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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Tag: Documentary (page 1 of 2)

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘The Reagan Show’ Filmmaker Pacho Velez

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President Ronald Reagan signs the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, Rancho del Cielo, CA, 1981. Photo credit: Karl Schumacher. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. (Gravitas Ventures & CNN Films)

“Reagan’s embrace of ‘the script; ushered in what Paul Krugman and other commentators have called “post-truth politics,” showing that it is acceptable to replace nuanced descriptions of complicated political realities with folk wisdom and self-effacing jokes.”

–Pacho Velez

DIRECTORS’ STATEMENT

Eschewing contemporary interviews or outside commentary, The Reagan Show is composed of network news broadcasts, Hollywood films and, most importantly, the largely unseen raw footage shot by the White House Television Office crew. Through this trove of material—from the bizarre and unscripted to the unflappably professional—the film tracks the public-relations battle behind the Cold War’s tumultuous end, highlighting the key role that Reagan’s use of film and video played in his presidency. Armed with the 20/20 vision that only hindsight can provide, our immersive, self-reflective approach invites viewers to look closely at—and question—the use of narrative in contemporary politics.

—Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez

ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS

PACHO VELEZ

Pacho Velez (Director, Writer) is an award-winning filmmaker. His last documentary, Manakamana (co-directed with Stephanie Spray), won a Golden Leopard at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival. It played around the world, including at the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. His earlier work has screened in venues as varied as The Swedish Museum of Ethnography, Occupy Boston, and on Japanese National Television. He is a Princeton Arts Fellow and, beginning in the Fall, a professor at The New School.

SIERRA PETTENGILL

Sierra Pettengill (Director, Producer) is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Town Hall, her directorial debut (co-directed with Jamila Wignot), broadcast nationally on PBS in 2014. She produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which also won the directing award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and the 2016 News and Doc Emmy Award for Best Documentary. She was the archivist on Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, and Matt Wolf’s Teenage, amongst many others.

2/4/1983 President Reagan Nancy Reagan and David Gergen at a Press Briefing in the Press Room during a surprise Birthday Party in honor of President Reagan’s 71st birthday

I first met Pacho Velez at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival when I interviewed him and his co-director Stephanie Spray about their award-winning feature documentary Manakamana. It was a pleasure to speak once again with Velez following the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival about his second feature documentary The Reagan Show, which was nominated for the Tribeca Film Festival’s Jury Award, and received the David Carr Award for Truth in Non-Fiction Filmmaking at the Montclair Film Festival, among other awards.

KOUGUELL: What was your intention for the film when you first started out, and did it shift in any way with the research that was done and the archival footage that was discovered?

VELEZ: I was interested in Reagan, and finding a way to watch Reagan age through the archive.  We actually started in the 1930s and made our way through the 1990s through the footage. There is an additional layer to this archive because Reagan kind of commissioned it of himself. It was overseen by a civilian administrator appointed by the Reagan administration. There is a sense that he is both the subject of the archives but also, in part, its author.

KOUGUELL:  Meaning it’s not impartial?

VELEZ: Yes, it totally reflects Reagan’s priorities; it’s another way of knowing him. You see what he was interested in. You see what he thought was important to record for posterity and in that way you get access to his thoughts on what he’s up to — and when I say “he” I also mean the institutional he; what his administration was up to.

KOUGUELL: There were 1,000 hours of archival footage that was sorted through.

VELEZ: Yes, that was really brutal. That was mostly Dan Garber, my former student, who was the researcher who received an editing credit on this film. He spent essentially three years watching footage.

KOUGUELL: As you started to assemble the footage, did your point of view of the material change, were there surprises for you?

George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev all wave to the press corps. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

VELEZ: Oh yes. We had no idea the film was going to be about Gorbachev and the nuclear weapons treaty at all.  We didn’t begin with a narrative in mind. It was this idea of poring through the archives and seeing what story was inside of that.

KOUGUELL: Which material was public domain?

VELEZ: Broadcast news footage is not public domain. All the footage Reagan shot of himself is public domain because the government produced it, and so the American people own it.

There was a lot of broadcast material we were able to use under fair use rights, which means when you’re not reproducing the footage, but you’re commenting on it in an explicit way, and its source is marked.

The beginning clip with David Brinkley interviewing Reagan, that material is fair use: it has the title in the beginning stating David Brinkley interviews Ronald Reagan in his last interview in office with the date of the interview, the network it was for, and that’s all on the screen.

KOUGUELL:  Talk about the writing process. You chose not to use voice-over narration.

VELEZ: Right and we didn’t have a script. The scripting was a discussion about story. For example: Where are we going to introduce the core narrative, and when is the moment that Reagan returned to the public relations question. We had a bit about Nancy Reagan’s relationship, and if that should come early or late in the film. All those types of questions were the purview of the writer.

KOUGUELL: Some documentarians work with an actual outline, with either insertions for voice-overs or printed text intended to be in supers.

