If you missed seeing SHERPA at the 2016 festival, it is fittingly now widely available. Naturally, we strongly recommend watching it on the biggest screen you can find. I mean, we recommend that for most films, but this *IS* Everest after all – it deserves some breathing room. Missing our post-film director Q&As is another matter, but if you couldn’t connect with Jennifer Peedom at the fest, we can offer the next best thing – we had the fortunate opportunity to chat more in-depth with Jennifer about her stunning film. Watch, read, enjoy.
True/False:With the wild turns this story takes it is hard to imagine your vision of it at the beginning was anything like it was at the end. How did this project first began?
Jennifer Peedom: I had worked as camera operator on Everest on and off for over a decade. I had worked on three of the expeditions with the Sherpas at the heart of this film. And I became interested in how little of their story ended up in the mainstream Everest documentaries, much less the big Hollywood blockbusters version. Initially, Sherpas are incredibly reserved people. Since my first expedition where I did my own little film for a program here called Dateline. I guess I’ve always had this film bubbling around in my mind. In 2006 I went most of the way to the summit and seeing what really goes on, particularly on summit day, and what an extraordinary job the Sherpas have to do to get the climbers to the summit and back alive and the extent to which that narrative gets cut out of the story because it lessens the other narrative, the foreigners’ hero story narrative, it seemed like a real opportunity to make something.
So back to your question, the vision of the film I made was not that different from the vision we started with. I wanted to make a film about what really goes on on Everest. I wanted to make a film that spoke to the spirituality of the mountain and what the mountain means to the people and how their families feel about it and all those things that ended up in the film. The only difference is we no longer had a narrative of an ascent, instead we had a much more political film. We didn’t know that the worst disaster in the history of the mountain was going to happen while we were filming. It highlighted the risks I was trying to highlight in a way nothing else could.
I will say at the time we didn’t really know we had a film until I got home and spent a few weeks watching the rushes and also understanding the rushes. A lot of stuff, when you don’t have a translator on the ground you don’t understand everything that’s being said. So it took awhile to figure out the story we had.
T/F:Part of what is fascinating to me about this story is that the spiritual and the commercial aspects of Everest are so intertwined, on both sides, for both the Sherpas and the tourists, and you can’t really pick them apart.
JP: Yeah, I think one thing that really struck a cord about the film, a comment I’ve heard that I’ve liked is that it is so morally complex. It doesn’t take the high ground. At the end of the film we’re not saying necessarily don’t climb Everest. In fact the Sherpas need the foreigners and the foreigners need the sherpas. So it’s this mutually complicated, very tricky relationship. It’s two cancelled seasons in a row and it’s not clear how that situation is going to play out. The sherpas have had very little income for that time on top of the fact that most of their houses have been destroyed or badly damaged by the earthquake. Phurba Tashi himself has been really struggling. They need Everest to continue, but what they learned when they cancelled the season is that they have more power than they realized. And so whether or not people should climb Everest I’d just hope that they’d watch the film. One thing I found strange about the whole Everest thing is the extent to which you can bury your head in the sand. So one thing I’d ask if you were going to climb Everest is to be aware of what you’re asking other people to do, the risks you’re asking them to take on your behalf.
T/F:Can you tell me some about the logistics of filming a movie on Everest?
JP: In some ways it is so well set up over there. There’s so many crews on Everest, and over the years systems have been developed. It kind of makes it easier than you might think, than going into some foreign wilderness where no one has ever filmed before. The obvious logistics is getting a whole bunch of equipment to an isolated place. Part of the difficulty is getting crews that can handle the altitude. And that’s hard. It’s probably the reason I got all of those gigs a number of years ago. Not a lot of bodies can function well enough at altitude.
And then you’ve got the logistics, there’s no fixed structure at base camp, it’s just a tent city that springs up. There’s no power, so the really big challenge is keeping computers warm and batteries charged. most of that we do on solar power where we could and then use generators when we run out. Things like computers have to be put with hot water bottles into little sleeping bags every night. It just kind of goes with the territory. You get used to it and I had really hand picked a great team, including the great cinematographer Renan Ozturk, who’s also one of the subjects of Meru. He’s an amazing cinematographer. I also choose another cinematographer Hugh Miller. who I worked with on Everest Beyond the Limit who’s a real veteran, and has climbed Everest three times.
The other thing that we did was that we went ahead a couple months early with cameras, and Phurba helped us pick two young Sherpas who he thought were good potential camera operator. We trained these two young guys to film things we wouldn’t have access to. You see a lot of their material in the film. They were there to film base camp being set up. To be honest I didn’t really have high expectations, but when I got there and saw what they filmed it was very impressive. It meant we got greater access to their world. They filmed going through the icefall as you see in the film. We put GoPros on them. It ended up adding layers that we never really would have gotten and when things got really messy we wound up having more Sherpas on our team. They went down and filmed that first protest that was really Sherpas only. And all of these other guys were saying “What’s this? Who are you working for?” and the word kind of spread about our film. And that wound up having real benefits.
T/F:Did you have an overall philosophy to the cinematography? It seems like there might be a danger of making things too pretty, like everything you point at up there is so gorgeous . . .
JP: You say that, but it can look really ordinary, believe it or not. Certainly if I was the one shooting it would look really ordinary. So yes I did, I wanted it to imbue every shot with almost spirituality. There was a very good reason I chose Renan, and it wasn’t because he was such a good climber. He has a way of observing natural environments in a very poetic way. He speaks some Pali, so he understands something about Sherpas and Sherpa culture.
I wanted people to see Everest in a way that they hadn’t before. I wanted to linger longer mountain ridges, I wanted to observe the smoke and all of those symbols that help us understand Sherpa culture. I wanted the mountain to be observed from a different point of view, less as something to be conquered and more as something to be revered. There’s a lot of upspeed that slows stuff down, because you know we bring all of our Western busyness to Everest and I wanted to slow that down for the Sherpa villagers, because time really is slower, it runs at a different pace. They are Buddhist people and they really take time to observe the world around them. I hope that comes through.
On November 18 at the Missouri Theatre, True/False and the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism (a new addition to the University of Missouri’s Journalism School) are co-presenting a special screening of the documentary Killing Them Safely. Directed by Mizzou Journalism School graduate and Columbia resident Nick Berardini, Killing Them Safely is a gripping, nuanced look at a company, TASER International, as it confronts charges that its eponymous product, an electroshock weapon, has killed people.
For Berardini, the film is the result of an all-consuming six-year journey. In August 2008, a police officer fired a taser at Stanley Harlan, a 23-year-old Moberly resident, who lost consciousness and was pronounced dead two hours later. Then an MU broadcast journalism student working at KOMU (underneath current Murray Center director Stacey Woelfel), Berardini reported on the incident. Shortly thereafter, he started production on the documentary, which took him all across the continent. Berardini learned extensive details about similar cases, acquired many hours of archival material (including deposition footage of TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith) and, crucially, secured an interview with TASER International Vice President Steve Tuttle, a peculiar and fascinating spokesman whose performance serves as the film’s backbone. Berardini then edited his engrossing, disturbing, sometimes darkly amusing film alongside True/False alumni Robert Greene (Actress, Fake It So Real), who is now also a Columbia resident, serving as “Filmmaker In Chief” at the Murray Center.
Killing Them Safely premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2015 under a different title, Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle. It received glowing reviews and was then picked up by distributor Sundance Selects, who will release the movie later this year. In early November, T/F programmer Chris Boeckmann met Berardini at Uprise Bakery to discuss his filmmaking journey.
To order tickets to the November 18 screening, visit this page
T/F: I studied in the strategic communications sequence of the journalism school, and you studied in the broadcast journalism sequence. In strat comm, they teach you how to handle interviews with journalists. You need to have three points, and you’re supposed to find sly ways to make them over and over. You know, “That’s an interesting question, Bob, but what I think we really need to be focused on is….” Meanwhile, I assume the broadcast sequence is teaching you how to break the public relations representatives, to get past those three points. I’m curious how you approached this big interview with Steve Tuttle, TASER’s spokesperson. Was he using the same technique I just described?
NB: Yes, he’s definitely in that mold of ‘here are the things we can say that are most effective.’ This is a life-saving tool that prevents the use of deadly force. That’s their very simple mission statement: “Protect truth, protect lives.” He says four or five of the same exact things over and over again. What works about rhetoric in his case is that most of the times when he has to say those four or five things, he says them in a very simple context. It’s a 12-second soundbite for the news. It’s a statement that’s issued to a newspaper. He doesn’t have to sit one-on-one with a person like me.
I didn’t go in with the goal of attack. I didn’t go in looking for “gotcha” moments. Going in, I think my biggest strength was genuine curiosity. If I tell you I want to understand your point of view, I’m going to sit there and try to understand your point of view. So I take everything at face value, and it works for twenty minutes. Over the course of a day, it becomes exhausting. Over the course of four hours, if you can only say the same things over and over and can’t really elaborate, then what are you left with?
T/F: Aside from length, how does your interviewing approach differ from broadcast journalism?
NB: If I were to do a TV news story about TASER International, I would want to go in with all the research done so that if Steve Tuttle says “A,” then I could counter with, “But that’s not true based on this thing.” But I’m making a film that is less about what and more about why. I’m more interested in motivation and process than I am in information.
T/F: I think the trailer is very clever, but I was surprised to see how it sort of throws Steve under the bus in its final seconds.
