Posts Tagged 'filmmaker'

Documentary festival rolling in Thessaloniki

By Harry van Versendaal

Dancer-turned-filmmaker Bess Kargman’s award-winning “First Position,” a documentary about the toughness of mind and body demanded of young classical ballet dancers, will open this year’s 10-day Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF), which gets under way on March 15.

The film follows a handful of boys and girls from various parts of the world as they train for the Youth America Grand Prix in New York City, a competition that could determine their future in the ballet world. The documentary has picked up numerous accolades, including a Jury Prize at the San Francisco DocFest and audience awards at DOC NYC and the Portland International Film Festival.

Now in its 15th year, the TDF has drawn a big following of movie buffs and filmmakers who make the annual trip to the northern port city for the rich crop of hard-hitting productions and interesting side events.

“Its success is not just measured by the high numbers of people who flock to its theaters every year,” said Konstantinos Aivaliotis, a visual anthropology expert who is currently doing research on the festival.

“The festival is really talked about abroad, ranking in the top five – if not top three – on the European doc fest circuit,” he said.

Despite the financial difficulties, organizers have managed to bring together about 200 films from 45 countries, as well as 58 local productions.

Alongside “First Position,” festival highlights include Kirby Dick’s Oscar-nominated film “The Invisible War,” a shocking account of rape and sexual assault in the US military. Based on more than 100 interviews, the Arizona-born director exposes the systemic cover-up of sexual crimes and the everyday struggle of victims – mostly women but also men – to rebuild their lives and find justice.

In his Sundance winner “Blood Brother,” Pittsburg director Steve Hoover travels to southern India to document his longtime friend’s mission to help children living with HIV and AIDS. The film won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience award for American documentaries at what is the largest independent film festival in the US.

Dutch John Appel’s “Wrong Time, Wrong Place,” billed as a film about “how small, seemingly trivial events can upset the fine balance between life and death,” features discussions with five people who were caught up in the 2011 bomb attack in Oslo and the ensuing shooting spree on the island of Utoya where Norwegian far-right activist Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people and wounded 242.

In “Forbidden Voices,” Swiss director Barbara Miller documents the lives of dissident bloggers in Cuba, China and Iran who use their laptops to fight for free speech and press freedom.

The organizers have also prepared a tribute to Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman, maker of the classic 260-minute trilogy “The Battle of Chile,” which chronicles the atrocities of the Pinochet regime. The 71-year-old director, who won five-star reviews for his 2010 philosophical cine-essay on history and memory, “Nostalgia for the Light,” has been booked for a workshop in Thessaloniki.

Uncomfortably relevant

Stuck in recession for a sixth year, debt-wracked Greece is struggling with severe austerity measures and sky-high unemployment. It’s a lethal mix that has fueled social turmoil and political polarization as reflected in the meteoric ascent of the country’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. It all makes the doc fest uncomfortably topical.

“Documentaries can serve as an alternative news source and highlight issues that do not come up in mainstream media,” Aivaliotis said.

He says the crisis has not produced a major shift in subject matter, but at least a few of this year’s 58 movies seem to be influenced by the zeitgeist in one way or another.

“Neo-Nazi, the Holocaust of Memory,” shot by established TV journalist and documentarist Stelios Kouloglou, revisits the country’s path from the German occupation during World War II to the rise of Golden Dawn, which currently controls 18 seats in the Greek Parliament.

“To the Wolf,” a documentary-narrative hybrid shot in the mountains of western Greece by first-time directing duo Christina Koutsospyrou and Britain’s Aran Hughes, follows two shepherd families as they try to survive the Greek crisis. The production earned flattering reviews when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February.

Nikos Dayandas, who last year left Thessaloniki with the Film Critics’ Award for his film “Sayome,” returns with “The Little Land” to tell the story of a disaffected young urban couple who decide to try their luck on the remote Aegean island of Icaria.

The Greek economic crisis, which has touched all levels of society, also means that local documentarists – never a spoiled lot – will continue to struggle for funding. But on the other hand, they have technology on their side as digital video is making films cheaper to produce.

“The means [to make a documentary] are more accessible now and the need to cooperate has started to be more obvious, so I think we will continue to see fresh things from Greek creators,” Aivaliotis said.