VELEZ: We didn’t do that. At times, we wrote transcripts of the film, and thought about what would be great to have, but when you’re working the way we were working, you really couldn’t do that. You had to go out and find it, and figure out how to insert it.

KOUGUELL: The film is especially timely, given our current events.

VELEZ: Yes. Our present political context shifted; the meaning of those images has changed. There’s a way that you see the seeds of Trump in Reagan’s use of media.

Ronald Reagan addresses the 1988 Republican National Convention. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

FINAL WORDS

VELEZ: Someone was asking us the other day about the film in a way that assumed it was a historical film, and I never thought about it through that lens. Obviously, it’s a film that’s happened in the past. It’s historical, but the film is explicitly doing the work of history, no one is ingesting the footage and saying, ‘Looking back 20 years I see this, that and the other.’ Although it’s a historical story, all the commentators are talking about it in the moment.

Sometimes I think it’s political archeology, media archeology, as much as history. For me, I was thinking about the differences between those ideas; you have the political discourse that is meant to be consumed in the moment and what it means to re-watch that 30 years later versus proper history and having those two speak to each other.

The Reagan Show will open in New York at the Metrograph Theater and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center on Friday, June 30th, with a national rollout to immediately follow. It will also become available on VOD on July 4th.

 

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Susan Kouguell Speaks with Filmmaker Agnès Varda

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French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

Agnès Varda in Manhattan

Born in Belgium in 1928 with a career spanning over 60 years, Agnès Varda’s work continues to reexamine and challenge the themes of time, memory, and reinventing reality.

Often referred to as the Grandmother of the French New Wave (a term with which she takes issue, noting that Goddard and some of the other Cahier du  Cinema group were close in age yet differed in their political views and artistic backgrounds), Varda’s film credits include La Pointe Courte (1955), Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962),  The Creatures (Les Créatures 1966), Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969), Documenteur (1981), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985), The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008).

At the ‘Life as Art’ event in March at the Alliance Français in New York City, moderated by Olivier Renaud-Clément, organizer of her exhibit at Manhattan’s Blum and Poe Gallery, Agnès Varda spoke about the pieces in this show, as well as her narrative and documentary work while film clips and images from past multi-media installations were shown. Varda expressed reverence and curiosity for the subject matter and interviewees, and her responses were as wide-ranging as the work itself.

Varda: “With ‘Uncle Yanco’ (1967), I was interested to transmit not only the facts but how I felt about meeting him, like having the camera shake to show my excitement” — [to ‘The Gleaners and I,’ (2000)] When you film, the weather is always changing; the people are in a certain mood or do a movement you don’t expect. It’s an adventure. You can organize more or less before, and then the adventure is the time that you film, a vérité. And then the editing, I’m very excited about because that’s where you build the story.”

Agnès Varda at Blum & Poe Gallery

Open until April 15th, this is Varda’s first time exhibiting in New York City. Highlighting works made from 1949 to the present, this exhibit includes video installations, photographs, and sculpture. In Paris in 1954, Varda staged her first exhibition of eighteen black & white mounted photographs at her house in which she still lives and works today.

Varda led the press gathering as we walked together throughout the gallery rooms. Irreverent, inspiring, and disarming, Varda often shared her insights with a sense of comedic timing when discussing her work and journey as a filmmaker and artist.

Varda: “I used to put away my life as a photographer and now it comes in the light again.”

Varda points to the framed original invitation she made for the exhibit:

Varda: “The invitation explains the first time I exhibited in my own courtyard. The photographs were hung on the wall, on the shutters, on the ladders and around my studio. I printed the photographs myself and someone helped me to put it on the wood. I left the photographs up even at night because it was my own courtyard. There was no reason to make any kind of announcement so I put the invitation up in my neighborhood; at the bakery, at the butcher, and about 20 shops nearby, which is interesting because years later I made the documentary Daguerréotypes about my neighbors in 1975.”

Following the FIAF screening of Daguerreotypes, moderator Laurence Kardish and Varda discussed the evolution of the film from idea to production.

Varda: “I went to all the shopkeepers and asked if they would come to the café for the show. I was surprised they all came. We took two cameras. I said to the other DP (because you know the show at almost three hours is endless) let’s see what the people do. There is no fiction at all; the magic show happened, and what we filmed in their houses and at the shops were all true. The shopkeepers were concerned about how I was going to pay for the light so I ran a cable from my house and we used my electricity to film. The DP and I were small. We were hiding in corners of the shops. We kept the light on so there was no difference when people came in; we wanted to see them arrive. The crew was one sound person, and one to help, two camera people. We waited for hours to film because we had to be forgotten by the shopkeepers.”

As Varda walks around the Blum and Poe gallery, she offers glimpses into her past and present, while recounting some back stories of the images.

Varda: “I am switching from an old filmmaker to a young visual artist. I’ve had three lives: as a photographer, a filmmaker, a visual artist. I’m old. So I’ve been crossing the time for years.”

