At University I took a course on the films of Ingmar Bergman. During the semester we would gather on Wednesday nights and watch two of the master’s films. One week we started with Through a Glass Darkly, and walked out for the break, a bit shell-shocked. When we went back in, prof Marc Gervais told us “ok, you’ve had your fun, you’ve had your laughs. Now we get dark,” and proceeded to show us Winter Light, perhaps the Bergman that I love the most. I was astonished by the film, but gutted at the end of that double bill.

The first time I saw Alexander Nanau’s film Collective was at the Helsinki DocPoint festival in February of 2020. It was also a double bill. I had watched Feras Fayyad’s The Cave just before that. So I flashed back a little to my Bergman moment.

The story of Collective is triggered by a horrific fire at a Bucharest nightclub in 2015, that killed 64 people and injured more than twice that number. The cause of the fire revealed mishandling and negligence. The responsibility for allowing the event is even murkier, and everyone passes the buck.

But the story of the film starts afterwards, when the survivors started dying. They shouldn’t have. They should have recovered. The public was told everything was under control. It wasn’t.

Following a team of journalists from the Bucharest Sports Gazette newspaper, Collective is at once a fascinating investigative documentary, and a horrific expose negligence and corruption at the highest levels of power. Hard to watch, and gripping at the same time.

I met Alexander (we think) three years ago, when we were both in Riga as tutors at the Baltic Sea Forum Documentary event. We broke bread while wearing bibs to save our clothes from seafood sprays, talked about Romania (and the piece of it that is in Montreal), and life in Sweden.

He made time to chat with me last week. Our talk, naturally, rolled out over Zoom, from Alexander’s living room to mine, as he and his team campaign in the run up to the Academy Awards, as his film Collective is competing for the best documentary Oscar. Even with a string of awards behind the film, the challenges of the campaign are present.

AN. It’s at a completely different level. We’re lucky that we have a top notch team between Magnolia and Participant, and our publicists. Everybody has their own field of expertise, and the countries are divided between different publicists. It’s a great experience to learn how you can bring even a documentary worldwide to an audience. But it’s work. Even the number of outlets and journalists who write about the film and keep writing on a daily basis… Just insane. The fabulous thing is that people react so well to the film. We already had that before the pandemic, and important journalists saying ‘this is really relevant for the whole world,’ from the very first reviews of the film.

P. How did you find out about the Sports Gazette story?

AN. We were looking for characters, basically mapping all people that were involved, from politicians to doctors to hospital managers to the families of the victims, trying to see who might be the right characters to follow and try and understand this whole situation: the manipulative power that did that to these people, and lied about the treatment, killed them basically. And while we were doing this, 10 days or two weeks after the fire, there was only one journalistic team who really investigated what the authorities were saying. The rest of the press was just propagating what they (the authorities) were saying. They exposed that the fire department had lied that they didn’t even know the club existed. They even authorized it (the show). And then they went further to investigate the hospitals, and found out there was one newly opened burn unit two months earlier. It was super modern, and as they said up to standards for treating burn patients. But it was then closed down. It had only been opened for the TV cameras.

At that point we thought we would never get access to the authorities, so if we want to understand power and how it works and how it violates peoples’ lives and rights, maybe the best way would be to follow investigative journalists.

P. And they didn’t have any problem with the access?

AN. They denied at first. They were polite but very straight in saying “that’s not possible, you can’t film in a newsroom, it has to be a protected space. We have to protect information and potential whistle blowers’’ and so forth. I said please take another look at my films. Think about it.

He called me one day and said “listen we are onto something, and I can’t tell you what it is. But we could try to film a bit around it to see if it works out.” And once we started I don’t think it took too many days for us to get the right speed, and carefully get the right stuff. They said that if professionals were interested in making a film about how the press works, maybe that could be a chance to communicate with a certain generation that the press has lost. That actually get their information from social media.

Journalist Catalin Tolontan in COLLECTIVE, 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

P. did you know that you were starting to make a film about the health care system from the beginning? Or did that reveal itself over time?

AN. We just started from the idea that we had chosen the right characters to follow. It was clear that it was linked to the health care system, that lied to the victims and their families, and mistreated the patients. But it was not clear from the beginning that it would go so deep into the health care system, with such incredible links of corruption to the political sphere. And then finding out that the pharmaceutical company had been diluting the disinfectants for ten years, and that the secret service knew and informed the politicians, and the health care system. I mean nobody could ever have imagined the magnitude of it… no. Or that one day we would get access to the ministry of health.

P. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the fact that you were in there following them. Given how much you’d already shown how opaque they were. And Vlad of course comes across as a pretty sympathetic minister compared to his predecessor. I was asking myself: what am I really watching here? Is this a publicity stunt by the government to give the impression of a more transparent system? Or was it genuine?

AN. It was genuine to him. And to the team around him that allowed it. The previous health minister, even though it was an interim government, was trying to cover for the pharma company. No one from politics or with links to the system would ever allow him or herself to give access, because anyone inside the system giving access or being transparent is seen as a traitor. It would mean the end of his or her career. We were lucky that they appointed this complete outsider.

Everywhere we went with the film viewers were shocked by the level of access. Everybody felt like the film gave them insight into something they might not be allowed to see. Even in countries like Switzerland, or the Netherlands, people feel like they don’t have the right to know what their own institutions are doing. That they don’t really have the right to know about the decisions being made inside. You ask yourself ‘in Sweden, why have they decided that?’ How will we ever know the truth about why they handled the pandemic like that? People feel like once politicians are in power they are entitled to being secretive about their intentions. Our attitude is wrong. And they use it. And I think that anybody in any political or other system in the world we live in now has the feeling that they own that system, and they have the right to be secretive about their intentions. Which was not the case with our protagonist.

P. Right. And on that level, the previous minister and the scandal that came out, how much everything was sort of dirty inside of there… Vlad’s arrival felt like a reaction to that.

AN. I think it was basically their way of trying to find a solution which would absorb the anger of society. Just half a year before the government was brought down by the anger in the streets, and now people were back in the streets. So they thought “ok, let’s appoint this 33 year old guy. People will trust him. He’s an activist for patients. How much harm can he do in half a year?”

Trailer for Alexander’s previous documentary, Toto And His Sisters, 2014

I only recently saw Toto and His Sisters, Alexander’s previous and much lauded feature doc. On reflection I noted that both films have a driving narrative that could easily be in a scripted fiction film, one a thriller, the other a taut melodrama. Part of that is probably because of my own affection for observational doc, but the structures themselves are lean. Toto is a much more personal, character driven story, but there are few moments of meandering. In both films, there are bold shifts in point of view. Particularly in Collective. In a sense it shouldn’t work.

P. There’s a passing of the torch around the middle of the film, where the film gets handed over to Vlad the minister, and Tolontan (the editor) goes into the background. Were you thinking about that shift during production? Or did that come more together in post production?

AN. I definitely thought about it. I already had an image in my mind of what kind of film it might be, and how I would try to keep the tension for the viewer as we witnessed it. But why do you pass the torch? Why would an audience still be interested if this is a film about journalism? Do you start from scratch? Do you start by putting context together? You don’t have that time. You’ll lose the audience in the middle of the film.

In Toto, it took a while to learn when and why to change storylines in a film. Because on paper it might look logical when to switch characters and stories, but it’s different once you’re watching the film, feeling its rhythm.

In the editing room there were dozens of attempts on how to change storylines. How much information do you have to give away about Vlad? Do you maybe use the journalist watching TV presenting this new minister, who he is, his backstory and everything? And then I understood that the most important thing is to get the viewer interested, by making him curious about who this guy is, by doubting him. And then it is a story that is glued together by life attitudes, that you always compare to your own. You know; “what would I do if that were me?” But it took a while to understand that.

P. I’ve struggled with some of the same questions in films I have edited, about shifting points of view. Trying to keep it reasonably seamless. It’s so difficult, because you have an arc going one way and then suddenly… well why is this person here?

AN. It’s really about triggering the viewer’s need to compare themself to the courage of some people, to life attitudes, and once you have him asking “why do these people have the courage to do this,” or “why would this woman blow the whistle when she basically participated in it (the malpractice)”, and “would I do those things, then later decide that they’re not good or right?…” I think that if you keep not only the heart of people but also their minds connected with the characters then they all become one character, which is your viewer. And then they accept it. You just have to be compelling, and keep it ticking all the time.

P. I’ve never heard it articulated as all the characters become the viewer. I might steal that if you don’t mind for a lecture or something.

Tedy Ursuleanu in COLLECTIVE, 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The victims and their families, I’m curious about how you wove them into the story.

AN. We just tried at a certain point to see what happens if we put them in. For example, when the journalists and their investigation are being dismissed as fake, and you feel their sense of responsibility, and their feeling is ‘’we will fail. How can we prove them wrong?’’ And that just felt like the right moment to come in with Tedy. The way she is exposing herself. We just tried to see what the balance was. We had even stronger scenes with them, but they didn’t fit. They became too personal in a film that has to keep a balance between personal and objective. Once you get too personal you have no chance to get out of there and get back into the investigation of the journalists. It was a lot about instinct, and trial and error. Which parts really resemble an intention and form?

P. Do you feel you can kill your darlings easily?

AN. Oh yeah. I think since my early films I quickly became aware how much it helps a film when you kill your darlings. Because they can cause spikes in a film, that kill the rest of it. That doesn’t mean that I do not fight for them until the last moment, or re-edit them. Sometimes I have 50 versions of a scene, just from trying to rescue it.

P. It’s hard to kill them. But when you realize the balance gets totally disrupted…

AN. It’s about balance, exactly.

P. You lose the point of the film if that particular moment takes all the attention.

AN. Yeah or if a scene already contains all the intention of the whole film. If you’re trying to build a whole narrative and you want the intention to be something that the viewer feels they formulated…. If there’s was one scene that spells it all out, you kill the whole film. You can go home.

It takes a certain kind of person to document political corruption, drug addicts in practice, personal and public conflicts. I have to agree with Alexander that, watching his films I was asking myself “would I do this? Would I not do that?” It’s nice to imagine that I would be as fearless, but you never know until you’re there.

Collective definitely has that sense sometimes that we’re peering behind a curtain we really weren’t meant to see behind. The hair on my neck stood up more than once.

P. Did you ever feel like you were in a tricky situation, or at risk?

AN. I knew from a source inside the secret service that we were being followed, and my phone was tapped. I didn’t believe it at first, but then they (the source) read to me the date and time that I was talking to people in France and Germany. But I think every state does that. Even the ones that pretend not to. It was clear to me that they (the secret service) were trying to collect information about the journalists’ investigation, through listening to my phone calls. Nevertheless we organized pretty thoroughly to secure our footage. Every evening after shooting we would copy the material onto several sources, hide it, and flew it out of the country. Let’s say we were cautious.

Still from Toto And His Sisters, 2014. Image courtesy of HBO Europe

P. Same question about Toto and His Sisters, because those were some pretty dark spaces you were in. Did you ever feel at risk?

AN. There’s a funny story with that one. In the beginning we hired a bodyguard that would look after me and my safety. And they would wait outside, ready for a call from me or my assistants to come in if needed. But nothing ever happened. Maybe one month into the shoot, we came down from the apartment in the middle of the night, and the bodyguard was totally scared. He said “dude, I had such a big rat walk over my shoe! I nearly shit my pants!” He was shaking. So… I said you know, I think I’m safe. You can go home. We cancelled the contract with them and that was the last day that we used them. The people in the ghetto were really good people. And even the young junkies were really smart guys, and people trust me in the ghetto, as long as I’m honest with everybody it’s fine.

P. You could have hired the rats to be your security.

AN. Exactly.

P. I see a deep respect in your films for the observational style. No matter how awful anyone in a scene might be, I never feel like you’re judging them. You let them show themselves. Or hang themselves, in the case of the politicians for example, or Toto’s mom. You treat them as people, and let us reach our own conclusions. Theyre not caricatures. Is observational the way that you always think?

AN. I developed that over time. The most important thing for me is my own attitude towards people. I think that people are basically good. And I believe that everyone is where they are in their lives because of their circumstances, and they had to take decisions. My biggest curiosity is to understand people. Even if they seem bad. Framing is the most important thing in observational style. The way you frame isn’t only the way you see the world or the characters, but the way you capture the authenticity of people, the way you carve out what you think is the definition of someone in a certain moment. That’s also why I prefer to do the filming myself. Until now I wasn’t lucky enough to find a camera person with a similar sensitivity for similar things. That’s why I need to see the story through the lens when it happens, and frame it. Every angle, relative to their eye level, says something about that person. And I believe there’s a sweet spot for everyone along that line which is not judgmental. 



I know this is a month late. So sue me.

Let’s go back in time to CPH:DOX. It’s a bitter cold night, and it’s an hour and a half for me to get home (if I’m lucky). I’m tired after 2 screenings and 2 interviews, I’ve got a 9am interview the next day (so another hour and a half to get back), and I’m looking at the ticket in my hand for Beautiful Things and thinking dude, you’ve seen 6 films in the last 2 days. You don’t even have time to write about them all. It’s 9pm. Be smart and go home.

But I’m also kind of in Opposite George mode these days. So when I pass the cinema on the way to the train station, I say c’mon man. You were into it when you read the synopsis. Duck in (at least out of the cold) and check it out.

And opposite Phil was right. It’s a beautiful film, but I also got to see some sonic wizardry, in one of the few docs that really run with the natural musicality of their settings, characters, and even filmic timing as a whole. A bit like Lucky People Centre International 20 years ago, I’m sucked into the story world at least as much by its form as by its content, and that’s all I’m really after.

