I asked filmmakers in Sundance’s World Documentary Competition to describe what attracted them to their subject and what conversations they hope the film will start. Below are responses from 9 of the 12 films. As I receive others, I’ll update this page. In a future post, we’ll hear from directors in the Doc Premieres section. See the previous post on the US Documentary Competition. Thanks to Erik Spink for helping me compile this survey.
Zhao Qi, Fallen City
I remember feeling the first jolts in my office in Beijing that day on May 12th, 2008. An hour later, we learned there had been an earthquake in Sichuan. When I set foot in the worst-hit city Beichuan 3 days after the earthquake, it was a sea of wreckage before my eyes. No road was flat; no building was standing straight. Smoke and dust mixed with the smell of rotten corpses and disinfectants, wafted in the air.
I have found my characters in the slow recovery among the victims as time went by, Ms Li, a widow who lost her daughter and granddaughter, Mr. Peng, a devoted father lost his only child, and Hong, a teenager boy who lost his father. I believed they would show the resilience and hope for the Chinese after a great strike, however, I never expected that three years later, they become the reflection of China’s modern illnesses.
The greatest irony is that, when the puzzle was complete at last, it turned round to point a finger right back at me. As the survivors emerge from China’s worst natural disaster in decades, they become the sacrifice for a generation violently uprooted from its past and thrust into the nation’s relentless pursuit of progress.
My first glimpse of the story which is told in FIRE IN THE BLOOD came in the form of a magazine article I happened to read at a cafe in Sri Lanka while working on a film there in 2004. I soon began trying to find out more, only to discover there was actually relatively little which had been written about it. The historian in me was both shocked and scandalized that such a huge story had never been properly, comprehensively, told, and eventually I decided I would probably have to be the one to try and tell it. It was absolutely clear to me that the truth behind this horrific episode in contemporary history was being lost, and the idea that the lessons of all that had happened would go unheeded, and the crime unacknowledged, was too sickening for words.
From around late 2009, I became ever more alarmed by how unquestioning the world’s attitude to the Internet was, and to the handful of billion-dollar corporations who have quasi-monopolies in it in different fields – Facebook. Ebay, Amazon, Google, Apple, and so on. It was a like a cult, consuming the whole world in a starry-eyed fantasy that the evil didn’t really exist in cyberspace. I want to find a story which would make people question their blind faith in technology, otherwise known as techno-utopianism, and become more critical about the economics and ethics of the Internet. But what? The music and movie illegal downloading story is weakened by the historic greed of ‘old media’ studios and record labels, and its done by millions of anonymous people, mostly kids. But books were different – we all respect writers, and know how much work it is to write a book – and here was a story which involved, among others, one of the world’s biggest corporations, Google. I also wanted a subject which established the dilemma of our times – juxtaposing the terrific freebies the net gives us against the way it grabs loads of stuff without paying much, if anything for it. Hence Google Books and all the different projects to create a global digital library containing every human thought. Here was a story which captured all these things, a concrete story, where the opinion of the director, and the spin of the film would not be very important, since it was overshadowed by facts, by the actions of so many other important players – leading intellectuals and librarians, world governments, crusading writers, and prominent judges. Added to that there was the sci-fi dimension – HG Wells had dreamt of a universal library and there was something so outlandish and futuristic about the whole idea of creating a totalising library in the Cloud. So I felt I could make something that was a documentary but also felt like it was a sci-fi film. I also liked the challenge of making an exciting film about what many see as the dullest quietest institution on the planet – libraries. We all think of libraries as these really old-fashioned places where nothing happens – but what if, as my film suggests, the library is actually secretly the most powerful place in the world, the place where all ideas start, and ultimately from where all power comes….and I liked the idea of this ancient silent institution coming into contact with the latest technology, the internet and the scanner. Anyway the film is meant to make people think hard. It’s meant to encourage a critical attitude to the Internet. But it’s also a film which stages a debate, and allows people to find different viewpoints within it.
Tinatin Gurchiani, The Machine which Makes Everything Disappear
This film is about an unusual casting, where people expose their essential thing – their desire, despair and dreams as the protagonists of the film. Many treated it as if they were speaking before god, for judgment. It was their one chance and they could say only the most important truths in their heart, the most essential pieces of their soul. And they try to create moments of eternity for themselves, out of their ordinary human lives. I love this energy in our film. It is unique and let us think about sense of life behind boarders of time and space.
I hope this film will make you happy in a strange way even if its not a happy film, but because of all those beautiful people. “When Writing The Story of Your Life, Don’t let Anything Else Hold The Pen”-this can be a message from our film.
