From the archives: Rebecca Richman Cohen’s WAR DON DON

In light of this week’s conviction of ex-Liberian President Charles Taylor at The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, I’m re-posting this interview from 2010 with Rebecca Richman Cohen.  She is the director of the HBO documentary film WAR DON DON and a former member of a criminal defense team at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  Her documentary is about the trial of a former Sierra Leonean rebel leader charged with crimes against humanity.  Events in Liberia and Sierra Leone are tied; Charles Taylor was tried and convicted of crimes he committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone.  More on the Taylor conviction at Democracy Now! (video).

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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 premiered on HBO on Sept. 29, 2010.]

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.

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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.

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INTERVIEW: Turkish filmmaker Orkide Unsur

“I like to surprise the audience and make them reconsider ordinary or familiar subjects which they are used to seeing in their daily lives.”

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Orkide Ünsür is an award-winning indie filmmaker from Istanbul, Turkey. She has worked as a TV reporter, assistant director, assistant producer, script writer, director and producer for national TV channels and production companies.  She has also directed promotional films as a freelance director, made two short documentaries as co-producer and executive producer, and worked on short movies as a production coordinator, art director and actress.

Filmmaker Orkide Unsur (Photo courtesy of the filmmaker)

As producer, director & screenwriter, she made the short documentary COASTLANDERS 8 to 8  (2009)  which won the 3rd Best Documentary Award in the 8th Istanbul International Environmental Short Films Festival in Turkey, and she made the short experimental documentary Metruk (The Abandoned) (2010) which  won  the Indie Fest Award of Merit in La Jolla, California, USA. Her screenplay Sitophobia, which has won the WILDsound FALL/WINTER 2011 1-page Screenplay Contest at the WILDsound Film Festival in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, will be made into a film by Canadian filmmakers in 2012.

Orkide Ünsür is in the process of looking for funds for her latest short fiction screenplay, The Scarlet Awakening, and at the same time is working on her other film projects.

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Her Film: You are a screenwriter, director and producer who has worked in both television and film.  Can you describe the journey you’ve taken to become a filmmaker in terms of both training and personal/artistic motivations?

Orkide Unsur:  I have been passionately in love with cinema since the day my parents brought me to a movie theater. I was only two and a half years old. I was mesmerised by the screen…In my opinion, there is no such work which can give the same satisfaction of creating a new world as filmmaking.

I have been watching lots of movies and reading as much as I can about filmmaking since I can remember. I have always wanted to make films. Fortunately, working in TV gave me the chance to enter the industry. I’ve taken courses about on camera, interviewing and editing techniques. I worked as a reporter, assistant director/producer, script writer, producer and director for TV channels and production companies. My first short film experience was my brother’s school project. It was a short fiction film called “Journey to the End Of Life”. I was working as an assistant director on that project.

Learning the filmmaking process is an endless education; filmmakers have to train themselves continuously. I wish I had more opportunities since I have loads of projects which I would love to realize.

Still from Coastlanders 8 to 8 (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF: The logline for your latest project, Metruk, a short experimental documentary is “Condemned houses are like abandoned lovers” and the synopsis talks about themes of love and loss, passage of time and self-destruction.  With such a unique comparison of subjects, how do you approach the development of the story and what to visually represent on screen?

OU: I have always been attracted by the gothic souls of abandoned houses. I was very interested in playing with my friends around them when I was a child. We used to call them “Haunted Houses”. Although they scared me a bit, I loved them. I have wanted to film such abandoned houses. So, I have decided to film most of the abandoned houses which were in my present neighborhood. I considered it to be kind of a duty on my behalf to brighten the neighborhood and glorify something that has meaning as well as history. I guess some disappointments and sadnesses I have experienced in my private life gave the inspiration to me as a storyteller and they “pulled the trigger” to make me write my logline and produce Metruk at that time.

“Condemned houses are like abandoned lovers” was my road map and creative approach while I was making the film. I tried to observe them in their loneliness, sadness, and proudness. I also wanted to show their relationships and experiences with people, nature and animals. I didn’t create any fictional scenes or shots except my walk in front of the big wooden house.  We just followed our shooting plan as we enjoyed being eyewitnesses to some magic moments and lovely coincidences such as coming across a cut tail black cat, junkman or lonely mother and daughter.

I’d like to thank my cameraman/DOP Umut Can Sevindik again who collaborated with me very well and understood what I wanted. We also edited the film together. It was an enjoyable process.

Poster for the short film Metruk (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF:  Many of the films you have made are in the documentary genre.  What do you find most interesting and most challenging in presenting stories in a short format?  What attracts you to the documentary genre?

OU: I love fiction genre and feature length films as much as I love documentaries and short films. What attracts me to documentaries is recreating existence, reality, through my way of storytelling. I like to surprise the audience and make them reconsider ordinary or familiar subjects which they are used to seeing in their daily lives.

