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A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

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Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

 

Sea Sorrow reframes ideas that refugees are from a far off land.”

— Vanessa Redgrave

 

About Sea Sorrow (From the NYFF)

Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians. Redgrave juxtaposes our horrifying present of inadequate refugee quotas and humanitarian disasters (like last year’s clearing of the Calais migrant camp) with the refugee crises of WWII and its aftermath, recalled with archival footage, contemporary news reports and personal testimony—including an interview with the eloquent Labor politician Lord Dubs, who was one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport.  Sea Sorrow reaches further back in time to Shakespeare, not only for its title but also to further remind us that we are once more repeating the history that we have yet to learn.

(Still from “Sea Sorrow”)

The Documentary Choices

There are no definitive rules in documentary filmmaking and Sea Sorrow, which examines the historical context for the current migrant crisis, is no exception. A documentary can utilize the traditional three-act structure or nontraditional narrative format. Ideas can be presented objectively or subjectively. Documentaries can include stock film footage, still photographs, use talking heads, include the filmmaker in the story, employ live action, animation, dramatic reenactments, and voiceover narration or just have the subjects and images alone convey the narrative.

(A young Redgrave in WWII)

During the World War II bombing of London, a three-year old Redgrave was sent into the British countryside where she was taken in by the town’s residents. Redgrave, on camera, recounts this experience intercut with still photographs of her during this time, referring to herself as an “internally displaced person.”

Redgrave’s nontraditional narrative also incorporates a combination of archival footage (including Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948), still photographs, talking heads, and live action, as well as a dramatized extract from The Tempest performed by Ralph Fiennes and Daisy Bevan (when Prospero tells Miranda the history of their “sea sorrow” and how they came to be exiles on a remote island, the former seat of his power and prosperity). Actress Emma Thompson also appears in the film, reading from a 1938 edition of the newspaper The Guardian, highlighting rhetoric heard today.

 

(Vanessa Redgrave at NYFF Press Conference)

Press screening Q & A with Redgrave and her producer Carlo Nero

Redgrave stated that she treated the film as if it were a poem, and chose film as the medium to deliver her message because: “Film is one of the arts — although treated like a prostitute most of the time, but it is an art — that can help people communicate and get rehumanized.”

Redgrave continued by saying she hopes Sea Sorrow will help audiences have compassion for the displaced people shown in the film:  “Do you realize how close we are? It could be us. What will we do if we are treated the way our country has treated other families? That can happen so easily and so quickly.” She continued: “Do people have imaginations? People don’t have time for imaginations. … Film, like theater, can. It doesn’t impose, it can help people stop reacting and start thinking.”

Sea Sorrow is indeed thought-provoking in its global glimpse into the refugee crisis, and it is personal.  The film reinforces the major theme that history has repeated itself but it also poses the question to the viewer that perhaps today, given what history has taught  us, that it will not be repeated.

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A Conversation with ‘Faces Places’ Documentary Filmmakers Agnès Varda and JR at the New York Film Festival

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR travel through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

FACES PLACES (VISAGES VILLAGES)

Director Agnès Varda and photographer/muralist JR journey through rural France, forming a powerful friendship in their first film collaboration, Faces Places (Visages Villages).  Winner of The Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival and Golden Eye at the Cannes Film Festival Faces Places played at the 2017 New York Film Festival where the filmmakers spoke about their work.

When I interviewed Varda at her installation at the Blum and Poe gallery in New York City in April 2017 for this publication, she talked about the upcoming release of Faces Places at festivals.

Varda: JR and I 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?”

We have to share words, share time. If our film reflects that, then it’s a drop of friendship and compassion in the world. That’s what we know how to do and I tried to do it well.

Faces Places can been described as a film memoir. A road trip of two artists. The film is about their journey, not necessarily the destination.

“Making documentaries is a school of life,” Varda told me at the 2014 Locarno International Film Festival where I asked her about her writing process, describing her style as cinécriture – writing on film. “In The Beaches of Agnès I am turning the mirror to the people who surround me. It shows how you build the life with others.”

