Independent Lens: Filmmaker Q&A with Eric Neudel

October 28th, 2011

Eric Neudel

Independent Lens spoke with director Eric Neudel about his film Lives Worth Living, which follows the formation and journey of the disability rights movement through the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The movement scored one of the most significant civil rights victories in American history.

Here, Neudel discusses his inspiration for the film, as well as the challenges he faced as a filmmaker. (Since this interview with Neudel, Fred Fay passed away.)

Lives Worth Living premieres Sunday, October 30 at 11 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope this film helps others to gather the courage to fight for their rights.

What led you to make this film?

The minute I met Fred Fay in 2005 I knew I wanted to make a film about him. Fred is a remarkable person, a quadriplegic who has lived on a wheel bed since 1981. As we became friends he told me an intriguing story about the disability rights movement. I was amazed that such a struggle had even taken place. In late 2007 he became very ill. When Fred recovered, I thought the time was right to record what I could of his story. Through this process, he introduced me to dozens of his fellow activists. The film just blossomed after that.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

The most difficult challenge was finding a way to tell a concise, coherent and compelling story without using a narrator — an element I felt would put me in the position of speaking for people who by all rights needed to speak for themselves. In the end, we crafted a mosaic using many voices to tell one story.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Fred Fay trusted me. The respect that other activists had for him spilled onto me. I thoroughly studied the people I chose to interview and learned small details about their lives. When I eventually interviewed them, I would use these details in my questions. This sense of detail often surprised them, brought back memories, and connected me to them.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

There could never be enough dramatic space in one program for the thousands of people who led the disability rights movement. We had to omit dozens of important activists and drop several characters we had interviewed. We also dropped several good scenes because they moved the film away from the main story. I see this as a truth of storytelling: too many characters, too many departures, and the story stops.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

The scene with Senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy speaking after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This scene remind us of the range of the disability experience. These two powerful men convey their pain at having witnessed prejudice first hand. Even the mighty have to fight through their own losses and the stigma of disability.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

The few people who have seen the finished version of this film have cried. This audience, however, is a skewed sample. Some of the viewers are characters in the film. Some are their relatives. Their feedback has been wonderful and they are genuinely excited.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?

I love solving the puzzle of a film. This process is a lot of fun. I bring this enjoyment to the hope that I can make a difference – even if it’s just in a small way.

Why did you choose to present your film on PBS?

I had worked in public television for many years and felt that PBS could offer the best opportunity to reach the audience of people who live with disability everyday — tens of millions of people. I think there is a hunger for this program within the disability community and, in return, a unique opportunity for PBS to capture this audience.

What do you remember most about making the film?

Mostly what I remember is lugging bags through airports and stuffing them into small rental cars. We often slept and lived in friends’ apartments — sometimes in deplorable conditions. We complained a lot about dust balls and frightening bathrooms, but we loved our lives during it all.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

I didn’t repair my house or do much gardening. I stopped my writing projects and nearly abandoned my still camera.

What are your three favorite films?

To Kill A Mockingbird (director Robert Mulligan), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), Happy New Year (Claude Lelouch).

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Be aware that your efforts to describe your idea will almost certainly be misunderstood. This misunderstanding is very useful. It will force you to sharpen your own thinking. Do the extra work to be as simple and clear as possible. Be aware that you will have numerous ups and downs. Don’t linger at either extreme. Just hang in there and keep working. Find a good partner who will absorb some the rejection you will encounter along the way and help you understand what the rejection signifies.

What fuels and sustains you when you’re making a film?

Humble pie seems like the figurative answer. But in the spirit of being literal: Japanese food.

Q&A with Run for Your Life Filmmaker Judd Ehrlich

October 27th, 2011

Judd Ehrlich

In Run for Your Life, filmmaker Judd Ehrlich chronicles the life of Fred Lebow, the ambitious founder of the New York City Marathon.

In 1976, Lebow united the struggling city by bringing the race to all five boroughs.  He continued to defy the odds by running the marathon for the first time three years after being diagnosed with brain cancer. Run for Your Life tells Lebow’s unique tale with archival footage and interviews with prominent New York figures like Mayor Ed Koch, as well as Lebow’s own family.

Inside Thirteen recently had the chance to sit down with Mr. Ehrlich to discuss his inspiration for the film and the impact of the race on New York City.  Run for Your Life airs Saturday, November 5 at 1 p.m. and Sunday, November 6 at 7:30 a.m. and 12 a.m. on THIRTEEN.

