War Don Don: An interview with documentary filmmaker Rebecca Richman Cohen

WAR DON DON: Rebecca Richman Cohen. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

BIO: Rebecca Richman Cohen is an award-winning filmmaker with experience in human rights.  During law school she worked at the Special Court for Sierra Leone on a legal defense team for the AFRC-accused case.  Later, she returned to begin production on WAR DON DON, which profiles the trial of a leader of a separate warring faction.  WAR DON DON won the Special Jury Prize at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.  Rebecca was profiled in Filmmaker Magazine‘s 25 New Faces in Independent Film as an “up-and-comer posed to shape the next generation of independent film.” Rebecca graduated from Brown University and Harvard Law School.  Between trips to Sierra Leone, she has been adjunct faculty at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and at American University’s Human Rights Institute.

WAR DON DON will have its U.S. broadcast premiere exclusively on HBO2 on Wednesday, September 29 at 8pm (EST).

WAR DON DON: Issa Sesay. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

Her Film: What was the impetus behind you making WAR DON DON?

Rebecca Richman Cohen: My background is actually in law – not film.  In law school I worked on a criminal defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  It’s the same court profiled in the film — but I worked on the trial of a different warring faction.  During that time I was exposed first hand to experience the inner-workings of the Court and I gained an intimate view of process in a way that would be difficult if I were just a journalist airdropped in to tell a specific story.

WAR DON DON: Justice Benjamin Itoe. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

Working at the Special Court, I came to know lawyers on the prosecution and the defense of Issa Sesay’s trial.  Both sides had some of the brightest and most impassioned lawyers I’ve ever met and I was fascinated by the moral, political, and legal questions that their commitments evoked.  Combining my legal experience in criminal defense with my background as a filmmaker, I realized that a documentary film could capture the complexities of the issues in way that neither law review articles nor mainstream media could accurately represent.

HF: How do you define your role as a documentary filmmaker?

RRC: Being a filmmaker is more than just telling a non-fiction story.  It’s also about honoring perspectives.

I treat my subjects with respect and I try to honor their perspectives – even if I disagree with them.  I assume that audiences can sort through competing narratives and come to their own conclusions.  One of the greatest joys of documentary filmmaking is the impassioned debate that arises from having to sort through the tensions within and between conflicting stories.

We did a great many rough cut screenings with different audiences – Sierra Leoneans and Westerners, lawyers and lay people, filmmakers, film lovers, and even a few who were generally indifferent to the art of documentary film.

I knew we were done editing when different people took away different things from the film – when the film acted like a Rorschach test of sorts. Different audiences will come to their own conclusions – and one of the greatest joys of documentary filmmaking is the debate that arises from having to sort through the tensions within and between conflicting stories.  I hope audiences enjoy having some of their assumptions tested and come to examine their own reactions to controversial issues.  That’s my role as a filmmaker.

WAR DON DON: Issa Sesay, Wayne Jordash. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO


HF: You showed Wayne Jordash (defense for the main accused man on trial, Issa Sesay) reflecting on the trial process and his attempts to understand the human condition and its inherent contradictions — that people aren’t just good or evil, but can often be somewhere in between.  What is your perception or observation of how the Sierra Leonean people attempt to understand both sides of the issue, despite the unthinkable terror the war evoked?

RRC: It’s impossible to speak for an entire country.  People’s perspectives in Sierra Leone – and throughout the world – are inevitably colored by their experiences.  It’s a tall order to ask people who have suffered terrible losses in war to see both sides of the issue.  The crimes perpetrated in Sierra Leone cannot be justified.  But in order to address the root causes of the war – and to prevent crimes in the future – the motivations underlying the war must be understood.

The work of the Special Court is not to see both sides of the issue or to create empathy for perpetrators.  The work of the Special Court is to fairly judge the guilt or innocent of individuals.  Understanding the motivations of different actors in the conflict – that’s the domain of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Being a filmmaker is… also about honoring perspectives.”

HF: Sierra Leone has experienced what is unfathomable horror for many people.  What did you learn in the process of making this film about how people (try to) heal from such atrocities?

RRC: When I was a law student [at Harvard], I read a book by Dean Martha Minow, called Between Vengeance and Forgiveness [subtitled Facing History after Genocide and Mass Violence] — it’s a book that deeply influenced my understanding of transitional justice.    One of the points Dean Minow makes that is forgiveness or healing may just be too tall an order in the aftermath mass atrocities.  A more realistic objective is peaceful coexistence.

