Interviews

If You See Space, Occupy It: Talking ‘Cairo Drive’ with Sherief Elkatsha

Documenting something as nebulous as a revolution is a difficult challenge for a filmmaker. In Cairo Drive (T/F 2014) Sherief Elkatsha takes an unusual and startlingly effective approach. Riding shotgun and talking traffic with motorists on Cairo’s congested streets, he captures a fascinating mosaic of the frustrations and ambitions of a city on the edge. The film spans the critical period of 2009-2011, providing a window into the fall of Mobarak and the beginning of Egypt’s uncertain future.

 

 

Cairo Drive makes its New York premiere tomorrow as part of DOC NYC. A few months back I got to speak with director Sherief Elkatsha about his insightful and frequently hilarious film.

-Dan Steffen

 

T/F: Could you start by telling me about how the project began?

SE: Sure. I started making this film in 2009. I was in between Cairo and New York, and every time I came back to Cairo things were getting a little tenser. A good litmus test for where the city was at was the driving. I thought I was going to witness a boiling point of sorts. I had no idea of course that in 2011 what did happen would happen. But I just thought that the easiest way to address all sorts of different issues was through the driving, because that’s sort of everyone’s story. Knowing that I wanted to get into deeper issues, it was very non-threatening and non-political to say “let’s just talk about the traffic.”

In 2011 I was already deep into editing two years of footage, and I thought I was done filming. And then of course the news happened and the goal was to be on the first plane to Cairo to continue filming.

T/F: It’s really cool how traffic let’s you talk about fundamental issues of social cooperation and tension, but in a very concrete, down-to-Earth, unpretentious way.

SE: It was really difficult to film in Cairo. People are generally a little bit paranoid. And they always assume that what you’re filming is to make them look bad outside of Egypt. But when I came to them with the subject of driving, because they felt it was something they all had an opinion about, that they were all experts.

What I liked most is that it sort of crossed through all class structure. In Egypt a lot of people are very poor and there are a few affluent people, but in traffic everyone is sort of the same. Whether you’re riding a donkey cart or in a Mercedes sedan, we’re all stuck at the same traffic light. You can’t really live in a bubble in Cairo.

 

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T/F: I love the section early on where the guy sort of introduces the traffic horns as a proto-language.

SE: If I knew then what I know now … people seem to love that bit, and of course it’s hilarious. He went on and on, I should have put more of it into the film.

The language of horns is certainly something that exists. I was unaware to what extent and how specific you could be with your horn. That it wasn’t just “piss off” but instead actively criticizing how someone is driving, just with your horn. And the same is true for lights, but I couldn’t get into that in an hour-and-a-half film. There is all sorts of language with flicking high beams and low beams and what this means and that means.

T/F: So I’ve been asking people this question which is kind of broad, and leaving it open to interpretation. What’s true/false about your film?

SE: Well, certainly my film walks the line between being vérité and non vérité. Let’s be honest, anytime you have a camera around there’s going to be an element of falseness to it. People react to being filmed, and this is sort of a natural thing. And then of course we edit the hell out of movies, so that’s an element of falseness.

And I’d like to think what’s true/false about it is also that most of the films at True/False have a level of integrity that isn’t mainstream. I’d like to think that my film fits into that.

T/F: The magic with this sort of movie is how all of the parts fit together to build a whole. When did you know you had enough to make a film? I mean, you said you thought you had enough before the revolution in 2011?

SE: Let me take it back. I never thought I had enough; I still don’t think I have enough. The nature of the film is such that I felt like I was making a wildlife documentary. You’re always missing something and there’s always something that could be filmed better. That’s the problem with a documentary. You think, you have an idea, and you go out and shoot it, but then you think, I could reshoot that.

So I put a constraint on myself and said it was going to be two years of shooting, or it was going to be one more year. Each year sort of got longer.

When I started the editing process I told people I wanted a film as populated as the city, and everyone told me “you shouldn’t do that. This is not the way to make a movie.” And I just didn’t want to focus on any one story. And so I would say, editing was really important in my film. In order to keep the story moving and to keep us maybe not caring too much about any one character and instead caring about this sort of carnival ride that they’re all on. That was the goal.

I could still keep filming. There’s stuff that’s happening now with respect to the traffic, it’s endless. But once we had our second election I said “Okay, we’re done. I have over 200 hours of footage. I’ll have to pick and choose from that.”

T/F: That’s interesting. The story is about the place, and the bits of story we get from the people have to serve that. So there’s this danger of someone stealing the show?

SE: Yeah, it’s true. Also, any character I did show I wanted to stand for something bigger. So even though certain characters were great — and having done a few festivals I see which characters stick with people — it’s not just about that individual story. I wanted it to be bigger stories that deal with bigger issues, whether it’s women’s rights, or men getting married in Cairo, which is a huge issue for us.

As we come into the revolution, I wanted a few more voices that exemplified the kind of person that went out into the street to become an activist.

 

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T/F: Do you have an example in mind for some person that really stands for something?

SE: For example, some people have asked “why did you have the ambulance drivers?” There’s this whole scene in between calls where all these ambulance drivers are sort of sitting around shooting the shit, which was again very vérité. I was just sitting there with my camera, probably cleaning it, and they started talking about how this one kid wanted to get married. This to me is huge because I know 50% of the population is under the age of 35 and a huge issue is getting married, being able to afford marriage. Because you have to have an apartment, because you have to have a dowry, etc. So suddenly this scene is unfolding where this issue of so many of the youth in Cairo is coming up, and it just so happens because it’s ambulance drivers shooting the shit. He wanted to get married and the woman turned him down because he was a driver and she wanted him to have a better job. He has an apartment and a job, but he can’t get married.

A year later we find out he does get married. This is after the revolution has happened. And I’m sort of shocked, “You got married and had twins in just over a year?” And he said “Yeah, look what happened to the country. It happened overnight.” It was sort of a small moment but it was indicative of life going on despite the historic events.

T/F: Was it difficult in editing to reconcile the structure of the film with the flow of political developments in Egypt?

SE: Yeah, anything is always a challenge because you lose perspective very quickly as to what is interesting. At the end I had a 72 minute cut, and I crowd funded to hire an editor I had worked with before named Pierre Haberer. He came for Paris and lived in my apartment here. In those final 6 weeks he gave me the objectivity I was lacking to keep the story moving. Also, giving the right details and not the wrong details that are going to confuse an audience.

Also, a lot of the material is very funny, but at the same time the subject that I am dealing with is not all shits and giggles. Anyone who has spent time in Cairo certainly knows people that have lost their lives on the road. So I wanted to give it the gravity that I thought it deserves. Some people just thought I should make the whole thing a comedy, but at some point it stops being funny and just becomes “What the fuck?” There is a turning point, and I think it worked out well putting it just before the revolution happens.

I do have a character in 2010 basically predicting the revolution. You know, “something bad is going to happen, could be in the next 3 to 5 years.” And I sort of push him “What are you talking about?” And he says “If Mobarak passes away tomorrow, this country’s going to go into a lot of trouble until someone strong tries to fix it.”

T/F: Yeah, that was very striking.

SE: Yeah, and again we didn’t want to put dates and we didn’t want everything to be explained, we just wanted it to be this is what it is.

T/F: Do you have any personal experiences driving in Cairo that informed the movie?

SE: Well, I learned to drive in Cairo and it’s kind of the only place where I really do drive. When I come here in the US I have a hard time with street signs and reading and exits. But in Cairo I feel really at home, where it’s kind of like the character in my film says “If you see space, occupy it.” It’s more interactive in a way.

I think there’s something about Cairo where you never assume anything, you never assume a green light. So you are always on edge expecting that someone will jump out from a car in front of your car. I think that makes us better drivers in the actual urban setting, where you are ready for anything. Anything could happen, and it usually does.

 

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Posted November 14, 2014

Playing the Role of Yourself: A Conversation with Brandy Burre about ‘Actress’

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 playing right now in a week-long theatrical engagement at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in NYC, and will be opening in more cities soon via Cinema Guild. Last week I got the chance to talk with Brandy via Skype about playing herself on and off camera.

-Dan Steffen

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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Posted November 10, 2014

Out of the Woods: A Chat with Jessica Oreck of ‘The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga’

Jessica Oreck’s sublime, incisive cinema observes the tangled relationship between man and the rest of nature. Her latest work, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga (T/F 2014), transports us to contemporary Eastern Europe, where, among other ideas, we reflect on our perceptions of the forest. Oreck nimbly weaves breathtaking, Super 16mm images of everyday life with hand-drawn animation depicting the famous Slavic fable of Baba Yaga, a forest-dwelling witch. Vanquishing is an extraordinary, alluring essay film from a distinct and gifted filmmaker. This is Oreck’s third nonfiction feature, following Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo (a 2009 film that considers Japan’s fascination with beetles) and Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys (a 2013 film that observes Finnish reindeer herders). Both are available on DVD.

Vanquishing screens at MoMA through Tuesday, 10/21. Showtimes and tickets are available here. In the coming months, the film will continue to travel across the world. Visit its website for dates. I interviewed Oreck via Skype before its theatrical premiere.

-Chris Boeckmann

T/F: You’ve documented nature in many different types of films, from more essayistic works like Vanquishing and Beetle Queen to purer observational films like Aatsinki to more straightforward short profiles of creatures. I’m wondering if you think there are any sorts of mistakes nature documentaries tend to make, any traps they can fall into.

Oreck: David Attenborough is a hero. I don’t think nature films get much better than that. But I do know that I’m not really interested in making nature films like that. I’ve said this before, you know, that it’s almost this very top-down view of nature. And I’m really so — this sounds so corny, but I believe very fully in animism. And that humans are by far not even close to the most advanced creatures on the planet. And we don’t deserve all the credit that we give ourselves. So that sometimes pisses me off.

I also get really angry about the sensationalist filmmaking that surrounds nature. Especially the sort of stuff that I love the most, like reptiles and herps and arthropods. Those animals — to filmmakers, they’re just like the scourge of the Earth. I could get really worked up about this, about how we make out these animals as if they are out to get us. As if they’re some viciously inclined creatures attacking humans out of pure spite. And arthropods? Everyone has this huge fear of bugs, spiders and scorpions, but most of them are totally harmless to humans. I mean, most insects and most arthropods have no direct bearing on human life whatsoever. But the ones that we focus on? It’s sensationalist media. It’s the same way that news picks up on these weird anomalies and treats them as if they’re the norm.

