Monday, August 04, 2008

Bagdad High–HBO Tonight

Speaking of war and capitalism… for Baghdad High, directors Laura Winter and Ivan O’Mahoney gave four Iraqi high school seniors digital cameras and basic instruction in filmmaking. The result is a wrenching look inside a country tormented and destroyed by a war–not of their making, which has produced four million refugees. Each of the boys–all friends–belongs to a different religion or sect, including a Christian who must hide his affiliation. In-between bomb explosions, electrical outages and military-enforced curfews they listen to American popular music, talk on their cell phones, like ordinary teenagers, and do their best to prepare for their final exams, even as they must adapt to a daily world of “no good news.” But when two of the boys and their families (and half the students at their high school) flee north from Baghdad, it marks the end of their filming and the continuation of an uncertain future.

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Behind the Curtain of American Elections: Nov. 2008

"We have every reason to believe that the 2008 election is going to be manipulated."

––Jonathan Simon, co-founder of Election Defense Alliance, a
national election integrity nonprofit
"Stealing America: Vote by Vote"

Everyone I know lugs around a low-grade dread, like an undetected virus invisible until the obvious outbreak, about the upcoming presidential election. Many of us (including a surprising number of non-partisans and Republicans) stoically retain the knowledge that something terrible happened during the 2000 and 2004 elections. And then there are others, myself included, who feel that nothing short of election-fraud occurred during both elections. But what exactly happened (okay, aside from a Court of five in 2000 throwing a victory party for GWB)? How can it be righted? And who’s going to do it? I mean, where’s the “Deep Throat” for “electiongate”? We are exporting democratic “ideals” to other countries, like Iraq and the Ukraine (with its Orange Revolution), yet they have a better voting system than ours. How can this be?

As increasingly they are wont to do, documentary filmmakers rush in where the media fears to tread. "Documentary" set out to discover as many election-fraud-related docs as we could find. By telephone, we interviewed two directors and an executive producer of the two most prominent efforts: "Uncounted: The New Math of American Elections" (dir., David Earnhardt) and "Stealing America: Vote by Vote" (dir., Dorothy Fadiman; exec. prod., Mitchell Block).

Personally, after screening these films, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to throw up my hands in despair and never vote again, or run out and organize a 21st century Weather Underground. One can be mad as hell, and swear she won’t take it anymore, but, realistically speaking, what can one person do? As frustrating and enraging as the revelations in these films are, fortunately, they also provide specific and practical plans of action for individuals and activist groups to increase vigilance and ensure election integrity. For, as Earnhardt, Fadiman and Block concur: it’s all about grassroots organization.

After the 2004 presidential election and the first comprehensive use of electronic voting machines, Earnhardt, a Nashville-based filmmaker, set out to unravel the mystery of why the election results were inconsistent with the exit polls. After three years of hearing “the election was stolen,” he said, “I wanted to find out how it was done.” Three years later, the answer is Uncounted, which systematically catalogs “the myriad of different ways the election was manipulated. It’s never just one thing,” Earnhardt told me. He has “linked the dots” of information seemingly randomly gathered by the media. The film makes a compelling case for election fraud by examining in depth the following issues:
• Exit Poll Discrepancies (“Nearly all the experts are in agreement that the exit polls could not have been so far off that they gave such distorted results. It’s far more rational that the voting process was compromised.” Rep. John Conyers, Chair, House Judiciary Committee)
• Systematic Purging or “Caging” of Voters (Purging of voters from the records before the election: 309,000 in Ohio in 2004. Bush’s winning margin in Ohio was 119,000 votes.)
• “Jim Crow” Voter Suppression in the 21st Century (According to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., blacks waited on average, 3.5 hrs to vote, while whites waited less than 18 minutes.)
• Undervoting (“When you see 42%, 70% and 80% undervotes in a precinct in this election, you know that’s not real. There’s something desperately not right.” 
Marybeth Kuznik, Pennsylvania poll worker)
• Vote Switching (Concentrated in certain areas, like–suprise!–Florida.)
• Illegal Behavior by a Major Voting Machine Manufacturer (Walden O’Dell, the CEO of Diebold, announced that he had been a top fundraiser for GWB. In a letter to potential donors, he wrote: “I am committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president…” NYT Nov. 9, 2003)
• Electronic Voting 
(“With all these [electronic] machines, you can alter the outcome of a national election in a way that is just unprecedented.” 
Andrew Gumbel, Journalist & author, Steal This Vote)
• Privatization of Our Election Process (“The further you go into privatizing this activity of running elections, the more you lose control over the very core of our democracy.” 
Lowell Finley, Deputy Secretary of State, California)
• Provisional Ballots

In addition to fine production values (especially the lack of the too-often-used invasive voice-over: when I mentioned this to Earnhardt, he said that he wanted to “let the story tell itself, unencumbered by narrative”) and a powerful investigative journalism approach, Uncounted–unrepentantly partisan–tackles the two voting machine companies–ES&S and Diebold–that electronically counted 80% of the votes in the 2004 presidential election. Both private, for-profit companies have extensive ties to the Republican Party. But, dig this, Diebold’s primary business is manufacturing ATM machines, which provide a paper receipt for transactions and has an audit trail. So why wouldn’t it supply the same paper trail for voting machines? Well, you probably don’t need three guesses.

But Earnhardt’s perspective extends beyond the relatively recent election debacles: “Historically,” he points out, “over the 230 years of this country’s past, [election manipulation] has been done both ways [by Republicans and Democrats]. But in recent years, it’s been in one direction–favoring Republicans.”

On this thrust, Dorothy Fadiman’s "Stealing America"–which highlights many of the same points and talking heads–adds an enlightening piece of information as expressed by Lynn Landes, Journalist/Political Scientist and former BBC Correspondent: “Even though the Republicans seem to control the voting technology and the corporations that count the votes, the Democrats have not exhibited a keen interest in addressing the situation.”

"Stealing America" hopes to appeal to a large college-age audience, and they’ve all but insured its popularity with these first-time voters by including segments from the zeitgeist conscience and mouthpiece: "The Daily Show" and "Colbert Report." "Stealing" bends over backwards to communicate a non-partisan viewpoint by including interviews with “the bad guys”–people who unashamedly admit to redirecting an election that favored George Bush over John Kerry–and “would/will do it again.”