The documentaries I like to make are not about big issues such as wars or hungry children in Africa. I prefer to tell more specific, local, different or character-driven stories which give me the opportunity to use my artistic, emotional and experimental approaches as well as sense of humor (if the stories let me). And most importantly, for those kinds of documentaries, I need neither a big budget nor a large team.

Shooting the film Coastlanders 8 to 8. Burçin Ankara and Orkide Ünsür. (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

Short film is a genre that gives huge freedom to a director. It’s not only for students or emerging/young filmmakers, so I will always enjoy producing short movies. What I find most challenging with short films is being able to tell a story in a limited time. I find it alluring, indeed. Finding funds/sponsors as well as earning money is hard for shorts in general. Nowadays, I’m very excited about my latest project The Scarlet Awakening. It’s a short drama which combines domestic violence and flamenco music & dance. I have written the screenplay, found my main crew and actors. I’m in a process of finding financial support. I hope to bring it life as soon as possible.

In addition, it would be my pleasure to collaborate with other filmmakers, screenplay writers, producers, from not only Turkey but also around the world.

HF: This interview is the first in series I am working on this spring in order to share information about Turkish women filmmakers.  Can you talk a bit about your life as a woman filmmaker in Turkey and how you see women represented in the Turkish film industry?

OU: The general public has already pre-conceived ideas of film directors in their mind. If you ask the general public to make a drawing of somebody who works as a film director, their pre-conceived idea would be a man with beard, scarf, spectacles, a sort of bohemian character.

Although women filmmakers and writers, especially in the field of screenplay writing and directing for TV dramas, have been increasing in the Turkish film industry recently, there are not as many as people suppose. For instance, it is really hard to find women directors in the advertising sector.

As a short filmmaker, I would love to write & direct feature length films when the right time comes and when I find the opportunity. However, I wouldn’t prefer to be a new, or even older, filmmaker who has only been chasing her dreams or whose films are only being screened in some film festivals.  I’d like to make a film which reflects my vision, my artistic way as well as something that attracts many audiences across different platforms.  So it is important to find the balance and it’s really hard.

Still from short film Metruk (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF: What kind of audiences can you find within Turkey for film, either shorts, documentaries or feature-length films?  Is it reasonable to expect that you can license your work to television broadcasters, find DVD or online distribution agreements, or secure theatrical distribution?

OU: In Turkey, I don’t think we can mention independent filmmaking and self-distribution in real terms for feature length films, only for some shorts and documentaries. Turkish short filmmakers find their audiences mostly via festivals, special screenings or via the internet.  If they are lucky enough, their works may be broadcasted on a TV channel which shows short films and/or documentaries. However, TV channels do not pay for short films in any genre. There are some Turkish-oriented internet platforms which broadcast all genres of short films for free. I submitted my shorts to a UK-based VOD service and Metruk (The Abandoned) became the most popular short film among all the others within just five days. It was number one in the current Top 10 most-watched videos.

There are main professional distribution companies in Turkey and Turkish filmmakers mostly work with them for their theatrical or DVD distribution.  Among the other international and national VOD services and digital platforms, “Turkish Film Channel” is an online distributor especially for award-winning Turkish feature length films.

Shooting Metruk (The Abandoned). Orkide Ünsür with Umut Can Sevindik. (Courtesy of O. Unsur)

HF:   I have read in several news articles that Turkey has more working women filmmakers than Hollywood, though I have also been told that there are still woefully few women working in the Turkish film industry.  What do you see as the main challenges for Turkish women who work, or want to work, within their own country’s film industry?  

OU:  Filmmaking is still a male dominated field also in Turkey as well as all around the world. However, numbers of women filmmakers have been increasing in the Turkish film industry recently.

To quote from Sinemanin Disil Yuzu (by Semire Ruken Ozturk), “6,035 films were produced in the Turkish film industry between 1914-2002 and only 96 of them produced by women directors whose population is less than 25.  [Clarification: fewer than 25 women directors made the aforementioned 96 films.]  The first woman director in Turkey was Cahide Sonku who directed the film Vatan ve Namik Kemal as co-director in 1951. She was also the first star as a remarkable actress in Turkish Cinema.”  Antrakt Sinema [newspaper] (by Deniz Yavuz) states “seventy-three Turkish films were screened in movie theaters in Turkey in 2011” and seven of them directed by women.  Furthermore one of these films was a co-director project and three of them were women.

Besides experienced female directors such as Canan Gerede, Biket Ilhan, Tomris Giritlioglu, Handan Ipekci, and Yesim Ustaoglu, for the last 20 years, there have emerged some first or second time feature length filmmakers such as İlksen Basarir, Pelin Esmer, Belma Bas, Cigdem Vitrinel, and Belmin Soylemez recently.