La cabane du film Le Bonheur

La cabane du film Le Bonheur d’Agnes:  Varda, 2017 Metal structure with Super 8 film from Le Bonheur (1964), miniature potted sunflowers, interior lighting with switch, and mixed media on wooden base. Polished cherry wood case with engraved plaque and handle.

Varda: “We had all these negatives in the film cans.  I wondered if there was a way to recycle all these negatives. So I thought, let’s make it a house of cinema, and make these shacks. Since it’s expensive to do the big ones (life-size), I did these maquettes. For this piece, I re-filmed Le Bonheur in Super 8 because to make the mini house, it had to be true to the original film.” (Varda hands me the magnifying glass to further examine the Super-8 images.) “If you take a look, there are the images of the original film. In Le Bonheur the film starts with a lot of sunflowers, so I imagined a greenhouse where they grow sunflowers.”

bord de mer

Bord de mer (2009). Digital HD projection, Blu-ray aspect 16:9 color/sound video projection, sand. Total running time: 1 minute, looped.96 x 120 x 115 inches

In this piece, Varda explores three representations of time; the one still photograph is of the ocean; the moving image shows a wave rolling in and out of the shoreline; and on the gallery floor lies a small beach of sand at the edge of the video.

I asked Varda about her decision to use real sand on the floor for this installation.

Varda: “I wanted the viewer to forget about the floor and just be there.  I wanted something realistic. I did another big installation Patatutopia and there were potatoes on the floor. Because a little piece of reality helps the imagination.”

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956) / Les gens de la terrasse (2008), 2012

A photograph of five figures and a baby on the Le Corbusier’s terrace next to a video re-enactment of what might have preceded the moment the photograph was taken. Varda describes the scene as a before and after. The before (the video) and the after (the photograph).

Varda: “I was sent by a magazine to photograph the Corbusier. I liked the mise en scène. A lot of snapshots for me are questions. Because it was a mystery I decided to make it a screenplay: I asked, who could be those people? So those people became characters. I built the set, and I asked some people to come. (Varda points to the video.) This couple in my mind is the mother and father of the girl, and this one is the mother of the boy. (Varda chuckles) Then like in real families they kiss on both cheeks for hours.”

TRIPTICH

Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, 2004-2005 35mm film transferred to three-channel color/sound video, three wooden screens, hinges. Total running time: 9 minutes 30 seconds, looped. 39 x 180 x 1 inches open; 29 x 129 x 2 1/2 inches closed.

This interactive work allows the viewer to open and close the side panels thereby influencing the unfolding narrative.

Varda: “I’m asking the viewer for 10 minutes of their time, which is nothing. The feeling comes if you give yourself time to think because there is almost no action.  I love that in a film it brings a lot of people together but a triptych in a gallery or a piece in a gallery brings in a few people. They come, they go. I like the during, the after, the before, and the elsewhere all at the same time. This makes it different from film.

I was inspired by the religious triptychs of the 15th century. I love the triptych shape; the opening and the closing of the panels.  We can see three things at the same time; something we cannot do in a film.  I was very excited to see where the people go when they go out of the scene.”

Pointing to the central projection of the domestic kitchen scene Varda says: “For about five minutes it’s just a classical kitchen scene like a Flemish painting of the 17th century.”  (She then points to the left panel and then center panel.) “When the man goes out, the mother puts away things. It’s intimate and also outside; sometimes we feel this at the same time, inside and outside.”

I asked Varda the identities of the three people in the film.

Varda: “They are my neighbors; he is a plumber, and the old lady is his mother. It’s in a little village island of Noirmoutier. I’ve always loved working with non-actors that I meet here and there.

Kouguell: How much direction did you give them?

Varda: I don’t say, ‘Drink your beer like this’ I say, ‘We’re going to do a very intimate kitchen scene’.  We discussed how long the film will be.  I suggested what they did and then they did it according to their own impressions. The kitchen scene is one shot; that was the intention. The relation to the side panels we had to organize.

The lady is the mother of the man, and the woman is his wife. He reads the paper and drinks a beer. Like very often it happens in life. And the women do the work. The lady undoes the rope and the wife does the potatoes.

Varda refers to the images of the beach on the left panel: “My mind started to think, what could happen if I could bring some of the outside inside? Then I allowed myself to have the immensity of the sea.”

Kouguell: This piece happens with no dialogue and just the sound of the ocean; it is very meditative.

Varda: I love the quiet noise of the sea. My mind is always at the sea. I’m inspired by the sea. (Varda points to the action of the woman pushing the cat off the table): “The woman doesn’t like the cat and he doesn’t like the sea.” (Varda smiles) “Voilà, that’s all you can say about their relationship.”

Kouguell:  It speaks volumes about their relationship. And, it’s interesting with the images of the two women, the wife and mother, on the far panels.

Varda: Yes. I kept it blank in the middle for a little while. (We watch together until the panel changes.) And then the film starts again. 