WAR DON DON: David Crane. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

I think criminal prosecutions are one element necessary to promote peaceful coexistence, but one of many.   There’s consensus that it takes a holistic approach in order to address the root causes of the conflict:  rampant corruption, lack of access to justice, a sense of hopeless and inability to effect change without resorting to violence.  In order to move forward in the aftermath of war international transitional justice efforts need to work in concert with grassroots and civil society initiatives.

WAR DON DON: Wayne Jordash. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

HF: Can you talk a bit about the crew you worked with to make this film and the conditions in Sierra Leone which surrounded your production?

RRC: We made the decision early on to shoot on high definition video to capture the vibrancy of daily life in West Africa.  Our cinematographer, Nadia Hallgren, has an uncanny ability to find beauty and meaning in the seemingly mundane quotidian aspects of life.  And our long production schedule allowed her sufficient time to develop the character of the city of Freetown (its vibrancy, its poverty, its movement, its soft light at sunset) – to the fullest.

Once we returned to the edit room, the film’s editor/producer, Francisco Bello, was struck by the texture of the archival footage that we were amassing.  Much of the war footage was archived on badly degraded VHS tapes – to the extent that it almost appeared painterly as edges softened and colors blurred.  So it was really satisfying to see the sharpness of our original HD footage contrasted against the fuzziness of the historical archives.  The juxtaposition of formats made a cinematic point about the decay of historical memory, and allowed us to play with structure, content and textures accordingly.

WAR DON DON: Stephen Rapp. Photo credit: Courtesy HBO

HF: What has been the reaction to WAR DON DON in Sierra Leone?

RRC: In May 2010 I returned to Sierra Leone to launch our outreach campaign.  We had a Freetown première screening with a panel discussion that included the Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, and the head of Outreach for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  The screening and panel discussion generated a great of debate and interesting discussion.

In addition to targeting civil society and government leaders, we also did a number of screenings for former combatants and Issa Sesay’s family.  And we sent a DVD to Issa Sesay who is serving his sentence in Rwanda.  Issa said that he “appreciated the effort” we put in to telling his story.

Currently, we are partnered with civil society organizations in Sierra Leone to continue screenings and to use the film to support their ongoing efforts with regard to promoting the rule of law and access to justice initiatives.

_____________________________________________________

Visit the WAR DON DON website.

Become a fan on the WAR DON DON Facebook page.

Follow the film on twitter @wardondon.

Visit the HBO page for WAR DON DON.

See photos from the September 23 HBO screening of the film in New York City.

Advertisements

Feel the Fear & Do It Anyway! A video interview with Kai Soremekun, creator of the web series CHICK

Kai Soremekun is the creator-writer-director and star of the web series CHICK about a woman who wants to be a superhero.  She’s based in Hollywood, California and has recently finished the first season of her show — an ambitious 20 episodes! The second season is currently in development.

I met Kai in May 2010 at a seminar on internet marketing for filmmakers and then we met up again during my trip in August to Los Angeles. ( The all-day seminar was well worth it!  Note the section in the interview in which Kai talks about the mastermind group she’s just finished, all about the artist + entrepreneur model of filmmaking.)  She’s one of the most inspiring and positive people I’ve met, despite the fact we’ve only spent a few hours together!  CHICK is all over the web, so check out the links below the video to learn more.

Watch episodes of CHICK.

Follow Kai Soremekun on Twitter @kaisoremekun.

Join the CHICK page on Facebook.

Watch the CHICK channel on YouTube.

Join CHICK‘s MySpace page.

Check out Kai Soremekun’s website.

Read an article about CHICK on We Love Soaps TV.

Read about Kai Soremekun and her show CHICK in The Washington Post.

________________________________________________

Sincere thanks go out to Kai Soremekun for doing this interview!  Her patience during my camera troubles was admirable.  Toward the end of the interview, we were shut down by bookstore security for “customer filming,” so we relocated down the street to a hotel courtyard.  Much better atmosphere…

The Same Kind of Awkward: A video interview with web series creator Jessica Mills

Jessica Mills is the creator, writer, star and producer of the web series Awkward Embraces, now gearing up for its second season.  Her web series is all about nerdy girls, because as its tagline says: “Nerdy girls need love too.”  Into Star Trek: The Next Generation?  That makes you a girl nerd.  You should definitely be a fan of this web series!

Mills has more projects underway as well, so check out the links below the video to find out more.

Check out Project A Productions to watch episodes of Awkward Embraces.