What immediately drew me to the story of Pussy Riot was the sense of a shared past with the characters. We had lived through similar times, listened to the same loud records, shared a love of Russian avant-garde art and its legacy. I have found myself at family dinner tables arguing that Russian society could benefit from a feminist upheaval. The parents of the three members of Pussy Riot recalled having similar debates with their daughters.
At the end of the day, Pussy Riot is the story of a foiled feminist revolution. It is a conversation starter unlike few news stories in the recent decade. It asks challenging questions about the role of art in society, religious fundamentalism, the fate of radical leftist politics, and the role women should assume in shaping the future.
The first time I met Sari in a floating fishing village on the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia, he was only 14 years old. I was immediately enamored by his precocity, his expressiveness, and good nature. He took us to the mosque floating near his home, picked up a Koran, and immediately began chanting a verse. We spent the rest of the day on a boat hunt for water hyacinth blossoms, while Sari recounted the story of his family, his dreams of going to school, getting a good job, and providing for his family. At that moment, I wondered how his life and the beautiful floating village that he lived in with his family and Cham-Muslim community would change in a few years’ time.
A year and a half later, I met two other young Cambodians whose lives were changing rapidly. Sav Samourn belongs to an indigenous group who depend on the land and the forest for survival. All around her, she witnesses the encroachment of large companies and the slashing and clearing of forests. To help pay off the family debt, Khieu Mok leaves her village to join thousands of female migrant workers seeking factory work in the city.
In the global race for low-wage workers and natural resources, Cambodia has transformed its ancient agrarian culture to compete for international investment. I made this film to document the human cost of this transformation and to put a human face on the beautiful traditional livelihoods that may soon be lost to the world forever. In our discussions about broad topics like globalization and development, I want us to remember these human faces with families, hopes, and dreams not so different from our own. And to ask further questions of our own lives and ourselves – How do we find balance? How do we advance and develop without destroying ourselves in the process? By delving deeply into the lives of families directly affected by development and globalization, I hope this film, A River Changes Course, will invite viewers not to draw simple conclusions, but to ask questions that demand thoughtful answers and action.
When I heard Salma’s story, I was so excited. Millions of young girls, like Salma, are locked away and have no-one to campaign for them. Suddenly, they just drop out of sight. They are the most vulnerable people in their communities which is why this has been able to go on for so many, many years. Salma had been locked away since the age of 13, yet she dared to defy her village traditions. She’s not only an inspiration for other locked-up girls but for all of us. Her poems have captured the imagination of all who read them. I think films, like plays, like novels, often work as part of a gradual shift in a mindset; the gentle stirring of a revolution. This can lead to a radical re-thinking of a whole set of values. They can move people to question things in their own lives that they may have taken for granted. Salma, through her poems, has been brave enough to speak out and challenge an ancient, brutal mentality where women have no say in their own destinies. We will all feel resonances of her experience in our own lives, and in the lives of people close to us.
John Akomfrah, The Stuart Hall Project
This film was always meant to be a recognition of the major contribution that Stuart Hall and a whole generation of thinkers, activists and radical intellectuals made to all of our lives ˆ even if we are unaware of that fact. When you compare their sacrifice ˆ a lifetime struggling against major sociopolitical forces ˆ it is incredibly humbling.
I believe that our work for the last 30 years has been part of that course in those many struggles, whether in our earlier work as Black Audio Film Collective or now as Smoking Dogs Films. I deeply hope that our work has continued in this vein and has been part of an onward push to take the ideas that Stuart and others from that generation forward from the margins to the center of popular culture.
Most of my previous short films and art installations have been about human rights and this time, I wanted to focus on the Wall between the USA and Mexico. We launched a website that asked people to help in our research and send in stories about divisions between rich and poor. One of these stories was about police finding unidentified skulls in the deserts of Arizona. I remember seeing an image of a Border Patrol agent holding a skull in a vast empty landscape which i later learned was the Sonora desert. I thought that following the investigation into an unidentified skull was a fascinating and poetic way of exploring the dehumanisation of migrants. I literally asked myself, ‘What can a skull in an empty desert tell you about the world?’ My question was less a ‘who done’ it?’, but rather in a wider way, a ‘what happened?’
I hope that we have created a documentary film that allows the audience the chance to leave the cinema with a feeling of deep empathy…I want them to think about how far they would go for their own family if push came to shove?
I want them to look at migrants in the knowledge that their journey did not just start easily on the other side of the Wall, but that they had to leave loved ones for very universal reasons, whilst hoping they will survive an incredibly dangerous journey across Mexico and into the U.S. And all this before they even try and get a job.
I want them to feel proud of the humanitarian work Americans are doing in helping to end other peoples’ pain by repatriating remains to families.