Beautiful Things is about stuff. Specifically, it’s about the stuff that gets made and where it ends up. Did you ever look around and marvel at all the stuff humankind has created? Wonder how much material goes into making the simplest building? Think about what car is made of? I have, and it blows my mind. Turin-based filmmaker and designer Giorgio Ferrero does too, and he’s made a feature length anti-ad to explain it to us.

Broken into 4 sections, we meet Van from Texas ( PETROLEUM ), Danilo ( CARGO ) Andrea ( MEASURE ), and Vito ( ASH ). Together they make up the life span of the things in our consumer-based lives. From the oil that gets drawn up to manufacture and indeed go into most goods, to the huge scale transportation that gets those goods from one place to another, to the testing areas that decide if the goods are up to snuff, to the mass-incinerators that break the goods back down again when we’re done with them, the life cycle of stuff is broken down into a series of icons, hosted by iconic men who guide us through the meaning of what they do.

MYBOSSWAS, Ferrero’s advertising firm, is no stranger to visual iconography, and the film’s gorgeous cinematography shines through in every frame. But Ferrero is also a music composer, and Like Lucky People Centre International, Beautiful Things is constructed largely around sound and music.


P: I was watching your film and I was amazed at the amount of pre-visualization you must have done. I mean I get that a shot of somebody hammering the side of an oil rig can be versatile, to punctuate, or as a musical instrument to repeat the tone of the hammer striking metal, but the ending musical bit, with one woman singing in one location, while a child turns metal pieces he finds in the oil field into musical instruments, and another woman plays the cello in the echo chamber… And it all forms one piece. There’s so much that you pre-visualize. What’s the process behind that?

GIORGIO FERRERO: Yeah, for me it’s a big image with a lot of elements that lead together. Every time I thought about the movie as a contemporary opera, as a score with a very big climax. During the writing I thought about the sound as a first line of narrative, with the same timing and the same weight (as) the photographic and visual, describing the images and camera movement. I composed 70% of the music before production. So for me there was something to follow. And I started editing from the end of the film. Because I was very, very sure of the final 20 minutes of musical; it was the synthesis of the story. And afterwards I started to edit the other scenes from the beginning. I decided to never use the words of the characters and the music to say the same things. Van’s child playing with those things, it was the only way for him to play near the pump. But you have to understand it only with the sounds. I thought it was the real challenge of the movie: using sounds to say something. And we decided to show this musical part at the end to create something like a moment of freedom. It’s a moment of energy for the audience, when they can finally see what they hear for all the movie.

P: Yeah. It’s a freedom, and there’s also a lot of irony in that moment.

G: Yeah. Definitely. I think the soundtrack storytelling was a good idea to create a twist and put in front of the audience the experience of that sound.

P: I’m curious: in the CPH:DOX catalogue there’s a line on your page that describes the project as “documentary sci-fi”. Is that your description?

GF: (laughing). No no! It’s not mine. I never talked about the movie as a science movie, I thought of it more as a philosophic movie. But you know, there is the part in the echo chamber, maybe they decided to interpret it in this way. I think that also because this year the main theme in CPH:DOX is science, they decided to push this part of the interpretation of the movie. No, my log line is “A symphonic journey behind our everyday consumption.” I don’t like the word “symphonic” because it’s so big, but it’s a simple way to describe the approach.

P: It’s also an iconic word. I might use the word sonic instead, but I guess because you’re also dealing with icons it also kind of makes sense to use symphonic.

GF: yeah.


Each of the 4 sections of the film starts with a segment that sort of repeats. A Sonic Youth t-shirt shows up in each spot, as does a picture of a young boy with what seems to be his dad (is that you Girogio?), and an annoyingly loud toy robot that’s hopped up on energizers and won’t stop moving. All Ferrero’s stuff as it turns out. Reaching a certain age, he tells me, being in the advertising world, and looking around himself at the wall to wall stuff gave him pause. A brief pause anyway. Then he made a doc about it.

P: You see the film as more of a philosophical exploration than a political one. Could you tell me where the idea came from?

GF: I read this book many years ago called Dissipatio H.G. from Moriselli, an Italian writer from the 70s. He imagined in this story the world without man. And in this book Morisseli wrote a question: What is the world without us? It’s only a big garbage with our objects. We are covering the world with our objects. I started from this idea, to imagine my characters alone, in the middle of the borderline of the objects’ lifespan. I understood that the best way to represent the objects is to represent the landscape where there are no objects, but where they go through. It’s not a political movie. Because I don’t want to say to the audience you have to live your life this way, and not buy the objects blah blah blah… No. It’s a self-portrait. A self-philosophic-portrait. I understood at 35 that contemporary life is crazy. I understood that I had to change first.


P: We don’t really understand where oil goes. What it’s used for. There are times when I look around at all the things that humans have created, and it seems unbelievable. We’ve transformed the landscape of the planet.

GF: Yeah. It’s unbelievable. I think that the problem is that nobody thinks about the objects. They exist, but nobody looks behind them and says where does it come from? Who made this object? In 90% of the world, people work to create objects, and 50% of the time the objects go directly into the trash. It’s crazy. The first time I went inside the incinerator was one of the biggest experiences of my life. We shot in a very small incinerator in Switzerland, and you can understand how much garbage man creates in a very small land. Just one part of the German part of Switzerland. I think in the whole country there are something like 5 or 6 in service. And it’s powerful because you can see what the people throw out. And you understand what companies put in there as waste.

P: The more industrial side of waste you mean.

GF: Yes. Because a lot of what industry produces ends up in rubbish, before the market. Because sometimes they produce more than they can sell.

P: And they just destroy it?

GF: Because they have this line of production. And they have a minimum they have to produce. But if they don’t sell what they produce in that time, they have to put it in the rubbish.

P: That’s insane.

GF: In the food industry it’s the same. A minimum production number, and they have to start from that.

06If it sounds like the film is this didactic lecture, relax. If that were the case I wouldn’t be bugging Ferrero at home during Easter holiday a couple of weeks after his film screened. In picking icons like the big ole Texan, or the eccentric Italian scientist, he cuts through a ton of narrative grease; because we can identify with the icon, their stories about asshole fathers or loved ones living too far away sit heavy. Whatever Van has to say about the colour of oil, watching him swing an imaginary baseball bat in a broken down baseball diamond in the middle of a wasteland in Odessa Texas tells us everything we need to know about the absurdity of what we’re doing to the planet, or the weight of unfulfilled dreams.

The form of Beautiful Things wears Ferrero’s design skills on its sleeve. Every scene is treated with its own style, accompanying the almost mathematical score. Or s it the other way around? Either way, the audience at the screening are mesmerized, and occasionally assaulted by the loud mix. And the audience aren’t the only people impressed.

P: You won the Next Wave award at CPH:DOX.

GF: I’m so happy yeah. It was so cool. I got a call at midnight on Thursday from the organizer saying “Giorgio come back! You’re the winner.”

P: Nice.

GF: Yeah I’m so happy also for the movie because this award can push it in a more simple way. Now we’re trying to find a good way to work with a sales agent. In Italy we have some interest for the distribution but at the moment we decided to wait until (after) an international tour. And we’ll have the UK premiere at the Edinburgh film festival. We’re working on the US premiere. The Lincoln Center is very interested, and they’d like to organize something in their program. So we’re trying to close our schedule. It’s not my job but we have to do it now. We maybe want to say yes to one festival but the Venice Biennale says it’s better to say yes to another, and politically it’s not so simple. But we’re really happy because the audience and the festivals really love the movie.

P: And your project is quite unique.

GF: That’s one of the best points of the movie, but also one of the worst, because for the market it’s a very strange movie. Everyone says “wow it’s beautiful! But I can’t sell this movie. Who can buy it?” But at the same time there’s a very big interest because it’s strange and a lot of people love it. When we arrived at the Venice Biennale they said “you’re crazy. It’s something impossible.” But after the first workshop they understood that it was something that could be realized.

P: The Venice Biennale is where you pitched the project, right?

GF: Yeah. This project is the winner of the Venice Biennale College, that is, in Europe but also maybe in the world is the most interesting program of first feature films. Because the Venice Biennale produces and funds every year three feature films; 1 Italian director and 2 international. And every year there’s something like 500 submissions, with only 3 projects selected. So it’s a challenge. I’d written the project just 1 month before the submission. They organized the first workshop with 12 teams from everywhere, and after (that) we had to write the screenplay in 1 month. And after the screenplay they decide the winner. They decided on us, a feature film from Lebanon, and another from a Russian woman living in Australia. All the movies are unconventional and strong. Martyr was premiered at SXSW, and Strange Colours In Gothenburg. It’s a very good experience. You have a producer that doesn’t want to create money with your movie, that wants only to create a piece of art. And… Here’s my (infant) daughter. Mia.

P: Ciao Mia.

MIA: Ciao.

There’s a battle for Ferrero’s mic. He wins.

GF: I think it would be impossible to realize it without the Venice Biennale because shooting on an oil field or inside an incinerator is difficult. But when we arrived there with the Venice Biennale letter, they understood that it was something artistic, and not a political or commercial film, and they said yes. If we didn’t have that letter it could have been very difficult. When we arrived for the first time in Texas, and we tried to find a location there, they wanted only to shoot us. “Go go go! We don’t want a camera.” But we found a woman who is the owner of a big oil field. She’s very interested in art, and when she saw “Venice Biennale” she said “I want to do it.” That was the code for entry inside the oil field. It was cool.


P: How did you find Van in the middle of that field?

GF: We did a casting in Dallas. We found a producer that scouted some oil men. And the first time I saw Van Quattro I realized he was perfect. Because he was an oil man, and also an actor. Van spent 10 years in LA, doing some acting. And then he decided to come back to Dallas. Because the life of an actor in LA was crazy. He started to use drugs, and alcohol and everything. And he preferred oil field life to life in the big city.

P: He seems very natural there.

GF: (chuckles) It’s incredible. I think that only a Texas man could do it. The life in Odessa Texas is crazy. I think that it’s impossible to live there. There’s only the smell of oil and thousands of pumps everywhere. But today Van lives in Dallas. I was so happy because when I spoke with some of the Texas men I realized that it would be difficult to use one of them…

MIA is back. She completely takes over the microphone. Like a boss.

GF: I’m sorry. So yeah, when I met the first Texan men I realized it could be impossible to use one of them, because they are very cold and fixed on their work, and they’re something like a part of a machine. And if you speak with them they are empty. But when I met Van I understood that he was my character. He has inside him all the things, and also the experience in the oil fields.

P: Yeah, he’s a gift to your film.

GF: Yeah. I was very lucky to find him. And with Danilo and the other guys it was the same.

P: What I love about Van’s introduction is that visually you treat him like a Texas oil man. He’s very mysterious, he looks like he’s not going to say anything, and then he tells you everything. And it’s beautiful.

GF: We needed very iconic men, very iconic pictures of men who can represent their worlds without words. So it was not so simple. But I think that they work very well. Also because of the different type of faces and language… For example if you go in a big cargo ship I think that all Philippinos are the same, kind of crazy.

P: My brother works for MAERSK. Maybe I’ll arrange a tour to visit all the Philippino workers on the ships.

GF: yeah. MAERSK was my first choice of companies but they decided to not participate in the movie. In Italy there’s a national division of the company in Genova. But they said that they don’t make movies because politically it’s not so interesting for them.

P: They have to protect their image.

GF: Yeah. And Grimaldi lines said go on this ship and do whatever you want, so for us it was great. They told us that ship because it was one of the most recent ships they created. The first day when I arrived inside the cargo ship, the master came to me and said you have the keys, now you can do whatever you want. Because you signed a contract and for us it’s ok, so go. Every morning I had only to tell the master my plan, and every day he said yes, ok. That’s fine.

P: Did they understand what you were trying to do?

GF: Yeah yeah. Also in this situation the Venice Biennale logo was a very strong help for us; that logo is the biggest one in Italy you can have on a letter. Grimaldi understood the importance of the movie.

P: It’s a passport.

G: Yeah. It’s a passport. It’s at the top of the cultural scale.

P: Did the VB tell you what their motivation was for choosing your project?

GF: They said that this movie is very unusual for the Italian panorama, between doc and fiction. I arrived there as a composer. In Europe (I’ve done) something like 20 feature films as a composer, and it was my passport to arrive there and say I can do my first feature with you. And obviously they were very interested in the music side of the movie. In Italy there are not directors that are also designers and composers. They understood that it could be the first time to try this type of approach. There is no David Lynch in Italy (laughs).

P: Yeah. I don’t know how many there are in the world, not just in Italy.

GF: You know (Alejandro González) Iñárritu composed music for his first films.

P: I didn’t know that.

GF:Iñárritu was an art director in a big advertising company, in Mexico city. So he also started as a something like a composer, like David Lynch.

P: So there’s a good history of connecting design companies with music and film. Are you going to make your soundtrack available for this film?

GF: I think we’ll publish the soundtrack next autumn after the international tour and maybe I hope the distribution in Italy. We’re trying to organize a show, with a screening with live music. We have 3 possibilities to do that : 2 in France and 1 in Italy. We’re working these days to organize that production.

P: On your website I see that there’s also a VR component for the film, and I wonder what the experience is like.

