When filmmaker Nira Burstein picked up a Black Magic camera, she knew where she wanted to point it: at her own family. Over the course of six years she would re-enter her cluttered childhood home in the Queens borough of New York City, on a cul de sac called Charm Circle, where her parents eked out a precarious existence. Against the background of her younger sister’s impending polyamorous wedding, and through childhood home videos, Burstein explores the dysfunction and mental illness which have been a constant in her family. Charm Circle is an intimate, emotional and often funny foray into Burstein’s family life, richly deserving of the audience award it won at Sheffield DocFest, where it had its world premiere and was a word of mouth hit. I met with Burstein during the festival to ask her about the making of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Could you talk me through the process of moving out and whether you began to look through your family differently once you left home and how the film came about?
Nira Burstein: I moved out when I was 18 or 19 and it took me a while to want to go back again. As the years went on after I left, it seemed to feel increasingly worse going over there. Bringing the camera in was a way to bring in something that I enjoy doing to their house. And in a selfish way I thought ‘if I’m going to be here I have to figure out a way to feel welcome’. The filming started in 2015. I would go over maybe every two or three months. And then as I saw a story element developing I would spend more time there. I thought ‘I need to be around to get this while it was happening. No one’s reaction is ever the same in hindsight so you have to get it in the moment.’
CN: How did you go about getting their participation and being on board with it? I know you have one scene where your dad is snapping at you about filming and it’s great to have that in there. Talk me a little bit through their cooperation and did you feel like they ever acted differently because you had the camera there?
NB: I honestly think it was very natural. I don’t think they treated me any differently with the camera or without a camera. I had just bought the camera and I was really wanting to shoot and make something. I don’t know if any of us knew that it would get quite as involved as it did. But my parents have always been really supportive about my projects and have participated in other ways.
There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything is a blessing.
CN: That’s what’s so great about the film is that it’s clearly a loving family but with a lot of problems.
NB: Yes it’s very much the way things are. What I am so grateful for about my family is how much love there is. I think that is what gives people space to watch this movie even in the more difficult moments, because that does exist. And I think that’s the way that people feel safe about it. I am very inspired by my parents. I think they have a wonderful spirit for what they have been through and their sense of humour is incredible.
CN: Did you get them to talk about things that they wouldn’t usually have talked about, as is often the case in autobiographical filmmaking? Like the disparity in their sex drives – I felt like your mum was getting that on the record.
NB: I definitely feel that my mum felt this was a platform to let things out that she maybe hasn’t had a chance to say. And whether it was just meant for me or whether she meant it for the whole world I’m not really sure. Ultimately she’s okay with sharing all of it.
CN: What was it like for you looking through all those home videos? I imagine it was a bit painful to see your parents, as it was striking in the film how much they have changed, and how much more mainstream they seemed thirty years ago.
NB: This was part of the journey that went on behind the camera: me recognising how one can take for granted their childhood and not realise how that ends up playing a part in everyone’s life. And realising how much this thing they went through affected them; it changed them.
CN: Which thing is that?
NB: Specifically I think taking care of my older sister (who has lifelong learning disabilities). There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything’s a blessing. And that’s all true but it’s still really hard.
CN: You look back on your childhood as a happy one, do you?
NB: Yes for the most part. When I was eight, and this is in the movie, for various reasons my childhood just kind of stopped. It just became a lot of responsibility. But there was still a lot of happiness and fun after that.
CN: You’ve described how the camera was useful for you, giving something that you like to do when you visit them and I totally get that. Is there anything that you are hoping that the film does in a larger sense now that it’s made? Is there an impact that you hope it has?
NB: The personal is universal. If we can be okay about sharing personal stuff then it opens a conversation. And so I do hope that the film gets seen. I hope that it brings some joy and brings about a conversation they might not have had otherwise. We don’t really know what’s going on with the person across the room or on the sofa or wherever they are.
Fifteen years ago Morgan Spurlock burst into cinemas with the ultimate adventure in immersive documentary: he spent a month eating McDonald’s. The resulting film, Super Size Me, made him an enduring household name – to this day, my twenty year old students know who he is.
While in the intervening years he has directed and overseen a raft of nonfiction programming, Spurlock hasn’t returned to the world of fast food until recently. In Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken he investigates the dishonesty behind the massive chicken fast food industry. By becoming a chicken shop owner himself, Spurlock shines a light on the endemic cruelties in mass chicken rearing, the shocking way farmers are treated, and how the fast food industry has employed an enormous bag of tricks to fool people into thinking that chicken is a healthy choice.