Cyberchase Launches Multi-Media Math Site for 8 to 11-year-olds

October 25th, 2011

Great news for parents and teachers looking to enhance their children’s math skills. THIRTEEN has redesigned the Cyberchase website with all-new features and hundreds of videos, math games and hands-on activities in support of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning.

The online experience captures the fun and adventure of the series while strategically engaging children in standards-based math concepts across different types of media. Produced with funding from The National Science Foundation (NSF), the site will take its place as one of the largest math resources on the web for kids.

The website brings together in one place all of Cyberchase’s rich multi-media content – 94 episodes, hundreds of videos, including videos in Spanish, and 100+ math games and activities – and is a culmination of nine years’ research which demonstrates the power of Cyberchase to improve children’s problem-solving and math skills, and increase positive attitudes toward math. The site is restructured for kids, parents and educators to make their favorite experiences more thematically and mathematically linked, and easier to find.

Central to the redesign are new recommended content paths — prompts designed to keep kids moving through math experiences across a single theme. When users select their favorite Cyberchase games or episodes to play, they automatically can choose from other media selections related to the same math topic or character. With the all-new Find It! page, users can browse through content organized by popular topics such as fractions, science & engineering and geometry.

Visitors to the Cyberchase site will now discover:

  • An exciting new look and feel that immerses users in the world of Cyberchase and engages them in character- and math-driven adventures across a vast media offering
  • A Find It! section that allows users to navigate collections of content by math topic or themes like Holidays and Money
  • A video player on which kids can watch all of Cyberchase’s 94 full episodes plus hundreds of short videos
  • Videos En Español and videos with embedded games
  • A math games area that features rotating recommendations for nearly 50 interactive games, including four immersive Quests
  • An activities area that makes it easy to select fun, hands-on printables kids can do alone or with others both in and out of school

Targeted for kids 8 to 11, the redesigned Cyberchase site will also serve older and younger kids, along with parents and educators looking to bolster math learning with engaging – and entertaining – math content. It was developed and designed by Smashing Ideas, an interactive agency known for creating break-through, entertaining experiences for kids, tweens, teens and families across all screens.

Independent Lens: A Q&A with Donor Unknown Filmmaker Jerry Rothwell

October 21st, 2011

Jerry Rothwell is a documentary filmmaker whose work includes the award winning feature docs Heavy Load, about a group of people with learning disabilities who form a punk band; and Deep Water (co‐directed with Louise Osmond), about Donald Crowhurst’s ill‐fated voyage in the 1968 round the world yacht race.

Independent Lens sat down with Rothwell to learn more about how he came to make the quirky film Donor Unknown, which premieres on Sunday, October 23 at 11:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope Donor Unknown will have?

I hope it provokes audiences to think about the impact of the technology of reproduction and what this means for our sense of connection to our biological relatives and to our ideas about family.  As with many areas of science, our social understanding lags far behind what technology is making possible, so I hope the film encourages people into a more rounded understanding of donor conception — and also to recognize how sometimes those, like Jeffrey (the sperm donor in the film), who seem most outside society are its pioneers.

What led you to make this film?

We first found out about Jeffrey because Hilary Durman (who is one of the film’s producers, alongside Al Morrow of Met Film) had been in contact with him while researching a drama she had made for BBC Schools about donor conception.   I first met him in 2008 in his RV on Venice Beach.  Jeffrey’s a unique and charismatic character who’s lived a life on the fringe of society – which made what was already a fascinating story even more surprising. Through a bizarre set of coincidences, he and his children are dealing with age-old human dilemmas – where do I come from, what is my connection with the past, where are the boundaries of my family – in a uniquely modern context.  I was excited about how those questions were raised for this specific group of people, connected by a single sperm donor.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making the film?

It was hard to make a film, which demands intimacy with its subjects, from 4,000 miles away.  I’d always prefer to be more closely available and able to shoot at short notice.

A second challenge was to structure a film that has so many characters.  I like making films that have an ensemble of people at their heart, because all of us live in connection with others.  There’s a convention that films need to portray an individual struggle but that doesn’t really reflect our interdependence and the way the social world influences how we act.  I think documentaries need to evolve forms of storytelling that can cope with that. But such films still need a personal core to them, and it was hard initially to find out what that was.  We were lucky that JoEllen’s story, which takes us from her discovery of her donor siblings through to meeting Jeffrey, could become the spine of the film.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

We filmed first with Jeffery when we were in the United States for SXSW with another film. Then we started making contact with some of his children, who put us in touch with each other – and I think they got a sense we would treat the subject matter sensitively. Some of Jeffrey’s children preferred not to be in the film, and we respected that.  Others were happy to talk about their experiences, I think because they wanted to counter some of the mystique around donor conception. JoEllen, who had been the first to start looking for her donor family, still hadn’t met Jeffrey.  She was feeling it was time to do that – and was willing for us to film that process – and her search gave us a structure for the film.