GF: Yeah. The piece is called Denoise. the VR idea was born in the VB workshop. They said the VR language could be very strong with our landscapes. We found a partner in Italy who provided the equipment, and we realized only one scene per act. In each scene there are the men (from the film) speaking directly to the audience, and they’re reflecting on and fighting with the silence. Over 20 minutes you can stay in the oil field with Van, or the engine room with Danilo, the Echo chamber with Andre, or the waste pit with Vito. And they are speaking to you, saying how they live silence every day. And I think it’s a very good way to try to bring the audience with us to their experience, because for 20 minutes you are alone with the waste pit and the incinerator and you can look around. I think that VR movies can do that. I’m quite interested in trying VR experiments because you can live experience that you can’t live any other way. It’s impossible for 90% of people to go to an oil field. (In VR) you can stand in front of a pump jack, and you can understand what does it mean?

I’m interested in VR. We’re making some experiments in my studio. You’re using new cameras with a lot of bugs, so it’s not simple, and you can’t use lights because it’s tricky, but interesting. It’s the first act of a new cinema. I saw at CPH:DOX some interesting projects. I really like the idea of working in parallel, flat cinema and VR. When I saw Carne y Arena by Iñárritu I understood that it can become the new cinema. It’s a movie, but it’s also an experience. The narrative is complete and is very strong, and the visuals are amazing.

P: I haven’t seen that one.

G: It’s incredible. I think it’s the first example of VR cinema that’s really cinema.

VR headsets; new today, obsolete tomorrow, talked about over computers made using fossil fuels, and made to last so long and no longer. Does that make the things bad?

The loving attention Ferrero has put into this thoughtful film tells a complicated story, reminding me that humans are complicated, capable of deep ugliness, and deep beauty.



BEADIE FINZI:“ These are complicated times to be telling difficult and dangerous stories. Whatever the opposition is, whether they’re corporate or government, they have a lot more tools, really easy tools, to be able to watch us, listen to us, look at our information. There’s that broader perspective for people to think about more deeply. And think does it really apply to me?

As I start this piece, the Chris Wylie – Cambridge Analytica story has just broken. There’s some discussion about the backlash to Facebook’s granting of access to its users’ personal data to CA, and the way that data was used during 2016’s tumultuous elections, and continue to be used to manipulate people in ways we haven’t begun to understand.

One of the first things to go through my mind was I wonder what’s going to happen to Wylie. Followed by what happens to anyone, at any stage of a documentary, who do projects that piss people off?

Documentary is nestled in a weird little space between film and journalism, with the benefits of neither. When a filmmaker decides to tackle a dangerous story, there’s virtually no protection for them, their footage, or their characters.


Safe+Secure, a new initiative from DocSociety (the organization formerly known as BRITDOC) is on a mission to help creators better deal with issues of physical, digital, and footage security. Like the Impact Field Guide, it’s not A solution, but an arsenal of resources to help creators to better plan for the eventualities of anything from filming in conflict zones to safely getting their footage out of sensitive areas.

Beadie Finzi, Doc Society’s UK foundation director, and Sara Rafsky, the Safe+Secure exexcutive in New York, were at CPH:DOX as part of the Conference, specifically the RISK conference. The day was dedicated to discussing exactly these questions of security of all aspects of a production

BF: The biggest single thing that’s changed in the last 10 years is digital surveillance. Every single one of your digital devices from your phone to your computer to your SLR camera, is a microphone and a tracking device. And so you have to have that added degree of awareness and responsibility for where you are, who you’re filming, who you’re with, and the fact that it (surveillance) is so easy.

P: Not just for your safety but for the safety of your subjects. Ok, let’s say I’m Laura Poitras, I’ve got Edward Snowden, and I decide to do a film. Afterwards he had to go to Russia and can probably never go back to the US, and Poitras probably still gets trolled as anti-American and so on. But they both decided to make the film. He decided to be a whistleblower. If you were to rewrite that production, where in that world would Safe+Secure come in? At what point could you be involved?

BF: As early, as quickly as possible. In Laura and Ed’s case, that conversation of “what does this mean” in particular for ED, was front and center from the very beginning of their conversations. I don’t think Ed wanted necessarily to end up in Russia. That wasn’t the plan. But he wanted to NOT get caught by the American authorities and end up in… Know what I mean? And they had to take a series of measures to ensure that. But yeah, that central question of what is it going to mean if I film you, to you, to your friends, to your family, to be thinking about precautions and safe-houses moving country, for a while or permanently; absolutely the sooner you get into that the better.

SARA RAFSKY: And that’s the perfect example, that’s been so widely discussed. I mean Glen Greenwald famously lost Edward Snowden, because he didn’t know how to use digital security. Snowden reached out to him first, he realized that Greenwald had no idea how to use any of the security software, decided it was too much of a risk and he left. And then Ed started talking to Laura, who taught Glenn how to do it. But I think Snowden was hyper-aware of the risks, and was actively working to protect himself. What if you’re dealing with someone who’s not as aware, and you have to take more responsibility to protect them, and don’t know how to do it? That’s a problem with encryption in digital security. If you start at the half-way point it’s better than never, but if it doesn’t start at the beginning then you’re already exposed. So if you know how to do it then you can implement it sooner, and the safer you’ll be.

P: So if I’m a filmmaker and I meet somebody who’s got a great story, and I kind of have some idea that there’s some risk involved but I can’t put my finger on exactly what; like it’s not as obvious as an Edward Snowden, but there’s something there. Is there a trigger I should look for that’s going to tell me when I should speak with you guys?

BF: Given where we are at this point with surveillance, I would say that anyone who’s beginning a conversation with somebody who’s got something private to say, you need to be doing it in an encrypted way. A lot of people don’t know how to use encrypted email. But frankly, take your conversation to The signal platform. It’s pretty great for email and for texting, you can send documents, share; it’s so easy, it’s such a low bar. You can download it, it’s beautiful, it’s free, it works really well. For me just begin there.

SR: And I will say that anyone in the Ukraine (where I was going to give a workshop) should probably be using encryption.

P: Did you say anyone in the UK?

SR: In Ukraine.

BF: And definitely in the UK! It’s the worst of all.

SR: One thing; when you said should they be calling you, we’re not an SOS service. I don’t want to set up an unrealistic expectation. If someone’s in trouble we can’t swoop in and save them. That’s not what this is. If you’re in an emergency situation there are other people to call, who do casework. This is about providing resources to empower people to think about these things themselves. There is a whole list of organisations who do deal with emergency cases, but I don’t want anyone thinking we can medevac them out of somewhere.

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I’ve workshopped documentary filmmakers’ projects from around the world, and over the last couple of years there have been more and more that come out of the Crimean front, or on the periphery of Syria. In 2015 I got to work with the first Russian project to tackle Oleg Stensov’s imprisonment, at a time when Russia has less patience for critical examinations of how the state operates. I get an itch when I listen to their pitch, partly fearing for their safety, but also because there’s a powerful sense of purpose in tackling injustice. Usually folks can tell right from wrong, but it takes a particular character to decide I have to tell this story.

P: Let’s say I’m Joe-Blow filmmaker, and I’ve got a film idea that’s happening in Kurdistan right now. And I don’t think twice about going to film.

BF: Of course not! That’s the beauty of our beautiful community, right? “I’ve got a camera, I’ve got a knapsack; let’s go!” That’s who we are. And we’re not trying to fundamentally change that instinct or desire of this is a fascinating person or story. Let me just go cover it, see what happens. That DNA is what makes our work so particular and so special. But, unlike journalists we tend to take off on those trips without a major funder behind us. Usually, to get things going, it’s just on our own credit card, not afforded any kind of protections from any journalism organization. Not covered by the Guardian, or the New York Times, or BBC news. We just go. And when things get dicey, who you gonna call? Who’s even watching? And then there’s the economics of it. We often set off on these amazing journeys, and then we think I probably should get insurance but I can’t afford it. And have you done a risk assessment? Did you go the extra mile?

In the community of storytellers we know, journalists have this stuff down pat. They have amazing procedure of protocol, you can find incredible resources for them. But it’s not the same for independent filmmakers, and often they slip between the gaps. All the risk is on the filmmaker, with a tiny production company of 2, 3, 5 people who carry all that responsibility. So the community are special, deliciously so. They’ve gotta go where they’ve gotta go, they won’t be stopped they won’t be told. But, in conditions which in general are becoming less favorable for filmmakers to work in, legally, from a safety perspective, certainly from a surveillance perspective, we need to up our game a little bit.

For six years we ran the only documentary journalism fund in the world. So by definition we were attracting higher risk projects. We’ve mainlined and met with so many amazing filmmakers working all over the world. All of those factors compelled us 2 years ago to come together and go right, I think what could be really useful right now would be to pull together a set of resources that are specifically for independent documentary filmmakers and the way they think and the way they work, rather than trying to fit ourselves into a journalism paradigm and context that doesn’t actually fit.

P: So how do you go about that?

BF: It’s so goddamn simple. We did all the work so you don’t have to. That’s the idea. We spent a year researching and talking to people : legal experts, digital technologists, PR specialists, to everyone in the ecosystem. And we did two things from that: one was to pull together a handbook of resources and further reading, highlighting some of the organizations that are out there that specialize in what’s needed. And then the really… the thing that I love the most is the protocols. Think of it as 100 great questions you should sit down and chat about. Because if you walk through that protocol as a team, or your funder (we’re encouraging funders to adopt it), that series of questions is triggering the conversation: do we have a vulnerability in these areas? How sorted out are we?” It takes a couple of hours to do it properly. It beautifully flushes out where there may be a weakness. Maybe you can identify where to seek some advice, maybe you can get a little specialist training. We want to get people thinking more broadly about what risk even is, expand and deepen that definition, and provide a really easy to use tool, wherever you are, to have that conversation to find out where you’re vulnerable ahead of time.

P: Are those questions formulated in such a way that a filmmaker in say Bangladesh with different concerns can use them?

SR: They’re pretty broadly worded I think for that very reason. There are some things that are always going to be region-specific and we know that the legal stuff right now is US/UK-focussed, but I think the documents so far are for creating a cultural shift rather than a specific mechanism. What we don’t want is for people to go through the protocol and then say we’re done. That’s not how it works. The whole point of this is starting the conversation, getting people to think about what they need to do. And if we’ve done our job that leads to them having more conversations about their specific contexts.

BF: And it’s really important that we piloted with the filmmakers themselves. It’s meant to be by the community for the community. Filmmakers from all over helped us devise the questions, they told us what was working and what wasn’t, and we’ve since been testing with people working with teams. And it’s not regional. Wherever you are there will be sections of the protocol that don’t apply to you. Because that’ not an issue. Do you see what I mean? It’s not location-specific, it’s project-specific. What’s your story? What’s the environment you’re filming, whether that’s Bangladesh, or New Jersey. That’s the question: in this context do you need to be thinking about additional security? Do you need to up your game on X Y Z?

SR: And about the filmmaker from wherever; I almost feel it’s more important in those circumstances. If you’re an international filmmaker I think the idea is institutionalized that ok, if I’m going to a conflict zone I need to have a security protocol in place. But really it’s people doing films about risky subjects in their own countries who have to stay there and during and after filming that are more at risk, and we know that. There might be less inclination to think about it because they live there, and they know everyone and think I know how things work in my country. But if we get them thinking they might be able to say well there are some real risks. What sort of powers am I going to be irritating? And if I can’t get out afterwards what do I do? Or if I get out and my family’s still there…

P: So instead of taking things for granted you want to actually empower filmmakers so that they can fight back when shit hits the fan.

BF: And ahead of time. Not when the tsunami comes and eats you.

P: But there will always be the filmmakers who don’t know that tsunami is coming until it’s too late.

BF: Of course. And I… Yeah. 100% To pick up Sara’s point; we want to encourage a culture shift. Amongst the independent filmmakers, but also with the community of funders. To initiate them to lead on that, to be a bit more responsible.

P: The funders?

BF: Yeah. You know how independent films are financed. You get 10 grand here, maybe 20 grand six months later. Maybe 50 grand six months after that. These piecemeal grants that give you just enough to piece together that hopefully give you enough to make your movie. It’s an amazing model in one regard because it gives the filmmaker freedom. That’s the greatest advantage of this fragmented model: no one owns the movie. That’s why documentary filmmaking is so fucking awesome. The filmmaker has all the power. But with that, they get none of the protections. So that’s the downside. They’re kind of on their own. And we’re having those conversations with the leading documentary funders saying could we encourage you to incorporate the safe and secure protocols and thinking into your granting process? And if necessary and where evident increase a grant to include… maybe it’s a vital piece of training, or a vital piece of equipment, I don’t know.

P: Or just money?

BF: Absolutely, it could be. But don’t let’s pretend… Don’t be sending filmmakers into the field with a tiny little grant, and not ask the questions about where are you going and how’s that going to be.

SR: And I would say that they kind of have to, that really is a responsibility. The schpeel I give everyone is that I’m coming from the journalism security world. That’s what my background is in. And the pivotal moment in that community was in 2014, when the first ISIS beheadings happened. Those were all independent journalists that it happened to, and there was a feeling in the community that there were freelancers going into Syria with very little institutional support. There was a convening of journalism outlets where they decided that you know what, they do have a responsibility when it’s the independents that are still going to Syria. We have to really step up our game. We could argue about how effective that’s been because it’s always a struggle, but all the conversations happening in the journalism world also apply to documentary film. And the reason why it needs to be talked about is because the funding is so fragmented, the moral imperative is absolutely there.

P: It’s more accentuated in documentary film than in journalism, whose built in mantra is journalistic responsibility: get the story to the public. Documentary is by its nature more filmic; it’s not just that you see a great story, you want to make a great film to tell it.

