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Excerpts from 'American Masters – Woody Allen: A Documentary'

November 17th, 2011

Photo by Brian Hamill, courtesy of MGM

In American Masters’ upcoming documentary on Woody Allen, the film legend allows his life and creative process to be documented on-camera for the first time. The two-part film follows Allen’s career,  spanning over 40 years, and tracks his story from his childhood and first professional gigs as a teen to his most recent box office hit, Midnight in Paris.

Check out Woody Allen’s “My New York” feature on MetroFocus.

Join THIRTEEN for a look at some of the most memorable New York moments in Allen’s films.

American Masters — Woody Allen: A Documentary airs Sunday, November 20 and Monday, November 21 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Get a closer look at the film with these excerpts:

When Woody Met Diane: See what happened when Woody Allen first met Diane Keaton and learn what they both first thought of each other.

Woody Allen at Taminent: Woody Allen describes how he began writing comedy sketches at the Tamiment, a Poconos resort.

Woody’s Improv – The Punatorium: Dick Cavett recalls Woody Allen’s legendary improvisation skills.

Elusive Justice: A Q&A with Filmmaker Jonathan Silvers

November 14th, 2011

Jonathan Silvers (Saybrook Productions)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Jonathan Silvers, the filmmaker behind Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals. The film investigates the global search for the 20th Century’s greatest criminals — fugitive Nazis — and the determined individuals who sought to bring them to justice.

Here, Silvers discusses his inspiration for the film and the motives of the so-called Nazi hunters featured in the documentary.

Elusive Justice: The Search for Nazi War Criminals airs Tuesday, November 15 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Inside Thirteen: What inspired you to make this film?

Jonathan Silvers: Back in the late 80s and throughout the 90s, I covered a succession of wars, atrocities, and genocides.  Anyone who observes conflict is obviously going to be sympathetic toward the victims and survivors.  But I also became increasingly curious about the perpetrators, their psyche, their methods, and their objectives.  In the aftermath of these conflicts, the majority of perpetrators not only went unpunished; they were absorbed back into the societies they had devastated.  I saw this time and again — in Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Kosovo, Congo.  In most cases, the number of those brought to justice was a fraction of those who participated in unspeakable crimes.

In 1997, I was working for ABC in New York when I got a call from a friend who’d been my fixer during the Balkan wars.  He was then based in Vienna and had heard a rumor that a basement vault of a psychiatric hospital contained human remains dating back to World War II.  On the strength of this tip, I flew over with a cameraman to Vienna and we broke into the basement vault.  Inside we found several hundred human brains.  They were the brains of disabled or handicapped children who’d been murdered during World War Two as part of the Nazi euthanasia program.  These brains had been used for research during the intervening 50 years by the hospital director, Heinrich Gross, who during the War had been a Nazi doctor and had ordered these children murdered.  After we breached his vault, Dr. Gross disappeared, and we spent a week trying to track him down.  We’d been staking out his daughter’s house and just as we were about to give up, he appeared.  We ran out of our vehicle with our cameras rolling, and Dr. Gross stood there, shaking in his boots, speaking to us on camera for a half hour.  Our story aired on Nightline and BBC, and we exposed this great, unknown atrocity and this criminal who had been living not only freely, but had risen to the very highest levels of the medical profession in his native Austria.  The exposé forced the Austrian prosecutors’ hands.  The international outcry led to the first Nazi-era trial in 30 odd years in Austria.

So these experiences – the war reporting and exposing the Nazi doctor – started me thinking about the legions who’d participated in the Holocaust but had gone unpunished. And I started researching the post-war lives of the worst of the Nazi perpetrators, which was a revelation, because the vast majority of them went on to lead normal, prosperous lives.   And then it struck me that the only people who tried to hold accountable these enemies of humanity were the so-called Nazi hunters, the individual men and women who believed that enemies of humanity must be punished – if humanity itself is to survive.   In the aftermath of no other war that I can recall do you have individuals relentlessly, obsessively pursuing justice on a mass scale.

I officially launched this film in 2008 because I recognized an urgency: the generation of Nazi perpetrators was dying off.  So was the generation of Nazi hunters, and I thought that the lessons they offered were appropriate for the 21st Century, in which we unfortunately still have these kinds of atrocities, maybe not to the same scale but with similar intent.

IT: What do you think was the primary motivator for the men and women who tracked down the Nazi fugitives — a personal connection, or something larger than that, a desire for justice?