Varda is the sole female director associated with the French New Wave, even labeled the grandmother of the New Wave, a title she disputed for several reasons, one being she was the same age as her male directors of this category.

Consider this label instead: A storyteller not bound by convention.

(L-R) JR, Varda, Taubin

Varda’s visual memory is reflected in this film as it captures her shared artistic sensibilities with JR: two photographers, two artists, two friends, sharing this journey together with the intention to also share it with others. The idea of community is one of the themes that the filmmakers discussed at their talk at the New York Film Festival with film critic Amy Taubin.

Listening to Varda and JR talk on stage, we witness two friends teasing the other and joking, but their respect and love for each other is undeniable.

Taubin asked how they decided to work together.

Varda:  It came in a strange way. We met once because someone said we should meet. And JR came to my place. And then we decided to do something together, we didn’t know that it would be a film.

JR: I didn’t know if Agnès was a nice lady or would beat me with a stick of wood. (They laugh then he looks at Varda): “It was friendship at first sight.

Varda then remarks on JR’s photography murals: “I love that he is making people bigger than life.”

Together Varda and JR embarked on their road trip in JR’s camera-van (a photo booth that prints out large-scale black and white portraits of its subjects), which they then paste onto walls and buildings along with their subjects in their communities.  We watch the before and after process as the filmmakers interview people reacting to their murals, giving the viewer insight into how they see themselves, how they are seen by others and the world in which they live.

Seeing, more specifically whether it’s the eye of the camera lens, JR’s eyes hidden behind his dark glasses or Varda’s failing vision, is a thematic thread that runs throughout the film.

Varda: We see enough for what we wanted to do. You need the mind to look, the heart. Looking at people is not just an eye problem.

JR: The photos are made to be part of the community.  When I take photos anywhere I let the people do their own projects and I send them back their prints. So they really decide if they want to become empowered by the art and the message they have behind it.  That question comes up when you are a filmmaker, creating projects with people in each place.

Walking with Agnès and going into small villages, I wanted to know what she was seeing in her eyes, and she wanted to know what I was seeing behind my glasses so we got to know each other.

(Residents of Pirou in Faces Places. Courtesy Cohen Media Group)

Varda: “JR is facing my greatest desire. To meet new faces so they don’t fall down the holes in my memory.”

Varda then discussed that they didn’t want to do just sketches of people, and their intention was not to do a travelogue.  JR added that there was no screenplay and no special effects in the film.

Taubin commented on the working class pride that their subjects demonstrated.

JR: That’s who we met. We didn’t scout for that.  We made sure we didn’t interview the mayor, for example. We interviewed the mailman; this was important because of the relationship he had with everyone in the community. Everyone knew him already. He explains that his work is disappearing. In the past he would go home with fruit from the people, and about the communication he had with the people, and how people are now disconnecting.

Varda: We never asked who they were voting for or their politics. We were interested in person-to-person.

JR talked about how using paste and water the people put up the photographs and how they reconnected this way; they had to speak to their neighbor and reconnect.

JR: The process of people gathering, making the artwork, the community around it and their reactions to it are an important part of the artmaking process to me.

Varda: We met these workers in a chemical factory. It’s a tough life for these workers. We asked, if we can make a collective portrait of them. Link with us. Link with the audience. Can we share their life and we are the go-between so their life comes to you. Can we get something of them that’s unique and important, and JR makes it big with images.  We learned what it means to work at the last day at a factory, we learn about the lady, who is the last one living on the street. After the film she had to leave, she’s gone. We had the feeling it was precious to film that at that moment.

We try to capture time because time is always going away, so is my life.

Agnès Varda (left) and JR (right) in Faces Places directed by Agnès Varda and JR. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group

Faces Places is now playing in Manhattan and will open in Los Angeles October 13, and more cities to follow.

Learn more about the Faces Places.

