British documentary Sean McAllister is known for launching himself into foreign lands, often in the midst of war, and finding unforgettable personal stories. Whether it’s via a piano player in Baghdad, a postal worker in Japan, Sean’s own “minders” in Iraq, these are stories of ordinary people – though always strong characters – struggling to survive in an often unkind world. Sean’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is perhaps his best yet. It begins as a very local story about Amer and Raghda, a couple who met as political prisoners in Syria and went on to have four sons together. When Sean is arrested with footage of them in his camara, the family has to abruptly flee to Lebanon, and the film turns into a larger story about lives in exile. Sean continues to follow them as they struggle to find solid footing, not least in their marriage, whilst watching a deteriorating Syria from afar.
I spoke to Sean a few days before the film’s world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and he explained a bit about the circuitous way the film was made:
It’s been a long time in the making. Is this your longest project?
Yes, it’s a labour of love, isn’t it? It didn’t get commissioned. That’s why it went on and on and on. I suppose the interesting side of it is that I’d given up on it actually. Then Matt Scholes, who graduated from Sheffield University film school, read an interview with me about it, and contacted me and said rather than working in the industry I’d like to edit this material of yours. I said I’ve given up on it – it’s not happening. And he said, well let me just have a look at it. And he went off for three months and started cutting it together and got me excited again. So I went off filming again because of him.
That’s amazing. At what point had you given up on it?
I gave up on it so many times. But the most significant point probably was two years ago, when I finished my Yemen film. I took off from Syria and went to Yemen and made The Reluctant Revolutionary. Nick (Fraser, of BBC Storyville) had sort of wanted a film from Syria. I gave him the Yemen film. I think he felt after the Yemen film and post Arab spring that it wasn’t so interesting to have an Arab spring film again…So he then sent me off to Greece to make a film. So I used the development money in Greece to fly off to Lebanon to film them, with the development money from Greece.
There’s no Greece film, huh?
There’s no Greece film. But like at the beginning, when I wanted to go to Syria and couldn’t get Syria commissioned, they sent me to Dubai. So I used the Dubai development to go to Damascus. So where there’s a will there’s a way. At the end of the day Nick saw there was nothing happening in Greece, and I was very passionate about this. And by then it wasn’t Arab spring; it was a different story. The arc of it had changed over the course of five years; it became a story of exile. It became something a bit more unusual because of the time frame. And this was all possible because Matt had got on board to construct the material, so we had stuff to show. And then when the BBC came on board, we pitched to the BFI. It’s perfect for a BFI pitch because they need to see what they’re getting into. And we had certain scenes cut, and they were excited.
The family’s story arc changed thanks to you, probably in a more direct way than has previously happened in your films.
I just came back from the border, screening the film with Raghda, and one of my questions (in preparation for post screening Q&As) was did she blame me for life today? Because I got arrested and they were all thrown into exile….And she laughed and said “I cried when you were arrested, I cried for you. The only people I blame in any of this are the regime.”
A Syrian Love Story has its world premiere screenings 7 and 9 June at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It will then be playing at festivals internationally and following a cinema release will be broadcast on BBC Storyville in early 2016.
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…
As promised, here are more of my favourites from the films I’ve already seen, and written about, for Sheffield Doc/Fest:
An acclaimed filmmaker from a young age, Solveig Melkeraaen Is used to being in control of her life in Norway. When she is felled by a serious depression, which sees her undergoing electroshock therapy treatment in a psychiatric institute, she turns the camera on herself, in an attempt to take back control. In this intimate and brave exploration of depression, we follow her on the road to recovery, as she teases out the reasons for her breakdown – a journey which sees her trying to puncture the stigma and silence that so often accompanies mental illness. Surrounded by her supportive siblings and loving partner, Solveig seems to be well on her way to recovery — until a relapse threatens her fragile progress. Unflinching, blackly funny, and beautifully filmed – with highly stylised dramatic sequences – Good Girl breaks new boundaries in autobiographical filmmaking, and shines a light on how this devastating illness weaves its destructive path.
3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets
It became known in America as the “loud music trial”. In an encounter which lasted a scant three and a half minutes, a middle aged white man named Mike Dunn repeatedly fired into a car of unarmed black teenagers, after they refused to turn down their rap music, killing 17 year old Jordan Davis. Now the case has come to trial, and the nation is watching. Dunn’s attorney is using Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law to argue self defence. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, in which a white man walked free in Florida after gunning down an unarmed teenager, tensions are running high. Director Marc Silver skilfully weaves a compelling narrative through beautifully shot courtroom scenes, interviews with the victim’s parents and friends, and shocking telephone conversations between incarcerated Dunn and his distraught fiancee. A riveting look at a flawed legal system in a country where race relations are balanced on a knife’s edge.