The progress is good in Turkey yet we still need positive discrimination for women in the film industry. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean all the film projects by women have to be supported even if they are not good.  It’s not fair.  Finally, I would like to say that a “bad film” is a “bad film” whether directed by a woman or a man.


To connect with this filmmaker or to support her work, please check out these links:
Twitter: @orkideunsur 
Tacebook:  Orkide Ünsür (/Orkide.Unsur)
YouTube: orkideunsur
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post edited 4-27-2012

 

From the archives: Interview with filmmaker Michelle Latimer

This interview originally appeared on April 11, 2011.

 

INTRODUCTION

The following interview with Michelle Latimer has been a collaborative effort over the past several months between Ottawa-based Nelson Jack Davis (President & CEO of Makatok Pictures) and myself (see below for our bios).  Nelson, whose own work focuses on Aboriginal, First Nations and Indigenous stories,  was kind enough to come on board to share his knowledge and contribute questions to this interview, and for that I thank him most graciously!!!  He was a tremendous help.  Aboriginal film and filmmakers is a topic that is at best under-discussed, but at worst, ignored, and we’re both happy to introduce this special interview with an important figure within the Aboriginal film community (in Canada and beyond!)  On behalf of Nelson Davis and myself, I’d like to offer a sincere “thank you” to Michelle Latimer for taking the time to engage with us and with readers on this crucially important topic.

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MICHELLE LATIMER is a Métis filmmaker based in Canada.  She is a writer, producer, director and actress who has been involved in a number of projects focused on Aboriginal peoples.  For more information about her work, please see the list of links following the interview.

Her Film: What is the situation for First Nations women filmmakers in Canada today? How has it changed over the years?

Michelle Latimer: That’s a difficult question, as I truly believe that everyone’s situation is individual and specific to his or her experience.  To remark on an overall situation for all women filmmakers who are First Nations would be to lump them all together, and I fear that this is an external view that has perpetuated past stereotypes.  However I can say, based upon my own experience as a Métis filmmaker that I am consistently struck by the depth of talent and strength emerging from deep within our community.  There seems to be a creative renaissance happening. And I think, now more than ever before, the community is gathering together to support one another in an organized type of way.  It seems to me that this has contributed to a confidence that transcends the medium of film and has enriched the work we’re producing.

The First Nation’s community is expansive – we occupy a massive piece of land that separates us both geographically and, in some instances, culturally, so it’s not always easy to connect with one another.  But I would say that our films tend to have a vastness in scope and theme that’s reflective and authentic to this experience.  However, I believe that connecting and supporting one another has been key to the work getting out there in the world.  Personally, I’ve drawn much inspiration from the female filmmakers who forge ahead.  In fact, I had a real ‘eureka’ moment last week when Sundance announced the inaugural Indigenous Film Showcase at this year’s festival.  We have three First Nations films represented from Canada.  And all three films have all been directed by women! I think I’m still basking in the after-glow of that!

“…I am consistently struck by the depth of talent and strength emerging from deep within our community.”

Oh, yes, you asked me what I think has changed over the years….well, I can’t say for certain, but I can say that things have changed.  How can they not?  I guess the Sundance announcement is a reflection of some of those changes.  But, on a larger and more significant scale, I believe that when you engage in storytelling from a truthful place you’ve enacted change just by speaking the words or capturing the images.  There’s tremendous power in that.

HF: You’re the programming director for imagineNATIVE film and media arts festival that celebrates work by indigenous artists. What role does imagineNATIVE play within the larger Canadian and international film industry?

ML: ImagineNATIVE is the largest Indigenous film festival in the world.  So, just by sheer size, we are considered the premiere festival to showcase indigenous work from Canada, as well as international, indigenous filmmakers.  But, on a broader scale, what inspires me most about ImagineNATIVE is the festival’s uncompromising support of groundbreaking and innovative cinema and new media.  We are always looking to program work that pushes the boundaries of the medium, and we’re very conscious of supporting emerging artists.  I would venture to say that some of the most interesting work submitted to the festival is within what would be classified as experimental cinema that breaks the confines of form and expectation.  I love to see work that challenges the medium of film and takes storytelling to the next level.  In this way, the tools of cinema can be expanded, sculpted into what becomes the best way to convey a story.  It’s quite incredible that ImagineNATIVE can provide a platform where these types of films can be seen and celebrated.  And I think the exhibition of this work has contributed to the progressive evolution of expression that is often remarked upon when it comes to Canada’s contemporary, indigenous cinema.  We are leading the way globally, and our films are breaking new ground, pushing beyond traditional stereotypes of what a ‘native’ film is thought to be.  Aside from the creative expression, ImagineNATIVE is also integral to our industry’s growth on a professional, business level.  The festival brings international buyers, commissioning editors, and international festival programmers together with filmmakers from all around the world.  In this way, our filmmakers can benefit by getting their work out there.  They can connect with other like-minded artists and draw inspiration from one another. For an emerging filmmaker, having your work bought and/or screened internationally can be a huge contributing factor to getting your next film made.  I know that when I made my first short film, all I wanted was for people to see it at the festival.  I wasn’t thinking about actually selling it or having it seen outside of Toronto.  Essentially, I made it to learn and had given very little thought to the business side of things.  But, attending ImagineNATIVE with my first film opened up a whole new world to me.  As I learned more about the industry, I realized that I could sustain myself by doing this for a living.  And that realization gave me the confidence to focus on the craft of filmmaking in a more precise and dedicated way.  That kind of influence can profoundly change a person’s artistic trajectory.  Speaking from experience, if I had not dedicated myself to making films, who knows where I might be right now!