One of those is Allen Raymond, author of the appropriately titled How to Rig an Election, who reveals how he was hired by the RNC to “jam phone lines.” “Almost a prank,” he said smiling, on "The Daily Show." “A prank on democracy,” responds the quick-witted Jon Stewart. “In politics, there’s right and wrong; then there’s what happens in a campaign,” Raymond says, still smiling, in an attempt to justify his actions.

With regard to documentaries, one of the most hotly discussed topics these days speculates about how much “good” they do, if their only audience is the “choir.” At "Documentary" we were especially interested in the plans Earnhardt, Fadiman and Block had to distribute their films to a wider audience.

Earnhardt’s “grassroots approach” has included traveling to 36 cities since mid-Jan, where he rents out theatres and screens the film for local integrity voter groups, and moderates lively after-film discussions: “People show up, who empathize, or have a sense that, something’s wrong, but haven’t got the info; the film really fires people up,” he says. Their alliance provides the groups a “platform” and a means of then continuing to share the information on their own, a DVD of "Uncounted" in hand. He calls this a “non-traditional approach, with a geometric factor.” For example, earlier this spring, 203 “house parties” were organized in 23 states and the District of Columbia. On this evening–Feb. 13, which happened to be Earnhardt’s birthday (“Yes, it was the best possible present”)–he participated in a 40-minute conference call among all 203 sites.

In addition to the public events in theatres, churches, community centers and even individual house parties, blogs are providing a great deal of notice and “buzz” about both the film and the topic of election fraud. And the film’s website provides ideas of actions people can take. The DVD is doing well far beyond their expectations and, through the website alone, has sold units to people in 20 countries as well as in every state of the Union. Eranhardt also gives credit to bloggers, who, he says, have significantly helped spread awareness of election issues. He’s now taking “a more retail market approach” by aligning with the distributor Disinformation Company and making the DVD available through both Amazon and Netflix.

His approach has worked and Earnhardt admits that the process has “affirmed my belief in the power of what one person can do. When things change, it usually starts with one person and evolves into citizen activism. Then the leadership has to listen.” But the “number one defense,” he advises, is to vote: “If you don’t vote, it definitely won’t be counted.”

Dorothy Fadiman, director, and Mitchell Block, executive producer, of "Stealing America," decided to approach the distribution issue through a “vision of college campuses.” As such, they have set up 1,000 screenings on campuses across the nation. There are two primary reasons for this, as Fadiman points out: to inform and educate (“it’s important to give college students a perspective on history”) and to increase the number of voters, “so the results are clearer. There’s a generation coming up who are not registered,” reasoned Fadiman. “The only way to head off a suspicious election before the votes are certified is to have a large lead going in.” Because younger voters tend to vote more liberally, she worries that her motivation may not be necessarily “a nonpartisan act.” But, in our conversations, both she and Block stressed the importance of “reaching out to people in a nonpartisan way to make them aware of voting issues.” As Block put it, “It’s important to understand that if you are making a film about something as important as voting, you’ll turn off half the audience [if it’s approached in a partisan manner]. On an issue as basic as voting, you don’t serve any purpose in speaking to only one party.” Their goal is for viewers to see the film, “not as an attack, but as a plea to protect our votes.”

The team is working with publicists in LA and NY and in Santa Fe and other cities, “so it gets high visibility,” Block explained. They are screening the film at 100 theatres and, like Earnhardt, working with field people to do outreach and activities groups, to build grassroots, and to help those groups. “It’s a good mix of not-for-profit and nonpartisan,” he continues, “mixed with traditional for-profit marketing.” Block also credits the blogoshere with advancing notice of the film. (

Fadiman spoke at length about Matthew Segal, a recent college graduate and the founder and executive director of the Student Association for Voter Empowerment (SAVE), a student-led, non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to removing access barriers and increasing civic education for young people; he is also a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute–the nation’s first student-run think-tank. Segal’s vision for what he will be doing with "Stealing America" on college campuses and with related activities includes 12-point program. Segal hopes to:
provide a college tour of film screenings at SAVE’s 35 (and growing) college chapters (inviting a panel of speakers for discussion afterwards when possible)
disseminate an election reform package at each screening focusing on issues to protect student voting rights such as: voter ID reform, registration access, proportional voting machine allocation, voter verification, absentee ballot access
organize screenings throughout Ohio and other states with the help of Common Cause, People for the American Way, and the NAACP
provide access to many politicians, coordinate lobbying efforts, political meetings in state legislatures and on Capitol Hill
blog about SAVE on Huffington Post and on SAVE’s own blog
use new media such as Facebook, Myspace, Digg, Stumbleupon and Youtube to create more hits for the SAVE website as well as spread more info about the film
create a website for young people to report their question/concerns/stories about registering and casting their votes
reach out to political science and government professors to screen films and hold class discussions.

Segal’s fine ideas fit Fadiman’s objective, which is “to make people alert and aware that the election systems we have in place, are not secure, and not be afraid or shy to raise our voices.”

Admittedly, this is an uphill battle, as David Earnhardt cautions: “Election manipulation rarely even makes a top ten issues list. But think about it–if your vote doesn’t count, then nothing else really matters.”

Other DVDs available on the topic of Election Integrity

"American Blackout" (Ian Inaba, director; Anastasia King, producer; GNN Productions)

"Free For All" (John Wellington Ennis, director;

"Recount Democracy" (Danny Schecter, director; Faye Anderson, producer; Pathfinder Pictures;

An excerpt of this article was first published in the Fall 2008 issue of DOCUMENTARY Magazine.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Interview w/ Marina Zenovich, Director

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

In 1977, eight years after the brutal slaying of his actress wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child by the Manson “Family,” Roman Polanski (the Polish-born Holocaust survivor and internationally renowned director of Repulsion, Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown), was convicted of drugging and raping 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), an aspiring young model (driven to the rendezvous by her own mother who arranged the tryst). Rather than face certain further imprisonment, Polanski (with a loan from producer Dino De Laurentiis) fled the U.S. for France, where he still lives day.

