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Interview with director Ryan Suffern for 'Finding Oscar' (2017)

Director/Producer Ryan Suffern's award winning documentary 'FINDING OSCAR' (2017) recounts the tragic story of the infamous massacre of Dos Erres, Guatemala which took place on December 6th 1982 during which over 200 people, including women and children, were brutally murdered by the Guatemalan military under de facto president Efrain Rios Montt. The film follows the decades long search for Oscar Ramirez, the unlikely survivor of the tragedy who was then only three years of age.

Produced by The Kennedy/Marshall Company, Suffern's film is a monumental work about a monumental journey; in his own words, “a journey that begins in the jungles of Guatemala and ends, of all places, in the suburbs of Boston.”

'FINDING OSCAR' is being distributed by FilmRise and international sales conducted by Preferred Content. The film can be screened on ITunes, Amazon Instant and Google Play.

 

I met Ryan in February at the Sedona International Film Festival where his film screened. I interviewed him recently about his experience making the film. Here is what he had to say:

 

How did you hear about the Dos Erres massacre and Oscar's story?

RYAN: We started making this documentary after Frank (Marshall) had dinner a few years ago with a childhood friend of his, Scott Greathead, who just so happens to be the human rights attorney that helped Oscar Ramírez and his wife Nidia get political asylum here in the U.S. Scott shared Oscar’s incredible story with Frank, and soon thereafter, Frank reached out to me and said, “You gotta hear this story.”

RYAN CONT'D: This was right around the time that Immigration and Customs Enforcement found one of the Guatemalan soldiers (Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes) living in Southern California as a U.S. citizen. He had been arrested, and eventually convicted, for naturalization fraud for covering up his involvement in the Dos Erres massacre. Oscar flew out from Boston to attend the sentencing of this soldier and to read a prepared victim’s statement to the judge. Both Scott and Fredy Peccerelli, the Executive Director of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, joined Oscar in LA to drive out to the federal courthouse in Riverside, and I showed up with a camera in hand to document the day’s events. That was my first time meeting all three men, who I got to spend the entire day with, including sitting with them in the courtroom during the sentencing (the soldier got the maximum sentence of 10 years). That night, I came home to my wife and said, “I’ve just filmed the end to the most fascinating story I’ve ever heard. Now I just have to go get the rest of it.”

 

What made you feel that Oscar's story had to be told?

RYAN: My attraction to Oscars story is this amazing point of access that’s afforded through this very personal story. Not only do you have the existential crisis of one day discovering your whole life is not what it seems, but it’s juxtaposed with this decades-long, epic search to find a little boy; a journey that begins in the jungles of Guatemala and ends, of all places, in the suburbs of Boston. There are so many larger issues that you cant help but touch upon in telling Oscar’s story — U.S. foreign policy, immigration, a genocide in the Americas — however, if we set out to make a documentary about any one of those issues alone, I think a large percentage of the audience would probably just tune out. So Oscar’s story gave us a way to tell a much larger and incredibly important story, but to do so in hopefully a very compelling way.

 

How long did it take you to make the film, from finding the research search to editing?

RYAN: We started filming the documentary in February 2014 and finished the film right before its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival last September (2016). So it took us just about 2 1/2 years from start to finish.

 

How many hours of film did you have after years of filming?

RYAN: It’s hard to know how many hours exactly, but certainly quite a few terabytes! When you consider that each interview with just the two soldiers involved in the Dos Erres massacre was between 3-4 hours, you can imagine how quickly the footage can add up. Plus, we had countless hours of archive footage as well. My hat’s off to our amazing editor Martin Singer, and assistant editor Nick Loud, for keeping track of it all!

 

Your film played quite a few film festivals before it’s theatrical release in the spring. How have audience reactions been?