Susan Kouguell Interviews Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz for SCRIPT Magazine

Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Susan Kouguell interviews Ramona Diaz, filmmaker of Motherland, a poignant documentary in the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Ramona Diaz (Photo: Justin Tsucalas)

I had the pleasure to speak with Ramona Diaz about her gripping documentary Motherland, now playing in New York City’s Cinema Village, kicking off its theatrical run. Shot in a vérité style, the film foregoes any formal interviews, archival footage, experts’ opinions or narration. The film is intimate and powerful with moments of humor gently underscoring the poignancy of the subject matter.

About Ramona S. Diaz — Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor

Ramona Diaz is an award-winning Asian-American filmmaker. Her films include Spirits RisingImeldaThe Learning, and Don’t Stop Believin’ which have been broadcast on POV and Independent Lens, and have screened and won awards at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Silverdocs, IDFA, and many other top film festivals. She has received funding from ITVS, CAAM, Sundance Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Institute, Catapult Film Fund, and Chicken & Egg. Recently she was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Ramona has been a film envoy for the American Film Showcase, a joint program of the U.S. Department of State and USC that brings American films to audiences worldwide.

About Motherland

Motherland takes us into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. The film’s viewer, like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on conversations. At first, the surrounding people are strangers. But as the film continues, it’s absorbingly intimate, rendering the women at the heart of the story increasingly familiar. Three women—Lea, Aira and Lerma—emerge to share their stories with other mothers, their families, doctors and social workers. While each of them faces daunting odds at home, their optimism, honesty and humor suggest a strength that they will certainly have to summon in the years ahead.

KOUGUELL: Initially, you started with one idea for this film but it shifted.

DIAZ: I was in Manila researching a completely different film having to do with reproductive justice, reproductive health, and women’s rights. I was following a legislative bill, the Reproductive Health Bill, and I was interested in the social and political drama around it. When I got to Manilla I realized that the conversation there was very black and white, either for or against the bill, and I couldn’t find the nuance. Someone told me to visit the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital for my research. It’s called a baby factory; that’s how they refer to the hospital. In the first half hour I realized this is where my film is.

Walking around the ward, listening to the conversations the women were having, drew me in. The hospital is also so cinematic. I realized too that I could still include the themes I was interested in — reproductive health, etc., — all in one place. It was clear to me that this would make a better film.

KOUGUELL: How were you allowed access in the hospital?

DIAZ: First, there was the bureaucratic access: I had to go to the Secretary of Health to get permission. This hospital has been covered by media in the past, including CNN and the BBC, but only for short pieces and they were only there for a couple of days so they were used to media attention. But what I wanted was to be there every day for six weeks with access to all parts of the hospital. And they did give me access.

The more difficult type of access was making the staff really understand what I wanted, especially the nurses. To them, (the maternity process at the hospital) was so routine they couldn’t understand why it was special. I think people don’t necessarily think of their lives as being interesting. I knew the nurses were key because they know the ins and outs, and how that place works. Their average tenure there is 25 years. They were sort of the tribal elders; I knew if they understood what I was looking for then I’d get what I needed.

Because I chose to feature patients more than the staff, it made my life harder of course, because you can’t prep for that. Getting to know the staff was important, they sort of became my embedded producers because they knew I was looking for a younger mother, a much older mother and someone in the middle. And they would point out patients; they were on my side.

I chose the women who gave birth to preemies so I could follow them over time, a few weeks. Choosing the specific women was pure instinct.

KOUGUELL: Because you were there every day, the mothers felt they could trust you, yet filming them is very intimate. What kind of questions did you ask them to build trust?

DIAZ: I told them I was making a film about their lives in the hospital in however long their stay was, their everyday experiences. I said, we don’t want to get in the way of you resting, caring for your baby, we’ll never ask anything special of you, and we’ll have the camera on you. They wondered if that was interesting. I said it was interesting for me. I said, your stories will come out through the interactions with other people. Like Lea, she didn’t know she was having twins until giving birth.

We wouldn’t shoot the entire time we were with them, we’d put the camera down and we’d talk. That also really helped. They were interested in documentaries and what it is.

