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Documentary Channel interviews AFI FEST’s filmmakers
By Roxanne Benjamin
Meet the Press:
Today I’ve had the opportunity to sit in on that most private of arenas at a film festival—within the sacred walls of the Festival Press Room where the cameras are turned and the filmmakers are thrown into the spotlight. This morning’s interviewers are The Documentary Channel production staff, who were kind enough to let me be the fly on the wall while they filmed eight (yes, eight) of the festival’s documentary filmmakers and subjects in the lovely Roosevelt Hotel.
The Documentary Channel was conducting their interviews for an upcoming episode of their original series DOCFest, which showcases new documentaries that are running the festival circuit. It is their third year of covering the AFI FEST for DOCFest. Barry Rubinow, segment producer, lauded the AFI FEST press staff, “Usually we’re on our own when it comes to scheduling interviews and covering press at film festivals. Shannon has been fantastic. They’re so efficient and organized. We wouldn’t be able to do this many filmmakers without their help.”
The day started off smoothly with the filmmakers of the music documentary AGILE, MOBILE, HOSTILE: A YEAR WITH ANDRE WILLIAMS. The film is the sophomore effort of filmmakers Tricia Todd and Eric Matthies, who are both strong advocates of the documentary medium and have run their own production company for the past 12 years. Rubinow got them talking about the making of their film and its unpredictable subject, musician Andre Williams.
The filmmakers met Williams at a party thrown by a music industry friend at In the Red Records. “When you meet Andre he’s so charming. As a person he’s really interesting…he was there before Motown existed. There are so many people that look up to him and his music, from the 60s to now. He’s that guy you see begging for change on the street, but he’s also playing sold out shows in Europe,” says Todd. Wiliams’ long-spanning career has lasted through two cycles of the ‘Detroit sound’, from the original Motown to the more garage-rock revival of the White Stripes and Jon Spencer, two musicians whom Williams has inspired.
“Someone has to make a documentary about this, and it may as well be us.” He says. The filmmaker himself has been in a number of bands, something he shares with the subject of the film. Brian Rubinow, another member of the Doc Channel crew, was most excited about the upcoming interview with Rose as he voted HI MY NAME IS RYAN as one of the top docs of this year’s festival.
“I can kind of relate to it, the whole ‘being weird for weird’s sake,” he says, referring to Avery.
Brian is not the only one relating to the film. Rose spoke of the audience reaction to the film’s energetic and hopeful protagonist, “The film, in a lot of ways, is light and funny but touches on some serious things-art as therapy, changing yourself through your music or film. A lot of people come out of the film saying ‘Man, I wish I was more like him.’”
Kief Dabidson, Director of the Forest Whitaker-produced KASSIM THE DREAM, was the next to face the Documentary Channel question-firing squad. Heavier fare than the two previous films, KASSIM… tells the story of Kassim Uma, a former titleholder of ‘Junior Middleweight Champion of the World’. He is also a former child soldier, kidnapped at age 6 in Uganda by rebel forces famous for abducting children into their army.
Dabidson first heard of his story on HBO Real Sports and was struck by Kassim’s personality. “He always has a smile, but he’s killed so many people,” says the filmmaker. “I’ve never really looked at this as a sports documentary…its really about Kassim and what he‘s done. It’s a real personal story.”
The next two interviews were a father-son duo; one being the subject of the documentary, the other the filmmaker. OF ALL THE THINGS had its West Coast premiere last night at AFI FEST with turn away crowds and a number of celebrities and music biz folks in the ranks, including Sidney Poitier (both father and daughter of the same name), actor Edward James Olmos, songwriters Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Glen Fitzgerald (of Dirty Sexy Money fame) and Brian Potter, to name a few.
Tomorrow’s noon screening is almost sold out, as well. Back on the music documentary trend of the morning, Doc Channel staffers first interviewed the subject of the film, songwriter Dennis Lambert, about his decision to jump in the spotlight and tour the Philippines. Lambert, writer of a number of famous ’70s tunes, never knew that he had a cult following overseas.
He spoke of his son Jody’s making of the film, “I don’t know if anybody else would have been positioned to make this movie. It wasn’t originally his plan…friends in the film business told him this might be something worth capturing. Director Jody Lambert stresses that the father-son element is not the focus of the film. “The story is really about him and his decision to go on this tour, not the relationship between father and son.”
Lambert has been performing across the US in support of the film. The LA run of the film will be no different, as he is performing live at the Knitting Factory this Wednesday. In addition, Lambert continues to write songs for artists and work within the music industry. He played Joe’s Pub two weeks ago in New York and the Viper Room last week, and the solo record that has lived in obscurity except for in the Phillipines for the past 35 years is this week’s “Employee Pick” at the infamous Amoeba Music record store.