Not long after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2017, Spurlock outed himself in a blog as guilty of sexually inappropriate behaviour and part of the #MeToo problem. The resulting furore led to the pulling of the film from the Sundance lineup and the shutting down of his 65-strong production company Warrior Poets.
Two years on, Super Size Me 2 has been picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films, and Spurlock is back in the public gaze. I spoke to him via FaceTime about the journey he’s been on.
As usual, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: I can’t really think of someone who is so well known based off of one film, in terms of Supersize Me making you into such a household name. Is that both a blessing and a curse? What was it like for you going into this project as Morgan Spurlock?
Morgan Spurlock: The minute you call up, certain people know who you are. Or the minute you make the second phone call they’ll know who you are and will have questions about it. It’s a blessing because it opens a lot of doors; it’s a curse because it closes a lot of doors (laughs). You have to lean into the upside of the doors that are actually opened. I think that I’ve always been able to do what I do because I’m blessed with great field producers who are able to go out and be the boots on the ground and it doesn’t have to be me all the time.
CN: Am wondering at what point this became Super Size Me 2?
MS: We were always going to call this Super Size Me 2. But the whole time we were doing it we just called ourselves Chicken just so that it was never tied to me or the other film in an overt way. But it was always going to be Super Size Me 2.
CN: Why was that? You have done a fair number of films in between. Why this one – obviously it’s the same terrain in terms of fast food but it’s not otherwise at all similar in structure to Super Size Me. So what was your thinking there?
MS: I think cause it is so very much a look into the fast food industry and the impact that’s had on how we eat and how we live. Especially because the door got opened by me getting a letter from Hardees wanting me to come be in their commercial, which I thought was the most ridiculous thing ever.
CN: Did you at any point think “I’m going to spend a month eating chicken”?
MS: I knew I was going to eat a lot of chicken but I knew I didn’t want to do that same type of thing. I knew that just going into a place and just eating the food wasn’t the story. Especially once we got into the greenwashing of it, and understanding the journey was going to show where most meat on the planet comes from. We eat 50 billion chickens a year – how do they get from the egg to your plate? And telling that journey.
I was like a lot of people – I thought if you’re still a farmer in the United States that you are doing something to really survive and do well. You’re somehow working the system in a way that is enabling you to thrive. And I hadn’t really understood the level of indentured servitude these guys are going through.
CN: Looking back at the years since the original film came out, how do you think the appetite for nonfiction storytelling has changed?
MS: Oh my gosh, well Americans finally woke up and realised it was a great way to watch movies and tell stories! It was fantastic. American audiences finally caught up with European audiences and suddenly you could see them on primetime television, thanks to HBO, Netflix and Showtime. There has been this great kind of normalisation and commodification of nonfiction which has been awesome. And I think that people finally saw that these can be as compelling, as entertaining, as rich a tapestry as a scripted project. And that’s been fantastic for filmmakers, period. No matter where you are around the world it’s been fantastic for nonfiction filmmakers. And I think that it continues to grow. We’re in this amazing time for television now where I don’t think there has been better television being made. I don’t think there has been a time where there has been better nonfiction being made. So it is a golden age across the board I feel now.
CN: What are your plans for Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken? I understand the gap that you’ve had and why you’ve had this gap. Are you able to pick up the momentum of where you left off in your plans to tackle the chicken industry?
MS: Well, luckily on the heels of the film opening up we did a pop up of the Holy chicken restaurant in NYC. We had an investor group who came on who wanted to get behind the restaurant and turn them into permanent locations. So the goal is to continue to use the momentum of the film and the momentum of the story to start to open these locations which continue to tell a conversation to folks. The film does a great job of opening the door. These people getting to actually sit in a restaurant and actually meet their chicken farmer and eat a sandwich and understanding in a deeper level where that food is coming from is transformative. So the more that I can slowly roll these out around the country will be amazing. And I think we can still do that.
CN: And what would be your best outcome for this in terms of the chicken industry?
MS: The goal from the beginning and the goal moving forward is if I can create more independent chicken farmers – right now one percent of the chicken we buy in the United States comes from independent chicken farmers – 99 percent comes from these giant mega chicken corporations. So, if I can create one percent more independent chicken farmers; so they are not under the thumb of Tyson, Purdue, Cook Food, Sanderson, then that’s a pretty great accomplishment. So, for me it’s how can I empower more of those guys to not feel stuck in these situations where they are not making a living, not making any money, living hundreds sometimes millions of dollars in debt, then I think we’ll be on the right track.
