Our friends at Take One Action Film Festival launch their 10th anniversary programme this Thursday, 14/09, in Glasgow (Wed 13/09 in Edinburgh). The 2017 programme contains several documentary films screening in Glasgow that caught our eye. Here they are!
An Insignificant Man (Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla, 2016) Tuesday 19/09, GFT
This documentary focuses on Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the Common Man’s party and dubbed “the Bernie Sanders of India”. The screening is followed by a discussion exploring the influence of grassroots social movements in shaping the political agenda in India and Scotland, with guests including Robin McAlpine (Common Weal) and Indra Adnan (The Alternative UK).
The Workers Cup (Adam Sobel, 2017) Thursday 21/09, CCA
This doc follows four migrant workers – four of 1.6 million – who spend their days in slavery-like conditions constructing Qatar’s 2010 World Cup infrastructure and their nights competing in a workers’ football tournament in the same stadiums they help build. After the screening, there will be a discussion (with guests including Suzanne Crimin of Oxfam), focussing on the push towards “decent work” and some of the many international solidarity initiatives challenging systemic inequalities in Qatar and beyond.
Whose Streets? (Sabaah Folayan, 2017) Friday 22/09, CCA
A document of the transformation undergone in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Folayan’s debut mixes original footage, interviews and cellphone footage to provide a vital counterpoint to the mainstream coverage of the ongoing events. One of the film’s protagonists, Brittany Ferrell will take part in the post-screening discussion.
To End a War (Marc Silver, 2017) Saturday 23/09, CCA
This intimate, observational documentary explores the peace process in Colombia, with unprecedented access to both political leaders, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Chief Commander Timochenko. It’s a behind-the-scenes consideration of an epochal moment in Colombian history, followed by a discussion exploring “what it takes, strategically and spiritually, for a nation of 50 million to move from hatred to forgiveness.”
Journalist Patrick Harley was our roving reporter at Document 2016. Here he recounts his experience through the weekend.
This time last week, the Document International Human Rights Film Festival had just called time on its 14th edition, one that chairman of the board David Archibald described as being “one of the best, if not the best” years for the festival he’d ever seen. The chairman, of course, has no input on the programming side of things (that having been overseen by co-ordinators Eileen Daily, Sam Kenyon and Sean Welsh), but if that still seems too biased, I can give my own opinion: this year’s Document was the strongest and most thought provoking I have attended, both as cinematic showcase and call to action.
When planning this write-up, I originally considered separating it into distinct parts, each with its own theme, thread or angle. Yet the more I thought on my experience of the weekend, the more I realised the overarching heart of this year’s programme – and that, simply put, is freedom.
Because I still love a subheading though, let’s look back and break things down a bit.
The freedom to have a safe home
Before the festival’s opening film played to a near full house in the CCA Theatre, co-ordinator Sam Kenyon emphasised how Document seeks to expose people not only to socials issues, but also to the “poetics of documentary” itself, and just how powerful it is for us to be able to receive these images at all. Kings of Nowhere could not have followed this mission statement more perfectly.
Beautifully and hauntingly shot, the film tells of the waterlogged Mexican village of San Marcos. With the few remaining occupants transporting themselves around the half-destroyed settlement by boat or by mule, the decaying and overgrown buildings lend the visuals a dreamlike quality, yet their quietness also betrays a sense of loss. For those villagers still living there, San Marcos is a literal ghost town. Flooded by the government’s construction of the Picachos dam in 2009, the population has shrunk from 300 families to three, and the ones that remain live surrounded by both the spirits of the past and the dangers of the present.
Fearful of any passing vehicle, the exact nature of the threat plaguing the villagers’ psyches is never clarified (and with the line between police force and cartel in parts of Mexico becoming increasingly blurred, it’s unlikely to make a difference), but statements like “they chopped Ricardo into little pieces” leave us in little doubt as to its seriousness. “When it gets ugly, it’s scary,” one woman tells the camera, “locked doors won’t do you any good.”
Yet perhaps what’s most striking in Kings of Nowhere, is not what its subjects have lost, but what they have retained. In one moment, a woman affectionately argues with her rancher husband about his ability to lasso wandering souls in the town’s moonlit graveyard. In another, a second couple explain their mission to fix up the local church, showing thanks to God for letting them survive. “What we went through isn’t so bad,” they say. It seems that, despite everything, one thing the people of San Marcos will always have is their humanity.
