Shalini Kantayya shows how sci-fi is becoming reality in her AI doc “Coded Bias”

I have found myself in the midst of discovering another hero of mine. Shalini Kanyayya is my hero because she elevates, through her own work, trailblazing womxn in the AI industry. “Coded Bias” follows Joy Buolamwini through her investigation of implicit bias in face recognition technology. Joy has a PhD from the MIT Media Lab and has pioneered techniques that are now leading to increased transparency in the use of facial analysis technology globally. Through her journey and research, we connect with different experts in the field, such as Cathy O’Neil, who wrote Weapons of Math Destruction, a book that sounds the alarm on the danger of the math behind algorithms that are widening the inequality gap and undermining democracy. We also become acquainted with Silkie Carlo, the UK director of Big Brother Watch, which is monitoring the trial use of facial recognition technology by the UK police.

Shalini and I discussed how she got to this project, her passion for science-fiction and how it is reflected in her documentary choices, and how her activist approach to filmmaking was influenced by her experiences with the independent film community in New York. Starting on November 11th, you can watch “Coded Bias” virtually at the Metrograph (NYC), and watch the panel at 8 PM ET with Shalini, Joy and Cathy. For information about all upcoming virtual screenings, visit codedbias.com/virtualcinema.

Shalini Katayya

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

SHALINI KANTAYYA: I’m a science and science-fiction fanatic. A lot of my work deals with disruptive technologies and how they impact the marginalized. My last film was about small-scale residential solar power, and how it could be helpful to the environment while uplifting working people. With this film, I stumbled upon the work of Joy Buolamwini by watching her TED Talk. I also read Cathy O’Neal’s book, Weapons of Math Destruction, and I saw her TED Talk. Then I stumbled down the rabbit hole of these scholars, journalists, and activists who have been riding on the dark side of Artificial Intelligence. I interviewed Joy and the rest is history.

Joy Buolamwini

MARTIN: How did it come to be that Joy would be the focus of the documentary?

KANTAYYA: I interviewed several people and it organically unfolded. I also saw her as someone that was pushing from scientific research, and she was making connections to communities that could be harmed by this technology. That’s where I saw the potential for a story. 

Joy Buolamwini during interview with South African journalist

MARTIN: Was it a choice to have mostly women as your subjects for the film?

KANTAYYA: It’s actually women who are leading the industry for AI, and leading the fight for ethical uses of AI. I found this to be true through my research. I didn’t set out to make a film that was all women, but then it sort of emerged that way. I only started realizing it after many people began commented on it, like after we screened at Sundance. Everyone asks about it. And I think people are astounded that women talk about the technologies for the future, which should not be a surprise. [laughs] I didn’t realize how honestly revolutionary the idea was to people. 

Silkie Carlo during interview

MARTIN: Something I appreciated was that you also took the film out of the US. You brought the subject to a global scale. Can you talk about that?

KANTAYYA: I think the experts, the locations, and who I am as a filmmaker inspire how the film develops. I tend to think very globally, and think very deliberately about who I think of as experts. In this case, I thought it was important because I actually could not capture some of the vérité sequences in the US, where there are no laws. In the UK, there is a more transparent process. They have police who were actually informing human rights observers of their trial of facial recognition. It was a much more transparent process that we could observe as journalists. 

I thought China was an important parallel because it felt like a Black Mirror episode with just that: a mirror, a reflection of where we could be in five minutes with no laws. To me, this film provides three perspectives on approaching the data. In China, you have unfettered use of data by a highly authoritarian regime. Then you have the UK, where Europe has taken their own paths to putting data rights into a human rights framework. Although now it’s currently unknown what the data protections will be in the UK since they are leaving Europe, which happened after “Coded Bias” was made. In the US, it is essentially the wild wild west. It is so confusing when our democracy is so fragile, as we’ve seen in the last election. Realizing the amount of power that Artificial Intelligence will have, and how it will basically transform every sector of society in the next few decades, I really hope we have the legislation to protect us.

“Minority Report”

MARTIN: Do you feel your passion for science-fiction brings a different lens in how you tell your stories?

KANTAYYA: One of the challenges I had as a filmmaker was trying to make something, which is opaque and invisible to us, cinematic, or at least try to at least. I think I pull my subjects from science-fiction. I feel everything that I know about artificial intelligence before making this film came from the mind of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick and others. I think I try to pull from those tropes of science-fiction that are known to us to help us understand AI in the now. Shockingly, and stirringly, and frustratingly as we see in things like “Minority Report,” there are some remarkable reflections. 

Cathy O’Neal profile

MARTIN: What do you hope the audience will grasp most of all after watching this film? 

KANTAYYA: I hope it will be a game changer in how people think about artificial intelligence now, and think about the power of big tech, like the silent hand of algorithms and how they can encroach on our civil rights. I hope that this is a film that people can engage with, and cause them not to feel like, “Oh my god, this is magic,” or, “This is math, I can’t talk about this.” Technology influences our lives and we’ve seen with the current crisis that we actually need to understand science to meet the problems of the next century. It’s very key. My hope is that the film will also be a tool for science communication. 

Joy Buolamwini profile

MARTIN: I see that you are bridging a theme in your documentaries through global stories and science. Can you talk about that?

KANTAYYA: My expression in films as an artist is always a way that I engage in the world, in a form of my activism. I feel there has been education and campaigns around my films. I am of the belief that films can help us empathize with people, desensitize us, and engage us with issues that we wouldn’t normally engage in. This engagement can help us be the spark for social change. This has been a principle that guides my work. 

“El Pueblo se Levanta” Third World Newsreel

MARTIN: I watched your TED Talk, and you spoke about how coming to New York really shaped your filmmaking. Can you talk about that? 

KANTAYYA: I feel so grateful to the independent film community in New York. I came to New York to intern at an institution called Third World Newsreel, and I watched films by and about people of color who used cinema as a form of activism, which spawned from a movement called “The Third Cinema”. The Third Cinema was coined by two Latin American filmmakers who believed that all films are political. They were also rebelling against this idea that cinema was just to be used as a spectator sport. They were making films to engage. During that first summer, I watched everything in their collection that was made by and about people of color who were using film to engage with an audience about social issues. 

Shalini Kantayya on set

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

KANTAYYA: I feel that the time is now for women and non-conforming filmmakers. It’s a powerful time for us to tell our own stories. In my films I feel like my voice as a filmmaker shifted in whose story got told. It’s my belief that if we have more women storytellers, it will change our culture. And when we master gender parity, it will be because there are more stories by and written about women. 

The other thing I would say is…damn, this is not easy, or for the meek of heart. Making films is really hard. It’s challenging to make an independent film to assert your vision to try to wrestle with the elements of happenstance. But to me, it’s also a great honor and I’m perpetually humbled by people who share their stories with me, and I’m grateful for the practice of my craft. 

Shalini Kantayya at Sundance Community Screening

MARTIN: What’s coming up for the film?

KANTAYYA: The film will be available virtually in theaters, so you can support two of my favorite things, independent cinemas in theaters across the country and films that further the conversation on racial and gender bias, as well as the inequality in the use of technologies in the future. 

MARTIN: What’s coming up for you?

KANTAYYA: I am currently working on a documentary series, and writing a script for a sci-fi film.

Maya Zinshtein explores the complicated “love” between Evangelical Christians and Israelis in “‘Til Kingdom Come”

It is difficult for me to write an introduction for this piece, not because of the amazing interview I had with Maya Zinshtein about her documentary “‘Til Kingdom Come’, but how I’m having to grapple with some of the sad truths that my religious background paved for me, and how these shared “truths” have given America a complicated and misguided relationship with Israel. Growing up in the Evangelical Christian world of the 700 Club, Pat Robertson and the Left Behind book series, I was taught that our relationship with Israel, as Christians, was very important to our story. Some Evangelical Christians who take the Bible as literal believe that Israel is the last hope to our end of days, which is pulled out of Revelation. So much money is being directed to Israel based on this belief, and what from the outside can be seen as a positive form of unity and love, reveals itself–once you dig a little deeper–to be a misguided political agenda that is being pushed by our current president. Now we are seeing some scary realities come to fruition that have influenced a deeper divide between Israel and Palestine.

