Beauty in Truth: Guest interview with Pratibha Parmar on her film about Alice Walker

Thank you to Marian Evans of Wellywoodwoman (sister blog to Her Film) and the Development project for working on this interview and encouraging me to cross-post here on Her Film.  Also, thank you to filmmaker Pratibha Parmar for engaging with our respective film community projects (Development @devt and Her Film @herfilm). 

(Some readers may notice that we are including mentions of crowdfunding and fundraising campaigns.*)

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Introduction by Marian Evans

Alice Walker’s life and work have inspired me, shown me that it’s possible to be a writer and a global citizen with love, spirit, courage and laughter. There’s The Color Purple and Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation, as well as the Broadway musical. And there’s so much more: poems, essays, short stories, novels like Possessing the Secret of Joy—about female genital mutilation—and her latest book, The Chicken Chronicles. So when I heard that Pratibha Parmar of Kali Films was making a documentary about Alice Walker, called Beauty in Truth, I was very excited.

Pratibha Parmar is a multi-award-winning filmmaker with a family heritage of protest. She has lived and worked on four continents: Asia, Africa, Europe, America, and has created many “filmic spaces where women of color can reach each other across the various diasporas”. These spaces include her very first video Emergence (where Palestinian, South Asian, African-American, and Chinese women speak about their art), A Place of Rage (about June Jordan and Angela Davis within the American Civil Rights movement, shortly to be re-released on DVD), an earlier film collaboration and accompanying book with Alice Walker, Warrior Marks, also about female genital mutilation, and a feature, Nina’s Heavenly Delights, “a surprising love story where Scottish humor meets Bollywood spectacle”.

Pratibha kindly answered some questions while she completed preparations for Beauty in Truth’s Indiegogo campaign, to raise money to complete post-production.

How did you decide to make Beauty in Truth?

The idea was conceived over a Christmas break four years ago when Shaheen (my partner and co-producer) and I were watching a stack of DVD’s in a cosy hideout in Northern California. These DVD’s were all biographies of ‘iconic’ men, such as Frank Gehry, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan.

Immediately we wondered out loud about the absence of cinematic visions of ‘iconic’ women. Where were the STACKS of films on women who have challenged, changed and shaped history and impacted on contemporary culture? I came to filmmaking from a passionate desire to see stories about women, particularly women of color who are rarely seen on mainstream television or cinema screens in all our/their complexity and nuance. So it isn’t a surprise that my default position is to always ask questions.

Where are the in-depth explorations of women as thinkers and public intellectuals, women as history makers and shapers, women who are inspirational leaders and role models for upcoming generations? Where indeed was a film on Alice Walker who is rightly considered one of 20th Century’s most significant writers?  And so started the journey of this film.

How far have you got with it?

I am focusing on completing Beauty in Truth before the end of 2011 and want to launch the film in 2012, the 30th Anniversary of The Color Purple.

We have had many funding challenges in the last few years yet we are proud to say we have completed 85% of our filming with just a few small grants as well as major extensions on credit limits on our personal credit cards. More recently support from ITVS who have been fantastic has boosted us. We have interviewed some amazing people including Danny Glover, Steven Spielberg, Gloria Steinem and of course Alice Walker herself.

For me the most frustrating thing about the whole process has been how it’s had to stop and start as we apply for funding, wait for news on our application, pick ourselves up again when the answer is not we hoped for, find another grant to apply to and so and so on. This has meant that for the first time ever in my filmmaking life, I have had to work with different DPs (Directors of Photography) and not the same one throughout. My work as you know is very visually led and so for me the crucial relationship is with my DP.

Pratibha at work on Beauty in Truth with Nina’s Heavenly Delights cinematographer Simon Dennis. Photo credit: Shaheen Haq

But this time around, I have had to find DP’s locally in the different cities we were filming in and some times it didn’t work out the way I would have liked. That’s been damn frustrating.

One particular highlight was interviewing Yoko Ono in Iceland when she was giving the LennonOno Peace Award to Alice Walker for her humanitarian work. It was on Lennon’s 70th birthday so the whole event was ultra special. After I finished the interview, one of the people in Yoko’s circle who had been with her for a long time said to me that it was the best interview she had given in a really long time. So of course I was thrilled. Not only did she talk about Alice (they both went to the same college, Sarah Lawrence, but at different times) but she also shared anecdotes about her own work and her and John Lennon. It was such a privilege to talk to her.