But holding onto that sense of self can be struggle, particularly in the face of constant displacement – a battle the festival’s focus on the ongoing refugee crisis often showed. In Dreaming of Denmark, director Michael Graversen follows the journey of Wasiullah. An Afghan native who has spent his formative years awaiting asylum in Denmark, when he turns 18, Wasi’s request is rejected, leaving him no choice but to accept deportation or travel illegally to Italy in hope of better fortune. With post-traumatic stress disorder clouding memories of his birthplace and neither European state making his resettlement easy, Wasi’s past ties him to multiple nations, yet he can safely be citizen of none. He is quite literally homeless.
With Wasi finding himself reliant upon the kindness of strangers, the film showcases the power and importance of human connections: ones that transcend borders and, at times, laws (indeed, Graversen admitted during a post-screening Q&A that his time spent travelling with Wasi often placed him in those grey areas of legality where being humane becomes a crime). Moments where Wasi and his Ethiopian-born friend Mussa simply act like teenagers on camera are beautiful to watch, yet with the latter having been granted right to stay in Denmark, there is always a sense of sadness in the air. As his stresses grow, the effects of Wasi’s PTSD worsen. Suddenly he forgets Denmark and even forgets Mussa. To see that bond severed is tragic: how can a young man feel accepted by society when he has not only no home, but also no memory of ever having had one?
A fact brought home by Wasi’s story as well as the short films presented by GRAMNet (Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network) is that isolation and dehumanisation can often go hand-in-hand. In Frederik Subei’s Transit Zone there is a heart-breaking progression in which a young Sudanese man, Teefa, moves from an idealisation of England to hatred of its very being. Having dreamed of living there his whole life, his struggles to leave Calais leave him reflective and angry. “Why would I want to go somewhere that doesn’t want me?”, he announces in frustration. Meanwhile, in Anne-Claire Adet’s Bunkers we find ourselves plunged into Geneva’s subterranean refugee camps. With the structures originally built to withstand nuclear war, we hear from one resident who was a journalist in his native Sudan and now isn’t even deemed deserving of a home with a window. It’s difficult to retain a sense of belonging when your life is so hidden, it has literally been pushed underground.
The freedom to be who you are
That feeling of forced concealment was a major theme in this year’s films, with Micah Fink’s The Abominable Crime shining light on two stories from Jamaica’s LGBTQ community. With anti-gay discrimination woven so deeply into the nation’s fabric, the title is taken directly from Jamaica’s anti-sodomy law – the only one in which the crime is given moral judgment within the wording of the document itself. There is no “ghastly crime” of murder, no “fiendish crime” of rape, but there is the “abominable crime” of homosexual sex. With this as a starting point, it’s no wonder that Jamaican MPs such as Ernest Smith feel comfortable standing up in parliament to express concerns that “homosexuals have become too brazen”.
With 82% admitting that they are prejudiced against homosexuals, much of Jamaican society agrees with him, Fink’s film telling the stories of Simone Edwards, a lesbian single mother forced to flee the country following an attempt on her life, and Maurice Tomlinson, a lawyer and activist whose principals have spurred him to put his own safety aside in order to return. Also appearing at this year’s festival In Conversation, Tomlinson’s inspirational work has seen him spearhead the first ever legal challenge to this discriminatory law – but with some of Jamaica’s most influential religious bodies registering themselves as “interested parties” in the case, he’ll have his work cut out. After all, it’s difficult to argue against an opponent that believes their position is ‘essential to avoiding the potential extinction of the human race’.
As remarkable as such statements may seem to those of us on the outside, however, Tomlinson was keen to emphasise that an air of high-and-mightiness is never the most productive route. Using the acronym “ARE”, he encouraged Document attendees to consider that, if we want to help constructively, we must first:
“Acknowledge” that Britain and America are responsible for importing homophobia to Jamaica through religious and cultural colonisation;
Show “Respect”, treating both Jamaica’s local authorities and its activists with manners, not Holier-than-thou haughtiness, and accept that they can do the work themselves. Help is appreciated, a saviour complex is not.
And finally, “Engage” with the positives by realising that Jamaica is successfully moving toward such things as a reduction in homophobia and a decrease in HIV. Do not focus on what you might see as “backwards” – nobody likes to be patronised.