Orion: The Man Who Would Be King
As a teenager in 1960s Alabama, Jimmy Ellis’ wonderful singing voice was unlike any other. Except, that is, for one Elvis Presley. Hampered by his over-resemblance to the King, Jimmy’s own singing career floundered. Then, in 1979 he found fame as a masked singer called “Orion”, a persona deliberately evolved to create intrigue in the wake of Presley’s death. Over the next years he played to legions of grieving Elvis fans, and developed his own fanatical fan base, many of whom remained in wilful denial about the true identity of their idol. With his contract stipulating he never remove his mask in public, Ellis’ success came at a high price for the singer still hoping to succeed on his own terms. Jeanie Finlay’s nuanced portrait of Ellis serves as a riveting cautionary tale of the music industry, and a memorable exploration of identity.
Best of Enemies
The year is 1968 – one of the most turbulent in 20th century America. The three television networks are competing for supremacy of the airwaves in the run up to the presidential election. Lagging a distant third, ABC takes an audacious punt, and schedules a series of head to head debates during the Republican and Democratic conventions. Duking it out were two heavyweight thinkers – the rightwing William F. Buckley Jr and the liberal Gore Vidal. Buckley saw Vidal as a moral degenerative; Vidal considered Buckley’s views to be dangerously anti-democratic. Both recognized the power of television in the changing media landscape, and soon a nation was transfixed. Robert Gordon and Academy award-winning director Morgan Neville bring an abundance of fantastic archive, and interviews with cultural commentators – including the late great Christopher Hitchens – to tell the story of a famously acidic rivalry which would endure for decades.
Alden is an ambitious Wall Street psychologist, while Rochelle struggles as a carer on a zero hours contract and Keith tries to make sense of his life behind bars, as a result of Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Through their stories, and four others, Katharine Round humanises the bleak fact that growing inequality is driving a terrible wedge through modern society. Jumping back and forth in time, and between characters and experts, this is an engrossing, cinematic, thought-provoking essay which flags up some root causes of today’s societal woes – and raises disturbing questions about the future. Inspired by the best-selling book The Spirit Level, The Divide demonstrates the terrible impact that decades of misguided economic decisions is having on modern lives – and the truth behind the adage that money can’t buy happiness.
In this double Sundance winner, Matthew Heineman takes us deep into the world of Mexican drug cartels by embedding himself with two vigilante groups on either side of the US-Mexico border. Camouflaged to help spy on drug runners, veteran Tim Foley is a man who wears his hard past on his face. Meanwhile, across the Rio Grande, surgeon Dr. Jose Mireles looks straight out of central casting, with chiselled features and a prominent moustache. As head of the Autodefansas, he is leading a group of men determined to obliterate the region’s most dangerous drug cartel, the Knights Templar. Heineman repeatedly places himself in harm’s way, filming the chaos as the group begin taking over towns – in so doing adapting many of the violent tactics of the drug lords they’re trying to overpower. A visceral journey into North America’s heart of darkness, Cartel Land will be talked about for years to come.
Here is my Doc/Fest write-up. I’ve also written about the making of this film in another post:
Brenda is a mesmerising woman who has overcome a horrific life on the streets of Chicago. She now has a singular focus: to help other women do the same. Kim Longinotto follows Brenda in her day job, counselling incarcerated prostitutes and at-risk teenagers, and at night as Brenda takes to a van to provide brief respite to women from the watchful eyes of controlling pimps. Brenda’s ever-changing array of wigs are testimony to the many facets of her character, as she shifts between champion, motivational speaker, sympathetic ear and confessor. As often is the case in Longinotto’s films, the presence of the camera stirs many to speak up about their blighted lives in powerfully moving scenes. Made with longtime editor Ollie Huddleston, Dreamcatcher is an electrifying contribution to Longinotto’s life work documenting women’s attempt to recast themselves in a world dominated by men – and a devastating insight into America’s urban underclass.
How to Change the World
The idea was simple: send a boat to bear witness, in the Quaker tradition, at the scene of a crime. When journalist turned environmentalist Bob Hunter carried out this plan, with a handful of other peaceniks, an ecological revolution was born. How to Change the World takes us through the eventful early years of Greenpeace, from hiring a fishing boat to sail into nuclear testing waters in 1971, to the establishment of Greenpeace International in 1979. Director Jerry Rothwell’s confident, breezy and layered style suits the group itself – an unlikely collection of mystics and mechanics. The huge media interest they attracted from their first save-the-whale-mission thrust the group into the international limelight, and fractures quickly developed. Rich archive and animation is interwoven with outspoken and sometimes conflicting interviews with Greanpeace founders, including Sea Shephard head Paul Watson, who admits he never bought into the “bear witness” ethos.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After releasing his film A Jihad for Love, exploring Islam and homosexuality, Parvez Sharma is a marked man, having been publicly labelled an infidel. But Sharma is unwilling to give up the faith that has been overshadowed by extremists. “Oh Prophet: Is there a place in Islam for sinners like me?” he asks – and decides to go in search of the answer. Leaving his husband behind in New York, he journeys to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage, considered the greatest accomplishment within Islam. With filming forbidden and homosexuality punishable by death, he films surreptitiously on his IPhone. He follows thousands of pilgrims through garbage-filled streets, and from the holiest of sites, the Kaaba, through to the air-conditioned Starbucks 700 metres away. Throughout, Sharma weaves a thoughtful meditation on modern Islam that is also a brave and moving autobiographical documentary.