With all of this money going towards Israel, Maya Zinshtein started with the question, “why?” “Why do these Evangelical Christians ‘love’ us so much?” As she dug deeper, it brought her to the organization , International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, and one of their largest donors, the Binghamtown Baptist Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky. Maya likened her experience of making this doc to making a layered cake. She wants her documentary to be what you see when you cut the cake. As we discussed these layers, I asked her what she hopes the viewer will take from this film, and her response was powerful: “I just want the Evangelical Christian community in the US to watch the film and think about it. There are people here who are just living and they want to live in peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These people in Washington are advocating for something so big that has a huge influence on our future in Israel. They need to see beyond this ancient book. That’s really my dream.”

“‘Til Kingdom Come” is now playing virtually at the Chicago International Film Festival until 10/25. Learn more.

עותק של Maya Zinshtein by Tomer Appelbaum

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to this project?

MAYA ZINSHTEIN: I’m an Israeli, and I’m also a filmmaker and a journalist. I had been asked to look into some other project that Christian Evangelicals were just a part of it. I think many Israelis, and of course myself, are involved with the politics in Israel. This is what interests me. When I came across this phenomena of Evangelical Christians’ involvement in Israel, I started to look into it. The more I looked into it, I wanted to know more. I wanted to know more about what was actually happening. This was in July 2017, and Trump was already the president. But that was before everything happened later that was shown in the film. Back then, it was very clear to me that there was this huge influence happening, and it’s happening totally underneath the surface. 

As a journalist, and I’m sure you’ll understand what I’m talking about, you become slightly obsessive in the beginning about your subject. You’re just reading, reading, and reading. After a month of reading through the nights, I realized I was fascinated by the subject, and it’s fascinating to explore. I started from this big subject, with the Christian Evangelical involvement in Israel, and I started to look at what story I should tell.

I started to reach out to all the different organizations based here in Israel that were involved with Evangelical Christians. It was funny because one of the heads of these organizations told me, “Listen, if you’re patient, by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020, you may see Trump recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel”, and then it all happened in half a year. People who were so deeply involved in this process didn’t understand that Trump was really into it, and that he was going to make the announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

This person at some point told me, after the announcement of the US Embassy moving to Jerusalem, after all of these gifts started coming in–because there were much more gifts–he told me, “Listen, if things keep going in this direction I can just quit my job and move to the Bahamas, because everything we’ve dreamed of, and pushed for for so many years, they’re just giving it to us.”

It started with that, on a political level. It was clear to me that the way that I like to tell stories is like making a layered cake. When you cut it, you see all the layers. I wanted to start with these people that are Evangelical and very faith-driven. I heard about these churches all across the US that raise the Israeli flag and kids praying for Jerusalem before they are going to sleep. You need to understand for us, this is like, “what and why?”

עותק של Christians United For Israel Summit, by Abraham (Abie) Troen.jpg

MARTIN: I love how you put it in your director’s statement how you are exploring this “love” between Evangelical Christians and the Jewish people in Jerusalem and Israel. This love is obviously flawed, and you’ve touched on that with what is seen and what is layered beneath. There is that “Elephant in the Room” in terms of what that really means. Can you comment more on that? 

ZINSHTEIN: When I was doing my research, the word “love” would keep popping up. “Love” is a specific sentiment based on when you have emotions towards someone that you know, and this idea that someone loves me so deeply without knowing me, not personally of course, but as an idea, I found this “idea” fascinating. Like what does it mean, this “love”? If you keep saying you love me, and not me specifically, but the Jewish people in Israel, what does that mean?

MARTIN: Yeah let’s get into the specifics of why you “love” me. 

ZINSHTEIN: That’s why I think it’s so interesting. At the beginning I met this really nice Evangelical guy and at some point he was honest enough and said, “Listen, you need to understand, they don’t ‘love’ you, they love Jesus. You are the way to Jesus. You are the key, we just can’t make it without you. We have to have you within our story because you’re a part of it.” And that was helpful and answered for me the question I kept asking, “why do you love me?” Once I understood that, it was a breakthrough for me. You have to understand that it’s not about us, the Jewish people in Israel, that’s the thing. And if it’s not about us, what is the problem?

Many Israelis here are happy with cooperating with the US Evangelical Christians. They’re thinking is, “finally somebody loves us, thank god, let’s take it.” For Israelis, it’s a very emotional thing. The Jews in Israel within the last years of the occupation are raised in the state of mind that the world is against us, and everyone hates us. It’s almost like the psychology of this Jewish nation is that everyone hates us. So when finally somebody “loves” us, “we” take it. 

עותק של Binghamtown Baptist Church, Middlesboro KY. From ‘Til Kingdom Come, photo by Abraham (Abie) Troen

MARTIN: How did Pastor Boyd Bingham and Yael Eckstein become the main subjects of this documentary?

ZINSHTEIN: Once I finished mapping this world between the Evangelical Christians and the Jews, I met Rabbi Eckstein, who passed away, and we started to learn more about the fellowship [International Fellowship of Christians and Jews]. I asked them who are your biggest donors? 

To my surprise, their biggest donor was this church in this very tiny town in the US. Usually the fellowship gets donations from private people, usually dollar to dollar donations from across the country. They don’t really get involvement from churches. The people from that church came to Israel, and I asked, “can you make an introduction?” We called and met them, and I asked “can we join you for your trip in Israel for a couple days?” So we stayed with them for the whole trip. It was really a journey. We were fascinated by this group that we met, and then we said we’ll come with them to Kentucky. And they said, “yeah right, you’ll never come”, and two months later I landed there with my team. I remember the moment when I arrived in Middlesboro, and I saw this huge Israeli flag in front of the church. Then I saw the Star of David on the cross and I was like, “whoa”.

It was a journey. First we thought we should focus on Rabbi Eckstein more because he is the guy who actually started all of this, but then it was very clear that there was this generational comparison that we can make with Yael and Boyd taking their fathers’ missions forward. For me, actually with all of these stories, there is this line of indoctrination or how this idea (Evangelical Christians in the US supporting Jewish people in Israel) is passing on generation to generation. For me, creating this comparison of the pastor’s son and the rabbi’s daughter and the ideas of their families and their parents added another layer. And as you know, I like layers.

I think Boyd is a very smart guy. He knows how to articulate his thoughts. In some way, I think that he can represent himself, but also represent a broader idea. In the beginning it wasn’t easy because how strange it was for me to be in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and also strange for Middlesboro, Kentucky to have me there. 

עותק של Yael Eckstein receives a check from Pastor Boyd Bingham on her visit in Binghamtown Baptist Church, Middlesboro KY. From ‘Til Kingdom Come, by Abraham (Abie) Troen

MARTIN: Yael is fascinating to me. She seems so intelligent. Something she said in the film that stayed with me is that, “My dreams are nothing like what I dreamt them to be”. If she didn’t have her father’s legacy to live up to, I feel she would have chosen a more independent path. She seems to see through “the charade” or “the elephant in the room” regarding their relationship with the Evangelical Christians but she keeps moving on and following her father’s footsteps. What was it like working with her for this film?

ZINSHTEIN: You create a relationship, you know? We’ve been filming her for a long time. She knew my work and she understood that I was not making an infomercial for the fellowship. She asked me one question, “How do you want me to feel after I watch the film?” I told her, “Yael, I want you to feel that I saw you.” Her response to the film was positive. She texted me after she watched it and she said it’s fair and it’s smart. 

In regards to Yael following in her father’s footsteps, once you’re on the train that’s going, it’s difficult to jump from it. I know she feels a huge obligation, and an emotional obligation to her father. She wants to continue his mission. That was everything in his life. To come onto this path that someone made for you, and you want to play differently, there are not many people doing that. Of course, you’d love for your subjects to see the light, but that’s what happens in Hollywood movies, not necessarily documentaries. This is real life, you know? And she is a very intelligent woman. I think her goal is to succeed. 