Indeed, the fight against belittlement took a central role in one of the weekend’s other standout black queer films, Marlon Riggs’ seminal Tongues Untied. Originally released in 1989, it plays as a statement of empowerment: a call to arms by a group of men no longer willing to accept the idea that to be both black and gay is somehow laughable. Through a mix of spoken testimonial, poetry and potent editing, Riggs’ film states that no black gay man should feel a need to prioritise just one of either their race or their sexuality, and that nor should they remain silent, bottling up their sadness as if agreeing that their two-fold marginalisation makes them the lowest of the low.
Closer to Tomlinson’s sentiments still is Tongues Untied’s central message that black gay men should not be reliant upon their non-black counterparts for salvation. Fetishised by the homosexual community, several contributors state that their first open sexual encounters came from white men with less obstacles to contend with. “To trust passion again: what a joy,” one speaker relates, “that it should come from a white boy with grey-green eyes: what a curse.” Bookended by its repeated refrain of “brother-to-brother”, Riggs’ film is structured as – and calls for – a progression from silence to acceptance, not just of oneself, but also the unique community these men form. As a result, an extended sequence of uninhibited group dancing toward the film’s close feels not just like an act of enjoyment, but also one of defiance. A statement that carries us toward what should be the most prevailing of all human freedoms…
The freedom to be part of the world
The most admirable thing about this year’s Document programme was its diversity. On the festival’s final day, I watched Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side, a controversial American docu-fiction hybrid exploring the lives of both drug addicts and Second Amendment defending militia men, as well as Closing Gala film, Plaza de la Soledad, which provides voice to Mexico City’s ageing prostitutes. They were, of course, entirely different, yet what stands out about both is the complete absence of judgement. Despite dealing with topics as difficult as violence, abuse and childhood sexualisation, Plaza de la Soledad is at points joyous to watch, taking its tonal cues not from the directorial outsider, but from the strength and positivity of the women onscreen. In The Other Side, meanwhile, many viewers would likely experience revulsion as they witness a man inject drugs into the breast of a pregnant stripper, and bafflement as they listen to a gun toting conspiracy theorist offer legitimately insightful commentary on American interventionism. What Minervini deftly captures, however, is one universal truth – these people are human beings, just like us.
Whatever our experience, all of us have the right to exist. Perhaps this is partly why Jury Prize Winner, Tempestad, left such an impression. Though not my personal favourite film of the festival, its story of two women caught in Mexico’s invisible war is an essential one. Imprisoned without reason or trial – Miriam Carbajal’s ordeal reminds us of the horrifying fact that many still live in a world where somebody can say the words: ‘we know you didn’t do anything, but somebody has to be punished’. There is no better illustration of humanity’s innate fear of freedom, a word still frequently seen as a synonym for disobedience, or even disorder – a threat to some perceived sense of harmony.
To borrow once more from the words of chairman of the board David Archibald: “Document stands not in that tradition, but absolutely swims against it.” Long may it continue.
On Tuesday 18/10 we hosted a free Document 2016 preview event in the Govanhill Baths. The audience were treated to homemade soup, drinks and a sneak peak at the festival line-up, including a screening of Michael Graversen’s Dreaming of Denmark. Thanks to Michael for allowing us to screen his film (twice), to Stevie and all at the Baths for hosting us and of course everyone that came along to check out the programme. Hopefully see some of you again this weekend!
Yasmine’s Moroccan soup
Bread courtesy of the Freedom Bakery
The audience arrives!
Co-coordinators Sam + Eileen serving soup, bread, beer + soft drinks to the audience
Film Journalist Patrick Harley on his picks from Document 2016’s programme.
With over 40 events taking place across three-and-bit days, the Document 2016 programme is as densely packed as it is varied. Document, of course, is a festival that reveals facts and, sadly, one fact is that it’s just not possible to see everything. So, if you’ve browsed the brochure, but circled all of it, or scanned the website, but found too many favourites to count, here are my personal festival picks. I can’t promise you a list with zero overlap though; some decisions are so difficult, even I haven’t made them yet!