JS: So many different motives. I think all of them had a personal connection. In many cases, the connection was the loss of family, or they had experienced the Nazi atrocities themselves.   The motives are as varied as the hunters.  Most of them cling to higher principles, and to the law, which says that murder, mass murder, must be punished.  How often, in post-war environments, do you hear people talk about that? Almost never.  A few that I met were motivated by vengeance.  They were so affected by what they had lived through or had lost that vengeance was a simple and obsessive motive.  A couple didn’t even attempt to sugarcoat, they just said explicitly that it was about vengeance.

As a journalist, I have to be objective, but as a human being, I think vengeance can have very dangerous consequences.  The film opens with a segment on Jewish avengers, who lost their families and survived and decided that they were going to take it upon themselves to revenge themselves not on the Nazis, the troops who pulled the trigger, but on the German people as a whole. It’s a horrible thing to consider, especially as not all the Germans were guilty.  But to these avengers, there was no doubt that the Germans were guilty, because it was the German nation that had committed this crime.  I deliberately start with them because that was the rawest expression of justice, but I also like the ambiguity – what is justice? What do we mean by justice, and how can we ever have justice for crimes on such a scale?

IT: In the film, journalist Peter Finkelgruen says, “Politics and society didn’t want these trials, and when they could avoid it, they did avoid it.” Why was this the case?

JS: It comes down to this: no nation wants to prosecute its own people for crimes against humanity, especially when those crimes were state policy.  What child would prosecute his own parents?  If you look at the broader issue, tracking down and prosecuting war criminals is enormously expensive, time consuming, and exhausting.  Who has the money and the strength to do this?  I’ve never seen it done with any measure of success, whatever that may be.  So when Peter says politics didn’t want these trials, he’s absolutely right. Nobody wants to look in the mirror if the reflection is ugly.  And much as I believe in higher principles and punishing war criminals, in this era of economic uncertainty the question arises: can we countenance spending limited resources on prosecuting octogenarians?  Maybe if I’d survived the Holocaust I would say absolutely, go after them until their last breath.  But, pragmatically, as a nation, do we want to take on that enormous effort?  It’s a very confusing question.

IT: What was the experience like confronting Dr. Heinrich Gross, who murdered children at the Spiegelgrund clinic?

JS: It was amazing, because we had a sense when we were talking to him that he knew the jig was up – and that he’d been fearing this moment for fifty years.  Incidentally, I start the film with a similar scene of exposure, filmed in the early 1970s by a cameraman name Harry Dreifuss.  He’d been working with Serge and Beate Klarsfeld to expose Nazi criminals living openly in West Germany, and he found a guy name Kurt Lischka.  Lischka had been an SS Colonel and Gestapo chief during the war, and had sent tens of thousands of Jews to the concentration camps.  In the 1970s, when Dreifuss found him, he was a successful businessman and judge in his hometown of Cologne.  But the frame of him walking along a rain swept street when he suddenly realizes he’s being filmed is momentous.  There he is, in black and white, raising his briefcase to conceal his face and fleeing.   It’s obvious that he feared this moment, feared exposure, every day and that his worst fears were about to come true.

IT: Was there anything you were surprised to learn while making Elusive Justice?

Personnel records of fugitive Nazi criminals. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Silvers/Saybrook Productions)

JS: I think the psychology of the Nazi hunters and their single-minded pursuit and determination – to do this for decades and decades and decades…in one sense it’s amazing and honorable, and in another, it’s an indication of how damaged they were that they wouldn’t let go of this. But, if their psychological damage led to the prosecution of mass murderers, who’s to say they were wrong? What’s also interesting is that you don’t see a lot of people who do this who weren’t directly affected, but occasionally you do. At the U.S. Justice Department, you have Eli Rosenbaum, who is probably the most determined investigator out there now, in an official capacity, and what he’s up against – he says, “we’re racing against the grim reaper,” but he’s also racing against political apathy around the world.

Over the decades the intent or methods of the Nazi hunters got larded in myth.  Most people, when hear the words Nazi hunter, envision guys in trench coats walking down dark alleys looking for sinister characters. And they think probably of Simon Wiesenthal and a couple of iconic cases. I don’t think they understood what individual investigators and prosecutors actually did.   So, in a sense I wanted to clarify or debunk the myth, and introduce viewers to people they might not have heard of, to bring them closer to the truth.

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

JS: I don’t want to be too strident, but I think the line that concludes the film’s introduction is key: enemies of humanity must be pursued if humanity is to survive. I really believe that. You can’t have a functioning society with killers at large.

Independent Lens: A Q&A with Director Judy Lieff

November 4th, 2011

Director Judy Lieff

Independent Lens caught up with director Judy Lieff, whose film Deaf Jam premieres this Sunday at 11 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Lieff offers some perspective on the challenges she faced making the film, plus some updates on what the people portrayed in the film have been up to since shooting wrapped.

