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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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

An Interview with Jessica Yu, Director of "Protagonist"

We Can Be Heroes
'Protagonist' Tracks the Euripidean Drama in Contemporary Lives

Jessica Yu directing puppeteers

Jessica Yu won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short for Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien, an intimate portrait of the writer who lived for four decades paralyzed by polio and confined to an iron lung. Her 2004 feature documentary In the Realms of the Unreal, about the enigmatic “outsider” artist Henry Darger, won numerous prizes on the film festival circuit. Her other nonfiction films include The Living Museum (1999), about an art community in a New York mental institution, and Men of Reenaction, about Civil War reenactors. Yu also directs popular television programs, including episodes of ER, The West Wing and Grey’s Anatomy.

Protagonist explores extremism and the limits of certainty as it weaves the stories of four men––a German terrorist, a bank robber, an “ex-gay” evangelist and a martial arts student––all consumed by personal odysseys. The four stories in Protagonist are told in parallel threads structured like a multi-layered Greek drama. This adventurous documentary is inspired by the works of the 5th century BC playwright Euripides, and uses quotes from his plays as thematic chapter headings, providing a provocative common link between our contemporary stories and lending them a timeless quality. The film asks, What is the path to extremism? In responding to the turmoil of life, where does one draw the line between the reasonable and the unreasonable?
Cathleen, IDA's Contributing Editor, met up with Yu at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which screened her first feature-length fiction film, Ping Pong Playa. Protagonist opens November 30 in New York City and December 7 in Los Angeles.

Cathleen Rountree: Did you read the Classics in college? Is that where you first encountered Euripides, in particular, and Greek tragedy in general?

Jessica Yu: Well, like a great many students, I read the great works of art much too quickly! And Euripides was one of them. I remember reading The Bacchae, but I really had zero recollection of it. So this project was a way to revisit Euripides’ work in the context of being able to re-read it, actually absorb it, and think about it. So, just that alone, even if the film hadn’t happened, was a great experience.

CR: How did it work to take this classic and set it in our contemporary world?

JY: The concept of the film came to me from the Carr Foundation––Greg Carr and Nobel Smith––and they were interested in making a film about Euripides. I think they were more interested in Euripides, the man. And I couldn’t quite figure out how that would work, because there is very little known about him. But, there were 19 existing plays. So in reading the plays, I was trying to stay open to what emerged out of them. But at the same time, I was aware of a couple of things: Could you make a film about who Euripides was? Could you make a film about ancient Greek Literature, in a way that is not going to be totally alienating to the viewer? Of course the film ended up being about the themes, the structure of storytelling. But I think that turned out to be the connection between the architecture of narrative structure and the power of the human narrative structure, from the time those plays were written, until now.
And it also struck me that Euripides was called the “first psychologist,” that he really wrote about the way people think and the way they act. So in reading these stories, they came across as very fresh in a lot of ways. The same flaws he was interested in are the ones I’m interested in as well. So finding stories to populate that particular arc was not as far of a stretch as one might think.

CR: Talk a little more about “the human narrative structure”?

JY: What I think was interesting about what Euripides was attracted to is that you have an idea of a “hero,” who has good moral reasons behind what he is doing. But because of his very devotion to that cause, he loses track of it; he loses track of who he is. It’s kind of an extremist story that intrigued me: When does a good quality become too much? Or the classic character versus fate: Are you who you were born, or are you the circumstances into which you are tossed? Where does the real person emerge?
The other thing is that those stories really work. They’re great, compelling stories about the anti-heroic character. Your hero goes off track; how does he or she recover after they’ve created damage by their own very strong qualities? So in making the film, I was trying to find stories that were strong enough to stand on their own.
But, first, they had to be really strong stories, because I think that’s how Euripides attracted such a large audience––that sense of, What happens next?

CR: Well, let’s address that component now. You interviewed 200 individuals?

