Tag Archives: independent production

Walk With Me: Marc J. Francis on Making a Film About Mindfulness

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to slow down, be mindful and connect with your inner self, I’ve got the doc for you. As I wrote about recently in Documentary Magazine, one of the London Film Festival’s stand out films for me was Max Pugh and Marc J. Francis’ Walk With Me, which opens in UK cinemas this week. The film takes us to southern France, deep inside the monastic community of Plum Village, where the Zen Buddhist inhabitants are utterly focused on leading mindful lives. The community is guided by the revered Thich Nhat Hanh, whose readings are brought to life in voiceover by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Immersive is an overused term these days, but this film comes close to doing the term justice. Four years in the making, the co-directors learned they needed to become members of the community before they could tell its story. I spoke with Francis about the making of it before the film’s screening at the London Film Festival.

(Transcript edited for length and clarity.)

Carol Nahra: There are a lot of films out there at the moment where of course you would say it’s better to see on the big screen, but this in particular seems to have been made with a cinematic experience in mind.

Marc J. Francis: This really was a subject that lent itself to the big screen experience. Because our intention was to make a film which could be experiential, as a film that you kind of feel. So what does it feel like to be a part of this community that commits their lives to cultivating mindfulness?

CN: The audio is amazing. It seems as important as the visual in some ways.

MF: Yeah, we invested heavily on the sound. We really wanted the sound to play as big a part if not a bigger part as the visual experience. Because bringing you inside into the film really enhances that experience. And it is about, what they do is about how deeply do they listen.

CN: Tell me a bit about your coming to this topic.

MF: I came to it through Max Pugh, the co director, whose brother became a monk about eight years ago….There was a point where the monastery was starting to think about letting in cameras for the very first time. Thich Nhat Hanh always shied away from publicity throughout his life; never really wanted it. But he felt that maybe now was the time to try and be more open. The stipulation of Thich Nhat Hanh was to find a way to make it about community; don’t make it about me.

14957496985927544239ca6
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

CN: You had access but it still took four years to make. What took all the time?

MF: It’s not a conventional film in the sense that you are not focusing on one to three characters and following their narrative arc. And that you’ve got your A to B and end up at C. It’s trying to create narrative out of a mood or feeling. So to do that was extremely difficult. Plus because we wanted to find a way to translate the energy of mindfulness as we experienced it at the monastery to the audience, the only way to do that was if we invested time in the monastery ourselves and started to practice, to tune into that energy field and feel it and edit in a way that reflects that mood and pace. And that is no easy thing to do – to find a way to keep your stress and your anxieties at bay and find a sense of inner presence and stillness and reflect that to the audience.

CN: So presumably that meant engaging before you picked up the camera, or putting the camera down to engage in the practices of the community?

MF: Yeah, well we started off with a camera. And then that didn’t work. Because we weren’t getting any cooperation. Only when they got a sense that we weren’t on a deadline, and we weren’t having a goal and we weren’t saying on a Monday okay by Friday we need these three scenes – if we ever did that we would fail. But if we let go of the goal and just started to feel present…We just kept our cameras at bay and in the event that something revealed itself to us we were unable to capture it. And the more that we did that the more open they became and the more the trusted us and our ability to capture that kind of vibration. A bit like don’t make a film about a kung fu master if you haven’t even tried kung fu itself.

CN: So what was that like for you? Because you come from strong narrative storytelling background and this whole process as you describe it must have been very intense for you.

MF: Yes it was very intense, you’d step into the great unknown of no direction. And you really don’t know what’s going to happen. A director wants to be in control. So to let go of these ideas of control and step more into a place of trust was a great learning curve. That ended up becoming a manual for life.

marc francis
Marc Francis

CN: So what will you be taking forward with you? Will you be living differently?

MF: I already am. One of the reasons I was attracted to the project in the first place was because I could see that the life of an independent filmmaker is a tricky one. There are highs and lows, there are disappointments. You get great moments and you get bad moments. And how does one find a sense of inner balance within that storm so that you’re not finding yourselves getting highly anxious when things aren’t going well or over excited when things seem to be going well? How can I make a film, how can I make a career for myself as an artist and as a family man in this career where I enjoy the process? And I’m happier inside myself for the process? These are the questions I was starting to ask myself before the film came along. I don’t want to win an Oscar and be depressed about it or stressed about it. That kind of thing. That feeling should be with me every day – whether I win one or not is not the point. So I got a sense that when I arrived to Plum Village for the first time that there were some really amazing things going on here that could be extremely beneficial to how I want to live my life.

Has the film been well received?