You know, I’m an immigrant. My roots have been cut, and I needed to start from scratch. If I had stayed in Russia, I would have probably been a third generation of something, and I’m glad I’m not. But this idea of what it’s like to have a legacy on your back, like do you have free will, was interesting for me to explore. And of course she has free will. She can do whatever she wants, but maybe she doesn’t want to.

עותק של Yael Eckstein on her visit in Binghamtown Baptist Church, Middlesboro KY. From ‘Til Kingdom Come, by Abraham (Abie) Troen .jpg

MARTIN: What do you hope the viewer will take most from your documentary?

ZINSHTEIN: I think it depends on who is the viewer. My dream is that many Evangelical Christians will watch this film. I think a lot of their “love” is loving this ancient book. But we have a reality here in this country. 

I’ll answer your question with a story. We were in a Christian Israeli summit, and I had a conversation with a few young members. I spoke with them after I saw them advocating for cutting the support for the Palestinian refugees, alongside the fact that these people need help. The Israeli community sees this advocacy as very dangerous. The Israeli security community really doesn’t want this. I told them, “Listen, my brother is in the reserve special forces. He will go on to fight the next war. Why do you think you can have an influence on my next war?” When you speak with some Americans, they will tell you Russians have a heavy influence on the United States government. My belief is that every single country has the right to decide on their own future. So I say to them, “You’re sitting there in Washington and you think you can influence my future. You’re not going to fight this war, my brother will.” And he just looked at me and said, “I never thought about it.”

That was a moment for me. I just want the Evangelical Christian community in the US to watch the film and think about it. There are people here who are just living and they want to live in peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  These people in Washington are advocating for something so big that has a huge influence on our future in Israel. They need to see beyond this ancient book. That’s really my dream.

Also, there is a Jewish community that is a huge audience for this film. I feel they are dealing internally with so many questions about Israelis making Christian Evangelicals their best friends. And I know there is a huge conversation going on in the American Jewish community about this too. They’re thinking, ‘Should we cooperate with that, and how should we respond to that?’ I see my job as highlighting the dark side of the room. I want to highlight this dark side, and hand it over, and say “Here, think about it.”

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging female filmmakers?

ZINSHTEIN:  Find your allies. One of the producers of this film, who was also the DoP [Abraham (Abie) Troen] has been a great ally. I’m specifically using this word because if you want to start a project that doesn’t have any funding, you need to find someone as crazy as you, and as bold as you to discover with you, like in Middlesboro, Kentucky. It’s my second time learning this lesson [“‘Til Kingdom Come” is Maya Zishtein’s second directorial effort as a documentarian, following her debut, “Forever Pure” (2016)], that’s really the key. And then you need to build your team, and have the best team that you can have. Finding these allies to be running with you, that’s something that is really crucial. You can’t make films alone. 

Iryna Tsilyk talks about the making of her doc “The Earth is Blue as an Orange”, an ode to the healing power of cinema set in Ukraine’s turbulent “red zone”

We had the opportunity to chat with Ukrainian filmmaker Iryna Tsilyk, director of the successful documentary “The Earth is Blue as an Orange”. The movie follows the lives of single mother Anna, her two daughters, her old mother and two sons in the “red zone” of the troubled region of Donbass, a theater of the war between the pro-Russian separatists and the pro-Ukrainian government forces since April 2014. 

Nevertheless, the piece is far from being a classical observational documentary about their hardship. Instead, it is an ode to the healing power of cinema, made special by the characters’ will to shoot a film about what they have experienced in their shattered hometown and its surreal surroundings. 

A Ukrainian-Lithuanian co-production, “The Earth is Blue as an Orange” was world-premiered at Sundance back in January, and later played at other prestigious festivals such as the Berlinale, Prague’s One World, Poland’s Doc Against Gravity, Kyiv’s Docudays, and, more recently, at Zurich and Reykjavik.

DAVIDE ABBATESCIANNI: How did the idea come about?

IRYNA TSILYK: Actually, it wasn’t mine because everything had started from an idea of my producer, Anna Kapustina. She was one of the leaders of a cool Ukrainian project called “Yellow Bus”, which consisted of professional filmmakers arranging cinema camps for children living in the war zone. Thus, she thought of making a feature-length documentary about a group of teens and she invited me and my team to work on it. We filmed and met different people but then we found that it was difficult to make this kind of “group portrait” and I had the feeling I had chosen the wrong characters. So I didn’t know what to do. There was a moment in which two of the girls attending the camp, Miroslava and Nastja, invited our team to their place in Krasnohorivka, in the Donetsk region. We saw that house full of cats, music and art. We had really interesting chats with them. We realized immediately that we had to change the initial idea and follow this family instead. I ended up spending about two and a half years working on the project.

ABBATESCIANNI: How did they feel about the idea of being filmed while working on another movie?

TSILYK: They were very open from the very beginning because they were aware of the filmmaking process and happy to be featured in the documentary. However, when we had to visit them back again and again or live some time with them, I guess they got bored and tired. I felt they weren’t so joyful anymore. Generally, we became friends and I hope they’re happy now, since they took part to this risky experiment.

ABBATESCIANNI: You said that the family got bored and tired at some point. Was there any moment in which you felt you couldn’t go ahead with the project?

TSILYK: Generally, we established good relationships. There was one moment, though, when I felt I had done something wrong. I wanted to shoot the exams that Miroslava had to take to enter the film school and she was totally against the idea. She felt very nervous and did not want to have any cameras or crews around. She told me: “Ira [short for Iryna], that is your film, this is my life!”. I think she was totally right. I understood that it’s much more important to stay friends rather than getting some good footage. Later, in the editing room I realized that it was the right choice for us and for the film. It was a very important lesson for me as a documentarian. This was my directorial debut, so I’ve done several mistakes and learned many things along the way.

Iryna Tsilyk with family on “The Earth is Blue as an Orange” doc set

ABBATESCIANNI: We spoke about the documentary’s main human challenge. What about the technical ones?

TSILYK: We didn’t have specific technical problems but when you’re filming something in a war zone, you should be ready to adapt to the different rules of the game. It’s still dangerous there, so you need to be very careful and responsible for yourself and for your team. For instance, we had a moment during which I wanted to have a beautiful shot showing a poppy field – we couldn’t film it because of the lighting conditions, but then we also found out that it was a minefield and the area was guarded by snipers.

ABBATESCIANNI: How long did you follow the family? How much footage did you shoot?

TSILYK: We followed them for a year. We’ve got not too much footage, though. About 55 hours, I’d say.

ABBATESCIANNI: How did you coordinate the post-production process?

TSILYK: We were lucky to take part to some great workshops. In my opinion, dok.incubator in particular was really useful because I’ve never studied documentary. It was my first experience and I’ve done many things intuitively. So I felt the need to complete some training with professional tutors. I guess that we’ve got the biggest selections – Sundance and Berlinale – thanks to their help.

ABBATESCIANNI: Are you still in touch with the family? How are they?

TSILYK: Yes, they’re fine. I’ve some interesting news for you! Anna, she became mother for the fifth time.

ABBATESCIANNI: Congratulations.

TSILYK: I’m really surprised. She’s a wonderful woman and now she has a fifth child. Meanwhile, Miroslava studies in Kyiv and Nastja got the chance to study in the US, but unfortunately the pandemic has changed all of her plans. It was still a nice, well deserved achievement, though.

ABBATESCIANNI: What women filmmakers do you find the most inspiring?

TSILYK: It’s a really difficult question to answer, there are many. But I can say that I really like the films of Isabel Coixet and Jane Campion.

ABBATESCIANNI: Are you currently working on a new project?