Bringing together seven separate stories, Maxì Dejoie and Virginija Vareikytė’s film deals with unanswered questions, unresolved pain and life-changing decisions. From freedom fighter to KGB officer, exiled writer to former interrogator, this examination of a difficult and complex past is conducted from both sides – something mirrored by the contrast of archive and new footage; the stories told during the Soviet Era are markedly different from the stories told today.
When news of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony’s 20-year reign of terror became a viral sensation in late 2012, the world seemed certain it had uncovered a modern monster, hiding in plain sight. What, then, does that make Yoweri Museveni, the dictator that has overseen the displacement and destruction of Uganda’s Acholi people, yet regularly rubs shoulders with both US presidents and UK royalty? Engrossing and important viewing in its own right, the film will also serve as a keynote for Document’s critical forum discussion, Looking for Truth: Programming Documentary Film Festivals, which will follow directly afterward.
With the need for America’s Black Lives Matter movement currently seeming to be demonstrated on a weekly (if not daily) basis, there is no better time to address Britain’s own problems with discrimination and law enforcement. In 2011, riots tore their way across London – The Hard Stop traces things back to the moment that sparked it all: the murder of Mark Duggan at the hands of the police and the atmosphere that allowed it to happen.
Though opening and closing galas Kings of Nowhere and Plaza de la Soledad might bookend festival, it would be remiss of me not to draw equal attention to their Desaparecidos strand stablemate. Reflecting on the nightmarish inescapability of a system that allows those in power to act with impunity, Tempestad gives voice to the haunting and human journey of two women struggling against the tides of corruption.
One telling of Jamaica’s fierce anti-gay laws and the other of New York’s fiercest teen subculture, in some ways The Abominable Crime and Kiki may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, yet both revolve around concerns of prejudice, identity and equality for LGBTQ people-of-colour. With black queer voices still vastly underrepresented, this year’s Document finds multiple opportunities to place them at the forefront. Indeed, I could have filled most of this list with the festival’s Marlon Riggs: Freaky Free retrospective, but some things go without saying: see everything you can.
Activist Maurice Tomlinson will also be attending the festival In Conversation following Saturday’s screening of The Abominable Crime.
Literal fire and brimstone fuel this meditation on the destructive effects of the Chinese mining industry. Viewing both society and the environment as under threat, director Zhao Liang’s visual poem draws directly on Dante’s The Divine Comedy, seeing both the flames of hell and the never-ending toil of purgatory in his country’s grimly insistent march toward industrialisation.
Two years ago, Document hosted a screening of Nowhere Home. A festival highlight, it shone heart-breaking light on the situation facing Norway’s underage asylum seekers, often kept in a state of perpetual waiting until they reach 18, before being sent home to a near certain death. Despite unfolding in a different part of Scandinavia, Dreaming of Denmark seems a natural companion piece: the story of what happens to those 18-year-olds that would rather disappear than die.
Something of an anomaly in the programme, the latest from Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini has been openly described by its creator as treading “the fine line between documentary and fiction”. A mix of observation and re-creation, Minervini employs a level of cinematic technique he deems necessary to tell a story that is testament to the lives of his subjects – drug addicts and militia members who inhabit the fringes of society. Surely an intriguing and provocative way to round-off a weekend where the conveyance of truths promises to be just as captivating as the truths themselves.
Patrick Harley is a freelance film journalist who has written for TVBomb, VirginMedia and the Directory of World Cinema: Scotland.
We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history – where the conjunction of Post Modernist cynicism (eliminating humanistic and critical thinking in the education system), sheer greed engendered by the consumer society sweeping many people under its wing, human, economic and environmental catastrophe in the form of globalization, massively increased suffering and exploitation of the people of the so-called Third World, as well as the mind-numbing conformity and standardization caused by the systematic audiovisualization of the planet have synergistically created a world where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered “old fashioned.” Where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm – to be taught even to children. In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia – which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma. The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.
In February 1998 I met with Paul Saadoun of 13 Production, a documentary film company based in Marseilles, and we agreed to produce a film on the Paris Commune. During sixteen months of intensive research and pre-production, with the exception of La Sept ARTE in France, all of the major global TV associations which were approached, refused to participate in funding for the film. “I do not like Peter Watkins’ films,” said the Commissioning Editor for the BBC in London. Early in 1999, one of the major art centres in Paris – the Musée d’Orsay – learned of our film, decided to organize an exhibition on the Paris Commune (consisting of contemporary photographs, and the works of Corbet, a member of the Commune), and allocated 300,000 francs to our film budget.