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 that this program will inspire and empower deaf youth and contribute to expanding social images of the deaf community. I also hope that the film will inspire anyone interested in poetry and literature to explore ASL poetry.

What led you to make this film?

While working as a visiting artist teaching video production to deaf high school students, I was introduced to the hidden practices of ASL poetry. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to attend a youth poetry slam, and it occurred to me that it would be fantastic to see deaf teens involved in this exploding movement. My research revealed that few, if any, deaf teens had ever been involved in the slam scene. Also, during my research, I met Liz Wolter, an ASL literature teacher at Lexington School for the Deaf who had been teaching single semester ASL poetry electives and video poetry projects with guest poets including poet guru, Bob Holman. Things just jettisoned from there, and I teamed up with City Lore, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of America’s living cultural heritage, to produce the documentary and raise funds to assist Liz in extending her electives to a full year.

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

The issue of translation both for the dialogue and the poetry was the most challenging. ASL poetry is a totally different modality from written poetry. Many of the techniques involve spatial relationships as well as images and transitions that are visual and lose their power when translating into a written or spoken form. I chose to utilize animated graphics to approximate the translation. Regarding the dialogue — I had to shoot with two cameras most of the time in order to catch all the dialogue plus have an interpreter paired up with each camera operator so they knew what was being expressed. It was difficult keeping the sound of the interpreter off of the boom microphone even with if they were wearing a wireless mic. Given that we were shooting handheld and the nature of translating ASL, we did not have the option of putting the interpreter in another room with a monitor feed from the cameras. In some shooting situations, I had to lose the voice of the interpreter and translate the scene in post-production. In the end, I still had to transcribe all of the footage in post to get a more accurate read. In group situations it was impossible for interpreters to get all that was being said in the moment.

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

Prior to starting the project, I had been teaching video to deaf students and had established relationships with some of the poetry mentors through various other small projects. So, I had a rudimentary understanding of ASL and was able to communicate on a basic level with the students. When I started working on Deaf Jam, I made a point to always have a camera with me and attend all of the workshops even though I knew I wasn’t going to use all the footage. The consistency of filming allowed the students to become quite comfortable being filmed. I also utilized my dance background and gave the students warm-up exercises which let me step away from “production mode” and gave the characters a chance to get to know a bit more about me. My dance background and comfort in communicating through gesture and motion augmented my signing skills.

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

For the theatrical version of the film there were several fun scenes with Peter Cook that exhibited the cinematic concepts involved in ASL poetry that I wish I could have kept. However, I eventually decided that those scenes would be best included in the DVD extras or educational version of the film as they directly pertain to “how to make an ASL poem” and not the main character’s trajectory. For the broadcast version of the film, there were two scenes in particular that I would have liked to keep. One scene involves an isolated shot of one of Aneta’s classmates, Wanda, working on her first poem. The scene showcases the beauty of ASL poetry quite well and Wanda’s personality really comes through in the poetry. The other scene I would have liked to keep was a controversial discussion among the teachers in the famous Katz’s Deli about the future of ASL. In both instances, I had to ultimately remove them from the television version because they did not directly relate to Aneta’s story.

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

There is a graduation party for Aneta’s classmates in the middle of the film that is shot by the students. In the scene Aneta, expresses her concerns about being left alone while all her friends go off to college. For deaf students, school life becomes your second family. Aneta and her peers had been attending Lexington since they were children. So the impact of separation for Aneta is profound.

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

So far, people who have seen the film have fallen in love with Aneta and want to meet her. Also, many hearing folks who have seen the film have asked where they can take ASL classes. During the edit process, I consulted with Aneta on the translation of some of the scenes particularly her poetry scenes and the scenes with Shiran where the two are signing in Israeli sign language. Five of the characters in the film have seen the final version. I held a screening for Aneta’s family and friends and to my relief they were thrilled! Peter Cook, Dirksen Bauman, and Liz Wolter — three prominent subjects in the film and experts on ASL poetry applauded the results. Dirksen has been key to my outreach developments for the film with Gallaudet University.

What has happened with the people in the film since you finished it?

Aneta Brodski and Tahani Salah (Photo courtesy of Melissa Donovan)

Aneta Brodski – After graduating from Lexington, Aneta took a year off from school before enrolling part time at John Jay College and studying International Criminal Justice. While attending college, Aneta worked as a volunteer and activist for the organization Global Deaf Women. She is currently teaching American Sign Language in New York City in order to continue her education. This summer she was asked to create a poem for Cisco’s online technology news site and Summer Poetry Series.