It has. I think there is a time now where people are getting a bit overwhelmed with what is going on politically. This Trump anger, this divisiveness which is coming through our feeds, it’s like do I want to go to the cinema and be reminded more about what is going on or can I go to the cinema and have an opportunity to breath and get back to myself or try to step away from it in some way? So seeing the film in that wider context is like an antidote to the larger context of what is in our faces on a day to day basis.

Walk With Me opens in cinemas across the UK on 5 January.

 

Advertisements

Doc/Fest ’16: Six to Watch

For quite a few years I’ve had the good fortune to preview large chunks of the Sheffield Doc/Fest programme, in order to help write the film catalogue. Of the thirty-five films I watched for this year’s festival, which opens on Friday, here are a few of my favourite:

Presenting Princess Shaw

Talented but isolated, New Orleans care worker Samantha spends her spare time uploading acapella videos of her original songs to YouTube, to a smattering of viewers. Unknown to her, in a far away kibbutz, Israeli mash up artist Kutiman is composing his next viral sensation – with Samantha as the star. Following them both, director Ido Haar brings us a gratifyingly heartwarming fairy tale from the digital age.

 

Weiner

Two years after resigning from Congress for tweeting a picture of his bulging yfront, Anthony Weiner is running for Mayor of New York. His loyal wife Huma is at his side, and the tenacious politician has even invited a documentary crew along for the ride. The trouble is, he’s neglected to curb his digital dalliances, giving us jaw-dropping access to a campaign that is soon in total meltdown.

Mr Gaga

Immerse yourself us in the world of modern dance through the vision of Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Through extensive archive, observational footage and beautifully filmed dance sequences, Doc/Fest returnee Tomer Heymann focuses on the fascinating stories underpinning Naharin’s creative process, and how an untrained veteran spurned the tutelage of the dance world’s maestros to become one of the most talented choreographers working today.

Unlocking the Cage

In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus ,we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.

Life, Animated

After years of silence as a child, Owen Suskind amazed his family by beginning to communicate through his biggest passion: Disney films. Now leaving home, Owen is learning that not every step in life has a Disney guru. Director Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda) returns to Doc/Fest with a masterful film about how one close-knit family navigates life with autism.

 

 

National Bird

Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.

————–

Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from 10-15 June. I’ll be moderating a discussion about the power of drones, and the themes stemming from National Bird on Tuesday afternoon.

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.

 

Olly Lambert on Abused: The Untold Story

It’s not surprising that in entrusting the storytelling of its darkest hour, the BBC has chosen documentary director Olly Lambert. For fifteen years Lambert has steadily forged a reputation as one of the most talented and nuanced directors working in factual television today. Whether piecing together stories from both sides of the divide in Syria (in the multi award winning Syria: Across the Lines) to putting a human face on the many families caught up in the London riots (or torn apart in divorce), Lambert is very adept at drawing out difficult stories from often traumatized interviewees.

It’s a skill he’d need in spades for tonight’s film, Abused: The Untold Story.  The abuser left out of the title is, of course, BBC entertainer Jimmy Savile, the unfathomably long running serial abuser, the paedophile who lived for decades as a celebrated children’s entertainer, and went to his grave with his crimes still a secret. Lambert’s feature length doc dissects how the abuse finally came to light after Savile’s death. Most importantly it gives voice to a number of Savile’s victims, some speaking publicly for the first time. I spoke with Olly by telephone about the process of bringing their stories to the screen.

Screen Shot 2014-01-17 at 09_34_05
Olly Lambert

CN: It’s a dark topic to immerse yourself in for eighteen months.

OL: Weirdly, now that it is all done – we only finished it on Saturday – there is actually something strangely inspiring about the people in it. What I think comes across is they are so strong. There is nothing victimy about the people. Your starting point with them is a very dark place, the darkest moment of their life, usually. But the fact that they’re able to speak about it really clearly and really powerfully with a bit of distance is an obvious testament to how far they are able to move on from it, and how the very act of talking about it is such a release; almost a physical release. So that sort of becomes part of the film. The act of talking becomes profoundly cathartic. And in a few cases actually quite life  changing. So even though it is a dark place  to go to I think I’ll be able to look back at it and think “well that was worth doing; it was worth going there”.

CN:You said that with a couple of interviewees it was actually life-changing. Can you elaborate on that?

There was one woman, Dee. She’s found the very act of speaking to a stranger, who is also a man, and being able to tell everything that happened to her for the very first time, made her realise she could say it. And she wouldn’t be causing disgust in me, and she actually realised that she was accepted and that it wasn’t her fault and that there was somebody who would listen. Speaking about it in that way to a stranger, and being part of a chorus of voices within the film that all speak of the same experience, has just been really profound for her. She’s a completely different person to the person I met a year ago. It’s very moving. She’s just transformed.

olly
Dee – (C) Minnow Films – Photographer: Richard Ansett

CN: That is very moving. And it is very sad that it has come presumably decades after the abuse.