Approximately 520 films will be available in this year’s Doc Market, including all those screened as part of the official program. Around 60 buyers will be attending from Europe, the USA and Canada.

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Fruit of conflict


By Harry van Versendaal

It’s easy to tell Eyal Sivan likes his craft and that he put lots of heart into it. Sipping coffee and puffing on a roll-up cigarette on top of the hotel’s roof terrace on a sunny Saturday morning, the Israeli filmmaker, a gray curly-haired man in his late forties with a heavy accent that contains traces of French, looks more like a Left Bank intellectual as he chats away about politics, philosophy and his latest project.

Not for the first time, Sivan has made a controversial film. “Jaffa, the Orange’s Clockwork,” a feature-length documentary looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the history of the fabled citrus fruit. Drawing on a huge wealth of material including archive footage, paintings, posters and poems, Sivan tries to deconstruct the history of Jaffa the orange, Jaffa the brand, Jaffa the city and, eventually, of Israel itself – a history which, he claims, is a one of expropriation.

Sivan, who these days shares his time between London and Paris, traveled to Greece for the screening of his movie at the “Middle East” section of the 13th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, the director talked about capitalism, Stanley Kubrick and why Israel “is one of the biggest advertizing successes in the world.”

I asked a couple of colleagues “what is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear ‘jaffa orange’? And they both said: ‘Israel’. Would you say it’s a sign of the effectiveness of Israel’s spin machine, as it were?

It’s more than a spin machine. It confirms the fact that Israeli colonialism in fact succeeded. It’s not just colonialism of the land, it is colonialism of mentalities. It is also colonialism of mentality, of image. The big success was to erase the memory of Palestine. And it’s more than spin. It’s a whole ideology, an effort, an investment on many levels to transform Palestine and the image of Palestine into what became Israel and to erase Palestine and the memory of Palestine. So, yes, it’s a big success and it’s one of the biggest advertising successes in the world maybe after Coca Cola.

You describe the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a ‘colonial’ conflict.

Yes, because first of all we are talking about an immigrants’ movement that comes and takes the land from an indigenous society – and it does so in order to create something that is not genuine from that place; in order to create a European country in the Middle East. And in this sense it’s a colonial conflict because the conflict is not just about how much land I will have but it’s also about the fact that we are talking about an occupation – an ongoing occupation and an ongoing process of ethnic cleansing of the land.

Your movie draws heavily on archive footage, paintings, posters, songs, even poetry which suggests a strong interest in the power of imagery and metaphor. Is politics the management of symbols?

Politics is about how you imagine transformation, how you imagine management. Image is by definition a tool of the imaginary. I think it’s interesting in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that Zionism and the moving image are born basically at the same time, so there is a very tight link. If there is something that characterizes modernity it’s the moving image. Zionism is a modern movement and modern politics deals not only with symbols but also with the recreation of an image. In this sense, Israel is at the forefront.

In terms of reading and rereading the past and reconstructing it in the present?

Yes, I would say even by reading, rereading and erasing the past in order to allow the establishment of a new image that comes to erase the older one. This is what image is about. Image is about hiding; not about showing. Image has a frame, and the frame is hiding more than it is showing. It’s a permanent game about hiding, showing, hiding again and so on. This is the dynamic.

Your views do not sound very mainstream – not by Israeli standards, at least.

If you think about the history of the twentieth century, horror came from the mainstream, not from the extreme.

Did you have problems making your documentary?

I shot most of my films in the past in Israel or in Palestine but I never had any Israeli support, nor did I ask for any Israeli support. Sometimes you have to avoid what other people want to give you because of their interests. But in the case of the Jaffa project, because I was living in Israel at the time, and it’s a project that started with an Israeli producer who is a friend so we decided to apply for a grant in Israel, which I got. But it was canceled because of a campaign that was started by a journalist from a popular newspaper. More than that it was a kind of blasphemy and a campaign against me and against the project, which did not allow the Israeli people to see the film as a film but only to watch it through what was already said about it.

What was the reason you picked this specific topic?