T/F: Vanquishing explores our strange, sometimes backwards relationship with nature. I’m going to go ahead and work under the assumption that its narrator’s ideas are identical to your own. Have you always had this perspective? Do you know where it comes from?

Oreck: That’s a tough question to answer. I do feel like I’ve had that perspective for a really long time. Since I was really little, I thought most animals were smarter than we would ever be, and that trees had spirits, and that everything else was alive and just living in a totally different time scale that we couldn’t understand. That we were just bumbling about and wrecking shit. But I don’t think I could pinpoint where that came from. It’s weird, I grew up in a Judeo-Christian home, that certainly wasn’t what my parents were teaching me. But it’s a long-held belief.

 

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Image from The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

 

T/F: Before you shot this movie, I assume you had some sort of idea of its shape and its ideas. Did visiting Eastern Europe drastically change your original plan?

Oreck: When I started the project, it was very specifically about the cultural phenomenon of mushroom hunting in Eastern Europe. It was supposed to be a little more like Beetle Queen in that it was looking at this one little kernel of the culture. But right before I left, I had dinner with [the writer] Andrei Codrescu, who put me in touch with a bunch of his contemporaries in Romania. So the first few weeks we were in Romania, we ended up meeting with these poets. Wandering through the woods with them, mushroom collecting, cooking, eating, drinking — just discussing life and all sorts of facets of living in Eastern Europe. And I was inspired by these discussions. Specifically the way they talked about mushrooms as this sort of return to man’s more primordial state, this gesture of primordial man. On top of the fact that, for them, the reign of Ceau?escu was about going into the forest to express your opinions and be free. So it was these original conversations that shaped the rest of the film.

T/F: Was that your only trip to the region?

Oreck: So that was 2009. We shot in Romania and Hungary in 2009 for two months. And then I came back to New York and did lots and lots of research and started writing. Then we went back to Poland, Russia and Ukraine in 2010. By that time, the focus of the film had really shifted.

T/F: Vanquishing was shot on super-16mm film by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. How challenging was it to process the film?

Oreck: There was definitely a long period of waiting. The film was spread out all over the world. We had film developed overnight in Ukraine that we had to pick up at 4am right before our flight. We had to traffic film out of Russia into Finland because the Russians wouldn’t let us not x-ray it on the way back. We had to hire a driver to take it across the Finnish border. And then the film we had developed in Poland was lost in the mail. When it arrived at the lab in New York, it was like it had been drowned in the Great Flood. But somehow the film was intact and completely unharmed. I have no idea how because the boxes look like they survived a tsunami. It was all very stressful.

T/F: What was it like watching the film for first time? Was it a surprising experience?

Oreck: Watching Sean’s footage is always sort of the same for me. I trust him pretty implicitly with the camera, so a lot of times, I just let him do his thing. And obviously we don’t use tripods very often, so it’s not like I’m looking through the eyepiece and being like, “Yeah, this looks like a good shot.” Most of the time he’s just shooting, and I’m just recording sound and sort of pulling him in one direction or another. But I can’t see what he sees most of the time. And it never looks the way I imagine because his brain works in a different way. It’s always fun to see that footage the first time.

 

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Image from The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga

 

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about the ending shot in the film. Did you always want to end with a shot of kids?

Oreck: This is such a shitty thing to say, but I don’t really like kids. [Laughs] So I tend to avoid them in my editing. And Sean loves shooting kids, so there’s lots of beautiful footage of children, but I almost always avoided it. I remember when we shot that very last shot with the four kids. Sean and I were alone. Everyone else had moved on. And we were laughing so hard at how hard the kids were laughing at us. And it was just such a sweet moment. I remember that moment very clearly. But I don’t think I ever planned for it to be the end because I didn’t think I wanted any kids in the movie.

But for me, that’s the only way it could have ended. Because that is full of hope, it represents this possibility for the future, that we don’t poison our children with the same ideas we were poisoned with, you know? Because I think that belief that everything has a spirit and that humans aren’t the best creatures on Earth is something that’s sort of innate in children. And it’s only after we’ve taught them to think opposite that they lose that. And maybe I’m just incredibly immature at heart and that’s why I still believe it. But to me those kids still have the innocence of being connected to the world.

T/F: And you always knew you needed that feeling at the end?

Oreck: I don’t know if that was always the plan. This is the other thing about my work. My process is so intuitive that a lot of times I don’t remember working. So a lot of time I won’t remember writing or editing. It will just happen. And I tend to write when I’m slightly tipsy or edit in bed when I’m just waking up or about to fall asleep because I feel like it’s easier for me to turn off that self-critic a little bit. Things just flow easier and they work better because I’m not fighting against myself all the time. So that makes it especially hard to pinpoint when specific ideas formed.

T/F: I feel like there’s rhythm and intelligence to the cuts in this movie, but I can’t explain it using logic. How do you get to this place? Is it a painstaking process? Do you need to step away from the film at times? Or does this all happen quickly?

Oreck: I feel like there are two ways that I edit. One is that I’m miserable, and I fight myself. I fight every edit. I overanalyze, and I get nowhere. I’ll just work all day, and then the next day I’ll come back, and everything will just look like shit. And I will just delete it and start all over again. But then there are moments when everything is really easy, and those are the moments that I don’t remember. I know that I tend to listen to music on repeat, so I’ll listen to one song on loop for six hours straight. And I’ll just keep editing to that. That’s really scary, and thank goodness nobody is around when I’m editing. [Laughs] Because they’d be like, “Oh my God. Turn it off. What are you doing?”

T/F: Wait, the music from your film?

Oreck: No, no. I generally edit with Final Cut silenced. I don’t listen to sync sound or any of the music while I’m editing. I’ll listen to something else and edit. And then, once I feel like the edit has its own rhythm, I’ll add things like sync sound and other sounds and the music. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I’ll start with a piece of music. Like Beetle Queen for instance, the opening scene — with that, I started with a piece of music. But that rarely happens.

T/F: So you’ve been watching and processing your films just as images during the editing process?

Oreck: Yes, generally I do. What’s so nice about shooting on film is that I can do that, and I don’t have to take sound away. It makes it really easy because it’s totally separate. It’s funny. I record my own sound. I find that I’m almost never interested in the sound that a camera would want to capture. So Sean will be shooting something, and I’ll be somewhere else, completely doing my own thing with sound. I think it makes it richer. Maybe I’m just mistaken. There are only like three scenes of sync sound in that entire movie.

T/F: That’s obviously not the case with Aatsinki.

Oreck: Right, Aatsinki is probably 80 percent sync sound.

T/F: And with that film you’re also not listening to sound in the editing room?

Oreck: Yeah, pretty much. With Vanquishing, I listened to a lot of [composer] Paul Grimstad’s pop music. He has this one 50-minute track that I listened to straight on repeat. And Aatsinki, I listened to a lot of Cluster on repeat. That is super repetitive, I can’t imagine that I didn’t go a little bit insane making that movie. A lot of XTC too.

T/F: Do you think that the choice of editing room music influences the film?

Oreck: Yeah, I think so. I just started editing this short narrative film, and I almost exclusively listen to one Beach Boys track the entire time.

T/F: So that’s how the film is going to feel?

Oreck: No, I don’t think so. I don’t think it has anything to do with it. If you listen to the piece of music, you certainly won’t see that reflected in the piece. But I do think that having a piece of music on repeat — it’s more about giving me my own rhythm. Because I think it’s just enough engagement. My mind can’t ever be working on just one thing. It’s why I can’t learn unless I’m doodling. I can’t listen to somebody unless I’m doing something with my hands. I feel like listening to one song on repeat, it’s not invasive enough to distract me. But it’s just enough to turn one eye so that I’m not just arguing. So that I’m not just having this incessant banter going on in my head.

T/F: There’s this shot that’s really sticking with me. It’s midway through the movie. This young guy on a boat peers through binoculars. What is he looking at?

Oreck: He’s looking at us. I assume they were looking at us, that’s what we assumed when were were shooting it. We were just set up on the street there, and they were docked on the river. We turned the camera on them, and they turned the binoculars on us. That to me is such a great moment in the film. I just talked about this in my last Q&A. Someone asked — something about “documenting the other” and “otherness.”

It’s interesting because I find if I don’t do the intro and people don’t know I’m an American woman, I never get that question. I only ever get that question if I intro the film. It was the same with Aatsinki and Beetle Queen. If people knew I was an American woman, they would ask the question, and if I didn’t, they always assumed I was an old Japanese man or an old Finnish man or an old Russian man. It’s so weird I have to be male and old to have any sort of validity.

To me, that moment — yeah, we’re watching humans. But humans are watching everything, each other all the time. It becomes this hall of mirrors. Everyone is looking at everyone else. It doesn’t feel any more like looking at others than the way that we look at nature, for instance. Something outside of ourselves. I don’t know, I love that moment. It’s a potent moment.

T/F: Regarding audience response, I’ve been a little baffled by some friends’, as well as others’, responses. Some people seem sort of reluctant to discuss the movie because they don’t feel like they have a complete grasp of what you’ve created. I’m wondering if you could talk about this sort of desire to completely understand everything.

Oreck: I think it’s hilarious that humans are so intent on understanding everything. It all comes from this idea — from my deep belief that humans are bumbling along in the world. And almost all other beings on this planet have a better idea what is going on than we do. On a very basic level, I feel like humans are clueless. But obviously there are millions of people who would disagree with me, who think that humans are advanced and that we have all sorts of understandings. But I think we’re clueless on so many levels.

But with both this film and Beetle Queen, I put them in a foreign language because I want that atmosphere to be complete. I don’t want some American voice coming in and explaining something that has nothing to do with that American voice. It has to be in the language of the place. But I don’t want to have to tell people what to pay attention to. I want the film to be more like other art forms. In that …. you watch a Hollywood movie and you feel exactly what they want you to feel. Everything points you in one direction. It’s just really flat. But if you look at an incredible painting or if you walk over to an amazing piece of architecture or if you listen to an incredible piece of music, you’re having a different experience every time. And you get to pick out the pieces that mean something to you. When I listen to these songs on repeat, I will get stuck on a three-note loop. I will listen to the entire song just to hear those three notes that happen at the very end. You can sort of dive into little pieces, and that don’t think happen with film very often. But they happen with other art forms a lot. And so that’s more interesting to me. I like the idea that somebody could watch this film six, seven, eight times and always have a different experience and always notice something they didn’t notice before.