Excited at having landed a place at the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark’s elation evaporated when she was raped before classes began. She is far from alone: studies show that 20% of women will suffer a sexual attack at university. In a masterful, wide-ranging investigation, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering present dozens of testimonials detailing how universities of every shape and size collude to cover up sexual crimes on their campuses, creating an ideal “hunting ground” for serial offenders. Fear of damaging their reputation – and enrolment – drives shocking behaviour throughout the universities, with the fraternity and athletic communities covering up the most grievous assaults. For many victims, the institutional denial proves even more painful than the crime itself. But hope is in sight as Annie and other victims begin to fight back through the courts, hitting universities where it hurts – by threatening their revenue streams.
In this multi-award winning companion piece to The Act of Killing, filmed before its release, Joshua Oppenheimer further explores the terrible legacy of the Indonesian genocide fifty years ago, this time through the lens of one family. Adi was born in 1968, two years after his brother Ramli was slaughtered in front of many eyewitnesses. Now an optometrist, Adi lives with his elderly parents and his children. Not only does he live under the ongoing rules of his brother’s killers, he has to listen to his children regurgitate the propaganda which led to the slaughter, and is still being perpetuated in schools. Adi decides to confront some of the murderers, who are surprised when his questions are more intense than Oppenheimer’s. His breaking of the silence leads to some electrifying scenes, in a film where the beauty of the Indonesian landscape belies the bone chilling horrors carried out there in the name of democracy.
Amer met Ragda, when both were locked up in a Syrian jail for speaking out against an oppressive regime. Twenty years and four sons later, filmmaker Sean McAllister comes into their lives, as Amer is waiting for Ragda, who has once again been imprisoned. When she is unexpectedly released, the family is overjoyed – they need her, particularly three year-old Bob. McAllister and his subjects’ lives become irrevocably intertwined when McAllister himself is jailed, and footage of the family is confiscated. Amer and Ragda must flee overnight to Lebanon, with nothing but their children. McAllister follows their story over five turbulent years, as they struggle to find their feet as refugees; Ragda in particular can’t bear to be away from Syria in its hour of greatest need. As they watch Syria descend into chaos, they struggle to repair their troubled relationship. A powerful, moving story of family and exile from one of the UK’s most talented independent filmmakers.
A loner from an early age, Thomas Quick went on to become Sweden’s most notorious serial killer, openly confessing to the gruesome murders of more than 30 people. Held for decades in a psychiatric institute, Quick’s confessions emerged after years working with a group of touchy feely therapists, convinced that the recovery of memories would cure patients of their criminality. In a country with a low crime rate, the nation watched with horror as Quick’s confessions mounted, accounting for many of the country’s unsolved murders. With testimonials from a range of people whose lives have been dominated by this story – including Quick himself – and dramatic reenactment, Brian Hill weaves a stylish noir thriller that works a treat on the big screen. What appears at first to be a tale of unimaginable evil evolves into something much more layered as Hill digs deep into the motivations behind those working closely with Quick.
Lured away from Sheffield Doc/Fest, where he was Deputy Director and ran the extremely successful MeetMarket, Charlie Phillips is now the new Head of Documentaries at the Guardian. As a huge Guardian and documentary fan it’s a job that sounds pretty good to me. But as newspapers aren’t normally in the business of commissioning documentaries, I went to the Guardian to find out more about what Charlie’s up to:
Head of Documentaries is a new position. How was it pitched to you and what are you doing with it?
I was recruited because the Guardian wants to make a push into documentaries. We’ve always had a lot of video on the website and made lots of video. Sometimes that has been documentaries, but more often it has been news and current affairs, or sometimes virals. This is a very specific thing – pushing into documentary proper. The basis for doing that is that documentary is increasingly popular. It’s being regarded in an institution like this as a really great way of doing journalism, of getting people to reflect on the news and absorb new information and be surprised. People here think that documentary is doing that better than any other art form, which of course I agree with.
I was approached to work out what we should be doing with documentaries, and then commission lots of docs for our website and also ideally our YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook platforms — in terms of commissioning documentaries for “the Guardian” that basically means for all of our platforms. So that is my remit, basically, to get the Guardian known for supporting documentary. It’s been four months now. We’ve started commissioning them and getting them out. We’re not at the point where we have one going out every week but we aren’t a million miles away from that. We’ve got a lot of possibilities, a lot of irons in the fire. The ones we’ve put out already have done very well. So there’s definitely a hunger there.
How are you commissioning? Are you doing it through contacts or is there an open process?