JY: Actually, we didn’t interview that many. I worked with my producers, Elise Pearlstein and Susan West, and we had a couple in interns who were helping out. We scoured every place we could think of: reading a lot of books, reading memoirs, going on the Internet, doing crazy Google searches, talking to people at cocktail parties.

CR: What did you say you were looking for?

Hans Joachim-Klein

JY: It depended. Originally, I was looking for people who’d had a kind of “dark epiphany.” And it had to happen in a moment. So we were looking up weird phrases like, “All of a sudden I realized my whole life changed at that moment ….” But that’s actually how we found one of the subjects in the film, Hans Joachim-Klein, the German ex-terrorist: from a bad Googly-translated German website.

CR: How long did this process take?

JY: It was about eight months looking for everybody.

CR: How did you select the four men who made it into the film?

Mark Salzman

JY: Two people I knew could work in the film right away––Joe Loya and Mark Salzman. But we had to hold off on how it was going to work, until we had all four, because they couldn’t be exactly the same story. And, ideally, we wanted to find four characters whose circumstances seemed very different.
It was really hard to find them. In fiction, there is often the great “clarifying moment,” but in real life it usually doesn’t happen that way, that the moment of realization strikes so definitively.

CR: Or sometimes if that does happen, the person is on his deathbed and it’s too late.

JY: Right! And we also didn’t want people who just became the same person for another cause—someone who is a fanatic for one cause becomes a fanatic for the opposite side. And we found quite a few cases of that.
So, we didn’t want the exact story, but there had to be certain elements in the arc of each person’s experience that had to be the same for the film to work.
The other part we looked for is what we called “the fever.” There’s some moment that sets things into motion––this idea that “Oh, okay, this has happened to me and this is how I’m going to fix it. I’m gonna keep going down this path until it works.” And that “fever” is when someone becomes completely obsessed with whatever this journey or activity is. So they had to have that obsession, that “fever,” that would lead up to that moment.

CR: So we’ve got the “fever,” then the epiphany …

JY: Right, and the other thing is that there had to be an acceptance of responsibility. That didn’t mean that we were looking for people who were going to flagellate themselves for the rest of their lives. But it couldn’t be someone who has this moment and then makes a lot of excuses. And that was also very difficult to find. We realized how true reckoning in someone’s life is quite rare.
That was something I was very grateful about, that the four characters in this film are at a point in their lives where they are completely clear-eyed about what happened and what they did. This doesn’t mean that they are all fine and good with what they did and that it won’t always stay with them. But they are at a place in their lives where they can talk about it. Then, their eloquence in talking about it was also important. They’re all good storytellers!

CR: You have a very visual style. It’s not just a matter of point-and-shoot talking heads. For instance, in In the Realms of the Unreal you were able to make the imagination—the unconscious— visible.

JY: I really appreciate that because, with In the Realms, and Protagonist as well, it makes it difficult when you have so many limitations. For example, in the Darger film, there’s no living person; and there’s so little evidence of who he was, in terms of photographs. But we had this room that was filled with everything he had gathered over many years. It was like the room was who he was. And I was trying to figure out how to show that; and, of course, how to deal with the paintings, how to make them come to life.
With Protagonist, I wanted to have the themes of Euripides provide the chapter headings in the film. So, again, it was like, how do we tie it together with some kind of look that’s a more versatile form of storytelling device? And it was lucky too because again, Joe Loya, the bank robber, isn’t someone who’s life is filled with pictures and home movies, and he wasn’t a famous guy, so how do you depict those scenes that happened, or how they might have felt? That’s where the whole puppet thing came to fruition.

CR: Had you had any previous experience with puppets?

Puppet from "Protagonist"

JY: None at all. I have to say that it was very late in the production that the idea of the puppets took shape. I had been thinking animation, but as much as I love animation, it’s very expensive and it’s too time-consuming. And it’s very mutable; it might be difficult to create the same look and feel for each of the stories. I did some research about the look of the plays during Euripides’ time and, actually, the actors wore these large, exaggerated masks. I liked the idea of having the masks as a way to represent several characters in the stories and then the pivotal events from our subjects’ pasts. Almost like a little theater troop of puppets. That process with our puppet designer, Janie Geiser, was so collaborative and immediate and fun.