What would you have liked to include that didn’t make the cut?

Perhaps more of Jeffrey’s world on Venice Beach – and more of the perspectives of the parents.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

I like the moment in the film when one of the children arrives to visit Jeffrey at the same time as he loses the pigeon he’s been looking after.  It says something to me about the chaos that’s part of any kind of family.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

It’s a film that asks a lot of questions, but one doesn’t offer the answers – so it always provokes a good discussion. A surprising number of people who’ve come to see the film are either donor conceived themselves, have donated sperm, or are contemplating IVF using a donor.  Some have said the film gave them the impetus to look for their own donor, or changed the way they thought about whether they would tell their unborn child about their donor  – so I’m glad that the film rings true for people with similar experiences.

I always share a rough cut with the main protagonists – their comments made me change a couple of things and I think everyone involved is happy with the film.

The independent film business is tough.  What keeps you motivated?

It’s difficult but incredibly satisfying and exciting.  It’s a great privilege to immerse yourself for a period in other people’s worlds and make something that explores the meaning of that world for others.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

PBS seems the natural home for a film like this.  Independent Lens is a great series it we’re very glad to be part of this season.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Spending time with my family.

What are your three favorite films?

It changes all the time, but right now In The Mood For Love, Forest of Bliss, and Little Miss Sunshine.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t hang around waiting for someone to ask you to make a film – start making films in whatever form you can.   Be prepared to change your ideas when events point you in different directions from those you expected. Ground your films in your own interpretation of what you’ve seen, and approach them with honesty: your thinking is as important as your style.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Something that leaves you hungry.

American Masters: Pearl Jam Twenty – A Q&A with the Band

October 18th, 2011

Photo courtesy of Danny Clinch

American Masters celebrates Pearl Jam’s 20th anniversary with Pearl Jam Twenty, a portrait of the band featuring never-before-seen footage and interviews, directed by Academy Award-winning director Cameron Crowe. Here, the band discusses their musical beginnings and life before Pearl Jam.

Pearl Jam Twenty airs Friday, October 21 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of American Masters.

Enter to win a Pearl Jam Twenty prize pack!

What was your first instrument? When and where did you start playing?

Jeff Ament: I took piano lessons from first to sixth grade in Big Sandy, Montana, from Mrs. Giebel. I mowed her lawn, raked leaves, and shoveled snow to help with the cost. From fifth grade through my sophomore year in high school, I played snare drum and percussion in the school band and also sang in the choir. I forgot all of this when I heard the Ramones and bought the same bass that Dee Dee played.

Matt Cameron: My first instrument was a secondhand drum set at the age of eleven. I had been banging on everything in the house since the age of three. Luckily, I had very supportive parents who were both big jazz fans.

Stone Gossard: Aside from a trumpet in third grade and some boys choir stuff in fourth (1975-ish), my first real instrument was the mandolin I got in 1980. There was a band called the Probes at my high school that were killing it and making everyone dance. They didn’t have a mandolin, so I thought maybe if I learned some tricks I could get in. It was a lot harder than I thought. I was never asked to join.

Mike McCready: My first guitar was a Matao Les Paul from my parents. It was black and cost a hundred dollars. They said I could get a guitar if I took lessons, which I did, from Mike Wilson. He was a fantastic teacher who taught me scales and Kiss songs and also made it fun, so I wanted to go back. Later I wanted to make it a gold top, so I chiseled—yes, chiseled—the top layer of the guitar off, then I spray painted it gold. Oops. It was never the same. I wish I knew where it was today.

Eddie Vedder: A beat-up ukulele. To keep the strings taut, I had to wrap the headstock in masking tape. My first instrument, in a way, was one of those little green memo pad notebooks when I was really young.  I’d write songs, putting arrows over the notes so I’d know which note was higher than the other. The ukulele thing probably happened when I was ten. My mom would go to garage sales or yard sales, clean up all the toys, and put them under the tree. I’d get a little racetrack, and a key piece of track was missing.  I think it was probably a yard sale, and they just gave the ukulele to us as an act of pity.

What was the inspiration behind why you wanted to play music?