NB: These guys are true believers.They believe in this way of policing. And when you have a true believer, you have to treat them with the respect of a person going through their own thought process. Steve is a guy who lies for a living, but what is the reason behind the lie? Why does he feel compelled to lie? Because they clearly know at this point that their weapon kills people. It’s a question of what’s the biggest threat. Do we deserve to exist? Is the world a better place because we exist? Steve is not an evil person. He’s a complicated person dealing with complicated subject matter that he simplifies in his mind to protect the simplest goal, which is that we must survive because the world is better with us than without us.
T/F: You use a lot of deposition footage where John Burton, a lawyer featured prominently throughout the film, questions TASER co-founders Rick and Tom Smith. How does his approach to interviewing differ from your own?
NB: The movie is about this company—its history, its rise, its controversy and where it is today—and for the movie to work, they need a good adversary. The lawyers are great adversaries. They’re the only thing that truly threatens the company. When you listen to their interviewing style, you realize they’re there because they want to win. They do amazing work, but they wouldn’t sit there if it was a bad case. They’re taking cases they’re pretty confident they’re going to win. When they’re questioning, they’re trying to prove a very technical or specific point in legalese in order to win a case six months down the road in trial. To prove negligence. I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m trying to enlighten myself and the audience to a way of thinking, to a point of view that they’re not familiar with, that’s different from their own. The styles are different because the intentions are different.
T/F: When you were studying the lives of Rick and Tom Smith, did you find a way to relate to them on a personal level?
NB: Yes, there’s definitely a tunnel vision aspect to both of us. In many ways, this movie is a commentary about all of us. It’s about the way we see ourselves—the best version of ourselves—versus what we really are. And I constantly experienced that disconnect with my film. For years, I told myself this movie is going to be amazing for all these reasons. And you think that way because the sheer panic that sets in when you realize it’s not going as planned could put you on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Especially when you’ve put, like I have and like they did, your life into something. In order to deal with the collateral damage they created, TASER International started telling little lies that became much bigger over time. Once the consequences were no longer hypothetical, there were two ways out: own up to it, face it and admit that you made a mistake, or cling to the best version of yourself, that idea that you had when you started.
T/F: You started this film as a reaction to a very upsetting local news story. There’s been a lot of reporting on TASER International in the years since.
NB: The film is still timely and relevant. It’s not because policing issues are at the forefront of the news. This is a story that’s as old as human beings. It’s about the promise of technology, the promise of innovation, the desire to want things to succeed before we’ve fully through the consequences of those things because they’re new and the consequences are hypothetical. This is the ultimate absurd example because it’s an electric weapon. It has the most clear hypothetical ‘what can go wrong’ questions attached to it.
The film is also about what you do when you’re at this crossroads and your livelihood and your way of thinking is on the line. And why do we constantly take things at face value from the people who have the most to lose? That’s what most blows my mind. I don’t want to say everyone believed them, but the law enforcement community jumped on board with the company right away. And the company was the only one providing information about their product. Obviously they had the most to the lose yet were somehow the most trustworthy. I just don’t get it.
T/F: Killing Them Safely explores different problems, but it doesn’t offer any solutions.
NB: The traditional way of making an issue film, and what distributors typically want, is to offer the simplest presentation of that issue so people can then get active, sign a petition and feel good about themselves. There are films that should use this approach. But the problem with making a movie like that is that movies should be three-dimensional. They should be more than just bullet points. And what makes that impossible with Killing Them Safely is that it’s partly past tense. It’s retrospective. It’s about something that has already happened and the consequences of what’s already happened. There’s no way to rally the troops and take 500,000 tasers off the streets in the United States. That’s not possible. The movie is not going to make the same mistake by offering a simple solution when there isn’t one.
T/F: But do you want the film to have any sort of social impact?
NB: I certainly do broadly. I’m no anti-capitalist, but we’ve taken capitalism to this extreme now where we’re surprised when the actor with the most to lose acts in self-interest. And it’s not just the general public being surprised, it’s the fact that our regulatory system for something like tasers is basically the product liability system. Which inherently means someone is going to die before anyone does anything about this thing. This is an electrical weapon, it’s not a Lego. This is a weapon used in violent situations and yet it’s regulated the same way a toaster is. That goes back to an attitude of victim-blaming that we have and a distrust of the tort system that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. While there’s excessive litigation between individuals, corporations have insane protection from lawsuits. People have no idea how difficult it is to bring a product liability case and be successful. And it has to be that way because the system has to inspire ingenuity. Because most people aren’t making weapons, most people are making other products.
I don’t think there’s some sort of broad overhaul that needs to happen; taser is a very niche product. But I also think the film is a condemnation of the way we place trust in those acting in self-interest when they’re operating under the guise of business, job-provider, life-saver. We just fall for rhetoric way too easily. So it’s more about a general skepticism about people whose job it is to be skeptical— police administrators, politicians, city council members when they buy these weapons — than it is about writing a law that could prevent this sort of thing.
True/False caught up with Sarah Gavron, Director of SUFFRAGETTE, which opens today in select US theaters, to talk about connections between her documentary work and her current endeavor.
T/F:Both SUFFRAGETTE and VILLAGE AT THE END OF THE WORLD (T/F 2013) are based on real stories. Could you talk about the process of making films that are based in reality, when one turns out to be narrative and the other a documentary?
SG: There’s a lot of overlap, certainly, in the research phase. With Suffragette, we spent six years working on the script and most of that was research. You know documentaries about historical subjects are spent researching, but I wanted to embed Suffragette in the details of the time and make it feel as authentic as possible.
I wanted to break from the fictional period drama which keeps its distance and, instead, really immerse you in that period. So, I used quite a lot of documentary techniques: a handheld camera, a lot of time, giving actors a lot of freedom to capture the performance, rather than controlling and staging it for the camera.
As you well know in documentary, that’s what you’re doing a lot of the time, unless you’re reconstructing sections. You’re capturing it. And so that kind of fluidity and freedom means keeping an eye open and pushing the camera to follow whatever’s interesting and emerging or unfolding in front of you. We tried to give it that very real aesthetic so that you felt immersed in that world. It felt believable.
Did you find yourself varying from the script much as you worked?
Well, there were two processes. We rehearsed for quite a long time, and that was really about meticulously pouring over the script and fine tuning with the actors to make it feel right and as bespoke as possible.
Then, when we were on the set, there was a little bit of interpretive dialogue, but mostly interpretative staging and feel. We sort of improvised– we didn’t improvise in terms of the shape of the scene or the dialogue, but the actors came up with a lot.
There are so many ways of making a film, but if you look at something like The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Wes Anderson film, it’s storyboarded down to the last frame before you begin. The film itself is very much like the storyboard. Suffragette was far from that, at the other end of the spectrum. In it, there was a script and we were following that shape, but in terms of the actual moving, framing, and staging of each scene, it was organic. It evolved out of the process of being there on the set, interacting, and finding it in the moment.
Did you find that filming Suffragette in that way was easier for you?
I think it’s the way I naturally work. I think it felt right and exciting to this piece. You can make a film in a highly fictional, heightened way where you watch it, but you admire it. But we really wanted you to just connect with it, with these working women, to make this piece of history relevant and visceral and resonant today.
That aesthetic translated to every department. They weren’t wearing the usual film make-up, and for the clothing we used a lot of original stock, so actors were wearing clothing from the time, rather than having made lots of pieces.
I think what documentaries have taught me is to be alive to the moment. You have to be watching and absorbing and reassessing. You have to be adapting to what’s unfolding in front of you.
Often with a narrative film you have an enormous crew, and it’s much more flexible, and more planning has to go into every moment because of the scale of it. A documentary, then, is very freeing in that respect: you can go with the flow. I tried to bring that into the filmmaking process as much as possible.
Did you always intend to shoot it like a documentary, or did you have a moment when you realized that it needed to be done that way?
It was always the intent, from very early on. We looked for as many real locations as possible, because if you’re going to shoot in that way, you want as much of the 360 environment, rather than films where there’s a set in the corner and that’s it. It’s got limits.
For instance, I wanted us to shoot in the Parliament. We asked for access, and they said no one ever has; they told us we’d have to build a set or find some corner in another building. But we petitioned them, suffragette style, and we did get access. And then we went in there, with 340 artists, stunt people, horses, period vehicles, and we staged a protest in the very place that barred women for centuries.
When we were shooting that, we had four cameras, so we were really letting the action run. We had rehearsed it to make sure no one was going to get hurt, but we let the action run and then captured it.
Suffragette will be opening at Ragtag in early December.
When Associate Producer Un Kyong Ho got the text from Director Cynthia Hill that their film, Private Violence, had been nominated for an Emmy, she tried to play it cool.
Un Kyong was on a video conference call with other Fledgling Fund grantees. “I probably looked like an insane person to the other folks on the call,” Un Kyong said. “I was all over the place! I’m still all over the place!”
Cynthia was on a shoot that day for another project and said the Emmy was the furthest thing from her mind.
The last time we saw these two filmmakers, along with Private Violence’s main subjects, Kit Gruelle and Deanna Walters, they were at True/False 2014 as True Life Fund recipients. During their time here, they visited school-wide assemblies for all four Columbia Public High Schools and held community meetings on domestic violence.
Since T/F, the film has made its international premier at Hot Docs in Toronto and won the Human Rights Award at Full Frame Festival in Durham, NC. (Durham, “The Bull City:” Cynthia’s hometown and not far from where Private Violence was filmed.)