I read an article in the 1990s about the privatization of Jaffa oranges. Until the 1990s they were controlled by the Israeli citrus board which was a government agency but after the Oslo agreements, there was a move to privatize different elements of the state and the economy. I read this article about the privatization of Jaffa and I thought that it was a fantastic metaphor about this idea of taking a national symbol and transforming it into a product. But there is one more reason. One of the key things in documentary cinema is to find the structuring device of the film. So you have a lot of films that deal with a main character or with a space and so on. I thought that the orange is a fantastic structuring device. It can play as a permanent metaphorical element.

Why did you choose to invert the title of Stanley Kubrick’s famous film “A Clockwork Orange” to provide the title for your documentary?

For years we were working on the project under the title “Jaffa, Story of a Brand.” While editing, my editor of 15 years said that the whole thing was in fact about the mechanics of the orange. In French Kubrick’s title is “Orange Mecanique” – mechanical orange, and this is what my film tries to do: to dismantle the image, watching it again, showing it to people, analyzing and dismantling the process. Meanwhile, I was also thinking about Walter Benjamin’s ideas on the mechanical duplication of the image found in his famous article about photography. So by translating it into English it became the inversion of Kubrick’s title. We are talking about the mechanics of violence using image – so I found it just perfect.

How has the movie been received so far in Israel and outside?

The movie has been beautifully received. But that does not mean that we can sell it to television networks. Even for European channels, it’s a controversial film. Sure, many films critical of Israel are shown but they usually don’t ask this deep rooted question about colonialism. Which is not an Israeli question, it’s a European question. The film is a lot about how Europe built the image of Palestine through image. The film is all over the world in festivals and in some countries, like France, Germany and Belgium, it was released in cinemas. It’s a surprise to many people of course. Jaffa is a well-known brand. People in countries like the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries are familiar with Jaffa oranges but suddenly discover that behind this innocent thing, which is the nice, sweet orange that comes from the sun, there is a history of expropriation. It can be quite a shock. Many people don’t know that Jaffa oranges are in fact Palestinian. In Israel the film got a few specific screenings, and it was shown on a cable documentary channel.

You have said that you don’t believe in “objective” films – a rather controversial statement for many documakers, at least. I mean, many may actually admit that they cannot achieve it, but this is the goal they are striving for. Can you elaborate on this?

If the goal is to make objective documentary, I don’t understand why make documentary in the first place. The only point of being a creator or an artist is to try to give a vision, your own subjective vision, of reality. The idea that we can all see the same thing is a totalitarian idea. This is exactly what totalitarian and fascist regimes have tried to do. This is television. Television news pretends to be objective. This is rubbish. The fact that there is one person with one identity, with his own story, that is doing and watching the world and deciding what to put inside the frame and what to leave outside the frame this is what makes it subjective and this is the fantastic thing about documentary; that it is subjective. I am not interested in objective documentary. Objectivity is not a notion that is linked to any form of individual creation or art. Objectivity is for science.

I guess it’s a philosophical question – whether you actually believe in truth with a capital T.

I think that it comes from the idea that objective is good and subjective is bad. But this is what capitalism is about. Capitalism is about the attempt to annihilate any subjectivity. There is no individual, no people, just segments of consumers. And here is a struggle; a struggle against this attempt for objectivity. Objectivity is simply not interesting. This festival has a program about disabled people that features some 50 films. If there are 50 films about disabled people, it’s because there are 50 different persons that are thinking they have 50 different visions. What makes plurality, what makes the richness of us all is that we are the accumulation of subjectivities. But I think that all this discussion about subjective and objective is a bad discussion. It implies that there is this idea of good and bad.

It’s Plato’s fault.

Yes, it’s Plato’s fault. Exactly.

From cult horror to shamanic healing

By Harry van Versendaal

The son of a cowboy father and a Jewish hippie mother, Michel Orion Scott was bound to become an eclectic filmmaker.

The 28-year-old director from the US state of Texas worked as a production assistant on cult-horror blockbuster “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” and is currently working on a documentary about Jewish immigration to Bolivia before the onset of the Second World War.

Scott recently traveled to Kos for the 2nd Ippokratis International Health Film Festival. He left the island with the top audience award for “The Horse Boy,” a feature-length documentary.