CR: I read that out of the many possibilities the production team had found, only six of them were females! You’ve noted that "Men, it appeared, were far more likely to experience the particular breed of obsessive pursuit—and crashing revelation––that we were looking for."

JY: Well, I didn’t set off to find only men subjects. Toward the end of the searching process, we said, “God, we’ve got to find a woman!” But what seemed to happen is that when things started going south, women might sense that things were crumbling and they would kind of stay with it and things would fall apart that way. It wasn’t them hitting the wall. It was just a lot of signs that things were falling apart.
As an example, we looked at a couple of memoirs of candidates, but when things started going not so well, we saw phrases like, “Well, I realize that it wasn’t working out,” or “I knew that things were falling apart ….” So they seemed to have a self-knowledge about it, which doesn’t mean that they can save themselves from terrible disaster. But the men had such dramatic cases. Like a guy wakes up one morning and he’s king of the world, then that afternoon something happens to change it all. It’s like the Talking Heads’ song: “How did I get here? This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful life.”

CR: Protagonist is a great primer on storytelling—what makes for a strong story, and how the essential architecture of a story is so timeless and rooted in something so ancient.

JY: The story in a documentary still has to have a structure. It doesn’t have to be the classic three-part structure, but it’s still about what happens to the character, whether it’s a person or a place. What is the event that sets everything in motion? What is the turning point and how is your protagonist changed by it? Is there something learned or lost, or what’s the result at the end? So I think it’s the sense of dramatic tension that there is always something in balance, something that is pivotal.
Protagonist is a very classic kind of anti-heroic journey in a way: These four men set out to change destiny in some way. There was a moment when they decided, “I need to become another person. This is the way I’m going to control my life”––it’s a lot about control––and then this super-human monumental effort to make that happen, and the consequences, the ramifications of that. That there was damage and how do you recover your sense of yourself after you’ve completely lost track of yourself?

NOTE: This interview was first published in "IDA-Documentary" magazine e-zine on 11/27/07. www.documentary.org

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

An Interview with Steven Okazaki, Director

WHITE LIGHT/BLACK RAIN premieres on HBO on Monday, August 6, 2007

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival I viewed, back-to-back, films about the making of "Dr. Atomic," the John Adams-Peter Sellars collaborative opera (which I was lucky enough to see during its San Francisco debut in 2005), and "White Light/Black Rain," Steven Okazaki’s heartbreaking and sobering series of interviews with survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two films (rich, but difficult viewing) served as bookends on a horrific subject: the creator/destroyer Robert J. Oppenheimer’s engineering of the first atomic bomb, its testing at Alamagordo, and the ultimate detonation in 1945, on August 6 and 9, of “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” on unsuspecting Japanese citizens of, respectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After a succinct opening, a ninety-second historical overview of events leading up to the dropping of the bombs, "White Light/Black Rain" makes a statement by asking a question: “What historical event occurred on August 6, 1945?” the filmmakers randomly ask young people walking on the streets of Hiroshima. “I don’t know,” each teenager responds. “Did something important happen?” asks one. “An earthquake?” asks another. Okazaki says that they had planned to ask thirty or more people this question, but stopped after the first ten, when the responses were the same. If this is what the younger generation knows about the most significant event in Japan’s history––if, indeed, not the world’s––it’s chilling to consider that seventy-five percent of Japan’s population was born after 1945.

Steven Okazaki, the recipient of three Academy Award nominations ("Days of Waiting," a documentary short, about Estelle Peck Ishigo, one of the few Caucasians interned with Japanese Americans during WW II, won both an Oscar and Peabody Award in 1991), was born and raised in Venice, California. As an American of Japanese lineage, he was in a unique position, perhaps, even, the perfect person, to make a film on this topic. Did he feel a primary sense of loyalty to either culture? I asked, when we met, first at Sundance, and later, in Berkeley, California (where he lives with his wife, writer Peggy Orenstein, and their daughter, Daisy Tomoko), at his offices in the Saul Zaentz Media Center.