BF: And also a lot of documentary filmmakers do not think of themselves as journalists. Call them a journalist and they go um… no. And that’s ok. One of the things that’s so wonderful about our tribe is that people are making films from pure artistic backgrounds. They don’t spend their careers breaking journalistic stories, but they can suddenly realize oh. This thing is happening, and I’m on it.


P: I like the idea of having the filmmakers ask the question as early as when they’re asking for funding. When I applied for the Sundance / Skoll Stories of Change grant, one of the questions was how do you plan to offset the project’s carbon footprint? I thought that was a pain in the ass at the time, but brilliant. And when it comes to responsibility not just for your own safety but the safety of the crew… For example, watching Of Fathers and Sons, I couldn’t help but reflect on it. Talal Derki says that when he went to the village he claimed to be a supporter of their jihadist movement. That’s how he gained access, how he got his interviews with everyone. He makes his film and he puts it out in the word and he tells a very important story. But does he put his subject at risk by putting it out in the world, and is he justified in doing that, no matter how important the film?

BF: Huge questions. We find that when we get into rooms with filmmakers and begin having these conversations about responsibility, people can’t shut up. They’re hungry to talk about it and explore it, and relate it to their own projects that might be about to start. We think the conversation is essential, and it hasn’t been had explicitly. A lot of classical security analysis is about shooting in the field, going to a war zone, those few days we’re in a particular city. No. It’s about sitting in your bedroom and your computer has just been hacked. Or a year after your film has been released and you or your subjects have become the subjects of some really unattractive trolling or attention in their home country. I mean you’ve long since move onto the next film; that’s their life. And they’re there. So that’s how we want to extend the framing of when and how to think about those questions. In your basement, or your bedroom, or in the field, sure, that’s obvious. But then right the way back up, outside.


It’s paranoid age. Assuming that any state has anyone’s best interest’s at heart, or even that they have a heart, seems deliriously quaint. The go-to position for a lot of people is that government is corrupt and protects the 1%. Or that anyone who doesn’t toe the line is probably a target. I remember more than one person predicting Obama’s assassination when he was elected, simply because his platform of “hope” seemed so deeply at odds with what we’ve come to see as the state’s bottom line. In the Trump age I’ve seen desperation, apathy, resignation, and pure, unadulterated fatalism. I’ve felt it myself, and there are times I wonder if I’m not living in a Phili K. Dick novel.

P: I already get disturbed when I go to Amazon and they have a whole list of books I would probably be interested in.

BF: Everyone could really benefit from upping their game. After Edward Snowden I kept meeting people who’d say I’ve got nothing to hide. Well I hope after this weekend that’s just gone by with Chris Wylie on Facebook and Camridge Analytica, you understand it’s irrelevant. Irrelevant that you have nothing to hide. The fact that you like cat videos and Kitkat and maybe 98 other data points is enough for other people to start manipulating you. Your privacy is your privacy is your privacy. Protect it. Look after it. Look after your stuff. Look after information. Let that be your default, I think. Given the times we’re in. Between the responsibility towards your team both at home and in the field, the things we care about the most, I would hope that everyone has great digital hygiene; that they’re thinking about improving the baseline security on their computers. There’s 2factor authentication; Go for it. Go for your life. It’s free and easy to set up, and then your computer can’t be messed with.

P: The manipulation is so sophisticated. I was having a conversation with a Danish colleague yesterday. He was talking about Trump and wondering aloud: is he… accomplishing what he wants? Is his tactic of being vulgar and bullying and alienating the world working to his advantage? I said it depend on how Trump measures it. And Chris Wylie put it well: if you want to change a society the first thing you have to do is break it. If I was to put a label on what Trump and the people around him are trying to do it would be to break that culture so it could be reformed into something closer to his ideal.

BF: Closer to Bannon’s anyway. Bannon’s the intellectual behind it all. He’s the one with the vision, and he says explicitly I want to break the system. And he wants to see it broken everywhere. I’d say they’re doing a great job of it. I’m really hoping we’re going to see a shift in understanding that’s going to make us all a hell of a lot more thoughtful. Not paranoid, thoughtful: how we use our phones, our devices, how we store our rushes, how we run our edit suites, all of the above. I just hope it doesn’t make filmmakers say; for fucks sake, it’s already hard enough to raise the money and release the film and get distribution, and you’re adding on another set of layers of challenge and responsibility. And the answer is kind of yes, but it’s also just a swivel and a pivot. You know? And it’s ok. We can handle this. This shouldn’t dissuade folks from following fascinating stories and subjects. Same for funders. Don’t be afraid of risk, let’s manage it. Let’s take all the smarts from all the people around the world specializing in this stuff, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just need to see what’s clever and appropriate to us. And this program can parcel it up and deliver it on a plate, so it’s not quite as hard. Because it’s hard enough already.

P: That’s a good frame: you know bad shit is coming, so let’s manage it instead of being afraid of it. Do you have different concerns on your side of the Atlantic?

SR: There are of course vast cultural differences between the UK and the US, and certainly with legal regimes there are differences. But no, since we’re talking about a cultural change I think the concerns are the same. It’s not just the UK and and the US, it’s Europe, Bangadesh, Mexico; The context and legal system might be slightly different, but the overarching vision we have is the same. And for those who are resistant to taking this on, we already know that people are telling their stories. This isn’t a hypothetical situation. People know there’s a need and an audience for these stories. But we have to be doing it better, and if you don’t want to do it for yourself at least for your subjects.

P: Any asks for the creators?

BF: We love to react and be responsive and be led by what people need, what they’re worried about.

SR: I come from the journalist world, and documentary film needs are different. If you’re making a film for 10 years it’s very different than if you’re making a piece for the New Yorker, and everyone knows that but articulating those differences is important. So I always keep my ears open for those specific examples.

BF: and if anyone has any recommendations for fantastic trainers they’ve worked with, or information resources they’ve been super impressed by that are region-specific; we want that. We are voraciously collecting, but we want things to be recommended to us. We’d love to know that you used it, and you thought it was brilliant. So we would absolutely welcome any ideas.


01A few years ago I moved to the Swedish countryside. I’ve since re-urbanised, but it was a big thing for me to be surrounded by all that space and silence. Just sitting out in the evening and feeling the cooling air, with the cooing of doves playing on my natural soundtrack. Or lying in the grass with my family staring up at the bats that had nested in the neighbor’s garden. Hell, just being able to ID young wheat stalks, or canola, or the potato stalks in the rows I’d embarrassingly planted crooked made me feel ready to be a survivalist.

After a few years back in the comforting concrete of a city, all that stuff is still with me, but it doesn’t come naturally anymore. Being in nature feels like an event again, instead of just where I live.

That’s a part of the level that Becoming Animal is operating on. Emma Davie and Peter Mettler’s new doc had its world premiere at CPH:DOX, inviting the audience to immerse with them into a tiny piece of the landscape that humans are more and more awkward in.

P: I’ve got my own interpretation of the film, and was fully immersed in it. And it was weird: when the crew is in the shot, I kind of take it as it comes. But the first time I saw regular people playing in the wild it was kind of jarring. Like that was more artificial… like that felt more artificial than the artifice of the crew.

Emma Davie: You mean the tourists taking photographs?

P: Not at the geyser. There are a bunch of kids playing on a boulder.

ED: But it’s interesting. I really feel ultimately it’s about the human species. And that ultimately we have to identify with these vulnerable little beings, that are searching on the rocks for something, or trying to find something with their cameras. In a way it feels like that’s what we’re trying to do with the film. We’re trying to find… Not answers to impossible questions, but certainly we’re trying to find clues, that help us deal with this strange period of history. And help us deal with this impossibility of our relationship with nature. We’re destined to live in this paradox of wanting to be closer to it, but creating things that take us farther away from it. So the human being in the landscape is so much what the film is about.

Peter Mettler: And the humans behind the camera, namely us, trying to process all this.

P: Put some order on it.

PM: Yeah. An order like, just observing ourselves observing. What is it to be filming nature? And the paradox involved, which I articulate, you know that really connecting with nature by filming it brings me into the present moment. It’s actually quite a bizarre activity, to find your present moment through a camera, as opposed to just being there. And now with all the stuff getting recorded by everybody, not just filmmakers, and how a person will place themselves into a landscape for a selfie, or find the shot that they saw in the brochure… I’ve actually heard conversations of “oh, this is where they took that shot.” So they’re taking the same shot that they saw in the brochure. What’s that about?

P: What do you think it’s about?

PM: I think it’s a kind of psychological training or conditioning of the world we’re living in right now. We’re so used to processing images in one way or another that it’s becoming part of our daily process. Used to be it was filmmakers, and photographers, and it was actually a unique profession. But there are a lot of bloggers and kids on facebook that are doing more than some filmmakers.

P: Yeah. Because they specialize in whatever their obsession is, and they spend their lives doing that one thing and recording it.

ED: They have much fancier lenses than we have. And we were part of their gang.

PM: Yeah they were like “oh you’ve got a SONY.”

ED: “Is that any good? The Canon 5…“ whatever it was.

P: “My last one was better.”

What’s the experience you’re hoping the audience will have watching the film?

PM: There was an audience member who said something after the screening that touched me. She said “it’s the first time I’ve seen a film where I have similar experiences to when I walk in nature. I connected to it in the same way that I connect with the real forest.” And that is an aspect that I personally go after, in trying to make the experience trigger feelings that are as real as you would experience outside. But at the same time you’re saying “wait a minute this is only a film.” I think that’s important too. To be reflecting on the idea that you’re sitting in a theater watching a film but having that experience with nature. So it’s not just an illusion that’s drawing you in, it’s the acknowledgement that this is not reality.

ED: It’s really exciting when they go in with all these thoughts. But I hope that there’s also a sense of being immersed enough in this experience that when they leave it, some of the ideas that David puts forward and the way Peter films that they might look at a bush a wee bit differently. Maybe just spend a bit longer in front of a tree. A stone. I’ve been very influenced by David’s ideas about how things express themselves, and what that language is about. It’s affected the way that I walk and see a wee bit. But I don’t think we’re looking for any one set of responses. And we’re not looking to change people’s ideas. It’s a provocation to go about those experiences in a different way.

PM: And allow you to look and contemplate. In that long shot of the tree for example, if it was just a short shot of the tree, after he (David) said “all things are expressive” you’d say, oh yeah a tree’s expressive. But by its extreme duration we make it uncomfortable. But, you also start to think “oh, the wind is blowing, the tree is growing out of the ground’’. It’s telling you something about time, about the elements. It looks like paintings I know. There’s a musicality to it. Like suddenly this simple thing is indicative of a lot of things that you can bring to it if you’re allowed to contemplate. The film generally, that’s one of its objectives is to allow you to just breathe and contemplate what you’re looking at, and bring your own subjective interpretations to it. Because so often in normal life we’re like “tak tak tak tak, to do, to do…” There’s not time to contemplate and meditate. So it’s both a challenge and an offering in a way.

And it really is a long, long shot of a tree. Hitchcock it ain’t.

Inspired by David Abram’s philosophical writings, Becoming Animal also features him and his voice, but he’s not there to explain what’s happening on the screen. Maybe he’s there to help you understand what’s happening in you if you can let go. I had to let the film guide me without too much resistance. (I watched it on a small screen but with my “umbilical cord” headphones. Fair trade?) If you’re too in your head I don’t know if the experience of the film will go as deep as intended.

I remember seeing Mettler’s Gambling Gods and LSD in Montreal when it was first released. It was one of those “I didn’t know you could do that” moments. The film was long, like really long, and I couldn’t call it a documentary as such, strictly speaking. The narrative was unconventional, it wasn’t an art installation, or really anything that I could easily categorize. It was its own thing. Maybe it’s just me but that’s about the best I hope for from film, so yeah, I took notice.

Davie’s work has a respect for her subjects that’s akin to Mettler’s. I am Breathing is a punishing but beautifully heartfelt documentary about the end days of a man in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s never manipulative or maudlin. It handles him as a human being dying with dignity, and his wife as a rock, helping him to prepare a time capsule for his infant son. We’re witness to his descent, but never intrusive.

It’s not a huge stretch to imagine the two filmmakers having lots to talk about.

We’ve gone outside so Peter can have a cigarette.

ED: Do you smoke Phil?

P: No I quit years ago. I was a 2 pack a day guy.

PM: I had a little phase like that extreme. Editing.

P: yeah, I was giving a workshop in Riga yesterday. They had a Steenbeck at the Kino centre. That brought me right back.

PM: Yeah. The ashtray on the Steenbeck. Riga’s a cool place.

P: Riga’s a very cool place. That’s where Emma and I met actually. Doing a workshop there 4-5 years ago. How did you two meet?

PM: In the theatre.

ED: I was in a Robert Lepage play called tectonic Plates, in 1989, or 1990. And I loved experimental theatre, and I acted a bit. And Peter came on board as a filmmaker.

P: You’ve known each other that long?

ED: I know. You’d think we were toddlers at the time but actually we were fully grown.

P: Fully?

PM: Yeah.

P: But this is the first time you’ve worked together on a film.

PM: We’ve talked a lot. I got into documentary after that, and I think we shared an interest in improvisation. Theatre, me and music seguewaying into film. In terms of processes; in terms of finding the structure, and themes of a piece you’re doing. Tectonic plates was like that. I was making a film adaptation of the theater they were doing, and was involved with them for a year.

P: So you weren’t shooting the production you were preparing an interpretation of the same story.