I just never want to tell my audience what to feel. I have ideas, and I want them thinking about ideas, but I don’t want to tell them which ideas are important and which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I don’t know, I’m just not interested in telling people about that. I just want to get them thinking. The films I like the most are the films that leave me asking questions. And the films that I can watch 5, 10, 15 times and still be blown away by their depth.

T/F: Are there a lot of those that you’ve seen?

Oreck: No, there aren’t. Specifically two come to mind. Tokyo Olympiad is a film that I could watch forever. And the Claire Denis film, Beau Travail. Those movies to me are just perfection. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Beau Travail. Even talking about it, I’m tearing up. That movie, to me — I don’t know how you ever make a film that can do as much as that film does.

T/F: Did you first see that in a theater?

Oreck: Yeah, I think that was the first movie that Sean and I saw together in the theater. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it. If it plays in a theater, I’ll still go see it.

 

Imagie from Beau Travail

Image from Beau Travail

 

T/F: You went from production of Vanquishing — a complicated film made with a crew — to production of Aatsinki — a simpler, observational movie recorded on your own. Was Aatsinki made in response to Vanquishing?

Oreck: They were definitely in response to one another. I got frustrated collaborating with Vanquishing. There were so many different people involved in that project. I couldn’t control the way they were affecting the way I was seeing the film. So Aatsinki was the perfect solution to that because that movie is such a pure distillation of my head in a way that none of my other films are. I think Beetle Queen and Vanquishing both represent ideas that are very true to the way I feel, but Aatsinki is the way that I see the world. Everything about that movie is me. Obviously Vanquishing and Beetle Queen are not that way because they’re Sean’s photography. And Sean shoots in a way that I would never shoot. And I appreciate that. That’s why I work with him. I think he’s incredibly talented. I think it makes the films more interesting, in terms of forcing me to work around the way that he shoots. But I’m also very proud of Aatsinki because it’s so true of the way I thought of the film from the moment I conceived of it.

 

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Image from Aatsinki: The Story of Arctic Cowboys

 

T/F: Those are all my questions for the moment, thanks! Unless you’ve since pinpointed the moment where you started looking at nature with your current perspective?

Oreck: I remember very specifically being 8 years old and being in my mom’s bed with my sister. She was reading to us, and she said the word reincarnation. I asked her what that meant, and she explained it to me. And it was a weird sort of locking into place — because I had always believed that and never had a word for it. That happened again with Beetle Queen and with animism. That other people could possibly believe that things weren’t as — oh jeez. [Oreck pulls out binoculars]

T/F: You OK?

Oreck: Yeah I just noticed that this beautiful honey locust outside my window is really sick. I haven’t been here in months, but it’s doing really badly. It’s just in my view. It looks really bad. How did that happen? Who did that? Jesus Christ. Oh, poor guy. [Laughs] Sorry. It’s really upsetting to me.

T/F: So you look at the plant life out your window a lot?

Oreck: Oh yeah, oh yeah. If I didn’t have a view of trees, I think I would have left New York much longer ago. But I have two families of bluejays that live here. I have a bumblebee that returns every year to lay her eggs. You know, it’s a honey locust, so in the wintertime you get crowds of starlings and lots of pigeons, of course. Not so many pigeons on this block, actually, but there are pigeons across the street that I like to watch. They’re hilarious. I get to watch the leaves turn and fall. I get to watch the buds come out in the spring. That’s such a big deal for me. I’d like to have the view of a field or a forest or the ocean instead of a playground and trees. But I’ll take the trees.

Posted November 1, 2014

Unto Others: A Conversation with Jesse Moss of ‘The Overnighters’

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” (Proverbs 19:17)

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

As the Great Recession hit the United States, large oil fields were uncovered in North Dakota. Desperate, unemployed people from all over the world flooded the sparsely populated state. According to the Census Bureau, Williston, North Dakota jumped from 14,717 residents in 2010 to 20,850 in 2013. Many Williston natives resent these outsiders, who frequently live in crowded RV parks. Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke is not one of these angry residents. In the spirit of Jesus, Reinke opens up his Williston church to hundreds of men unable to find temporary housing. The community responds to Reinke’s charity with a suspicion that borders on hostility. In 2012, filmmaker Jesse Moss (Speedo: A Demolition Derby Love Story (T/F 2004)) moved into Reinke’s church and singlehandedly captured this riveting narrative. The result, The Overnighters (T/F 2014), is an empathetic yet scrupulous look at how challenging it is to be a person of principle.

The Overnighters is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York City. In the coming months, it will travel to other cities across the United States via Drafthouse Films. A day before its theatrical opening, I interviewed Moss via Skype.

-Chris Boeckmann

 

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Note: This interview is in two parts. The first is spoiler free, while the second contains explicit and implicit spoilers for The Overnighters. There will be a warning before the spoilers begin.

T/F: Throughout The Overnighters, we watch characters discover how challenging it is to follow rules. We see Christians wrestle with the commandments and teachings of the Bible. We hear journalists explain their code of ethics. I’m wondering if you follow any rules when you’re making a film.

JM: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I really have just a couple. One basic rule is if somebody asks me to turn the camera off, I turn it off. I might sometimes argue or discuss that decision with them. But I wouldn’t film somebody against their will. There’s a second, really more foundational principle I’ve operated on as a documentary filmmaker. On my feature documentary work, it’s been important to make a movie I believe my subject would stand behind. And hopefully they would stand on stage with me and talk to people about it.

It’s a little hard to define what that rule means, but it’s about really honoring the relationship and the trust. And also respecting and understanding that the film might go to difficult, painful places, but, ultimately and hopefully, I hope that the person who trusts me enough to open their life to my film will make that journey with me when the film is complete. That’s what I hoped in this film. What I had to navigate with Jay was a situation in which I had to be truthful and honest with myself and to the story as an artist. I had to show some very difficult and painful moments that would be hard for my subjects to see. But I thought they had an important place in this film. Navigating to that point of mutual agreement about their inclusion took a lot of time. It was a long conversation over many months with Jay and with his family.

T/F: This second rule obviously applies to your protagonist, Jay. Does it apply to all characters in your film?

JM: Well, no. It would be hard to apply that rule to everybody, but I don’t ask the same from everybody. I don’t have the same relationship. This is a film largely about one man. One man’s struggle, one man’s journey. That’s the foundational relationship in the film. That’s where the real profound crux of this movie is. It’s not to say other people are not party to this relationship in important ways and their considerations aren’t also important to me.

The other challenging ethical scenario in this film had to with some very close relationships with other characters. Like Michael, for instance, who was in a moment of crisis, crying and trying to figure out whether he’ll go back to Georgia or stay in Williston. He asked me what I thought he should do, and I found that to be a very difficult predicament to be in. On one hand, we were very close. We are close. We shared this experience together. He didn’t have any friends in Williston. This is somebody I loaned $40 to. We had meals together. We talked. It was not just a relationship that ended when the camera was turned off. Michael asked me, and I thought, “Jeez, this is a hard one. This is one of the most momentous decisions in this man’s life. We’re close, and now he wants my advice.”

Which is to say that documentary filmmaking — it’s not an abstract, clinical exercise. The camera is present, but it’s about human relationships. These friendships get formed. These are friendships, and it’s not wrong to talk about it. And yet I serve the master of my art. And I serve the film. And I serve the truth. These are things I have to consider. And sometimes those interests align with the interests of your subjects. But there are moments when those interests seem to diverge.

 

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T/F: This is a film driven by observational material, but there are moments where Jay contextualizes scenes in voiceover. Can you talk about the decision to use that voiceover? And where did that audio come from?

JM: I really wanted to make an observational — observational is kind of a strange term, isn’t it? Because it’s much more subjective than observational. You’re really not just observing. You’re constantly interacting with your subjects. I guess the term I use — I’ve sort of moved away from cinéma vérité, but I have yet to land on a term that feels right. I don’t know from your academic/festival/clinical perspective what term is appropriate. But we can say observational.
This project, The Overnighters, it was really an intent to go back to the kind of blissful ignorance of Speedo, to make a movie with a kind of freedom and with an ambition to make cinéma vérité. To capture moments as they happen — dramatic moments, large and small — with Jay and these men that I met. So I was always questioning my decision to do contextualizing interviews. But I found them useful for a number of reasons.

For one, they were kind of a therapeutic experience for Jay and myself and our relationship and a chance to debrief and decompress from the intensity of these moments. We would go into his office. The conversations had a pastoral, confessional quality. This is the office where Jay took confession from men. Some of those moments I filmed and witnessed. And then we would go into his office, and we would talk. And sometimes I would film, and sometimes I wouldn’t. In a way, that’s how I became Jay’s pastor. I became his confessor. And that relationship he had with me and with the camera accounts for the nature of the great trust in this film. So Jay and I would talk.

In the edit, at one point I had this version of the film that was cluttered with exposition and interior monologue from these interviews woven throughout. And it was totally getting in the way of whatever the story was, which I couldn’t really see. I kind of weeded it all out. I cleared brush away, as George W. Bush would say. I actually made a version where I stripped it all away. It was pure verite. And then I had to look at it, and it didn’t work. I found that we were really keeping the audience at a distance with that version, so we had to work back. Jay was the best person to contextualize Williston, what was happening with the church and the program.

Those were some of the most laborious, difficult challenges in the edit. how to contextualize the world and how to bring to life Jay’s internal struggle. I think if you pulled it out and dissected it, there’s really not a hell of a lot of interview used in the film. But what is there, I can tell you, as you’d imagine, was very, very carefully, precisely considered and the result of painful trial and error. I struggle with that as a filmmaker because I was still holding onto some purer notion. Because I look at the world around me. Does the film need it? What do I want? What does the audience need? And it’s so important to get the audience situated in this world. I didn’t want to rely on interviews with characters from outside.