CN: Finally I wanted to ask you a little bit about what it’s like for you now not having the big production company. What’s it like for you moving now more freely, whether or not you would have liked the circumstances behind which it came about?
MS: Yeah well it’s another one of those things where it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because suddenly, as you said, to not have all that infrastructure and have to deal with the support to make payroll for 65 people every two weeks – that’s a stressful, stressful burden. For that suddenly to be gone is awesome. But at the same time to kind of lose that support system of development, of production, of editorial, so suddenly it goes back to being a one man band…I’m literally back to my roots, what do I want to do, what stories do I want to tell? It’s great but to go from a place where I can chase so many different things at once, it’s hard to kind of go back to thinking I can now only chase one or two things at a time.
CN: Because you are a personal documentary maker, have you thought about doing any kind of personal film around the #MeToo movement?
MS: I’ve been asked by a few different folks about doing that, and it’s something that…you know, I’ve been approached but nothing has made me want to tell that story right now. There are other things I’d rather talk about.
SUPER SIZE ME 2: HOLY CHICKEN! is released on iTunes and On Demand from 9th December 2019
Over the last decade producer Elhum Shakerifar has established herself as a vital voice in the world of international documentary, working with a range of directors on highly acclaimed films, including A Syrian Love Story and Almost Heaven. She has won numerous awards including the 2016 BFI Vision award and the 2017 Women in Film & TV’s BBC Factual Award; she was also named one of Screen International’s 2018 #Brit50 Producers on the Rise. As she explains below, Elhum is an outspoken advocate of the need to challenge mainstream narrative and to bring quieter voices to the big screen. I sent Elhum a number of questions about her work – her written answers are printed here in full.
Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be a documentary producer?
I have been making films for about 10 years and came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in a community centre with unaccompanied minors (young refugees who are separated from their families).
The first film I produced was about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara – The Runner (2015) by Saeed Taji Farouky. I actually became involved in the film out of sheer surprise that I didn’t know anything about The Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is the last colony in Africa, under Moroccan occupation since 1975. I thought that making a film about a territory most people have never heard of – by design – would be the most challenging part of the equation. But I was wrong – it was showing the finished film that was a bigger problem. We were told informally several times that the film “couldn’t possibly be screened”, some screenings were complicated by complaints from the Moroccan embassy, etc. This first experience already underlined that the biggest challenge is being seen and being understood on your own terms – whether as filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, or filmmakers making work that challenges the mainstream understanding of things, which is dictated by the loudest voices.
Making The Runner was in many ways my baptism of fire. I thought that things should be simpler after all the learning of that experience – how wrong I was! I have since produced films all over the world – in Yemen, in Nepal, in Syria, in Japan, in the UK. They each have their distinct worlds, issues and surprises. The one thing that unites all of my work, I believe, is that I am interested in the quieter voice, the untold side of the story. And sadly, it has not become easier to do that work – which really says something about the world we live in.
How do you decide to take on a project? What do you look for in stories? Can you give some examples?
I only work on films that mean something to me – there needs to be a strong personal reason and drive to getting involved in a film, because that determination will be key in carrying you through from conception to the finish line, from the good days to the bad. The creative process is a vulnerable one, and it is important to know why you are engaging in that space, even if just for yourself.
I would say that I’m a director’s producer – I work with people whose vision I understand, admire and want to bring to fruition. Shared vision and teamwork enables the strongest films to be made – teams make films. And so it is also important to work with people who you can have a cup of tea or an ice cream with and really talk things through, talk things out.
For example, Sean McAllister, who I have now made three films with, had been filming in Syria for some time when we first met. The footage he showed me was unlike anything I had seen coming out of the country, and his relationship with the family was intense, direct, and also complicated – just like human relationships really are. I respected this directness and honesty, and it is something that I value in our relationship as collaborators as well.
How has the documentary industry changed over the years you have been working? Is it easier or more difficult to get your films made? How has distribution changed?
I would say that reality TV and celebrity documentary biopics have all but destroyed the mainstream understanding of documentary, and have certainly changed the dynamic of making non-fiction. The prominence of these films have also made variety in documentary filmmaking styles difficult – the space for creativity, to stray from format and ‘known’ values much more challenging. The space for newer voices to emerge on their own terms is essentially impossible without external support (read: trust fund) to enable years of unpaid and never adequately funded work.