Photo of Alice Walker & Yoko Ono, photo credit Pratibha Parmar

You’ve already undertaken a very challenging project with Alice Walker, the Warrior Marks film and book. How do you stand alongside Alice as you make Beauty in Truth?

I think every time we make a film we are laying ourselves wide open because most times we come from a place of passion for our work–a passion that helps us to fly over the iron fences in our way. And when you make work that comes from that deep place within your bones, it’s inevitable that you feel exposed and vulnerable.  When we made Warrior Marks, it was a challenging and difficult journey primarily because of its subject matter, female genital mutilation. Out of such shared experienced grew a mutual trust and respect. Recently when we finished shooting an interview, Alice said, ‘You know Pratibha we wouldn’t be having these conversations if we weren’t friends’. So I know that the content of our conversations for the film is precious and I feel honored that she has trusted me with her story.

What can you do in a documentary that you could not do in a book about Alice Walker, or she could not do herself, in a book?

There is in fact an excellent biography by Evelyn C White on Alice Walker called A Life: Alice Walker. I highly recommend it.

Visual storytelling particularly with a biography is an exciting challenge and with Alice’s story there is of course the gift of her evocative poetry and fiction. So there is an opportunity here to weave some of this writing embedded into visual montages throughout the film, writing that often reflects key moments in her eventful life. It’s a beautiful way to anchor some of these turning points. I am excited to work with animation, graphics and moving images to create these visual vignettes that hopefully do justice to Alice’s writing.

Pratibha Parmar and Alice Walker. Photo credit: Shaheen Haq

Has funding been problematic for this project because of women’s lack of access to capital in general? Or to our collective reluctance to support women filmmakers, even though we want more women-centred stories?

Okay let’s start with some startling statistics, which give an idea of what women filmmakers are up against—only 7% of directors, 13% of writers, and 20% of producers are female. Given such a dearth of female representation in front of and behind the camera, is it any wonder that we continue to have a struggle to get funding for female stories and voices.

And within this context many of us especially those of us who are declared feminists are experiencing acute funding challenges. It’s hard especially when you make films that don’t fit into the dominant white, male paradigms at the best of times but right now it’s pretty dire.

But still, I have to admit that I didn’t think it would be as difficult as it has been to find funding support for a film on one of the most compelling, history making, writers of the 20th century. And I am not exactly a beginner director either. Just this week I read that US T.V. networks hire hardly any women directors and in a situation where women were/are already a minority, our continual disappearance both in front of and behind the screen is worrying.

Women are usually the first hit in any economic crisis as we are witnessing all around us right now with the current crisis and when it comes to our voices in the media the situation just gets worse. There has been an overall shift in recent years towards strident conservative, right wing thinking, which adds to the struggle to get funding for films that don’t fit into their retrogressive lens. Alice Walker’s outspokenness on issues such female genital mutilation, as well as the Palestinian people’s struggle, makes some funders nervous about supporting the film. I know this to be the case from some of the comments we have received.

And it’s not just the right wing. Recently there was an article in the New York Times about the documentaries screening at the Toronto Film Festival and there was not one mention of a film by a woman. Documentary is a genre in which women have always been very prominent. But suddenly when the genre becomes ‘sexy’ and more publically profiled because ‘named’ male directors are turning to the genre, it’s only the male filmmakers who get name checked. Melissa Silverstein who writes the Women In Hollywood blog did a great piece on this.

In the Warrior Marks book, you wrote that the “controlling, curbing, and problematizing of women’s sexuality have always been cross-cultural”, and sexuality is a theme in your work. To sustain your cross-cultural work, and the anger that accompanies it, you must need vast resources of love and courage. Has some of this come from your very long domestic and creative partnership with Shaheen Haq? Has your own sexuality influenced your work? And if so, how? And what are your views on LGBTQ representation in South Asian media?

I believe that everything you are and have been shapes your creativity.  In my case my diasporic personal history is an intrinsic part of what has made me. I was born in Kenya, grew up in the UK and was brought up to think of India as my ancestral home. Currently I am making home in California. My status as a woman, a woman of color, an out lesbian and a feminist has challenged me in finding ways of negotiating a world that insists on making me into the ‘other’ but I also love that this outsider identity has given me an opportunity to revel in more imaginative ways of engaging with the world.