I knew what the strength of this story was, and I wanted to play to it. Which is that Jay is this incredible protagonist living out this drama in front of us. And I don’t need an interview with the mayor to tell me what’s happening in Williston. I want to get that understanding organically through scenes, through fragments. Through what is said and not said, what is seen and not said. I brought in my editor Jeff Gilbert. I love that Jeff has a foot in fiction, in screenwriting. How would a dramatist, how would a screenwriter think about the information in this scene and the dramatic conceit? We would just apply a sort of dramatic rigor to the unfolding of the story. I don’t mean to imply manipulation. I think we were really true to the chronology of events. With regards to the storytelling, we thought very carefully about how information was conveyed about the arc of stories and the emotional journeys of the characters and the audience in this film.

T/F: How often did you feel that Jay was performing for your camera?

JM: Jay is always performing. And I think it’s the responsibility of the director to recognize the levels of performance, whether we’re talking about fiction or documentary. Sometimes it’s harder to recognize them in the moment, and they become clearer in the edit. And you sift through them. Many people, not just Jay, who are comfortable, natural screen performers are always conscious of the camera and like the camera. Often the best documentary subjects are in their heart performers, whether or not the camera is present. And I think the camera often does gravitate to those people naturally.

Jay is a pastor. He’s used to holding the public’s attention. He performs. And he likes attention, and he has charisma. He employs his skills successfully. It’s the same skill set he directs towards his congregation. He’s a very smart, charismatic, confident, kind of in-the-moment, emotionally accessible person. And I recognize those qualities. The camera recognizes those qualities. I’m drawn to them. I’m drawn to his complexities, his layers, his layers of performance. Jay cried crocodile tears many times through this film, and I thought, “I don’t believe you.” But there were moments where I truly believed him. And I truly felt his pain. And I thought I have to take these moments judiciously in this film because I want to be sure that the audience is with him when I want them to be with him. It’s interesting when you’re aware of the fact that a subject has levels of layers, and you might want to drive the audience’s attention to those things.

 

Spoiler warning: The rest of this interview contains spoilers for the film. We strongly recommend stopping here until you’ve seen The Overnighters. 

 

T/F: After the Williston Herald publishes the sex offender list, we witness a fascinating discussion between Jay and the editor about that decision. There’s a really interesting parallel between the editor’s words and the decision you ultimately make in the final ten minutes.

JM: I was always struck by the role the paper played in this story. The fact that Williston is still a community where a print paper matters is really anachronistic but really fascinating to me and a great opportunity to really show something. The paper was Jay’s antagonist. But the problem was that the paper was really an embodiment of a few different things. It’s what the headlines said, it’s what the reporter says who chases him down the street, and it’s what the editor says. So it’s kind of fragmented into these component parts. While I always knew it was important as an antagonist facing Jay and inflaming the fears of the community, it took until very late in the edit to really draw it out in a sharp way that was meaningful.

In fact, that scene with the editor, which is actually so important, was not in the film until really late in the edit. And I don’t know why not because I always thought it was a really interesting conversation. I mean, the editor has a point, and he lays it out. He feels like it’s his responsibility to publish all these names. In the name of protecting these children, he’s willing to sacrifice one maybe good man. That’s basically what he says, and that’s a reasonable position I think most people would share.

I think the paper mirrors my own position to some degree, which is one of scrutiny. That reporter who chases him down the street strikes me on one hand as extremely aggressive. On the other hand, that’s what reporters do. He’s chasing the story. He’s probably being a good reporter. Maybe not the way that I would do it. It’s funny, people would sometimes watch the fundraising trailer and think that was me, and I’d say, “No, it’s the reporter for the Williston Herald!” But it’s a bit like me. I’m chasing Jay around asking difficult questions, too. So who am I to harshly judge the Williston Herald? The ethical questions they face mirror my own.

You know, I’m really excited that the Williston Herald may work with us to have a public screening in Williston, and we’ll have a public forum. Tim League at Drafthouse is really excited about this. And we’re going to invite the community to come. And I think it’ll be fantastic. There might be fireworks, and I welcome it. I just think it’ll be such an interesting conversation because I think the fact is that there’s not one right answer. That’s what Jay and what this film is dealing with.

T/F: So did you spend a lot of time with the paper?

JM: I actually went out for pizza with the reporter. He was rotated into Williston and was rotated out pretty quickly. The Williston Herald is owned by a bigger chain of papers, so some reporters just come for a little while. But we actually went out for pizza, and in a way, I could relate to him. He was an outsider journalist like me. I wasn’t his adversary. And actually David Rupkalvis, the editor, was really gracious and let me film the printing presses. So I didn’t consider myself an adversary of the paper, but I think Jay was an adversary of the paper, so that’s how they’re presented. There was a perverse irony that the paper that was out to get Jay was also delivered by his children to his neighbors’ doorsteps.

 

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T/F: I’m wondering if you can discuss the decision to end the film where you end it. I’ve heard many documentary filmmakers say they knew in the moment that they were shooting the final image. Did that happen to you?

JM: The shot of Jay that ends the film, that wasn’t literally the last shot that I shot, but when I shot it, I knew it would be the last shot of the film. Look, it’s a little bit on-the-nose, but Jay is at a crossroads in life. And I did face this choice of following Jay through this new turbulent phase of his life or leaving him at the crossroads. But because that’s the place he meets these men, it felt fitting that he be left in their shoes. And that we the audience be faced with the choice that Jay faces when he sees them for the first time. How do I accept this man and his failings and his humanness? How do I judge him? Do I judge him? And I think that it accounts for the questions that people have leaving the film, that they wrestle with, that I could in a way never resolve fully about Jay’s actions. His goodness and his badness. So that shot, I knew it.

There was a moment once when Jay was telling me on the phone that an overnighter had put him up and that he was sleeping on the floor in a hotel room. I thought, “My God, that’s a reversal of fortune.” You wouldn’t write it because you’d be laughed out of the room. I thought that would be a fantastic ending. But I was done. I knew I had that ending, that shot of Jay alone. Which was an accident. It wasn’t like I said, “Jay, let’s go out to the old Lutheran Church on the side of the road outside of Williston, and you can wander off into the distance.” We were actually driving back. Jay was getting a haircut. Like every good moment in this movie, it’s just serendipitous luck. I was up on the roof of the car shooting this Lutheran church, and in the background was this drilling rig. It was kind of an interesting composition, which unfortunately I couldn’t have gotten without a crane. But then I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Jay had wandered off. And I just panned the camera over, and I was like, “Please don’t move.” And the shot just holds, and he’s just standing there. And the road stretches out to infinity, and I thought, “that’s it. That’s where this movie ends.”

T/F: You don’t think there’s any chance Jay knew he was helping you out in that moment?

JM: I don’t think so. But Jay was also acutely aware of the camera often. There was an interesting thing that happened relatively far into production where we’re shooting with Jay. It’s single camera coverage, there’s no crew, right? I’m shooting shot reverse shot, dirty shot, dirty overs, medium shots — I’m getting all the camera coverage I think I need to cut the scene of this 45-minute conversation between Jay and Alan. I thought it would be two minutes in the movie. What would happen is that I’d be on Alan, and he’d be in this conversation, in dialogue, and Jay would wait for the camera to swing back to him before continuing to speak. He’d wait for the camera to be on him to commence his dialogue. It’s rare to find that in a documentary subject. And it was a little uncomfortable to recognize it in a way. But I also think, “yeah, why not be considerate?” Maybe because I spent so much damn time filming. Of course he understood that. And Jay would tell me things were happening in his life. Many times, documentary subjects don’t think about you, they don’t think about telling you. But Jay was so good at flight traffic control, he had so many moving parts in his life, so he just folded me into that program. And he would tell me things were happening. He’d text me. It was great. I was spoiled.

T/F: I’m not sure how comfortable you are discussing this, but I’m wondering if we can dive into the film’s final reveal.

JM: What was clear to me from the beginning about Jay was that the program and his actions were in large part an expression of his faith, of Christian charity, to love thy neighbor. This is what it meant for him to be a good Christian. But they were also coming from a deep and personal place in his heart, and that was a kind of mystery to me. Jay hinted at it in some ways when he talked about himself. He alluded to his past, that he wasn’t perfect. I considered if this mystery of motivation might never be revealed to me, if it was only that he wanted me to know that he felt a true identification with men who had burdens and stigma, who didn’t feel like they belonged in the community. So I think what that revelation signifies for me is an unlocking of that mystery of motivation, and it explains to some degree that superhuman compassion that he shows. He identifies with them on a very profound level. And his place in the community as an outsider comes from a real place.

T/F: Can you talk about the decisions you made when Jay revealed this information in the dining area?

JM: Jay didn’t intend to make a confession to his wife in a public place. I was there as I was for so many intimate moments at that time in his life. No one asked me to turn the camera off. I think they were very focused on their conversation. Of course it was very painful to be present for it. I know from experience that the moments I feel compelled to question my own presence as a filmmaker are the most powerful moments. They’re in for that reason. It wasn’t immediately apparent to me that this belonged in the film. I had to think carefully about what its place in the film was, if that was ok. I believe they belong in the film. Jay had to think carefully about it as well.

It was an interesting position to be in that scene and, first of all, to find yourself present in this moment in this story you’re telling. And then you have to think clinically as a filmmaker and camera operator. “OK. I could get coverage I think. Or do I stay in a medium two-shot the whole time? How close do I get? Or how far away do I get? What are the aesthetic considerations here? The ethical considerations?” This is a film that was shot close. This conversation I chose to shoot close.

What people first respond to is how intimate the scene is, how close the camera is. And in fact, whether they acknowledge it consciously or not, there’s a series of shots, angles, close-ups, reaction shots. It’s the kind of coverage you might more commonly find in a fiction film where you have the luxury of time and actors. People sometimes don’t believe that’s a real scene, like I somehow reenacted it or staged it. I shot that scene no different than any other scene I shot in the film. But I think it’s fair to say, when confronted with such a scene, what is the right position to take? When is the right time to turn the camera off? To turn it away? When is the right time to keep the camera rolling? You know what, I can only answer that question for myself.

 

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Posted October 15, 2014

Moments of Transcendence with Tracy Droz Tragos of ‘Rich Hill’

Rich Hill (T/F 2014) takes an intimate approach to the subject of poverty in a small Missouri town just 70 miles south of Kansas City. In lieu of analysts and “experts”, we meet Andrew, Harley and Appachey, three boys whose families are struggling just to get by. With startling directness, the trio invite us into their lives and share their hopes for the future.