It’s primarily through contacts at the moment, and obviously through people directly approaching me. From my time in Sheffield I know lots of people; I know the documentary industry. So it’s not that hard for me to reach out to them. I’ve also been doing talks and have been to a lot of festivals. The word is generally out that we’ve been commissioning docs, and the films have been going out as well…Maybe once we’re up and running and have everything going out we might have some section on the side which says how you pitch to us. I’m very aware I’m not connected to everyone.
How does it work in terms of Guardian journalism? Is anything driven initially by print or are you just free to go where you like, content-wise?
We’re pretty free to commission anything regardless to what is happening in the rest of the building. And it’s very important that the video leads. What we want is for people to watch documentaries on our website regardless of whether there’s a tie in to anything else. That has to be the first thing…Although we’ve always had a lot of video up, it’s not always been that easy to find, and has not been done as consistently as we would have liked. So we have not really built up that audience like we could have done. That’s our ultimate priority – get really good stuff up there and get people watching it, and maybe don’t worry so much what other people in the building are doing. With that said, there are some subjects that are so brilliant and are such a focus of the organisation that we will coordinate, and we will commission a doc, and someone will write a piece, we might do a podcast, and we might do a data led explainer.
Can you give me an example?
We did a big focus on the Guantanamo Diaries. That wasn’t one that I was directly involved with, because it is more news than documentaries anyway. But it’s a good example. So there was coordination across publishing the diaries, a really beautiful animated doc that my colleague Laurence (Topham) made, there were readings from famous people which went out in the audio department. That kind of thing can be great but it’s not practical to do week after week.
It must be very labour-intensive too — and has to be the right type story I would imagine.
Yes, it has to be the right kind of thing. And also the kind of things I’m doing, they are not news videos. We have a separate news commissioner who does news. So I am looking for things which are maybe reflective and story led, not necessarily things that the writers here are going to want to write about. It needs to feel contemporary and relevant now but that doesn’t necessarily make it news.
Can you give me another example?
If I Die on Mars was a film about three people who want to be on the first manned mission to Mars – the Mars 1 program. And that did really well for a number of reasons. One of them was people didn’t really know about the Mars One programme. It had been reported a bit but it was quite under-reported. We knew it would intrigue people. It’s from a production company called Stateless Media, a guy called Peter Savodnik. He was quite clever – he framed it in terms of why do these people want to leave earth on a one way mission, that is effectively a suicide mission. It’s quite a melancholy piece, so it had that human element.
Another thing that we have coming up in a totally different way is we’re doing a version of They Will Have to Kill Us First, which is a new film by Together Films about music being banned in Mali a few years ago. So this is effectively what happened since the ban – and the human effects on these amazing musicians. It is also about Mali music becoming very popular at the moment.
Presumably you are aiming at people on tablets and phones – is there an ideal length you go for?
It definitely has to be under 15 minutes. Generally things are going to be the 10-12 minute mark. You could say that is quite long for online – the wisdom is that people don’t concentrate for more than 30 seconds. But we’re doing things which are very story and/or character led. So I really feel like if it hooks you in from the start, and it takes you on a journey, and it looks beautiful, and you feel like you’ve had an experience watching it, you will stick and watch it. And if people don’t watch the whole thing but they watch five minutes but really like those five minutes, that’s okay as well. You can’t assume everyone is going to watch the whole thing, but as long as a good proportion do, and also as long as they share it and tell other people about it — it’s about building up the audience.
It’s a tough model.
It’s a new model and a form a lot of filmmakers aren’t acquainted with. So it’s hard graft getting something going out…It’s not a grammar that to be honest loads of filmmakers understand, because they are used to a longer form. And that’s fine because that’s been their main thing. But increasingly people are going to have to learn how to make something that is shorter and is going to work online and get attention. It’s a medium that people should use more. But it’s different. In the same way that doing something for TV is different than the cinema – it’s a different art form.
Do you have a model that you are following from other newspapers or media?
The two big influences are definitely the New York Times in the sense of doing short documentaries, working with filmmakers, having a commitment to high quality docs, and not doing any random old thing. Vice are definitely an inspiration, especially in terms of how they’ve built up that audience. Which they’ve done very cleverly, working across different platforms.
What kind of budgets are we talking?
The range is anywhere from at the lower end, a low point of £1000 if we are acquiring ten minutes or just chopping ten minutes with very little editing, up to an original commission that we really really want where it’s all being shot up front in a far off country, then it can be up to like £8-10,000. Most things at the moment will be something in the middle of that range. We’re doing both original short commissions and cut downs of longer docs.
March’s South by Southwest in Austin will host the North American premiere of The Last Man On The Moon, a stirring biopic of astronaut Gene Cernan, which needs to be seen on the big screen. In the film, Cernan looks back on his eventful life, and the highs and lows of being one of the first NASA astronauts – and the ensuing decades in the media spotlight.