HF: An article ran in the Honolulu Weekly in August [2010] that discussed the native Hawaiian filmmaking community and the responsibility that filmmakers often feel toward their communities when telling stories about native Hawaiian culture. What are your thoughts on the issue of responsibility toward one’s ethnic and cultural community as it relates to indigenous filmmaking?

ML: I would say that my own work delves into synonymously universal and specific themes of identity and connection to place and nature. But I think that’s reflective of my experience growing up with mixed heritage, and less about a responsibility I must fulfill.  It’s where I come from when I approach a film and that sense of place is what makes my films unique to my own experience.  A wonderfully talented writer friend of mine once said to me “you must create from your place of obsession”.  And I suppose, as an artist, that’s about all you can do – dig deep inside your own wonder while striving to communicate the truth within moments.  As far as responsibility goes, I believe that the only responsibility an artist can have is to be rigorous and focused in that quest.  That is ultimately what resonates with people, no matter what one’s background is.  In the end, we all have the same human desires, needs, and inclinations.  So recognizing this authenticity of voice within filmmaking (or any other form of art) is something that brings us together in our humanity.  And I think that goes a long way towards cultivating understanding.

HF: In August, you curated a screening of films by First Nations women directors called Keepers of the Earth, at the Winnipeg Film Group. How did you become involved with the WFG and can you describe the process you went through to decide which films would screen?  What is the significance of the title of the series?

ML: ImagineNATIVE has been working with WFG for a number of years now, and I think it’s been a very positive partnership that continues to grow with time.  We often show our “Best of the Festival” films in Winnipeg.  Also, this year Dave Barber [WFG Cinematheque Programming Coordinator] asked me to sit on WFG’s programming advisory board.  Through this partnership, I curated a number of film programs that are slated to play over the next three years as part of WFG’s public screening series.  So that’s what we’re working on now.  He’s very committed to showcasing First Nations work, and I’m thrilled to be a part of that plan.

The Keepers of the Earth program was more specific, as Dave had approached me to put together a program of works by emerging, female First Nations directors.  We called it Keepers of the Earth because that’s how women are viewed within First Nations culture.  Before European ways were introduced within Canada, many of our communities operated based on a matriarchal social structure.  Women were and still are seen as the ones who carry the voice for that which cannot speak – the earth, the vulnerable, etc.  Actually, the name of the program emerged as I was writing my curatorial notes for the catalogue.  When Dave asked me to come up with the program, I immediately began compiling a list of films that we’d previously showcased at ImagineNATIVE.  When programming, I like to pull out the films that had a strong impact on me.  Then I start to lay them out together to see what themes emerge.  It’s amazing how clear this becomes once you’ve narrowed down the films and can begin to look at things associatively, consider what resonates between films, and draw ideas out through structuring a program just so. Ultimately, selecting films for a program is a very organic process.  It’s not just about picking the strongest work, but also about how the works compliment each other. Do they flow together? Does the program start in one place emotionally and end in another?  These are all things I’m looking at when I curate.  One of the greatest thrills I get from programming comes when I experience how individual films can elevate one another, both thematically and emotionally, when they are presented together in a well structured program.  I would say it’s akin to hearing an orchestra performing….each instrument doing their part to bring to life a singular piece of music.  That’s how I view film programs.  It’s about the individual film, coming together with others to support a larger idea.  As a programmer, that’s something I find extremely satisfying.

“Film has the power to reveal new ways of seeing the world…”

HF: Producer Marilyn Thomas and director Kate Kroll adapted a children’s book, Shi-Shi-Etko, into a short film, which has won many awards, including imagineNATIVE 2009. How important is it for Aboriginal woman filmmakers to tell the stories, experiences and culture of First Nations in a traditionally male-dominated medium? Can you provide us with some Aboriginal woman filmmakers making waves in Canada?

