watch, because it’s got me putting a dildo on a bloke’s doorstep. So you can have a broader audience watching because it’s funny, and then along the way you can have stuff with hopefully some information. Like with kids where you put the peas in their mashed potato, or something.

One Rogue Reporter - Still 3
Peppiatt and Mail Online Editor Martin Clarke

There was a lot of interest (in broadcasting it), particularly from Channel 4. The cuts that they were going to need wouldn’t make it the same film. So we were like, well do we want a film which is a poor imitation of the one that is out at festivals, or do we want to give it a life online and things like that.

American fair use law is a lot more friendly than British fair use law, which is why the film is copyrighted in America, and our lawyers are American, and our company, Naughty Step productions, is based in Delaware.

It’s very difficult making documentaries to come out the back end and line your pockets. It’s a tough gig. But we never went into it to make money. We just wanted to make the film.

Every TV channel says, ‘we really want to do that stuff – punching up at the powerful’. And the minute you then say, ‘right this is what we are going to do’, they go – ‘you can’t do that’! News organisations are the same – they all say they want really strong stuff that is going after people.

We’re not worth suing, but news organisations and TV channels are a lot more cautious because they know they are worth suing. So it does make it difficult to do in a way that is sustainable for us, and allows us to make a living, and to be able to do the type of journalism that we want to do, at the same time, which is going hard, which isn’t pulling punches. We are working on it, but it is difficult to strike that balance.

We certainly had Murdoch in our sights initially. But every time you see Murdoch, you’d be outside his house, you’d get three Landrovers. He’s in the one in the middle and there are seven ex-Mossad blokes with huge necks surrounding him and hustling him into the house, and you go ‘at what moment there do I throw a dildo at him?’.

Tom Jenkinson and Rich Peppiatt at Somerset House
Tom Jenkinson and Peppiatt post Q & A

The Leveson Inquiry was a great opportunity in my mind. Journalists like to talk loudly about how they like speaking truth to power, and they are fearless and brave, and this that and the other. And in the inquiry, a once in a generation opportunity comes up to speak up…and say these are the things going on. And how many did? Very few – everyone kept their heads down and pretended everything was hunky dory. I thought that was very disappointing.

It’s a tough place to work on tabloid newspapers. And if you’re the sort of person who hangs around there for 20-30 years and crawls your way all the way to the top, I think you’ve got issues. You’re not going to be a very nice person.

The argument that the pound on the counter of the newsagent is the only moral answer we need doesn’t stand up. It’s not a logical argument. If I was to go out there and grab a paedophile and hang him up a lamp post on Westminster Bridge I would probably gather a massive crowd and people will cheer along. It will be quite popular. I’d make it a weekly event. Does it make it right? Well no because we are in a civilised society, just because people want something doesn’t mean we have to give it to them. That’s why we don’t have hard core porn on BBC1 at 6pm in the evening. Just because there is a market for crap doesn’t mean you want to take that crap and serve it up and call it journalism.

Peppiatt and Kelvin MacKenzie
Peppiatt and Kelvin MacKenzie

Tabloid is not a dirty word. I’m not anti tabloid. I don’t pretend I’m some veteran of Fleet Street. They’re not going to erect a statue of me. But this is my view of the industry during my time. I don’t pretend it’s the whole story and I know everything by any means.

What we’re planning at the moment is doing a film in America, following the 2016 election from the perspective of how TV covers it – being on the campaign with the press pack.  From my research, the relationships that exist between people in politics high up in the Republican and Democratic party – are married to the news anchors – and the links are amazing showing just how close knit this world is. There is no holding power to account – the media political nexus of New York and Washington is so tight knit that the rest of America is really not served at all. We’re quite at the beginning of that journey.

One Rogue Reporter is available on ITunes, Amazon and Google Play – see the website for links.

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