Fast-forward to 2001 when the industry buzz prominently favored an Oscar nod to the long-exiled Polanski for his direction of The Pianist. Synchronistically, documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich, in search of her next film project, caught Samantha Geimer and her lawyer on Larry King. When she heard the lawyer say, "The day Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system," Zenovich, who had been only 14 during Polanski’s trial, wondered what he meant and knew she “had to find out.”

What she uncovered, through interviews with most of the primary figures in the case (including Geimer’s lawyer, the DA in the case, and, eventually, Polanski’s own attorney), was the little-known fact that the hunger of the presiding judge, Laurence Rittenband, for a share of his 15-minutes of media celebrity, swayed him to rule unfairly and unjustly against Polanski’s admitted unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

In addition to Rittenband (who died in 1993), the most important character of course was Polanski himself, who is “wanted” in the U.S. as a criminal, and “desired” in Europe as an artist and survivor. Zenovich’s initial fax to him remained unanswered, but she forged ahead until, close to the film’s completion, she wrote a letter asking if he would be willing to meet with her. After several weeks without a response, on her way to a directing job in Italy, she booked a ticket through Paris, hoping for an encounter with the elusive one. Polanski’s attorney apologized on his behalf saying that he feared his appearance in the film might look like self-promotion. Disappointed but undaunted, she decided to call him anyway. He agreed to meet –– off the record. “I think he was quite appreciative of the work I had done to bring the legal story to light,” she says. “He apologized for declining the interview. He seemed more vulnerable in person. He had been living in my head -- through archive -- for many years, so it was satisfying to meet him.”

Making a documentary about a living person without his involvement can be a complicated procedure. In fact, Zenovich had already made a film about someone who declined participation. In her sometimes comical, often self-revealing, always entertaining 2001 doc Who is Bernard Tapie?, Zenovich (as compelling an onscreen personality as her subject) obsessively pursues (“I’m not a stalker!” she shouts at the camera) the object of her curiosity and craving –– the titular French iconic politician, soccer team manager, actor/entertainer, businessman, talk show host, and ex-con –– with the abandon of an adolescent school girl. (Her next film, part of her “French trilogy,” focuses on yet another inaccessible individual: Nicolas Sarkozy.)

Zenovich’s dense psychological portrait of Polanski is less the standard bio-doc than her attempt to understand the particular historical moment of the late-1970s, which has always intrigued her. The level of her sophisticated filmmaking is a good match for her subject and even reflects the style, intelligence and humor of Polanski’s work through clips of his films.

What were some of the more important stylistic decisions she made, I wanted to know. “Stylistically I wanted a lot of archive and the look and feel of a dream,” she recalls. Very early on, she cut together the airplane shot of Polanski landing in France (after fleeing certain imprisonment in the States) with the voiceover of Polanski’s friend Pierre Andre Boutang: “I think he has a dark side, a sad side, a veiled side. Given his childhood he has a relationship to life and death he can’t talk about. It’s impossible. He has a strong vision of death and sadness inside him but since he has such energy, such working power, such desire to do extraordinary things, he prevails.”

Originally published in Documentary Magazine, Summer Issue, 2008

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Friday, April 04, 2008

Interview w/ Lisa Jackson, Director: "Silence in the Congo The Greatest Silence"

From Lisa Jackson's The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which airs April 8 on HBO. Photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
“Why use sex to humiliate and defeat someone?” asks Dr. Denis Mukwege, who specializes in treating hundreds of female victims of sexual violence at an understaffed eastern Congo hospital in Bukavu. That question serves as the subtext of Lisa F. Jackson’s "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo" as she encounters face-to-face the physically brutalized, soul-wounded survivors of a dark force that has assaulted 250,000 women and girls. Jackson’s approach is political and humanist and at the same time profoundly personal, given her own survival of a gang-rape in Washington, D.C., when she was 25 years old. This personal/political confluence serves her well in building up a sense of trust among the women she meets and interviews, especially given her willingness to share her story with photographs and newspaper clippings with the film’s participants. But, perhaps the most chilling aspect of the film is Jackson’s interviews with members of the Congolese army in the bush, who unabashedly admit to raping and torturing women. Jackson performed all the production functions (producer, director, DP, sound, and editor) on "The Greatest Silence," which won a Special Jury Prize for Documentary at Sundance this year and premieres Tuesday, April 8, on HBO at 10 PM. I sat down with Jackson in Park City’s Yarrow Hotel during the Sundance Film Festival.

Cathleen Rountree: First of all, I want to commend you on your courage in addressing this horrific issue. How did you decide to include yourself and your own experience with rape in the film?

Lisa Jackson: This was a difficult decision and it didn’t happen, I’d say, until halfway through the edit. In fact, I shot for two months in May and June in ’06, then I went back in November to film the rapists. In between I’d assembled some cuts, and people who saw it, kept asking, “How did you get these women to open up to you?” and “What did you tell them about yourself?” I had intentionally gone over my story with the women, using the photographs, the newspaper articles and all the background information about myself. When I told people this, they said, “Well, why don’t you put that in the film? And why don’t you put yourself in the film? You have this incredible journey.”

Then it occurred to me that it was also a way of making these amazing stories I was getting a lot less voyeuristic. So I shot some recreations of me showing the photographs to women and, actually, those reaction shots of the women (when they’re looking at me kind of baffled early on) are when I was telling them what was going on and the translator was relaying it to them. So there were some very authentic moments and, obviously, they could see that my photographs were real.

So, it wasn’t a conscious thing from the beginning, but it seemed to me as an appropriate narrative device. And also a way of making the film more accessible, because the whole point of the film is that these women are not “other.” That we [in this country] experience the same things they do. Within the gradation of human experience, the overlap is a lot more profound than you might think.

CR: How do you feel when you see yourself in the film?

LJ: It still makes me a little squeamish to see myself on the screen, but in the end I think my friends persuaded me in the right direction.

CR: The sections of you do have an organic feel to them.