The movie follows Rupert Isaacson and his wife Kristin as they take their autistic 6-year-old son Rowan on an epic journey by horseback across Mongolia in search of a shaman who they hope can cure their boy.

Scott spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the making of “The Horse Boy” as well as his future projects.

I read that you’re the son of a cowboy father and a Jewish hippie mother. In what ways would you say this has influenced who you are and what you do?

My interests have always been really eclectic, which is one of the reasons I love making documentary films so much. One month I can be exploring autism, the next animals and hunting, and the next dance and painting. I get to be a child and dive into new adventures all the time. I think that growing up with parents who came together despite their divergent interests started me on this path.

What made you choose this specific theme?

I didn’t pick it so much as it picked me. When I first met Rupert and Kristin, I saw the incredible dedication they had to their child. I saw that they would literally go to the ends of the earth to find a way into his life. When Rupert told me that he would be traveling with Rowan across Mongolia on horseback searching for shamans who he thought may be able to heal his son, I knew instantly that this was a film that had to be made.

What were the main obstacles you had to overcome in making this film?

I planned for the shoot for five months but nothing could have prepared me for the physical difficulty of shooting video from atop a horse. After the second day, my entire body ached from head to toe. Most of the time, I would hold the reins in one hand, camera in the other as I trotted from the front of the line to the back, getting a variety of shots, then heading in to film interviews with Rupert and Kristin on horseback. Justin Hennard, our sound man, literally had his sound mixers attached to saddlebags while he operated the boom from the saddle. The making of this film in itself could have become a tremendously comedic documentary. Good fortune was on our side, though. In the end, we pulled it off with few major setbacks.

How easy was it for the shamans to let you into their locale and shoot the rituals?

The first set of shamans on the sacred mountain never questioned the camera’s presence. They were deep in trance and did not seem bothered by the extra activity around them. They had been told beforehand, though, that the ceremony would be filmed. [The shaman] Ghoste, however, first said that he would not allow his ceremony to be filmed. I was OK with that, of course. I did not want to interfere with the natural course of Rupert and Kristin’s journey. I was sure that we would be able to work around it in the editing process. Eventually, though, once we had explained to Ghoste the reasons for wanting to film – so that we could bring this story of love, adventure and acceptance back to the rest of the world – he seemed to understand and ended up allowing us to film.

Did you deliberately keep a distance from all the metaphysical stuff? Do you really think that Rowan was healed?

I don’t deliberately keep a distance from the metaphysical stuff. I believe that for every action, there are a thousand different interpretations. I also believe that not everything has to be explained for it to be understood. I do, absolutely, think that Rowan was healed. I was there for it after all. The reasons that he was healed, however, are not so cut-and-dry. It could have been the shamans, or the fact that Rowan was in a completely new atmosphere, meeting new people, or that his parents intentions and deep dedication somehow affected him on this journey. Most likely, I suspect, it was all of these combined.

How is Rowan now?

Rowan is doing incredibly well. He has never regressed. He continues to read and write and communicate at an accelerated rate. But as Rupert says at the end of the film, Rowan is still autistic. It is part of who he is. This is an important part of the message. Rowan was not “cured.” He was “healed” – as were Rupert and Kristin, and, in some ways, myself.

What impact will the movie have in your opinion? Do you hope to convey any specific message?

I hope that this film makes people think about how we can make space for unique individuals in our culture instead of institutionalizing them or trying to mold them to fit our rigid perception of what “normal” is.

At some point in the movie, you put down the camera to give the parents a hand. How often did you have to do this?

I did my best to keep the camera rolling as often as possible. I did put the camera down a couple of times to help the parents. I was a guest on their journey and it was important for me to not forget that. They were allowing me to peer into and film the most intimate parts of their lives. Given this, I had to respect their wishes when [I was] told not to film.

To what extent did the parents have to adapt their journey and daily schedule to the needs of the film and the crew?

I worked very hard to adapt my schedule around the schedule of the parents. It was very rare that the parents had to alter their course because of the film crew. I went well out of my way to keep this from happening.

And how often did you have to stage scenes in order to achieve a dramatic effect?

No scenes were staged in this film. There were a couple of times that I had Rupert or Kristin repeat something they had done or said if I was unable to capture it on film the first time. With this said, nothing in the film was fabricated or staged for dramatic effect.