Margarita Jimeno, the next director in front of the camera, had never before made a documentary. Ironically, she felt documentaries were initially boring and wasn’t a fan. “As I was making the film I started to realize how interesting they are. You have to continue filming until the end appears. People’s lives don’t evolve like they do in a film.”
The filmmaker met the subject of her film GOGOL BORDELLO NON-STOP at a Bulgarian bar in New York, where he was DJ-ing. “At the time, it was rock, gypsy music, Bulgaric music. He was so energetic. I asked him if I could film him for the summer, to make a video. It ended up being five years, then two years editing.”
The main focus of her film is one Eugene Hutz, the lead singer of Gogol Bordello and an actor in his own right (he recently appeared in a movie with Madonna, acted in Everything is Illuminated, and was the inspiration for the character Eugene in WRISTCUTTERS: A LOVE STORY). “There are so many different topics in the film…political, artistic, the party scene. It s a fun feel good film but there are still these serious topics.”, says the filmmaker.
WITCH HUNT filmmakers Don Hardy and Dana Schwartz followed the soft-spoken Jimeno. Their documentary screened for the second time at the festival today and the film just sold to MSNBC Films, making it the first film to sell at AFI FEST for theatrical distribution. Seven of the subjects of the film and their children were present for the premiere, where they received a standing ovation.
Chris Taylor, the helmer of the documentary FOOD FIGHT, hit the hot seat next to answer the Documentary Channel’s questions. His film tells the story of the progressive food movement in America, starting in California in the 60’s and 70’s, and the problems caused by industrial agriculture: obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc. DOC brought up a number of questions related to the mass food industry and the making of the film. “I see the film as an anti-propaganda film. Most of the information we get about food is from these giant food companies. So, its marketing, not information. I wanted to show that,” says Taylor.
The final interview of the day involved the use of an interpreter and the questionable ownership of a toy Saab. Russian filmmaker Alexandra Westmeier and her translator Julia Emelin, together with husband and producer Inigo Westmeier, patiently answered questions about their emotionally driven documentary ALONE IN FOUR WALLS while the couple’s 5-year-old, curly-haired son played quietly. The film, focused on children in a detention center in Russia, has won several awards and played at over 30 international film festivals.
Westmeier is another journalist turned documentarian, working in TV journalism in Russia. She spoke of her motivation in lensing the film,
“The children are being looked at from society’s point of view as prisoners but to me, they are most of all children. The real goal was to change the people’s point of view of children who were in prison, to see that they committed their crimes by mistake, for silly reasons; who were lacking attention from society and parents. As important as it was to show this to the audience, it was important to show this to the kids themselves.”
Concerning the film’s cinematography, Inigo expressed similar sentiments to those of his wife Alexandra regarding the child’s detention center, “When I came there, I was surprised that they were all little kids, looking so cute. I imagined the place would be frightening and dark, but it isn’t, so I shot it like I saw it. There is a huge contrast between how they look and what they’ve done.”
Inigo stressed how easy the kids were to work with within the prison. Alexandra felt that the kids opened up so easily because they had no one else to talk to-the detention centers had no psychologists or social workers. After the interview, it was noted that the Westmeiers’ son had somehow acquired a toy Audi and had grown quite attached to it. No one was quite sure how it ended up in the interview room and no one was opposed to his adoption of it. So here’s a thanks to festival sponsor Audi for making even the youngest of festival-goers happy.
The day of interviews with the Documentary Channel crew seemed to fly by, thanks in part to the AFI FEST’s competent and hardworking Press staff. The Documentary Channel finishes all of their interviews with the question ‘what do documentaries mean to you?’ Across the board the filmmakers praised the documentary form and the new technology that is making the filmmaking process more accessible to those with stories to tell.
Filmmaker Lief Dabidson had this to say, “I’m always compelled to real life stories. I think docs have really gone to a new level. The tools are so sophisticated now.”
Filmmaker Eric Matthies (AGILE, MOBILE, HOSTILE) expressed similar sentiments, “Now is the greatest time for documentaries, they’ve stopped being talking head interviews and archival footage. There are so many stories out there to be told. Truth is always stranger than fiction.”
Dailies from AFI, ambience, videos, pictures from the festival scene.
Special contributions from Red Carpet Worthy's team: Archer Sierra and her team of ambassadors from the red carpet.
AFI FEST presented by Audi is the longest-running film festival in Los Angeles and one of the most influential film festivals in North America. Each year the Festival presents one of the world's most anticipated showcases of international film, demonstrating AFI's commitment to celebrating the art form.
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