At the 18th edition of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival – which took place from 18 to 28 March 2014 in London – I interviewed three women filmmakers that really inspired me. Because: a) they do something they love, b) they mean business; and c) they are talented, cool and beautiful.
One of them is Rachel Beth Anderson, the co-filmmaker together with Tim Grucza of First to Fall, a story of friendship, sacrifice, and the madness of the war in Libya.
‘I didn’t know war was like this. That there were tragic moments but there would also be these mundane moments of normalcy, when these guys would still laugh and joke around. I wanted to change the perception that people had about them, their world and the war. We are inundated with the same imagery from that part of the world and I wanted to show something different. That’s what I was trying to do with this film: break that barrier and make people from outside of Libya care about Libya.’
The director of Big Men, a cautionary tale about the toll of American oil investment in West Africa, Rachel Boynton, gained unprecedented access to Africa’s oil companies and has created an account of the ambition, corruption, and greed that epitomise Africa’s ‘resource curse.’ The film uncovers the human impact of oil drilling and contains footage of militants operating in the Niger Delta. Big Men is Rachel’s second film as a director and it took her 5 years to complete. Brad Pitt is one of the film’s producers.
‘I don’t consider myself an activist filmmaker, I’m not a filmmaker who is attached to a particular issue and campaigning around it’ she told us. ‘I associate documentary making to a treasure box. The way of taking a snapshot of a historical moment that’s important and record it in a way that says something about the human nature and about the human experience that’s important to the world and the way we live today so that you can look at in 50 years time and have a greater understanding of how we live now. This film for me is first and foremost about capitalism and it’s a film about the economic structure of the world. It’s about trying to reach a deeper understanding of what we are and how we live.’
Iva Radivojevic’s film, Evaporating Borders, a visual essay in five parts, looks at what it means to be displaced and examines the idea of belonging and notions of diaspora, exile, and migration.This film exerted tears when I watched it. Maybe because I’m also an immigrant?… Or maybe because it’s beautifully done?… Who knows?
‘I’ve been an immigrant since the age of twelve, when Yugoslavia fell apart’ she said. ‘I grew up in Cyprus and then moved to New York. Immigration issues and migrants rights are themes that are important to me. The aim wasn’t to make something controversial but to bring a certain situation to light. Basic human rights shouldn’t be controversial, right? One thing that the film does do is advocate for the process of self-reflection. We are all guilty of intolerance, prejudice, discrimination – if one person would find themselves in the film and have a transformative experience it would make the film successful. From there we can create ripples.’
Despite the increasing number of talented women behind the camera, from Sofia Coppola and Jane Campion to Lena Dunham, film directing is a field seemingly dominated by males: there have only ever been four women nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director, and only one winner. We asked these talented women filmmakers how difficult it was for them, as women documentary directors, to be taken seriously.
‘The truth is in America I would say at least 50% of the documentary directors are women’ said Rachel Boynton. ‘It’s far more common to find women in a director position in documentary filmmaking than it is in fiction film making. One of the theories is that in documentaries you need a lot less permissions, you need to get fewer people to say yes to you. In features you do and you don’t find as many women getting through that chain.
My mother used to be a corporate lawyer and she existed in this world where she had to cut her hair short and wear masculine clothes, she had to be a better man in a man’s world. I knew when I was very young that I didn’t want this for myself, that I wanted to find a path where I could be a girl and succeed, that I didn’t have to become manly in order to achieve. I do think that in documentary filmmaking there is definitely space for women to be womanly women and achieve.’
‘Women are often associated with specific traits, namely sensitivity and compassion, and this potentially makes it easier for people to open up and tell their stories’ is the opinion of Iva Radivojevic. ‘At the same time, these traits could also render me “harmless” in a different context, like getting an interview with a politician, or the neo-nazi group. I can’t say for certain that this is what happened, but it may have played a part. I think there is definitely a threshold one needs to cross to be taken seriously. This is true for both men and women.’
‘It’s difficult to be taken seriously, especially when you’re younger’ said Rachel Beth Anderson and paused as if becoming suddenly aware of her beautiful young looks. ‘And I had to prove myself again and again and again that I had characters that would be effective for the story I had to tell. I did eventually find people that believed in me and helped be where I am today. So surround yourself with people that believe in you and see exactly what you’re trying to do.’
Are you a woman and thinking about becoming a documentary filmmaker? ‘Don’t think too much about how and what to do i.e. don’t wait for the perfect project/situation to come about. Start making things, now. The results will probably be crappy at the beginning, but the more you do/create the better the work will get. One day you will wake up and you’ll be doing exactly what you love’ said Iva Radivojevic.
‘Work for people whose work you like’ said Rachel Boynton. ‘Watch a lot of films. You don’t need to go to film school but you do need to educate yourself and watch a lot of films’
‘The best advice I ever got was from my director’ said Rachel Beth Anderson. ‘No story is ever worth dying for. You have to come out alive to be able to tell that story.’
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Photos provided by Rachel Anderson and Iva Radivojevic, and via zimbio.com