OL: Yes, absolutely. She’s an interesting story because when it was Savile’s funeral, she watched it. And she said that she didn’t feel anything about it. She said that she should have  felt glad that he was dead. But at the time that he was buried she didn’t realise there were more people like her; she thought she was the only one. It was only when other people started coming forward that this kind of little solidarity developed between people.

CN: Can you talk about how you approach having Savile appear in the film?

OL: There are no images of Saville’s face. One of the first victims I met talked really powerfully about how distressing it was that whenever there was something on the news, that was effectively her story, a story about her, that changed her life. She was exactly the sort of person who should be engaging with the story and yet she wasn’t able to watch it on television because news editors, sort of understandably, but a bit thoughtlessly, would reach for the most garish gross images of Savile as an old man with these sorts of rose tinted glasses and looking very menacing. And of course that makes it very colourful for everyone else but for her it was like just being confronted with someone who had just fucked up her life. Like being confronted by her rapist. There are a few fleeting images of him as a kind of ghost in a way. And it made the film very difficult to edit.  Because obviously having images of him would have been the perfect thing to cut to. But it felt absolutely wrong direction to go in. So that means that the film is viewable, or more viewable, to exactly the kind of people who’d be most affected, so it’s keeping them in mind. It’s also honoring the wishes of the people in the film that don’t want to confront his face any more.

10789114-high-
Kevin – (C) Minnow Films – Photographer: Richard Ansett

CN: What was the biggest surprise to you in the making of the film?

OL: The thing that really jumped out from the very first conversation I had with a victim of Savile was the way that this single event, which might have been a matter of minutes, decades ago, was how they had completely reshaped a person’s life. Had configured everything in their life. In the case of one person, there was a very serious sexual assault which probably took about ten minutes. Immediately, that little girl never really trusted her mum again, because she felt that her mum had allowed it to happen in some way. She cannot have a relationship with a man; she couldn’t have a physical intimacy. She tried to have a relationship with a woman and couldn’t really have physical intimacy. Because of the nature of the assault she had a phobia of being sick, or being around people being sick. And that meant she would never get on an airplane. So she wouldn’t travel. And you know it’s completely present when you’re sitting in the room with her. You sit down with her in her home, there’s nothing remotely “historical” about her abuse. She’s absolutely living it every day… That was the thing that stuck with me that I didn’t really feel had been covered. So that really became the focus of the film – the way that these assaults ricochet down an entire lifetime. And they’re still being played out now in real time. And the film shows that.

Abused: The Untold Story airs 11 April on BBC One at 8.30pm and will then be available on IPlayer.

Does British TV have a problem with independent documentary?

The Unorthodocs season at Somerset House features acclaimed documentaries never seen on British TV. Are UK broadcasters denying audiences access to a golden age of independent film-making?

At first glance, they don’t really have much in common. The Closer We Get is a first person documentary, where filmmaker Karen Guthrie uses a period of caring for her ailing mother to prod into her family’s painful past. In 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets, director Marc Silver masterfully investigates one of the US’s all too commonplace racially motivated killings. And in The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his groundbreaking multi-award winning The Act of Killing with a further journey through Indonesian killing fields, this time through the lens of a single traumatized family. But what these three disparate films do share is the fact that despite widespread acclaim, they have not found a place on British television. Instead they are all running as part of the Unorthodocs strand at Somerset House this winter.  Curated by Dartmouth Film’s Christopher Hird, a champion of independent feature docs, the films in the series collectively serve as an admonishment to UK broadcasters to up their game.

U.S. Protesters Gather For Peace In New York
We Are Many; photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Much has been written about how we are in a golden age of documentary. Indeed, with many more potential avenues of distribution – along with the technological advances which give us all the opportunity to become filmmakers – the future looks bright for those determined to persevere in this difficult art form. But what is less “golden” about this age, is the fact that British broadcasters – still powerful and still in control of the best way to reach the masses -have largely turned their backs on commissioning single feature length documentaries.

I recently sat on the Grierson judging committee for Best Documentary on a Contemporary Theme – International. It was striking that very few of the outstanding films on our longlist were given television money up front. All too often broadcasters hedge their bets, forcing independent filmmakers down the difficult path of self-financing, and only deciding whether or not to pick up a film once it’s been made.

The long-running BBC Storyville is often cited as an exception, showing some of the best documentaries in every given year, either through acquisition or commission. But Storyville’s commissions are modest, and usually require filmmakers to find substantial funds elsewhere (a process which took a film I produced, Secrets of the Tribe, eight years to finish). Channel 4’s equivalent strand, True Stories, seems to be defunct, and while Channel 4 claims to be open to pitches for single films, it can’t be seen to be championing them in a way we should expect of our public service broadcasters.