This film, declared “essential viewing” by Scott Tobias of The Dissolve, was directed by Tracy Droz Tragos and her cousin and former Columbia resident Andrew Droz Palermo. It is now available to rent on numerous streaming platforms including Amazon. I got the chance to talk with Tracy on the phone about Rich Hill and about creating and capturing authentic moments. In the course of our conversation some things arose which I would consider spoilers, so you may want to see the film before reading this interview.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Could you start by telling me about your relationship with the place?

TDT: Rich Hill is my family home town. It is where my father grew up. He was killed in Vietnam when I was a baby. So my relationship with his parents was very important to me, they were like surrogate parents. My mom was a working mom, so whenever school was out, I would go back to Rich Hill, winter break, spring break, summer. It was like a second home to me.

As an adult I hadn’t gone back quite as much since my grandparents died. But I really wanted to reconnect to this place that had been so important and formative to me. I also knew that there were a lot of people there who were struggling.

T/F: Do you think it is harder to make a film about rural poverty or for people to think about rural poverty?

TDT: Yeah, that was certainly part of why I wanted to make the film. I didn’t feel like there was enough films made about folks from rural communities.

It’s very distinct. There is isolation and there are fewer resources. If you are living in a rural community, and you don’t have a job or can’t find a job, it means you have to go somewhere else. But if you don’t have a car or you don’t have money for gas you’re kind of stuck where you are. And you are isolated.

T/F: Yeah, that’s definitely a theme in the film, the feeling of isolation.

TDT: Yeah, and I think there are different kinds of isolation. I think for Andrew who had to move so often, it’s not being tied to community and not being seen. The isolation being invisible and just sort of falling through the cracks.

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image from Rich Hill

 

T/F: Could you tell me about the three boys and the process of selecting them. Did you film with other boys?

TDT: Yeah, absolutely, we filmed other families. I was just talking about that because I’m now embarking on the front end of other projects and it’s a very similar kind of place, which can be a bit scary and unknown. It’s about casting a wide net and talking to people. You don’t always know who the voice of your film will be.

We found our main families in different ways. We first met Appachey in gym class. We had a very brief conversation with him that was so moving and soulful. He was hungry and his clothes were ripped and his face was kind of chapped. And he was so smart and talked in such an intelligent way, we were drawn to him and just wanted to get to know him more. Our next trip we met his family and it evolved from there.

We met Andrew at the park. He was practicing his fighting skills with some other kids. He was acting the tough guy at first which wasn’t particularly interesting, but when we went home with him the tough guy thing fell away. He was so loving with his family and they were so loving in return. They were also so welcoming of us, there really was a sense of “You care about us? You’re interested in hearing our story? Absolutely!” He had just moved back to Rich Hill.

We met Harley through his grandmother. We were in his home, where he lives with eight members of his extended family. The couch where we often see him waking up, that’s where he sleeps, that’s his spot. We were talking with his grandmother and ended up waking him up. He told us then about his mother being in prison. There’s a line or two from that very first time we met him that’s in the film.

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Harley and his grandmother in Rich Hill

 

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

TDT: (Laughs) Well, what’s true is that these are real people, real lives, real families, real stories.

I don’t know if I would say anything is false. I would say it is subjective, it’s very much a film we intended to make. There’s definitely the hand of the filmmaker even though it’s observation. The families and the kids in the film feel like we told there truth, which I think is the most important thing. When they first saw it they said that it was real, so on that score I feel like we did justice.

But there is the hand of the filmmaker. What is false? Is it false to put music in? Is it false to edit out stuff or compress time? The techniques of filmmaking are inherently constructed and there is some lens through which everything is seen, so in some way you could say it is false. But I’d reject that word.

T/F: The boys interact so much with the camera and explain their lives directly to us, or to you or Andrew. Was that always your approach?

TDT: We knew we didn’t want to be purists in terms of, it’s going to be verite or it’s going to be observation only or it’s going to be X, Y or Z. I think it has to be authentic and about how the kids see themselves. We couldn’t pretend we weren’t there and we couldn’t be poker faced. We also didn’t want to have a ton of talking heads and sit down interviews. It’s more about coming in and out of conversation with them when it felt warranted, when they were doing things that were natural and of their character. They were collaborators in a way.

We were very clear that we didn’t want statistics or to have outside experts that weren’t a part of their lives commenting on them.

T/F: Was there ever a danger of what they were giving you becoming too performative or too constructed?

TDT: Sure, I mean, there’s always that danger. We weren’t a huge crew, so there wasn’t a feeling of total obtrusiveness. I suppose we were helped because they saw me as a bit of a mother figure. Any sort of tough guy thing or puffing up their chests or even any sort of Jackass tendencies was not something I was interested in, and I think they knew that. They knew that this didn’t need to be the face that they prepared for the rest of the world, and the guard could be let down a little bit.

T/F: Could you tell me a little about your collaboration with Andrew in that respect. He did all of the cinematography, is that right?

TDT: Yeah, that’s his background and his talent. I come from a documentary background and I did the talking and being with people. It was part of my job in a way to make sure the camera disappeared, so that when there was interaction they could focus on me.

It was very much a collaboration. After we shot we would edit together. We would cut scenes together and talk about the approach we were taking and how we would move forward. That would happen after every shoot.

T/F: Is there any particular moment in the film that was the most surprising to you, either when you were filming it, or when you went back and watched the footage?

TDT: Hmm, well, the Halloween walk where Harley reveals that he was raped. It was something that we’d known before, but it often kind of flows to the surface for him. It was something that he didn’t often talk about, but he really wanted to get off his chest.

When we were revisiting the footage, Andrew was actually working on that scene and at first wanted to cut out all the stuff about the chocolate and the rest of the lead up. And I was like no, you have to keep that in, even though it felt so long. That was how he was and that was how it gradually rose to the surface.

T/F: Oh yeah, that scene really stands out to me thinking back on the film. It’s interesting that he’s wearing a costume at the time as well, like maybe he feels protected behind it.

TDT: Yeah, it’s interesting he has a mask on. Our editor (Jim Hession) talked about the significance which I didn’t feel like we knew in the moment, that he had this mask on and then once he shared, the next scene is his grandma taking off this mask.

Moments rise to the surface. I think also the arm wrestling between Andrew and his dad at the very end. By being where it is that scene has layers to it that maybe it didn’t have in the moment, by the context of where it is in the film. I think ultimately it was true to what was happening in their relationship and kind of fulfillment.

T/F: The last thing I wanted to ask you about was finishing the film. Specifically, the way you used music and how you thought about the tone you were trying to set.

TDT: We thought a lot about the music. We brought Nathan (composer Nathan Halpern) on, he was an amazing composer and we were so honored to work with him. We did something interesting, not all films get to do, and I would love to do as often as I could. We brought our sound designer and our composer and our editor out for a spotting session before we completely locked picture. We went through every moment of the film and talked where the score would take the lead and where the recorded sound should take precedence.

There’s so much that goes into scoring a film. Going back to that Halloween walk, we brought music in, but we didn’t want to bring it in too soon to anticipate his reveal. It’s a balance. We also used foley (reproduction of everyday sounds) in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated, mostly with hand-gestures, to bring an audience more into the head-space of the kids.

The underlying intention to the score for the whole film was to allow for moments of transcendence, a hymnal quality. And we wanted use music to put our audience in a place where they could notice the small details and reflect.

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Andrew in Rich Hill

 

Posted September 23, 2014

Going to the Dark Side with Animator Jodie Mack of ‘Dusty Stacks of Mom’

We’re perpetually in search of interesting new approaches to the documentary form. That’s why we we were thrilled that both critics and audiences responded enthusiastically to the most unique experience at True/False 2014, Dusty Stacks of Mom. In it, experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack utilizes stop-motion animation to explore her mom’s old poster shop and the familiar images that people choose to hang on their walls. This odd and hilarious journey is structured around a reimagining of Pink Floyd’s iconic album Dark Side of the Moon with new lyrics sung by Mack herself.

Dusty Stacks returns to Columbia this Wednesday, July 2, as the centerpiece of Light Your Light Shine, a program of Mack’s animation structured like an experimental film rock concert, complete with opening acts and a blowout 3D finale. Let Your Light Shine is the final installment in Ragtag Cinema’s 2014 Homebrewed Series, their fourth annual survey of American microbudget filmmaking.

For a quick preview of Mack’s work, check out her irresistible take on a classic pop song, Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World.

I got the chance to talk with Jodie a couple months back about her mom’s poster factory and constructing a film around a classic album. We chatted via Skype while she worked on a collage in Paris.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Jodie! I wanted to start by asking about your relationship to your mom’s poster shop and all of the stuff there.

JM: I actually worked there in high school doing data entry and rolling posters. Another one of my chores was taking inventory, counting all of the individual posters once a year. So I did actually feel pretty familiar with the material. And its been interesting returning there as an adult, having this material in mind, where the images they used to sell end up and how popular some of them still are.

T/F: Do you consider the movie a documentary?

JM: I think it’s definitely a type of documentary. Documentary was definitely a genre I was hoping to speak to when making it. I’m generally a more abstract, experimental filmmaker, but in all cases it’s the material that guides the way I want something to go.

I thought about lots of documentary strategies for conveying information and how animation functions as part of that in documentary. There’s certainly a lot of animation in documentaries these days, but there is also graphics and charts, titles or what not, things like that. The big question when starting out was how to convey information . . .

I like musicals and I’ve made a musical before, so it seems like in some ways, yeah, it’s just the voiceover narration being delivered in song. Totally normal, totally conventional (laughs). Do you think it’s a documentary?

T/F: Yeah, definitely. One of the things I was really thinking about it while watching is how ubiquitous these images become and how they take on new meanings as they spread out into the world. I thought that was something that you documented.

JM: Yeah, I hope so, it’s tricky because I’ve sort of taken on the lowest forms of imagery. I think that some people might find it hard to engage with. I don’t know how it comes of, if I’m celebrating it, or critiquing it or just paying attention, just noticing.

T/F: So when you chose Dark Side of the Moon you locked yourself into making a film around the actual album, and keeping the time signatures of all of the songs?

JM: Yeah, that’s right. There is some mild divergence, like “Money” is a little bit shorter.

But yeah, as an experimental filmmaker, I like to make films with rules. It just seemed like an interesting way to guide the content and mood (going back to the question how to convey information).

A lot of things wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided to take on the album. There would be no mom’s head on a prism, the crazy vocal solo or the moment where she’s a rock star.