KOUGUELL: Talk about your choice to shoot Cinéma vérité and not use voice-over narration or title cards.

DIAZ: I wanted to mimic the experience I had when I first visited the hospital. I wanted to drop the audience into this organized chaos and figure it out because that was my experience with it. I really felt that the narrative would emerge from the scenes that we were filming. It was purposeful. From the beginning I knew I wanted to do that.

I had conversations with my DP Nadia (Hallgren) and I told her this was pure vérité. I remember the first day we were shooting and we walked away from a nurse doing a procedure and she asked, do you want to interview the nurse, and I said no, and she said ‘great’.  Many filmmakers start interviewing people just in case, but the ‘just in case’ becomes a crux, a go-to when you’re editing and I just didn’t want that option when we were editing.

KOUGUELL: How did you find the structure of the film? Was it prior to the shoot, during it, or in post?

DIAZ: We found the structure in editing. We found it quickly. Typically I edit for nine months, we edited for six months.  What took the longest was pulling the scenes and translating them.

KOUGUELL: Once you started filming did you work from any type of outline or did you just let the camera roll?

DIAZ: It wasn’t a strict outline but I kept notes every day about the characters and places so I knew where we had to cover: the labor room, the waiting room, the ward room where most of the action takes place. It was that kind of list making. Once I got into the characters then I started writing short outlines for myself; I imagined what we could capture based on the stories that were emerging. Sometimes they were so off the mark and sometimes they were right. We followed five to six characters fully and I knew I had to follow them throughout the stay until they got discharged.

KOUGUELL: Your advice for documentary filmmakers?

DIAZ: Certainly, persevere and be passionate. Be clear on what you’re trying to say, and I’m not even talking message. Know what it is you’re trying to say with your film and what you are trying to convey. If you know this, then things will fall into place.

Motherland opens in Los Angeles on September 22nd at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica with a national roll out to follow.

Learn more about Motherland.

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Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘The Reagan Show’ Filmmaker Pacho Velez for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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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 for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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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’ for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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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.

READ MORE HERE

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Susan Kouguell Talks to Brian David Cange, Producer of “Take My Nose… Please!” for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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take my nose image

Directed by legendary editor of Allure magazine Joan Kron, this provocative and humorous feature documentary explores society’s attitude towards plastic surgery. The film follows two comedians as they deliberate going under the knife: Emily Askin, an up-and-coming improv performer has always wanted her nose refined, and Jackie Hoffman, a seasoned headliner on Broadway and on TV, considers herself ugly and regrets not having the nose job offered in her teens – and maybe she’d also like a face-lift.

With commentaries from cultural critics, psychologists, sociologists, surgeons, along with cameos from comedians Judy Gold, Julie Halston, Lisa Lampanelli, Giulia Rozzi, Bill Scheft, and Adrianne Tolsch, the film confronts the pressure women feel to meet impossible expectations and the judgment they endure when they have cosmetic surgery.

About First-time Director Joan Kron

Director Joan Kron

Director Joan Kron

An author and award-winning journalist, Kron’s work includes stints at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She spent 25 years covering plastic surgery for Allure magazine and documented some of her experiences in the book, Lift: Wanting, Fearing, and Having a Face-Lift.

Take My Nose… Please!

I spoke with one of the film’s producers, Brian David Cange, about the documentary just days before the announcement that the film received the 2017 Miami International Film Festival’s Knight Documentary Achievement Award.

About Brian David Cange

Producer Brian David Cange

Producer Brian David Cange

Cange is an award-winning producer and line producer whose credits include Roxanne, Roxanne and Marjorie Prime (both 2017 Sundance Film Festival Official Selections), Equity, a 2016 Official Selection Sundance Film Festival; the highly acclaimed documentary Mad Hot Ballroom; Backwards; Fugly!; Particle Fever; The Skeptic; the 2008 Peabody Award winning documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life; National Geographic’s I am Rebel, the first in a four-part miniseries; Footsteps in the Snow for A&E and Lifetime Movie Networks; the Emmy-nominated, History Channel mini-series The World Wars, and Making Space, a feature documentary about five accomplished female architects with renowned producer Ultan Guilfoyle.