TSILYK: I’m now working on my new feature. It’s a fiction film and it’s such an inspiring and challenging project. I’ve been waiting for so many years before taking this step and I’m trying to do my best. It’s a coming-of-age story revolving around a boy growing up in the 1990s. It’s a film about my childhood and that of my husband, as it is based on his novel [Artem Chekh]. He’s a writer, so we’re basically doing this film together. I wrote the script, though.

ABBATESCIANNI: Is it a Ukrainian production?

TSILYK: At the moment, it’s an all-Ukrainian production, but maybe we will find some co-producers along the way. The title is “Rock, scissors, grenade”.

Elyse Steinberg, co-director of “The Fight,” focuses her lens on ACLU’s heroic humanity

Following the Women’s March in January 2017, I was witnessing a power in the collective, a power I hadn’t seen before in my lifetime. Though I didn’t have a name for this power, I knew that it represented some “fight”, some unrest with our country’s political shift. It was 2017, shortly after the presidential election, and I was still feeling the pains of Hillary’s loss. That was when I heard about the “Muslim Ban”, Trump’s first of many tyrannical agendas.

The “Muslim Ban” proved that there was not just a “fight” in the collective, but in our legal system. Floods of attorneys were going to airports to fight for those people who have family members trying to come to the US, but were being restricted because of how they looked, or being accused that they were not a US citizen. These attorneys were saving the day, and a lot of them came from the ACLU. Over the years, I had heard of the ACLU, but had never seen them step up the way they did during that time, at that moment. It was at that moment I realized that I didn’t need to be afraid, I could believe in something, not just in the people on the ground, but a legal system that could make a difference. This organization was empowering people like me to take action.

That is why “The Fight” struck such a chord with me, as it follows four cases that touch on civil rights issues (immigration, voting rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights) and profiles the ACLU lawyers that fight these cases. Elyse Steinberg, co-director of the film with Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, spoke with me about how she came to this film. Fighting for justice runs in Elyse’s family, starting with her grandmother, who fled from Nazi Germany, and continued with her mother, an immigration lawyer. There’s a quote that has stayed with Elyse all of her life that was passed down from her grandmother, who grew up “knowing that the country could turn at any point against its own people.” We then went on to discuss why it’s so important for people to watch this film, so they can be empowered to fight the good fight, and vote!

Today “The Fight” is streaming on all major platforms and in select theaters. Make sure this is your must-watch this weekend.

Elyse Steinberg, co-director of THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

REBECCA MARTIN: How did your mother’s story, as an immigration lawyer, inspire you to make “The Fight”, and what was the road that took you to this project?

ELYSE STEINBERG: My mother was a litigator who fought for immigrant rights. She had been inspired to do that work from my grandmother’s story of escaping Nazi Germany. I grew up with this sense that at any moment your country can turn against you, and that you needed to fight for injustices, and fight to preserve democracy.

So that was a part of my upbringing. I always was interested in stories about justice. Before “Weiner” [Elyse’s 2016 documentary], I had worked on a couple pieces for PBS on juvenile justice [“Need to Know” series], and I did a short documentary on Bryan Stevenson, along with a few other pieces. And they were all focused on the legal fight.

So I feel this is something I’ve been fascinated by. It’s just spoken to me on a deep, emotional level. In Brooklyn at the Cadman Plaza court, when I saw Lee [Gelernt], and thousands protesting the immigration ban, it was this huge moment that I felt everyone was responding to. I felt like, oh yeah, this is what I want to do. I know Dale [Ho] says in the film, “If I’m not going to be a Civil Rights lawyer in this moment, then when?” So I was like, ‘if I’m not going to be a documentary filmmaker in this moment, then when?’ This is the moment to keep your eye on the prize. This is a huge epic moment for our country, and our struggle for civil liberties. I felt like pointing my cameras at the ACLU at this moment was where we needed to be. 

Joshua Block (senior staff attorney with the National ACLU’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Projects) and Chase Strangio (deputy director for Transgender Justice with the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project and a nationally recognized expert on trans rights) in THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

MARTIN: What was the reason for formatting the documentary on abortion rights, immigration, voting rights, and LGBTQ, and the specific cases that you followed?

STEINBERG: Those were the biggest cases that the ACLU had when we were there for the past three years. Those were some of those defining civil rights struggles that our country faced. Abortion rights, immigration, LGBTQ+, and voting rights. We came to the ACLU and we had our cameras. We didn’t know what case would happen, or who would be the lawyer arguing the cases. And while we were there, we found them. I remember being at the ACLU filming with Lee and then my phone rang. It said that Trump tweeted that he was going to kick transgender people out of the military. 

So I was asking the ACLU what’s happening? This is an ACLU type of case, are you doing it? And they said, “yes, Josh and Chase are preparing.” I went over to Josh and Chase and asked, “Can I film with you?”

So that was just being on the ground as it happened. It was like being in a hospital, and when the emergency patient comes in, you just follow the doctor. Then it was just finding out more about the lawyers, like who are these people? We wanted to make sure we were following the right film subjects that have these qualities that make good documentary subjects. Like being very authentic, real and open. And having that kind of visceral documentary crackle that you look for in your subjects.

Lee Gelernt (deputy director of the ACLU’s national Immigrants’ Rights Project and director of the project’s Access to the Court’s Program_ in THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

MARTIN: What I love that you did with your subjects is that you elevated them in a way that’s human. You showed their strengths, but also the weaknesses that make them real people and relatable. Also, humor was a great tool to illustrate relatability. Can you talk about that?

STEINBERG: What you said is exactly what we wanted to do, you captured it perfectly. As vérité filmmaker, we believe in showing the human side and showing stuff that’s funny. I think we looked for that in “Weiner” too. It’s really important that you have both pathos and humor. That is something we want to do in all of our work. The opportunity is to showcase humor. I think humor is important. I don’t feel it’s used enough in documentaries. When it is, it’s a window into a way that we can all relate. You need both, but it’s an important contrast.

Lee is a master in the courtroom. He can devise strategy in just the right way to make his arguments. But then he’s struggling with his phone charger,and forgetting his briefcase. You get this other side that is so relatable. I think that other side, just those small moments of struggle, are equally important in showing the way history has manifest. It’s not only the big grand moments, it’s also these small moments, like Chase trying to do his work with his kid interrupting. That is a part of the struggle. I know going in that we really wanted to show the nitty gritty, the little things, that come to define these big epic cases.

Brigitte Amiri (deputy director at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project) in a scene in THE FIGHT, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

MARTIN: I appreciate you bringing up Charlottesville. Was that difficult to bring that into the documentary when you were focusing more on the positives of the ACLU fighting Trump’s agenda?

STEINBERG: No, it was so important to us that we showed the events of Charlottesville in the film. While we were there, as you see in the film, it happens when we’re filming. We’re following these lawyers and then this very painful gut punch moment for everybody, the ACLU, and for us. What we saw was a debate unfold. There were a lot of different opinions about the ACLU’s rule, and I think we just wanted to show that discussion. It’s a testament to ACLU that they were absolutely willing to let us document that moment. 

Dale Ho (director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project) still from The Fight by Elyse Steinberg, Josh Kriegman and Eli Despres, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Sabrina Lantos.

MARTIN: What takeaways do you hope the film will have for people in terms of the November election and in their personal lives?

STEINBERG: We open the film with protesters taking to the airport and to the street and to the courthouses. And then we end the film with one of the lines from Dale saying, “Change isn’t going to happen just with lawyers and courts, it’s got to be people who turn this ship around.”

And that is one of the messages I think we want to get across is that it’s up to us, it’s up to people, everyday people, to make change and to do extraordinary things. The stakes of this election just couldn’t be higher. Our hope is that people see our movie, and they feel inspired and galvanized to make a difference, to vote, and to be a part of the process of what’s happening.

And we’re seeing that right now. When we premiered at Sundance, we didn’t have the event of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter movement. We didn’t have people in the street. And we’re having that now. I think it’s breathtaking to see, it’s inspiring, and we hope our film is encouraging everyone to go out there and do something. 