“It feels good to get the accolades,” Un Kyong said, “But at the end of the day, we want to make change around this issue.”
Figuring out how to measure change when it comes to an issue like domestic violence is, not surprisingly, far from simple. Sure, there are national statistics, but with a subject that is so deeply hidden, and, well, private, it can feel impossible to know if and how the needle moves.
“I remember being in Kentucky in a small college town to screen the film,” Kit said. She met a young man who had come to the screening by mistake, perhaps because he misunderstood the event.
“But then he realized he needed to stay and talk about his experience with his abusive father, who was a local business man, the kind of man no one would think was an abuser.” Kit said. “It was one of the most powerful experiences I had. We all sat and listened to him talk, and then cry, about the abuse he and his mother suffered. After he was done, he walked out. Most of his friends left with him. The rest of us sat there for a few minutes, thinking about what we had just seen. This is domestic violence in America: still rampant, still too hidden.”
This is a big part of the work of Private Violence: making the violence less private. Creating safe spaces for people to share stories. Opening up dialogues and conversations that have yet to be breached.
“They brought together 80 stakeholders from across their community,” Cynthia said. “Everyone from the professors, social workers, advocates, medical health professionals, folks from across the legal landscape including lawyers and judges, law enforcement officers, and even the mayor.”
The Private Violence team sees Cincinnati as a model for the power documentaries can yield, and they’re working on a how-to guide based on the summit for other communities. In October, which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, they’ll be in Sioux City, Iowa and back in Durham, North Carolina for similar events.
Along with these events, the Private Violence team has been working on an immediate metric post-screening. If you were at a showing at T/F 2014, you may have remembered those little tear-off surveys you were asked to fill out right after the film.
Here is where I admit that as someone who was passing collection buckets for the True Life Fund immediately after the screening, and overseeing large quantities of cash that were mixed in with slips of papers, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the surveys. Part of me wondered how valuable they could be. And now I must eat my hat. Because while I don’t get excited about numbers too often, the stats form this survey blew me away.
From the four-question survey, they were were able to determine that of the respondents:
94% felt the film had increased their understanding of domestic violence;
75% had asked the question “Why doesn’t she just leave?” of a person in a domestic violence situation;
86% felt they would respond differently to domestic violence victims after watching the film;
83% said they would consider getting involved in advocacy efforts in their community.
“From that quick survey, we learned that the ‘Why doesn’t she just leave?’ reaction to domestic violence is a pervasive part of our victim-blaming culture,” Un Kyong said. “We also learned that the film shifted people’s thinking around DV and potentially helped to activate an audience to move towards change. That is huge.”
The survey generated a bit of buzz; it was the first time a doc had used a tear survey to measure audience response and impact. Un Kyong said they were proud to have created a tool that other filmmakers can use to capture the kind of data that might help with partnerships or funding. (For a great interview on measuring a film’s impact, we’d direct you to an episode with Lina Srivastava from our friends over at She Does podcast.)
So while I’ve heard these women –Cynthia, Un Kyong, Kit, and Deanna— call their time on the road with Private Violence a “listening tour,” another way of thinking about it is as an attention tour. Attention is being paid to survivors, attention is being drawn to an open secret, and they’re exploring the question of just how much action can come from the attention of one film. As for the Emmy, there’s a reason we call the nomination a nod: it’s one more attentive glance.
Set entirely at night, Field Niggas (T/F 2015) takes us to the corner of 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in Harlem and introduces us to its faces. Not just avoiding but repudiating condescension, director Khalik Allah’s camera, a longtime, welcome presence in the neighborhood, spotlights his subjects in stunningly composed, dignified portraits that are hypnotically woven with street images. The non-synch audio track consists of conversations with and among those faces: dreams, regrets, arguments, affection, observations, opinions. Field Niggas is a mesmerizing viewing experience, that finds its rhythm using field hollers. The title draws from Malcolm X’s “Message to the Grass Roots” speech, in which he targets the power balance that creates a dangerous wedge between the “house slaves” and the “field slaves.” Khalik Allah’s singular, trenchant film serves as an ardent call to rise above social constructs.
Since True/False, Field Niggas has screened at Sarasota, Maryland and FIDMarseille, where it received a special mention from the Marseille Espérance Jury. This Friday, July 17 at the Metrotech Commons, Rooftop Films is hosting a free screening of Field Niggas. For more information, visit this page. We caught up with Khalik on the phone earlier this week.
T/F: I’ve heard you discuss your history with photography, but I don’t know much about your relationship with movies.
KA: I never was interested in movies. I used to think movies were boring. I was into TV. But my brothers—I’ve got a lot of brothers—they always used to steal the remote and just start watching movies. So I saw Larry Clark’s Kids. I remember studying that when I was kid. I was 9 when that came out.
When I made the decision to start dabbling in films, I went to the library, and whenever I saw the Criterion Collection, I just got that DVD. That’s how I found out about Kurosawa and so many different films. Taxi Driver, everything from Scorsese. I just started following different directors and studying them. Jim Jarmusch, obviously Spike Lee, a bunch of different people. And then when I started studying documentary more, it was Werner Herzog. And the idea that I can make any type of film because all these different directors have their own style, that inspired me.
So this simple library card afforded me an entire education. Then I got Netflix. At one point I wasn’t even working, and I was watching 50 movies a week. I was trying to train my eye. All those Bergman movies and his DP Sven Nykvist. And the Woody Allen films. Studying the DPs behind these films and their ideas, their philosophies, their personal lives, their orientation to light. How Sven Nykvist used to carry a 35mm still camera and photograph the light days before he would shoot a scene just to see what the light would look like at a given point in the day. These guys are scientists. Kurosawa and the movie Rashomon, he used mirrors to light a lot of those scenes, you know? All those people are inspirations, and mentally, I’ve got a store house, a visual library that I think about.
One of my favorite movies is Heat by Michael Mann. I remember I was having an argument one time with a person who was saying that every person in the movie is wearing makeup, and I was like, “Naw, that’s not true.” There are a lot of actors who don’t wear makeup, who keep it real. And I think of Michael Mann and his movies, especially Heat—that shit was 100 percent real. I’m more of a realist with my style of filmmaking. I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I want to go into narrative where it’s fictional but it’s done in such a real way. Everything about it is real. Nobody is wearing makeup. People are doing real things. The props are real.
Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)
You mentioned Werner Herzog’s documentaries. Did you watch others? Has your relationship with documentary changed over time?
Obviously Nanook of the North and Robert Flaherty. Stuff I studied because I was told to study those things. I looked into the origins of documentary. Filmmaking started out as documentary, you know? But then a lot of narrative films are also documentaries, like James Toback’s Black and White. The thing I like about James Toback is that he’ll improvise a lot of scenes, which gives his fictional pieces a documentary type of feeling. I studied so much it’s kind of a blur—a big, abstract idea, all these different people and what they did.
Makes you think about how much is going on now that’s not being documented. That in itself is the inspiration to make documentaries. It really comes down to how creative you want to be. I think there’s a whole nother language. I was trying to come up with another language with Field Niggas. Because I could have had that movie talking about the meth labs, drug abuse. More of a cerebral analysis, talking-head type thing, interviewing politicians in the neighborhood. But that’s been done. Another thing that keeps things interesting is creative documentary.
I haven’t seen it, but based on the trailer, I assume your first feature-length documentary, Popa Wu, a 5% Story, is more conventional?
Yes, definitely. A lot of festivals are asking me if Field Niggas is my first film, and in a way, I feel like saying ‘yes’ because it’s the first time I’ve been playing festivals. To me, the Popa Wu film—it took me four years to make, it was like college. That was my bachelor’s degree, that movie. Nothing ever happened with it, no distribution, no film festival plays. I sold it, but I sold it to a niche group of people: the Five Percenters, people who are within that demographic, that type of knowledge, the Five Percent Nation. It was tailored for them, but I actually wanted it to go beyond that and be a much bigger thing. I put four years into that project, and I put less than three months into Field Niggas. And Field Niggas went forty times further. But that film set me up. It was an education, my training.
You say three months, but it wouldn’t exist had you not spent years hanging out in this part of Harlem. I read that when you first started shooting in the neighborhood, there was some resistance. I’m wondering if you could walk me through the very first night.
Well, the first time I came, there was no negative experience. It was in the daytime. I was in and out. It wasn’t like I was lingering on the corner, taking pictures like I do now. I didn’t know that was going to be the focal point for me.
Spring 2011, I’m out there, I’m shooting. I see a crackhead with a bald head, it’s a woman, and she had a pacifier around her neck, hanging like a necklace. She asked me for a dollar, and I said “Yeah, yeah, I’ll give you a dollar. Just let me take a picture of you.” And she was giving me the middle finger in the picture, and I said, “Yeah, yeah that’s good. Keep giving me the middle finger, but put the pacifier in your mouth.” She put the pacifier in her mouth, she’s giving me the middle finger, and all I hear is this brother behind me say, “Yo, brother, we don’t want to be seen like that! We don’t want to be seen like that!” So I start addressing him. “I’m out here as a photographer. I’m documenting the positive, the negative and the neutral.” I kind of engage him. We go back and forth for a while. He was an MTA officer. He had his name tag on, so I just kept calling him by his name. “Yeah, Mike”—his name was Mike—”Yeah, Mike, I’m a documentarian, I’m filming 360 degrees.”