Yes, there are a number of outstanding films in any given year on the BBC and Channel 4. Recent examples to name but two include last year’s The Paedophile Hunter on Channel 4, and the BBC’s The Age of Loneliness. But in my mind, with both the BBC and Channel 4 battling for their future in a nightmarishly hostile political climate, these few standouts should be magnified by a factor of ten. Imagine a world where the same budget put into producing twenty-four episodes of Masterchef is plowed into a new strand featuring fifteen documentary features, all by different directors. Yes, they are more difficult to make, and yes some might fail to attract large numbers of viewers. But aren’t two of the most important tenets of public service broadcasting that it supports risk-taking and programming not driven by the marketplace?

Many filmmakers these days persist in making their passion project, broadcast commission be damned. It can be a long and lonely, but ultimately gratifying route. Franny Armstrong makes it look easy. Her 2008 climate change doc The Age of Stupid was funded entirely through crowd-funding, raising an impressive £430,000. But Armstrong, in addition to being a consummate filmmaker and networker, benefited from another factor: she was the first to fund a documentary through crowdfunding. Many more have followed. Today it is a much more difficult, careworn option which involves a lot of targeting, attention to detail and maintenance. Crowdfunding can work for issue driven films that have a built-in following, but it’s certainly not easy.

Amir Amirani struck out trying to get broadcast interest in his film We Are Many – a forensic examination of the global anti war protest of February 2003. A film that would have taken him roughly a year had it been fully commissioned, instead took him eight. Along the way he maxed out his credit card, and remortgaged his house three times, before a Kickstarter campaignand the endorsement of high profile supporters like Stephen Fry and Omid Djalili began bringing in substantial funding. But the end result has been worth it for Amirani: We Are Many has played to rapturous audiences globally, and continues to screen frequently. But there are still no plans for a UK broadcast.

SONY DSC
Gene Cernan, The Last Man on the Moon, photo courtesy of Mark Craig

Mark Craig also went his own way having not initially succeeded with securing British interest in his film The Last Man on the Moon, about astronaut Gene Cernan. But as he told me when I interviewed him about the making of it, he eventually relished producing it with Mark Stewart Productions, without broadcaster input: “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., ” he said. “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.” He’s enjoyed an extended festival run with the film, which is soon to be on limited release in the US.

Whilst still very modest compared to the US, there are a small number of funds that British filmmakers can tap into, particularly from foundations with explicit interests in the subject matter. The Wellcome Trust  supports films with a biomedical theme, such as the outstanding The Man Whose Mind Exploded. On a larger scale, BRITDOC operates as an energetic documentary enabler, supporting films in a number of ways, including partnering up filmmakers and NGOs, as well as helping fund more than 200 films in the ten years since its founding.

When I first moved to the UK from the US twenty years ago, the difference between how docs were made in each country was striking. The UK, with its fully funded commissioning system was seen as a utopia by envious American doc makers who usually had to spend years piecing together the budgets for each film. Now, with British television factual programming dominated by formats and presenter-led series, and with so many film-makers chasing so few slots, that gulf no longer seems so vast.

But there are reasons to be hopeful that the BBC will soon prioritise carving out new space for single documentaries. The much respected Patrick Holland is now Head of Documentaries, and speaks of  singles “as an essential part of what we do on BBC Two.” And with the announcement last week that doc champion Charlotte Moore now oversees the entirety of BBC television, now is the time to show that the production of feature length documentaries can and should be a priority for the world’s leading public service broadcaster.

This article first appeared at OpenDemocracy.net

 

Sue Bourne on The Age of Loneliness

The single documentary The Age of Loneliness looks at the “epidemic” of loneliness in Britain, telling the stories of 14 very different contributors. It’s a profoundly moving exploration of an often taboo subject – and one that resonates with most of us, whether we’re currently lonely, have been in the past, or worry about the future when we might be. Docs on Screens spoke to veteran director Sue Bourne about the film, which airs 7 January on BBC One.

Carol Nahra: You were very careful to get a good range of people. How did you go about finding your contributors?

Sue Bourne: Four months research. It just took us forever (laughs). I said ‘I’m not doing a film just about lonely old people – that’s boring and it’s obvious and that isn’t the problem.  It’s an epidemic, and it’s about all ages and there’s something happening’. It was very much for me about a societal change and what was going on. But then I’m not doing a Panorama so I just wanted to give a voice to all those different people. So I said I want a voice from every decade, from every age group. So I drew up my list and then we just hit it for four months. We were in touch with 500 odd people to narrow it down to the 14 who appeared. Charities, blogs, internet, just everything. The thing about lonely people is they’re not out there shouting about it from the rooftop. And so that’s hard. And a lot of the people we met were just too vulnerable to go on telly.