The documentaries I have made to date have all been fairly unknown entities at the start of the process. I enjoy the layered space of the documentary journey, rather than contrived formats where you know what you’re going to do and say from the beginning. In the absence of partners who will get involved early and share a creative risk with you, to really develop documentary work, I would say that no: things are not getting easier.
I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms?
Finally, I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms? To my mind, the art of non-fiction filmmaking is in holding a mirror up to the world. There is undeniable value in longitudinal, artistic, unexpected, creative, divergent and diverse approaches. We must see things from different perspectives to better understand the world, but also to challenge ourselves. If we valued the variety of mirrors, of voices and the range that non-fiction can represent – we would be living in a very different world today.
What are the biggest challenges for the films you produce? Do women face particular challenges?
There is a vulnerability to making films that is seldom talked about, and that makes every film into a distinct struggle – creatively and financially. As an independent producer, it is a challenge to take the risk of jumping into a film, time and again – in knowledge that you will be carrying that risk alone for a long time before anyone else shoulders it with you.
My biggest challenge right now is understanding how we are going to challenge the industry’s in-built elitism. How can I keep – ethically, and realistically – producing so called ‘diverse’ filmmakers, in particular people who do not come from an affluent background? How can we possibly expect people with no fall back to take on the level of risk and uncertainty that a documentary requires? How can I ensure that people don’t feel more disempowered by the status quo, when it is exactly these voices that I want to hear? There is some good work being done out there, but I have been struggling with this question a lot recently – I don’t need any more training, accolades or schemes – I need cash funding to pay highly competent people properly.
Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
And yes – women face particular challenges, most importantly to my mind, of not being taken seriously. When I first started working in the industry, people always assumed “Elhum” was a man’s name– sometimes to the point of telling me “no, I’m waiting for someone else”. I have been asked on numerous occasions whether I would like for a male colleague to corroborate my decision. I have been asked by Sales Agents whether I am dating filmmakers whose work I produce. I am currently developing work with a male and female co-directing team – nine times out of ten, people pivot to talk to the man to ask questions about the film, regardless of who had been speaking in the first place. The inability to dissociate women’s gender from their work is a burden placed on women by others. There is great work being done and some good spokespeople but let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.
Can you discuss one of the projects you are most proud of, and why?
I am proud of all the films I have produced – the (often long) journeys of making them really are woven into my life, and I sometimes revisit them like I might old photo albums. The people in the films we’ve made become like distant relatives – you share some sort of genetic information and oscillate in and out of contact depending on the order of the world.
A good recent example, however, would be Island by Steven Eastwood. Island follows four individuals to the end of their lives, including one, Alan, who you see breathing until he doesn’t breathe anymore. When I first met Steven, I was already juggling quite a lot and certainly wasn’t planning of getting involved in another film, but the visceral connection I had to his idea of giving an image to death – a reality that we all too often turn away from – was something I had to listen to. I truly believe Island to be a film of distinct, bold beauty. I have seen it countless times, but it still mesmerises me, as if it had its own magnetic field. I am incredibly proud of having produced it, and I am moved every time it is screened. I am proud to know that it is a film that has challenged and helped many people reflect on death and dying – we still receive emails and messages to this effect, particularly from people as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one, or reflect on the death of someone close. Challenging the silence around death was important to me on a personal level, but I am also proud of the relationships we build with the hospice where the film was shot (Mountbatten, on the Isle of Wight), with the families of the beautiful individuals in the film. We are currently developing pilot toolkits for the film to be used for training NHS junior doctors and nurses – this was a tangential outcome, but really underlines how far a film can travel when a story is told with intent.
How many projects do you have on the go at the moment, and what work of yours can we look forward to seeing soon?
Making creative documentaries is an all encompassing, all consuming reality. Whilst you might develop several ideas at once, I have learnt (the hard way!) that it’s too much to be involved in full production of too many films at once. You never known how long a film might take – A Syrian Love Story ended up being made over six years; Even When I Fall over seven. And once the film is finished – its festival journey, distribution, future…the full span of a film’s life is long. When you make documentaries, you’re also working with real human beings, whose life you have depicted in a moment in time, but the relationship exists far beyond the film. Does your responsibility to that representation ever end?