As for my relationship with Shaheen–yes indeed I would not be who I am today, doing all that I do without the love I have been blessed to experience with my partner Shaheen Haq. Her faith and abiding confidence in me during my many ‘dark nights’ over the years has pulled me through. Together we have broken many many taboos–for a start she comes from a Muslim background and I from a Hindu–both religions and communities historical ‘enemies’ since the partition of India. My parents fought against British rule in India but they also harboured a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment as a result of the bloody history of that partition. Ditto for her family. And then on top of that we have stepped completely outside the cultural norm and rejected a heteronormative expectation of us, all this has thrown us way off into the margins.

Shaheen Haq and Pratibha Parmar photo (no credit)

But I have always embraced the margins which is where some of the most exciting and innovative work comes from. I made Khush in 1991, the first South Asian lesbian and gay documentary. The film spanned India, UK and Canada. At the time I had no idea what the impact of this film would be but to this day I have folks who tell me that had it not been for that film, they might never have come out to themselves, or their families or friends. When I went to India in 1991 to film interviews, homosexuality was illegal and not many people were (understandably) willing to be on camera. I went back in 2008 when I was invited to screen my lesbian romantic curry romance, Nina’s Heavenly Delights. I met many many lesbians and gay men who were out and open about their sexuality. Things had changed absolutely and it was wonderful to see that. More recently homosexuality has been decriminalized in India and there are regular LGBT marches in places like Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta.

Pratibha Parmar with actress LaChanze, winner of a Tony (2006) for her performance as "Celie" in The Color Purple (Photo courtesy of Pratibha Parmar)

For me LGBT representations made by South Asian LGBT filmmakers like Sonali Gulati are far more exciting than any found in South Asian media. Bollywood films have started to include queer characters but they are so often full of stereotypes.  Self representation is powerful which is one of the reasons I decided to become a filmmaker.

You have a teaser on the film’s site. Have you got any other images or footage to share?

We now have a longer trailer, which we hope people will view and share as much as they like. We also have quite a few production stills and some of these are on our website alongside my blog. I am about to venture into unknown territory and explore a whole new way of raising funding. Inspired by some amazing success stories, we have decided to take the plunge and start a crowd funding campaign for Beauty In Truth on Indiegogo.  And as the IndieGoGo campaign gains momentum we plan to release a few choice video podcasts from the film.

 What do you need? How can we help?

Crowd funding is an exciting way to raise money through grassroots outreach and potentially an excellent way to build community and audiences to have dialogue and discussions with. I truly believe that there is a diverse and widespread international community of people out there who want to see this film, especially women. Films like this do and can make a difference.  But we need YOUR help. There is only two of us doing this with the help of a few well

Pratibha Parmar and Shaheen Haq (Photo courtesy of Pratibha Parmar)

wishers. Please spread the word on the film. We are asking people to follow us on Twitter and Facebook, tweet/ email their friends, post to Facebook and help get us donations on our Indiegogo site. Become Beauty In Truth Ambassadors and hold parties in your home, community centres and gardens…anywhere really where there is beauty and light and good food.

We want to build an active and vibrant community around the film and if people tell us about their fund raising efforts via a short video or even a short blog or an email, we will post it to our Facebook page (Alice Walker Film) and on our website.

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 *This is a shift from the previous Her Film policy to veer away from that topic due to the fact that so many filmmakers spend the majority of their time securing financing.  As part of Her Film’s  new mission to “build audiences for films by, for and about women,” inclusion of this aspect of filmmaking will now be accepted in interviews, guest posts and guest interviews.

 

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MAMACHAS DEL RING: Interview with filmmaker Betty M Park

BIOGRAPHY

BETTY M PARK is a Korean American filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York, and makes her debut as a feature film director with Mamachas del Ring. She works as a producer and editor in TV, and her work as an editor includes the documentary The Innocence Project, which screened at the 2003 Hamptons International Film Festival.

Betty was born and raised in New York, and graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with a double major in English and Philosophy. In addition to making films and TV, she continues to encourage others to resist the urge to punctuate her name.

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Her Film:  You work as a television producer and editor, with Mamachas del Ring being your directorial debut.  How did you draw from your producing and editing experience to inform this film?

Betty M Park: Being in the daily grind of telling stories for TV is definitely a kind of bootcamp for storytelling, and while I can’t point to specific links between that work and Mamachas del Ring, I’m sure it has helped develop my craft.

Photo courtesy of Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

HF:  Inevitably, filmmakers learn something about themselves in the process of making a film.  What have you taken away from your experience making this film and what did you learn from the women whose lives you documented?