VISAGES, VILLAGES

Varda: “The artist JR and I just finished the documentary Visages/Villages; it will open in June in France. We got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul. Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years I like taking the time to listen to people. The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

 

Final Words

Varda: “I fought a lot as a feminist, and we succeeded with a lot of marching and screaming and we changed the law. Birth control was an incredible step in society. I’m still a feminist more than ever. In the cinema world in France today, there are a lot of women directors, writers, DPs, mixers, producers. It’s a fight I did when I started making films. I say to women, learn the camera, learn the sound and editing. When I was young it was rare to have a camera. Now people do photos all the time. When they do selfies, they want to put themselves in it to say they were there. As if to say, I need proof in my life. Not only are images easier to make now, but we want to have memories of ourselves.

The documentary I did about widows (The Widows of Noirmoutier The Veuves de Noirmoutier 2005) I went alone with a small camera and sound. The women were very touching the way they spoke to me with their small confidences. I listened to them. It’s a step in understanding the world.  The world is cruel.  But I have decided, especially aging, to try and spend good time with people. I cannot change a life. I have seen the world changing so much since I have been here.

You can use your memory to remember, but that’s not my point in my work now.  The point is, getting a piece of my past and bringing it in my life of today. I don’t have the feeling that I wish to tell you my memories, (she smiles) but I did it a little in The Beaches of Agnes. What I do now is make it alive now. What I want is to make the now and here very important.  It’s sharing what I do with people. My work is to propose emotion, propose surprises, and propose my view.  That’s the life of the artist.”

Susan Kouguell Interviews Director Jenny Gage on her Documentary ‘All This Panic’

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All this Panic takes an intimate look at the interior lives of a group of teenage girls as they come of age in Brooklyn. A potent mix of vivid portraiture and vérité, the documentary follows the girls as they navigate the ephemeral and fleeting transition between childhood and adulthood. As one teen in the film remarks, ‘They want to see us, but they don’t want to hear us’ this documentary is comprised entirely of young women speaking to their own experiences.

Susan Kouguell Interviews Director Jenny Gage about her Documentary ‘All This Panic’ | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

DIrector Jenny Gage

Jenny Gage (Director) and Tom Betterton (DP) are a couple and long time collaborators on fine art, photography and film projects. All this Panic is the latest project in a celebrated career that has centered on the images and inner lives of young women across several mediums and genres. Their fine art work has appeared in gallery and museum shows throughout the world. Their commissioned work and portraits have been featured in publications, including W, Vanity Fair, and Italian Vogue. Their short film, Drift, screened at international festivals and museums. Jenny received her MFA in photography from Yale University.

All This Panic was shot as a two-person crew with minimal equipment, relying solely on natural light.

Jenny Gage: This was a film about the inner lives of the girls therefore the camera needed to be an extension of what the girls were seeing and feeling. Along with my partner, cinematographer Tom Betterton, we decided early on to shoot everything handheld so that he could move as quickly and easily through the city as the girls did. I knew there needed to be an organic approach to the filming process to encourage the girls to feel free enough to share the kind of unimpeded intimacy we were seeking. We imagined the camera to be as kinetic as our characters. Never judging, always participating and observing.All this Panic takes an intimate look at the interior lives of a group of teenage girls as they come of age in Brooklyn.

Evolution of the project

Gage: Tom and I knew Ginger and Dusty since they were 6 and 8 years old, and we knew their family a bit; we knew their father from our other career as still photographers. Right about the time we had our daughter they moved down the street from us. I would occasionally talk to them, and I was fascinated by them; what they were talking about, thinking about, who their friends were.  At a certain point I decided to make a film about them. I wrote their parents an email, I told them my intentions, which I didn’t really know at the time, all I really knew was that I wanted to film them and hear what they were talking and thinking about. And to immerse myself in their world. It began in a natural and organic way. Then we met their friends. That’s one of the reasons it took so long. At any given point we were following 10 girls.

Kouguell: You shot over a period of three years.  Was there any type of set schedule?

Gage: We followed the girls’ cues. It was sporadic. For example there was a lot going on in the fall but in the winter there wasn’t. We realized after a year or two of filming that everything happened in the spring: first crushes, parties, girls running around the city, going to the beach. In the fall and winter we’d film them once a week, once every other week, and then in the spring it would be every other day. In the summer it would slow down because they’d go out of town, etc.

Kouguell: Did you have an outline or script in term of specific things you wanted them to talk about?

Gage:  There was no outline. We never had a script, but we definitely had things we wanted to talk to them about and things they wanted to talk to us about.  We had things we were curious about, and there were themes in their lives that kept coming up, like Ginger not going to college. From the first day we filmed her she was already thinking that she wasn’t going to go to college, so we followed that train of thought throughout the years. We would ask them: Boyfriends? Girlfriends? What’s going on, on that level? We would revisit those things and see how their outlooks had changed about who they like and what they like. It was an interesting time for the girls, talking about gender fluidity and the spectrum, and feeling that they didn’t have to be gay or straight, and that there were lots of grays and in between. That was enlightening to hear.