PM: That’s right. Different than the theatre piece obviously, shot on location. It was derived through a lot of live editing, because they were doing it in the theatre so I could watch all kinds of live “edits” in the scenes before writing the film. But those processes were something that we definitely had in common. And I think we also shared an interest in seeing things in different ways, deeply, or obtusely, into a subject. Not really interested in explaining things in didactic narrative but by association.

ED: And I was very affected, particularly by Gambling Gods and LSD. I felt like… I’d not had that experience before, in the cinema, and it really quite shocked me that that was possible. It was a sense of the screen making us both aware of its presence, but also pointing to something beyond it, in such a strong clear way. It was a paradigm shift for me, it really was, a kind of shift in my way of thinking. There are a few artists who’ve done that for me, and actually David’s writing did that some years later. So that’s why I thought it might be an interesting journey, to work together to make this film. But I didn’t read David’s book thinking we should make a film of this, ever. I was at a workshop with David, that was really simple in that he would say some kind of ideas then send us off to experience nature with his ideas in our heads. And there was something very clear about that that made me think, well maybe there’s something that could be filmicly as simple as that, and maybe we should do a filmic sort of journey together. But it wasn’t at all clear, and I didn’t know if Peter would be interested. So we went off to see if it could be a film. I think we weren’t sure until the last minute if it was a film.

PM: Well not last minute… We did the last voice over in the last minute.

P: But you had a sense of where you were going when you started?

PM: No, not at the beginning. At the beginning we really were three of us in the wilderness, David and I meeting each other for the first time. I brought a camera… We didn’t even have a plan really. It was like let’s go there and meet, and see what could be a film.

ED: Do you not remember we had synchronized notebooks?

PM:… Yeah.

ED: We synchronized our notebooks into different sections that we were interested in.

PM: We both have our own mechanisms of how to start a film. You know, how to start research how to start making notes. That’s what we synchronized. And we’re meeting David, who’s vital to the film; let’s see what happens. And I brought a camera and ended up filming all the time, even if that wasn’t the plan. It was mostly filming David talking. Presenting himself on camera, presenting his ideas, and getting used to a camera.

P: He does have a pretty amazing voice too.

PM: He’s got a good voice yeah, for sure. But we knew at the outset that we didn’t want to make a film of David talking. But that was our first step in a way of familiarising ourselves with him.


While Emma makes a phone call, Peter and I compare some notes about Canada, living in Toronto, dual nationalities and funding models that make it tough for me to be an editor for hire in Quebec if I live in Europe. I get to the question of financing just in time for Emma to rejoin us.

P: So how did this film get funded?

ED: Initially it was just a tiny bit from the university that I work for. Just a tiny little bit that allowed us just to travel. And then we got a tiny bit of development from Scotland. But none of that was enough to keep going. And then we pitched here (at CPH:DOX). And then we got a tiny bit again from Brit Doc. So in a way the early sums came from Britain, but there was no way for Britain to generate enough… really enough for the production. And through Peter’s Swiss connection and reputation, Switzerland brought in most of the money. And then Scotland came in with a smaller sum.

P: I saw that pitch here 2 years ago, and it was an interesting way of pitching a film that’s a little more… opaque. You had a basic starting point but what the form is ultimately going to be is a big question mark. Still, you need to convince people to fund that sandbox.

PM: Yeah. But the people who finance want to pre-imagine a finished thing. And you end up having to describe a strategy convincingly, even if it’s very hard for them to picture it. One of the ways it becomes satisfying for the funder is just to make some kind of trailer, or some kind of script and say “this is the script. This isn’t the film but this is how it feels.” I think our pitch was ok, but the trailer was sort of the compelling thing, like ‘oh there’s some kind of cinema, we can relate to that, and we see how it could work.’ Even though it didn’t explain anything, it showed you some of the ideas, and how the logic of the film would be. So it ended up being a good experience.

ED: I think it helps hone your own thinking about it. Because I think we needed to convince ourselves that we could find a film, particularly with the kind of complications of David’s thinking, and know that that could be translated into cinema. For me I don’t think of pitching as selling, I think of it as communicating with an audience, and it just so happens that this audience is. I think that if it touches them then hopefully it touches other people.

PM: You know we didn’t get any concrete funding out of it but I think it’s really a good thing because it exposes a large number of people in the industry to processes that they’re not used to. And if you do that year after year, those processes are better understood. For example a funder saw us and they didn’t give us money but they saw where we were at and how we were working. And then this year they see the finished film. And they go “oh! So you can work like that! That’s how the creative process works for that person.” And those processes are so important in creativity. The blueprint ones tend to be really boring. They follow a formula that already exists, and you can fulfill the formula, it could be interesting but is it something that takes you somewhere else? Not that often.

P: And I find they tend to be boring to everyone. Not just to filmmakers but to the public who can say “ ok it’s a boy meets girl story or a fish out of water story .

PM: And they function on their information alone.

ED: A strange thing that’s come with the success of documentary is a more homogenous documentary language that’s been established in many places. Particularly in North America I think. To a certain extent in Britain. I remember when I first came to festivals when I was making the transition from theatre to film, there were a lot more films that were way out there. They may not have been reaching such wide audiences, but they were exploring things.

P: There’s also a lot more content out there so there’s a lot more competition for people’s eyes.

I get to tutor at a lot of pitching sessions. True enough, the language leans heavily towards the conventional, not just for the sake of funders who don’t live in your head and can understand every weird predilection you have, but for the filmmakers themselves. In the hands of a filming maniac, and with the rise of cheap storage, you could end up with hundreds of hour of material that you can hold out to someone and say “there’s an amazing film in here.” Sure there is pal. Is there a budget too?

The more you can frame what you’re after, the more control you have out in the field. I don’t live in Emma and Peter’s heads, which is good news for all of us, but I fearfully imagined a data dump of countless hours that had to be sifter through to find what’s ultimately a pretty experimental form of documentary.

P: So there was a trinity of you out there in the field. Did you figure out the process as you went along, about how you were going to work together? Or did you have a strategy starting out?

ED: It would be lovely to say that we had a strategy, but I think that the filming of the elks at night indicates what little strategy we had. David got excited about… going to hear elk. And off we bundled to go and hear elk with him. And we didn’t really mean to film, but we ended up filming and it’s a scene I love. And I would say that that was a bit what was happening in the early days. One of us might pull things in a certain direction, but then you also really wanted to understand his ideas, and understand how he communicated. So this other process began where we were trying to get him to speak to the camera with his ideas. So we’d go somewhere and try and just improvise asking a question. But we found that he was used to being in a certain performative mode, because he does a lot of speaking publicly and he’s good at it in a live mode. He was used to quite a mellifluous way of speaking that involves a lot of adjectives, and in a way does a lot of the work that cinema does. So he’d talk about what you saw, and we felt “we see it’s a gushing river, you don’t need to use that word.” If you use it, it stops us seeing it.

The second part of the process was Peter and I went with a camera and filmed.

PM: Second trip. We’d already started assembling things; some sequences that were without David, and only animals, and lots of sequences with his ideas, shaping their trajectory in that first assembly. And the second trip was just a few days. Where we wanted more imagery to work into the rough assembly, basically so that we could raise money.

P: And at that point, on that second trip, you knew what you were looking for when you went out to film.

ED: Well we knew what we were looking for but we were also open to being surprised and led. Like the amazing filming that Peter did with the line of people at the geyser… Do you say “geezer?”

P: “Guyser.” For me a geezer is an old dude.

ED: So the geyser scene with this line of people was something that we just came across. So there’s being open to those moments of revelation.

PM: And we wanted to have what we didn’t have on the first trip, which was the ability to explore things that relate to the landscape. Whether it’s people, cars, signs, animals, we wanted to explore. So then we had that bunch of material and we started working on the more definitive shape of what we thought the film would be, which required David’s involvement again. And we went back to the park, this time with an assistant camera and a sound person as well. And started to fill in the pieces that we thought we needed, started to have David say things that we wanted him to say, chose a location where we would do that. And then we had a good amount of material of David, not of David, the ideas articulated, and started stitching it together. And then the last phase with David was to have him come to where we were editing to re-record some passages very succinctly. And then we kept editing for a few more months.

ED: We kept showing him the cuts actually. It was really important to us that he was also happy with it, so he was quite involved at that stage. It felt like negotiations. Constant negotiations, bargaining over words.

PM: But I wouldn’t say he was quite involved in the filmmaking sense. He was quite involved in terms of reviewing…

ED: His words.

PM: Yeah, his actual words. Because when we watched the film together in the sneak secret screening, and the film started, David said “oh I’ve never seen this opening.” And it’s the opening that’s been there the whole time. You realize now that it’s on the big screen it’s a completely different experience. And he’s relaxing into it, with other people in the room, and during the film he’s going “oh great!” But, at times when there’s a pause in one of his phrases, you see him go (gestures) “come on, finish the sentence!”

ED: laughs

P: So you managed to surprise him anyway.

PM: Yeah. I think when he saw the film for the first time, which unfortunately Emma missed because of snow storms and cyclones, it was a relief that he was enthusiastic, and wasn’t just “oh, it’s ok.” He really got into it and wants to show it in his workshops. That’s a big relief.

P: It’s a strange facet of the film, and I didn’t see it on the big screen but you did draw me into that world. I was immersed watching that tree, watching that snail or listening to the brook. And then David’s voice comes back in and poof, breaks the spell. And sometimes I was irritated by that. Sometimes I wanted to stay in that space, but you pulled me out. Is that a deliberate choice, or totally subjective on my part?

ED: I think the thing is that if you just stayed on the image, you wouldn’t read the image with the layers of interpretation that David’s words allowed you to. We weren’t making “Leviathan.” We weren’t making a film that just immersed you in this sensory perception. It was really important for us that we were layering the visual sensory experience. Taking his ideas further. And when you tried, as of course we did in the edit, to play things longer, there would be that sense of “yeah I’m waiting for something.” So we were aware that the words sometimes seemed to get in the way, but in a funny kind of way it’s also what the film is about. How language is something that connects us, but that can also make us live in more abstractions.

PM: It’s also kind of opera, right. The thing is a musical construction with voice coming in at times. And one without the other wouldn’t really work.

ED: There are lots of annoying bits that you feel aren’t appropriate but that are needed in order to get to that aria. I think sometimes it’s like that with this kind of film. It’s like there are bits of the film where we thought it’s not quite working but we can’t not have that bit. It’ not entirely what we want to do but we still have to do that in order to get to that other bit. And you know as an editor how necessary that is at times. I think that’s often the way with longer narratives. Particularly the arguments that David was trying to bear up.

P: That’s where the structure gets complex, when you have to make compromises to tell a story. I have a messed up head sometimes for editing. Because I fill in the blanks automatically. Sometimes I have to really step back to see what’s needed. And that sometimes makes me a less successful editor. But that’s why I always need feedback. Did you guys screen it to other people besides David as you were going through the process?

ED: Lots of people.

PM: Mostly to hear what they thought.

P: And where does the film go from here?

ED: It’s going to planet DocView in Warsaw, It’s going to Document in Madrid, it’s going to Edingburgh film festival.

PM: and then Italy.



10Today was tough.

After a year of almost unbearable loss, I made the bright move of watching 3 nakedly painful docs, in ascending order of pain. I should learn to read those synopses more closely.

12 Days, by Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon, is the most clinically cool of today’s batch. The title refers to the period of time that someone can be held involuntarily in a psychiatric institution in France, before a judge rules whether or not to prolong that stay. The film is a day in the life of those judges, as they meet patient after patient, each more heartbreaking than the last, and tells them if they’re free, or if they’re not.

I watched the film kind of amazed by the formal rigour of the thing, as Depardon frames the patients in Medium shots, and the judges in tight close up. When the patients’ attorneys appear, they’re always framed beside their clients, detached and practically anonymous. The pattern is only broken in short montages of the hospital, foggy, indistinct, and clinical.

I’m pretty consistent. If there’s an underdog chances are I’ll root for them. In 12 Days I can’t say I identify with the particularities of the characters’ issues, but their pain is obvious, and while I can understand that in an overloaded system these judges simply do their jobs, I couldn’t bring myself to justify a system that places the most vulnerable of us in such a vulnerable position. Is it better to keep unwell people locked up for their sake and ours? Whose benefit is it for really? I couldn’t help flashing to Grey Violet, a film I consulted on a couple of years back, whose ultimate message was that protecting the weakest of us is humanity’s acid test. My dad’s family in Syria, prior to our generation, would inherit the responsibility and honour of caring for the elders and the troubled. I can’t imagine what we’ve lost by not keeping that up.

Last chance to catch it is March 22 at CPH:DOX

The Work is sort of the flipside of that, and sort of not. Filmmakers Jairus McLeary and Gethin Aldous take us into the belly of Folsom prison (yes the Johnny Cash one), along with three civilians, for a firsthand look at a seriously unlikely program. For the last 16 years, ex gang members, reformed criminals and murderers, and violent offenders, have brought civilians into those walls to do the work: an Iron John type 4 day workshop whose sole mission is to exorcise the demons from these men. The civilians are a kind of bridge, or maybe a kind of group father confessor for the cons, all of whom have become and stayed “hard” for as long as they can remember; for status, for survival, for power. The x-cons leading the workshop are tough, but the secret to their strength is that they’ve learned to embrace their vulnerabilities. Hard as the cons are, they’re scared shitless of their own humanity.