You worked as a production assistant on 2006’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning.” What did you gain from that experience?

I wasn’t long out of college when I got the job. It was quite exhausting, really, and was one of the reasons that I decided to try documentary. Sometimes working on a big-budget narrative film can feel like working in a factory. That said, there were some good times on the set. I really loved seeing how the visual effects crew created gory scenes out of items you would never guess, like bubble wrap and corn syrup.

What is your next project?

I am working on several documentaries. One about traditional agriculture and water rights on the Hopi reservation, one about masculinity in the US, and one about Jewish immigration to Bolivia in the 1930s before the onset of WWII.

Photo by Vasia Anagnostopoulou

“The Horse Boy,” official trailer:

Orgasm Inc.

By Harry van Versendaal

Sales of Viagra, the famous blue pill used to treat male impotence, exceeded $460 million worldwide last year. Imagine how much money could be made from producing a pill for the other half of the globe’s population: women. It’s no surprise that the world’s pharmaceutical companies are locked in a race to come up with a pink Viagra.

Liz Canner joined the race in 2002. That was when the 42-year-old filmmaker from Vermont, in the USA, was recruited by Vivus, a small pharmaceutical company based in California. Her job was to edit erotic videos for women used as test subjects in the development of an “orgasm cream” designed to cure something called “female sexual dysfunction.” In the process, she discovered that “sexual dysfunction” was a catchall term with little scientific value. But there was little point in creating the drug unless the industry first created the condition. As a medical researcher says in the film: “We’ve come up with the drug. Now we have to come up with the disease.”

The fruit of her nine-year research, a 78-minute documentary called “Orgasm Inc,” exposes efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to medicate female sexual desire – from cosmetic vaginal surgery to Dr Stuart Meloy’s push-button orgasmatron – putting women’s health at risk for profit.

“Orgasm Inc” won the Best Feature award at the Vermont International Film Festival and Best Feature Documentary award at the Southeast New England Film Festival, while The Independent magazine last year named Canner one of the top 10 independent filmmakers to watch. The film will be screened at the Orpheas open-air cinema on Kos on Friday, September 3, at 8.50 p.m.

Canner spoke to Athens Plus about the industry of female pleasure.

How did you get involved in this project?

After over a decade of producing documentaries on human rights issues such as genocide, police brutality and world poverty, the violent images from my movies were giving me nightmares and making me depressed about the state of humanity. In order to change the script in my head, I had decided my next project would be about pleasure; specifically, the history of the science of female pleasure.

Then, strangely, while I was in the middle of shooting the movie, I was offered a job editing erotic videos for a pharmaceutical company that was developing an orgasm cream for women. The videos were to be watched by women during the clinical trial of their new drug. I accepted the job and gained permission to film my employers for my own documentary. I thought the experience would give me access to the secretive world of the pharmaceutical industry and insight into the latest scientific thinking about women and pleasure.

I did not set out to create an expose but what I uncovered at work compelled me to keep filming and investigating. This insider perspective allows the film to scrutinize the culture within the pharmaceutical industry, which has been perverted to place the drive for profit above our health. So much for pleasure…

How easy was it to make this film? What were the main obstacles you had to overcome?

It is not easy to make a documentary about the secretive pharmaceutical industry and the media’s collusion with it. It has been quite stressful.

You spent nine years on this project. Has it given you a new perspective on the issue of female orgasm – or lack thereof?

The biggest secret about orgasms is how rarely women actually have them during heterosexual intercourse. One of the women in my film, Charletta, underwent painful surgery to have an orgasmatron device installed in her spine. The only thing that it did was make her leg kick out uncontrollably. Needless to say, it did not work. It turned out that Charletta actually had no trouble climaxing but wanted it to happen during sex with her husband in what she considered a “normal” way. She was thrilled when I told her that most women don’t climax through intercourse alone.

According to Charletta, her idea about what her sex life was supposed to be like came from the movies. In our society, we’re constantly bombarded with images of fabulous sex in the media and the message that we should have orgasms every time. This is just not accurate. Researchers have found that 70 percent of women actually need direct clitoral stimulation in order to climax.