Sundance: “The Fight” (L-R) Kerry Washington (producer), Elyse Steinberg (co-director), Joshua Kriegman (co-director), Brigitte Amiri (deputy director at the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project), Eli Despres (co-director)

MARTIN: I’m curious about how Kerry Washington got involved with the film. She’s an actor I really admire, and love the stances she takes on civil rights.

STEINBERG: I was there on the steps of the Brooklyn courthouse during the protests. I was there when Lee came out. She was also watching that moment on her TV when Lee came out and spoke to the press. After seeing that, she decided she wanted to make a documentary. She wanted to know who was a documentarian that was there at the event. She called her agent, and then she found out that the “Weiner” directors were covering the event in a documentary. So she called and said “I want to team up with you.” And of course we said yes. Let me tell you, if Kerry Washington calls and says she’s interested in producing or working with you, you say yes. It’s a no brainer. You have hit the jackpot. 

It wasn’t like we were sitting around saying, “Let’s get a high-profile celebrity executive producer onboard”. That’s not what happened. And I think it was a joint calling. We had the same thought. We came together in that call to action to make this film. We were together in that, and it was amazing to have that kind of producer. She’s just brilliant, creative and an amazing person. I feel so grateful for her partnership and everything she has given to this film. 

Directors Anna Koch and Julia Lemke celebrate cowgirls in ‘Glitter & Dust’

KRAKOW 2020

“It’s en vogue to be a cowgirl right now”

by Marta Bałaga

05/06/2020 – We talked to Anna Koch and Julia Lemke, the directors of the Krakow title Glitter & Dust, only to find out it’s not their first rodeo.

In their documentary Glitter & Dust, celebrating its international premiere at the 2020 Krakow Film Festival, German directors Anna Koch and Julia Lemke prove that even cowgirls get the blues. But that doesn’t stop them from riding some bulls first.

Cineuropa: How did you find out about these girls? Seeing a nine-year-old on a bull at the beginning of the film is such a powerful image.

Julia Lemke: We found a picture online of a girl sitting on a goat and tying it down. We were both impressed by it because it’s so unusual: seeing a nine- or ten-year-old dominating an animal instead of stroking it or putting a bow on it. Such a violent relationship is not something we see every day. Then, already on the road, we found more goats and more girls. It’s still a small thing in the USA – but it’s a thing.

It’s not an equal-opportunity environment. As noticed by Miss Rodeo America here, there are seven events for men in professional rodeo and only one for women, but they can still compete in all of them.

Anna Koch: The cowboy image has male-associated virtues: strength, courage, decisiveness. Being lonesome by the fire or dominating the wilds of nature. When a girl or a woman tries to claim the same virtues, she is viewed as a sassy tomboy. She is this “wild thing” that you can’t control, and all of a sudden, it becomes sexual. The fact that these girls say that it’s also for them, that they want to participate and make it their own, it’s scary for a lot of people. There are categories they can do, like goat tying or barrel racing, but to choose male-dominated events like bull riding or roping, to claim a piece of that cake, is really an act of rebellion.

Were you surprised by the reaction of their families? You show different approaches, from a father who has done it and knows about all the risks to another who openly admits he wanted a son.

JL: With the man who wanted a boy, his daughter is not doing bull riding. He would never allow that. It’s the classic viewpoint of the “rodeo man”. Most of them don’t want to see girls getting hurt; they want to protect them – or that’s what they tell you. It’s an excuse. But with most of the fathers we met, the girls made them change their mind. They are really supportive now, and proud! They see all the struggles they went through to enter the arena.

It’s empowering, seeing a little cowgirl wearing a belt that says: “Never scared”. How do you get kids to open up, though?

AK: Before, we made a film in East Germany [Win by Fall] about young female wrestlers hoping to become Olympic athletes, and people asked us the same question. We really don’t have a strategy. When we choose our protagonists, we choose them with our gut instinct. We didn’t have much time to spend with the girls – when you come from Germany, time in the USA is precious – so we had to throw everyone in at the deep end. With Ariyana, we had a quick connection – she was raised to be very approachable. With the Native girls, there was a moment of suspicion: “What are these white girls trying to do?” When you are filming kids, they decide when they want to open up, and you have to be ok with it.

Once you take on something that’s just so iconic, this whole cowboy myth, is it easy to play with it? It’s so ingrained in our minds.

JL: It started with that first picture of a girl sitting on a goat. It already seemed so fresh. Then, we just kept on discovering new things, like Native kids who do it, claiming they are the roots of the rodeo, for example. Of course, we played with these classical images, but to me, it always felt new.

Was it the same with the music? You have songs that sound like your typical country music, but it was a German artist behind them!

JL: The point is that rodeo seems so conservative, so old school. But it’s a melting pot of many subcultures! They have queer rodeo, black rodeo, female rodeo, and the same happens in music. The first song we used is from a queer artist called Orville Peck, who is using this cowboy image. Then we found a German artist [Peta Devlin], and she wrote songs for us, stemming from modern, progressive, feminist music. Rodeo is something that a lot of people can relate to, especially in the USA: they take it and give it another meaning. It’s the same with country music.

Now that you’ve left the girls, are things opening up for them, all the way up to PBR [the Professional Bull Riders organisation]?

AK: The doors are opening, yes. There have been articles in Teen Vogue magazine about female bull riders, and it’s en vogue to be a cowgirl right now. It might just be a trend, but it might help these girls to be seen and not be spat on at these events. Of course, we are hoping it’s more than a wave, just crashing and then disappearing. Also because for them, female empowerment is still in its infancy. When they come home from the rodeo, they go into the kitchen and their brothers stay on the couch. For us, it was shocking. “She has been doing the same job, and now she is preparing the food, too?” They are changing things and their own environment, but there is a long way to go.

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Italy’s Valentina Pedicini talks about ‘Faith’ and isolation

We had the chance to chat with the Apulia-born director Valentina Pedicini, who talked through the making of her successful documentary “Faith”, produced by Donatella Palermo for Stemal Entertainment and RAI Cinema, the film division of Italy’s largest pubcaster. Last November, Pedicini’s feature world-premiered in the main competition at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Her work is now more timely than ever, as it explores the theme of isolation and invites the viewers to ask themselves important questions about the value of freedom in our society. 

In detail, Pedicini follows the life of the “Warriors of Light”, a sect founded over twenty years ago and composed of around twenty people, most of whom are former martial arts champions. They live in full isolation in a remote Northern Italian monastery, adhering to a belief which is a puzzling blend of Kung Fu, Shaolin doctrine, house music and Catholicism, accompanied by a highly strenuous and athletic, daily exercise routine. Disciples dress entirely in white and most of them have a partially or fully shaved head. The camera follows the subjects up-close, catching a number of spontaneous dialogues, outpourings, conflicts and prayers. After its world premiere, “Faith” played at Berlin, Göteborg, Vilnius and Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, among other festivals.

On May 28, the documentary will have its Spanish premiere at DOCS Barcelona (May 20-30). It will be available on the Spanish VOD platform Filmin. You can watch “Faith” here: https://www.filmin.es/pelicula/faith.

VALENTINA PEDICINI

DAVIDE ABBATESCIANNI: When did you start working on the making of “Faith”?

VALENTINA PEDICINI: My path started eleven years ago, when I had the chance to make a short about the Warriors of Light. It happened by pure chance, and at the time I was studying in a film school in Bolzano [the prestigious ZeLIG School for Documentary, Television and New Media]. One day, I saw one of their street performances. In particular, I was struck by one of the disciple, called Laura, who later became the protagonist of my feature. I was impressed by her personality, which was so strong and ambiguous. Therefore, my initial goal was to tell a story about sport. Back then, I already had developed a strong immersive approach, so I asked to follow the group of athletes while they were training in a gym. However, I soon realized that the tale I was going to work on was far from being one about sport. Instead, my tale should have focused on something much bigger, something linked with faith and with radical life choices. But I wasn’t ready for that yet, so for eleven years I’ve been working on other projects. Next, two years ago I decided to visit the community again. I felt that there was a big story to tell, that needed to be brought to an end. Furthermore, I was very curious to see how time had changed the characters’ world after eleven years. That visit marked the beginning of my work on this feature.