Ginger and Lena

Ginger and Lena

Kouguell: Did the ‘story’ change or your approach to the material change, as the three years went on?

Gage: Yes, as the girls evolved so did the themes and stories. One thing in the beginning when we followed Ginger and Lena, there was talk about who gets invited to a party, that was big in 10th grade. And then in the 11th and 12th grades, what came out was their evolving and complex friendship, their trust and loyalties and sometimes the hardships they went through together, and apart.

Kouguell:  If there was a certain event in their life did they contact you to say this was happening?

Gage:  Not really. I always asked them to do this, but everything in their lives happened so quickly like a haircut or dying their hair. Everything was on an equal level. Everything was equally important and unimportant. Often they’d tell us a story that they thought was a good story for the film, and we would record it, but really it was the in between moments and when they were talking without really thinking that made up the film.

Kouguell: Were they self-conscious at all, about what they talked about on camera?

Gage: Maybe at the beginning they were a bit self-conscious but it quickly became second-nature to them.  It was funny in the beginning of shooting, there was a dance where to look: Should I look at Jenny? Should I look at the camera? And then we’d start talking, and then they were unselfconscious.

Kouguell: Did they look at any of the dailies over the years?

Gage: No.  It was amazing the amount of trust they had.  After two years of filming, every six-to nine months we’d cut a minute-long trailer, and we’d show them that.  It was always hard for them to watch, like watching an argument they had with someone. For the most part we didn’t show them any footage. We talked a lot about our intentions; we asked them what they wanted to see in a film about young women.

Kouguell: Did any of the girls’ parents have any concerns or want input into the film? Did they want to look at any footage or before you locked picture?

Gage: They never asked to see a rough cut or any footage. Sometimes they had concerns and we’d meet with each parent. They took their cues from the girls, and the girls trusted us implicitly and we trusted them, and their parents trusted them. It was an amazing circle of trust that we were allowed into. I have so much respect for the parents; they raised incredible young women.

Sage

Sage

Kouguell: How did you decide on a structure?

Gage: Our editor Connor Kalista helped us, and combed through the 140 hours that we had. We knew certain themes that each girl had in her life, and we knew which ones we wanted to highlight for the film, and others we felt weren’t strong enough to highlight.  Connor really gave the film the structure it has.

Kouguell: With the current theatrical release of the film, you’ve been doing post-screening Q & A’s with the girls. What are their responses when they look back at the experience?

Gage: I love doing the Q & A’s with the girls, because it’s another chance for them to talk and that’s what this whole film was about. Most recently, one of the profound responses came from Ginger. She struggled a lot as a teen, and dealt with the fear of being one of the leftover kids who didn’t go to college, as well as her struggles with her relationships with her family and Lena.  My heart always went out to her because she was having the quintessential teenage experience. One thing she’s said in the Q & A stayed with me: ‘I was always so hard on myself as a teenager and when I was in high school. When I look at this film now and I see the little me, I say, little me was trying, little me stumbled along the way, but I was really trying.  And I should cut myself a break.

The other night at a Q & A we were talking about how the film was a study of teenage girls, in a particular time, in a particular city, and I absolutely think that’s what the film is about and it was one of our intentions. But, I think that one of the other things that the film is about is female friendships and their complexity and how they go so deep, and how they’re often not portrayed like this in films and television. They are this rich source of experiences that should be mined for great material.  Every one of the girls has such incredible friendships with each other and they definitely had their ups and downs. The film shows how complex friendships are.

Learn more about the film here.

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More articles by Susan Kouguell

 

Susan Interviews Producer & Co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus of ‘Landfill Harmonic’

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“To have nothing is not an excuse to do nothing”
–Favio Chávez,
Conductor of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura

Favio Chavez (Orchestra Director)

After their awe-inspiring concerts made them viral sensations and put them in the spotlight of international media, The Recyled Orchestra of Cateura has been featured on 60 Minutes, NBC News, People, Time, Wired, Oprah Magazine, NPR Music, and more.

LANDFILL HARMONIC, the award-winning documentary has received over 30 awards at international festivals.

As a classically trained violist, I had the opportunity to play with a youth orchestra when I was a teenager and travel on concert tours to South America and the Far East.  Whether we played in the jungles of the Amazon or a president’s palace, and regardless of the audience’s economic and ethnic backgrounds, these six weeks of summer travel and approximately 30 concerts, forever impacted my life.

The often-used phrase “the universal language of music” is not a cliché, it is indeed the truth and underscored in the documentary Landfill Harmonic.

Several years ago when I first saw the 60 Minutes piece about Favio Chávez and his Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay, it grabbed my attention and as time passed the story of the orchestra continued to pique my interest.  After viewing a press screener of Landfill Harmonic, I knew I had to set up an interview.

One doesn’t need to be a musician or even sing in tune, to be enthralled by the power of this film.