ML: I think film is a very powerful medium in that it allows us to observe life from another perspective, and the act of participating in this collective observation changes what the outcome is.  For example, if you and I were to sit down and watch a film together, what I glean from it is probably going to be different from what you experience.  And I’m sure our observations are different, again, from the filmmaker’s. We can’t help but approach the work as different beings, coming from very different experiences. Film has the power to reveal new ways of seeing the world, and our individual future actions will inevitably change to reflect our new understanding.  But, in the end, we’ve shared an experience just through watching the work together.  And perhaps the changes within each of us will be small or seemingly insignificant, but I like to believe that it’s the imperceptible differences that contribute to a larger collective consciousness. So, to answer your question, I think it’s very important that we continue to tell our stories from our individual perspectives, as our films have the power to precipitate change on a much larger scale than what we are aware of.

Shi-Shi-Etko is a great example of what I was talking about earlier with regards to authenticity of voice.  I have seen many films about residential school, but what really made Shi-Shi-Etko stand out was its ability to interpret the emotional state of the central character.  This deep and complex character work, coupled with beautiful cinematography literally transported me into her world, and made me see the situation through that little girl’s eyes.  It’s a very moving and authentic film.  And I would say it’s a quietly brave film. There’s an understated confidence in its simplicity, and that confidence is definitely an attribute that’s growing amongst the work I’ve seen coming from our female, First Nations filmmakers.  We have fantastic and diverse women forging ahead in the medium right now. I guess if I had to name a few of the filmmakers I’m inspired by, I would say that I really admire the works of: Ariel Smith, Cara Mumford, Danis Goulet, Terril Calder, Caroline Monnet, Lisa Jackson and Shelley Niro.  And, of course, none of us would be where we are if it weren’t for the intrepid Alanis Obomsawin. But I know that I’m going to wake up tomorrow and say ‘why didn’t I mention that person?”  I guess it’s a great thing that I can think of so many amazing women filmmakers who are creating exciting work. I can honestly say that I’ve drawn inspiration from far more women than I’ve briefly named here.  Every time someone in our community makes a film, we’ve accomplished something together.  And that’s what makes us stronger.

HF: Since the creation of the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and the introduction of various Aboriginal audiovisual workshops and courses across Canada (i.e. NSI), including specific funding mechanisms created specifically for Aboriginals (i.e. Telefilm), do you believe that Aboriginal filmmakers and artists have a better chance of having their voices heard and seen in the mainstream media, or do you believe they are marginalized and segregated from such opportunity?

ML: APTN gave, and continues to give our community a tremendous gift.  Not only do they offer a place for professional filmmakers to have their work seen and heard, but they also have contributed to a very meaningful and important cultural preservation.  APTN airs work in traditional indigenous languages.  These are the languages of our ancestors and, unfortunately, they are the languages that are becoming lost.  So by airing films that celebrate language and culture, APTN is integral to keeping a way of life alive in our communities.  Also, I think that APTN has positively enriched our cultural landscape as a whole.  All Canadians benefit from diversity of voice and an enriched understanding of other cultures and traditions.  I think it’s also about understanding where we come from, what are cultural ancestry is.  The First Nations people of Canada were the first people to populate this land, and I believe that this has influenced the values and social framework that are inherent to Canadian values.  It’s not a coincidence that Canada upholds the right to universal health care or supports social welfare initiatives.  This sense of taking care of one another, of adopting the belief that our nation is only as strong and as healthy as the weakest among us – this is an inherently Aboriginal concept that stems from communities working together to survive under incredibly challenging circumstances.  Every time APTN airs a program created by an Aboriginal producer, they are furthering the understanding and practice of these value systems.  They are furthering our understanding of what it means to be of this nation.

Also, I think that you can’t ask people to tell their stories or meaningfully participate in contemporary society if you don’t equip them with the tools they need to do so.  APTN has given our television creators and storytellers the tools and the platform to tell their stories from their perspectives and, in that way, they have allowed our voices to be heard on a scale that is changing the way our industry embraces Aboriginal culture.  It’s not just about reclaiming our culture, it’s also about respecting how we mentor one another and grow an industry that is healthy, authentic and honest to our experiences as indigenous peoples.

HF: On the topic of marginalization, Hollywood historically portrayed Aboriginals in certain forms and figures: the native princess; the wise medicine man or chief; the bloodthirsty warrior. These depictions have survived for decades. In 2010, do you believe that Aboriginal roles and artists are breaking away from these images? Or are we still living the same stigma but in a different context or era?