Ament: Initially, it was Ted Nugent, Aerosmith, and Kiss, until I heard the Ramones, Devo, the Clash, and all the hardcore bands in California.  Playing music was an occupation furthest away from what I thought was possible.

Self-expression, trying to be like my heroes, girls, in that order.

Gossard: In 1981, at the urging of Steve Turner, I got a bass and then a guitar and we formed Ducky Boys with Jeff Covell and Chris Peppard. Steve told me that garage rock was the way and that you can be crappy and still have cool songs and a band. It was a revelation. He liked the most underground, noisy punk, which I didn’t really get. But he also loved Alice Cooper and even Black Sabbath. I never let go of that advice.

Well, I have to say, Kiss. I was a Cub Scout, and then Kiss came along. I remember just jumping around with a tennis racket pretending I was Paul Stanley or Ace Frehley. It also felt cool and was really fun to play in a band—probably to meet girls, too. I played my first “concert” at Jenny W.’s birthday party in 1978.

Vedder: I just loved it. I was onto a record player early, early on; one of those plastic kids’ record players that came with a single of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” If we went to visit relatives, I’d take my little plastic record player, go find a room, and sit there with my records. I probably had three. Then I started raiding my uncle’s singles collection and got into adult music fairly quickly. The crossover was “Yellow Submarine.”  I remember borrowing or perhaps stealing that single from him. He’s ten years older, so if I was five, he was fifteen, and he had some pretty cool records. He wore an army jacket. He was just cool. This was probably 1969 or 1970. He’d give me records, but then he’d go off with his buddies, and I’d take a few more. I distinctly remember my mom on the phone saying, “Do you have Hot Rocks?” And I’d go [sheepishly], “Um, yeah,” while I was cranking “Brown Sugar” or “Mother’s Little Helper.”

What are some of the earliest/most influential concerts you attended?

Ament: My first show was Styx on their Equinox tour in 1975. They played Havre, Montana, at the NMC Armory. I didn’t see another concert until I saw Van Halen in Great Falls in 1979. The most influential shows that I saw early on were X, the Clash, and the Who on my first visit to Seattle with some friends in 1982. I moved to Seattle the next year, and seeing Black Flag, the Ramones, Bad Brains, and a slew of hardcore bands at the Metropolis had the biggest influence on my musical life.

Cameron: In the mid to late seventies, I had the honor to see Queen, Kiss, Bowie, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Shelly Manne, Bobby Hutcherson, and Jaco Pastorius. I had my mind blown wide open at a very early age. I do not miss the M80s people used to bring to big rock concerts back then. It sounded like a war was breaking out between bands. I also remember a lot of kids partying way too hard the day of a big concert and ending up passed out in a pool of vomit during the show. I wanted to soak in every detail, so the idea of being too high to enjoy the concert experience made no sense to me. I guess I was an early straight-edger.

Gossard: Randy Hansen’s tribute to Jimi Hendrix in 1979, then UFO at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. My first punk show was Black Flag at Eagles Auditorium in 1982 or ’83.

McCready: The Heats at Mural Amphitheatre; Van Halen on the Van Halen II tour at the Seattle Center Arena; Cheap Trick at Hec Ed Pavilion (waited all day and skipped school); TKO at Lake Hills, the Moore Theatre, or anywhere in the early eighties; Kiss in ’79; Scorpions, Iron Maiden, Girlschool at Hec Ed Pavilion; Motörhead  at the Paramount Theatre; the Girls in 1980 opening for the Ramones; and Silly Killers at Laurelhurst Club House. I watched through the window. Probably all the Warrior and Shadow concerts set in motion what I am today.

Vedder: I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with my uncle in 1977 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. It was the first show of any kind I saw in person, I believe, unless there was one a year before. There was a little theater called La Paloma in Encinitas, California. It was the summer The Last Waltz came out. At this point, I’d had a few guitar lessons. My guitar teacher and I went to see Rick Danko play solo along with Jack Tempchin, who wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone” for the Eagles. Rick Danko pretty much played acoustic, but he sang “Stage Fright” to a tape.  Then, all the bands I wanted to see weren’t playing all-ages. So I had to get a fake ID to get into punk shows. I remember getting into an X show and it being a really big deal. I got right into the front, and Exene Cervanka handed me a Miller Lite to hold in between songs. I just had this feeling that it wasn’t mine to drink; it was mine to hold while she played. I also saw the Pretenders at Golden Hall in San Diego. There was no barricade, and no monitor between me and Chrissie Hynde. People are pushing and shoving. I got pushed forward and my hand landed on Chrissie Hynde’s left boot. She immediately flicked it off. I thought it was so fucking awesome. I saw Sonic Youth on the Daydream Nation tour. I didn’t know if it was the greatest thing ever or if they were disrespecting us. [Laughs] By the next morning, I knew I had been changed.