IMG_3471 violines

Synopsis

Landfill Harmonic follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. Under the guidance of idealistic music director Favio Chávez, the orchestra must navigate a strange new world of arenas and sold-­out concerts. However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Favio must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town. The film is a testament to the transformative power of music and the resilience of the human spirit.

Producer and co-director Juliana PenarandaLoftus

DSC_6213 Juliana head shotRecently I had the opportunity to speak with producer and co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus by phone for our interview.

Juliana Penaranda-Loftus began her career working in production for prime time television shows in Colombia. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she moved to the United States where she received her Master’s Degree in Film from the American University in Washington, DC. After September 11, she directed and produced a documentary about Aid Afghanistan, an organization fighting for the right to educate women. The organization used the documentary to raise funds to support schools and programs in Afghanistan. Since then, Juliana has produced several independent feature films and in 2009 established her own production company, Hidden Village Films with the purpose of producing films of social relevance. In 2012 she was one of eight women selected by the American Film Institute for their Directing Workshop for Women.

KOUGUELL:  Tell me about the evolution of this film.

PENARANDALOFTUS: Alejandra Amarilla (Founder and Executive Producer) contacted me at the end of 2008 to talk about the idea of making a documentary about underserved children in Paraguay her home country.

In April 2009, we traveled to start the research and find the story. It was the last day of the trip when we heard the story about Favio Chávez and his efforts of teaching children with recycled instruments. Alejandra loved the story from the beginning and as founder she selected from the options we had. I loved the story too. We saw the potential with Favio to be able to take the kids to where they are today.

We started following up the story via phone calls and email.  I was doing pre-interviews over the phone and email. We returned to Paraguay every year, sometimes twice a year depending on what was going on.

The production took five years. We started shooting in July 2010 and the last shoot took place in September 2014.

About the Collaboration

Landfill Harmonic is directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, and co-directed and produced by Juliana Penaranda-Loftus.

Due to the filmmaking team’s outside work commitments and changing schedules, the process was further complicated by the need to reshoot some sections.  Penaranda-Loftus emphasized the importance of the great teamwork they had, which made this film become a reality.

READ MORE HERE

 

A Conversation with Sheila Nevins President HBO Documentary Films

A Conversation with Sheila Nevins
President HBO Documentary Films

by Susan Kouguell

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A Conversation with Sheila Nevins President HBO Documentary Films by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #screenwriting

“Diversity is economically intelligent.  And it turns out that excellence is diverse.”
— Sheila Nevins

At the 2016 Athena Film Festival held at Barnard College in New York City, Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films, presented a poignant and often funny Master Class to the audience of screenwriters and filmmakers, moderated by Athena Film Festival co-founder Melissa Silverstein.

Sheila Nevins is responsible for overseeing the development and production of all documentaries for HBO, HBO2, and Cinemax.  As an executive producer or producer, she has received 28 Primetime Emmy Awards, 32 News and Documentary Emmys, and 40 George Foster Peabody Awards. During her tenure, HBO’s critically acclaimed documentaries have gone on to win 23 Academy Awards.

What Nevins Looks For in a Project

“What makes a great documentary for me is something human.  It’s finding empathy for people you might never meet; it’s something in you that relates very closely to them. I sometimes look for the little stories, people you might not know. People you might forget. I’m interested in average, ordinary things. I’m not name or celebrity conscious. I’m people conscious. I’m particularly interested in original experiences. Ordinary people have extraordinary tales.”

An Unlikely Mentor

“I was constantly aware of ugliness and sadness. My mother was ill and had an arm amputation below her elbow.  Many years ago we were in Chock Full o’Nuts, and it was very hot. My mother had a knot tied at the end of her sleeve and I said, ‘Let’s pull up the sleeve.’ And we did.  And the woman next to us said, ‘I can’t eat if I have to look at that.’ That woman was my mentor.  I’m ashamed to say I tied that knot on my mother’s sleeve back on.  Maybe I’m making up for that. Nothing is too ugly or too true for me.”

READ MORE HERE

 

MICHAEL MOORE: WHERE TO INVADE NEXT

A Conversation with Oscar® winner Michael Moore at the New York Film Festival

Moore’s latest film, “Where to Invade Next” explores the current state of the nation.

Michael Moore and Susan Kouguell

Michael Moore and Susan Kouguell

Twenty-six years ago — (Michael Moore reminded me how long ago it was) — I was an acquisitions consultant for Warner Bros. and discovered a new documentary at the Independent Feature Film Market. I ran to the payphone (yes, pre-cell phone days) downstairs at the Anjelica Film Center and called my boss to tell her she must see it. The film was “Roger & Me.” Warner Bros. picked up the film.

Since then, Moore continued making provocative and impassioned films, including the Academy Award-winning “Bowling for Columbine,” “Sicko,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “Capitalism: A Love Story.” Moore’s latest film, “Where to Invade Next” explores the current state of the nation.

Moore: “My film is about us. I just decided to tell a story about America without shooting a single frame of the movie in the United States.”