Tahani Salah – Tahani graduated from Columbia University. She is currently serving as a youth outreach coordinator and member of the Word Wide Youth Leadership Board with Urban Word NYC. She is also a member of the Nuyorican Slam Team and author of the forthcoming book Respect The Mic. Tahani has been featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jams.

Shiran Zhavian – Shiran graduated from Gallaudet University with a BS degree in chemistry. She was crowned Miss Deaf New York for 2009-2011 by the ESAD (Empire State Association of the Deaf). Currently, Shiran is in graduate school studying to be a pharmacist.

Liz Wolter – Liz continues to teach English and ASL literature at Lexington School for the Deaf. She is a contributor to the book Signing the Body Poetics.

Peter Cook – Peter is a full-time professor in ASL–English Interpretation at Columbia College in Chicago and is earning his Masters degree. He continues to travel internationally performing ASL poetry and stories.

Manny Hernandez – Manny lives in Washington D.C. with his wife and daughters. He travels internationally performing ASL stories and is on faculty at the Catholic University of America teaching ASL and is an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University.

Terrylene Sacchetti – Terrylene has founded a company called Clerc’s Children, Inc. It is a web-based dual language development curriculum and service for deaf and hard-of-hearing infants and toddlers.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

I’m inspired by the burgeoning film scene both online and in traditional settings. Seeing films and other works of art along with the act of creating new projects keeps me motivated. I also try to incorporate some form of creativity into every day even if it only involves a domestic chore.

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

From the beginning, I thought that Public Television would be the ideal venue for Deaf Jam. The mission statement for public television calls for films that reflect underrepresented communities and express points of view seldom explored in popular media, and Deaf Jam satisfies this vision.

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

What I did get done was become a parent during the making of Deaf Jam. But, between the making of the film and parenting I didn’t get anything else done.

What are your three favorite films?

This is a particularly tough question — I don’t really have favorites per se of any category – food, color, etc. My interests fluctuate according to circumstances. What I list today will most likely change tomorrow – but here goes:

The Great Dictator by Chaplin, Amarcord by Fellini, The Fog of War by Errol Morris

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Follow your instincts and your dreams. Stay focused and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

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

I would say that the most inspirational and metaphorical food for me would be – the preparation (not necessarily the consumption) of a dinner consisting of wild mushroom risotto accompanied by a full bodied dry red wine, a green salad comprised of local produce, and a sorbet with fresh fruit for dessert. I chose the risotto because the recipe I have is labor intensive but the results are delicious. I chose the salad because I think salads are fun to create. The sorbet clears your palate at the close of a meal and prepares you for the next consumption.

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.
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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.

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.

Leymah Gbowee of Women, War & Peace Awarded Nobel Peace Prize

October 6th, 2011

Leymah Gbowee

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in London today to Leymah Gbowee and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (the first woman to be elected president in modern Africa).

Gbowee and President Johnson Sirleaf are both featured in Women, War & Peace, a five-part series that examines the dangers women face in today’s modern war zones. Their bold story is told in “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” which explores how a group of Liberian women took on warlords and a dictator to bring peace to their war-torn country. The film airs next week on October 18. Gbowee is also featured in the final chapter of the series, “War Redefined” (airing November 8). In this week’s program, Bosnian women bravely testifiy against the Serb soldiers who imprisoned and raped them.

Women, War & Peace airs Tuesdays beginning October 11 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch Leymah Gbowee on Tavis Smiley, where she discusses the importance of and challenges faced by women in politics and the significance of the nation’s first woman president:

Pedro Ruiz: Coming Home Preview

September 27th, 2011

Cuban American choreographer Pedro Ruiz (Photo courtesy of Alex Lowther)

In Pedro Ruiz: Coming Home, acclaimed choreographer Pedro Ruiz returns to his native Cuba for a collaboration with Cuba’s premiere modern dance troupe, Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, to create a dance about Cuba, after receiving special permission from both the U.S. and Cuban governments.

As much a personal journey as a professional one, Ruiz visits his hometown, Santa Clara, for the first time in 30 years, and is reunited with his godfather and his childhood best friend. Likewise, when the dancers come to New York City for their first-ever trip to the United States, they express their feelings about a country most thought they would never have the chance to see.

The program is part of Cantos Latinos, THIRTEEN’s special Hispanic Heritage Month programming block dedicated to the contributions and unique stories of Latinos.

Pedro Ruiz: Coming Home premieres Thursday, September 29 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch a preview:

Go behind the scenes of Pedro Ruiz: Coming Home in an interview with director Julie Cohen.

From the stage to the street, watch dance excerpts from the film.

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