The filming of La Commune took place in July 1999, in an abandoned factory in Montreuil, on the eastern edge of Paris. Working with Agathe Bluysen, one of our main researchers, and our casting crew – principally my elder son Patrick, and Virginie Guibbaud – I enlisted over 220 people from Paris and the provinces to take part in the film; approximately 60% of them had no prior acting experience. Among the cast were a number of people from Picardy and other regions of France, with specific dialects and accents (since many migrants from the provinces took an active role in the Commune). Through the conservative press in Versailles, and newspapers like Le Figaro, we also recruited people from the Paris area to join the project specifically because of their conservative politics (to act in roles opposed to the Commune).
The set in the disused factory was designed and constructed by Patrice Le Turcq as a series of interconnecting rooms and spaces, designed to represent the working class 11th district of Paris, a centre of revolutionary activity during the Commune. The set was carefully designed to ‘hover’ between reality and theatricality, with careful and loving detail applied for example to the texture of the walls, but with the edges of the set always visible, and with the ‘exteriors’ – the Rue Popincourt and the central Place Voltaire – clearly seen for what they are – artificial elements within an interior space.
Cinematographer Odd Geir Saether filmed Edvard Munch in 1973. To implement my plan in La Commune for long, highly mobile uninterrupted takes, Saether and chief lighting technician Clarisse Gatti covered the ceiling of the factory with regularly spaced special neon lights, to give an even luminescence to the whole area, and to prevent the use of traditional lights on the floor obstructing the path of the hand-held camera. Jean-François Priester developed an equally ingenious method for the highly mobile and flexible recording of the sound, using two boom operators with radio-microphones and portable mixing system, which moved around the labyrinthine set.
Broadly speaking, our ‘process’ manifests in the extended way in which we involved the cast in the preparation for, and then during the filming, and in the way that some of the people continued the process after the filming was completed. Our ‘form’ is visible in the long sequences and in the extended length of the film which emerged during the editing. What is significant, and I believe very important in ‘La Commune’, is that the boundaries between ‘form’ and ‘process’ blur together, i.e., the form enables the process to take place – but without the process the form in itself is meaningless.
Before the filming we asked the cast to do their own research on this event in French history. The Paris Commune has always been severely marginalized by the French education system, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it is a key event in the history of the European working class, and when we first met, most of the cast admitted that they knew little or nothing about the subject. It was very important that the people become directly involved in our research on the Paris Commune, thereby gaining an experiential process in analyzing those aspects of the current French system which are failing in their responsibility to provide citizens with a truly democratic and participatory process. The French education system is definitely one aspect which is not functioning in this regard; its marginalization of the Paris Commune is only one part of a bigger problem – which includes an almost complete absence of critical media education.
The cast research on the Paris Commune in the months prior to the filming supplemented over a year of intensive investigation by our own research team (led by Agathe Bluysen and Marie-José Godin, with Laurent Colantonio, Stéphanie Lataste and Laure Cochener, and working with such eminent historians as Alain Dalotel, Michel Cordillot, Marcel Cerf, Robert Tombs and Jacques Rougerie). Our work necessitated a very broad and at the same time detailed sweep through dozens of different aspects of the Paris Commune and of this historical period in France – ranging from the personalities of the Commune and the Versaillais government, debates in the Hôtel de Ville and in the National Assembly, the role of women and of the Catholic Church and its education system, the problems of sewerage, drinking water and lighting in Paris, military uniforms of the period, music and songs of the period, etc. etc.
At a later stage, the research work involved the actors forming groups (e.g., those playing the Union des femmes; the bourgeoisie opposed to the Commune; the soldiers of the National Guard; the officers and men of the Versaillais forces; the elected members of the Commune, etc.) to discuss the background of the people they were portraying, as well as to reflect on the links between the events of the Commune and society today. In this way, we were asking the cast to contribute directly to the manner of telling their own history – as opposed to the usual hierarchical and simplistic process of TV and filmmaking. This is a central part of the process of our film.