Programme Name: The Age of Loneliness - TX: 07/01/2016 - Episode: The Age of Loneliness (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Isabel, 19 – Lonely at university - (C) Daniel Dewsbury - Photographer: Daniel Dewsbury
Isabel, 19                (C) Daniel Dewsbury

CN: The ones featured are also vulnerable. You have very emotional scenes where it seems to me they are often articulating their loneliness for the first time, which I found quite painful. How did you find interviewing them?

SB: Well, basically I think they were wonderful, all of them. I think they were brave. Because no one wants to admit to being lonely because in the back of your mind you’re thinking ‘well, why am I lonely? Is it because I am horrible? Why am I Johnny no mates? What’s happened?’ Some of them they have lost their partner so it was obvious why they were lonely. But other people were lonely and wondering if it was their fault, are they to blame. There was certainly one person I thought would be very good for the part because they epitomised a very large group. And I phoned them up and said ‘I want you to be in the film but you have to be honest. And I think your default position is to put on a brave face. And frankly you’re going to have to take that off. And bare your soul. Because if you put the brave face on you’re not telling the truth and the one thing I want this film to be is truthful’. So I was asking a lot….but I think it’s one of the most moving interviews in the film.

CN: Which interview was it?

SB: It was Jaye, the single girl. Because she wants to be a jolly person. But I thought the interview she gave was so honest. It was extraordinary She was really brave to be so honest. But I knew what her default position was – she was battling through life being jolly saying ‘I can cope with it. I can cope with it’. But inside it was tough.

CN: Are you a lonely person?

SB: No. I think I’m alone. My daughter’s dad, my ex partner, is dead. All my parents are dead. I have no brothers and sisters and really no family to talk to. So really it’s just me and my kid and she’s in her twenties and I don’t want to be a needy mother. So I’m acutely aware of the life ahead of me. That it will involve aloneness. So I better get used to it. So I try to train myself to be a bit more positive about it (laughs).

CN: Is that what brought you to the topic?

SB: I think so…In Fashionistas (which profiled six extraordinary older women) I wanted to find role models for the next 30 odd years, who were going to be upbeat and enjoying life and squeezing the pips out of it. Because that’s what I wanted to do. And then again a lot of them were on their own, so what I got from that is you need a particular spirit if you can find it to carry you through life because it ain’t easy and you might well be on your own.

age of loneliness sue bourne
Sue Bourne

CN: Did you ever think of matching people up? Cause it seems like there’s some people who would benefit from each other’s company in The Age of Loneliness.

SB: Well in a way sometimes you look at these films that we do and it’s like – I feel like a social worker. Because what I’m doing is I’m opening them out. I’m giving them a voice. Then I want other people to talk. I want people to look and think ‘why is nothing being done to help them?’. I now want to do Contact the Elderly tea parties because I think that it’s just wonderful. It transforms their lives for one afternoon a month and that’s all it takes…We have to be kinder. That is the wettest things a filmmaker can say – “I just want people to be kinder” – but I do!

CN: I can imagine that a doc about loneliness might not make for like the most filmic pitch.

SB: It took a bit of time and eventually I got in front of Charlotte (Moore) and said ‘Please, just give me this commission’. And she said ‘Okay, it’s yours, go.’

CN: It’s beautifully shot. It looks lovely.

SB: I had (producer) Daniel (Dewsbury) at my side from February. We did all the research together; we talked constantly about what we were trying to achieve, four months of that. And then I decided not to use a cameraman but to use him, and gave him a beautiful camera, nice lenses, and three months to shoot it. And we were this tiny little team. And it paid off. And then we got the drones (used for aerial shots throughout the film). I don’t like gimmicks. I always thought I only want to shoot it if it’s relevant to loneliness. But for me the drones were critical because I wanted to say “It’s everywhere in Britain – anywhere you look you’re going to find loneliness”.

The Age of Loneliness is on BBC One at 10.35 pm, Thursday, 7 January.

 

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015: Kim Longinotto’s Dreamcatcher

Twenty minutes into Kim Longinotto’s latest film, Dreamcatcher, which is screening at Sheffield Doc/Fest, a chilling scene takes place. The setting is an after-school club at a Chicago high school, where at-risk teenage girls are being counseled on how to say “No” to boys. As the teenagers munch through copious amounts of junk food, a girl confesses that she was raped at the age of 11 at a friend’s house. Another girl interrupts to tell a story of long-term abuse by a family friend, then another story of abuse follows, each more harrowing than the one before it. It’s astonishing to hear the details of these unreported crimes, and as they quickly pile up, to realize how endemic it is to these girls’ worlds. It’s the sort of scene that stays with you for a very long time.