KOUGUELL: How did you get involved with the project?

CANGE: I became involved through my colleague Andrea Miller. Andrea and I worked together on the documentary film Particle Fever, and I helped her develop other projects, budget them, and sometimes shoot sizzle reels. I met director Joan Kron at the end of 2014. Andrea had suggested I speak to her about physically producing the film and also helping develop the project from a storytelling perspective, making sure there was a narrative structure, and helping her find the right characters to follow. In this case it was Emily Askin and Jackie Hoffman.

Joan was very resourceful; she went out to the comedy clubs every week and sometimes I would go with her to check out comedians.

Script EXTRA: Conversation with Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films

KOUGUELL:  What was the response from the comedians to participate in the film? Were they forthcoming as to whether or not they had cosmetic surgery or reticent?

CANGE: Yes, very reticent. Oftentimes people didn’t want to speak about it. Judy Gold, Lisa Lampanelli, Julie Halston, and a few others were confident enough to talk about it on camera.

KOUGUELL: Tell me more about finding the narrative in the project.

CANGE: When Joan Kron first came to me about the project, she had a clip reel of famous comedians: Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Phyllis Diller.  Joan had taken an editing class and she put together a sizzle reel of what she thought would be comedians talking about the history of plastic surgery or the history of plastic surgery in the female comedian environment.  I thought it would be very expensive to put this all together because they were very expensive clips and music rights to obtain.

Joan had the clip-driven sizzle reel, an outline, and a group of interviews she had already done in California, including some of the plastic surgeon specialists.  In the film, the interviews done in the theater were done early on, before I came on. She worked in Los Angeles and did eight interviews for two days. A good number of these interviews stayed in movie.

Emily Askin

Emily Askin

Joan, Andrea and I discussed the way to produce this film that there was a narrative to follow. We all agreed to casting and meeting with comedians who were living and perhaps less famous in some cases it was a little bit of both. Emily Askin was the one we were following first.  Emily agreed to the film; she’d already had a stomach belt surgery prior to working with us so she was also open to the possibility of getting a nose job.

Joan approached Jackie Hoffman after reading a story about her in the Wall Street Journal.  Jackie was really on the fence as to whether or not to get a nose job.

KOUGUELL: What was the time period over which the film was shot?

CANGE: The majority of the film was shot in 2015 and 2016.  It was less than 100 hours of filming. The editing process took over about nine months. We brought on editor Nancy Novak; she really understood the narrative balance needed between the story of these comedians, their own journeys, and the history of plastic surgery, which was so important to Joan. And, also making sense of how women comedians are often judged by their appearance just as women actors are. Someone actually asked me after our recent screening in Miami if we had considered any male comedians and we did approach a couple but no one wanted to be in the film.

Jackie Hoffman

Jackie Hoffman

KOUGUELL: Because the men didn’t want to reveal that they had cosmetic surgery done?

CANGE: (laughs) Yes, that’s pretty accurate.

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

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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.

PENARANDALOFTUS:  Allgood and Townsley joined the project in 2012 and 2013. It was a collaborative work, as the story took place over the course of five years but Alejandra and I were keeping the integrity of the story from beginning to end. I was the direct contact with the characters over the years.   Our co-producer, Jorge Maldonado, joined us in 2010 and he went to Paraguay since then too.

Brad Allgood was the director and editor; he also shot the flood sequence.   Because of the amount of footage collected over the years, Brad was fundamental to building the overall story.  Alejandra and I worked very closely with him on the structure since we followed the story from beginning.

Preproduction

KOUGUELL: Did you do pre-interviews with the young musicians?

PENARANDALOFTUS:  Yes. We sent the interview questions to the field producer in Paraguay.  Back then, the kids did not have Internet or phones, now actually everyone has one.  We had five characters and we had to find who was the most open to talk.  Some characters were closed to talk about their life.