“Faith”

ABBATESCIANNI: “Faith” is undoubtedly a tale of isolation and the ongoing outbreak made it even more timely. Were you able to compare the viewers’ reactions before and after the beginning of the pandemic?

PEDICINI: I can mainly talk about my personal experience. I realized that I’ve made a film that is not only timely, but somehow “prophetic”. The setting, the characters’ isolation, the outer world considered as “impure”, through their lack of social contacts. They basically live under a permanent state of quarantine, it was a strange coincidence! I’ve decided to work on “Faith” right before this huge change that is affecting the whole world. Speaking about the viewers, I can tell that the film kept on traveling all around the world, but, since the beginning of the emergency, it was only screened online, obviously. I’m sorry that I can’t see the viewers’ reactions as I’d normally do during a live screening, but I’m sure it caused some kind of response.

As of today, “Faith” has had a greater impact on myself and the crew making the film. Once again, we have ended up living the experience of forced isolation we had while filming it, as we’ve already experienced several quarantines [laughs]!

“Faith”

ABBATESCIANNI: I can barely imagine how difficult it may have been following these type of subjects. What were the main technical and psychological challenges?

PEDICINI: The main technical challenge was finding the right approach to be factual, while maintaining a good cinematic quality. In my film work, I’ve been always trying to combine these two aspects. Many people believe that documentary is a sort of secondary film genre, where there’s no need to develop a proper grammar or language, and you just need to turn on the camera to start unveiling reality. Therefore, I knew it was essential – and very challenging – to tell such a hostile, uncomfortable truth through a proper cinematic perspective. My idea was to make a film without judgment but not lacking a perspective or a clear stance. Certainly, it was rather difficult to find this balance. In addition, the crew was small and we were mostly shooting in small interiors with many limitations and regulations. We had to adapt ourselves to this world in order to gain full access to it. And, obviously, a great psychological challenge was experiencing this type of isolation and entering this “other” dimension, very far from our everyday life. We have been following the group for about three, four months. We have been observing them for about 16-17 hours a day in the hope of filming one or two good takes. During that period, we were staying in a small apartment where our production could continue. We could re-watch our footage, take stock of the day and try to improve our work step by step. I must thank my producer, Donatella Palermo, who allowed us to dedicate the right amount of time on the project, and the film is the final result of this patient waiting.

“Faith”

ABBATESCIANNI: Tell us something about your choice of filming “Faith” in black and white.

PEDICINI: Filming in black and white was one of the first, most radical choices while working on “Faith”. I realized that it was primarily an ethical choice. I wanted to highlight the strong duality of these characters, who have divided the world into two categories. White represents purity and the Warriors of Light’s perception of themselves, whilst black embodies the darker, negative outer world. Moreover, my DP Bastian Esser and I agreed that filming in black and white would have allowed viewers to focus on the characters’ faces and eyes, whereas colors may have represented a dangerous distraction. Finally, it also allowed the film to gain a sort of “atemporal” uniqueness, which probably makes it even more timely today and for the years to come.

“Faith”

ABBATESCIANNI: How much footage did you shoot?

PEDICINI: I had a chat about it with the editor some time ago. We thought that we had shot much more, but actually we filmed about 80 hours. We observed the community a lot before starting filming and we tried to understand what was going to happen regularly and what would have not happened again. It’s all there, nothing is staged. For example, in one of the scenes, a woman wakes up and joins the others for a moment of prayer. We were in her room for about six hours, waiting for her to fall asleep and to wake up. We didn’t focus on the quantity of footage, but rather on its diversity.

ABBATESCIANNI: What women filmmakers do you find inspiring?

PEDICINI: Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman, Chloé Zhao and Andrea Arnold, just to name a few. Speaking about Italian auteurs, I’m a great fan of Alice Rohrwacher. “Happy as Lazzaro” is one of the best films I’ve seen in the last few years.

ABBATESCIANNI: What did you learn from “Faith”?

PEDICINI: I gained a new level of awareness. I’ve learned many things about me as a director and about my film language, so perhaps this experience will benefit my next projects. I’ve learned the art of being patient, not only as a professional but in a wider sense. I’ve both loved this film and suffered because of it. It still has a strong emotional echo on me, months after its completion. This also makes me think about the power of nonfiction cinema. You put yourself and your certainties at stake, fully.

ABBATESCIANNI: Are you already working on something else?

PEDICINI: I’m writing. I’m currently developing a hybrid film, based on a true story and mostly shot in exterior settings, perhaps as a reaction to my extensive work in interior locations during “Faith”.

Director Rebecca Stern combines her love for animals and filmmaking with ‘Well Groomed’

Feature posted back in April, reposted today because premiere of documentary tonight on HBO at 9 PM EST. Make sure to tune in!

Rebecca Stern, director of “Well Groomed”

Rebecca Stern, director of the much-talked-about SXSW film “Well Groomed,” has married her love of animals and her passion, skills, and knowledge of filmmaking to create a visually entertaining film with a compelling underlying narrative arc. Featuring four women who compete in the arena of creative dog grooming, Stern brings us into this relatively unknown world and tells a story of art and friendship.

I recently spoke with Stern, just prior to the festival, and here’s what she had to say. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

PAMELA POWELL: You went from producing very serious films such as “the bomb” (2016) and “Netizens” (2018) to “Well Groomed” (2019). How did you end up here?

REBECCA STERN: I never had an intent to become a producer, in any capacity; I always thought that I’d become a lawyer. When I graduated school, I moved to NY for a summer and I expected to move right back to CA, But I met the director Matt Heineman while I was in NY. He needed an assistant and so I signed up [and] became his production coordinator on “Cartel Land” (2015). I actually started “Well Groomed” around the same time [as] he was off filming in Mexico City three or four weeks at a time. I wanted to know more about what production was like and I wanted an excuse to spend more time with dogs. It was a good way to marry an old passion which is of pets and animals and a new passion of documentary filmmaking.

POWELL: I’ve never heard of creative and competitive dog grooming until your film!

STERN: I had never heard of it either. I went out to the dog fashion show in Manhattan [and began] doing research into dog cultures and dog trends, into dog care. I only had a lab pit mix in my past so there was no grooming…at all… (laughs) even though maybe there should have been! I quickly found out much more about dog grooming and then ran across the pictures of creative dog grooming online. I thought, “…the pictures are so vibrant and I’d never seen anything like that before.” It’s pretty hard to have that reaction in this day and age.

I met a couple dog publicists who put me in touch on Facebook with Adrian and Angela and Cat who are all in the film, and went out to the dog show in Pasadena in February, in 2015. I made a short film, I think it was eight minutes. I think we filmed one hundred hours for that eight minutes! It was great because it allowed me to get to know them really well. When we went back to do the production for the feature film, I knew exactly what I wanted to focus on… someone who was just starting out in the field as well. As you can see from the film, Adrian, Angela, and Cat are all on the top of their game. I met Nicole [and] she was just so earnest and happy and eager to learn more about this community, to get more involved in it; to find a place where she could express herself even though she was incredibly busy with her new business. Her story is one that’s really close to my heart because it’s one of also starting a new business, which I feel like it’s often separate from being an artist. She had a lot of challenges around that, and ones that are pretty universal for people who are starting out, especially young people who are doing so.

POWELL: The women have a unique dynamic, perhaps more aligned with only women, to not only compete with one another, but support each other as well.

STERN: That’s so key! Angela and Cat have participated in pilots for reality shows before filming with me and they would always complain because they felt like they were being asked to be pitted against each other. In actuality they spend a lot of time supporting and nurturing each other and answering a lot of questions. One of the things to take out of the film is having friends and getting to know people. I did a very specific focus on that aspect, of their friendships and of the competitions. It isn’t one where they’re trying to push people down, but one where they’re [lifting] people up.