During the filming the cast were also engaged in a collective experience, constantly discussing – between themselves, and with myself and members of the team led by Agathe Bluysen – what they would say, how they might feel, and how they would react to the events of the Commune which were about to be filmed. Simultaneously, Marie-José Godin was preparing the young and older women who played the girls in the Catholic school in the rue Oberkampf and their supervising Sisters, and the two Catholic priests. The results of all of these discussions were then placed – or emerged spontaneously – within the scenes which were filmed in long, uninterrupted sequences, following the chronological order of the events of the Commune. Most of the cast really liked this method of filming, for they found that it offered much more continuity of experience than the usual fragmented practice of filming short, disconnected scenes. Many of the people felt this whole process to be exciting and stimulating, quite unlike the preplanned and prescripted manner of making most films. This process also enabled the cast to improvise, change their minds, relate to each other in actual discussions during the filming, etc. Many found this filming method to be dynamic and experiential, for it forced them to abandon pose and artifice, and led to an immediate self-questioning on contemporary society – which they had to confront on the spot.
There are also a number of scenes in the film in which the FORM was entirely different again: when the camera is static (except for a few gentle moves left or right), i.e., when it covers extensive discussions among various groupings of Communards – during which time the cast speak with each other (with no intervention by myself or the TV Communale) – recorded non-stop, sometimes for up to 30 minutes (the only pause being to change the magazine in the camera). These scenes occur for example when the women of the UDF speak in the cafe, first about organizing as if in 1871, and then about conditions for women today, and when the National Guard heatedly discuss the pros and cons of centralizing decision-making during a revolution.
In both the ‘static’ discussion scenes and in the mobile sequences, people are rarely, if ever, framed in close-up as individuals – usually there are at least two or three people in the frame at the same time. This, and the manner in which people speak with each other, allows for a group dynamic which is very rare in the media today.
Our society, in this new millennium, will desperately need filmmakers, TV producers, and media-workers in general who are willing to resist, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the nightmarish hierarchy and centralization of media power. And to take up the anti-globalization struggle. It should be clear now that the world is in an intolerably dangerous situation, with a hopelessly inefficient, totally exploitative, morally corrupt free-market ideology sweeping aside everything before it – even, apparently, the education system. The mass audiovisual media are not only supporting, they are driving this catastrophe – and clearly need to be challenged by many people both within and outside the profession.
But even more, we need an active and critically conscious public, who will forcefully debate, and finally resist media corruption. Who will seek alternative forms of creative, more open and collective processes to replace the synthetic and divisive experience of the existing audiovisual media. For this to happen, we also need critical (media) teachers, who will equally resist and expose what is happening within the education systems which are allying themselves with the onslaught of consumerism.
Our 2016 brochure is hitting the streets! Keep an eye out for it in venues across across the city (and drop us a line here if you’d like to know where to find one). Tickets for all our events are available from CCA.
And if you can’t wait to pick up a physical copy, check it out now via Issuu:
Your first three films, The Passage, Low Tide, and Stop the Pounding Heart, comprise what you have called the “Texas trilogy”. Your last work, The Other Side, explores and tells the stories of the people and places of Louisiana. How did you make contact with these communities?
I came to Louisiana thanks to Todd Trichell, the patriarch of the bull riders you see in Stop the Pounding Heart and the father of Colby, the boy who is the protagonist of the film. For me Todd was a sort of guide, introducing me to the ways and places of the south of the US. He has a difficult story of his own which resonates with the people of Louisiana. He saved himself, left the poverty and ruins of Louisiana to try his luck in fertile, rich Texas, and made a life for himself there. He’s the only one of his circle who succeeded in getting out. The family we see in Louisiana is related to Todd: his sister, Lisa, is the girlfriend one of the protagonists of The Other Side. Because of this, I started working in West Monroe in north Louisiana to get to know Todd’s and his family’s roots. The initial idea was to explore Todd’s past so I could better understand his present and then work backwards. But once I got to Louisiana I discovered an entire world, and I never left. I began to see this place was not a starting point for understanding the characters in Texas but instead a destination. I had to launch a new exploration. What I had thought would be the final stretch of a long cycle – meaning the trilogy – had become a new beginning.
What did you find in Louisiana?