Charletta had been told by the doctor that she had female sexual dysfunction because she was not having orgasms during intercourse. The idea that there’s sexual dysfunction implies that there’s a norm. However, there is nothing that says what functional is. There is no norm — no medical study that says that women should be having five orgasms a month during intercourse or 10 sexual thoughts a day in order to be healthy. So this idea that you can be dysfunctional is problematic. If you create something that makes it appear that there is a function that women should be living up to, it’s quite dangerous. I think that all of us have complaints. I mean, who doesn’t want to have an orgasm whenever they want?

Your film contradicts past reports that some 43 percent of women suffer from sexual dysfunction. Do you think the figure is arbitrary?

All over the media you hear that a shocking 43 percent of women suffer from female sexual dysfunction. I first heard this statistic when I was working for the pharmaceutical industry in the early 2000s and it surprised me. If so many women had female sexual dysfunction, why didn’t my mother tell me about it and why weren’t my friends talking about it? In fact, I had not even heard of the disease until I took the job with the pharmaceutical industry.

In “Orgasm Inc,” I investigate the history of the 43 percent statistic. It turns out that it was taken from a sociology survey that was conducted in the early ‘90s to find out what people’s sex lives were like. It was never meant to measure the number of women with a disease. Using exaggerated statistics like that manipulates women. It also says to Wall Street that there is a large market for this drug.

Do you think this is a case of disease mongering, as it were, i.e. of the industry trying to convince people there is something wrong with them?

The media talks about female sexual dysfunction as if it always existed — when in fact it was a term that came about in the late 1990s. When Viagra was released, it was such a blockbuster drug for men that companies like Pfizer began to think that there was also a big market for women. The problem was, in order to develop a drug, the FDA required that there be a clearly defined disease. Pfizer and a number of other drug companies sponsored the first meetings on FSD. In the end, 18 of the 19 authors of the definition of the disease had ties to 22 drug companies. This definition is extremely broad: Almost any sexual complaint you have, whatever causes it, will fall into this disease category.

It’s a bizarre disorder, because you have to self-diagnose and you have to be distressed by it. So in other words, if you never felt an iota of sexual desire in your life but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. If you never had an orgasm but it didn’t bother you, you don’t have the disease. There are real physiological conditions that can cause sexual problems such as hysterectomies and diabetes. I think we can’t ignore that. But for the most part, most of women’s sexual problems are caused by sociocultural conditions like past sexual abuse, relationship problems and stress due to overworking.

Could it be that men are simply looking for ways to make up for their failure to stimulate women?

In the United States, part of the problem is the lack of comprehensive sex education for both men and women. In most sex ed classes, the full genital anatomy is not taught. The clitoris, the most sensitive part of the female body, is not mentioned because it is taboo to talk about pleasure. It was surprising to me how many women and men do not know where the clitoris is.

While shooting your documentary, you witnessed the development of a number of treatments. Did any of them seem to work?

In “Orgasm Inc,” I followed the pharmaceutical industry over a period of nine years as they raced to develop a female Viagra. I kept hoping that they would discover a magic bullet but most of the products currently in clinical trials do not work much better than a placebo (sugar pill) and the side effects for many of them are quite horrific – including breast cancer and cardiovascular problems. Part of the problem is that sexual experience is really complicated and based more on context than biology.

In the press you read: “Men have their Viagra, women want theirs too.” I’d love to know which PR firm came up with this slogan, because it is very effective. The question is what do women need Viagra for? Most of women’s sexual problems are not caused by a physical medical condition but are the result of sociocultural issues. So, I think the only way that most women will be satisfied with their sex lives will be if they can take a product that makes them feel comfortable about their bodies; that ends sexual abuse toward women; that creates equality in the workplace; that creates equality in relationships; that gives women good sex education so they can fully know about the clitoris and about how their bodies function. Why can’t we take a pill like that?

Isn’t there a percentage of women, however small, that do suffer from some form of sexual dysfunction?

The thing about sexual experience is that our sense of satisfaction comes from our expectations. In other words, if women think that they should be having an orgasm every time they have intercourse, then a lot of women are going to believe they have sexual problems. If women think they should have the same libido at 60 as they had at 20, a lot of women are going to think they have a disease.