Former Radius Founders and Co-Presidents Tom Quinn and Jason Janego are teaming with Alamo Drafthouse Founder and CEO Tim League to form the yet-to-be-named distribution label and will distribute “Where to Invade Next.”

"Where to Invade Next"
“Where to Invade Next”

Here are highlights from the New York Film Festival press screening.

The idea for the film

“I was 19 and I just dropped out of college. I got the Eurail pass and youth hostel card and spent a couple of months going around Europe. I was in Sweden and broke a toe, and I was sent to a clinic. I went to pay the bill and there was no bill. I never heard of such a thing. And all through Europe I kept running into things like that. And I thought why can’t we do that? The idea grew organically as most of the things do in my films.”

Planning ahead

“Don’t give me too much credit for thinking this out a whole lot in advance. We don’t think it would be really cool to sit down at the lunch table with a can of Coke and see what the kids do.

The best stuff is what I don’t plan out. What my field producers do in terms of research — I have them tell me only the basics, I don’t want to know any of the research. When the Italian couple (in the film) tells me about the 15 days paid vacation, this is the first time I’ve heard it, even if the field producers know it. I don’t want to act. We don’t do a second take. If the sound guy says we didn’t get it, you can’t ask them (the subjects) to do it again. We’ve seen too many documentaries like that. It has to happen with them and me in the moment.”

No, Michael Moore is not running for office

“…to say that you have the right to regulate a woman’s uterus but not guns? It’s like, I think the only safe place for guns is in a woman’s uterus. Then they would be regulated by our Republican congress!

 

READ MORE HERE

 

Writing the Music Documentary

Tips for Writing the Music Documentary Film

by Susan Kouguell

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In this past year, three very different documentaries, portraying a musical artist have been released: What Happened, Miss Simone? directed by Liz Garbus, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck directed by Brett Morgen, and A Poem is a Naked Person directed by Les Blank.

These three musical artists, Nina Simone, Kurt Cobain, and Leon Russell are as diverse as are the ways in which these directors conveyed their respective subjects. While some very broad comparisons can be made in some choices made (for example the use of archival footage in Garbus and Morgen’s films, and the use of concert footage in all three films), the more specific comparisons can be found in the fact that each director has a unique vision and voice.

music documentary
In my book Savvy Characters Sell Screenplays! I write:

Documentaries can be written, using the traditional 3-act structure or in a nontraditional narrative format. The use of stock film footage, “talking heads” (interviewees’ faces discussing the subject matter), voice-over narration, animation, photographs, live action, and so on, are some examples of the tools used to convey the narrative.

Rather than cover every biographical detail of their subjects’ lives, Garbus, Morgen and Blank, allow their subjects to tell their own story through their own words and music, in conventional and nonconventional ways. In Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, original animation was produced and incorporated into the film, to illustrate important moments in Cobain’s life, using Cobain’s artwork, photography, journals and family photographs as inspiration.

Garbus allows the late Nina Simone to convey her story, in part, through concert footage shot during the course of her career. These moments show Simone speaking and playing to the audience, revealing both her personal fragility and phenomenal talent as a musician.

 

READ MORE HERE

Agnès Varda Salute

The Actualities of Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

by Susan Kouguell

 

Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

In a salute to Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Art of the Real, Documentary Redefined Series in New York City, Varda’s short films and features were included in the Actualities of Agnès Varda program, featuring the acclaimed filmmaker in person.

I had the honor of speaking with Agnès Varda at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival at two separate events, which I covered for this publication:Conversation with Varda: HERE and Highlights from the Locarno Film Summer Academy Master Class : HERE

Speaking before and after each of the following short films, Agnès Varda is ever the powerful and poignant storyteller with a provocative sense of humor.

 

“Black Panthers” (1968, 31 minutes)

"Black Panthers"
“Black Panthers”

Centering on a “Free Huey” rally in Oakland California in 1968, Varda discussed her experience filming this short documentary.

Varda: “Tom Luddy told me I should come to Oakland because of these demonstrations. Every Saturday I flew from Los Angeles to be there. I had a 16mm camera. I shot a lot of it alone; and I had some help from some others. I needed to get their speeches. I needed to understand the mind body theory. So far, the theory of black men was written by white men. This was the first time they were really involved in their own history. I remember thinking about the women, and also for the first time in the sixties women were writing about their history. I was fascinated by the equivalence. It was a precise time in 1968; two years later it was almost gone. It was so important at the time; I thought and everyone thought it would change the history of black people. The documentary bore witness, the testimony of that time of the Black Panthers. The film was not shown in France; they were afraid to wake students. It was not shown in the U.S. then either.”

“I bore witness. I was discreet as much as possible. It belongs to their history. Each time there is a film about Black history, we are asked about it.”

Susan Kouguell and Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
Susan Kouguell and Agnès Varda at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

 

 

Reenactments in Documentary Films

Reenactments in Documentary Films: Is There an Authentic Truth in Documentary?

Replicate. Reproduce. Reveal. Is there an authentic truth in documentary?