POWELL: What did you take away from the film?

STERN: The film for me and as a young filmmaker is [answering the question] what is art? … and I was really intrigued by this community of women that was so outside NY or LA or Chicago being artsy, and just the fact that they were getting enjoyment out of it. Shouldn’t you just be able to smile and find joy? I really resonated with that.

Documentary filmmaking is great at highlighting very big and important issues and a lot of my producing work did that, but [in] my directing work I really wanted to find a way to bring more joy into my life and therefore more joy into people who are watching [the film] and to be able to smile with them.

‘Maiden’: How an all-women sailing team fought sexism and made history

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Interview below was conducted earlier this year. We are posting as new to congratulate the film on being awarded Best Documentary by the National Board of Review for 2019.

Tracy Edwards, who stars in the documentary “Maiden,” and film critic Pamela Powell. Edwards led the first all-female sailing team in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race in 1989.

“Maiden” (2019) is the harrowing true tale of how Skipper Tracy Edwards pushed against the acceptable gender tides of racing in 1989–1990 and then changed the boat racing world and women’s education to today. The film was the darling of prestigious film festivals around the world such as Toronto International and Sundance and will be released across the nation on July 12. 

“Maiden” was created by documentary filmmaker Alex Holmes who happened to attend a speaking engagement at his daughter’s school where Edwards was the presenter. Her words and her experience inspired Holmes to tell Maiden’s story so that perhaps his daughter could live in a more gender equal world.

I had a chance to not only host a Q&A after a screening of the film recently in Chicago to which Edwards received two standing ovations, but to then also sit down and talk with this oceanic trailblazer one on one. Discussing the film and how this experience has led to creating The Maiden Factor were integral to the conversation.

PAMELA POWELL: The quote “The ocean is always trying to kill you is repeated throughout the film. Why did you feel the need to do this race?

TRACY EDWARDS: I think, the ’85–’86 race on the boat with seventeen men, why? Why? Why? Why would I want to do that again? (Laughter) I wanted to do the race as a navigator because navigation is my passion and I knew there was not a male crew in existence that would ever let me on board as a navigator. I thought this is the way the world looks and if I can’t fit into it, I’ve got to change it. So how do I change my world?

I suddenly saw a project, the first all-female crew, as a project that would kill a lot of birds with one stone: I got to be a navigator, it would prove that women could sail around the world, [and] we could prove that we could be competitive.

I felt really as we went through the race … that it was bigger than Maiden. It was bigger than me proving to do things. It was actually about anyone standing up for themselves and saying, “Don’t tell me what I can and cannot do. I can do that.” Maiden really evolved and the more we were told we couldn’t do it, the more we felt we had to do it. My mum often said to me, “What do you think would happen if everyone said, ‘oh that’s a good idea, off you go.'”

Photo credit: Sony Classics

POWELL: With any film, documentary, or one based on truth, honesty can be lost, but not in “Maiden.” Your and all who were interviewed were brutally honest which isn’t easy to do or to hear. Can you tell me about deciding to be so truthful?

EDWARDS: We did discuss it … I was … reticent because this is not just about me. This is Maiden’s legacy and we are all responsible for Maiden’s legacy. And this is my team as well. So the jungle drums started rumbling and we all got on the phone. And we Skyped and we called … They all thought it was a great idea. … and after twenty-five years, you tend to tell the truth to people. And did they ever! (Laughter)

Alex [Holmes] is an incredibly talented documentary maker, not just because he found all that footage and put it together, but because of the way he interviews you. He’s very clever and before you know it, you are rabbiting on, your brain is saying “Shut up, shut up,” and your mouth is saying, “No, no, I’m on a roll.” And then when you do stop, he doesn’t say anything and with me, that’s a killer because I hate silence. He figured this out really quickly. So if I ever stopped talking, he’d just look at me and I’d go, “Oh, and I remember another thing.” He absolutely killed it.

POWELL: Besides crossing that finish line, what was your biggest accomplishment?

EDWARDS: Getting to the starting line … because when we were at the start line, we had fought the biggest battle to get there. All the other boats had just waltzed on to a boat, got their crew gear and like, “Okay, let’s go off around the world.” (More laughter)

POWELL: Your mother was quite an inspiration to you. How do you hope you have inspired your daughter?

EDWARDS: The greatest gift my mum ever gave to me was to tell me not to be a bystander in my own life, and that piece of advice is just the best. Every single human being is good at at least one thing; we just have to find what that one thing is. Those two [pieces] of advice I hope I have passed on to my daughter, but she doesn’t need my advice, she’s perfect. I wasn’t. I needed lots of advice. 

POWELL: Tell me about your current endeavors.

EDWARDS: Maiden has come full circle. We wanted to raise money for charity and empower and inspire girls and women. That’s … what Maiden did for us. Now she’s restored, she’s sailing around the world in a tour to raise funds and awareness for girls education. In a way … it’s a way for me to say, sorry for throwing away a free education which my country gives me, hands it to me on a silver plate, and at the age of fifteen, I said, “Oh, no. I don’t need an education.” There are a 130 million girls around the world—and this is a very low estimate—who would do anything to have an education. …

She left in November last year and she’s about halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii and she’ll be in Vancouver and Seattle in August. And then she’ll be doing the tour of the states as well. I know you’re in the middle! (Laughs) You can go to a coast and see her.

Don’t miss an opportunity to see a film that is as captivating as “The Perfect Storm” (2000) and as inspirational as “RBG” (2018). “Maiden” opens in theaters in the Chicago area on July 12.

To learn more about how you can be a part of Maiden’s current voyage, go to https://www.themaidenfactor.org.

Filmmaker and storyteller Colette Ghunim retraces her heritage with ‘Traces of Home’

Colette Ghunim has been on my radar for awhile. Her work comes from a place of passion and is really making a positive impact on our film culture and world. She first came to my attention with her film she co-directed with Tinne Van Loon, “The People’s Girls” (2016), a short documentary that explores sexual harassment in Egypt through a series of interviews and social experiments.

As soon as I saw her Kickstarter campaign come up in my socials for her new documentary “Traces of Home,” I had to get the word out. Consider donating to this passion project. In this film, Colette connects with her heritage, while her parents rediscover their own past and heritage. There is one leg left of the documentary, and they need your support to finish the feature. Learn more about the film and donate here: http://kck.st/2LukvTa

REBECCA MARTIN: Your background is what inspired you to do this doc. Can you share more about growing up and how film was a part of it?

COLETTE GHUNIM: As the daughter of a wedding videographer, cameras were omnipresent throughout my entire childhood—yet I had no idea they would become an integral part of my own career. By providing me with the opportunity to benefit from a high-quality education and the freedom to pursue my own aspirations, my camera has become my voice.

I graduated with a degree in Communication Studies from Northwestern University and am based in Chicago. My passion lies at the cross section of social impact and visual storytelling. In 2016, I codirected “The People’s Girls”, an award-winning short documentary investigating sexual harassment in Egypt.

My goal is to create effective and compelling narratives for broadcast on public television, educational distribution, and impact campaigns that accurately portray ignored or marginalized communities throughout the world and bring their stories to audiences that may have little knowledge of the social issues others are facing. My life mission is to promote inclusivity through filmmaking.

Shooting “Traces of Home” in Palestine

My vision as a storyteller and nonfiction filmmaker is to not only spark conversations, but to shift perspectives and positively transform underserved communities. Being first-generation American and a woman of color, filmmaking isn’t just an artistic passion for me, but also a concrete way for me to support and advocate for my community. I also want to help other marginalized filmmakers and media storytellers do the same for themselves, and to that end, co-founded Mezcla Media Collective, a now year-old 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization built to support and provide resources for over 250 female filmmakers of color in Chicago, which has been integral in diversifying and strengthening the Chicago film industry.

MARTIN: What led you to “Traces of Home?