How frightened were you when you were traveling in these dangerous war zones, especially when you confronted the rapists? I guess there was a period when it was just you and the translator?

LJ: Oh, I was alone the entire time. I mean Bernard [Kalume, a Congolese man who works with the UN peacekeepers as a translator and liaison] came with me for my first trip into the bush, but for the second one, I was pretty much on my own, because the U.N. was completely preoccupied with the election and the count. And … how frightened was I …. You know I’ve done a lot of traveling in the third world and you get into this zone where you’re just so into the moment, you’re not really thinking about what’s going on around you. People have asked me at the screenings, “Weren’t you afraid of getting attacked? Well, people get attacked on the streets of Manhattan, so you can’t not leave your apartment because you might be attacked.

CR: Yes, but you were in the midst of known rapists.

LJ: Yes, that’s true, and there was a moment when I was heading up into the mountain when I went Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into? And suddenly I was just drenched in sweat. Again, it was just putting one foot in front of the other. And then it occurred to me that these guys were such narcissistic, preening, arrogant assholes that they really wanted to be filmed, and that my camera really was in effect a weapon. If anything were to happen to me, they wouldn’t have the opportunity to brag about their accomplishments.

CR: I’m sure that you had already dealt with it in depth, but I’m wondering if making this film had any kind of healing effect on you?

LJ: Well, I’d dealt with it pretty thoroughly, and I’ve made other films about women and sexual violence, and I’ve told my story and written about it. But what was poignant to me is that I had been able to move on, and I’ve actually been able to use that experience to inform a lot of what I do. But the majority of women I met will never be able to move on, they will be stuck in that place.

CR: They’ve also suffered severe lasting physical effects and many of them have children produced from the rape, which leads me to the question: How are the women dealing with their offspring. Is there any resentment toward them or have they transcended their anger?

LJ: No, there’s something about the women I met … I had an interesting question at the Q&A last night: Have I heard anything about these women committing suicide because their lives are at a dead end? There is still an incredible love among these women and a commitment to family and their children. They have such resilience and a grace and strength that shine through. Even that young Immaculate, who had a child by rape, you know she’s going to stick with that child. She may resent her and she may remind her of the rapist, but the maternal instinct trumps everything.

CR: Did you come away with any sense of forgiveness or compassion for these men, who themselves are products of a horrendous culture of violence.

LJ: Pretty much zippo. If I had seen any sign from them that showed the least bit of contrition or even an understanding of what they had done, I might have been able to see them as something other than callous assholes of the first magnitude. They actually seem kind of familiar to me, you know, I see them on the A-train everyday –– and they can be white, too.

I found myself –– in the interviews with them –– being extremely polite with them, and not pressing them on questions they didn’t understand, so I was obviously intimidated by them. I mean I did feel sympathy for them in the sense that they are part of the culture and were raised in the same cycle of violence. They were probably raised in conflict zones as kids and saw a lot of violence. And you wonder, did these guys ever respect a woman? Maybe that’s the source of their contempt for women.

CR: The level of atrocities perpetrated on those women is unimaginable. I mean, some of the torturous acts are things I’ve never heard of. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around them, like the men forcing a pregnant woman’s child to trample on his or her mother’s stomach to kill the fetus.

LJ: Yeah, well, there was a lot that I just had to edit out. One woman talks about being forced to eat her own feces that was mixed with the flesh of her child who the men had murdered. Acts that you really cannot imagine.

CR: My god . . .

LJ: It’s on a Nazi level.

CR: It’s beyond that –– it’s pure evil.

LJ: Yes, it’s pure evil.

CR: I mean the Nazis were a calculated machine, but this is raw and primal.

You know, I can’t help but wonder how documentary filmmakers, such as yourself, who encounter these atrocities (last year’s "The Devil Came on Horseback" also comes to mind) –– how does Lisa maintain the filmmaker’s point of view and maintain a human presence, an emotional equilibrium, without being entirely overwhelmed by what you’re hearing and seeing? How do you walk that line?

LJ: Well, as a documentarian, part of your job is to probe the soul, if you will. And, I’ve had –– I can’t tell you –– countless, countless interviews where my job is to get that person to return to that dark place, to remember it and to feel it and to share it.

CR: How do you do that?

LJ: How do I do that? [Hesitates] I don’t know how I do it. Well, I don’t just sit down and start talking to them, first of all. There’s always that long, slow approach so that we know each other and trust each other. And I let them take their time. And, of course, so much of it was in another language. I had a female translator for the majority of the time, but for the rest of it, I didn’t have a translator at all. And these stories didn’t come out until later. Like in the church group, for instance, Bernard was there for the very beginning, and when the old woman started telling the story about being raped by the seven soldiers, you know, he couldn’t take it anymore. He fled, and spent the rest of the three hours sitting outside, while I was inside. I had a sense of this incredible passion and this truth-telling, and also felt this incredible privilege. That was just a spontaneous moment and I kept filming.

CR: You must have been a wreck by the end of each day.

LJ: Yes, in terms of the interviews, by the end of the day, I would just be shaken, just destroyed, particularly out in the bush. At night I would just weep. I still find it hard to watch. I feel such an incredible responsibility to these women. You know, they said to me: “We’re telling you, so that you will tell other people.”

CR: What do you hope this film will accomplish?

LJ: Well, that’s what’s been so gratifying about these screenings [at Sundance]. After the second screening, I was overwhelmed with people wanting to know what they can do. So we cobbled together a one-pager with a website of where they could go for further information []. Also we’re building a huge outreach campaign for when the film airs on HBO.

CR: So did you pre-sell the film to HBO?

LJ: Yes, they bought it on second rough-cut, back in the spring.

CR: Is there anything else that you’d like people to know about your film, Lisa?

LJ: Well, yesterday we were up skiing and a couple of women who’d been at the screening the day before came up to me and said, “We’re a group of six women from Phoenix and we all had tickets to your film, but at the last minute, four of the women said, ‘I can’t take it; I don’t want to see those stories this early in the morning.’” But people, I think, have a moral obligation to listen. Particularly because there’s a certain complicity the first-world has in the destruction of a lot of third-world countries; and the Congo is very much an economic war. You know, our cell phones literally have the blood of Congolese women on them.