The use of reenactment in documentary films has filmmakers, film theorists and critics divided. Some believe the use of reenactments brings historical accuracy into question while others feel it enhances history. More recently, exploitative crime television shows and docudramas that utilize reenactments are often over-the-top melodrama, thus further fueling this topic and giving it a poor name.

Documentaries are often labelled subjective or objective, but arguably a purely objective documentary does not exist. Why? Documentarians are always making choices: what, where and how to shoot, who and what to include and who and what not to include in the film, and how to structure the film — in a nonlinear or linear fashion. All these can elements subtly — or not so subtly — reveal the filmmaker’s attitude about the subject matter and in turn this influences the audience’s response.

Documentaries are often labelled subjective or objective, but arguably a purely objective documentary does not exist. Why? Documentarians are always making choices: what, where and how to shoot, who and what to include and who and what not to include in the film, and how to structure the film — in a nonlinear or linear fashion.  All these can elements subtly — or not so subtly — reveal the filmmaker’s attitude about the subject matter and in turn this influences the audience’s response.

Documentary Films

Reenactments in documentary films have a long tradition. Stepping back for a moment in time, let’s examine a few examples.

Considered to be the first full-length documentary Nanook of the North, (1922) directed by Robert Flaherty, involved a group of Inuit, living on the Hudson Bay coast below the Arctic Circle. This silent film contains several reenacted and restaged scenes, including a walrus hunt. Ethnographic director Flaherty argued that because the recreated scenes were based on his subjects’ memories, he believed the film was truthful in spirit.

German director Harun Farocki’s anti-war documentary Inextinguishable Fire (1969, black and white, 29 minutes) explores the manufacturing and use of napalm by reenacting the inner workings of Dow Chemical Company’s Michigan headquarters during the Vietnam War, using only a small amount of actual combat footage. Taking the idea of recreation and reenactment a bold step further, director Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught (1998) is a 30-minute, shot-for-shot remake of Inextinguishable Fire. Translated from German into English and filmed on color Kodachrome, the backdrops, props, script, costumes and shots are all copies of the original. Every shot is reproduced — with an occasional superimposition of Farocki’s film.

Director Errol Morris’s film The Thin Blue Line (1988) employed staged re-enactment scenes of a police officer’s murder in order to demonstrate various witnesses’ contradictory testimonies. The film argued that Randall Adams was wrongly convicted for murder by a corrupt justice system in Dallas County Texas.

READ MORE HERE

‘Ballet 422′ and Cinema Truth

My article for Script Magazine:

‘Ballet 422′ and Cinema Truth

The truth about documentary is this — there are many categories and styles — from investigative to personality-driven, to topics that expose cover-ups and catastrophes, to — well, yes – the list goes on and your imagination is the limit.

Many film theoreticians and documentarians differ on their interpretations over what elements should or should not be included when categorizing the various styles of documentary films, but what they do agree upon is this — there are no strict rules one must adhere to when making documentaries.   And so, one can say there is often an exception to every “rule” when labeling and categorizing the various styles of documentaries.

So, if one truth is that there are no hard and fast rules in making documentaries, how does the writer know how to write a documentary?

In writing and/or sketching out the ideas for a documentary you can present ideas objectively, subjectively, or let the subject and/or subject matter speak for themselves/itself. You can follow the traditional 3-act structure or a non-traditional narrative format, or use talking heads, stock footage, dramatic reenactments, voiceover narration, still photographs, live action, animation, put yourself in the story or just allow images and your subjects to convey the story. You can use some or all of these choices, or create something else. The choice is up to you.

large_ballet422_web_2

Choosing Cinema Vérité: Ballet 422 and Cinema Truth

Director Jody Lee Lipes describes his new documentary Ballet 422 as Cinema Vérité. Translated from the French, this term defined as “cinema truth,” is also referred to as Fly on the Wall or Direct Cinema. The “truth” is underscored in this definition; the filmmaker captures what is happening in front of the camera without artifice.

Some of the elements that are seen in Cinema Vérité include the use of handheld cameras, natural lighting, direct sound, and location filming — while elements not generally seen are the utilization of voice-over narrations, talking heads and extensive background information. Examples of this filmmaking category are the 1973 PBS series An American Family, which followed the daily lives of the Loud family for seven months and Grey Gardens (1975) directed by Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer, about a mother and daughter reclusive socialites, living in a decrepit Long Island mansion.

From first rehearsal to world premiere, Ballet 422 goes behind the scenes at the New York City Ballet, as it follows Justin Peck, 25, a dancer with the NYCB and up-and-coming choreographer, as he creates his new work “Paz de la Jolla” from its first rehearsal to world premiere. This commissioned ballet is NYCB’s 422nd new ballet — hence the film’s title.

Justin Peck is the main character and the film takes the viewer on his journey, offering glimpses into the ballet world and Peck’s work process as he collaborates with fellow dancers, orchestra musicians, lighting and costume designers.

– See more at: READ MORE HERE

 

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