BMP: One of the things that struck me the most is how similar Carmen Rosa’s experience as a struggling wrestler is to that of an independent filmmaker, or anyone who has an all-consuming passion for that matter. There are distinct choices we make in terms of prioritizing our personal lives versus our work, and these are the choices that in part define us and make us who we are.

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“The film landscape is constantly evolving, and there will always be an infinite number of ways to approach it.”

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HF:  There is a strong theme of self-empowerment in Mamachas del Ring while also showing the cholitas’ reality of “gendered responsibilities” as you say on your website.  What do you think the legacy of the cholitas will be?  

BMP: My hope is that the cholita wrestling revolution has forever challenged and changed the stereotype of Bolivian indigenous women for both Bolivians and those abroad. I also think that, due to media-interest even outside of this specific documentary, cholita wrestling has provided an entertaining and interesting entry-point into a country and culture relatively unknown to your average person.

Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

HF:  Mamachas has screened around the world in front of culturally diverse audiences from Buenos Aires to Montreal, Austria to Uruguay and many places in between.  Do you notice differences in how audiences interpret the story or their attitudes toward the film’s themes?

 

BMP: While I think each audience comes with a different background of information, I’m not sure I could speak to region-specific reactions. 

Generally speaking, I think what initially attracts people to Mamachas is the opportunity to peer into what appears to be a strange and exotic universe of women wrestling in indigenous clothing, but what they take away is a more personal connection with Carmen Rosa and her struggles. 

HF:  Did you have a film festival strategy and if so, how did you decide on where you wanted it to premiere and screen?

 

BMP: The general rule of thumb for me (and for most people, I think) was to try to premiere at a festival that was well-known enough to provide the opportunity to generate some press and “buzz,” in addition to having a strong market where there would be buyers and industry folks in attendance. The regional premieres that followed were also guided by a similar principle. 

I had always thought that Mamachas would have an audience outside of the US, and so for me international festivals were as important as the domestic ones. It was also extremely important to me to have a strong Latin American premiere, since this is a film about Latin America.

HF:  How have you utilized social media and new/online media for Mamachas?

 

BMP: Facebook and twitter have been invaluable in connecting with both fans of Mamachas, potential fans of Mamachas, and the film community. I reached out to a lot of pro-wrestling fans online, and diva-dirt.com was especially supportive. The site focuses specifically on female wrestling fans, and they were extremely generous in helping to promote the Indiepix DVD and VOD release of Mamachas earlier this summer.


Photo courtesy of the filmmaker

HF:  Can you describe your marketing and distribution plan for this film?

BMP: The marketing and distribution for this film relied heavily on connecting with folks in the film community through festivals and general word of mouth. There were a few identifiable audiences that I tried to reach out to, including fans of wrestling, fans of Latin American film/Latin American audiences, and the more general arthouse film crowd. Of course distribution comes down to having the right platform through which people can access the film, and right now it is available in its most democratic form–DVD and VOD.

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“There are distinct choices we make …that in part define us and make us who we are.”

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HF:  Are there any lessons or skills — technical, financial, creative — that you picked up along your journey making this film that you will apply to future projects?

BMP: One of the most valuable experiences I’ve had in this process is connecting with other filmmakers, many of whom have grappled with similar hurdles in the ups and downs of indie filmmaking, some of whom who have become dear friends. The film landscape is constantly evolving, and there will always be an infinite number of ways to approach it. To have a few trustworthy sounding boards within the community is priceless to me, and will be especially helpful moving forward with future projects.

Photo courtesy of Noah Friedman-Rudovsky

HF:  What’s next on your slate of projects?

BMP: I’m currently working on an animation, and exploring a few documentary ideas.

To connect with Betty M Park and learn more about her work, check out the following:

13 Short Films about Atomic Power: Interview (pt. I) with British filmmaker Vicki Lesley

Filmmaker VICKI LESLEY

BIO: Vicki Lesley is a 33-year old documentary producer from London. She has worked in the UK television industry for the last 11 years working on high profile single documentaries and documentary series for a variety of network and cable broadcasters including the BBC, Channel 4, Five, Sky One and Discovery. She is also an active campaigner on environmental and development issues campaigning in her spare time with Greenpeace, the World Development Movement and CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).  Vicki set up Tenner Films as a way of combining her twin passions for social and environmental justice, and engaging, thought-provoking documentary films.

Her Film: Explain if you would the significance of the word “Tenner” in Tenner Films.