I just hope that people aren’t turned off by the title, and that they’re driven by a sense of compassion and by a sense of our common humanity, and also by a sense of curiosity about an invisible war and the invisible victims of this invisible war, and that they will want to know, and that knowing, they will do something.

CR: Do you have any sense of hope about the condition of our world?

LJ: In general, not much, but in the specific … I’ve started shooting a film in Columbia, kind of on the same subject, where the war has been going on for almost 60 years, when the presidential candidate was assassinated by the CIA –– very much like Lumumba in the Congo.

CR: And Allende.

LJ: Yeah, and Allende. They say that at least half the women in the country have been personally affected by the sexual violence –– either through rape or physical assault. One 11-year-old was raped by the para-military, and when her mother denounced them, the threats began. They have all left their homes because of the violence and have found each other. So, I’m just going to follow them over the next year. When you look at the aggregate of Columbian women, you just think, How has this country kept going? That country is our [the US government’s] personal embarrassment; it’s a disaster.

But when you talk to the individuals and you see that, despite it all, they want to start a beauty salon or they want to get their daughter back to being the champion rollerblader that she was before she was raped, you know, they have hope and they keep going. They’re living in slums with no running water, but they still have this dignity. And it’s the same with the women in the Congo. It’s the women who are going to save that country, and we have to save them.

[This interview was first published in the IDA e-Newsletter on 4/3/08 with permission to reprint.]

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Monday, March 17, 2008

"Iron Ladies of Liberia" airs on PBS "Independent Lens" on Tuesday, 18 March 2008

"We have had many governments here in the recent past that have relied upon brute force, instilling fear into people. We say that you can still exercise leadership without repression. As far as I’m concerned, so far in this administration it’s working better than the use of force."
—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

A Liberian-born, Harvard-educated grandmother of eight, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been jailed, charged with treason, exiled to Nigeria and the U.S. and has held positions at Citibank, the World Bank and the United Nations.

Now, as the first elected woman president of Africa, the “Iron Lady” and the many other powerful women she has appointed to leadership positions are not only changing the face of Liberia, but also making history worldwide.

After nearly two decades of brutal civil war, Liberia is a nation ready for change. On January 16, 2006, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was inaugurated the country’s first elected female president and Africa’s first freely elected female head of state. A Harvard-educated economist and grandmother of eight who had been exiled to Nigeria and nicknamed the Iron Lady, Johnson Sirleaf won a run-off election with 59 percent of the vote, but faces enormous obstacles in rebuilding a war-torn country.

Despite massive support both in Liberia and abroad, Johnson Sirleaf must not only find ways to reform a corrupt authoritarian government saddled by astronomical debts, but must also confront opponents loyal to former President Charles Taylor—all without alienating her voter base.

Since taking office, Johnson Sirleaf has appointed an unprecedented number of women to leadership positions in all areas in the Liberian government. With the exclusive cooperation of President Sirleaf, IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA goes behind the scenes of this groundbreaking administration during its first year, as it works to prevent a post-conflict nation from returning to civil war.

IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA follows leaders in the Johnson Sirleaf administration such as Beatrice Munah Sieh, the newly appointed national police chief. A former deputy chief in Liberia’s police force, Sieh survived an assassination attempt allegedly ordered by her boss and worked as a special education teacher in New Jersey for 10 years. As the national police chief, Sieh must maintain order while heading an institution known more for its corruption and repressive tactics than public service.

The film also follows Dr. Antoinette Sayeh, the minister of finance, as she battles a crippling national debt of over five billion dollars and a notoriously corrupt staff. As Dr. Sayeh says, “Women have not been, to the same extent as men, party to all of the bad things of the past. They certainly were very strong voices against the atrocities in Liberia in the war, and they fought very, very hard to make sure that the democratic process worked this time around. And so, this is our biggest opportunity to change Liberia.”

Other “iron ladies” seen throughout the film include Minister of Justice Francis Johnson-Morris, Commerce Minister Olubanke King Akerele and Minister of Gender Vabah Kazaku Gayflor. How would the world be different if women were in the seat of power? As IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA illustrates, they already are.

Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia, Liberia in 1938. She attended high school at the College of West Africa. After marrying James Sirleaf, she traveled to the U.S. to study. Johnson Sirleaf received a B.A. in accounting from the University of Wisconsin in 1964, a diploma at the University of Colorado in economics and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University in 1971.

After Harvard, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia and became the assistant minister of finance in William Tolbert’s administration. In 1979, she became the first female minister of finance. In 1980, Samuel Doe assumed power in the country following a military coup. Johnson Sirleaf went into exile to Kenya, where she worked in the Nairobi office of Citibank.

In 1985, Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia to run for the Senate. She was briefly imprisoned for criticizing the Doe regime and initially supported rebel leader Charles Taylor. During 1989 to 1996, when Liberia was entrenched in a civil war, Johnson Sirleaf lived in Washington, D.C. and worked as an economist for the World Bank and as the director of the United Nations Development Program Regional Bureau for Africa.

Johnson Sirleaf returned to Liberia in 1996 and ran against Charles Taylor in the 1997 presidential election under the Unity Party, coming in a distant second. Taylor charged her with treason. She campaigned for his removal from office, serving as the head of the Governance Reform Commission and assuming a leadership role in the transitional government after the second Liberian civil war ended in 2003.

In the private sector, Johnson Sirleaf has served on the advisory boards of the Modern Africa Growth and Investment Company (MAGIC), the Hong Kong Bank Group, the International Crisis Group, Songhai Financial Holdings, Women Waging Peace and the Center for Africa’s International Relations. She was an initial member of the World Bank Council of African Advisors and a founder of Kormah Development and Investment Corporation. She is the mother of four sons and has eight grandchildren.

After winning a run-off election against former soccer star George Weah in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president of Liberia. But despite a long career in both national and international politics, her ascendancy to the presidency was not free of controversy.