Follow Jessica Mills on Twitter @geekyjessica and her series @AwkwardEmbraces.

Watch more on the Project A Productions channel on YouTube.

____________________________________________________

Much love to Jessica Mills for doing this interview and picking me up in her car as I was wheel-less in Los Angeles!  And apologies for the sound quality as I took my cheapo camera into a loud restaurant.  The food was good.  The sound was bad.    A fun time was had by all.

Staying True to Yourself: An Interview with Beginning Filmmaker Mahogany J. Slide

 

MJ Slide discusses a shot with Location Manager Stuart Sabin.

BIO: Mahogany J. Slide is a 17-year old independent filmmaker and native of Greenville, South Carolina, who  just recently embarked on her directorial career.  Inspired by a lifelong fascination with art, writing, and self expression, she took the plunge into the world of filmmaking, both feet forward. She’s a self proclaimed nerd, lover of classic and modern science fiction, and has a passion for quality filmmaking well beyond her years.

Her Film: Why do you love film?

Mahogany J. Slide: I love film simply because it unites my two favorite artistic mediums, photography and writing, like nothing else can.  At my essence, I’m a storyteller, just ask my parents.  I know in this generation there are so many more people who will watch a movie then read a book and so therefore I can reach those audiences with the same great stories and concepts through making films. I love the ability to express myself, experiment and constantly learn about people, myself, and the world that surrounds me.

HF: How long have you been writing and what are your goals as a new filmmaker?

MJS: I’ve been writing for a little over a decade now. The funny thing is before the age seven getting me to write was like pulling teeth.  It was a real challenge but my mom worked hard to build my passion for words.  She made me read – a lot – and then I started reading all by myself and realized I had stories of my own I wanted to tell, so I did.  I began with novels and short stories.  I didn’t really get into screenwriting until I was thirteen.  People kept reading my work and saying “it reads like a movie” and they were right.  It was as if I had been waiting for a writing format to come along that gelled with my minimalistic style, and screenwriting kinda fell in lap. My goal as filmmaker is to learn everything from the ground up, all the facets of production and be well rounded but true to myself as a writer.  I think like any writer our goal is to write what we get excited about, our passions, desires and our thoughts and perceptions of the world around us.

The Saving promo poster

“I love the ability to express myself, experiment and constantly learn about people…”

HF: Describe the process of writing and directing your debut film The Saving. Why is this story important for you to tell?

MJS: The inspiration for The Saving came from one line in one my favorite novels of all time, To Kill a Mockingbird.  The basic idea was there are many different ways of turning people into ghosts.  To me, that statement sinks into my mind like this:  people in general don’t have to be dead or in some form of limbo to be ghosts.  When we get so wrapped up in our troubles or tough situations that life throws our way we become only a shadow of who we really are, letting our problems define us.  We become ghosts.  It’s that concept that really is backbone of The Saving and then how does humanity remedy that?  Who’s our hero?  Who’s gonna save us?  Sometimes people ask why I decided to tackle such a heavy theme in what is my true debut short film and the reasoning behind it is simple — everyone on the planet has lost someone who’s been close to them or knows someone who has.  It’s a common experience for all mankind.  Our reactions are all very different but at our core we’re bound together. How do we handle it? What’s right and what’s wrong?  What is truth?  These are some of the questions I wanted address.

I wrote the first draft of the screenplay in a weekend and then let it sit for several weeks but it was never far from my thoughts.  I finally went back and decided this is a film I know I can make – it was as simple that.  I wanted to make the movie and I was gonna figure out how to make that happen.

HF: You’re very young — 17 yrs. old!  Who & what are your influences as a filmmaker?

MJS: Oh heavens, my influences are on all sides of the spectrum.  I pull a lot from classic American poetry and literature:  Shakespeare, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Cornelia Funke, C. S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman, and I’m also a diehard sci-fi fan, so Issac Asimov and Phillip K. Dick have a huge effect on the more science fiction areas of my writing.  For those who are not familiar with the indie filmmaking scene, my greatest mainstream influence is the shooting and directing in M. Night Shyamalan’s earlier films, barring The Happening and The Last Airbender.  It’s actually his film Signs that made me want to be a filmmaker. That was the “ah-ha!” moment for me as a beginner.  I love the fact he keeps his successful stories well contained (such as The Sixth Sense and Signs) and they’re not these vast, sprawling, epic films which I think anyone in the indie film biz can appreciate.  I also admire the fact of how little he cuts between angles in scene, he holds himself accountable for the shots that he takes, not allowing them to detract from the characters and what is going on in the story.  He doesn’t normally do things strictly for the shock and awe factor – every angle has a purpose.  Which brings to my one of my favorite films,  hands down.  No matter how cliché and overrated people think this film is, I love Citizen Kane.  Orson Welles had it all in that movie:  minimal cuts, powerful lighting, a stellar script, and an unrelenting passion that drove the whole storyline.  As far as writing goes, I liken my style to sci-fi guru Joss Whedon, at least in dialogue and pacing.