Vicki Lesley: A tenner is British slang for a £10 note. When I first launched my nuclear documentary project in mid-2006, I worked out that if I could persuade 10,000 people to give me a tenner each that would give me a reasonable, if modest, budget for a feature documentary. And that’s how I hit on the name for the company!

I found out later that I’d had the very same ‘crowd-funding’ idea of that’s since taken off with sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter and successful docs like The Age of Stupid. I haven’t reached that £100K target yet – crowd-funding donations stand at more like £5K which is still a very respectable total I think – but the idea of involving many, many people at a grassroots level remains central to my approach.

HF: Your current project is a documentary series of 13 short films about atomic power.  What made you want to do this project, especially as a series instead of a feature?

VL: It is a feature! From the outset, this has always been conceived as a feature documentary but because nuclear power is such a complex and multi-faceted subject area, I needed a way to break it down into smaller, easily understandable chunks. I knew I didn’t want to use any kind of on-screen presenting figure, which would have been one way to structure the film. So I was working with the idea of small segments or chapters right from the start. It was just a question of how to hang them all together.

But after I went to the States to do the first bit of filming in 2007 – looking at the impact of uranium mining on the Navajo communities of Arizona and New Mexico – I decided to cut that together as a stand alone short documentary which I entered and subsequently screened at a number of festivals. That served as something of a calling card, helping me to gain further grant funding for the project. But it also sparked something creatively – the idea of compiling a number of discrete but thematically-related short films together into one full-length feature.

Of course, this isn’t a brand new idea – I particularly remembered a biopic from the early 90s about an Australian pianist 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould – but it is unusual and I liked the idea of being able to ‘curate’ my shorts to build up a nuanced picture of the nuclear power industry without having to spoon-feed the audience with a particular ‘line’. By choosing which subjects I would turn my camera on, creating individual, stand-alone segments and then playing those out one after the other, I felt that the juxtapositions would become as important as the content itself, allowing viewers to make their own connections and draw their own conclusions.

I’m now coming full circle again and re-visiting whether I should create some sort of overarching framework with short, interstitial content between each of the shorts to help tie them all together as one film. I’ve also come up with a new working title ‘Chain of Decay’ to help prevent confusion about the film’s form. I’d love to know what HerFilm readers think – interstitials or just ‘pure’ juxtaposition..?

As for my motivation in making a film on this subject, it was a combination of personal frustration and political timeliness. I started this project in 2006  when I was coming up to 30 and working in TV on documentary subjects that were fun (everything from au pairs to aliens) but pretty insubstantial. As someone who spends a lot of her non-work time campaigning on environmental and development issues, I felt like the broadcast work I was doing wasn’t entirely fulfilling my ambitions in terms of turning the spotlight on important issues and untold personal stories. So I decided to make my own film on a subject that would!

At the time, the UK government was consulting on whether they should sanction a new generation of nuclear power stations. It seemed (and still seems) a subject people know very little about and I felt that here was an area where I could perhaps add something to the conversation, using the skills I’d learnt in mainstream TV documentaries to make something more thoughtful, but still very watchable.

Looking back, I don’t think I really knew what I was getting into, trying to make a completely independent documentary outside of the TV structures I was familiar with. But I’m very glad I did it – and hopefully everyone else will be too when the full film is finally finished!

HF: You’ve involved a lot of major players within the field of nuclear energy oversight, organizations with a mission focused around nuclear power, etc.  Discuss how and why you approached these figures.  Have you been able to access everyone you’d like to involve in the project?

VL: My whole approach has always been driven by the personal stories I’ve been trying to tell so the organisations I’ve approached have been ones with a direct connection to particular stories, for example the Southwest Research & Information Centre in Albuquerque [New Mexico] who work with the Navajo Nation in their struggles with the government and companies involved in uranium mining in the area, or the Scottish Environment Protection Agency who are the regulators overseeing the clean-up of radioactive particles released onto the beach at the Dounreay nuclear site in Scotland.

These organisations have generally been pleased to be able to draw attention to their work in the nuclear field and have been very co-operative in working with me on the film. Thus far, I’m glad to say no-one I’ve approached has been unwilling to take part.

HF: You also have used records of incidents and accidents at one nuclear power plant in England in the short Fifty Years.  Can you explain the process of accessing those records – were there any special restrictions placed upon you as a filmmaker?