Some critics are wary of her because of her previous support for former President Charles Taylor, whom Johnson Sirleaf later campaigned against. As of January 2008, Taylor is on trial in the International Criminal Court in the Hague, charged with war crimes for his alleged ties to the rebel insurgency in neighboring Sierra Leone. The Johnson Sirleaf administration has launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate human rights abuses and claims of war crimes during Liberia’s 14 years of civil war.

Since taking office Johnson Sirleaf’s administration has faced monumental challenges. After decades of war and corrupt leadership, Liberia’s infrastructure and economy were in ruins. The country had an unemployment rate of 85 percent and owed billions of dollars in debt. Monrovia had been without electricity and running water for nearly 10 years. During her first year in office Johnson Sirleaf opened a large investigation into corruption, including members of the Taylor administration. Many Taylor supporters remain in Liberia, including his former wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, who is a member of the Senate.

Perhaps Johnson Sirleaf’s most significant accomplishment to date as president has been her successful appeal towards debt relief. The cancellations of more than a billion dollars of debt from creditors including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the United States government, much of which was accumulated illegitimately under the Doe regime, allows Liberia to concentrate on reconstruction and development. Recent efforts by the Johnson Sirleaf administration include fostering foreign investment opportunities with countries such as China and providing free, compulsory primary education for all elementary-school-aged Liberian children.

Director’s Statement from Daniel Junge:

When producer Henry Ansbacher and I look back on how, weeks before her inauguration, we learned we might have access to the first days of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s term in office as Liberia’s president, it’s funny to think how, at the time, we thought this might make for an interesting short film. One year and 500 taped hours later, IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA proved to be more than just an interesting short film.

This indeed was appetizing subject matter for a filmmaker—a chance not only to see the inner workings of government at the highest level, but also an opportunity to explore the resonant subjects of female leadership, post-conflict re-development and democracy in the developing world. Perhaps most importantly, it offered an opportunity to witness—as our other producer Jonathan Stack calls it—“the most unabashedly positive story to come out of Africa since Nelson Mandela.” This comes from a producer whose last experience in Liberia was dodging bullets during the country’s brutal civil war.

The door cracked open for us to film the president’s inauguration for two weeks, and we firmly wedged our foot in that door, ultimately filming for a year with our Liberian crew. Often filming IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA proved to be an exercise in self-discipline. The task of simply keeping the camera steady and in focus, while remaining neutral to the significance of what we were shooting, was, to say the least, difficult. Not only were we privy to the inner workings of government at a level allowed to few in film history, and witnessing history being made by Africa’s first female president, we were also fortunate to be present at critical and possibly history-changing moments in President Sirleaf’s first dramatic year. So it was with difficulty that we had to anesthetize ourselves to these realizations just to keep the camera in focus.

As much as this proved a difficult task for our non-Liberian crew, for our Liberian co-director Siatta Johnson it was an even greater challenge. Here is a woman who, like most Liberians, lost everything during the country’s wars. Now, in Sirleaf’s presidency, she sees her first prospect for a “normal” life (a very low bar, measured by Western standards). “I’m not a partisan,” she often said, but we would catch her smiling when filming the president.

Like the best of politicians, President Sirleaf is adept at constantly reacting to her environment, and yet she was able to disregard our presence, even at moments in which her leadership may have appeared fragile. While, for the most part, she ignored our cameras (a blessing for filmmakers), producer Jonathan Stack told me that there would come a time when the president would give us “a conspiratorial look”—when she would be willing not only to let us film, but also bring us into her process. “Then,” Jonathan said, “then we’ll know we’ve got a film.”

That moment came towards the end of production, in a heated conversation between the president and representatives of the World Bank regarding Liberia’s debt relief. At a particularly rancorous moment the president looked my way. It was at a moment like this when typically we would be invited to leave the meeting. But this look was different. This look was to make sure we were rolling—a conspiratorial look —before she leveled into the men.

Indeed, we knew then we had a film.

Personally I’m honored to have been a witness and, hopefully, to have appropriately documented this critical chapter in African history, thus helping to open a wider dialogue on the themes mentioned above. While it’s easy to become a cheerleader for Ellen as she confronts her Herculean tasks, I don’t want the film to be agitprop for her nor against the dominant model in African politics, but rather for viewers to appreciate the complexity of the situation, including our complicity as Westerners. That viewers ask their own questions, not the least of which would be: Are women intrinsically better leaders than men? I have my answer to that one, but I expect audiences will come up with their own.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

A Walk to Beautiful: Interview w/Mary Olive Smith and Amy Bucher

In December, A Walk to Beautiful won IDA’s award for the Best Documentary of 2007. Directed by Mary Olive Smith and co-directed by Amy Bucher, Walk chronicles the stories of five Ethiopian women who suffer from devastating childbirth injuries and their subsequent healing journeys at the obstetric Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, where remarkable doctors devote their lives to repairing these women’s bodies and hearts.

Obstetric fistula is a rupture that develops between the vagina and the bladder, and sometimes between the vagina and the rectum during obstructed labor. According to U.N. figures, three million girls and women in developing countries suffer from this chronic condition. In addition to the embarrassment and shame of incontinence, these women are often rejected by their families and driven from their villages because they cannot hold jobs, take public transportation or, due to the fetid odor, even walk in public.

This noteworthy, lovingly rendered film has won audience awards at the San Francisco, Denver, and St. Louis International Film Festivals. Cathleen interviewed directors Smith and Bucher in April 2007 during the San Francisco International Film Festival.

(A Walk to Beautiful opens on February 8 in New York City and February 29 in Los Angeles and will air on PBS' Nova in May.)

Cathleen Rountree: What provoked the idea for A Walk to Beautiful?

Mary Olive Smith: We read a column in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof about obstetric fistula. He was the inspiration for this film. It was the first time he’d written about the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. He writes a lot about women’s health issues now. It was a beautiful column, written three years ago. Someone in our office read it. We knew it would be a difficult film to make, but we started talking with the Fistula Foundation, which was very small at that time and recently founded.

CR: Where is the Foundation located?

MOS: In New York City. The hospital had been supported for 30 or 40 years by foundations in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, but there had never been a foundation in the US. So it was new and they were supportive of the idea. Then Steve Engel [a producer] asked me to direct it because I’d had previous interest in human rights in Africa.