“I’ve always felt a certain distance from both cultures,” Okazaki replied. “I’m an American, but my grandparents, parents and I were treated as lesser because of the way we look. My grandparents lost everything [during the war]. My parents were squashed and oppressed. And I have had to fight twice as hard for my opportunities. But I’m not Japanese. If I don’t open my mouth when I’m in Japan, then I fit in. But as soon as I do, then I’m a foreigner, an outsider. I understand the culture, but I’m not part of it and don’t want to be. I guess I always feel like an outsider, even among peers, in my community and at family gatherings. So, yes, I think I am a good choice to make this film, because, although I know both cultures extremely well, I am ‘the other’ to both.”

For 25 years, since the first time he visited Japan, Okazaki had wanted to make “a great film about Hiroshima and Nagasaki--an ambitious, comprehensive, powerful film.” But at the time, he felt he lacked “the skill to pull it off.” Later, he recalls, he “faced a wall of censorship from both Japan and the United States,” then, he couldn't find the funding. He put “The Big Film” on hold and made the documentary short "The Mushroom Club" in 2005, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The film is “a little tribute, a bow and a thank you, to the people of Hiroshima,” explains Okazaki, “to pay off the debt I felt to them for sharing their stories with me.”

During post-production, Sara Bernstein at HBO Documentary Films ("White Light/Black Rain" airs on HBO beginning August 6 at 7:30 P.M.) called and asked him if he was interested in doing “a big, ambitious film” about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Okazaki sees "The Mushroom Club" as a “kind of introduction” to "White Light/Black Rain." The first film “takes the viewer by the hand,” he says, “and slowly you see the city, meet the survivors and hear bits and pieces of the story. It is very consciously small and personal. I wanted to say, ‘Come with me, don't be afraid, just watch and listen.’ "White Light" is his “big film, it moves forward, very determined, doesn’t hold anything back, and tells the whole story. It says, ‘Pay attention, these people have something important, disturbing and amazing to say.’”

The film is vividly impressionistic and deeply moving. In addition to a series of captivating interviews with survivors (known as hibakusha––people exposed to the bomb and subsequent radiation) and three American soldiers, who carried out the bombing mission, White Light’s rich texture, both visually and aurally, combines painfully disturbing archival footage, survivors’ drawings of their memories of the horrific event, animation, and an intriguing soundtrack that includes several tracks by the Scottish band Mogwai. To come up with the look of the film, Okazaki says he took his “cues from the subjects. They are warm, intelligent, shy people with great dignity. The visuals and the music serve their stories, and never overwhelm them, but also hold our attention when we need a break from the intense drama of the stories.

“With most documentaries, you take advantage of every drop of drama you find,” he analyzes, but the Hiroshima and Nagasaki stories are “so emotionally overwhelming––a child walking out of a bomb shelter to discover that everyone in her school is dead; a mother watching helplessly as her children burn to death; young children committing suicide––you have to be careful about devastating the audience and losing them.”

About the soundtrack, Okazaki explains, “one of the fun things for me on any film is thinking about the music. The moment the project starts, I listen to everything I can. I usually have a fat budget item called ‘Music Research’ and I buy hundreds of CDs, listen to them, and think about the film.” He says he “can’t start editing until I have a strong sense of where I want to go with the music.” On "White Light" he collected about thirty Mogwai songs and “whenever I got to a scene I’d pop them all on until I found the one that fit.” When he finds something that works, he says, “it almost never changes after that.” He made the decision to forego period music, because it made the film feel “campy and dated. Even though the stories are 60 years old, you want it to feel like it’s happening now.”

A genuine sense of intimacy with the film’s participants as they recount their stories is one of the remarkable aspects of "White Light." Was it difficult persuading the survivors to open up about such a painful part of their lives? On the contrary, Okazaki clarifies, “they were mostly incredibly eager to share their stories and tell the world what happened. Many said that their own spouses, children and friends were reluctant to ask them about their experience, so they appreciated the chance to really talk.”