VL: The records I used for Fifty Years were all already in the public domain. A British campaign group based near Sellafield, the power station in question, had compiled a list of accidents and incidents up to 1997 from Health & Safety Executive reports. I filled in the gaps from 1998 to 2005 by accessing the HSE reports for that period myself (they are readily available online). I’m not aware of any restrictions in reporting this information, which is basically what this short film does, albeit in an experimental style.

HF: Has there been any public or institutional reaction to your project?

VL: The reaction I’ve received from people who’ve seen any of the short films either online or at screenings has been overwhelmingly positive, although there have been one or two less complimentary comments on YouTube!

I’ve not had much in the way of a direct institutional reaction so far, apart from the now-defunct UK Atomic Energy Authority who were in charge of the decommissioning of the Dounreay site in Scotland when I filmed there in 2008 (the site has now been handed over to a private company). They told me they were very pleased with the way that short turned out, which I was really happy about, not least because the film is fairly unforgiving in its discussion of past safety lapses at the site. It was great to know that the industry considered that I’d presented a fair and honest account of events at Dounreay.

HF: How has your perspective on atomic power changed during the course of this project of making 13 short films?

VL: When I first started researching the film, I had a fairly stereotypical environmentalist’s suspicion of nuclear power, based chiefly on fears about radiation and the risk of accidents. Those fears have not been entirely allayed, although I’m now more informed on the research and statistics that underlie them. However, I now feel there are two issues that, above all others, count nuclear out as an attractive energy source going forward: the waste and the economics.

I find it shocking that over 50 years since nuclear power stations first started producing radioactive waste, the world has not found a satisfactory answer to disposing of it safely and reliably over the mind-blowing timescales concerned (this was very much the impulse behind Beyond, the stop-motion animation piece I produced about waste).

And economically, nuclear power to me just does not seem to make sense. I’m unconvinced by politicians and nuclear industry figures who say it can operate without government subsidy. Both the back-end costs of decommissioning and waste disposal and the costs of insuring against major accidents appear to be left out of most analyses of the costs of nuclear energy.  This seems to me both dishonest and morally unjustifiable – especially when there are other, renewable sources of electricity available that don’t come with these kinds of costs attached.

HF: What are the most pressing issues, in your opinion, regarding the use and production of nuclear energy?

VL: As mentioned above, the waste is probably the number one unsolved major problem. But I’m also worried about the proliferation risks of the world’s ever-growing stockpiles of nuclear material and the risk of a terror attack on a nuclear facility that could make 9-11 look like a minor event. Safety-wise, I also think nuclear energy presents a very unsatisfactory gamble for society. The chances of a major accident occurring are certainly very, very low. But the scale of the impact any accident would have if it did occur is potentially so catastrophic, I just can’t see how it can be justified.

HF: You have a list of links on your film’s site which includes artistic works with a nuclear-focus:  books, movies, songs, art. What do you find to be the most poignant arguments and concerns within the discussion/debate over nuclear energy?

VL: As I’ve discovered while making the film, the nuclear industry has a long and not very proud history of secrecy about its activities. This has meant that many of the human costs have not been very well known. Even where the human impact is widely known – such as with the victims of the accident at Chernobyl – this hasn’t stopped proponents advocating its continued use. I find the huge imbalance of power between the industry and the people on the ground affected by its actions to be very poignant – it’s what lies at the heart of my whole project.

HF: Where do developing nations fit within the larger discussion of nuclear power?

VL: A number of developing countries have begun to show an interest in nuclear energy and the multi-national companies involved in the global nuclear industry have been keen to encourage their ambitions. But it’s hard not to wonder whether these companies are motivated more by their own countries’ political and economic interests than by a genuine desire to help developing nations meet their  energy needs in the most appropriate way.

HF: On your website, you mention global injustice as an issue you want to address through your films, along with environmental degradation. How do you see global injustice playing out, on a regional or global scale, within the context of atomic power?

VL: There are obvious justice issues around mining for the nuclear industry – many of the world’s biggest uranium deposits are in places where the local population are poor and marginalised and/or where local governance is weak or prone to corruption (eg Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa, Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Union and indigenous communities in the United States, Canada and Australia). You have to look at who is and isn’t benefiting, from uranium mining and from nuclear power production in general. It tends not to be the poorest people in the world…

Check out Vicki Lesley’s documentary at Tenner Films.

Join the Facebook group for Lesley’s film.

Follow the conversation about this film & atomic power on Twitter @TennerFilms.

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Part II of Vicki Lesley’s interview will drop in a few days… Stay tuned!

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.

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