CR: When did you first travel to Africa?

MOS: I went to Ethiopia about three years ago on a scouting trip and visited the hospital and met with Dr. Hamlin and Ruth Kennedy. I wooed them and told them how much we loved their hospital and how much we wanted to do this project. And they said okay! I think that was our biggest success, just getting their approval, because they’re very protective of the women . . .

Amy Bucher: They’d had some not so good experiences.

MOS: in fact, when we first arrived, Amy started shooting in the hospital, while I went out to the countryside to find women –– we weren’t sure we’d find women who would agree to being filmed –– so we thought we’d better shoot in the hospital to be safe. But right before we arrived, another film crew had been thrown out.

CR: what had happened in that situation?

AB: I think they weren’t as sensitive to the women. They may have filmed before asking permission. I think there was an assumption that they could just go where they wanted to go. And that certainly wasn’t the way we handled it. I don’t think I had known they had been given the boot until we’d been there a couple of days. And then Ruth Kennedy said, “Oh, you guys are such a delight to work with.” Then she told me what had happened before we arrived. That was a relief to me that we were so welcomed there.

CR: Who is Ruth Kennedy and how did she get connected with the hospital?

Well, Dr. Catherine Hamlin and her husband went to Ethiopia from Australia –– I was doing the math –– about 47 years ago. They went, not necessarily to do fistula repair, but to do gynecological obstetric care. You pick this up, Mary, because you’re more familiar with it.

MOS: They were working at a hospital when Haile Sellassie was in power, and they came across fistula patients and, as she says in the film, they were so moved by these women (particularly her husband, who would single them out) who were often pushed to the end of the line waiting to get into the hospital, because people pushed them there and complained that they “smelled; those wretched women, get them away.” So both doctors began specializing in operating on fistulas, and eventually decided to found their own hospital. They’ve survived through the monarchy, the communist era and now the attempt at democracy. The hospital is still being supported by the government, or tolerated, at least.

AB: And it’s growing like crazy. They recently added on a new wing. And Dr. Hamlin appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show about two years ago, and within days, several million dollars had been raised and they were able to expand. Now their goal is to open five more hospitals in the outlying areas of Ethiopia. Two have already opened. So, that’s a big change just since from when we were there.

CR: Who works in the hospitals?

MOS: That’s something that’s very important, Catherine and her husband Reginald immediately began training Ethiopians. So the hospitals are primarily staffed by Ethiopians and they are outstanding surgeons. Catherine’s goal is for this work to continue after she passes away. She’s 83 now, so she can’t be here forever.

CR: This is a worldwide problem, right?

MOS: Yes, in the poorest countries in the world, so there is a direct correlation with endemic poverty. But the highest rates are in sub-Saharan Africa and Central Africa –– Nigeria, I believe, has the highest rate in the world. And then Southeast Asia –– Bangladesh, Pakistan. Latin America has a lower prevalence and they think that’s because there are more roads! So the hospital may be far away, but you can get there, probably just better infrastructure, period.

So Ethiopia has one of the highest rates and they think that’s because of geography as well. It’s mountainous and very diverse geographically, so it’s all the harder to get roads in for women to get places.

CR: Who is affected by this condition? Is it particularly very young women?

MOS: Of all pregnancies, whether in the US or Ethiopia or Sweden or Nigeria, five-percent of all pregnant women will have obstructed labor. If they don’t get a caesarian, they’ll either die or they’ll end up with terrible injuries. Maybe there are a few lucky ones who survive without that happening. So you add to that, undernourishment. Dr, Ruth Kennedy always likes to remind us that the food in Ethiopia is really healthy, so they get good nourishment, but not enough. And these women work so hard, they burn a lot of calories, so the girls are underdeveloped. But the boys are too, it’s not just the girls, the boys are tiny.

CR: But they don’t have to push a baby out.

MOS: Right, they don’t. Then you add to that early marriage. So there are a lot of complicating factors. But if got rid of the cultural factors and even the undernourishment, there’d still be obstructed labor. And without a caesarian they would still suffer from fistula.

We still had fistula in the US until 1895.

AB: But Ethiopia does have one of the highest rates of young marriage in the world. It’s a complex picture, but it certainly is a factor that, if you have a ten-year-old-girl, who is as undernourished and works as hard as those girls do, it’s very unlikely that she’s going to be able to pass a baby through her pelvis.

MOS: One of the girls in the film was 15, but she was married when she was eight. She didn’t get pregnant until she was 15, but it’s still a big problem.

CR: How did you locate the young women, the characters, for the film?

MOS: I went with a big crew to a region of Ethiopia, a very poor area, and went out beyond the town we were staying in (just with my interpreter and producer and our guide). We worked with the local clinics and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church searching for these women; we went on immunization trips. And we weren’t finding any one. I knew it would be hard, and finally on day five . . .

CR: There are so many women suffering with fistula, why did you think it would be hard to find them –– because of the shame factor?

MOS: Well, yes, they hide. I think the villagers may or may not know what kind of sickness they have, or if they know, they’re afraid to tell. It’s interesting, we were just communicating with women, and really had no luck. And it was our guides, the men, who ended up having a little more luck. We found one young woman and I asked if I could take her picture. She said, “Oh, yes, I’ve had my picture taken a lot at the fistula hospital. And, lo and behold, she’d already been cured! I was about to cry. I said, “Very nice to meet you, but . . .” It turned out that she was on her way to her friend Ayehu’s house. She was sick and she wanted Ayehu to visit the hospital. So the whole scene in the film is exactly how it happened, how we arrived at Ayehu’s.

And then another women we found, thanks to a boy in the marketplace, who admitted that there was a woman in his village who was leaking. But he was so afraid, it took our guides an hour to convince him that he was doing a good thing by telling us how t find her. And then Yenenesh just came to our doorstep at the hospital. She happened to be a maid at a house in the town, and word spread, and the man she worked for heard about us and said, “Come, there are some people who are going to help you.” He was so happy. And there she was, two nights before we were leaving. So that’s how we found them.