Whenever there’s an argument in the streets in Harlem, people just congregate around it and start instigating. I just stepped off. I just said, “Peace!” There was another person listening, an older Muslim guy. Later that night I came back. It wasn’t even dark yet. Me and that Muslim guy were talking. He said, “Yeah, I heard what you were saying, man. I think it’s positive. I think it’s positive that you are a photographer, there’s truth to be documented.” So I took that and I left that night.
Fast forward. I went to other places and kept shooting downtown Manhattan. I would just come back sporadically to shoot 125th and Lex. But when I developed that film, and I’d seen that picture of that woman, the crackhead with the pacifier and the middle finger. I was like, “Yeah man, I’ve got to shoot. There’s a lot of light on this corner for me to start working with.”
So fast forward now to November 21, 2011. At 11pm, I drove to the city, parked in the Lower East Side. I took the train all night. I took the train to 125th and Lex. At 2am, I walk into a congregation of crackheads and took a shot. And there was a shot of Frenchie—that was the first night that I meant Frenchie. And basically I overcranked the film in the camera, and now the film is broken in the camera. And I still had a pocketful of film. I wanted to go shoot all night, so I needed a darkroom to take the film out without exposing it and ruining it. I was so serious, I was about to hop on the train tracks just to use the darkness. But when I was contemplating, I saw a woman coming out of the janitor’s closet, and I just told her, “I’m a film student at NYU, I need to use the janitor’s closet for the darkness.”
Yeah, I was lying to her (laughs) I basically went in there, took off my coat, put the camera in there and used it as a dark bag. Then I was able to reload and keep shooting. But as soon as I got home that morning, I was worried the film was ruined. So I just developed it, and I see these pictures of Frenchie, and I was like “Damn, that’s it. This is my corner.” That night just consecrated it. This is where I’m going to shoot.
Watching your films back-to-back, you see the growth. In “Urban Rashomon,” you buy Frenchie some K2 and then regret it after he acts up in a corner store. At the beginning of your next film, “Antonyms of Beauty,” you ask Frenchie about that night, and he says he was ‘acting’ for you. Can you talk about that idea of performance?
In Frenchie’s case, he considered his life a performance. Frenchie got hit by a train and survived it. I asked him about it afterwards, and he said he was just acting. Nobody was there filming. Nobody was there to photograph it. I wasn’t there. But he said, “I was just acting.” He was in the hospital, he broke his pelvis. His foot was injured ever since. With me and him, that day, he probably would turn it up a little more for the camera. Maybe, potentially. But the stories I hear— you know, Frenchie’s dead now—but the stories I was hearing about what he was doing in my absence were more interesting than a lot of the stuff when I was there taking photographs of him. He’s a deep soul. He’s a deep, deep, deep person, and I feel like we were destined to come together for this film project. There was an exchange of light and mental energy between Frenchie and I throughout this whole of process of “Urban Rashomon,” “Antonyms of Beauty,” those times.
With K2, I felt guilty afterwards. He asked me for it, and I told him I want to take a few of photographs. So my concept was, “OK, I’m taking some of his time, at least let me give something to him that he wants.” And that’s also going to make the work that much more interesting. And then I’m going to have a story that much more interesting based on all this. So I go ahead and buy him the K2, but when he started foaming from the mouth and rolling on the ground in the corner store, then I felt bad about that. And I told myself I wouldn’t do that again. But the next time I see him in person, he was smoking K2 anyway. I see him laying down on the ground smoking some K2, acting kind of normal, so I just started questioning him. “Naw, naw, naw I was acting.” Then I was seeing if he could control himself off of it. And again, we were spending time together. He was giving me a lot—answering my questions, giving his time to do this photography project and working as a subject. I was like, “Yo, here, I’m a scientist. I deal with experiments. Here, you’re a grown man.” He was fifty some odd years. And I didn’t feel guilty about it. I felt good about it. It was just making it more interesting.
Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to make Field Niggas without those two preceding films. And K2 has been a piece of all of them, from “Urban Rashomon” to “Antonyms of Beauty” to Field Niggas, K2 is present. And right now it’s still there.
So it’s still legal?
The last I’ve heard on the law—and the law is constantly changing around K2, which has so many different names—is that it’s legal to sell. It’s legal for a person to buy it at the corner store, but it’s illegal person for that person to smoke it in public on the streets. That kind of contradiction in the law is very bad because these people don’t have homes. They don’t really leave that corner, so they’re going to smoke it in public, and that’s grounds to get arrested or grounds for a citation. And you don’t show up in court, now there’s a warrant issued for their arrest. And these aren’t even criminals, and now they’re being put through the system just for smoking a substance that was legal for them to buy. It’s just real disgusting when you really look at it. I look at it as a gentrification ploy to try to move people off that point in Harlem. Because 125th and Lex is the last frontier.
You’re still shooting out there?
Yeah, it’s very interesting. A lot of people say, “Yo, Khalik, are you going to leave 125th and Lex? You going to go do another project?” But if people look at what I’ve been doing, it’s staying within the same environment but elevating it. Elevating my perception of it. So first, I was taking stills, then I made a documentary. Now I want to make a feature film. Right in the same place. That for me is a way to keep interested. I continue to photograph the area because photography is how I build my energy up. Photography is like the mulch of the movie. Definitely for Field Niggas. That’s why I tried to simulate the aesthetic of my photography in the movie.
Do you see yourself continuing to use your voice in such a prominent way?
I actually see it coming less and less. I think that ultimately the project will dictate that, how I feel about the project. Growing up, the path that I went through was the Five Percent Nation. I’ll probably keep a lot of knowledge in there, a lot of myself. But the way we as Five Percenters look at Islam—it came from the Nation of Islam, and then a man named Father Allah gave it to the kids in the streets. Those were the young Five Percenters. It was still considered Islam but as a culture, not as a religion. As a way of life. And ISLAM, the acronym, was “I Stimulate Life and Matter” or “I Stimulate Life Around Me.” That’s how we always broke it down. So when I’m in my movies and I’m talking, I’m just trying to stimulate different things. In Field Niggas, I’m asking people on drugs, “What do you think happens when you die?” The big questions of life, asking that to someone you wouldn’t have asked. It’s a form of stimulating them. But in Field Niggas’’ case, I tried to cut out a lot of my questions, but then there wasn’t enough context. You would just hear the person’s answer, and a lot of the heart was missing from it. You had to feel me, to know where I was coming from. It was more compassionate. So it was good there. But it wouldn’t be good everywhere (laughs).
I recently watched a rough cut of this Mexican documentary. The director is filming in a Canadian park where a community of Aboriginals lives. They’re frequently drunk on camera, and they’re expressing a lot of frustrations with the government and with society. Anyway, in the opening minutes, the director says something about his opposition to ‘empathy.’ He thinks that’s the wrong way to approach people. In this case, he points out that he grew up in Mexico, and he is in no way capable of understanding the pain his Canadian subjects are feeling. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts about that, about this idea of empathy.
Empathy has two different manifestations. The way that I use it is not to join in suffering and thus lighten the burden. My form of empathy is to tell them that they’re innocent, that they can’t be hurt. That regardless, whatever the body or the ego is going through, they’re still invulnerable. So I’m not going to share in a suffering that I don’t even believe exists. I can look at them in what the world would consider suffering, in what the world would consider misery, and still see the light there and still see beauty there.
But if I was going there, “Oh, I feel so bad for you, what happened with your mom and dad when you were little? What happened? What brought you to the streets? Why are you strung out on drugs? Oh, I feel so bad.” That’s corny. That type of shit—that’s the Christian Children’s Fund. That’s a 30-second PSA on TV. That’s nothing. What I was trying to do, and what I feel I’m continuing to do in my documentary work, is speak to the people who usually don’t get a chance to speak and give them a voice. But first I would have to be interested in their world, my own self.
But empathy, there’s two forms of it. Empathizing to join someone’s suffering. People do that all the time. “My mother died,” “Oh, my mother died too!” Or “I’m having trouble in my relationship.” “Oh, so am I!” And then they start sharing war stories about negative shit. The other form of empathy is to be like, “Oh, your mother died, but there’s no such thing as death. Your mother’s still with you. She served her purpose in your life.” Start talking about the positive shit. That’s my form of empathy.
What kind of negative responses have you received to the film?
Mostly all the responses to my film have been positive. The negative ones have been mostly positive in the sense that—you know, people want to know why you named it ‘Field Niggas.’ Some people have ideas of exploitation simply because I’m dealing with people who are poor, even though I don’t regard them as poor. As I said, with my empathy, I still see them as rich. Because money is nothing in reality, so I’m looking at reality. Fuck if the world agrees with me.
A guy, Neil Young from the Hollywood Reporter, just wrote a good feature about Field Niggas. Totally unexpected. But I read what he wrote, and I liked what he wrote. Even though some of it could have sounded like it was coming at me because he basically felt that the first half of the film was stronger than the second half. He felt I was tooting my horn in the movie, that I was becoming a little too flamboyant of a character in the movie. I asked some people questions, “What you think about me as a documentarian, or as a photographer, in the area?” Then they would say something real positive, and I kept that in the film. It could have been perceived as arrogance, but that definitely wasn’t my intention. My intention was to show that I’m actually part of this community and as a filmmaker, don’t think you can come here and just shoot. It took me three years to do this.