In north Louisiana, unemployment is 60 percent. The people are ravaged by amphetamines and poverty. Initially the film was going to tell small, intimate, family stories but then the scope widened because the common denominator of all these communities is anger at everyone who isn’t like them, especially the institutions that abandoned them. The film began to take on a political cast, and this led me into the paramilitary communities. As the scope of the film widened, so did its ambition of telling a larger and less known story: the story of the Midwest, a region in freefall, jobless, anti-government, anti-free market, anti-institution, and where public opinion and government policy had been completely delinked. This was the story not just of the Trichells but also of the events that were affecting a very important area of the United States. For me, this meant a shift from an approach of observation and personal analysis to one that was more political.
Given this change in approach, why did you choose to tell the stories of Mark, Lisa, Jim, and the other members of the community?
It was a gradual process that began in the summer of 2013, when I travelled to West Monroe to meet the extended Trichell family. In contrast to Texas, and Texans, in Louisiana the first thing you sense is anger. The people I met immediately took me in, made me a part of their lives, and making absolutely clear their desire to be heard and seen.
I remember well meeting the future protagonists of the film for the first time at a diner. They said right off, “We never set foot in places like this. Everyone’s looking at us, rich whites and poor blacks. We don’t belong to either, or any other group, because we’re poor whites. We were cast out of this society. We’re in limbo, we’re angry about it, and we don’t want to stay this way.” The discussion immediately became political, and the film did as well.
After the first meetings, I went back between October and December 2013 to deepen my understanding and make sure that they would remain open to me in the presence of a movie camera. They did. Their desire to make themselves heard came across genuine, pure, and clear, camera or no camera. The difference between this project and the Texas trilogy is that I was led by hand, even dragged by force, into this world. The final choice of characters thus happened naturally. The characters emerged because they wanted their stories to be heard, each in his or her own way: some spoke of their suffering, others merely wanted to be seen, like the pregnant woman or the boy who dreamed of being a soldier. The actions and bodies alone of these people speak with disarming eloquence.
How did you end up among the paramilitary group, which is the second community featured in the film?
After a year of establishing contact, gathering material, and exchanging ideas, the members of the community of drug addicts made real progress in their process of self-discovery, grew more courageous, and understood that they were subversives in their own way. What had been anger was transformed into a need for insubordination. I don’t mean armed insubordination, in part because some of them cannot legally own weapons – which they feel is a violation of their constitutional right, as serious as denial of the right to vote. Unable to own weapons, they feel vulnerable. I discussed this subject with them at length, and in our discussions they made frequent mention of “the other side”, meaning, the community of those who had weapons. And thus, in what had turned into a sort of sociological study of a deep and forgotten zone of America, I sought out “armed groups” that were animated by the same rage and insubordination. This was possible, again, thanks to certain members of the extended Trichell family, who introduced me to the paramilitary world.
The paramilitary group is very different from the West Monroe group. Their ideology seems so extreme they could be considered fanatics.
The paramilitary group made radical life choices. It transformed itself into an insular community fortified by powerful ideals. Becoming the other side, crossing to the far shore, barricading themselves against other people, all this is a question of survival that is explicitly stated in the film. For these warriors, their struggle is not about politics or class or society or immigration but simply about themselves and their families, which represent the last bulwark for them. Without family, for them all is lost.
It is important to note that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the concept of National Security changed drastically in the U.S. The 2002 National Security Plan of George Bush gave the federal government significant new powers, legitimised the use of force to resolve conflicts, even domestically – like the recent escalation of police violence against black Americans – and eroded privacy protections of citizens. These changes threw into crisis the unity of the country by bringing into sharp relief the social, economic, and political differences between the various states and regions.
If the premises that American society was founded upon are in crisis, then the rhetoric of the paramilitary groups no longer sounds fanatic but is instead an expression of discomfort, the valid concern for a society that is breaking apart. They feel abandoned by the institutions and think their ancestral rights are being trampled. The paramilitary groups like white power (Mark and Jim) are on the other side of an island that is breaking away.
Your mode of filming is characterized by a closeness, almost an intimacy, with the people you are lming. Even when the subject matter is very difficult, and you are showing the characters in extreme situations or expressing repulsive ideas, the humanity of these characters emerges. Can you talk about that?
Respect and trust are born and grow image by image. I shoot just 20 percent of the time. In the rest I build up a relationship of a kind of love with the characters, a love without promises or vows, a love that takes you by surprise, that forms moment by moment. The relationship that developed with these people is honest and very mature, and obviously is not one formed in a few days. I have known the Trichell family since 2011. We have worked together on three films. That is why they introduced me to their extended family in Louisiana as someone who could be trusted completely. Then when we began shooting, my crew and I spent entire days and nights together with the characters of the film, sharing very intimate and personal situations in which we put ourselves on the line, openly stating what our intentions were. Without this initial straightforwardness, this candidness, the truth and the humanity of these characters would not have emerged.