It’s such a weird album because it’s so many people’s point of entry into counterculture. Older folks know every note.

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

T/F: What was the hardest part about shaping the film around the album?

JM: Yeah, well, there was definitely a discrepancy between the pacing of the album and how you want things in cinema. In music, and especially Pink Floyd, your impulse is to jam and linger. Sometimes in film you want to cut to the chase.

It would have been a lot harder if I didn’t have all of these musicians doing different instrumentation tracks. It was still tough. Dark Side of the Moon is a very complex album and being able to shape it with other people was important because I wanted it to feel different than the album.

T/F: Why did you decide to work with different musicians for each song? Why not work with the same musicians through the whole project?

JM: Well, a couple of reasons. In general I knew from other projects that that sort of commitment is a lot for one entity to handle. But also I thought that it would be interesting to make it an exquisite corpse, especially it being DSotM, something that’s been covered so many times. I thought it would be interesting to force this upon it and see where it went.

I tried to stay honest to what people did. And then there were some surprises. Someone had to drop out and so I did the kazoo solo.

T/F: (laughs) Yeah, I liked the kazoo solo.

JM: Yeah, animation is always really time consuming, and I sort of forget how complicated it is to do sound.

T/F: Could you describe the process of the animation some for an animation noob?

JM: Yeah, sure. All of it is 16mm stop-motion, so it’s on a film camera with reel to reel. So I take a picture and move and then take a picture and then move it, 24 frames per second.

It’s all stop-motion animation, no digital effects or anything like that.

T/F: Finally, what was the total time making this film? How long did this project take?

JM: Three years. Not of continuous work. It’s really kind of hard to say, from the first session to when I premiered it, it was three years. I shot for few days and then I didn’t even touch it again until the summer of 2012 and then I finished it in the spring of 2013. So it could be three years, it could be nine months. I felt it percolating a lot. Hard to say.

Posted July 1, 2014

Up to Speed: A Chat with Director/ Cinematographer Nick Bentgen of ‘Northern Light’

This week, Northern Light (T/F 2013) receives its theatrical premiere at the Maysles Cinema in New York City. It screens at 7:30PM nightly through June 22. Filmmakers Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff will be in person at Thursday and Friday’s screenings. For tickets, visit this page ( http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/669737).
-Chris Boeckmann

From a snowmobile driver’s perspective, a race consists of careful maneuvers and breakneck turns. For the detached viewer, it amounts to, literally and figuratively, going in circles. Five hundred of them, in the case of the Sault Ste. Marie I-500, the race at the center of Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light.

In his directorial debut, Bentgen observes the households of Walt and Isaac, strong-willed, hardworking racers who reside in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Walt is a dedicated father and seasoned rider whose racing career seems to be at a standstill. Isaac is a young and ambitious rising star, married without children. As resolute in its vision as its characters are to their sport, Northern Light is an immaculately photographed and intricately structured study of their world.

One of its fundamental interests is competition, which looms heavy over the community. Sport, which the film observes not only in snowmobiles but also in bodybuilding and auto racing, is an alluring, inescapable presence that’s frequently at odds with an even bigger competition, capitalism. Bentgen’s camera registers the physical and emotional tolls of both.

But as much as it is an essay about the American struggle to balance checkbooks and athletics, Northern Light is also an incisive character study, wedding empathy and scrutiny to bewildering effect. This is a film where characters perform tender acts of altruism one moment and engage in casually bigoted dinner table conversation the next. Bentgen trusts us to navigate — revel in, really — all this messiness.

Too often nonfiction films take characterization and plot tips from the tidy world of fiction. A meticulously constructed film of ellipses and characters who inspire wildly conflicted emotions, Northern Light seems to find its storytelling inspiration from some completely new world: the real one.

A year ago, I interviewed director/cinematographer Nick Bentgen via Skype a week before his film celebrated its New York premiere at BAMCinemafest.

T/F: I’m wondering if Northern Light is very different from the film you set out to make.

NB: I was staying in this cabin that my dad and his siblings all shared — it’s actually my grandpa’s cabin, he passed away a long time ago — and I knew I wanted to tell a story set in this place I spent a lot of time in as a kid. I had only a few DVDs with me. Nashville was one and also Two-Lane Blacktop. When I first found the I-500, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is just likeNashville and Two-Lane Blacktop!” Of course it’s not. It’s nothing like that, but still, I kept coming back to those masterpieces while I was making this movie. Gradually it became its own thing.

T/F: The reason I ask is — perhaps this is something that’s entirely accomplished in the editing, but it feels like there are so many moments where you have a clear idea of the film you’re making, of its themes. For example, during the race scene when you manage to capture Emily and James, two characters who don’t really seem to know each other, in the same frame as one tells a crewmember that God’s going to bring their team to victory and the other complains to his buddy about body aches.

NB: Well, yes. By the second or third week, I realized the film was about this community, that this place was the story, regardless of who we eventually ended up focusing on. So like Nashville or any movie that’s a large community portrait, I felt it was fair game to let anyone pass in and out of the story. So sometimes people you haven’t met will just appear, you’ll get a little bit of their story and then they’re not in the movie anymore.

During the race, we were very lucky that multiple people we had been filming with were in the same place. It was irresistible to put them in the same frame. Also, we only had one camera, so microphone placement was very important. We had to decide who the story was about on that shooting day. That shot where James and Emily are in the same frame is this beautiful moment. They’re on completely different wavelengths and yet they’re in the same community.

T/F: So on that day you chose to put the mic on Emily.

NB: Right. With a verite doc, I feel like how you make it is so tied up with why you’re making it because you have such limited means. We knew it was a big day for Isaac, and with Walt’s team, they didn’t have a radio system we could use. There were logistical reasons why we chose to put the mic on Emily, but it was the best choice. She became so excited, and the story totally funneled through her in this great way.

T/F: Going into the I-500, it doesn’t feel like Walt has much chance of winning the race.

NB: Walt has a philosophy of life that I really appreciate and respect. That’s why I spent so much time filming with him. The bigger things he focuses on — spending time with his family and working hard — make him a really captivating subject. And flawed, like all of us. Early on, I asked him, “Do you think you’re going to win?” And of course he wants to win. And he’s done well in races, but I don’t think that’s why he does it. He doesn’t do it to win. Isaac has a much different philosophy. He’s out there to win. I think that contrast is why they’re interesting as subjects.

T/F: If Walt doesn’t race to win, what’s the draw?

NB: Speed. There’s this scene we cut where he says “Once racing is in your blood, it never goes away.” He grew up doing it. Lots of the guys who are into snowmobiling got into it at a very young age.

T/F: Structurally, I find it interesting that you frontload a lot of really challenging moments, particularly instances of sexism and homophobia.

NB: Our one strategy in editing — or dilemma, I guess — was being true to the environment Lisa and I were in when we filmed. Maybe it was just by happenstance, or maybe it was conscious, but the final movie is structured a lot like our experience there. At first, we didn’t know these people, and with any stranger, you take a lot on assumption. In any community, there’s xenophobia or some other issue that prevents you from identifying. As you’re watching the film, I want you to go through that process of estrangement and then become closer with these people and feel like a part of the community.

T/F: One of the reasons your film stands out from a lot of other observational documentaries is the photography. You consistently use a tripod. I’m wondering if your camerawork changed very much over the course of production.

NB: It’s funny, I really feel like the first month or two is the best photographed stuff. That’s partly because the camera was a barrier, this wall I put up. Emily, Walt, Isaac — I connected with all of them at different times during the shoot. If you watched the 300 hours of dailies, it becomes clear that I start caring less and less about what the image looks like as I become more interested in what’s going on. But we did have a rigorous rule set. The first rule was to use a tripod whenever possible, and the second was to not screw with the camera if at all possible. There are a lot of times where the camera feels like a fly on the wall, and that’s because it is: it was just left there.

northernlight_promo1

T/F: Was documentary new to you?

NB: The film’s editor Yoonha [David Park] and I have grown up together in the film industry. We went to school together, and we worked for a music website called Pitchfork where we had 15 minutes, maybe an hour, with our subjects. That was a good early experience.

Most of the jobs I could get as a filmmaker were often doc-style. I wasn’t usually given a lot of toys or money, so you tend to fall into this documentary style regardless of what you’re filming. After a while of shooting documentary, I realized it was the best way to tell stories because you can’t control everything. And then you have to make decisions very fast. It’s also the best way to learn to be a DP.

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about photographing the I-500. Your technique feels pretty unconventional. You don’t get a whole lot of coverage of the race itself. You don’t mount cameras on the snowmobiles or stick cameras all around the track.

NB: It’s funny, I feel like the race scenes are more conventional than I ever expected them to be. There are also more of them than I figured. There are three in the movie. Initially, I set out with this really crazy artistic tactic. I said I was going to film the race in case I needed it, but my plan was to film from the checkered flag of one year to the green flag of the next year, never showing a race. But I figured out that it was completely not true to the experience of people in this community. I really needed the viewer to care a little bit about those races because all the people I’m filming care a lot. If you don’t care at all, you don’t understand where all these people are coming from. So it became a big part of the film’s narrative.

At some point, I saw Senna and said, “Well, I’ll never be that good. I’ll never make anything that thrilling.” There are also logistical reasons why it’s shot the way it’s shot. We had one camera, so there was no way to keep track of all the racers . You’d need eight cameras on the track. It would have become a big production. Instead, I decided to embrace the tools we had. When I later saw the footage, I thought it felt like a removed version of a race, which matched the aesthetic of the rest of the movie. The camera is never telling you how to feel, and you have to find other ways in.

northernlight

T/F: I sort of want to ask you about the way you use nature throughout the film, but it seems like a silly thing for you to discuss.

NB: I haven’t done that many interviews. After you’re done with a film, it’s easy to put everything in a this-is-the-reason-why box. But my favorite filmmakers, Altman especially, say there’s not really an explanation for everything. The whole time we were making the film, we wanted to get across the experience we had. It was more a tone we were going after. And nature is just an all-encompassing thing that dictates life. I feel like explanations are easy enough to do, but it limits what the movie is or what a story can be. I don’t really have explanations for everything.