RYAN: The reaction has been pretty amazing. We’ve screened the film for all sorts of audiences now, and regardless of their demographic (age, gender, ethnicity, political persuasion, etc.), the story seems to really be resonating for folks, which has obviously been very gratifying to experience. We really tried to make this film accessible to the largest audience possible. Whether you’re a North American who knows nothing about Guatemala (much like I was), or a Guatemalan who experienced the genocide firsthand, we wanted to get this story right and tell it in such a way that it would garner the meaningful audience it deserves.

 

What do you hope this film will achieve in the bigger picture?

RYAN: It’s pretty devastating when you realize that the horrors that were experienced at Dos Erres were far from an anomaly in Guatemala during its 36-year internal conflict, and that many hundreds of massacres just like it took place there. Nor was Guatemala really an anomaly in Central America, or Latin America as well, when you think of what happened in El Salvador and Argentina and in so many other countries throughout the hemisphere. And the world at large continues to witness horrific violence being perpetrated on others, with Syria being an all too present reminder of this.

RYAN CONT'D: If we don’t try to learn why these events have happened and continue to happen throughout the world, then I do think we’re indeed bound to repeat them. Our hope is that FINDING OSCAR might be a way to start that much needed conversation, which is why we’re all the more grateful to be partnered with USC Shoah Foundation. They have created an amazing archive of over 55,000 video testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust, and are now committed to capturing the firsthand accounts from survivors of other genocides, including Guatemala.

 

Is it more difficult for documentaries to find distribution than features?

RYAN: Probably, but I haven’t made any narrative features (yet), so I can’t speak from personal experience in that regard. I’ve been very fortunate that all of the independent documentaries that I’ve been involved with so far have eventually found distribution, be it broadcast or otherwise. From my perspective, I think the real challenge in making documentaries is that the industry paradigm, more often than not, still puts the onus on the filmmaker to find the necessary funding to get the film made, or at least, get to a rough cut. Being a filmmaker and being a fundraiser are two incredibly different skill sets, and it’d be great to see more documentaries be commissioned at the start of the process. Fortunately, we’re seeing more of this as the appetite for documentaries continues to increase, but we’ve still got a ways to go.

 

You are a DOP, director and editor. Is there one hat you like wearing more than others? Or do you like them all?

RYAN: As a documentary filmmaker, it’s almost obligatory to have to wear many different hats in the process, cause you usually can’t afford to pay other people to do the stuff! I come from a background in photography, so I do like getting my hands on the camera, and I’ve also grown to really appreciate the discovery process in the edit room. However, my preferred role is definitely as the director as I love collaborating with others, especially when they’re better than me at whatever their individual role is. I do like being at the helm of the ship, corralling a whole group of folks towards the common goal of telling the story in the best way possible.

 

Will you continue making documentaries or do you also plan to film features?

RYAN: As the Head of Documentaries for The Kennedy/Marshall Company, I’m definitely continuing to make documentaries! I have the privilege of overseeing and being involved in a full slate of projects, primarily in a producer capacity. Not sure exactly what will be my next directing gig, but there are a few things percolating. As for features, I do hope to get the chance someday to direct a narrative story as that was certainly the goal when I first move to LA (from Chicago) exactly 15 years ago this month. So hopefully that opportunity will present itself at some point, but for now, I’m very grateful to be making documentaries.

 

What will you be working on next?

RYAN: I’ve been helping to produce a documentary called SATAN AND ADAM. It’s an incredible story, shot over 20 years, chronicling the unlikely pairing of legendary one-man band Sterling “Mr. Satan” Magee and harmonica master Adam Gussow, showcasing the greatest music duo you probably never got a chance to see. Hopefully, we’ll be premiering the film early in 2018, so stay tuned!

Director Ryan Suffern

Visit the film's website here: http://findingoscar.com/

Interview by Vanessa McMahon

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Filmmakers and audiences from around the world have heralded Sedona’s festival as one of their favorites. The Frank Warner Workshop brings Academy Award-winning, industry professionals to Sedona to teach, inspire and share their knowledge.

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