I’d like you to say something about the question of the “fiction of the documentary”. Your films show real people in real situations. These “witnesses” are transformed into “characters” the moment that in the film they become protagonists in the story of their lives.
I want to capture the real, what I see. I have no orthodox film making training. I studied documentary film making but I am not a “master” of the language of documentaries, or the language of fiction. What I probably know best is the language of the still image, of photography, reporting. That’s why I say I try to capture what I see.
There is no acting in my films. There are renderings of the real chosen together with the people I am filming, selected to best represent the characters. They are not moving images but rather still images that I combine in a sequence. My eye is photographic. This sequence of photograms shares somewhat the rhythm of fiction films, one the one hand, and the content of cinema verite on the other. It lies in between the two.
Could you share something of your approach to making a film?
I’d say the essential element of the way I make films is getting out of the way. This means above all that we, the crew, come across as a non-crew, and melt into the environment.
The camera is stripped of all accessories. In fact we use a single lens and one small monitor that we all share. There is little else, a few cables, maybe a camera without a mic. This lets us come across as amateur film makers, as if we were just making a home movie. And it lets me recede as author, as omniscient film maker. This is the most important element.
The other crucial element is the length of each take. We shoot without interruption for at least 20 minutes, normally in total silence, because with such long takes the relationship between me and the characters is no longer merely visual and aural but almost olfactory. The camera essentially disappears. Ultimately this submersion in the scene also involves a loss of control over how the shots turn out, and an almost complete passing of the baton from myself to the subjects of the film.
Until now I always recorded sound with a boom, never wireless, to keep from interfering with the organic flow of the scene. In this film the situation is slightly different. Certain characters have become an integral part of the creative process; I work together with them on building the scenes, so in a way they are also the authors, directors, and film makers. Perhaps I went too far.
Had you written out anything in advance of starting to shoot, or did the structure emerge in the editing process?
During the shooting of The Other Side, Denise Ping Lee, the co-writer of the film, was always taking notes, which we would look over together at the end of each day as we analyzed each situation. It was a daily process of seeing where the stories we were telling converged or diverged, and deciding where they would go from there. We shared all of these decisions with the characters right away and adjusted them together if necessary. Denise and I are spider-writers, meaning we are happy spinning a web however intricate and complex it is. This became the basic structure of the film.
Interview by Dario Zonta
The Other Side screens during Document 2016 at 6:10pm on Sunday 23 October in the CCA Cinema. Buy tickets here.
When we started filming, almost three years ago, the attempt of the Viome workers to take over their abandoned factory, neither us, nor them knew the extraordinary experience that lied ahead of us. What we ended up documenting was an intense adventure that brought mixed feelings of uncertainty and frustration with excitement and hope and provided us with a powerful story with many layers.
The case itself is extreme; workers with no work experience outside the production line, driven by despair, decide to start a small revolution, just for a chance to win back their lives. They want to establish an island of utopia in a capitalist environment and of course they meet a thousand obstacles and conflicts at every level.
They are going against the law, the judicial authorities and the factory’s ex-owners, while they fight to gain some kind of legal status. There are conflicts within the group as well; practicing direct democracy among people with different attitudes, convictions and ideas can be very hard. But what proves to be the hardest, is the inner conflicts each individual has to face as the times are calling for a deep personal transformation. These people in their fifties are forced to develop a new identity, one that will allow them to survive in dignity and withstand the sufferings of an “outrageous fortune”. The giant shifts they have to perform can sometimes seem comic and tragic at the same time.
As a filmmaker I felt the need to present, as deeply and as respectfully as I could, characters with opposing point of views. In a way they all represent pieces of a collective social mosaic that is not indicative only of the Greek case, but reflects most European societies today. Ultimately this is a bittersweet tale of real people whose lives cross with history. I am deeply grateful to all of them for honouring me with their trust and letting me tell their story as an adventure of our times.
Next Stop: Utopia screens during Document 2016 at 5:30pm on Friday 21 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.