Right now, there is a cultural shift going on and medicine is changing our expectations but this is not a new phenomenon. In our grandmother’s time, women with low desire were said to suffer from frigidity. During the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the pathologizing and medicalizing of woman’s sexual experience was challenged and resisted. Terms such as nymphomania and frigidity were no longer used. Recently, the clocks have been turned back. Low desire is now called hypoactive sexual desire disorder (a subset of FSD) and there are quite a number of drug companies racing to find a nose spray, pill, cream or patch to cure it. By the way, I find it very curious that they’re working on a desire drug for women. Would anybody think to develop a desire drug for men?

It is important to note that some women do suffer from a real physiological problem when they experience a lowering of their sex drive. Radical hysterectomies and some antidepressants affect libido. However, the majority of women do not suffer from a disease. For many of us, our libidos are influenced by everyday life experiences such as aging, our sense of body image, the health of our relationship, stress, and past sexual encounters.

You have taken your film to many film festivals. What has been the response to your work?

It has been exciting taking “Orgasm Inc” to film festivals. We have had many sold-out shows and received a lot of positive feedback. There have been quite a number of times when women have come up to me in tears after a screening and told me that they learned things about their sexual response that they did not know and they feel relieved to discover they are healthy and normal.

Have you had any reactions from the pharmaceutical companies?

When we showed “Orgasm Inc” at Lincoln Center in New York, a woman who works for the pharmaceutical industry stood up and denounced the film. The audience grew annoyed with her and booed her down. It was quite a tense moment.

Are you working on a new project?

My next project is finally going to be about female pleasure. It is called “The Hidden History of O.”

Selfless filmmaking. True or false?

By Harry van Versendaal

“Never let facts get in the way of a good story,” the journalistic adage goes. Documentary filmmakers these days seem more and more tempted to adopt the old newspaper truism. The need for access, financial resources and audience appeal is pulling doc-makers away from the traditional ethical principles of accuracy and non-involvement. Wilma de Jong, an award-winning director, producer and author from the Netherlands, chaired a discussion on ethical issues in the digital age, organized by the 12th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. De Jong, a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex, spoke to Athens Plus about the ethical challenges facing the craft.

A 2009 report from the Center for Social Media at American University (“Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work”) found that documentarians did not hesitate to manipulate “individual facts, sequences and meanings of images” if that served to convey the film’s “higher truth.” Was that news for you? If so, how bad was the news?

No, it is not news. There have been cases both in the UK (Marc de Beaufort) and the US (Michael Moore) where manipulation of sequences has taken place or chronology of events has been altered for the sake of narrative or message. It is highly problematic, as these incidents undermine the documentary’s privileged position in the public sphere and its aim to reveal or unravel hidden stories or to tell stories about unknown corners of our world. This is beyond providing a different point of view or an original angle. Historically speaking, it is not new but these incidents seem to have become more prominent. The highly commercial and competitive environment in which documentary filmmakers are operating has led to films and a culture in which the spectacular possesses higher value than truthfulness.

Basically, the competition for audiences and subsequent income from advertising distorts civic, democratic values — not always intentionally but being part of that kind of environment makes it sometimes difficult to reflect on your choices or even having the time to reflect at all.

Just how much interaction and intervention is acceptable in documentaries? Should a filmmaker remain completely detached from his or her subject?

This question seems to suggest that the “real” documentary is an observational “fly on the wall” documentary. Observational documentaries have their own strengths and weaknesses. The direct access and liveliness of these documentaries give the impression of realities being represented as unaltered. Actually subject choice, no context and selecting sequences with high emotional intensity means that a “spectacular” reality is being presented. A filmmaker cannot detach him or herself from the subjects or the realities he or she is filming. You, as filmmaker, are part of that situation. There is no such thing as an autonomous reality which can be filmed “objectively.” The camera and the presence of the filmmaker will always affect the pro-filmic scene, the situation that is being filmed, but truthfulness to your subjects is and will always be essential.

Should the line be drawn at life-or-death situations?

I would think so.

Labelling a film as documentary involves standards of “objectivity” and “truth.” Can a documentary be more than a mediated view of the world? Shouldn’t we expect documentarians to be honest rather than “objective”?