ML: I guess it goes back to what I’ve been saying about authenticity of voice.  I think that in order to gain perspective into a situation, you need people to rise up from within that to tell their side of the story.  The magic of cinema is that we have an opportunity to see things in many different ways – it’s all about how you present something, how you structure a narrative, the time you take to see the images presented to you, how you associate story and image to create a meaningful expression of ideas.  If we look at past representations of Native people in cinema, we are seeing an external view of what it meant to be aboriginal at that period in time.  But I do believe that things have changed significantly since then.  Now, with the emergence of accessible and affordable technology, almost anyone can pick up a camera and shoot a scene or document a situation. The internet alone has connected us in a way we’ve never before experienced.  Remote communities that were once separated by massive distances are becoming connected via technology.  We are able to encourage dialogue and interaction on a global scale.  And our methods of distribution are growing daily.  This has all contributed to the prevalence of film and media that is being generated from “inside” communities.  It’s less about an external perception or interpretation and more about an authentic retelling of story and experience.  I like to call it “films made from the inside out.”  For instance, a kid in Moose Factory [Ontario] can shoot a UTube video this afternoon and have it posted for the world to see in a matter of minutes.  I think that this kind of accessible technology is a huge and positive contributing factor to breaking down the stereotypes of the past.  As long as people continue to tell personal stories, as long as they continue to strive for truthful exchanges, we will continue to see work that elevates all people beyond stigma.  That may seem simplistic or a bit naive, but I believe that at the core it is that simple.  I know that it’s sometimes hard to cultivate and retain idealistic thinking but, for me, it’s integral to what propels me to continue to create films.  We need to head toward the light more, you know?!

“I would like to continue to give back to my community by supporting the younger generations who are embarking on this path of storytelling.”

HF: What does the future hold for Aboriginal (women) filmmakers in Canada and for yourself?

ML: Oh, I wish I could look into a crystal ball and predict the future so clearly.  I’m certainly not sure what the future holds for me.  Every time I venture a guess I seem to be wonderfully surprised by how far off I am. The surprise is part of the magic, right?!

I suppose my wish is that Aboriginal women continue to have the courage and strength to share their voice with the rest of the world.  It’s a difficult industry, and I would say it can be more difficult for women.  So it’s important that we stick together and support one another in our creative efforts.  I hope that we see more work from emerging talents and that our films continue to find a place among film festivals and networks so that others can enjoy what we have to say.

As for myself, I am truly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had up to this point. I would like to continue to give back to my community by supporting the younger generations who are embarking on this path of storytelling.  I also hope that my films can bring people together – in thought, in dialogue, in enjoyment.  That in some, small way my films are contributing to a greater good.  It’s my hope that my work achieves that on some level….I guess you could say it’s the thing that keeps my pilot light burning!

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To read more about Michelle Latimer, her work, and Aboriginal and First Nations film, please visit these links below:

IMDb page for Latimer

imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival

Keepers of the Earth: First Nations Women Directors

Sundance Film Festival 2011 page for Jury Prizes for short films (Latimer’s short film Choke received Honorable Mention)

Telefilm page for Choke

Indian Country Today Media Network article on Choke

Jackpot film website

Reel Injun film website

Related: First Nations\First Features (showcase of indigenous film & media), Canadian Women Film Directors Database, IsumaTV (Inuit & Indigenous multimedia), First Nations Filmmaking links.

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About the interviewers

Kyna Morgan is the author of the Her Film blog and is an independent film publicist.  She has a background in marketing & publications as well as film studies, and in her spare time she focuses on screenwriting & film research.  She is currently finishing a Certificate in Publicity & Public Relations (University of Toronto) & a Certificate in Entertainment Administration (University of British Columbia).  Film is her passion!

Nelson Jack Davis is President and CEO of Makatok Pictures Inc. (www.Makatok.com), a media company specializing in Aboriginal, First Nations and Indigenous content. Nelson graduated with Honours from Toronto’s Humber College of Applied Arts & Technology and is a past recipient of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television’s National Apprenticeship Training Program (Producing). With almost 15 years working in the Canadian cultural industry, he has worked both on set and behind the scenes on major Hollywood productions, in small to large entertainment companies and with respected Canadian Producers. In the last several years, he has worked for numerous programs and policy groups under the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Cultural Industries Branch, including the Canada Magazine Fund, the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office, and the Canada Book Fund. Nelson, his wife and two children, are proud to call Ottawa, Ontario, their home.

Reproduction & Abortion (in film & TV) Week at Bitch Flicks

One of my favorite websites, and an incredibly important source for feminist film & television discussions, is Bitch Flicks.  This month, they’ve launched another great theme week: Reproduction & Abortion in film and television.  Check out some of these articles listed below and stay on the BF site to read more!  They’re posting pieces all this week.

“Procreation at the End of Civilization: Reproductive Rights on Battlestar Galactica
by Leigh Kolb

“Where Are My Children?
by Erik Bondurant

“The Dancer’s Dilemma”
by Myrna Waldron

 

 

INTERVIEW: Therese Shechter, director of How to Lose Your Virginity

Director Therese Shechter (Photo courtesy of Trixie Films)

BIOGRAPHY

Therese Shechter deftly uses humor-spiked, personal narrative to chronicle feminism and sexuality, and is proud to have been labeled a “Brazen Advocate of Slut Culture” by conservative bloggers. Her first documentary I Was A Teenage Feminist has screened from Stockholm to Delhi to Rio and at Serbia’s first-ever Women’s Film Festival. Therese has created videos and written about virginity and feminism on the film’s blog and in the Chicago Tribune, the Bitch Magazine blog, Adios Barbie and Women & Hollywood. She was recently a featured panelist at Harvard University’s “Rethinking Virginity” Conference and at MomentumCon: Feminism, Sexuality and Relationships in Washington. Therese’s short documentary How I Learned to Speak Turkish has screened internationally and her production company Trixie Films is based in Brooklyn and sometimes at a little cafe in Istanbul.