By nature, a project such as "White Light" raises emotional, moral, political and philosophical issues and questions for a filmmaker. How did Okazaki handle them? “I try to not come to a project with a set moral or political stand,” he explains. “I could be wrong and miss something because I was looking for something else. I try to stay open minded, do the research, do the filming and edit the film. That’s my job: to make the film, tell the story, not to decide the rights and wrongs, who's good and bad. I hate films where you know the filmmaker’s political or moral point of view in the first two minutes. Why bother?”
Okazaki then references "Black Tar Heroin," his first documentary for HBO, for which he followed five heroin addicts for three years. “I realized that most of what I thought I knew was wrong, and the best thing to do was to just follow the subjects. I try to be a filmmaker first. Sometimes you can’t. When you’re filming a drug addict and they overdose, you put the camera down and try to save their lives. It’s not a choice. Later on, you might think, ‘Wow, that would have been a powerful scene,’ but you have to live with yourself.”

He admits that "White Light/Black Rain" was difficult, emotionally. “I would be sitting there, listening to someone talk about reaching out to touch their mother and watching the body crumble into ashes. Later, I would worry that I wasn’t reacting emotionally to what I was hearing, but would instead be thinking, ‘Wow, this will be a powerful scene.’ But when I started editing the interviews and going through the archival footage, I would break down and start weeping, unexpectedly, every couple of weeks, not necessarily reacting to a particular scene, but the whole experience.”

"White Light" clearly goes to great lengths to be “fair”; there is little directive from the film to “take sides,” to “blame” either Japan or the U.S. (and yet, it holds both responsible for the consequences of their acts). Still, scathing revelations are made about both countries. What, I wondered, is Okazaki’s opinion about the responsibility of documentarians toward the “truth” and maintaining objectivity in their work?

“Again, I hate documentaries that simply support the prejudices of the filmmaker in the guise of exploring a compelling subject,” he stresses. “The so-called ‘docu-gandas,’ made popular and profitable by Michael Moore, but in existence since the beginning of filmmaking, would be fine as entertainment, except the audience is generally too trusting and can’t necessarily discern how the material is being manipulated. When I watch a documentary, I am very conscious of what is artistic license and what is cheating, but only the filmmaker knows for sure. I’m disturbed by the trend, but I can only be responsible for myself.”

"White Light/Black Rain" ends with the staggering statement that there are now enough nuclear weapons in the world to equal 400,000 Hiroshimas. As one of the military men responsible for dropping the atom bombs puts it in the film: “The genie is out of the bottle and can’t be stuffed back in the bottle. From now on, the world will live with the possibility of nuclear exchanges and nuclear war.”

But in person, Steven Okazaki ends on a more humanist note: “I just want people to stop arguing about the rights and wrongs of the atomic bombings, whose fault it is, who deserved it or didn’t, whether it was worse, or not as bad, as other holocausts, and just listen to the stories of the people who were there. People like you and me, our parents, our children, our friends.”

(A version of this interview first appeared in the July-August 2007 print version of "Documentary" Magazine.)


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

INTERVIEW "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman"

An Interview with director, Jennifer Fox

Now playing at Film Forum in NYC

In our post-9/11 world, the phrase “fear of flying” has a very different meaning from the one championed by Erica Jong in her 1973 bra-burning manifesto of liberation. Jong’s iconic "Fear of Flying" examined the female psyche (primarily hers) through the man-woman conundrum, sex, marriage, divorce, motherhood and that elusive Shangri-la, Freedom. And Jong modernized the quotidian sexual fantasy into a rousing “zipless fuck.”