Even in the film, I say the only other camera besides me is the surveillance camera. Because I don’t see other photographers where I shoot. When I was shooting in the Lower East Side, there were photographers everywhere I looked. When I started shooting, that was part of the decision-making process when I chose that area of Harlem. Because there was nobody documenting it. Even Bruce Davidson, he did 110th Street, but I haven’t seen anyone do 125th and Lex.
But I read what Neil Young wrote, and I thought it was great. I thought he liked my film. He was very poetic, and he was very descriptive. And his words and the way he wrote what he wrote, it was a good piece. I put it on my Facebook. But some people even commented on my Facebook post, “This dude didn’t know what he was talking about.” But I look at it like, he liked the movie, and there were parts he didn’t like. I do that with films.
Field Niggas (dir. Khalik Allah, 2014)
I found a quote from you, “I feel like I only started talking in my twenties. I’m 28 but I’ll be silent in my thirties, until I’m forty.” You’re now just a few months from 30. Do you feel the same way?
That’s actually been put into application now. So much has happened even since I been back from France, and I haven’t really been putting it out there. I used to have so much news, and I would blast it on Facebook. But now I’m just getting into myself more. When I was a teenager, I was more quiet. I was just working. I was trying to figure shit out, studying, reading books. Then when I was 20, I put all that into application. I started making films, started becoming a photographer. And now, I feel like I see what it is, and I can be effective at a distance. I can be more effective. Sometimes you get a lot more work done in silence. And I’m just thinking as far as publicly saying shit, there’s just so much going on, let other people talk about it. Let other people talk about it, but keep working. Give them something to talk about.
Polish filmmaker Hanna Polak was unable to turn away from the homeless children she found living in and around Moscow. Her Oscar-nominated short film Children of Leningradsky (T/F 2005) explores the culture of children living in and around that city’s major railway station. But this impressive and moving work would prove to be just the beginning of her involvement with these stories. Over the course of 14 years, Polak followed Yula, a homeless girl living in Europe largest garbage dump, just outside of Moscow. In the resulting Something Better to Come (T/F 2015) we follow Yula from ages 10 to 24, as she confronts both adolescence and a daily struggle for survival while dreaming of a better life.
This bracing yet profoundly optimistic work is playing right now at Cinema Village in NYC. Last week I got the chance to speak with Polak via Skype about how this extraordinary film came to be.
True/False: Hi Hanna! Could you start by talking about how this project got started and what it looked like to you at the beginning? I assume you didn’t go into this expecting to film for 14 years.
Hanna Polak: At first, I didn’t really mean to film at all. I met homeless children on the streets of Moscow, and I was completely hooked. It was something really outside of my comprehension. I had met runaways, but not children who had really no one taking responsibility for them, no orphanages, police, parents. I could really not even understand the situation, kids living on the streets in big groups on their own, some of them as young as 4. This was the first time I directly came across a situation like this and of course I was deeply moved. A small group of children introduced me to a big group of children at the railway station. Along with some friends, I brought them some food and eventually started organizing some classes. Ultimately we made the short film Children of Leningradsky to try to help the children in this situation, living in this railway station.
image from Children of Leningradsky
We also filmed at the garbage dump, and we knew right away that these were two different films, and we had to make a decision. It was a different group of children there and they had a different group of problems. The children who lived in the garbage dump were mainly from the provinces. They were much simpler, there was much less crime, and sniffing glue and those sorts of things. So we didn’t end up filming as much at the dump while we finished the first film.
T/F: How did you first introduce the camera to the people living at the dump?
HP: In the beginning when I came I didn’t have a camera with me. It took me a few months to know I even wanted to shoot a film. I started to shoot still photographs at the garbage dump. I had to use a very small camera because of course being at the garbage dump was illegal, so what would they say about shooting?
T/F: One of the really fascinating things to me about this film is how you can see the contradiction in the children, how in some moments they behave like normal kids, while their situation has forced them to take on adult responsibilities.
HP: It is interesting because I felt many times the children are stronger than the adults. We see it of course with how Yula helps her mother, but I have seen it many times. They are small kids but in a way they are really adults. I think maybe this is why I found it so easy to have a relationship with them. With these kids you can talk as equals in many regards. This equality was something that was very quickly building a bridge.
We would organize drawing contests, and you would see those children would immediately become children again, drawing with great attention. In these moments they forget about being adults. Of course, there were other moments where they would have to show their strength. They would try to be very cynical on the outside, they don’t care, they don’t need anything.
Then there were moments of weakness where they would want you to adopt them. It was a very difficult situation for me. I would always explain to them, “you are very dear to me, I’m trying to do things as a friend. But you have to understand that I’m not from this country, I have no legal possibility of adopting you, but I will try to put you on your feet.” I knew how much they needed someone in their life who would act like a parent, and in moments like these you can really see that the kids are kids. But a moment later they would drink, they would smoke, they would organize a place to stay, they would have to protect themselves and live in the very cruel world of crime and prostitution.
image from Something Better to Come
T/F: When you are making a film over this stretch of time, you are of course evolving as a filmmaker too. Was it hard to keep the film consistent stylistically?
HP: I think the most difficult part of this film was really the editing. Of course, I was developing as a filmmaker during those years and the shooting conditions were always different and very difficult. It’s not like to take a tripod and a camera and film whatever you want. You have to sneak in and out, sometimes run away, sometimes protect the material, sometimes even use a hidden camera.
Of course, I can see how I developed as a filmmaker very much over the project. I could see early when I was talking to people, since I was so concerned about the suffering of the people, I would ask them about that, but what I found eventually is that it was better to ask people about the beautiful moments, because we see so much suffering and bleakness already. So it was always better when people talked about the beautiful parts of life.
T/F: Yeah, it was really striking how you captured a sense of communal life, a life filled with music and animals, lived in such dire circumstances.
HP: Yeah, I liked go there for these moments, for this atmosphere, for this sharing when they would open their hearts for each other. Sometimes life is more simple at places like this, because people don’t complicate it. This feeling of sharing and building a community is their only chance to survive, but it is something that often we miss in our regular life. So yeah, I felt this contradiction, you go into the middle of this darkness and then experience this incredible friendship-love-care-humor-simplicity-acceptance. All of this was totally striking for me, and this is what I really wanted to make the film about, that humanity is endless. Even in the worst places people take care of what they look like, using make-up. They love music. The people are so talented and so amazing and so philosophical and so warm.
image from Something Better to Come
T/F: So the hardest part was the editing?
HP: Yes, the most difficult part was really in the editing when we had to make a story. What I didn’t know was how difficult it was telling a time-lapse story. I went to a master class with people like Michael Apted and Czech filmmaker Helena Trestikova, who often works on long term projects. I also spoke with Katja Wildermuth about her experience of working on Sergey Miroshnichenko’s Russian version of the 7-Up series. All these people had the experience of working on a time-lapse story.
It’s really hard. If you make it chronological, it becomes boring, if you break chronology, then you make people really confused. We are dealing with a situation in which, in one and a half hours, more or less, you have to tell 14 years. You have bits and pieces of someone’s life. There are always some things missing that you’d like to have.
So with all this material I have in my bin, I was overwhelmed for a long time. I had worked on other films and made other stories, and I know editing is always very challenging, but this material was absolutely overwhelming. When I tried to work with an editor who didn’t speak Russian, it took me over a month to translate just the basic materials, working day and night.
I tried to construct this universe of Yula, not to make a film on her alone, but to show this place where she lived and the people around her.
T/F: So of course, we can follow the passage of time in the film through Yula’s face, but did you think it was important to provide the audience with more markers of time?
HP: Yeah, of course. Yula was changing so much, she changes the color of her hair and at times she’s almost not recognizable, so it’s a huge challenge. For the passage of time I use radio and a bit of historical events that were happening in Russia. I didn’t want to be political about it really, but I wanted to place this story in Russia and I wanted it to feel like time is passing. She is changing, but of course the world is changing around them to. Sometimes its subtle things, like a clock ticking. You see people celebrating a new year, and another time it is summer, all of this builds. In this kind of film it is very important to give these small touches of time.
T/F: Without giving too much away, we do see that there was something better to come for Yula, but her situation at the end of the film is still far from perfect. If anyone wants to help Yula now, or children currently living in her former situation, what’s the best way?
HP: The best way is the Norway based charity Active Child Care. You can send them money via PayPal and contact them if you want to donate specifically for Yula.
For several years now, Kevin B. Lee has been pioneering an innovative form of film criticism, recutting films into insightful and provocative video essays. Last summer he first shared Transformers: the Premake (T/F 2015) and for many made the leap from criticism to cinema. The Premake is a “desktop documentary” examining the sprawling production of the incomprehensible mega-blockbuster Transformers: Age of Extinction through amateur videos, while exploring the virtual space of a computer desktop and the way we process information. Just this week the Premake earned Kevin the Arte Creative Newcomer Award at the European Media Art Festival. If you haven’t seen it yet, take the time to watch this fascinating short right now.
A couple weeks back I got the chance to chat with Kevin about his film, its influences and our culture’s pathological relationship with mega-franchises.
True/False: Hey Kevin! Can we start by talking about how you first get interested in making a film about the Transformers’ production?
Kevin B. Lee: I’ve worked as a film critic for a number of years. I specialize in a form of criticism that takes footage from films and manipulates it so that we can learn about them. I was looking for a way to break out of my normal routine of watching movies, analyzing them and putting them back together into video essays.