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“I won’t tell you how to have sex for the first time, but I do want to know why we’re so obsessed with female virginity.”

The US government has spent 1.5 billion dollars promoting it. It has fetched tens of thousands of dollars at auction. And 50 years after the sexual revolution, it continues to define a young woman’s morality and self-worth. Using her own path out of ‘virginity’ to guide the narrative, filmmaker Therese Shechter creates a far-reaching and very personal dialogue with women along the sexuality spectrum, revealing the myths and misconceptions behind this so-called precious gift.

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Her Film:  You’ve been working on your documentary How to Lose Your Virginity for the past several years.  Can you update us on the film?

Therese Shechter: We’re almost done editing the film, which is very exciting. This is the most challenging part because this film’s subject is complicated, and there are a lot of moving pieces. I really like tackling big concepts like feminism and virginity by getting at them through very personal stories, both my subjects’ and mine. Then we’ll be working with our composer and animator to add the finishing touches. By the time we’re clearing footage and correcting color and mixing sound, I’ll be in heaven because the heavy lifting will be behind us. Frankly, I’m exhausted.

Needless to say, this all costs a lot of money, so this Kickstarter is really crucial. I’m so psyched to finish it and get it out in the world. We just did a great little sneak preview at the Momentum conference for many of the top folks in feminism and sexuality. I get contacted by distributors, film festivals and college professors all the time asking “Is it done? Is it done?” and I really can’t wait to say “Yes! Here it is!”

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF:  How are you building your audience?

TS:  We’ve been building our audience almost from the very beginning through our blog. Some people do blogs to track their filmmaking process, but I was a lot more interested in the topic of virginity itself. I initially wrote posts that called out a lot of the sexism and bad science around abstinence-until-marriage programs, and the disturbing outbreak of virginity auctions all over the world.  Then I branched out into pop culture as well as creating a space for our audience to talk about their own personal experiences with virginity culture.

Plus there’s the constant back and forth of Facebook and Twitter posts, sharing little bits of video online, supporting other writers and filmmakers doing sexuality-related work, and writing for other publications on the topic. I recently did something about virginity loss myths for a great site called Adios Barbie, and did a breakdown of the virginity loss stereotypes in an episode of “Glee” for Women & Hollywood. I think you have to create a good balance between interesting information and dialogue with your audience if you want to build that anticipation and goodwill. We can see it with the response to our fundraising campaign, with so many people supporting a project they already feel invested in personally.

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF:  I’ve taken a few looks at the blog you have to support the storytelling and sharing around the topic of virginity, and you include many first-person pieces.  It’s amazing and inspiring to see how many people are willing to share information about something so personal as their virginity and sexuality.  What inspired you to introduce this type of “confessional-style” blog post? 

TS: I love First Person, and since we launched it in 2009, it’s become the most popular thing on the blog. I was inspired by fellow virginity geek Kate Monro who writes a blog called The Virginity Project in the UK. Aside from her work, most everything else I found was very mainstream and almost nothing outside of religious sites addressed people who weren’t sexually active. I could tell from our blog comments I had a lot of folks out there whose experiences–and even definitions of virginity–didn’t conform to the black-and-white stereotypes of pop culture. So I started building this collection of what I like to call “sexual debuts and deferrals.”

We’ve run stories from a woman who lost her straight, gay and three-way virginity in one night (hey, it worked for her); a Mormon college student who first wrote about being a virgin and then did an update after she had forbidden pre-marital sex (verdict: meh); and we get quite a few submissions from guys in their 30s and 40s who talk about what it’s like to be an older male virgin (not good). We’ve also run several First Persons by women who had intercourse for the first time because of sexual assault, and they want to share their experiences and recovery with others. My favorites are the “update” First Persons that I get when a previous poster starts having sex. One woman said the first three people she told were her roommate, her best friend and me for the blog. I kind of love that.

There’s a lot of silence around how and why and if we become sexual and I think these stories really help us all feel less weird and alone. I really could have used this when I felt like the very last virgin in art school.

Courtesy of Trixie Films

HF: Are there differences in what you’ve learned through the actual filming of the documentary and the interactions you have with people online through your blog or twitter, for example?

TS:  When I started working on the film, I was really focusing on young women being shamed for being sexual and the value that’s place on virginity. It was in the zeitgeist and was getting all the attention. But when I started getting the First Persons, I was surprised at how many were coming from people in their 20’s who were ashamed of not being sexually active and that became a much bigger part of my film and the blog.