What are some of the best memories you have from playing early shows with your first bands?

Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament in Studio Litho, 2010. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Shuss)

Ament: Getting to play through a real PA was always a big thrill. Hüsker Dü giving us a joint and twenty dollars for opening up for them when the promoter screwed us. Mostly just trying to impress your friends. Hell, that’s still how it is.

Cameron: Playing my high school graduation party in 1980 with the band Faultline at Fiesta Island in San Diego. We brought a generator, parked two vans in a V behind us, and started rocking. Our classmates (mostly from the smoking section) were rocking out and loving every moment. Two songs into our set, the cops showed up and asked for our permit. Oops. Not a great start to the summer of 1980. My first Soundgarden show in 1986 at the Ditto Tavern was a baptism by fire. I had joined the group one week prior to the gig and I wanted to impress. The drummer I had replaced, Scott Sundquist, was in the front row critiquing my every move. I remember him saying from the front of the stage, “Kick drum too loud!” “Too fast!” et cetera. Opening for Love and Rockets in 1986 was a big Soundgarden moment for me. We had never played a show in a theater before, just local bars and such, so we were a little nervous. Our opening song, “Entering,” sounded a lot like “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” from their previous band Bauhaus. Both songs have a very similar drum intro, so when I got the cue, I laid into the beat, and I remember the first two rows looking at each other with mild confusion. Once Hiro Yamamoto and Kim Thayil hit the first gnarly guitar notes, there was no more confusion. It was the first big stage the band had played on—the Moore Theatre in Seattle—and after the show, I realized we had a sound that could fill any size venue, and we could hold our own with anyone.

Gossard: It’s fun now, but it used to scare me. I was nervous. But once we started getting drunk, it got better. More lose-your-mind rock ‘n’ roll.

McCready: Wow. Let’s see.  Jenny W.’s birthday party in 1978. Warrior played a few originals. In 1979, Warrior at the Eckstein Junior High talent show. Big controversy over Danny Newcomb playing “The Star Spangled Banner” with his teeth. He did it when told he couldn’t. Right on, Danny! In 1979, a Warrior concert for Symphony Fundathon under the Monorail. I had a completely homemade tie-dye outfit. I’m sure the symphony hated us.  The second Headbangers Ball with Shadow, Metal Church, and TKO. We got booed off the stage. Also, Jeff Ament came over after our singer, Rob Webber, invited him to the show. Guess who was doing a guitar solo, finger tapping his Kramer Pacer as he walked in? I gave Jeff a picture of that last year. Who knew that we would later be rockin’ side by side seven-hundred plus shows later?  December 1986, Shadow’s first show at the Roxy in L.A. It only cost us seven hundred dollars to get on the bill! At least Tim Dijulio, Duff McKagan, Lauren, and about two other people were there at midnight on a Sunday. Shadow played at Fender’s, opening for Andy Taylor of Duran Duran in 1987. I met Rod Stewart there. Our final L.A. show was at Club Lingerie in 1987. I became a lead guitar player in those lean L.A. years—eating Top Ramen and payin’ those dues.

Vedder: My sophomore year of high school, I played with a friend from class who knew so-and-so, who worked at a grocery store, who had a practice space in his garage and a nice amp. But he was really into the Eagles, and the keyboard player was into Styx, and the bass player was into the Cars, and himself. The drummer was in the school band. And then I’m into the Who, piL, and Springsteen. It sounded like shit. Everybody would get their one or two songs to sing. You’d play at parties and pretty much just suck. As bad as the group was, the part of the night that the rest of the guys disliked most was when I got to sing. In the end, which shows how bad it was, they were like, “Uh, I think we’re going to break up the band.” And within a week, another guy with a better guitar and better amp had taken my place.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell: A Q&A with Filmmakers Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker

October 17th, 2011

Executive Producers of 'Women, War and Peace,' Abigail E. Disney, Gini Reticker and Pamela Hogan (Photo courtesy of Andy Fredericks)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Abigail E. Disney and Gini Reticker, the filmmakers behind Pray the Devil Back to Hell, which tells the groundbreaking story of the Liberian women who took on the warlords and the regime of dictator Charles Taylor in the midst of a brutal civil war, and won a once unimaginable peace for their shattered country in 2003.