I wanted to get away from screens, for one thing. I was spending way too much looking at movie and computer screens and sort of questioning the meaning of my life. I wanted to experience actual physical reality and try to connect my love of cinema with physical spaces.
And so it just so happened that there was a film shoot, Transformers 4, happening in Chicago where I live around the fall of 2013. I took this as an opportunity to go, see what was going on and ask questions.
How does a movie manifest itself in a physical space, in an actual location? And how does it actually affect that location, especially when it’s a city with 3 million people and streets are being closed off and citizens have limited access to their own city?
So I went with my camera, but I didn’t get very far because they had everything blocked off. I basically had to stay in these designated observation areas that they had created. There I was with my camera, and I look around and see 50 other people with their cameras. That was very humbling, trying to make a documentary with an original view of movie production and seeing all these other people doing this same thing that I was! Then I started noticing that some of the videos were being put online. So I was like “okay, this film is sort of happening without me.”
The more I looked at this footage, the more I started to wonder. Here’s a clip from Chicago. Here’s one from Detroit. Here’s one from Texas. Here’s one from Hong Kong! It started making me think about the entire production, not just what was happening in Chicago. I’d spend weekends just doing different kinds of keyword searches on YouTube, with any variation of Transformers 4, shooting, production, location, ect. I wound up with 355 YouTube videos of the production in different parts of the world. I got to thinking, “wow, that’s a lot of video. What could I come up with if I started putting all of this footage together? Could I actually make scenes or sequences from the movie? Could I create some version of the movie and maybe put it out on YouTube before the movie even comes out? So instead of a remake–which is what people usually do, recutting footage and making their own version of movies–why don’t I have a premake, and put this movie up before the movie comes out?” That got me excited.
I would open up different video clips and put them on the screen side-by-side just to see how they could be stitched together. The more I did that, the more I started to become fascinated with the desktop itself as this kind of location–my own sort of movie set if you will–where I was putting things together. I started to think about the desktop as an environment that is worth exploring in its own way, in a creative or artistic way, to think about how the desktop works as screen, but also as a camera, because now we have the ability to record our desktops.
image from Tranformers: the Premake
You see all of these demo videos on YouTube with people saying “I’m going to show you how to solve all these problems on Final Cut” and you literally watch this guy’s computer screen as he’s operating software. This got me thinking. What if I did my own sort of instruction video for how to understand Transformers, a user manual for how to look at all of these YouTube videos and create a pathway for understanding all of the factors that go into a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster? So there’s a bit of a instructional video aspect to it as well.
I started thinking about this thing called “desktop documentary” and what it might look like. I started looking at the very small handful of pre-existing examples I was able to find, to take lessons from each one. I experimented with recording the screen and putting windows in different arrangements. You’re kind of taking people on a path, with one video building on the one before, so that each video builds the argument or takes you further on the journey.
T/F: Could you tell me more about the preexisting examples of desktop documentary that you found? I ask because I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this before your film.
KBL: Yeah, there are three main examples that were really illuminating for me, and they are all very different from each other. The first one was made by a teacher at my school, the Art Institute of Chicago. The teacher’s name Nick Briz and he made a film called Apple Computers. It’s a half hour documentary that takes place entirely on his desktop. It’s a critical look at how Apple creates a restrictive, proprietary creative environment, how the perfect veneer of user interface that Apple presents you with actually restricts your ability to be creative. He interviews several media scholars, activists and artists who all have some sort of beef with Apple and are critical of its dominance in the current cultural landscape.
Another is a narrative film called Noah. It’s a short fiction film that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 about a teenage boy named Noah who breaks up with his girlfriend on Facebook. It all happens in real time. What you’re seeing is literally his computer screen as he’s looking at it, opening up different windows and doing different things all while having this conversation with his girlfriend that eventually becomes a breakup. You literally see the mind of a 17 year-old kid at work. He’s multitasking through like five different things at once and you’re like “ok, no wonder he can’t maintain a relationship.” So, that was fascinating because it actually tells a story through a subjective point of view. That got me thinking on how I can present my point of view based on what you’re looking at at any given moment.
image from Noah
The third example is Grosse Fatigue which is a work of visual art created by the French artist Camille Henrot. It won the jury prize at 2013 Venice Biennale. This one is super visionary, with windows opening and closing, this endless play of images opening on her desktop creating this visionary formation. It’s really thrilling to watch, one of the most creatively expressive videos I’ve seen. It made me think about how the internet is this endless repository of images waiting to open up before you, to create that sense of abundance.
So new media, a festival film is and an art video, three very different examples from three very different worlds, right? I tried to merge them together to make my work.
T/F: Do you think about this film as more cinematic than your other video essays, like The Spielberg Face, which I would see more as works of criticism? Is there a sharp distinction for you?
KBL: Yeah, if you want to define cinematic in terms of a direct sensory experience of time and space, because there’s very little voice-over or narration happening, it’s really just looking at a screen and experiencing what’s happening on a screen. But I’ve gotten some push back on this being more cinematic from people who are more old school in their definitions of cinema, who say cinema is about looking at scenery or landscapes and really being in a physical space. Are we really in physical space when we’re looking at a computer screen? That’s a fair criticism to make.
My response would be that we are at a point in human history where we spend an enormous amount of time looking at screens. You and I are looking at screens right now. We use them as accessories, as means to accomplish things. But now it’s really become a primary experience of reality. Think about how many hours you spend looking at your laptop or iPad or iPhone or TV. When you get to that point of saturation, it really does affect your definition of what’s real. The things on screen are manifestations of your reality. It’s now an issue of how do I explore this environment called the screen. Instead of the screen taking a picture of other things in the world, you treat the screen as an environment in itself that you can probe and explore, the same way that a camera can explore a forest or a landscape. I think this is very much a 21st century update on those basic cinematic questions that we asked 100 years ago.
T/F: It’s interesting too that idea of taking a computer screen and putting it up onto a cinema screen like we did at True/False, so you’re seeing the screen in a new context.
KBL: Absolutely. It makes you think about the computer screens we take for granted. How it affects the way we see when you create that distance from it.
T/F: One thing the film investigates and documents that interests me is the crowd-sourced marketing now built into these mega-franchises like Transformers. These movies feel like they are already partially digested by the time they actually reach the audience.
KBL: Yeah, it’s like the actual act of watching the movie is just an afterthought. All they want to do is drum up as much anticipation and involvement and emotional investment from us as possible, hoping they push everyone into buying a ticket. And then once you get that 10 or 15 bucks, the movie is an almost an afterthought. You watch, and you’re like “that kind of sucks.” This is the problem right now with the way Hollywood has affected our patterns of cultural behavior. We get excited about something, there’s all this build up, anticipation, and then always a let down. But we always come back for more. There’s always another Avengers movie coming out, another Star Wars movie coming out. What is the deal with this reflex that is happening again and again?
One reason why I made this movie in the first place is that as a critic I felt useless when it came to saying that these movies suck, because no one listens. I mean, they kind of know they suck, but because there’s so much cultural buy-in from all the marketing they feel this weird peer pressure to care about them. So the movie effectively becomes critic proof. So how do I as a critic become relevant in this sort of situation? How do I grab people’s attention and make them think or act differently in relation to these movies, instead of just getting caught up in the same anticipation-letdown-anticipation-letdown cycle?
T/F: The point in the film when the production reaches mainland China, and all of the crowd-sourced material disappears. Do you know why there aren’t any fan videos inside China? Are they not being shot or are they just all being taken down? It creates a feeling of a negative space.
KBL: Yeah, I know, the only videos you can find are from official media outlets. I don’t know if there were any amateur videos in the first place or if they weren’t being made because the locations were so off limits. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to compare what’s going on in the U.S. with what’s going on in China. For all that’s happening in the U.S., at least we’re able to upload these videos, regardless of how they get used.
T/F: So I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction right after watching the Premake. I have a lot of questions, but most of them are metaphysical and I doubt you could answer them.
KBL: But what was is like to watch it after watching the Premake? Did it take you out of the film? Because that’s what people ask me, “Can you even watch the movie as a movie?” And the answer is no. For one thing, it’s pointless because the movie is pretty much a mess. But the reason it’s a mess is because of all of these different factors: product placement, Chinese branding, ect. It’s very much a movie that’s manufactured out of all of these components coming into play.
T/F: Yeah, Transformers is sort of the ultimate hollow franchise, because it started as a way to sell a line of toys.
KBL: Yeah, this is what I discovered. During the Reagan administration, around 1985, a law was actually repealed. Up to that point you could not produce a children’s entertainment show with a marketing merchandise tie-in. It was a preventative measure to prevent marketing to children. In 1985, they passed a law making it okay. Within a year you had Transformers, you had G.I. Joe, TV cartoons with commercials promoting toys related to the TV show. That was a revelation for me. I grew up watching these cartoons and from an early age, caught up in this consumerist culture.
T/F: Watching Age of Extinction, I was trying to identify specific places from the Premake, but it was very difficult, because the movie is so batshit insane.
KBL: There are sequences where literally one shot you’re in Chicago, the next shot you’re in Hong Kong and the next shot you’re in Detroit.
T/F: The interesting thing about Detroit is that the movie is not set in Detroit at all, I think. So Detroit is completely invisible.