Amy, you should talk about how you identified whom you were going to interview in the hospital.

AB: As I’m thinking about it now, I had the opposite experience and the opposite challenge from Mary Olive, which was we arrived at the hospital and it was not about finding the women, but the problem of narrowing it down from an enormous selection of candidates. They had about a hundred beds. And every woman’s story is compelling and heartbreaking. We asked the hospital if we could interview all the women who had arrived the day before, because we wanted to get their experience from the very beginning of their stay, hadn’t even been examined by the doctors yet.

We interviewed about 12 women that first day, and I had a set list of questions: How long have you been leaking? How old were you when you got married? What was your husband’s reaction? We went through kind of cataloging the stories. It was a day of just crying after hearing these stories. And, too, seeing which women seemed the most comfortable just talking to us. But we certainly didn’t bring any cameras in that day. It was a chance to see how they felt about the idea of us following them around.

Out of that first day we found two of the women we followed, one of which, Almaz, ended up in the film. Her story stood out because she’d had a double fistula, which –– well, urine is one thing, but add feces to that for three years, it’s hard to fathom. The next day we actually saw Wubete from across the room and she was kind of peering around the corner looking at us and her face was so expressive. And as soon as she opened her mouth, there was something about the quality of her childlike hope. She’s been there already three times. And I think there was something else interesting about her story because she had already been operated on, but she hadn’t been cured yet. So that’s how it started at the hospital.

CR: What was your purpose in making this film?

MOS: Our goal was not to just make an advocacy piece. We felt that we would advocate the best by making a beautiful nonfiction narrative film. The easy sell for the hospital would be: Woman comes in, fistula gets cured, woman goes home. Transformation, she’s happy, the end. But you need setbacks and conflict in a good film. And so these stories were, I think, particularly compelling and stood out to Amy. We were a little nervous about having a character who was not completely cured, but the fact that she finds her way, finds a way to grow up and be strong anyway, is all the more moving. So she ends up having one of the best stories, if not the best story, even though she wasn’t cured.

I hope that people see that we were not just making a film about fistula, but about women who just wanted to be whole people again.

AB: That tenacity was important, that they were willing to do whatever it was going to take. Neither of us had any idea about what would transpire with these women, what would happen next. In some cases it was very straightforward and happy; and in other case it was very complicated and an indirect route to the end product.

MOS: We never thought we would have five characters, but each one seemed to bring something so different.

CR: How was it for these women after they were cured and they returned home? Were they welcomed back into their society?

MOS: That’s a complicated question. I’m not sure Amy or I know the answer or if the hospital even knows the answer. My guess is that for the women who were cured, and who hadn’t been sick for that long, they’re welcomed back. Zewdie was welcomed back immediately, although she was nervous about reintegrating. Ayehu, the first woman you meet in the film was sick for six years, and I went back and saw her three months after she’s been cured. She was still angry because of the way her family had treated her, so she wasn’t running out to the well to hang out with the neighbors yet. She’s older and doesn’t plan on getting married again. For the younger women who get cured, my understanding is that they reintegrate pretty quickly.

It’s not that hard to get married again. We found that virginity in an orthodox community is not a big issue. Some of the women had had three or four husbands. If you’re married and your husband leaves, you can get married again.

AB: There are so many reasons why girls are married off early. We want to do our next film on early marriage, which we’ve gotten some interest in.

CR: Early marriage in Ethiopia?

AB: Yeah, we’re going to focus on Ethiopia because it has such a high rate, for a variety of reasons –– from economics to making sure that your daughter is protected and not abducted into marriage as Almaz was. You know, you’re abducted, then you’re raped, then you’re a wife. Almaz’s husband treated her well, sold a cow so he could help her, bought soap for her. He never abandoned her, or put her out of the house. But when Almaz was cured and we went home with her to film the homecoming, it all started to come out what her sense of this marriage was. She just had so much spunk, I left thinking: I wonder if she’s going to stay with this guy. And, lo and behold, as soon as her body was healed, she was out of there. She left her husband and her village and moved back to Addis Ababa and found a job on a rose farm. So she acquired the strength to leave a marriage she never wanted to be in in the first place. But every story was different.

CR: How long did you film in Ethiopia?

AB: We were in the hospital for 2 ½ to 3 weeks following the women through their surgical procedures and recovery process. Then we went off for a week before we returned. So that first trip was about four weeks. And then a couple months later we went back to film Wubete for a couple of weeks.

MOS: Then I went back again with our composer and we recorder traditional music and a lot of the traditional sounds to include.

But what I didn’t do was tour. So, I’m taking some time next fall to travel in Ethiopia, and we’re premièring the film then!

(This interview was originally published in the IDA e-Newsletter 2/6/08.)

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Park City Dispatch 8––On GreenCine Daily

Docs Rock at Sundance

As in recent years, the documentaries once again stole the show at Sundance 08. Among the 41 films I crammed into nine days, 23 were nonfiction titles.

Topics included: social activism, environmentalism, economic concerns, anti-war issues, the corrosion of democracy, world politics, displacement, gender identity, inspiring senior citizens, and entertaining biographies of Roman Polanski, Hunter S Thompson and Patti Smith.

One festival highlight was certainly the premiere of U2 3D, a genuine concert experience utilizing the technology of 3-D and surround-sound. Leave it to Bono, the Edge, Adam and Larry (all in attendance at the screening, along with Al Gore) to merge rock-and-roll with social activism. After the screening, Bono's response to an audience question about whether the band might consider doing a "deeper" show, inadvertently spoke to the festival's raison d'etre: "Underneath there is a narrative running: social activism, human rights, non-violence. Taking human rights on the road is not a flippant thing to do," he reasoned. "I think you might know that in this country."

I marveled at many of the documentaries' timeliness and the prescience of the filmmakers, many of whom spent upwards of three, four, and five years in production. For example, I.O.U.S.A., Fields of Fuel, Secrecy, Flow: For Love of Water, Dinner with the President, The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, Slingshot Hip Hop and Bigger, Stronger, Faster each address topics of immediate national and international concern.

Continue reading at:
Originally published on GreenCine Daily, 1/31/08.

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