Here, Disney and Reticker discuss their inspiration for the film, and the challenges they faced in acquiring footage.

Pray the Devil Back to Hell premieres as part of Women, War and Peace on October 18 at 10 p.m.

Ms. Disney and Ms. Reticker answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make Pray the Devil Back to Hell?

Gini Reticker: I have always been interested in women’s stories and have produced and directed docs on women around the world, including Africa. So when Abigail Disney, the producer of Pray the Devil Back to Hell, told me that she had met some Liberian women with an amazing and inspiring David and Goliath story, I wasn’t sure I believed her. I couldn’t believe the amazing true story of how a simple, interfaith, nonviolent protest movement—women in white T-shirts—had broken down a brutal war machine that had seemed permanently entrenched in Liberia. Surely, if it were true, someone would have reported it and all that was in the press were reports of the overwhelming atrocities committed against women in Liberia. Then we met Leymah Gbowee and I knew that this was a story that had to be told.

Abigail E. Disney: I was very interested in Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf because she was elected as the first female head of state in Africa since Cleopatra. While this may be an overstatement, it nevertheless grabbed my attention because I know from my experience working with women that an election such as this doesn’t come from nowhere. There had to have been some groundwork laid for such an historic event to have occurred. So my interest was already piqued when a friend, Swanee Hunt, who ran the Women & Public Policy program at the Kennedy School at Harvard, asked me to go with her to Liberia to see if there was anything we could do to support Ellen’s presidency. During our trip, I heard the story of women’s involvement in the peace process that ended Liberia’s civil war. I heard it repeatedly and was struck by the fact that I hadn’t heard this story in the news. It was historic, epic and courageous, yet no one outside of Liberia knew it. And what was worse was that it was clearly on its way to being forgotten. It was an oral story that wasn’t written anywhere. While the women were telling it amongst themselves, I was concerned that the process of erasure was setting in. I went home from the trip with the sense that it might be possible to pull this important story back from the edge and the feeling that we had to choose to prevent this erasure from occurring, and beyond that, to lift up the example of these women and show the world what they’d done.

IT: Was there any resistance to allowing the events surrounding the peace talks in Accra be filmed?

GR: We were not filming during this time. All of the footage from this event is archival footage.

IT: What was the hardest part of making this film?

GR: The most difficult part making this film was finding footage of the women’s actions. Though hours and hours of footage exists that captures child soldiers, horrible brutality and battle scenes, there was virtually no footage of the women’s involvement fighting for peace. I knew that if we didn’t find the footage to back up their story—which I had pieced together from hours of interviews with over 20 women—it would be as if what they did had never happened. Their story would disappear from its rightful place in history. So we kept searching, turning over ever stone imaginable, eventually getting some of the key footage from Charles Taylor’s own videographer.

AD: We didn’t understand at the time we started how much we would have to rely on archival footage, so the lack of footage didn’t daunt us at the beginning. We didn’t really understand until we were deep into production just how hard it was going to be to find the archival footage we needed. In fact, a pivotal moment in the film, when Leymah Gbowee threatens to strip naked, was footage we couldn’t find until the last three weeks of the editing process. It was like our Moby Dick. We just couldn’t find it!

Women work in informal networks: a friend of a friend said, “I hear you’re looking for this. I think you should try this guy.” It turned out that this man had been the presidential videographer in Liberia since 1978. He had been there for the original coup, the assassination of everybody in the ministries, and the mortar attacks on the presidential palace. In an effort to cut costs, President Sirleaf had eliminated the position of presidential videographer but he had kept everything in boxes spread around in safe houses because he understood how inflammatory it was; it was dangerous to have, and he had everything.

IT: How has the women’s peace movement changed the way women are viewed and treated in Liberian society? Can the fact that a female president was elected following the war be attributed to their success?

Liberian women demonstrate at the American Embassy in Monrovia at the height of the civil war, 2003 (Photo courtesy of Pewee Flomoku)

GR: There are more girls enrolling in school, running for class office; more women going to night school to learn to read; more women participating in the electoral process; more women in government. As Leymah Gbowee says at the end of the film, “There’s no way that the history of Madam Sirleaf can be written without the history of the women’s peace work. It was the cake, and then her election was the icing.”

IT: What message do you hope viewers will take from the film?

GR: I hope viewers take away a sense of hope and inspiration that can apply to their own lives. If these women from Liberia, who are not really very different than any of us, can face the odds they did and still do what they did, any of us can do the same. It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating: you can never underestimate the power of a small group of determined people to change the course of history!