For anyone familiar with London-based Longinotto’s extraordinary body of work, however, such moments are to be expected. Her subjects often take advantage of the presence of the camera to make their marginalized voices heard. While she is considered an “observational” filmmaker, and avoids interfering in the action while filming, she is well aware that by being there, she very much changes what is taking place. “It’s something that has happened a lot with making films,” she says. “People grab the opportunity to have a witness. It’s not ‘fly-on-the-wall’— a term I hate. You’re going in as someone who is going to make something with them. They feel part of it.”

Having seen most of Longinotto’s films, I point out to the filmmaker that my strongest memory of such a moment was the 8-year-old girl Fouzia in The Day I Will Never Forget (2002), who uses the camera to recite the titular poem, protesting the practice of female genital mutilation.

“Yes, The Day Will Never Forget poem is exactly like that scene; they grab their chance,” Longinotto exclaims. “Students at film school often say, ‘Being a documentary maker, I feel bad that we’re going in and we’re taking advantage of people.’ And I always say, ‘Well, why do you think that? Is it because you’ve been watching reality TV? That’s not the only way of doing it.’ If you are using that analogy, Fouzia completely used me: She told me where to stand, she bullied me into going into her house, and she wanted me there because she knew her mum would listen. So she used me, but I loved being used. We used each other. You wouldn’t even use the word ‘use.’ We were working together.”

Kim 3
Kim Longinotto

Indeed, when Longinotto first met the Chicago teenagers, she encouraged them to take control. “I said to them, ‘Look, this is your film and I really want you to feel good about the film and be part of it. And you will have the film when it’s finished. And we’re doing it together; I’m relying on you. I’m not going to interview any of you. This is your film, so you do whatever you want.'”

Longinotto also showed the girls excerpts from two of her films that feature strong women working to fight abuse: Rough Aunties (2008) and Sisters-in-Law (2005). “They all went very quiet and went off and didn’t say anything, but we all had a bit of a hug because it was quite emotional,” says Longinotto. When it came to filming the girls in the after-school club, Longinotto felt that they had built up a trust that allowed for intimacy: “I knew in that scene, I could go really close and film them. I was half a meter away from them; you can see how closely it was filmed. And there was this real level of trust.”

Brenda face 2

The in-class confessions came as a surprise to the girls’ mentor, Brenda, who had been running the group for two years and was trying to prevent the girls from being abused, not fully realizing the extent to which they already had been. Brenda is the “dreamcatcher” of the title—a mesmerizing woman who has overcome a horrific life on the streets to devote herself to encouraging girls to do the same. Articulate, impassioned, non-judgemental and utterly focused, Brenda exuded a strength in character that convinced producer Lisa Stevens that hers was a story well worth telling.

Stevens met Brenda through her coworker Stephanie, when producing the feature-length doc Crackhouse USA (2010); Stephanie’s son is currently serving 42 years in prison. Recognizing the strength of both the characters and the story, Stevens nurtured the relationship for several years, ultimately bringing the idea to Teddy Leifer of Rise Films, with whom Longinotto made Rough Aunties (2008). A trailer that Stevens shot of Brenda was integral to convincing Longinotto to come aboard the project. “If I’m being totally honest about it, I thought, ‘A film about prostitutes? Do I really want to do this?'” the filmmaker recalls. “I find films dispiriting, if there’s nothing to hope for or fight for. But when I saw the trailer, and saw her feisty and full of energy and joy—Brenda and Stephanie both are—and that they are actually doing things, they are changing lives, I thought, ‘I really want to do this.'”

Lisa
Lisa Stevens

Longinotto, Stevens and a sound recordist traveled to Chicago for a ten-week shoot. Dreamcatcher was a far cry from the other US-focused film Longinotto had directed—Rock Wives (1996), which looked at the privileged lives of wives and girlfriends of rock stars. Indeed, she found Chicago to have much in common with Durban, South Africa, the location for Rough Aunties: “The neighborhoods where we were living, the largely white neighborhoods, everything worked, the pavements were nice, the roads were nice, there was lighting,” she recalls. “And then you’d go into the black neighborhoods and a lot of the houses were boarded up. There were actually plants growing out of the middle of the road…It’s surprising because America is the richest country in the world, supposedly. And Chicago is where Obama lives. It takes your breath away.”