HF: You have an experienced crew and a production company.  Describe how you made contact with your crew and the biggest challenges you’ve faced as you make the film.

MJS: Three words:  Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo.  Social media was the way to go for what I needed for this film.  It’s a great way to establish your local and international contacts and simply to meet loads of creative people and build friendships with other in the arts. I found my mentor, Chris Jones, who is an author and a director shortlisted for an Academy Award, through twitter, along with my executive producer and composer, and my director of photography on facebook.  Social networking is not a piece of cake.  Like any good collaboration it’s gotta be built on a relationship which takes time and motivation.  My cast, crew and myself have poured all that in and it’s paying off, although a lot of people assume it hasn’t really been all that difficult to pull together a crew of professional because of my age.  It’s actually been a large part of my success.

Passion is contagious and I don’t think anyone could ever claim I’m not passionate about The Saving and the art of filmmaking.  It also helps that I have a pretty killer script. It won a lot of people over and for me, that’s how it should work.  It’s not about the money, it’s about the storyline – is it worth telling or not?  The biggest challenge I have and I am still facing is balancing my normal life while running a production company.  Finding the time to meet with my crew, work with my actors – it’s definitely a divide and conquer type situation.  My family have been real troopers throughout this whole experience and I wouldn’t be half the person I am today without their constant support.

The stars of the film, Patrick Hussion as "Paul Connel" and 16-year old Stephanie Ibboston as "Skye Mattheus."

HF: What are your hopes for The Saving (fests, distribution, etc.)?

MJS: My hopes for The Saving, well I wanna get it made for starters.  We’ve scheduled a release date for the film to premiere (hopefully) at a local theater that is partial to independent films, on February 5, 2011. Then if all goes well, we’ll ship it off to several film festivals within the area, just to test the audience.  Of course, every indie filmmaker dreams of Sundance or Slamdance and I won’t say I don’t have my eyes on those festivals, but I’m not gonna be totally heartbroken if The Saving isn’t accepted.

I plan on going for self-distribution through a website I set up for anyone interested in purchasing a DVD, but for the most part distribution isn’t a major point of focus.  Short films can’t really snag a major distro deal simply because…well…they’re short films.  People don’t generally want to pay twenty-something dollars for twelve minutes of movie and those who do are usually art house types (which is completely fine by me).  The whole point of making The Saving is for me to have the experience of directing a decent sized film, building my skills on all levels, and getting my name out there.

HF: What are you working on next?

MJS: I’ve actually got a few other short films in the works, most notably my In Protest of Twilight with the working title Bleeder.  It’s a vampire story but it’s not.  Feel free to be confused.  I’ve also got a feature script up my sleeve I’m in the process of writing entitled Jersey Noise. I’d describe it as The Great Depression meets X-Men.  Depending on how well The Saving is received,  I’d really like to bang my first feature before I’m 21. That’s the goal.

HF: How have you raised funds and how is the process working out for you as you prep for production?

MJS: All the money we’ve raised so far for The Saving‘s production budget as been through this really neat crowdfunding site called indieGoGo .   It took a lot of prep work to get the page set up, with the pitch, teaser trailer, backer incentives, etc., but as far a micro-crowdfunding goes, IndieGoGo is really working for us. We still need help to secure the $3,500 we need to shoot The Saving and we’ve got to raise $2,700 in less than three weeks.  We’re working all routes, both local and online to get the word out about this film. I had an interview just yesterday with our local newspaper and we’ve been plastering posters and handing out postcards all over the place in hopes of garnering more local interest and support for this production and the independent film scene in my home town.  It’s a lot of work but I truly feel it’s paying off.

Visit The Saving online.

Become a fan on Facebook.

Follow MJ Slide on twitter @MJ_Slide.

Read the blog at Junto Ink, MJ Slide’s production company.

_____________________________________________________

Thanks to MJ for doing this interview via twitter and email.