AD: I hope that viewers will take away with them the sense that the women of Liberia, when faced with the terrible trauma of war, were not simply victims but were propelled to be leaders and peacemakers. A lot of people who watch the film, both men and women, have a tendency to personalize it in a way that really surprised and incredibly pleased me. People have embraced the film and feel a certain relief at finding somebody for whom they can genuinely use the word “hero.”

Wham Bam Islam! A Q&A with Director Isaac Solotaroff

October 12th, 2011

Isaac Solotaroff shoots footage for his film in Indonesia. (Photo courtesy of Independent Lens)

Independent Lens caught up with Isaac Solotaroff, the filmmaker behind Wham Bam Islam!, a film about a Kuwaiti entrepreneur trying to launch a comic book series in the Middle East featuring heroes who embody the 99 virtues of Allah.  Solotaroff took a parallel journey in creating his documentary, and in the end won the trust of his subjects and survived a grueling shoot.

Wham Bam Islam! airs Sunday, October 16 at 11 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope Wham Bam Islam! will have?

I hope the film surprises and challenges some preconceptions. I was drawn to Naif as a protagonist because he is such an iconoclast — the son of a conservative Kuwaiti family who could easily be mistaken for a fast-talking New Yorker. He can go toe to toe on points of Muslim theology in Arabic and then get weepy talking about the impact of John Lennon on his life. Hopefully, there are plenty of other moments and characters who leave Western audiences slack-jawed. My personal favorite is a university student who wears the burqa and compares Naif to William Butler Yeats. I think as the Arab Spring showed us, young people in the Middle East have spent a lot more time discovering what we have in common than their counterparts in this part of the world have done.

What led you to make this film?

When I was researching this project, it became clear that Muslim societies across the world were at a fascinating crossroads. There were the forces of fundamentalism that wanted to anchor the culture to Qur’anic strictures and modernists who wanted to find a way for Islam to integrate with the rest of the world.

Naif al-Muftada talks about 'THE 99' in Dubai at his TED Talk. (Photo courtesy of Independent Lens)

I was fascinated to see what would happen to someone like Naif who was so demonstrably planting his flag on the side of those who want to push Muslim societies into the 21st century. Beyond that he was doing it in a way that could be seen as highly provocative — a children’s entertainment property based on Western-styled superheroes with powers that are borrowed from Allah’s 99 names! — I figured that was likely to stir up the hornets’ nest.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making Wham Bam Islam!?

The biggest challenge was maintaining a degree of objectivity in both fundraising and editing the film. In both cases, the documentary’s subject matter required a fair amount of explanation and cultural translation. Once I cleared that hurdle, I had to get people (whether funders or an audience) to care about the protagonist and his mission.

In the process, it was easy to come across as sycophant or a pitchman for Naif and his company which at the end of the day is both a social venture and a for-profit business. I hope I was able to tell the story which does some justice to both the successes and failures of THE 99 and its creator.

How did you gain the trust of the Naif and others in the film?

I’m not sure I fully had Naif’s trust, until my second production trip which was to film him launching THE 99 in Indonesia. It was an unbelievably taxing week for both of us — I was working 20 hour days with a local crew who didn’t speak English, in sweltering tropical heat. Naif was booked every day with school visits, book signings and media appearances which included interviews/interrogations with hard-line Islamists. And it was Ramadan! No food from sun up to sundown. It was the crucible of our working relationship and we were able to distract each other from our growling stomachs with a lot of shared laughs.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

Naif was sent by his parents, unknowingly, from Kuwait to a predominantly Jewish summer camp in New Hampshire when he was 7. This is the place where Naif first discovered comic books and also first learned that there are more things that unite us than divide us. He not only didn’t tell his parents it was a Jewish summer camp when he came back but insisted on going back every year for the next 10 years and now sends his children there as well.

I filmed at the camp with Naif when he went back for a reunion and we even developed some animation scenes with awesome renderings of Naif as a pre-adolescent in the early 1980s to go along with the camp footage but unfortunately we couldn’t squeeze it into the allotted PBS time.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

Without giving too much away, there is a point in the film when things are really going badly for Naif and THE 99. After a lot of early success and recognition, I think it shook Naif’s confidence and tested his mettle in an unexpected way. It also made him more reflective about the journey and the personal and emotional stakes for him.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?