It’s a hard thing, watching tattooed warrior after tattooed warrior break down into a searing hysteria, held down by the rest of the guys, while the wail of other men in other groups echo in the background. Maybe it’s not even a desirable thing, to find a soft spot for men who’ve done unspeakable things, hurt the ones they love, and fathered children they’ve never met. But just as the pattern risks getting monotone, the one unshakable truth to the whole thing crystalizes; that none of these guys, cons or civilians or ex-cons, had a father figure. And if they actually did know their fathers, those men were givers of pain and humiliation, withholders of love, shadows of what a father could have been. The guys in this doc grew up violent. They are violent, and so is their catharsis. Brian, one of the civilians, has one of the most visceral explosions when he finally lets go, and gets a bloody gash on his forehead for his troubles. The hilarious line that follows prompts one of the truly funny moments in the film.


The screening I attended was in a church, and it was awesome. Watching from a pew, with that musty church smell, and feeling too close to my neighbor, it was a far cry from being behind bars, but the community was amazing. I couldn’t help but try and imagine what those rooms at the prison smell like, what the echo is like. Not exactly VR, but as immersive as a screening can get.

Watching The Work these guys were doing, and living deep inside my own crises, I couldn’t help but reflect back on how I got where I am, what made me who I am, what, as a guy, I’m capable of communicating, and what I’m not. I mean there’s a reason why some of the guys in the sessions are civilians and not all cons. There are generations of men brought up to keep all their shit inside. In my case, all the years of trying to undo that programming has been, if not a failure, then at least a letdown. The men in The Work talk about the respect they hold for their mothers, but the disrespect with which they’ve treated the other women in their lives. Metoo is partly an emancipation cry for women, but I think it’s also an opportunity for men to step up and participate in the conversation. Call me naïve but I see that as a win-win for everyone.

Screening again March 25

And then there’s Of Fathers and Sons, Talal Derki’s latest in his planned trilogy. If Return to Homs was a treatise on violence and how it begets violence, Of Fathers and Sons starts to peel back the layers of devastating cost of protracted, institutionalized violence.

It’s a hard film to talk about, an that’s the point. Does anyone really want to identify with a sniper? Someone who names his sons after martyrs and promises to send them to battle if the local recruiters don’t do it first? Isn’t it easier to think of these men as maniacs and radicals, hell bent on destruction and mayhem?

It is. It’s way easier, and that’s part of what makes Derki’s film hard to digest. The titular father in the film loves his flesh and blood no less than any other father, maybe more, and his sons could be anyone’s sons, looking to their dad as a role model, and learning daily through play. It just so happens that the toys they play with are homemade explosive.

I tried to put myself in the shoes of a father living in a country torn to shreds by war, where conclusive answers are in short supply, so the only story I can connect with is the one that makes sense to me; that the enemy is so and so, that our purpose from now on is war, that the only acceptable outcome is victory, or else more war. If that’s my normal, why wouldn’t I teach that to my kid? Isn’t that we ultimately do; pass on our values to our children because we believe that we’re right? If I strip away the politics and the violence and the dogma of war, then what’s left is our relationships, like between a father and son. Osama, the eldest, is practically bred for combat, named after you know who, and surrounded by people who deify him. Why wouldn’t he follow in his dad’s jihadist footsteps. The right of passage isn’t just a simplistic “violence is passed on”, it’s a father giving his son something to believe in, and a son who wants to make his father proud.

One question mark I took away: Derki talked in the Q & A after the screening about how he shot the film. His access depended on him telling his subjects that he shared their beliefs and how he wanted to carry that message to the world. The beauty of the film though had me sympathizing with this family. I didn’t want them to get hurt, of to end up fatherless, and I felt a bit offended for them that Derki had had to deceive them. Testament I guess to his talents as a filmmaker, but it does give me pause.

But I guess that’s the theme I’m taking away this year: that the richness and complexity of all these stories make simple conclusions at the end of a review meaningless.

Of Fathers and Sons screening at CPH:DOX March 23


CPH:DOX day 1 (for me)


I was what you’d call a late bloomer. I flash back to my formative years a lot these days, with one main question : Was I naturally curious? They say we all were, to begin with. We need to figure out everything from how to stand to how to hold a spoon to how to communicate, and that’s just our bodies and minds. After that there’s a whole world to learn and navigate. And sure, a part of that is biological necessity, but there is another part, more slippery to pin down, that keeps us learning, sometimes in spite of ourselves.

Ian Cheney’s The Most Unknown, the opening film of the Science program of the 2018 session of CPH:DOX, thrives in the space where curiosity borders on obsession. 9 scientists from different disciplines, in 9 places around the world (mostly the US), sleep badly, wax philosophic about the weird corners of nature that we haven’t even begun to explore, and challenge each other to explain to them the particularities of their disciplines which they (and by extension we) don’t yet understand. We meet an American microbiologist, cave diving in Italy, looking for rare blooms from rare bacteria and marveling over the slime trails on the cave ceiling left behind by… who knows what. As she says, there are something on the order of 30 trillion species on the planet. We know about 1 million of them. We don’t even know how to look for the rest, because we don’t know what we’re looking for.

We follow her to Italy, where we meet a physicist and his quest for dark matter (it’s everywhere but we don’t absolutely know it’s everywhere). He takes us to Belgium where we meet a psychologist trying to understand how consciousness works, who later takes us to the hot springs of Utah under the stewardship of a wonderfully geeky astrophysicist, who takes us to a cosmic telescope in the peaks of Hawaii, wide eyed to the biggest toy ever. Interdisciplinary encounters, they’d call it, turning the film into a micro-petri dish to see what an one can inspire in the other, and what that does to their practice.

The curiosity of each scientist is infectious, and emphasized by how much they all admit that they don’t know (which is most things). What drives them in fact is the blank spots in our knowledge, the need to answer all the questions the rest of us in our day to day never think to ask. What are we made of? What does it mean to be conscious? Every question we can answer raises a multitude more, and these engaging science nerds (gold star word) are basically grown up kids, full of wonder, searching for answers, and almost hoping they don’t find them.

One of the things I’ve come to love about science is the multiplicity of patterns. A network of rivers, viewed from way above, resembles a branch of veins inside our bodies. A genus tree of how species and life forms are organized drawn on a white board, viewed from a step back, looks like a brain, stem and all. And if you’ve ever seen Charles and Ray Eames’ Power of Ten, you’ve witnessed the patterns that repeat from the widest view of our galaxy, to the most microscopic study of our cells. We’re treated to some of that in the Most Unknown, and it’s the first time in a while I felt that drone shots are a serious addition to a film. From that vantage point, whether it’s true or not, it’s easy to believe that the building blocks of reality resemble each other because they’re perfect in their own way.

When I edit a film, I irritate the filmmaker with a million questions, trying to get to the heart of what their film is really about. Sometimes I wake up at night with fresh ideas, and sometimes there’s a moment (my favorite!) when we both realize that it’s not about what we thought it was about. It’s got the same character and we’re using the same footage, but with a fresh context it all means something totally new. I got a feeling like that watching this unlikely dream team for a couple of hours. If only I’d seen this film in high school…

Screening again March 18 & 24




Egyptian filmmaker Mohamed Siam’s portrait of a bad ass young girl named Amal, who stood with all the guys at Taher square during the Egyptian revolution. The film was shot over a period of years, following Amal from the age of 14 to 20, and through some amazing home movies from her youth, all the way down to infancy. A refreshing film that naturally affords respect to its character, instead of taking the easy route and painting her as the victim of a patriarchal society. Sure she is, but that’s not the sum of her anymore than it’s the sum of anyone living under oppression. Her dreams are no different than anyone else’s. The Egyptian revolution was full of promise, and she’s not immune to the disillusionment that followed. As one of those micro/macro films I like, it’s as much a portrait of Egypt today as it is of one young girl becoming a woman.

Screening again March 20 and 25 at CPH:DOX


Screening tonight:


The Ed Wood of Afghanistan.

Kind of rolls off the tongue doesn’t it.

Sonia Kronlund’s made a film about Salim Shaheen as he produces his 111th (?!) film, which is about as far from a picture of Afghanistan as I ever expected to have. I’m waiting to go in to the cinema now, so I’ll share my feelings later. But already, if this guy can produce 110 films (and presumably 111 works out ?) in a country where they would have us believe nothing is possible, then my tolerance for filmmaker complaints about how hard it is to make movies just nose dived.

Screening again March 20th at CPH:DOX


A Science fiction documentary. That’s what they’re calling it anyway. An experimental hybrid that focuses hard on sound design. Filmmakers Giorgio Ferreroand & Federico Biasin promise us a “film that locates the future in the midst of our present age.”

We’ll see.

Screens again March 22





THE THE’s Matt Johnson and director Johanna St Michaels on their new documentary The Inertia Variations, life, death, and other vices

All the bankers gettin’ sweaty beneath their white collars

As the pound in our pocket turns into a dollar

THE THE, Heartland, 1986


Radio Cineola live at CPH:DOX 2017, with Matt Johnson & Knud Romer.                                 photo PJ

Matt Johnson: If I were to define Britain as a person… if you think back to the school playground, and you know you would have the big bully going around thumping everyone, and there’d be one or two quislings, well I see Britain as one of the quislings. America’s going around kicking and punching. We’re the little sneak, that’s not strong enough to beat anyone up ourselves, but he’s happy to stick the boot in when someone’s down. I feel very ashamed of what’s happened, especially the last thirty years.

Knud Romer: But wouldn’t it be a pensioner?

MJ: An old pensioner.

KR: Yeah, somewhere in the countryside, lost his job because of east European workers, and he now stole a whole new generation’s hope by being reactionary and getting out of Europe?

MJ: It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase “the special relationship.” And also the phrase describing Britain and America “2 great nations separated by a common language.” In England we had terms for men and women, “blokes” and “birds”. Everyone’s a guy now. We no longer celebrate Guy Fawke’s night… The American version of Halloween has now taken over. We’re also now celebrating thanksgiving! In England. Incredibly. And apparently there’s plans for July the 4th I suppose, as well.

Q&A @ CPH:DOX 2017


Matt Johnson has never been coy about his politics or world view, so when he withdrew from the limelight in the early 2000s, his silence was notable. The death of his mother Shirley, a few years after the death of his younger brother Eugene was a sort of catalyst of grief, and he focused his energies on soundtracks for his brother Gerard, publishing select writings on his own imprint, and hosting Radio Cinéola from his London home.

But 2017 it seems is the springtime of THE THE. Radio Cinéola, grief, creativity, the obscure writings of wish-he-wasn’t poet John Tottenham, and the occasional need to step back and take it all in, are some of the movements in Johanna Saint Michael’s new documentary The Inertia Variations. Named after some of Tottenham’s work, the film premiered at the Gothenburg film festival, and just had a celebrated run at CPH:DOX.

One of the things I always press filmmakers I work with is access. In Saint Michael’s case it’s a no-brainer.

MJ: Do you exercise or are you an athlete?

P: I’m no athlete but I do exercise.

MJ: What’s your favorite thing to do?

P: I love running but I wrecked my knee.

MJ: Ok well you know Johanna was a runner for the Swedish junior Olympic team.

Johanna St Michael: At the national levels.

MJ: Yeah, sorry. Well guess who was the fastest runner she ever ran against… Yeah it was me.

JSM: You were the fastest ex-boyfriend.

MJ: Fastest… ex-boyfriend? Not the fastest person?…”

P: Are you just finding this out now?

MJ: Yeah well…


photo PJ

I remember when Infected dropped, all saturated with lusty rage, piss and vinegar. A socio-politically charged album of unabridged Britishness? A duet with Neneh Cherry? A video for every song, released all at the same time as a film? What’s not to love?

P: I remember listening to your stuff in the 80s-90s and people either liking what you had to say, or getting instantly shut off from the political angle, like music and politics have no business together.

MJ: Living in the US “even good friends would get angry at us, who were Democrats and we could talk to a certain point then no further. Talk about foreign policy and they’d be up and arms, “you’re a foreigner and you’re criticizing us? Why don’t you go back to your country.”

JSM: It was really hard. We both like talking about politics and, for me, living in the states for 20 years and not really being able to talk about it? It really took getting used to.

The steady stream of music and spurted out by THE THE (“Have you tried Googling THE THE? Rubbish. Wish I’d known at the time” M.J.) at the height of the band’s popularity gets little attention in Saint Michael’s film. She gets right into the multi-media aspect of Tottenham’s verses, the Radio Cinéola broadcasts, and a sculpture created by her partner Jacob Sahlqvist, inspired by the Shukhov tower in Moscow.

The Inertia Variations photo Johanna St Michaels

The Radio Cineola tower in Gothenburg, Sweden                                        photo Johanna St Michaels

MJ: why the Shukhov tower, was because it was commissioned by Lenin, it was erected in Moscow, I don’t think it was finished until I think 2 years after Lenin died. But it was to broadcast across all of the new Soviet Union. And as I mention in the film, the irony, that in Britain particularly and of course in America there are people crowing about “we won the cold war” and I think; to what cost? Britain and America particularly we have CCTV, everything is monitored. We are the most spied upon country in human history. And yet we crow about winning the cold war. It doesn’t make any sense to me.


You would think by now that people would know better

Than to ask me what I have been doing with my time.

And you would think by now that I would have come up

With an answer that would silence them.

 John Tottenham, A long hard lazy apprenticeship of doing nothing

Inertia Variations is a touching exploration of creativity and its place in a creator’s life as he looks towards the future, but can’t escape his past. Johnson has reinvented himself over the last 15 years, eschewing the spotlight for a different role, as shepherd of a radio broadcast, composer of soundtrack music, publisher: in short everything except rock and roll.