Fast-forward 34 years. For "Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman," director Jennifer Fox spent five years visiting 17 countries, making countless women friends, and shooting 1,700 hours of film in her search into the identity of contemporary women. Using her own life and loves as the film’s central conceit, Fox sought not to create a film about herself, but to weave a connection with other women and their stories. The wingspan of this audacious and exhilarating six-part, six-hour series stretches from Phnom Penh to Islamabad, from Lapland to Capetown, and effectively employs flying metaphors throughout. Chapter titles include “Test Piloting,” “Experiencing Turbulence,” “Crash and Burn,” “Walking Away from the Wreck” and “Breaking the Sound Barrier.” Appropriately, "Flying" opens at the Film Forum in New York City on Independence Day and screens through July 17.

The editing of the massive amounts of footage Fox acquired was entrusted to the award-winning Danish editor Niels Pagh Andersen. The fact that the “confessional” aspect of the film does not deteriorate into a narcissistic, solipsistic mess no doubt owes a great deal to Andersen’s skills. In an interview he observes, “The whole concept of the film is a central character who evolves when she is reflected in other women. It makes her smarter, it pushes her and makes her move on in life.”

Fox, the award-winning director/producer of "Beirut: The Last Home Movie" (1987) and the groundbreaking 10-hour PBS television series "An American Love Story" (1999), developed a simple shooting technique she calls “passing the camera.” Her goal was to mirror the way women speak normally when they are alone together. “I had noticed that women have these endless free-flowing circular conversations about any life topic for hours,” she explains. However, she feared that introducing the camera would destroy the genuine intimacy among women. “I decided to try to use the camera in a way that mimicked the way women’s conversations usually occur. So, rather than let the camera be in a third-person position, either on a tripod or with a cameraperson, I decided to pass the camera between myself and other women in a similar way to how women ‘pass the ball’ back and forth in conversations,” she describes. She discovered that women “loved this technique” and that it maintained the intimacy and presence that normally accompany female conversations.

Intimacy and presence permeate Fox’s work and life: We met three times at this year’s Sundance screening of "Flying," and we have since spoken several times by phone as well as exchanged numerous e-mails. It’s easy to see why women in the film, whom she’s just met (no matter how different their cultural and ethnic heritage may be from hers), feel so relaxed in her company. Her warmth, caring and genuine concern energetically affect everyone within her radius.

In "Flying," the “passing the camera” technique becomes the great equalizer, as no one person in the conversation has more power than the other. Both film each other, both can ask questions of the other, both people are equally on the line. “On top of that,” Fox adds, “the whole question, ‘Can a layperson shoot with a camera?’ is so obviously answered in the film. My camera instruction to each woman took about 30 seconds, and within 30 seconds they were filming me, often quite beautifully. This was true whether it be women in New York, Britain, India or Pakistan—virtually anywhere.”

The filmmaker traveled alone through what are often considered some of the most dangerous regions on the planet, but because of the nature of her project, she always made advance arrangements with the women she planned to meet. “And being under the care and guidance of a local woman meant that I was much safer than I would have been had I been on my own,” she concedes.

For example, arriving in India, she met with Paromita, a 32-year-old political activist lawyer, and was “amazed” at how few people bothered her on the street because Paromita served as a guardian of sorts. Fox had traveled in India many times as a single woman and had been “constantly harassed and even got into some pretty awful situations.” Thanks to Paromita, Fox was able to integrate into Indian culture “in a really wonderful and seamless manner. This vision of another culture was great for the film, but it was also great for me personally because I had the best experience of India that I ever had.”

As a filmmaker working on her own, there were built-in restrictions and limitations in terms of equipment. Fox decided to use only natural light and rarely a tripod. She traveled with her Sony PDX10 PAL DVCam—the smallest broadcast-level widescreen camera available. She purchased a Seinheiser ME80 short shotgun mic, which she mounted on top of the camera and then “gerry-rigged a second mic, an electrosonic lavelier, on the back of the microphone to get the voice of the person holding the camera.” She carried five or six long-lasting batteries to assure full days of shooting. Fox also had two electrosonic radio mics for situations where it was better to radio mic someone, or herself, depending on the situation. “I think this kit is pretty much the bare minimum of a solo filmmaking kit,” she says. And she never left home with fewer than 60 expensive Sony PDVM 40-minute DVCam Professional tapes.