Dreamcatcher was edited by Ollie Huddleston, with whom Longinotto has made eight films. When I visited them halfway through the ten-week edit, it was clear, as Longinotto is quick to point out, that they are equal partners in the post-production process. They were working their way through a second viewing of the rushes—an impressively restrained 30 hours. “That’s what’s fantastic for me, because she really shoots very little,” Huddleston says. “And she knows why she shot it and she shot it with a beginning, middle and end-ish in mind—or some idea that you need one.” Longinotto frequently sits back while Huddleston brings his considerable story-making skills to each sequence, their discussion focused on what each scene contributes to the story. They often finish each other’s thoughts, in a shorthand that speaks to the many months they have passed together in close proximity. “I think editing is the bomb. It’s the most important thing,” says Longinotto. “I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else.”

Dreamcatcher follows Brenda in her day job, counseling incarcerated prostitutes, and at night on the streets, as she speaks to women in a roving van, an all-night cafe, or anywhere that can provide a brief respite from the ever watchful 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. There is nothing that her girls can tell her that she hasn’t seen before, or witnessed herself firsthand, nor seemingly any subject that is off limits. The film is full of revelations.

Like many of Longinotto’s films, Dreamcatcher is a story where many men do not come out well; the Chicago of the film is a world of baby daddies and violent pimps. Homer, the film’s major male character, is a reformed pimp who now works with Brenda as a public speaker, but, rather creepily, says he has few regrets about his past.

Dreamcatcher is an important contribution to Longinotto’s life work documenting the attempts of girls and women to recast themselves in a world dominated by men. It’s a compelling, harrowing and utterly uplifting story of redemption that should have a long life as a resource for those working to help those with lives mired in prostitution and substance abuse.

Longinotto’s hope is that the film, above all, will bring awareness to the inherent hopelessness of criminalizing prostitutes. “I want the film to decriminalize the women—that’s what I want,” she maintains. “And help them when they’re in jail. I don’t feel comfortable with using a film to criminalize anyone. I think films have to be seen in a wider way. It’s about changing a mindset and opening windows and getting people to think more humanely and differently.”

—–

This article first ran in Documentary Magazine and on my blog in the run up to its Sundance World premiere in January…

Amir Amirani: How I Made ‘We Are Many’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amir-5[1]
Amir Amirani

CN: That’s what I was wondering.

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

CN: How much did you make?

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

CN: What did you spend the money on?

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

2014 Sheffield Documentary Festival DocFest
Executive Producer Omid Djalili at world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest

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

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

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

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

——————————————————

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

 

 

Fixed Rig Focus: The Exec

24 Hours in Police Custody
24 Hours in Police Custody

I know way more about the Luton police station than I ever thought I would. I know that sometimes Detective Sergeants have to have impassioned telephone debates with the Crown Prosecution Service (which are always, in a very British way, extremely polite, but nonetheless called a “huge fight” afterwards). I know that if they succeed in getting the charge they are arguing for, such as a GBH upped to Attempted Murder, that they are quite likely to follow up the phone call with a silly dance and quiet gloating to every colleague they come across for the next ten minutes. I know that desks are often a mess, that who makes the tea has little to do with rank, and that no one really wants the responsibility of fetching abandoned hamsters from a house where carnage has occurred. I know all this because I never miss an episode of the utterly outstanding 24 Hours in Police Custody. The Channel 4 series is the latest in a rapidly growing crop of “fixed rig” television programs, which have, quite simply, transformed my television viewing in the last few years. They have taken me behind the doors of real life British communities, placing me front and centre of dramatic, transformative moments – and all of the even more compelling quiet moments in between.

Simply put, the fixed rig takes the technology of the Big Brother house – multiple cameras operated remotely – and transplants it to the real world. In the experienced hands of some of the most talented factual film-makers in the world, magic then occurs. What is most compelling about every fixed rig series I have seen, is watching human interactions occurring in as natural a setting as possible – that is, without the intrusive presence of a camera crew. Yes, those being observed know that cameras are there, but filmed 24 hours a day for weeks on end, they very quickly cease to play up to the camera. “Fly on the wall” is an overused, much criticised term, but it is perhaps most appropriate here. An enormous amount of behind the scenes labour goes into bringing about the quietest of scenes.

The original real world fixed rig series was The Family, which I wrote about after it debuted in 2008. Over a mackerel lunch at a Shoreditch Vietnamese restaurant with independent producers Magnus Temple and Nick Curwin, then Channel 4 Commissioning Editor for Documentaries Simon Dickson hatched the plan for the Family. He commissioned Temple and Curwin, then of Firefly Productions, to make an eight hour series on a single family. Twenty one cameras filmed them for four months, audiences were hooked, and a new genre was launched.

Five years on, and hundreds of hours of fixed rig programming later, I feel the time has come to look at how this way of filming has infiltrated British broadcasting – and is having an effect globally. I recently interviewed Nick Curwin, who has spent much of the last half decade overseeing a raft of award winning series, from The Family to One Born Every Minute. In 2010 he founded The Garden Productions with Magnus Temple, where they have make 24 Hours in A & E, which has sold to more than 100 territories around the world, and 24 Hours in Police Custody, which first aired in September.