Radio Cinéola acts as an odd hybrid, as Johnson welcomes political scientists, healers, and poets, as well as bands who re-interpret THE THE’s music catalogue. The film gives us glimpses into the workings of his broadcast scheme, but continuously runs back to John Tottenham’s texts, until you’re not sure where one ends and the other begins. At the same time, access or no, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Johnson will let us in only so far and no further. Maybe sharing Tottenham’s voice made the process easier to bear.

Johanna St Michaels with Matt johnson Inertia Variations

photo Gerald Jenkins

JSM: It Started as a different film. An art film. But we couldn’t get funding.

MJ: I was going through a particularly lengthy period of procrastination. Creative Inertia. I was living down at my dad’s. And so I received this (the poems) through the email. And I sat and read it in one sitting. And it made me laugh, it made me cry. I found it very profound, very poignant. But a lot of black humour. It was very, very funny. And then I said I’ve gotta do something with this. So I contacted John and I said listen, I really want to do something with it. So I recorded a spoken word project with soundscapes, and I was just gonna release that. And then I played it to a few friends, and I played it to Johanna. And she absolutely loved it. And she said, “look; this is you!”


John Tottenham at FOMO fest, 2014                                                                     photo Carl Pocket

JSM: Hah!

P: And the line in the film where you say “There’s nobody in prison who’s spent more time staring at the wall than me” That is you right?

MJ: That’s John. That’s the thing. It’s sometimes hard to tell who’s saying what, because it’s so similar. What he’s writing is what I could have written myself. And so people often think is it you or is it… It could have been me.

JSM: Well yeah, it was SO Matt. But that was the whole intention with the documentary. That you wouldn’t know. That you would think that the poem was Matt’s.

MJ: There are some clips on youtube of him doing readings. And I’m not being vain but I prefer mine to his. (laughter) No, no, no, but in some ways he reads them in a very comical, almost like a stand up comedian the way he… I mean they’re his words. Obviously it’s his voice. But I suppose the way I interpret them, and you could a third or fourth or fifth person, and they’d all be very very different. And John reads them comically which, they are very very funny. But they’re also very very poignant. And so each person that read them would give them a different interpretation. It’s be interesting to hear a woman read them. I think that’d be beautiful. That’s not a bad idea actually.

P: That would be interesting.

MJ: And get lots of different people to do readings. But when John heard my readings he went “ugh.”(laughs) because my voice was too soporific for him. But that’s the beauty of those words. That they are so pliable. And you’ll see in them whatever you want to see in them.

JSM: But you do have a good reading voice. Lots of people comment on that.

MJ: Some people have said I said it like Michael Caine. (laughter) “Not a lot of people know that.”


photos Annika Gustafson

JSM: in the beginning you were like I don’t want to be private in the documentary. I don’t want to reveal anything about myself. I want to do a political station. And then read the poems. But you have to get someone to be the main character as well. And then I thought the poem would be his inner self in the project, when we decided it was going to be a documentary instead of an art project. I think we took about 5 years of rejection before we started getting any money from kulturbryggand. They were the first ones to give in. We almost had a theatrical project to begin with: Matt was going to read the poems on stage and then we were going to have an art film, and that’s what we got money for.


Art imitating life imitating… The Inertia Variations installation @ CPH:DOX                          photo PJ

MJ: It went through so many changes. We were gonna have this room installation where you had 7 rooms, each representing a different section of the day. But, there was a lot of interest from these people that loved it as an art project but said “well, a 45 min art film a bout a poem is kind of boring.” So what happened was that…”

JSM: you wanted to do the radio station with it and then it got really confusing, like how are we gonna do this.

MJ: Well it was just sort of merging 2 projects. And then Johanna went off to these workshops. In Croatia and Norway. And then she came back.

JSM: Yeah. They said basically that it was so shitty, how are you gonna do this. It’s so boring. Matt is so boring. And I said he’s not really that boring, he’s self obsessed, and…

MJ: I’m not self obsessed.

JSM: No but they thought so.

MJ: Anyway… But then, she came back with this idea.

JSM: Yeah.

MJ: That we do a live radio show. And I was resistant, because I said no. I’ll just do the radio show from my normal studio. And Johanna insisted it’s got to be live. It’s gotta be authentic, and we’re gonna do it on election day. Which was…

JSM: In three months.

MJ: In three months.

JSM: No it was six months actually.

MJ: That long? So we set up the radio show, hired producers, I then approached various people I wanted to interview. Which were either friends of mine through local campaigning, or geo-political writers that I admire like William Engdahl. An old friend of ours in NY Abdi Assadi, a very highly rated spiritual counselor. A political professor chum of mine from Manchester. So it was an interesting group of people. And then I did a lot of research for the interviews. And then we built the radio set in my own studio.

JSM: But before we actually got to that point we did an art show with the tower, in Gothenburg. Because we had money that had been sitting in an account, that we needed to use.

MJ: Otherwise they take it back.

JSM: So what can we do with this money? And then we got Jacob involved, the architect of the tower, which is my boyfriend.

P: You want to keep it in the family.

MJ: Exactly!

JSM: So we built the tower. We did an 18min loop of the art film that I wanted to do. We projected it down in the snow. It was actually so well liked, standing there it was supposed to stand for like 2 weeks; it was standing there for 3 months, right underneath the bridge in Gothenburg.

MJ: It’s like a disused power station, that’s now an art gallery. And fantastic space and location.

P: So that’s the building in the beginning of the film.

JSM: Yeah. We thought it’d be great to have a… What would you call it? Something to tie it together.

MJ: A symbol throughout the film that repeats. And initially we wanted to take it to New York. To put it on the end of a pier of a seaside English town. We were going to …

JSM: Put it on the ice in a Swedish lake.

MJ: We had plans to take it everywhere, but the expense of dismantling it … it proved prohibitive. It is going to Edinburgh.

JSM: And London.

P: Because you’re premiering in Edinburgh.

JSM: Yeah so it’s taking a little tour.


In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.

THE THE, Love is Stronger Than Death, 1993


The Johnson brothers with father Eddie.                                                               photo Shirley Johnson

Most artists have a running theme that permeates their work. Johnson, it could be said, is largely defined by a streak of social and political commentary, very British and very outspoken. Personally, I’ve been drawn by the personal stuff; raw shots of naked lust, or sadness, or confusion that I can nod my head to in recognition.

But one running theme that has influenced everything from his work to his inertia is loss. Sure enough, as the inertia Variations was gathering steam in 2012, a fresh dose of bad news arrived, about his older brother and lifelong collaborator.

MJ: When Andy got sick my youngest son had just been born. I was publishing my dad’s book, I was preparing the release of a soundtrack, and whoosh. Andy’s sickness just overshadowed it all. I remember being there with my dad and my other brother when the doctor gave us the diagnosis. Andy asked the doctor when it was obvious it was bad news, ‘so tell me’. And the doctor said ‘do you want the numbers?’ And he said yeah. 6 months. My dad started crying, I started crying. We all did. Andy was just calm.

JSM: That’s Andy.

MJ: Yeah, and when he started the treatment, I mean he had surgical procedures done… What was supposed to be 6 months was suddenly 2 and a half years. And then there was one time… Whenever Andy went to get examined he’d call us up afterwards to let us know what how he was doing. But this one day we waited and waited. Finally we started calling each other asking ‘have you heard from Andy?’ ‘No.’ Finally I worked out that… He’d got bad news, and he had probably gone to my dad’s to tell him face to face. And sure enough, that’s what he’d done.

JSM: And that took it all away from you. You couldn’t do anything for ages afterwards.

MJ: And you too. You were close you and Andy.

JSM: Yeah we were. We were family.

MJ: We are.

P: That’s kind of an amazing thing about your story; family. There’s you two, and I read your dad’s book, how your mom and uncle helped run the pub you grew up over, and THE THE had their debut there. Family is a big part of your story.

MJ: Yeah, family is the most important thing. And you know, Johanna and I have been separated for ages but she’s family and we have Jack together. And my family still treats her as family.

JSM: And mine treats you the same. And we certainly get on better than we ever did when we were together.


photo Annika Gustafson

The through line of the film is Saint Michael prodding Johnson to write a new damn song already. There’s always a reason not to, always too much to do. The death of his beloved brother though, is the turning point; when it’s clear that time runs out, that there’s a purpose, a catharsis in finishing the song.

It begs the question: would it have been easier for Johnson to write the song in his heyday? Has there been a shift in his process?

P: Do you spend time staring at the walls? How are you both different in the way you work?

JSM: I’m not such a perfectionist as say Matt is. Because I’d rather try and do things, but I seem to spin my wheels trying many different things. Like this film I spent maybe 4 months editing on paper, until I got it right. Then I went to the editor, who’s very fast, and I could say “no, no that’s not right.” And so back to editing on paper. And then we went back and forth like this because we had a tremendous amount of material. So I’m very slow in my process. I’m not so much sitting there not doing anything, but I’m pretty slow. It’s taken nearly 13 years to do this film. And my previous film took 5 years.

MJ: That’s not a fair indication. It wasn’t continual focus for 13 years. It was very much stop start stop start. And the project’s evolved and gone off in different directions. So it’s not fair to compare it to the other film. Because it’s so multi-faceted and has so many other people involved

JSM: Yeah. But I would say my process is slow. I’m not very quick. I’m saying “bap” that’ll be like that.

MJ: Whereas, oddly enough, when I’m in the studio I’m fast. As opposed to someone like Mark Hollis and Talk Talk. He would be in the studio for years at a time. “That note is not right”. We never met, but we knew a lot of the same people. So it would drive them mad, friends of mine that would work with him. They would quit cos’ they can’t take it. Like 10 days on one note. “ding ding ding ding.” So he would be in there for years whereas I don’t go in for years. But when I do it’s very fast. So I’m a hard worker, I just avoid going in there.


J: Yeah we’re different. I go in there but I don’t come out.



photo PJ

MJ: Boredom is such an important part of the creative process. You know in England on Sundays, or even Wednesday afternoons the shops would close. And it was so… boring. In England. There was nothing else to do. So I formed a little band. We would rehearse, and get into trouble with the police sometimes. I worry that if I was young in this day and age, 14 or 15, whether I would have the same impulse to create. I probably would be one of these kids looking at the phone all the time. And I worry that we could be losing generations that could become writers, painters, artists, poets. Because they’re just trapped in these little digital prisons. We can remember the alternative. But younger people have nothing to compare it to. It does worry me.”

Q&A @ CPH:DOX 2017

For all the productivity of Johnson’s peak output, St Michaels does go out of her way in the film to make inertia a central character. Partly I think, because it’s such a universal characteristic, particularly when you have to cope with grief and loss, and the love-hate relationship with celebrity (“it’s a toxin!” M.J.), and the always-connected assault of daily life, like the speakers in his hotel lobby that never turned off.

MJ: You can’t escape music. It drives me nuts. I think it’s desensitised our aural nerves. And I listen to a lot less music because I want to get away from it. I live in the party capitol of London. When I first moved there in the mid 80s there were only maybe 15 bars. Now there are 300. All I hear is boom boom boom boom. Driving me insane. Now… I figured I’d at least get some sleep here in Copenhagen. Early night, nice shower. Boom boom boom boom. You’ve gotta be fucking joking. I’m hyper sensitive to noise.

JSM: At home I love it when it’s just quiet. Jacob likes to have the TV on because he feels lonely. I just turn it off.

MJ: One of the things John really liked (in the film) was when I said; what people want doesn’t exist anymore. Whereas you often have people pretending to be who they used to be; cashing in, continually regurgitating something that they don’t even believe in anymore. Because everyone’s obsessed not only with youth but with their own youth. And that was an interesting point that he made, that…

JSM: But it’s sad really that they are so youth obsessed. And I used to work as a model and you’re like a package of milk: Every day you get worse, with best before dates. And a lot of old model, they’re hanging onto their beauty… Trying to find a rich man to support them. And my previous film Penthouse North is about a woman who’s 60.

P: Have you had different reactions from different generations?

JSM: I think people just recognize themselves in when they see the film.

MJ: But really young people, I don’t think they have that life experience, to have that sense of regret and time wasted. And I think it’s only once you get a bit older…

JSM: But I don’t think that’s really true, because Moa… Jacob has 2 kids, 20 and 18, and Moa is one of them and she said “You know my generation they’re so paranoid of growing old! Life is passé now at 20.

MJ: Is that what she said?

JSM: Yeah, you know I think that’s when life is just starting but she says her friends are depressed because they’re turning 20-21. Because they’re so youth obsessed.

P: Well it’s strange how creativity has a shelf life. You can try and reinvent yourself and then the fans are like “no we want more of that.”

MJ: Yeah. Well you’ll see it in many bands’ careers, when they hit on a winning formula, bands like Status Quo, Dire Straits, they pretty much across the border hit on a winning formula and they stick to it. The band members hate each other but they have to stay together. To me, even as a young boy I thought that is my idea of a living hell. Which is why I wanted a band that was fluid. So the members might change but also we might do collaborations with filmmakers and painters and such, so that it stays alive. And unfortunately, commercially that’s a bit of a suicide note because… when I put out these soundtracks that I do which I love, they sell a fraction of other albums, and people want me to sing and go on stage. But I don’t really want to do that. So if you’ve made that decision you have to be prepared to take that financial hit. Say I’d rather be happier, than richer.

JSM: But I think that’s interesting with the film actually. Your fans obviously when they come to the screenings, I had some in Stockholm, they’re like “get Matt to write! He doesn’t even have to sing, just write the words down. “ (laughs) And then you get somebody who’s forty, or under forty five. I had a very interesting experience at a party in Sweden. I met somebody who was maybe 50, who was “Oh you’ve been together with Matt Johnson! Can I touch you?”