Objectivity is a myth. A documentary is a negotiation between filmmaker and its subjects and is always a representation, revealing a specific point of view of filmed realities.

Documentary filmmakers explore the space between “story” and “fact.” A “story” may have a fictional connotation but a documentary needs a storyline, a narrative as a way of linking events in the historical world. Facts are meaningless without a storyline, narrative. We see more strongly authored films at the moment, which can be seen as a departure from “objectivity” and an open admission that a documentary is a specific analysis and representation of certain realities.

What are the most common violations of the ethical code by documentarians?

There is not really an official code – just a set of principles which are inspired by journalist principles. Most common violations are altering the chronology of events without making this clear in the film; using archive footage out of context or suggesting implicitly that the footage was shot somewhere else; misrepresentation of certain groups in society.

Can you tell us of an ethical dilemma you’ve had to face as a filmmaker?

Paying a subject for an interview. It happened quite some time ago. He was a drug addict and I wanted his story. Later I regretted it and thought that I should have made clear in the film that I had paid the interviewee.

Most documentaries now depend on television networks for funding and distribution. Some filmmakers complain of having to customize their work to meet the commercial-driven demands of broadcasters. What are the implications of this on documentary films?

The narration is often used to explain what can be seen but it makes the film accessible to big audiences, broadcasters argue. But are audiences really that media illiterate? Commercial breaks in the film often leads to requests for a repeat introduction of the film after the break has finished, which is very frustrating.

Stories need to be told in a very traditional way. A kind of Hollywood-style narrative that forces the story in a certain direction excludes possibly interesting information as it does not fit the “hero-wants-something-but-meets-obstacles-overcomes-obstacles-or-not-and-is-forever-happy-or-not” kind of story telling.

The rise of docudramas has come with a whole new bag of ethical questions. Do you consider them a legitimate format within the documentary genre or something clearly outside it?

Yes, why not? Documentaries’ role in the public sphere is provoking debate and unravelling or unearthing hidden stories. If you don’t have access to those events or the events happened in the past, docudrama might be a good way to bring a story in the public domain.

Digital lies

You are giving a speech on documentary ethics in the digital age at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. What is it that differentiates the digital era from the analogue one from an ethical perspective? In what ways has the change of the medium affected the ethical quality of the message?

Computer-generated images and digital manipulation of shots can lead to created sequences being presented as filmed sequences, as having an indexical link with events taken place in the outside world.

Re-enactment on the other hand, has a long tradition in documentary filmmaking, when a filmmaker has no access to an event or wants to incorporate past events in a film. This is not a problem, as long as it is being presented as a re-enactment. I’m afraid the ethical dimension of a film is the responsibility of the filmmaker — but that is of course not new, but in different historical periods and political/cultural contexts, the nature of the ethical dilemmas is different. Ethics is not a static concept.

Except for some technological tricks that were not available to the documentary filmmaker in analogue times, I don’t think that technology is the real issue. It’s a cultural and political problem.

Video-sharing websites like YouTube and vimeo have revolutionized the documenting and self-documenting capability of individuals. One has the power to reach a remarkably huge audience at zero cost. What has the effect been on the documentary genre?

These new developments have undermined institutionalized views of the world and provide a plethora of experiences and ideas. I would consider it liberating that independent documentary filmmakers can find new audiences outside commercially driven and bureaucratic institutions – but at the same time the spectacular, the voyeuristic elements have become more prevalent.

New developments tend to offer positive and negative effects. The emphasis on individual experiences and often exhibitionist footage is at the expense of critical analysis and creative films analyzing our world or offering creative answers and ideas. We need inspiration, new ideas and original analysis and original documentary forms of our world, not stereotyped and predictable films.

One of the present problems for contemporary documentary filmmakers is to make a living. Broadcasters prefer documentary entertainment and formatted series, which require not only a production context of a bigger company but also a choice of subjects that will provide entertainment, the bizarre or the spectacular.

PROFILE
Wilma de Jong is a lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sussex. She has been an independent filmmaker for 13 years and produced award-winning films on social and political issues. She also co-authored “Global Activism, Global Media,” along with Martin Shaw and Neil Stammers.


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