Having sold out its world premiere screenings at Sheffield Doc/Fest, where it proved one of the most popular films, The Last Man on the Moon is sure to draw a great deal of interest when screening in Cernan’s home state of Texas. British director Mark Craig is a regular guest speaker for my documentary film students. They always are particularly moved by his short Grierson-award winning film, Talk to Me, where he tells the story of his life through twenty years of answering machine messages.
Last time Mark spoke to my class, I grabbed him for a few minutes to talk about The Last Man on the Moon:
What was it like getting Cernan on board?
It was tough, because you’re talking about a guy who’s at an elderly stage of life. He had had so many cameras shoved in his face for so many years, and asked the same questions again and again and again. He didn’t really feel the need to invest so much of his time on a project, I’m assuming. But we slowly managed to convince him that we wanted to do this in a much more vivid and immersive and emotive way. I didn’t want to dwell on all the history of the science and all the other stuff — I just wanted his personal story. And he began to see it as a legacy that he could offer up to future generations that weren’t around when he did go to the moon, or weren’t even born today.
What was he like to work with when he did come on board?
He is the most dynamic, energetic charismatic old man – if I can call him that – that I ever worked with. His energy levels were incredible. The filming day can be a very long one, and it starts before the sun comes up. He was a real trooper – he gave and gave and gave, of his time, of his energy, of his emotion and of his access.
The film has really stunning cinematography. Can you talk a little about the visual approach to making it?
Because we always knew that it would be a cinema documentary, I was always keen to get a cinematographer with movie credits, and a movie approach more than anything. I wanted it to really work on the screen. I had seen Tim Cragg‘s work in another documentary, at a previous Sheffield Doc/Fest. I could see he had great movement with the camera. He could really follow the action and had a great fluid panning style. Straight away he was just cinematic, and I thought he’s the man for me.
Was it liberating making a film without television money?
It was. In TV there is a lot of guiding and steering and mentoring from the channel, from the execs, to make it fit the remit of that channel. You’re always serving the requirements of that channel, of that slot, the ad sales, etc. So it was very liberating to be free of that and just be faithful to the story, and the character and tell that story in the most interesting and engaging way that one could. We didn’t know where it was going to end up, we just wanted to make it as pure a film as possible.
Who has funded it?
It was a mixture of private investors. A lot of whom came from contacts that our executive, Mark Stewart knew. Without him and his company MSP getting involved in the project I’m not sure the film would have ever happened. Certainly not at the scale it ended up being. After we then had a rough cut which we then began showing to people in the space community, a couple more investors emerged who were very keen to make sure it got finished to the standard we wanted it to be.
It’s got some great archive. Can you tell what it was like plowing through all the sometimes iconic space archive from the 60s?
The thing about Apollo and going to the moon, it was very well documented at the time. Hundreds of hours was shot over a whole decade. And a lot of that was being used in many other documentaries. But we didn’t want to just rehash the same old second or third generation stuff you see on TV. It was fantastic to be able to discover stuff that we hadn’t known of before, and that meant a lot of research, going through logs and liaising with NASA’s archive, and then a lot of time was spent making sure that archive was beautifully transferred and graded and woven with the stuff that we shot along with some animation and visual effects. So hopefully it’s a very rich mix of material to view and tell the story.
What’s been the most exciting moment related to LMOTM for you so far?
I so enjoyed the process of meeting some of these legendary characters. Inevitably there comes that moment where you take your film and show it to an audience for the very first time. And that’s always a big moment of excitement and nervousness. It just so happened that the first time we showed the film was on the occasion of Gene Cernan’s 80th birthday, and a surprise party was organised by his family. And we the filmmakers were invited to be part of that. So we all assembled at the Johnson space center in Houston and showed our film. And in the audience was not only Gene Cernan and his entire family, but three guys who had walked on the moon, Jim Lovell of Apollo 13, flight director Gene Kranz, and some extremely top brass NASA management. I was thinking: ‘Oh God, I really hope we’ve got everything right’. Thankfully they gave it the thumbs up and were quite moved by the film, and were glad that it had been made. We left happy – that was a big night.
On a Sunday morning last June, the second day of the Sheffield Doc/Fest, a few dozen festival delegates showed up to watch two short films from Poland. With most of the rest of the festival either still in bed, or attending one of the many other offerings going on elsewhere, the large cinema had more empty seats than full. They don’t know what they were missing.
I was excited to be there to see the films and moderate the Q&A after the screening, and looking forward to meeting Aneta Kopacz, the director of Joanna, at 40 minutes, the longer of the two films. I had seen Joanna in my batch of films I watch as one of Doc/Fest’s previewers. In eight or so years of previewing, it was the film that has probably stood out the most. I had watched it on my IPad in bed, knowing nothing about it other than its title, and found myself gripped – and very moved. It’s a beautifully rendered portrait of a young woman dying of cancer, and trying to enjoy her last days with her husband and son. Although I learned later that the subject was a well-known blogger, that information to me was not important to the story which unfolded on screen, and I left it out of my write-up for the festival. It was simply a universal story of love and life, wondrously filmed by Ida cinematographer Łukasz Żal. When I met Aneta she was lovely and articulate about the film, but torn about the fact that she was missing her own young daughter’s birthday to discuss a film all about making the most of the short, precious time you have with your children.