MJ: Touch you where?


JSM: And then I met somebody who was forty who asked “who is that? I didn’t know who Matt was but the film really touched me.” Not musically so much but the subject matter. That’s nice, that you can reach out in different ways.


There are no voices – as the time approaches

I wanted to be like Bobby Dylan

Until I discovered Moses

Matt Johnson, Another Boy Drowning, 1981


photo PJ

Looking back on my own life is occasionally harrowing; sometimes lamenting who I was, or who I thought I’d be. I do take comfort on Johnson’s can-do attitude to his own path, as he recycles a lot of what he used to do, and continues to evolve. To that end, The Inertia Variations could practically be a blueprint for sharing culture and creative reinvention. He certainly talks with more spirit about his many projects than he does about singing more songs.

MJ: It was very much a collaborative process. Johanna and I are the main faces of it at this stage. And obviously John Tottenham, Jacob with the tower, Thomas Feiner took the photo of me in the poster, designed a 3-D version of the tower, and performed his version of This Is The Day in the film. There’s a huge amount of people involved. So it’s probably the most collaborative project I’ve ever done.

JSM: So many people.

MJ: Next I’m releasing a box, with three books and CDs; performed music from the film, my soundtrack, and the spoken word recordings.

P: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tottenham’s books started selling millions…

MJ: I hope so! That’s the dream for me, for it really to come full circle, to that original inspiration that he provided.

JSM: We tried to get him over for the radio show but we really didn’t have it in our budget.

MJ: But we did get him on skype. That was the first time we ever skyped. And he’s hilarious.

P: That’s a wonderful piece in the end credits.

MJ: “Ah poetry is a disgusting, filthy habit. But I keep doing it.” (laughs)


A big chunk of the interview recording was lost (which is why I got to talk to Johnson and St Michaels twice), but we talked about the arrogance of creation (“you! Listen to my message!”) and the narcissism of youth culture when our kids spend half their device time looking at pictures of themselves.

Mostly I was happy to see a pair of artists happy to be moving forward instead of looking eternally behind themselves. And while I found myself mourning the restlessness that used to be simply natural, and which they still wear on their sleeves, I was mainly inspired by it.

By the way, I forgot to say face to face; thanks for all the music Matt. They made those years a brighter place. Especially when I was just staring at the wall.


5 Days exploring film, technology, science & art @ CPH:DOX in partnership with Documentary Campus.

Theme Day 1: Art, Technology & Change

The film industry is changing as fast as it can (not very), to keep up with audience habits. New tech however, is lean and flexible by nature, partly because creators are still struggling with finding the right delivery mechanisms, but mainly because it’s all new enough that the possibilities are still pretty open.

Case in point, one wonders if Watson might put me out of a job some time soon.


Brainchild of the Multimedia and Vision team from the T. J. Watson Research Center at IBM, WATSON is AI that’s started putting trailers together.

An AI film trailer, put together by AI. Smart.

John R Smith, IBM Fellow and Manager of the department, asked the question “Can artificial intelligence be creative?” A terrifying question for anyone in the business. We can sort of tolerate the idea that AI might be ale to analyse meaning from data, maybe even reach certain conclusions as well. But to mimic the creative process? The mysterious thing that justifies our existence and careers because it can’t be defined? That can be learned?

Not quite yet, but the wheels are in motion.



“For me creativity in science begins with method” says Smith. In other words, once you define a system of learning, you have a shot, if you follow it through.

Once films have been input into WATSON (in this case horror films), it is taught how to recognize what it sees on the screen: laughter, a car, the color red, the sky, etc. The same is done for trailers for those films, so it can evaluate what makes a good one. Then another film is through WATSON, and it tags everything it recognizes into its database. It files the information and can retrieve specific shots at will. With all the footage tagged and filed, It then evaluates what footage would be appropriate for a trailer, based on the reference films’ relationships with their trailers. In effect, it uses “experience” as a way of deciding what shots to choose. An editor does the creative work afterwards, but the selects come from WATSON.



And out of 10 shots selected by the beast, the editor agreed with 8 of them. Staggering.

If the method really is the beginning of creativity, I’d better start thinking of getting some AI implants or something. (to be fair, it did give me fantasies of being in my edit suits and saying “Watson, pull everything with a red flower in it.”



Staying in the realm of AI and automation, We’re still deciding what our relationship is with the things we create. David Sirkin’s talk How do we live with robots was a fascinating look at some of the user experience design research being done at Stanford.

Driverless cars, a living room ottoman, and even trash cans were all subjects in the department’s heavily documented research.

The amazing thing is how quick we are to assign personalities to the robots that we meet. A rolling ottoman places itself under a subject’s feet. When it later moves, the subject thought that he had done something to somehow upset the ottoman. Another pets it like a dog when it moves. Or desk drawers that respond to the patterns of the person sitting there. Sometimes they go with the flow, and sometimes against it. One desk even started “chuckling” when the subject dropped something (drawers quickly going in and out like a wheezy guffaw). Subjects’ reactions are measured, but always engaged in trying to understand the machine’s behavior.

We’re a long way from cylons, but what’s clear is that we have to be aware of how we interact with the things we create, lest we risk them becoming our overlords.


Back in a slightly more 2D world we heard from the realm of impact comics from Ram Devineni, Producer/Director at Rattapallax.

His talk was Augmented reality activism. His project, Priya’s Shakti, is an AR digital comic, that also works as an augmented reality piece that for once is actually targeted at the slums where violence against women, including acid attacks, are at their highest. “We looked at female characters from American comics (huge breasted, scantily clad), and said Fuck That! We spent lots of time creating a new kind of natural hero, steeped in Hindu culture.”

The comic itself is wonderfully different from the usual fare. I’m still a bit unclear about the impact of the AR components, but you can check them out yourself and see what you think.

At the very least, Yay! A positive female role model, and a project that understands that the problem needs to be tackled as a men’s issue (the perpetrators), not a woman’s.


Ah. Closeness to home, with a project from Montreal’s Dpt.

Paul George presented The Enemy, a VR / AR experience by war photographer Karim Ben Khelifa. He filmed combatants from opposing sides (Israeli / Palestinian for example), answering the same questions and speaking of the same things: Who is your enemy? Have you ever killed your enemy? And so on. In the VR space, users are between the 2 combatants, standing face to face. Looking at the Israeli soldier, he gets into what makes an enemy his enemy, and the Palestinian does the same.

“We have more in common than we have differences” says George. We fear the same things, respect most of the same values. If we could listen to each other… maybe we could hear each other.”

It’s always difficult to judge how a VR piece functions unless you’ve been strapped into the headset, but the theory behind the project is, I think, sound. Strip away the ideologies and politics and at heart we’re all ultimately human. A Jewish friend of mine with an Israeli girlfriend once said to me “ I can’t move to Israel. In theory you and I could end up shooting at each other (me being Syrian).” The weirdest pre-disposition to violence and warfare seems hardwired in, but it’s still ultimately learned. Maybe going through the VR “empathy machine” can bridge the gap that diplomacy and proximity can’t.




Ending the day was creative technologist Eric Magnee’s Smartphone orchestra. I don’t want to spoil it for you so check it out here.



Liberation Day


20170320_231809I had a tiny hand consulting on this project, but it was my first time seeing it on the big screen. What can I say; it’s a great film! Director Morten Traavik was there for a good Q & A afterwards, and all walked away satisfied.

One screening left Sunday the 26th at 9:30, at the Nordisk Film Palads cinema.


Coming up: The Conference coverage continues, More film, more industry, and an interview with Matt Johnson of The The fame, on the occasion of his new documentary The Inertia Variations, screening with Q & A Screenings






Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 19.56.08

I spent a year editing How It’s Made, exhaustively exploring the rhythm of machinery and human interaction. Working on the program was about as assembly line a job as I ever had too, so my psyche was nicely aligned to the content, until I couldn’t handle watching one more piece of sheet metal get pressed into the form of a sink, or another injection mould endlessly pump out toothbrush stems. I ended up getting my kicks imagining editing an hour long assembly of… something, never revealed except in a series of extreme close ups, made of plastic, wood, stone, every material imaginable.

What the title of Rahul Jain’s Machines, screening at CPH:DOX refers to gets blurry over time. Is it the coal ovens, silk screen printers and rollers that never seem to stop churning out textiles, or the people stoically operating them, working back to back 12 hour shifts to support their families? The distinction is made all the more slippery by the fact that almost nobody speaks in the film. This isn’t manual labor buoyed by friendly chatter, it’s mechanical, silent work done by men who look dead behind the eyes.

I’ve got a soft spot for the quiet, lingering doc that hypnotizes me. Having the time to submerge into simple moments make those moments stay with me longer, play out in my head, get re-evaluated depending on context. The thing I tell creators the most in trailer workshops is to let their scenes breathe more. Give us a chance to be there.

I re-imagined the film as an interactive piece, somehow immersing the viewer in the smell and sights and sounds of that hellish workplace. It wouldn’t require any more talking, just a different frame, with so and so’s name, from such and such a province, however many km away. How many kids they have, how many hours a week they have to work, what their life expectancy is after exposure to chemicals and the relentless wear and tear of heir brutal pace.

Not for the feint of heart, but well worth your time.


Less so the first batch of VR on display at the Charlottenborg Kunsthal. The impact series let me down. I spent most of the time wondering why the pieces were VR. Trevor Snapp’s We Who Remain was apparently about the people of the Nabu mountains in Sudan, but it was edited like a film, one with narration and graphics and multiple characters and no clear storyline. I spent real time trying to figure out what the film was about. Not a promising sign.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 20.15.22

Jayisha Patel’s Notes to My Father had more going for it. From the Indian heartland a young woman is trafficked into the sex trade, but most of the film is spent at the family abode. Gorgeous rice fields are seriously heightened in 3d, and there are some genuine moments where time is allowed to pass quietly, slowly, where you can be where you are. But narratively the piece gets muddled, and, like We Who Remain, I struggled to figure out what the piece was really about.

Honestly people, abandon the idea that VR should be like film. Figure out what the language is.

There’s one moment of Inside Auschwitz where I feel the shivers up my spine that I should: when we’re at the ovens, and one can look around, take in the evil, where it’s quiet enough to let the awfulness wash over you. If the piece had been only that it would have been 50 times more powerful.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 20.19.42

A conversation about storytelling today was about the unique possibility of doc to let contradictions tell the story, to trigger the audience to feel and think what the subject does, that gives doc the narrative advantage that it has over fiction. VR is well on the way to finding its edge, but that means letting go of cinematic tropes.

VR is just a kid, folks. Let it become the grown up its meant to.



Copenhagen is bigger than it looks, depending on what you’re after.

Which is my way of copping out of not having gotten more done today.

I’m sooo looking forward to the VR content this year. It’s broken down into simplistic, but useful categories, and all of it looks fascinating.

The first bit of the day was spent at the Propellor lab: a genuine movement towards finding new strategies for delivering content to audiences, from the production stages all the way to that after-sex cigarette stage of “wow, that was amazing(or a let down).


Led by Daniel Johnsen and Erwin M. Schmidt, the format is fast and loose. And demanding. If you’re a participant or observer there’s no holding back. You have to tell everyone your idea for a business model so that your peers can tell you everything that’s right / wrong about your it, and make it better.

The pace is fast, and it seems like everyone is digging deep in their guts, to quickly pull out what’s most important. Will that bring out everyone’s best? Tomorrow will tell.


The pitches, atThe Rainmaking Loft Copenhagen On Sunday, are open to all. If you’re interested in the thinking that’s drawing us forward, or want to pull that apart, be there!


Everyday life feels pretty complicated. Until you watch lifeless infants being pulled from mountains of rubble. Feras Fayyad‘s Last men in Aleppo drives a dagger into your heart over and over, making you hope for numbness, so you don’t have to feel the hurt so much anymore.

There are lots of Syria projects around right now; documentary, VR, journalistic and otherwise. But I can’t think of another that made me feel quite so much the “normalcy” of war and death. The “white helmets” whose job it is to save people drowned in the fallout from bombs are just people, like the mechanic you used to work with or the teenager who used to bug you by whipping a hockey puck into your garden or the guy who used to be your pharmacist. Stuck in extraordinary circumstances and determined to do right by their city, by their neighbors, by their own consciences, they don the iconic white helmets of Syria’s saviors and hurl themselves into the most dangerous situations imaginable, on the outside chance that a miracle will happen, and one of the people they can actually save someone. As a Syrian, it makes me ashamed for not being one of those white helmet guys.

Collaborator Steen Johannessen was at yesterday’s screening, while Fayyad was attending a premiere in Switzerland.

20170318_164606“We had a little over 200 hours of footage to go through, plus a huge amount of broadcast archive. There are a million Syrian stories to tell, and every decision was measured. This story is important because it brings us into the day to day reality of the people left behind. Abandoned.”

Not for the feint of heart, but required viewing for anyone who feels the shameful abandonment of an entire people by the international community. Rightful winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance.


Craigslist Allstars is a whole different kind of beast.

Filmmaker Samira Elagoz made the film as her thesis project, and it got enough attention to get played at the fest. She posted an ad in Craiglist hoping to be invited into strangers’ homes, and document their encounters. I suppose the kink should have been obvious, but I was more interested in the DIY approach of setting up the concept and being invited inside someone’s personal space.

“The sex, in hindsight, was probably the most likely outcome. But that wasn’t why I started making the film. But not a single woman answered my ad, and the men.. are men.”

Two screenings left at the fest. If you want to peel back some of those mysterious doorways, check it out.