Nick Curwin
Nick Curwin

Did you ever think you would be here, just a few years later, seeing such a change in British television?

NC: I don’t know how many rig shows are in production today – there seems a lot – so that seemed unimaginable. On the one hand, I think the main people who were having that conversation at the time really felt, right from the get go that we were on to something. There was a fantastic belief that this was going to be amazing. We were very very excited. It’s brilliant that it has become a prolific idea but I don’t think we would have anticipated it at the time.
When I first started making factual television, I thought if you could somehow or other instead of revisiting things that had happened in the past, if you could throw a net over actuality circumstances and show them actually happening wouldn’t that be a fantastic thing? So the rig in a way is a way of doing that. It was all about, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to film these things as they actually happened. But you’d need this vast array of cameras to do it and you’d need to be in the right place. So that’s where we ended up with the Family because it was Simon’s suggestion to say why don’t we use that in a family home.

What are the biggest difficulties in making a fixed rig series?
NC: Now it is difficult for different reasons. If we’re doing 24 Hours in Police Custody, to find a police force which allows you to put 70 odd cameras on the walls of their police station is very difficult. Likewise 24 Hours in A & E you say to a hospital what you want to do and they say ‘you’ve got to be kidding!’. So that’s very difficult and it’s very hard to win that access. Although we now have that track record – if they can talk to people we’ve worked before that helps us. With The Family we didn’t have that track record, we didn’t really know what it was going to be like, so it was hard to articulate that. And of course it’s an incredibly difficult private situation, a family home, so they’d have to in a way be very brave to let us do it.

But in a way one of the hardest things from our point of view was not just persuading a family to let us do it but finding the right family. Because in a way we always thought we were sort of making a drama rather than a documentary, but the people in it were also the writers. We didn’t tell them what to do so they were the writers, the producers and the stars. So they were the providers of the content in every possible way. So you had to think really cleverly about what sort of person would be able to provide the best possible content.

The editing is key to all these programs, isn’t it?
NC: Of course. We have been blessed with fantastic editors. But that’s very difficult as well — it’s another challenge we face. Because we’re making thirty episodes of 24 hours in A & E at the moment and 20 hours of Police Custody. That’s 50 hours and the editing is key. So trying to get fantastic editors to do that is very difficult. But we have this magic bullet for that which is an editor training scheme. We have brilliant editors in charge and then we hire inexperienced young editors and we use is as a training opportunity and train them in the edit.

24 Hours in Police Custody has some amazing scenes. What have been the particular challenges?

NC: Finding Luton was a huge challenge. It took something in the order of a year to get accesss to a police station to make that so quite obviously an extended period of development. I suppose the other challenge we face with that production is it’s not purely a rigged show – it’s a hybrid. It’s quite a big rig – it’s not as big as 24 Hours in A & E but it’s more than three times the rig for The Family and nearly double the rig for One Born Every Minute. But we also have three or four roving camera crews who are filming in a more traditional way, out and about. We were nervous about putting together rig and non rig material. It’s worked fine in the edit but we didn’t know it would at the time. And our previous experience with trying to do that hasn’t worked very well. In the first series of The Family we filmed loads and loads of them out and about and didn’t use a frame of it because it felt really odd to put the two things together. So that was a challenge, seeing whether that would work. But with 24 Hours in Police Custody, because the two things dovetail so perfectly together – when we have a cop interviewing a suspect in the police station and at the same time other cops are searching that suspect’s house, and they come back with something that is useful to the interrogation – then it just has to go together. So that really helps us I think.

24 Hours in A&E
24 Hours in A&E

What is it about the rig that yields such compelling material?

NC: One of the thing that you get from the rig that you probably can’t replicate unless you are using a rig is the fact that you are cutting around multiple cameras. And the effect that that gives you is something that is a bit more like drama. So you are much more connected emotionally with what is going on and you are observing it much more closely. And you can’t do that with a factual program in a scene of actuality unless you either have more than one camera or ask people to do it again and film as you do with actors. But you can’t ask people to do it again in a factual program because obviously it is not real anymore and you’ve got no authenticity. So you have to have lots of cameras.

The rig partly gives you the ability to be everywhere – so we’re in multiple places in a police station at once, likewise in a hospital. And that enables you in turn to, for example, make a show out of just one 24 hour period where if you had one camera you couldn’t. But it also dramatically affects the quality of the scene so in the interview rooms in 24 Hours in Police Custody, we have four cameras in there and also they are remotely controlled, so we are getting different kinds of shots. And so a scene edited from that footage is always going to be much more engrossing than a scene from one camera.