Although she shot on PAL, the requirements for Sundance warranted something different. Fox explains, “We shot the entire film in PAL DVCam for two reasons: The film is a Danish co-production, so we knew we would be doing most of the post-production in Europe, where PAL is the main format. But the main reason I wanted to shoot in PAL is that it’s such a higher quality video format compared to NTSC.” But because PAL has a different frame rate than NTSC, shooting in that format caused technical problems when converting the final film back to NTSC.

While looking for a producing partner that would inspire the language of the film she was planning, Fox felt the documentary film work coming out of Denmark was closest to her “aspirations for this new language I wanted to work in for 'Flying.'” So she partnered with a Danish producer, Easy Film, and together funded the film through a grant from the Danish Film Institute (similar to the National Endowment for the Arts in the U.S.). As a Danish co-production, the key personnel were required to be Danish, including the editor. “This meant that the film was an artistic collaboration between an American and Danish sensibility,” says Fox. She believes the project benefited tremendously from that fusion.

The film was also funded through pre-sales to seven international broadcasters. “It began as a feature film and most of these broadcasters were able to switch to purchase it as a series,” she explains. “However, our American broadcaster HBO doesn’t broadcast limited series and initially had to pass on it.” Once completed, the film was purchased for American broadcast by the Sundance Channel, which will air the six-episode series in 2008. An additional source of support came from Creative Capital, a New York-based foundation, which, Fox points out, “really follows the artist through all stages of production and distribution. I felt very privileged to have such backing.”

In terms of advice to filmmakers, Fox stresses the importance of understanding the right type of funding for one’s film. A film might be suitable for an American foundation, public television, commercial television or international pre-sales. “It is rare that a film is fundable from every avenue,” she states. “The key for independent filmmakers is not to be afraid of business and to educate themselves in as wide and diverse types of funding and distribution possibilities as they can.”

For self-preservation, she believes, an independent filmmaker cannot stay in the dark about the complexities of the film business. “I think that we should educate ourselves on the world market—not just television markets but also DVD and Internet markets.” Fox enjoys the business side of filmmaking and finds it interesting and exciting, but also a necessity to survive. “The world market keeps changing,” she warns. “As filmmakers, we need to evolve with the marketplace; otherwise we won’t survive. For me, survival is in itself success.”

This interview, titled "Praise Free Women and Pass the Camera," was originally published in the July/August 2007 issue of IDA "Documentary" Magazine.


Friday, May 04, 2007


"THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA, directed by Sophie Fiennes (sister to Ralph and Joseph), was a popular draw at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. A blueprint for approaching cinema through a psychoanalytic lens, the three-part series consists of substantial film clips and tongue-in-cheek, meticulously recreated settings of famous films (Melanie under siege on Bodega Bay in THE BIRDS; a cadaverous Mrs. Bates in the basement of PSYCHO; a lunatic Frank on the couch in the unquestionably "perverted" BLUE VELVET). However, in place of Melanie, Mrs. Bates, and Frank, sits Fiennes's 'guide,' the world-renowned philosopher Slavoj Zizek. The good doctor clearly relishes his role by tossing off such stimulating Freudianisms as: 'Cinema is the ultimate pervert art. It doesn't give you what you desire. It tells you how to desire.' As Thom Powers notes in his Toronto catalogue review, 'This doc will make you proud to call yourself a pervert.'

"The aim of The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, she says, is to 'document Zizek's thinking on cinema and perhaps the process of thinking itself as a performance, something caught, alive in its moment.' If not a performance, this interview serves as 'something caught' and hopefully remains 'alive in its moment.'"

Continue reading Cathleen's interview with Sophie on Greencine: http://www.greencine.com/central/sophiefiennes

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
May 3-6, 2007
Roxie Cinema, San Francisco
Fri., May 11 – Tues., May 15

THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO CINEMA DVD is available for purchase at: www.pervertsguidetocinema.com for £21.99, inclding free shipping worldwide.