At the moment, I am developing a few exciting projects with emerging directors Ana Naomi de Sousa and Omar El-Khairy, as well as working on new ideas with Steven Eastwood, and Sean McAllister, which I look forward to sharing more information about in due course. I am currently putting finishing touches on a film called Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, which reflects on forcible disappearance in Syria through the prism of families searching for their loved ones. We began making the film five years ago, after Father Paolo, the subject of a film we were making at the time, was forcibly disappeared in Raqqa. We still have no concrete or reliable information of Paolo’s fate, though the Italian press have recently been reporting on new evidence that would suggest he was killed shortly after he was disappeared. The film depicts his sister Machi’s search for him, alongside that of Noura Ghazi, lawyer and wife of Syrian Creative Commons developer and hacker Bassel Safadi, who disappeared in 2014.
On the curation side, this July will see the return of Shubbak, the festival of contemporary Arab culture, for which I have once again curated the film programme at the Barbican (it runs 3-7th July) around the thematic of generational change in an exciting programme of films from Algeria to Tunisia, and a focus on Arab-British directors, a hyphenated identity that is rarely discussed in these terms, which is in itself quite interesting.
How do you think the industry will change in the next few years?
I don’t know, but one thing I hope for is greater support for producers. Receiving the BFI Vision Award in 2016 was a game-changer for me – it gave me an insight into what working with a secure overhead could be like, it enabled me to develop new work from scratch and so to champion projects that were too malleable and raw to be pitched to funders before being more fully developed. Essentially: to be supported to take risks. It also positioned me amongst my peers – most of whom work with fiction exclusively – which also gave me a lot of insights into the bigger picture, broader industry. The way that I see it, documentary hardly has a place at the table.
I also think that there is a discussion around mental health that needs to be had in relation to both creative processes, and the industry. I found this recent Filmmaker Magazine article “Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession” painfully pertinent, and have seldom seen this addressed in a meaningful way. There are so many complex questions that need to be discussed, that would challenge the reality of this profession as a particularly lonely and complex space. Should independent producers be supported to be more mobile and visible in a dense and competitive international space? When do you pay for someone’s time – taking part in panels, hosting events, imparting wisdom in other ways? Should there be budget lines for therapy worked into complex projects? Shouldn’t the ‘aftercare’ for subjects of complex films be the responsibility of all film partners, and not just the filmmakers? I could go on. Rebecca Day is doing interesting work in this space, having recently set up Film in Mind and offering tailored therapeutic workshops, support and consultancy.
I know you also do an impressive amount of work outside of producing creative documentaries, including film programming, translation and publishing. What underpins all the work that you do, and does your other work inform your doc producing?
I would say that all my work looks to challenge a mainstream narrative. In the film world, I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed. I crossed into distribution space after producing A Syrian Love Story and realising that if nobody inherently saw the ‘value’ of the film, that we would have to create the conditions for it to be understood – our self-devised release strategy enabled a reach of over two million people in the UK in the month of release alone.
Perhaps the film’s framing and visibility was so important to me because I had spent a decade working in a community centre with young refugees – in the years directly following the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. I think that all the different hats and spaces I’ve occupied – from translating Persian poetry, to producing photography (and even once upon a time, a band!) – have contributed to how I understand the world, and to the work I am doing today.
I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed.
I think there is real value in this kind of cross pollination, and don’t believe that everything needs to necessarily follow a certain pattern or format. I remember walking around Paris’s empty streets on a hot August day (I grew up in Paris), wondering what I should do after school. I was drawn to the postcards outside a bookstore – one was a stunning piece of Arabic calligraphy, in brilliant blue. Its meaning was a saying by Lao Tseu “Le parfait voyageur ne sait pas où il va” – meaning, a good traveller doesn’t know where they are headed.That postcard (by an Iraqi calligrapher called Hassan Massoudy) has been up on my wall ever since. I interpreted it then as having the confidence to not always know the exact answers. This doesn’t mean not having plans or goals, but being open to enjoy the journeys that life takes you on, to see the opportunities as they present themselves. Similarly, Rebecca Solnit has written about getting lost in a way that reminds me of the creative process. (Apart from the fact that I have a terrible sense of direction ) I think it says a lot about why I make the films I make.
You can learn more about Elhum’s work on www.hakawati.co.uk. Shubbak’s film programme runs 3-7th July at Barbican – for more info about the line up, and the whole festival, see https://shubbak.co.uk
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.'”
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…