KBL: Yeah, that’s a fantastic point. Because you think at least part of the reason these cities bend over backwards to give these tax breaks to Hollywood is to raise the profile of the city by putting it on movie screens around the world. The thinking is it becomes a kind of advertising for the city, to see Chicago get blown up in such awesome ways by these fancy robots. But with Detroit you are absolutely right. They mortgaged their identity and basically disappeared as a sort of stand-in for Hong Kong. It’s kind of sad. It tells you a lot about Detroit’s general state of affairs.
T/F: Well, like I was saying, I’m still super confused about Age of Extinction. I still don’t understand what the Transformers are even. They don’t really seem to be robots, because they’re made out of a metal that has a genetic code, and they can transform by breaking up into a cloud of metal chunks. Why even bother being a robot if you can break down into chunks of matter and reform into whatever you want? I don’t understand.
KBL: You know, as many writers have worked on these Transformers scripts as have worked on the Bible. They all have their interpretations and ideas to add without staying consistent with what came before. (laughs) It’s amazing.
In 2013, True/False began Neither/Nor, an open-ended project to map a history of what we call “chimeric cinema”. Chimeras are films which enthusiastically embrace the paradox at the heart of all cinema, the medium’s capacity to document authentic slivers of the reality it necessarily manipulates, distorts and enhances. Film culture generally appears uncomfortable with this tension, preferring instead to assign films easy labels like “documentary” and “fiction”. Chimeras are works which emphatically defy all such attempts at categorization.
Every year, Neither/Nor explores a different region and period in cinema history in collaboration with a visiting film critic, who selects important works from this milieu to screen at the Fest. The critic also writes a special monograph with essays and interviews on the films. All three of these monographs are now available in digital versions online.
This whole undertaking is made possible by the generous support of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Below you’ll find a complete outline of Neither/Now to date, organized by year, with images from the films and links to each of the individual essays and interviews from the monographs. Take a look around and discover what cinema is capable of.
Note: This interview first ran in November 2014 to mark Actress‘ theatrical premiere. We are sharing it again as Actress is now available to watch at home on numerous platforms including DVD from Cinema Guild (with an exclusive essay from film critic Eric Hynes), Netflix Instant and iTunes.
Brandy Burre scored a career breakthrough when she landed the part of political fixer Theresa D’Agostino on the monumental HBO series The Wire. Prior to filming her character’s second season, she became pregnant with her first child. Eventually she decided to retire from acting to raise two children with her partner, the restaurateur Tim Reinke. Years later, feeling the need for a creative outlet, Brandy decided to return to acting. Documentarian Robert Greene, her next-door neighbor in Beacon, NY, began following this unpredictable process with his camera. Their unique collaboration eventually yielded Actress (T/F 2014), an innovative and unsettling blend of vérité intimacy and soaring melodrama.
Actress is now playing theaters nationwide via Cinema Guild. Last week I got the chance to talk with Brandy via Skype about playing herself on and off camera.
T/F: Could we start by going back to where the film started? How did you guys begin this project?
BB: Robert approached me about the project months before we actually started filming – maybe even a year. He was very delicate in the way he would bring it up, almost giving me a little bait, to see if I was interested. I think originally Robert had the idea of watching three actresses in different stages of their lives. He has a friend who is younger and in independent films right now. He was thinking, I could follow her experience, you, who has children and is now getting back into it, and an older actress at the end of her career. That was the original thought. Once we started filming, he realized he could have an entire movie with me as a single character.
I never had any idea of what the film would be. Robert did. He as a filmmaker had to have ideas of narrative that he thought would make the movie. I was in a way just being his muse. It was my goal just to be as truthful as possible on screen. That was for me the exercise as an artist. I thought I should just take advantage of having someone who wants to put a camera in front of me, and get used to it, and see how it makes me feel and how hard it is. That alone was so daring and risky that it was enough. I didn’t have time to put on anything else.
T/F: Robert has written about nonfiction performance. In his “art of nonfiction” video essay for Sight and Sound he called it “the layering of the real and the imagined selves.” I think you can see Actress in part as an attempt to make this dynamic explicit. Did he introduce any of this up front?
BB: No, I don’t think so. I really didn’t know any of Robert’s writings. Whenever he’d come over it was about the collaboration of the moment, him coming over and filming. He would talk about ideas, but it didn’t really affect what I was doing. In fact, I didn’t really want to know, because it didn’t help me with my objective of being truthful.
But I agree with those things outside of the filming. As an actor I’m so aware of the roles that we play in life. I’m amazed at how well people play roles in their daily lives. As an actor I think I’m hyper-aware of the body/mind connect, and I think, ‘Wow, they really wear that suit and play that role of business man — or mom — really well.’ I’ve always been fascinated by stripping that down because it’s never been easy for me, to play the role of ‘myself.’ I guess that’s the hardest thing to do.
T/F: The film uses highly composed and stylized segments interludes. What was the process like for making those?
BB: Yeah, the red dress that you see in the trailer and the stills was shot in one day when Sean Price Williams, a friend of Robert’s came to shoot as a birthday present to Robert. I had never met him before, and it was the first time we had another person involved. Partly, it was because we were doing a shower scene. At some point I said you need to film me in the shower. It may sound peculiar that I was suggesting it. But at the same time, that’s what being a mother is. The only precious time I have is that time. Also, the roles I’ve played in theater and television are mostly sexy roles, and my body is part of why I get hired. And for me just to be myself, I wanted to take that back and say, “film me being me.” And because we were doing that I think Robert wanted an extra person there, to make it professional.
The slow-motion camera helped make it feel stylized. We didn’t talk at all, “let’s make this stagey.” Robert didn’t come up with the red dress. I only have a handful of dresses in my closet, so that’s just what happened when he asked me to put on something nice. I think I said “this one’s kind of caricature-y.”
And my house is just like that. I never staged the house. Everything is how it is right now. Robert would direct the shot by suggesting, “take that glass” or “let’s work at the sink.” But, no big concepts. Just capturing footage.
I had brought up that quote from The Wire about me breaking things, so he said let’s take that and see if it leads anywhere. We didn’t know.
Another important scene, when I go around the kitchen, was done in one shot. The only direction was “just to walk around the kitchen and see where it takes you.” It was never set up. So I went in, something was cooking on the stove. Then I went into the backroom, and Wall-E was playing on the TV because my kids were watching it. Then my daughter comes down the stairs and hands me the hanger. No, none of this was staged. I think having slow-motion camera and time to play allowed us to capture the images that grounded the film. After that day, I think a lot of what Robert had in mind for the film changed.
T/F: How far along in the process was that day?
BB: We were filming so sporadically at the beginning, honestly I never thought this would be a film. I’d say five months in maybe?
Robert had his day jobs and was trying to pay the bills. I was a stay-at-home mom also trying to figure out things, so we just did it when we could, and we didn’t know what we were looking for, so it really took a long time. Correction. Robert knew what he was looking for, but I wasn’t auditioning, so it just took a while to get going.
T/F: There’s one moment pretty late in the film that really fascinates me. It’s during one of the two intense, intimate speeches you are delivering to the camera. You are interrupted by a noise from off screen. Do you remember what I’m talking about?
BB: I do, I do, the pellet stove?
T/F: Yeah, could you tell me about that moment?
BB: Ok, so this is what’s fascinating to me about Robert’s film. I say that this is Robert’s film, and people say, “Oh no, you have to take credit for it.” And of course I take credit for it because it’s my life through Robert’s lens. But, in that moment , specifically, he’s exploiting documentary filmmaking.
The moment that you’re speaking of, I was in the middle of a very intimate confession when my heating stove breaks the scene. I say “ugh, damn pellet stove,” and I was very emotional because I was trying to be composed. I was holding because Robert used to “yell at me” if I would break “character” or be like “oh, I’m sorry, should we do that again?” because I was so aware of being filmed. He’d say “just keep going.” So in that moment, the trained actor in me was pausing because I didn’t want to lose the momentum and ruin that scene for Robert. So I was just waiting for the pellet stove to go, and then I was going to try to keep telling my story, thinking that that very moment would absolutely be cut out of the film. So I was simply holding as a good documentary subject. But he kept it in the movie!
What he loves about that moment is that I actually become the first layer of myself, because as I’m holding, I drop the composed mask and get really emotional. The shooting of this scene was the first time I had said, “Robert, you need to come over here, I have something to tell you.” He came over, and I said, “Can you turn on the camera?” And I started talking. He was crying during the scene, I saw his eyes. Again, never knowing if we were going to use any of the footage because it was very hard for him to shoot as I’m telling him very personally about what just happened in my relationship.
But keeping it in is that layering of layer of layer. Documentary films usually don’t do that.
T/F: That story, do you think it would be a lot different if the camera wasn’t there? If you were just telling it to Robert as a friend? To me, that moment when you get knocked out of the story, it hadn’t felt particularly performed leading up to that, but when it happened I was like, “Whoa, wait, was she performing?”
BB: Yeah, but I think if someone asked you “tell me your story?” and put a microphone in front of you, it would be completely different than if a buddy was sitting with a beer and said, “tell me your story.” I think that’s human nature. I think I was choosing my words better because I needed to be clearer, where if I was telling my friend I could interrupt myself and backtrack more. And then that thing messed it up, and I felt like a failure. So in that sense was it performed? I guess.
It’s like when you’re introduced to someone new, how you put on that, “Oh, hi!” I mean, I was so vulnerable, but in my mind, I just wanted to tell the truth by trying to carefully reconstruct what I was confessing. But then when the noise from the stove came I had a moment to actually breathe and suddenly the pain of the situation came rushing in.