A rendering of the official who banned "The 99" in Saudi Arabia. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Diaz)

Motivation has nothing to do with it. It’s a dependency. With every project comes multiple vows that this is the last time. Then towards the end of the project, I get an idea for a new documentary — a story that’s too good to pass up — and I swear that it’s going to be different this time. This process has repeated itself about five times now.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

Started about three or four other films that other people went on to do with great success.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Find a mentor who you respect and needs help. Leverage your ability to work for very little money and work very hard to make yourself absolutely essential to this person. It’s the best way to learn the process of filmmaking and likely disavow yourself of the romance of filmmaking.

Nature Wins Grand Teton Award at Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival

October 12th, 2011

Nature has been awarded a Grand Teton Award for Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey, presented at the 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Festival at Grand Teton Park on Thursday, October 6, 2011.  This is Nature’s first time receiving the Festival’s top prize, considered one of the wildlife industry’s highest honors.

In total, Nature received six of 22 awards at the Festival. Two of the winning films will premiere this fall on THIRTEEN, including the season opener Radioactive Wolves and My Life as a Turkey.

Launched in 1991, the Jackson Hole Wildlife Festival‘s biennial conference is an unmatched international industry event drawing over 650 international leaders in science,conservation, broadcasting and media.  Internationally renowned as one of the largest and most prestigious competitions of the nature genre, this year’s competition included 510 films from more than 30 countries.

Nature’s six 2011 Jackson Hole Wildlife Festival awards include:

Broken Tail: A Tiger’s Last Journey (Premiere date: February 20, 2011)
Crossing the Line Films and Nature for WNET New York Public Media.
Produced in association with RTÉ, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, SWR, ZDF, Arte and
ZDF Enterprises.
• Best of Festival “Grand Teton Award”
• Best Hosted or Presenter-Led Program
• Best Conservation Program

Elsa’s Legacy: The Born Free Story
(Premiere date: January 9, 2011)
Brian Leith Productions, BBC and Nature for WNET New York Public Media
• Conservation Hero Award (for Virginia McKenna)

Radioactive Wolves (Premiere date: October 19, 2011)
EPO Film for ORF/Universum, NDR and Nature for WNET New York Public Media
• Best Wildlife Habitat Program

My Life as a Turkey (Premiere date: November 16, 2011)
Passion Pictures, Nature for WNET New York Public Media and BBC
• Best Writing (for Joe Hutto & David Allen)

Watch a preview of what’s coping up on Nature’s 30th season:

Great Lakes Week Comes to Public Television

October 12th, 2011

For the first time in history, the four leading government and private organizations overseeing management of the Great Lakes are meeting in Detroit simultaneously.  Detroit Public Television is providing public access to those discussions with Greak Lakes Now, allowing all affected states, including New York, to be involved in the conference.

Great Lakes Week will take place in Detroit from October 11th to the 14th, and includes simultaneous conferences from the International Joint Commission, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Great Lakes Commission, Healing Our Waters/Great Lakes Coalition, and the EPA’s Areas of Concern annual meeting.

The event marks the largest gathering of scientists, political voices, educators, environmentalists, and interested groups ever assembled to discuss the status and the future of the Great Lakes.

Coverage highlights include:

•    Keynote speakers: Former Vice President Al Gore, U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson

•    Great Lakes Town Hall: Wednesday afternoon, with live online audience participation 
(Special Hashtag: #askGLW)

•    Speakers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Washington, Toronto, Windsor, Ottawa, Ontario, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia

•    Key Issues: Health of the Great Lakes, chemicals of concern, successful restoration efforts, economic and employment opportunities of the Great Lakes, invasive species, water quality, stormwater and wastewater issues, infrastructure issues, and algae bloom.

Live Programming Schedule (EST)
C-Span style coverage of conference sessions, interviews with experts and scientists.

•    Wednesday, October 12:  12N-6PM

•    Thursday, October 13:  8:30AM-5PM

•    Friday, October 14:  8AM-4PM

Watch live coverage here:

Tavis Smiley: The Poverty Tour Preview

October 7th, 2011

Photo courtesy of Earl Gibson III/Tavis Smiley

Next week (October 10-14), Tavis Smiley will be featuring highlights from his August 2011 poverty bus tour with his co-host on PRI’s Smiley & West radio show, Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West.

Crossing 18 cities in nine states, Smiley spoke with Americans about their struggles in today’s harsh economy. Smiley will also interview leading anti-poverty advocates, including: Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West, Feeding America CEO Vicki B. Escarra, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, economist Jeffrey Sachs and ethics and religion commentator Jim Wallis.

Tavis Smiley airs weeknights at midnight on THIRTEEN.

Get a closer look at The Poverty Tour, with featured stories, videos, and a slideshow.

Watch a preview:

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