T/F: That seems like a good place to stop. (laughs)

Posted June 19, 2014

Suspending Disbelief with Daniel Vernon of ‘Miraculous Tales’

In Miraculous Tales we meet Mickey McGuigan, a charming 73-year-old farmer turned writer. Mickey takes us on a tour of his homeland, rural Northern Ireland, explaining magical cures for both livestock and people that remain an integral part of the culture. Along the way we meet numerous practitioners of the miraculous arts, including John Purcell, a charismatic evangelical preacher and faith healer.

Miraculous Tales played at True/False 2014 and will be screening beginning today at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada. I recently got the chance to chat online with director Daniel Vernon about his strange and wonderful film.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: For starters, could you tell me about how this project began? Someone told me it was originally a movie about farming?

DV: I was commissioned to make a film about farming in Northern Ireland for the BBC. It was a pretty wide brief so I know I had to find something or someone to focus on.

My first concern, as always, was casting. Find that character who leaps off the screen, someone the audience, and myself, will want to go on an adventure with. To make it even more challenging . . . make sure that person is a farmer so it fits the brief! This wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It never is. For over three months we scoured the Northern Irish border trying to find the ‘one’.

One day I was drinking tea with yet another farmer I’d met and was about to say my goodbyes. Then the phone rang. The farmer listened down the line with a serious frown and shouted for his wife. She shot out of the house like lightening and ran down the lane out of sight. “What’s going on?” I asked. “She’s off to stop a bleed” he said.

The call had come from a local farmer whose cow was bleeding to death. He was looking for someone with a “cure” to stop the bleeding. It was the first I’d heard of these cures and this set my imagination reeling. Just what is this strange belief system? Does it work? How many more people out there have these seemingly magic powers?

Our research eventually led to my main character Mickey McGuigan. We’d heard through the farmer’s grapevine that he was a man who had been documenting cures and miracles for years. As luck had it Mickey was not only a fantastic character but also a farmer (albeit a retired one), so despite the shift of focus for film the BBC were still onboard.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

DV: It didn’t take long for me to realize that Mickey would really help to knit these small stories together. After all he was a born storyteller, or to use the Irish Gaelic word, a Seanchaí.

Myths and folktales are still very much alive in Ireland. Mickey’s accounts of everyday life are a healthy balance of reality and pure imagination. I wanted to present this world of ‘miracles’ in the same way Mickey interprets them, with a willing suspension of disbelief.

Miraculous_Tales_1

Mickey McGuigan in Miraculous Tales

T/F: Yeah, it’s interesting to talk about the suspension of disbelief in a documentary. I was really drawn into Mickey’s stories by the sense of place that you create. Could you talk about your approach to capturing the feel of rural Ireland? It’s such a beautiful place, it seems like there could be a danger in making the film too pretty, too postcardesque . . . .

DV: Northern Ireland can look very picturesque but most of the pretty locations in the film were once scenes of great tragedy. I wanted to give the audience an impression of the location’s darker side.

The bucolic scenery in the film is usually contrasted with one of Mickey’s horror stories about people meeting a grisly end in that very spot. Sometimes a clue is given in a song as to what lurks beneath the surface.

The only place that seems to have been spared from tragedy is Mickey’s forest; it’s his sanctuary from the modern world. To give this location an otherworldly, Eden-like atmosphere, we used a very dense soundscape of the world’s rarest bird calls.

T/F: Yeah, I really love the sound design, how you weave together different elements, including a large dose of classic country music. How did you go about creating the soundtrack?

DV: The idea of using classic American country music came from the place itself. Country music is massive in Ireland. Tune into any radio station and chances are someone like Billy Ray Cyrus will be singing about their achy breaky heart.

I did a lot of driving on this shoot and heard a lot of country music. We tried a lot of these songs out in the edit. The mood just fitted, and the lyrics added another layer of story.

Aside from the music we spent a lot of time on sound design. Virtually all of the original sound was replaced. I wanted to transport the viewer to a world they thought they knew but felt completely alien. We may have got carried away with forest wildlife effects though . . . when I saw the film recently it sounded like Mickey had walked into in a cosmic menagerie.

T/F: While the miraculous cures are sometimes bizarre or outlandish, and sometimes (in my opinion) quite funny, you make sure to show what motivates them, the real pain and loss that are an inevitable part of our lives. How did you think about striking this balance? Did you ever find yourself cutting out something that was funny because you thought it would be cruel to include or encourage the audience to laugh at someone?

DV: I was aware from the start that an audience unfamiliar with this world would at first see it as downright bizarre. After all how many times do you see a man spitting in a cow’s face? However, I wanted to go beyond the strange spectacle and get to know the people, understand them and ultimately respect them.

I did come across some cures and situations that were just too bizarre to include though. It would have tipped the balance into sheer comedy. One such omission was a man who cured piles with a nutmeg!

T/F: Finally, I wanted to ask about your decision to feature evangelical faith-healer John Purcell so prominently. What made decide on him as a character? He forms a really interesting contrast with Mickey.

DV: I knew I wanted a preacher from organised religion to be a character in the film. I was interested in how pagan healing practices had been absorbed and incorporated into a wider belief system.

I was actually filming with another preacher I’d met, then one day he took me to the opening of a new church. After an hour or so of monosyllabic bible readings I was losing the will to live. Then John Purcell took to the stage. He was like a turbo charged Billy Graham and it blew my socks off. John had that fire in his belly I’d been looking for.

Miraculous_Tales_5

John Purcell in Miraculous Tales

Posted April 25, 2014

Back to School with Amanda Rose Wilder of ‘Approaching the Elephant’

Amanda Rose Wilder’s debut feature Approaching the Elephant spies into the first year of a “free school”, a radical institution where all the rules are decided democratically and the teachers and students have equal say. An intimate observation reminiscent of the early direct cinema of Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles, the film captures an elemental power struggle between students Lucy and Jio, and their school director Alex Khost in striking black and white.

Approaching the Elephant was unveiled at True/False 2014, screened last weekend at the Wisconsin Film Festival and plays for the second time today at the Sarasota Film Festival. I got the chance to chat with Amanda about her film and its inspiration a couple weeks ago.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you first hear about the idea of a free school?

ARW: My father is an elementary school teacher. When I was ten we took a trip to visit Summerhill, the most well-known free school.

T/F: Where’s that at?

ARW: Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill.

We visited for a couple days. It was a memorable and in some ways shocking experience. In elementary school I was the girl that followed the rules – but liked kids who stirred things up. Summerhill was full of uninhibited energy. The kids were all ‘characters’…self-confident, bold, frank.

I remember I sat in on a writing class that began with a free write, something I’ve done since but hadn’t at that point. I remember sitting there thinking, “what do they want me to free write?” while everyone else was furiously scribbling whatever they wished. I vividly remember a boy shouting during a democratic meeting, ‘fuck off and die!’ and went home quoting that phrase.

T/F: So how did you decide on a free school as a setting for a film? Was it an idea that formed that early on?

ARW: Well, it came about after I graduated from Marlboro College. Marlboro is a progressive college; the last two years you spend working on a thesis of your own design. My thesis was titled “The Poetic Documentary and the Documentary Poem” and I had gotten really into documentarians the Maysles and Wiseman and poets Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams and how poetry intersects with documentary. After I graduated, my film professor, Jay Craven, asked if I wanted to make a documentary with him on progressive education. So, we scraped together a little money and I went to the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) Conference. I conducted about 15 interviews with anyone I could grab. One of those people, who I just met on the street, was Alex Khost. He told me he was months away from opening a free school in New Jersey, 20 minutes from where I was living. He was open, charming, comfortable in front of the camera. After the interview I asked if I could show up on their first day.

From the first day at Teddy McArdle Free School I could tell it would be an incredible thing to document and would fit nicely with the kind of direct cinema filmmaking I’d grown to love. There was a story unfolding before the camera, and a fascinating group of people, most of whom were children.

I shot for two school years. The film comprises the first year, from the first day to the last day. I amassed about 240 hours total.

T/F: So, what’s True/False about your film?

ARW: Oh man, good question . . .

Well, here’s why I decided this was a story I wanted to tell: I quickly realized that the free school model allows for kids to be themselves in a way most schools do not. Their personalities are really able to come out. And as a filmmaker I have an interest in capturing people honestly, as their full-blown selves, warts and all, you might say, but lovingly.

I think you see this in similar ways in documentaries that are about kids outside of school, films like Streetwise, Children Underground. Kids’ lives, as much as adults’, are messy and complicated. I thought, wow, this model is allowing for me to capture the lives of children, something very true and rarely shown.

So I began the film because I had an interest in free schools and then realized I could capture this incredible social dynamic, these complex personalities. The model became a means to an end, a context for a story I wanted to tell.

ATE-LUCY

Lucy in Approaching the Elephant

T/F: Yeah, it really reminded me of how intense childhood was, how important every conflict was in the moment.

ARW: Yes, and more and more kids are being stripped of their ability to take risks and figure out conflicts, which leads to them not knowing how to. I came across a great article recently called “The Overprotected Kid”. In The Atlantic. There’s a line that describes well what I think is happening in child-rearing, “the erosion of child culture.”

As much as I am inspired by Wiseman and the Maysles, I’m inspired by Cassavetes. Love Streams and A Woman Under the Influence as by Gimme Shelter and High School. Cassavetes is my model for showing people honestly. Perhaps there’s a link between the erosion of child culture and the erosion of independent cinema. Films are less wild, less messy, less alive and energetic. More documentarians should take cues from Cassavetes and less from advertising and grant qualifiers.

T/F: It’s interesting how much Cassavetes influences documentary. His work always seems to come up . . .

ARW: I feel like Cassavetes and the Maysles are soul sisters, two sides of a coin. Another of my influences on this movie was the Dardenne brothers. Have you seen Les Fils (The Son)? So much woodworking in that film. And a central man/boy relationship.

So, getting back to your question, what I hope is true about the movie is the depiction of childhood, in this full, vital, energetic, Cassavetes inspired way.

What’s false? I tried to be as true to what I saw as possible. But, of course, what I hope everyone knows, I was only there on certain days, I only captured when I hit record, and we edited.

But I feel the story is the story of the year. I think we accomplished realizing that.

T/F: What effect did you think the camera had on what was going on?

ARW: Not much. Because I was there from the first day, I was taken as a part of the community. I find if you relax and don’t get in the way, people relax. Being a one-person band helps (I did camera and sound). I tried not to be a dominating personality over the kids, and I think they accepted me among them because of that.