I think it goes without saying that it’s far, far easier to get candid stories from anonymous writers than getting people to talk about the same things on camera. I’m really grateful to the people agreed to be filmed. They’re very smart and thoughtful about their intimate lives, and they provide an antidote to the way we usually hear stories about sex: Reality TV and porn.

HF:  Can you talk about your current crowdfunding campaign and the phases of your financing for the film (where the money goes)?  In a message to me earlier this year on twitter, you said you’d “love to mention how much ‘low budget’ docs cost, because some backers don’t know why $13K didn’t cover all our costs.”  Any challenges in dealing with financial backers that you’d like to talk about?

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WATCH THE TRAILER FOR How To Lose Your Virginity

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TS: Since 2008, almost every independent documentary filmmaker has been struggling to find financing for their projects. Not that it was so easy before, but now foundations have even smaller endowments than ever and many TV networks are either only looking at finished films or have abandoned documentaries altogether in favor of reality shows.

We’re currently doing a Kickstarter to raise $35,000 to pay for the rest of our edit, our composer and our animator. If we don’t meet our goal I’m really not sure how we’re going to finish the film. We got through production thanks to an amazing group of DPs and producers who worked for free or lowered fees, lots of interns doing the research and one very small fundraiser. Then we had our first Kickstarter and raised $13,000 which paid for about five weeks of editing. For the rest of it I’ve had to beg, borrow and reach very deep into my own pockets to keep things going.

The average documentary you see on TV will cost half a million to a million dollars to complete, and that often means hundreds of thousands of dollars of free labor by the filmmakers. A lot of our non-filmmaker backers have no idea, and really why should they? We have to keep educating them on what things cost and the fact that you really do have to pay your full-time editor a salary for at least several months. And also about how it takes so incredibly long to finish something because you have to keep stopping to raise (or earn) more money.

I think that once people understand what goes into a documentary, they’re amazingly supportive. I’m been blown away by the support we’re getting for this campaign and the abundant generosity of complete strangers. We can’t relax until May 9th, though. If we don’t meet our $35,000 goal by then, we don’t get anything, so it’s going to be a little intense until then.

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Read a recent article at the Huffington Post on female sexuality which discusses Shechter’s new film:  “Virgins, Bondage and a Shameful Media Fail” by Soraya Chemaly.

To connect with this filmmaker, support her film and to learn more about her work, check out these links:

Crowdfunding: Kickstarter (15 days to go with $35,000 campaign goal.  As of this blog post, $16,682 has been raised)

Her Film Interview from June 21, 2010: Click here.

How to Lose Your Virginity Blog: www.virginitymovie.com

Trixie Films (production co.): www.TrixieFilms.com

Twitter: @trixiefilms

Facebook: /The-American-Virgin

Screening to Benefit BIG VOICE Musical Doc

The team behind the musical feature documentary Big Voice about the top-singing students of the Santa Monica High School Choir and its visionary choir director will be holding a special screening of the documentary First Position in Los Angeles.  Proceeds will help support the post-production phase of Big Voice, directed by award-winning filmmaker Varda Hardy.

See below for details and links, or click here to buy tickets.  To read more about this amazing film, click here.

What: Screening of First Position documentary to benefit Big Voice musical documentary

When: April 29, 2012 at 6:00 p.m.

Where: MiMoDa Studio, 5774 West Pico Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90019

Tickets: Buy now through BrownPaperTickets.

Sundance Award-winning Short THE ARM to Screen at Columbia

Brie Larson, Sarah Ramos and Jessie Ennis at Sundance 2012

Director Jessie Ennis’ short film THE ARM, winner of the Special Jury Award for Comedic Storytelling at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival will screen in New York City this Saturday, April 21, as part of the Columbia University National Undergraduate Film Festival (CUNUFF).  Ennis co-wrote the film with Sarah Ramos and Brie Larson.

You can read read Ennis’ “Sundance Diaries” over at Huffington Post.

CUNUFF (Columbia University National Undergraduate Film Festival) is proud to present its eighth annual event showcasing outstanding new work in undergraduate filmmaking! This year, we’ve put together an exciting program of six student-produced short films from around the country. From all of the submissions we’ve screened throughout the year, these six films emerged as the most hilarious, moving, beautiful, provocative, creative, or repulsive – sometimes all at the same time.  In other words, these are movies you have to see.

Join us for our main screening followed by award presentations and a special reception at the Village Pourhouse at 5:30.

Tickets are available through the TIC: $3 with CUID, $6 without (http://www.cuarts.com/calendar/view/type/4/event_id/13507).

The festival will be held on Saturday, April 21st from 2:30-4 in Lerner Cinema. 2920 Broadway, New York, NY 10027