The second film screening that morning, Our Curse, was a total unknown to me. Having met the director, Tomasz Śliwiński, briefly before the screening, I settled in only to find myself watching Tomasz and his wife on screen struggling through the shock of their infant son Leo being diagnosed with a serious incurable disorder. Any parent who has been launched into the horrifying world of a sick child will marvel at how Tomasz had the wherewithal to make it. It very much evokes the exhaustion and shock that dominate those early months, as they bring their son home and learn how to live together as a family very different than the one they had expected. It’s also a wonder of a film, beautifully made, and humbling to watch.
Although they were made very differently – one purely observational, the second autobiographical – both films reflect profound, universal themes – and are crafted with artistry and sensitivity. They are my favourite kind of films. During the Q&A afterwards, both filmmakers spoke movingly about their films, and the difficulties of filming in such emotional settings. I emerged from the session, as I’m sure others did, feeling I had experienced something really quite profound in this double bill of films probing at life, and wishing that more people could see them.
All these months later, I seem to have got my wish. To my amazement, both films have received Oscar nominations for short documentary. I was staggered when I heard – two Polish docs? This isn’t the foreign language category after all. But I’m delighted – and particularly pleased to see that the New York Times has made Our Curse available as part of its Op-Docs strand. Please watch it, and share. Films like these, which humanely honour life in all its messy wonder, deserve to be seen.
Disgusted at some of the tabloid shenanigans he undertook as a reporter on the Daily Star, and the paper’s ongoing anti-Muslim slant, Rich Peppiatt quit – only to find his resignation letter go viral. His departure coincided with an extraordinary period of scrutiny for the British press, as a scandal involving rampant phone hacking bled into the drawn out Leveson Inquiry. Four years on, and Peppiatt has made a documentary poking at the British tabloid press, and the culture which he claims all too often allows truth to be jettisoned for the sake of newsstand sales.
One Rogue Reporter is in the vein of documentary provocateurs like Michael Moore and The Yes Men – men pulling off outrageous comical exploits to make a larger point about injustice. In the film, Peppiatt conducts a series of stunts targeting some of the biggest names in the tabloid press – who Peppiatt found to be particularly egregious in their Leveson testimonies – including former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie and Mail Online editor Martin Clarke. Providing the commentary in between the capers are a range of interested parties, from the Guardian’s Nick Davies, who broke the hacking story, to actor Hugh Grant, a leader in the campaign for press reform. Combined with some brilliant Hollywood archive, it makes for a combination usually very difficult to achieve in documentary – entertaining and thought provoking. It’s a film marked clearly for the general population, aiming to make some serious points about press hypocrisies, while having some fun along the way. It seems to be succeeding – one fan has seen the film seven times since its world premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.
At a recent screening of the film at Somerset House, running as part of their Unorthodocs strand, it quickly became evident that Peppiatt gives good Q&A. Together he and co-director Tom Jenkinson kept the diverse audience entertained in a session lasting nearly as long as the film. Here’s what Peppiatt had to say about the making of it, and the unique, often poisonous climate of British tabloid journalism:
The whole Leveson inquiry was quite academic and insular – media types all navel gazing about their own industry. And we wanted to try to make a film that was a bit broader than that, that our mates down the pub who were not in the media would watch, because it’s got me putting a dildo on a bloke’s doorstep. So you can have a broader audience watching because it’s funny, and then along the way you can have stuff with hopefully some information. Like with kids where you put the peas in their mashed potato, or something.
There was a lot of interest (in broadcasting it), particularly from Channel 4. The cuts that they were going to need wouldn’t make it the same film. So we were like, well do we want a film which is a poor imitation of the one that is out at festivals, or do we want to give it a life online and things like that.
American fair use law is a lot more friendly than British fair use law, which is why the film is copyrighted in America, and our lawyers are American, and our company, Naughty Step productions, is based in Delaware.
It’s very difficult making documentaries to come out the back end and line your pockets. It’s a tough gig. But we never went into it to make money. We just wanted to make the film.
Every TV channel says, ‘we really want to do that stuff – punching up at the powerful’. And the minute you then say, ‘right this is what we are going to do’, they go – ‘you can’t do that’! News organisations are the same – they all say they want really strong stuff that is going after people.
We’re not worth suing, but news organisations and TV channels are a lot more cautious because they know they are worth suing. So it does make it difficult to do in a way that is sustainable for us, and allows us to make a living, and to be able to do the type of journalism that we want to do, at the same time, which is going hard, which isn’t pulling punches. We are working on it, but it is difficult to strike that balance.