T/F: You mentioned earlier that people are telling you to own the film. Do you see it as part of your body of work as an actress?
BB: I’m so proud of it and feel it just blows the doors off everything I have done thus far. I do feel like it is part of my work as an actress, but more as an artist. I think I became an actor because I’m good at it, but I also love music and creative thinking.
Now, when I’m reading scripts, I think, “this is so much work.” (laughs) I have to audition, and how long will the shoot be? All that money and talk about budgets and locations and rights to things. I think, “Let’s just turn on the camera and live.” (laughs) And apparently that’s really daring.
Apparently it’s really daring to be truthful. People say, “You’re so brave!” And I say, “Oh really?” It’s a testament to our ideas about society and civility; I think it’s repressive. I don’t think it’s that brave, I just used it as an exercise of being truthful and sitting in it. Sitting in my own being.
So many people are in relationships. And relationships are hard, and 65% of marriages end in divorce. But where is all that talk? No one talks about it. I couldn’t believe no one talks about being a mother and trying to have a job. How does that work? Our society doesn’t make it convenient.
So yeah, if I do The Wire and now Actress, and this is my body of work, I can only imagine what’s next.
T/F: Could you talk about your decision to travel with the film and attend True/False and other festivals?
BB: I felt it was the only way to not feel that I was completely exploited. I never asked many questions about the logistics of things. I never signed a release form until the film was done. And that was because when Robert first approached me, he was very concerned it could have ended any friendship we could have had because of the intimacy.
T/F: So he suggested that you wait until the end to sign a release?
BB: Yeah, It was like “I’ll just keep filming, and you can always pull the plug.” I don’t know if it was sly … (laughs) It’s Robert’s way, maybe a little guile. “You always have the say to pull the plug,” which emboldened me to be braver and put it all out there. Even if I signed something at the beginning, he was never going to put it out there if I said “I hate you and I hate your film. How dare you exploit me?”
So, traveling with the film . . . I think that came out of seeing it. When I saw the film in Robert’s editing room, twenty feet from my window, I was able to disassociate myself from all of the shooting and the emotions and see how beautiful it was. And I knew my heart was in it.
So, I want to meet everybody. This is my calling card. Why would I sit back? I’ve met so many people. And the festivals have all said yes, where they don’t always bring the subject, it’s not a given. So I am grateful for the experience.
I’m not afraid of the judgement. I kind of like it. I certainly like being provocative if it’s to get people talking.
Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (T/F 2015) opens in New York City (at Cinema Village) and in Los Angeles (at Laemmle’s Noho 7) on December 18. In anticipation of its theatrical release, we’re reposting our interview with Knibbe from this past winter, when the film screened at True/False.
Director Morgan Knibbe’s ambitious feature debut examines a serious social problem, the difficult and often hopeless lives of recent immigrants to Europe, via an ambitious, literary approach. Those Who Feel the Fire Burning forces us to adopt the perspective of a ghost, a man who drowns while attempting his own journey to Europe. As the ghost we float over crowded streets, journey down back alleys and enter into private rooms, observing the lives of the marginalized and searching for some sense of connection.
I recently got the chance to speak with Morgan on Skype ahead of his film’s screening at T/F 2015. It plays for the first time ever in the United States tonight, opening night, at 9:30 pm at The Vimeo Theater at The Blue Note.
True/False: How did you first conceive this film?
Morgan Knibbe: The concept was to tell the story of a ghost through a collage of stories from different people, who together are one. A guy drowns, shifts into a new reality and is dropped by some kind of mysterious power in a new universe. This universe turns out to be something like Europe — or hell — but not what he expected it to be.
We tried to give a strong cinematic power to documentary images, to say something much more than just the documentary quality of the image itself. The ghost is a metaphor for the lives of all these different people that you see in the film. He begins by roaming the streets and looking for where he actually is. Where am I? Where are the people that I love? Are they still alive? Can I find them somewhere? He sees people who could possibly be from his country and starts observing them. He feels more and more detached from reality as he sees how these people are living life in extreme poverty where they were supposed to have achieved their dreams, in Europe.
The idea was to create a perspective for the audience as if they were experiencing it themselves. But it’s hard if you can’t live with one character. We didn’t want to follow one character from beginning to end, but a wide diversity of people from different cultures, because we wanted to emphasize how big and complicated this problem is. We wanted to bring along many different people from different cultures with different personalities, but with a common problem.
So I was thinking of a way to tell a story of a bunch of different people without a very rigid, classical narrative structure. Yet in the end we ended up with something similar, because the ghost goes through a development. He enters the story with a problem. He tries to solve the problem, but he can’t. Ultimately, he tries to deal with the given.
T/F: How did you know when you had the complete story?
MK: I had written down a lot of the story before we began shooting. My sound recordist Taco Drijfhout and I were very close and were always talking about the development of the story, what elements we needed to be consistent from beginning to end. It was always based on what the ghost is going through. The ghost and the people together somehow need to go through a collective experience, where they all slip down further into some kind of an abyss or hell. At some point people get so desperate they start using drugs. The situation gets when worse when many people die. Finally, people are really trying to flee reality by holding on to a religious ritual used in their culture to express grief. They feel a very strong collective power of grieving.
image from Those Who Feel the Fire Burning
T/F: Yeah, the film felt like it was building towards a feeling of religious transcendence, as both promise and peril. How do you see the religious aspect of the film?
MK: I really was inspired by a lot of religion during the making of the film. I thought I had a responsibility to understand what these people believe in. Most of them are Muslim, but they’re not all the same type of Muslim.
Even though I am not religious, I think religious stories are often quite epic and impressive. I think Hell is a very interesting story. How if you do something wrong you can end up in a very horrible place, but actually that place exists here on Earth. That’s what we tried to play with.
Religious stories often carry metaphors for big human problems and dilemmas. We tried to take something from these religious stories which more or less affects all human beings, to reach a state of equality between the audience and the people in the film. To make it a universal problem. What is good and what is evil? Is there a creator? What is the purpose of life?
But the universal also lies in very small things. Like the way a father speaks to his son in a loving way, how a little girl eats chips or how a man wakes up from sleeping.
T/F: How did you go about creating the voice-over?
MK: The text is spoken and written by someone who more or less experienced this. It’s a man from Iran named Ali Borzuee.
We were doing additional dialogue recording and still looking for someone to be the voice. We knew that we wanted the ghost to have very rich sound, a wise voice of an old man who looks back on his life or forward to hell or heaven or wherever he’s going.
Ali is one of the people who would do ADR, but he also brought a poem that he wanted to recite. Everybody was listening very carefully, and he had to cry. It was very intense and we all decided I think we should ask this guy to do the voice-over for the film.
It took quite a while before we found the right way to write the text. At first I was writing it, but it sounded a little bit artificial. So we asked this guy to improvise. We gave him some specific prompt, for example you have to tell the story of how you first met your wife, you have to name a lot of things from the country where you first grew up. That worked well.
T/F: The idea of perspective in this film is really interesting to me. There is always a perspective in nonfiction film, but your film really forces you to think about it by making it explicit.
MK: What I always say about the way we made this film is that in a way we are really honest about the manipulation. It is a film that is supposed to be very cinematic, and the only way to do that is to manipulate. So the point was never realism or objectivity, because I think that’s a big problem with the way this kind of subject is portrayed normally. There’s always this kind of objectivity that people try to use. But I think that’s not possible. It’s an illusion. That’s why we tried to get rid of that and make a very strong cinematic experience. I think that’s a more honest way of filmmaking.
I am very curious about the manipulation of images and sounds when virtual reality is in a further state of development, a place where reality and virtual reality are harder to distinguish from each other. In a way film has this effect already. People easily think they watch reality or the truth, especially when the film is ‘documentary’. In fact it is a subjective representation of what other people think, or how they observe and listen. Or how they want you to think.
I understand that journalist want to fight for objectivity, but I’m not sure if their battle will be very effective, since they are fighting for something that doesn’t exist.
T/F: Are there any films or filmmakers that served as a point of departure for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning? Particularly in regards to this idea of forcing the audience’s awareness the film’s perspective?
MK: Definitely! Wings of Desire by Wim Wenders. Enter the Void and Irréversible by Gaspar Noe. Irréversible is the best film I’ve ever seen and was also a huge inspiration. He has this crazy way of sucking up the audience in a cinematic experience that truly evokes primal emotions within the audience, but at the same time he makes the audience work and think and search for answers. I think Gaspar Noe could have been influenced by some of Eisenstein’s thoughts about “cinema of attractions”, a theory about stimulating the audience’s primal feelings instead of taking them along a conventional narrative.
Filmmakers like Noe and Haneke use these cinematic tools to evoke primal emotions, but at the same time add artificial elements that somehow make the structure of the film visible, which is actually a filmmaker being honest about manipulation and giving the audience space to reflect upon the medium and themselves. But this balance is always difficult, because you can lose your audience.
The use of darkness and suggesting tracking shots was also a key concept for Those Who Feel the Fire Burning. Some tracking shots out of Children of Men by Alfonso Cuaron were an inspiration.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall his Past Lives was a huge inspiration, especially for sound design, as was the indie game Limbo. We wanted to create hell on earth, or some sort of state in between heaven and hell, limbo or the purgatory. To do that we wanted to lift the images out of the realism and create a feeling of a huge void in sound design.