Lucy especially was very comfortable from the get-go in part I think because her mother is an avid photographer, so Lucy was accustomed to a camera in her face. Lucy would say to new students, “That’s Amanda, don’t look at her camera, she just wants us to act natural.”

T/F: Haha.

ARW: They picked it up quickly. Kids in general are less self-conscious than adults.

T/F: It was really fascinating to see Alex, an adult, get pulled into all of the conflict between the kids because of the nature of the school?

ARW: Well, it was his school as much as theirs. One of my favorite scenes is the meeting where Lucy and Alex are debating whether Alex should be allowed to make safety decisions by himself or if they should be voted on democratically. More specifically, whether Alex telling Lucy to not jump off a high storage bin was harassment. I love it because they both take the meeting so seriously. Lucy holds her ground against Alex and Alex treats her with complete respect while at the same time stating his points. They’re complete equals. And after the meeting, they go about their ways and are cordial.

How conflict is resolved between Lucy and Alex and between Jio and Alex is, of course, very different. And between Lucy and Jio. The trio was so fascinating. I felt so lucky to have not just one but three incredible people, and the dynamics between them, to focus on.

T/F: When I talked with Robert (Approaching the Elephant editor Robert Greene) he said that the decision to use black and white made the story feel more timeless. Could you talk about that decision?

ARW: While I was editing, before Robert came on as a collaborator, I’d now and then throw the material in black and white. The editing always seemed to just come together more naturally that way. I think it has something to do with going with the elemental, pure nature of the story. It looks so beautiful in black and white, like it could be from any time.

T/F: Yeah, the conflict really feels elemental.

ARW: Yeah, it highlights for me how it’s about social dynamics, personality, people’s faces . . . I think that’s all I have to say about it. It was a pretty intuitive choice.

ATE-JIO (1)

Jio in Approaching the Elephant

Posted April 12, 2014

‘Gypsy Davy’ Writer/Director Rachel Leah Jones talks Flamenco and Filmmaking

David Serva Jones is one of the only Americans to ever become a world-class flamenco guitarist. He is also a heartbreaker who has left numerous women and children in his wake. One of these children is writer/director Rachel Leah Jones, who set out over the course of a decade to get to know her estranged father and collect stories from the people who he left behind. This includes her own mother, a Brooklyn girl who became a flamenco dancer and began a family with David in Berkeley in the early 70s. Gypsy Davy (T/F 2012) combines these investigations with haunting archival footage and elegant and biting narration. The result is a compelling examination of one man’s hard-to-pin-down legacy.

This film is now available on Hulu (embedded below) for viewers in the U.S. You can also watch it on a wide variety of digital platforms, including iTunesAmazonYouTube and Sundance Now and buy a DVD/CD combo pack including a soundtrack of David’s incredible music.

A few months back, I got the chance to speak with Jones about her film via Skype while she waited for a train in Tel Aviv.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: How did you get interested in telling a personal story in a film? Is this something you always thought you’d do?

RLJ: Well, I set out to tell this story without “taking it personally”, without talking about myself. Then finally, towards the very end, I had to capitulate and accept the fact that I was the reason there was a story. Everyone else was just living their lives and I was the one who wanted to stop and examine things.

Gypsy Davy was the first film that I started shooting and the third that I actually finished. It was good that it was already my third movie, because that way it was less painful to finish.

T/F: So when did you actually start filming?

RLJ: So it’s quite literal in the film, the very first shot in the movie is pretty much the very first shot I took. This is when I get called to his side after the accident where he broke his pelvis and shattered his wrist. That doesn’t mean I edited chronologically, but when I asked myself “What is the story I want to tell?” and “Where does it begin and end?” it made a lot of sense to say “Okay, where did it really begin?”

So, I just started filming. It took a long time to figure out what I actually wanted to do and muster up the courage to go and meet everybody. I had a life to live, jobs to work, other movies to make, kids to have; there was a whole decade of life that happened at the same time. And although this wasn’t how I intended to make the film, in the end I think there is some satisfaction, both for myself and hopefully for the viewer, in seeing us change over time.

T/F: So how does that process interact with the narration? It’s written in the second person as a letter to your father. Was that planned from the beginning?

RLJ: No, I had hoped that there wouldn’t have to be narration. Eventually, it became clear to me that that was out of the question. At the end of the decade, at the end of the day, I understood that the only person who went through any kind of change was me.

It starts with the big drama of his broken wrist. Will he ever play guitar again? And then more drama: he adopts his fifth kid, he gets married for the fourth time. All of this stuff happens to him and yet nothing happens to him. The man doesn’t change over the course of that decade. These twists and turns are all sort of par for the course; it’s what he’s been doing for 50 years.

So then, it was me who transformed in this period. I had to go figure out where I was at 40 where I may not have been at 30. I had to create that character and write a voiceover for her. And that was kind of the worst, not because I don’t like to write. I can write voiceovers for other people really well, but writing your own voice is tricky. How much of it was going to be true? Who was that girl going to be?

For the longest time I couldn’t figure if I should do it in the second person addressing him or in the third person addressing the audience. I kept changing it this way and that way. Like, “I was born in Berkeley California”, I don’t need to tell him that, he was there. But, “When I was ten years old, I started telling people he was dead”, that’s not as intense or interesting as “I started telling people you were dead”.

So, I did what probably a lot of documentary filmmakers secretly do when they’re finishing their personal movies. I went back to my therapist. I came with my laptop and these two voiceovers and said, “I’m sure one of them is truer than the other”. She just looked at me and said “why do you have to choose?”

Finally, I broke it down on paper, and realized every time I spoke in the third person I had put archive and every time I spoke in the second person my father was on screen. So it had already been resolved structurally, I just didn’t see it. And save for one or two adjustments, it was already written and written in both voices. When I ask people if the narration was in the second or third person they can’t remember. My therapist was right, why do you have to choose?

T/F: Could you talk some about how you structured the film? You use a non-linear structure to create mystery quite effectively.

RLJ: I don’t think I was looking to be mysterious at all. There are two obvious ways you could go. You could go from the present and roll it back from 100 to 0 or you could go forward from 0 to 100. But I asked myself, where does my story begin? It begins with my mom and me and we’re smack in the middle. So it begins with woman number three. And then what happened? Woman number four. And then what happened? Woman number five. But wait, where did it really all begin? Woman number one. But listen, there’s also woman number two . . .

That logic presented itself almost immediately. And save for a little bit of tweaking around woman number two, I never had to rearrange it. Something that seems really thought out was completely intuitive and just sort of took care of itself.

T/F: Watching the film, I found my attitudes towards David’s art very interesting. The virtuoso of his guitar playing is undeniable, but I also regarded it with a Darwinian cynicism, that it’s fundamentally a seduction technology or something. And that ambivalence comes through in the narration as well. So I wanted to ask you, do you enjoy David’s music?

RLJ: Today, totally. When I was younger, flamenco altogether, David’s or not David’s, I had a hard time with. I don’t know that I ever hated it, but I had a hard time with it. I had a hard time with it for white middle class reasons: the funky aesthetics; the throaty, growling vocals.

But it totally grew on me, and I totally learned to appreciate it, because, having heard it all my life, I also knew it deep down inside. I don’t play music, I’m the only one in the family that doesn’t do music or dance. I’m the brainy, mouthy one, those are my tools. But if I hear flamenco, I anticipate what’s coming. Now I can really enjoy flamenco, including his. Also, I can actually recognize his playing, which I couldn’t do when I was younger.

Bottom line is, he’s a really, really good musician. He’s not a flashy player. He doesn’t really care for the notion of solo guitar. For him guitar is all about accompaniment. Flamenco is basically about rhythm and song, or cante in Spanish, and the other stuff: guitar, dance, are additions. He understands himself in that supporting role, first as an accompanist, the person that brings out the best in the singer. Also, he really understands negative space. He understands the lack of sound as the place where the last sound you made reverberates. It’s a gentle and intelligent understanding of what music is about.

So I appreciate him as a musician. What I don’t appreciate is everybody’s romance of the artist as somebody who can’t do family and can’t do commitment. I don’t buy the notion that there’s an either/or. I’m not a brilliant filmmaker, but I’m assuming I’m not a bad filmmaker. I still have a kid, I still change diapers, I was still pregnant and nursing in the editing room. Very few women and way too many men get away with this notion that it’s either/or.

The music is fantastic and wonderful and it’s a perfect vehicle for him to express himself emotionally. All of that I buy, just not the either/or thing.

T/F: Last thing I wanted to ask about is the archival of your childhood that you use in the film. What is it that makes it so evocative? I’m always at a loss for why super 8 footage has such a cinematic quality.

RLJ: There’s a mixture of footage there, some is 16mm that my mom and her friends shot with an experimental filmmaker named Damon Rarey who was pretty active in the San Francisco Bay area at the time. He shot the garage sale footage where the two women go chasing after the guy who, because they’re so busy fighting over him, manages to rip off all of their stuff. They go running after him, and finally realize when he’s out of reach that all they have is each other.

I’d never even seen that footage until quite late in the editing. There was a point where I was like “How should this movie end?” and I had this vague recollection that I had asked my mom this very question, but I didn’t remember her answer. So I went back to some interview with her that I had thrown out a long time ago and found her answer, where she mentioned the garage sale film. I didn’t think much of it at the time of the interview, but now that I was editing I was like “I need that footage!” Someone located the one remaining copy on a farm in Northern California and telecined it for me. When I saw it I was like, it’s the story! It’s the movie of the movie! I had already written the voiceover about being born in the middle of a garage sale, so it was too perfect.

A lot of the other footage is Super 8 that my grandfather shot when he’d come out to visit from New York. The thing about all of the archive in the film is that Gypsy Davy is also a portrait of a generation. It’s a generation of bohemian baby boomers. It’s a self-aware yet unselfconscious generation; these people felt they had the right to reinvent themselves culturally, to change their names, even to assume new ethnic identities, to some extent. You can see it in the footage and photographs, it’s the bold and the beautiful. It’s not my generation, which gets all uptight and confused with identity politics. We’re much more self-conscious about the way we image ourselves. Whereas our parents were of that modernist era that took itself for granted and had a ball playing make believe. We, their children, on the other hand, are the products of post-modernism’s deconstructions, reconstructions and, let’s admit it, malcontents.

Posted March 31, 2014
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