We certainly had Murdoch in our sights initially. But every time you see Murdoch, you’d be outside his house, you’d get three Landrovers. He’s in the one in the middle and there are seven ex-Mossad blokes with huge necks surrounding him and hustling him into the house, and you go ‘at what moment there do I throw a dildo at him?’.
The Leveson Inquiry was a great opportunity in my mind. Journalists like to talk loudly about how they like speaking truth to power, and they are fearless and brave, and this that and the other. And in the inquiry, a once in a generation opportunity comes up to speak up…and say these are the things going on. And how many did? Very few – everyone kept their heads down and pretended everything was hunky dory. I thought that was very disappointing.
It’s a tough place to work on tabloid newspapers. And if you’re the sort of person who hangs around there for 20-30 years and crawls your way all the way to the top, I think you’ve got issues. You’re not going to be a very nice person.
The argument that the pound on the counter of the newsagent is the only moral answer we need doesn’t stand up. It’s not a logical argument. If I was to go out there and grab a paedophile and hang him up a lamp post on Westminster Bridge I would probably gather a massive crowd and people will cheer along. It will be quite popular. I’d make it a weekly event. Does it make it right? Well no because we are in a civilised society, just because people want something doesn’t mean we have to give it to them. That’s why we don’t have hard core porn on BBC1 at 6pm in the evening. Just because there is a market for crap doesn’t mean you want to take that crap and serve it up and call it journalism.
Tabloid is not a dirty word. I’m not anti tabloid. I don’t pretend I’m some veteran of Fleet Street. They’re not going to erect a statue of me. But this is my view of the industry during my time. I don’t pretend it’s the whole story and I know everything by any means.
What we’re planning at the moment is doing a film in America, following the 2016 election from the perspective of how TV covers it – being on the campaign with the press pack. From my research, the relationships that exist between people in politics high up in the Republican and Democratic party – are married to the news anchors – and the links are amazing showing just how close knit this world is. There is no holding power to account – the media political nexus of New York and Washington is so tight knit that the rest of America is really not served at all. We’re quite at the beginning of that journey.
One Rogue Reporter is available on ITunes, Amazon and Google Play – see the website for links.
I‘m delighted that Boyhood is getting some awards love. It’s one of my favourite films of the decade – watching it a second time on a transatlantic flight it again held me spellbound for nearly three hours. Like most people, its appeal lies mostly in watching its subjects age over twelve years – in this case actor Ellar Coltrane’s wondrous journey from a six year-old boy to a young man.
This on screen time-lapse is a pleasure I first encountered twenty some years ago, discovering Michael Apted’s Up series, which famously has been following the same documentary subjects since they were seven years old. They are now nearly 60. If you haven’t seen any of it, get thee to youtube for a sample (you might then want to binge watch the box set). It’s funny, and sad, and thought-provoking, and shows how film can make even the most ordinary of lives compelling. No wonder it topped a Channel 4 list of the greatest documentaries ever made – and led Roger Ebert to call the films “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium”.
In thirteen years of watching and writing about films for Sheffield Doc/Fest, I’ve seen scores of documentaries that travel back and forth in time in memorable ways. As most of us now have the potential to cut one together, thanks to the smartphone archive in our pocket, it’s worth paying attention to how footage shot over many years can be crafted into a work of art. Here’s a few of the best of the Doc/Fest films I’ve seen, together with my original write-up:
112 Weddings (Doug Block, 2014)
Despite being one of the U.S.’s most acclaimed documentary makers, Doug Block still needs his bread and butter work. For him, it’s weddings – in fact he’s filmed 112 of them over the last 20 years. In this engrossing doc he revisits some of the couples he has made wedding videos for, asking how they stay married – or didn’t, as the case may be. His long-standing relationship with his subjects fosters an easy intimacy and his follow-up interviews take on the veneer of a counselling session. The passage of time shines a torch on the many issues that can derail the happiest of couples, from mental illness to crying babies and infidelity, whilst Block’s wedding archive allows us to look back on their most optimistic of days. The film is funny, moving and often tragic – much like marriage itself.
We Went to War (Michael Grigsby, 2012)
In 1970, in the midst of a drawn out Vietnam War, a young British director Michael Grigsby made a film about three young veterans returning home. I Was a Soldier is an acclaimed classic – the first to depict the ravages of the war on soldiers considered to be home safe and sound. Forty years later, Grigsby and his co author Rebekah Tolley have made an equally powerful follow up, returning to Texas to see what has become of his three characters. In a visually arresting, contemplative style that suits the dusty small town locales, and creatively merges past and present, we learn just how much their war experience shaped their lives. Still unable to understand what they were fighting for, the scars run deep. Dennis has tried not to be defined by his experience, but is unable to form lasting attachments. It took 38 years for David to receive counselling, while Lamar’s journey back to normality, would prove to be one of the hardest battles of all.
Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee, 2011)
One of the masters of autobiographical filmmaking, American legend Ross McElwee returns to Doc/Fest with another film very close to his heart. Having long filmed his children, McElwee is dismayed to observe that his once sunny young son Adrian has grown into a grumpy and sullen young adult. He uses his many hours of footage to remember and mourn Adrian’s lost childhood, his ruminative voiceover reflecting the universal realities of parenting: “The young child – the one you loved so much – is still contained in the obnoxious teenager…Teenagers have no idea of how they’re protected from a smaller version of themselves that rises up to defend them.” McElwee decides to go in search of his own younger self, and heads to Brittany, where he once served as a wedding photographer’s assistant. Flitting back and forth between his past and his present, McElwee offers up another moving and memorable exploration of the human condition.
Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death Story of Patty Schemel (P. David Ebersole, 2011)
Aware that her rock and roll lifestyle was yielding some crazy episodes, Patty Schemel picked up a video camera in the early 1990s. A rising star in the flourishing music scene of America’s Pacific Northwest, Schemel’s pals included Kurt Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, who hired her as the drummer for her band Hole. Capturing some extraordinary scenes, including Cobain and Love at home with their baby daughter, Schemel also recorded her own descent from playing sell-out world tours to destitute heroin addict, and her ultimate rehabilitation. The footage is interwoven with entertaining interviews with Schemel and Hole’s surviving members (their base player Kristen Pfaff died of an overdose just two months after Cobain’s suicide) and Schemel’s own family. “I couldn’t get over that she gave up a good job at Microsoft,” says her mom. With a pace as fast moving as the music, director P. David Ebersole’s film is destined to become a classic music doc on the joys and perils of life in the fast lane.
A Man’s Story (Varon Bonicos, 2010)
He’s neither white nor gay but somehow Ozwald Boateng has risen to the dizzying heights of British fashion. He was the first black tailor to have a business on Savile Row and the youngest to boot. A long line of A-list celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Paul Bettany sing his praises, while sporting his colourful suits. Director Varon Bonicos began filming Boateng in 1998, when his life was in tatters. A nasty divorce and the collapse of his business had left Boateng at a low ebb – not helped when his entire collection was stolen. Bonicos went on to follow the charismatic stylist over twelve years, as he was appointed Givenchy creative director, starred in his own American reality series and married a Russian model, a union made difficult by Boateng’s peripatetic, workaholic lifestyle. As stylish as the man himself, A Man’s Story is an enjoyable foray into the fashion industry through one of its most vibrant stars.
Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich, 2010)
Twelve years after setting off to explore his mother’s homeland, Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich completes his trilogy on three generations of Jakarta’s Shamsuddin family with the masterful ‘Position Among the Stars’. Family matriarch Rumidjah has returned from the countryside to rein in her granddaughter Tari – the entire family’s hopes are pinned on the girl to lift them out of the slums. Tari’s Uncle Bakti is finding her difficult to control and would rather be cultivating his fighting fish business, much to the annoyance of his wife. As always, the family’s everyday tribulations reflect the wider, rapidly changing Indonesian society. Far from ‘fly on the wall’ Helmrich’s constantly roving camera is always in the middle of the drama, often at ground level in scenes of astonishing intimacy. Well deserving of its major prizes, including the Special Grand Jury prize at Sundance, this is not to be missed.
The Kids Grow Up (Doug Block, 2009)
Director Doug Block has suffered from Empty Nest Syndrome for some time, and has been talking to friends and family about the traumas of having your children leave home. The thing is, his only child Lucy hasn’t gone yet, and she’s getting quite sick of Dad’s moping around after her with a camera. Anyone lucky enough to have caught Block’s last Doc/Fest outing, 51 Birch Street, will recognise his accomplished style of personal film making, with great use of family archive, and probing , funny conversations with those nearest and dearest to him. Block and his friends are the first of the new breed of dads totally involved in their children’s lives, rather than the detached providers that their own fathers were. Surrounded by images of his many filmed conversations with Lucy over the years, Block finds it difficult to be at peace with the rapid passage of time and can’t contemplate life without her at home, much to the annoyance of his sanguine wife Marjorie. A moving, intimate exploration of family life.
René (Helena Třeštíková, 2008)
A petty crime as a teenager earned Rene a prison sentence, and set him off on a life of crime. Misanthropic, intelligent and introspective, he spends his life in and out of prison, struggling to fit in anywhere in the quickly changing Czech Republic. Veteran film maker Helena Trestikova began filming Rene in 1989, and kept up with him over the next two decades, even after he robbed her flat. Their collaboration, and his brief fame as a documentary star, spur him to writing, and he becomes a published author. Yet the demons driving him remain. This engrossing film takes us on a journey of a life lived outside of society. As his rap sheet lengthens, his body tattoos multiply, a visual testimony to the anger fueling his blighted life. His letters to Trestikova and access to the many cells which he calls home enhance this must-see film.