Miércoles 8 de mayo de 2013. Cateura, Paraguay

The Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, Paraguay

The Message

KOUGUELL: Without being didactic, the film conveys several poignant messages about the universal language of music, as well as the direct connection about environmental issues (the complexities of the landfill provides jobs yet it comes with health risks) and the environmental disaster of the flooding the community endures to survive.  Can you speak more to this?

PENARANDALOFTUS: We tried not to be preachy.  We wanted to make a point about the environment, the music, and posing the topic of recycling in a different way without being that obvious.  Music was giving us a means to talk about recycling. People don’t want to talk about global warming when we talked to them.

Favio Chávez actually raised that issue; he used music as a way to talk about recycling without saying, ‘We’re going to talk about recycling.’  We knew that the music was very universal and emotional, and how Favio used music as a tool. Favio Chávez was an environmental technician and he tried to talk first about the environmental challenges and he felt he couldn’t do it. He found music as a way to talk about the importance of the environment and of recycling.

KOUGUELL:  Indeed.  If an audience member thought this film was romanticizing the town’s impoverished situation, the flood puts their story in raw perspective and the continued challenges the community faces.

PENARANDALOFTUS: The flood was obviously unexpected.  In 2013, Brad was editing the film, we didn’t know how we were going to find the funding to reedit the film we just knew we had to film the flood.

Brad Allgood and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus

Brad Allgood and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus

Paraguay was devastated by the largest flood in over 20 years. Nearly 300,000 people were displaced due to the flooding, and many members of the orchestra were flooded out of their homes.

With their budget and time was running out, they took a skeleton crew to Paraguay on two shoots to cover the flood. The community of Cateura sat under nearly eight-feet of water for two months, as the 15,000 families in surrounding communities moved to higher ground, living in plywood shacks during that time.

_MG_9144 Tania holding violin at home

PENARANDALOFTUS: The flood brings a lot to the story; it brings the issue about community effort and how they were able to help each other. It also brings the story of the environment, the floods that are happening in the world, and climate change.

Landfill Harmonic opens theatrically in New York City on September 9th  and in Los Angeles on September 23.

 

More articles by Susan Kouguell

LANDFILLL HARMONIC WEBSITE

 

A Conversation with Sheila Nevins President HBO Documentary Films for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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.”

Portraying Disabilities

“In the HBO documentary Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq we stressed survival, not the disability.  It’s our job to introduce the disability after you’ve met the person. In the film Life According to Sam, Sam explains his illness Progeria so brilliantly. The opening we see a kid playing, we don’t see his face. You see his toys. You notice his hands are a bit different and you’re invited into the world you know, the Lego world. And slowly you go through Lego land, you hear his voice. This child is 28 years old.”

Getting Your Movie to HBO

“We re open to ideas. We don’t assume that experience duplicates itself just because you had a hit. You’re as good as your last film. We have a lot of first-time filmmakers. There are so many outlets for documentaries now.  We are interested in ideas from the outside so no one else gets them.

The interpretation of ideas is precious and what your access to these ideas and how close you are to that experience is important.”

READ MORE HERE

 

MICHAEL MOORE: WHERE TO INVADE NEXT (INDIEWIRE/SYDNEYSBUZZ)

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

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!

I talk politically a lot, but if I really just wanted to make political speeches, I would run for office or give sermons.”

“I went to pick the flowers and not the weeds.”

A line from Moore’s film, which he further details: “Every country has a lot of problems. I didn’t go there to make a film about your countries. There are
a lot of things you’re dealing with, but that’s not my film. My film is about us, not about you. I just decided to tell a story about America without
shooting a single frame in the United States.”

About Michael Moore’s Happiness

“The difference about this film (compared to his others), some people say it’s not so angry, (that) I’m happier. I’m angrier than ever. Maybe I came up
with a more subversive way to deal with that anger with the condition of this country.”

In closing

“We’re filmmakers. We love the art of cinema and we love what it can do to move people through fiction or non-fiction.”

READ MORE HERE

 

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