GHUNIM: Being first-generation American, it is easy to become disconnected to our own cultures, trying instead to assimilate to some sort of mainstream American identity. Yet for most of us, we never end up feeling completely American either. I started Traces of Home to shed light on what it truly means to be Latino-American, Arab-American, and an immigrant in general; the film explores the obstacles faced and risks taken before people decide to leave their countries. By intimately documenting these journeys to find my parents’ original homes in Mexico and Palestine, my goal is to highlight immigrant communities as symbols of what it means to be American.

MARTIN: What have you been learning during the filmmaking process?

Shooting “Traces of Home” in Palestine

GHUNIM: Throughout the course of shooting this personal documentary exploring my parents’ pasts, my relationship with my parents, the identities they gave me, and the homelands and lived experiences these identities represent has been radically transformed.

Though I am half-Mexican and half-Palestinian, I have realized there are gaps in understanding the nuances of those identities, as a result of being separated from my countries of origin. As I learned more about the places my parents once called home, the theme of a lost cultural identity became vital to include in the final film. 

Never returning to Palestine since 1948, I had previously only understood my father as an immigrant in the U.S.—someone who was divorced from the land to which he belonged. While shooting in Israel with an entirely Palestinian crew, I witnessed firsthand what homecoming meant to him, and how access to a land and community that had previously been denied to him brought back both the love of his homeland and the trauma of separation associated with it. I was able to finally understand parts of him that were previously hidden in his adopted American identity. 

I am aware that doing this within the filmmaking process naturally collapses public/private boundaries; I continue to try to navigate capturing my parents’ and my own experiences while making sure to respect individual needs for space, time, and healing. 

MARTIN: What are you the most excited about now when it comes to the film community?

GHUNIM: The film community in Chicago has expanded and is beginning to diversify in a beautiful way, with Cinespace and independent filmmaking blossoming with opportunities to share narratives that need to be told. I co-founded Mezcla Media Collective, a nonprofit organization to support over 350 women of color in film in Chicago. I strive to be a changemaker for communities worldwide, documenting powerful stories of individuals that often go unnoticed. It’s been so inspiring to see everyone’s passion to their craft, choosing unconventional routes to live out their true purposes.

MARTIN: Where do you see the need for change?

Shooting “Traces of Home” in Palestine

GHUNIM: Creating equity in the film industry is key for it to be representative of our communities. We have to be the narrators of our own stories, and to do that, we as marginalized people have to be given the opportunity to be part of crews, to be screenwriters, etc, just as much as what is being made in the mainstream. 

MARTIN: Who is your audience for “Traces of Home”? Who do you want to reach with your film?

GHUNIM: My target audience for the film is the immigrant diaspora in the Western world. By exposing my biracial upbringing, “Traces of Home” highlights immigrant communities as symbols of what it means to be American. I will partner with a number of community organizations, hosting subtitled film screenings to make the maximum impact. Many individuals in this target audience have faced prejudice first hand, and my film will provide them with inspiration and optimism that others understand their value to this country. As I am half-Mexican and half-Palestinian, I am very involved in Latino organizations such as HACE and NHI, as well as Arab and Muslim organizations such as CAIR and Students for Justice in Palestine. I have discussed my film with many of these organizations, and they are eager to screen it to their community members.

MARTIN: Anything else you’d like to add?

GHUNIM: We just launched the Kickstarter campaign for “Traces of Home” to raise funds for production in Mexico in January 2020. Our goal is $35,000 and we are requesting support from our community to back the film. Here is the campaign link and trailer to learn more: http://kck.st/2LukvTa

Why was ‘Thelma & Louise’ such an impactful film? Jennifer Townsend’s documentary explores why

When Jennifer Townsend first saw “Thelma & Louise” (1991) when it came out in theaters, she was blown away. “It made a huge dent in my life,” she said. “In fact, the very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.”

Townsend wondered if this film had made such an impact on other viewers too. “I was wondering if other people had reacted as strongly as I had. I just wanted in a way to share my experience.” The internet and social media barely existed yet, so she created a questionnaire and mailed it out to newspapers and magazines across the country. She got 150 responses total, through surveys and phone calls.

But because it took so long for editors to put the blurb in their publications and for snail mail to come in, she put the project on pause. “It haunted me forever. I couldn’t dream of dying in peace without doing something.”

Thankfully, twenty-five years later, Townsend did do something with those surveys. At the age of 78, she directed and produced the documentary “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” (2017), her first feature film. “I’m self-taught, [through] learning from the internet, going to some organizations and talking with people, and absorbing as much as I could, wherever I could.”

I recently spoke with Townsend over the phone about how she created this fascinating documentary and how things have changed for women in film since “Thelma & Louise” came out in 1991.

Townsend’s documentary “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” will be available on Amazon and VOD on June 28. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

THE IMPACT OF “THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: What were you doing around that time when “Thelma & Louise” (1991) came out?

TOWNSEND: I had moved to Seattle shortly before then, and I had been selling commercial real estate as a commercial real estate broker. I was selling apartment buildings. Right about that time with “Thelma & Louise,” it struck me. It made a huge dent in my life. I do remember at that time I was slacking in my business because it changed me, and interest rates had gone up at that time, and it was harder to put deals together because they were canceling out for investors, so I had a little slack period in there and then I just threw myself into this “Thelma & Louise” project.

MARTIN: When you first saw “Thelma & Louise,” what was it that resonated with you?

TOWNSEND: It was such a psychological thing. I wasn’t analyzing it at all. I wasn’t trying to figure it out. I was just like in a daze. I really was in a bubble. The world was going on outside of this bubble … it was like I was transported to a different dimension for several days at least. It was a real phenomenon in my life. And the research developed from that. It was like wow, what is going on. It was like something happened. But I didn’t sit down and try tussle it out or take away from it, it just was like I was present with it, or just going along with it. In fact, the very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.

The very next day after I saw the film, the first thing I did was change my last name.

MARTIN: Oh wow!

TOWNSEND: It was just an impulse, like I crossed the threshold or something like that. Like now I’m somebody else than I was from yesterday. And I just wanted a new last name, and I picked it out of the sky.

MARTIN: Oh my goodness. So I’m curious what made you want to change your last name. Did you want to start fresh as a person? Or were you just trying to detach yourself from the name you had before? It’s a big decision, so I’m just curious where that came from.

TOWNSEND: I had thought about changing my last name many times because it was a name I took when I was married. And then I had four children and they had that last name. When they were in school I didn’t want to change it. By that time, they were all out of school and out of university then, so there was no reason to hang on to that name. Off and on I’d think about changing it, but I just didn’t know what I should change it to. For some psychological reason, that particular morning, I just had to do it. I just woke up, and I just did it.

MARTIN: I love it. And so it was the movie that drove you to do that?

TOWNSEND: Yes, absolutely.

MAKING “CATCHING SIGHT OF THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: What drove you to create “Catching Sight of Thelma & Louise” (2017)? Was it because it was the 25th anniversary of “Thelma & Louise”?

TOWNSEND: Yeah, that was on my mind. I was waiting until I wasn’t working any longer. I was retired,  I had traveled, I had done various things. And then I felt now is the time for me in my life, and then I could spend time on this.

So then I flew down all of those materials, still thinking that I would write something. But then I thought it would be much better [creating a documentary] than me paraphrasing people and taking out little bits and pieces here and there. If I could find some of these people and have them talk and share directly to the audience, you could feel them and hear them and appreciate them so much more than if I just rewrote something.

So once I had that idea, I had to pursue it, even though I knew absolutely nothing, zero about making a film at that time. It’s just been an uphill climb ever since; even today I am still learning the different aspects, and now of course I’ve gotten into the distribution. That’s a whole different ball game. You wear so many different hats. It’s been an incredible learning experience. And I just had my 80th birthday this year.

MARTIN: That’s amazing. How did you choose the people you’d interview for the film? And how did you go about getting the editor and two of the actors from “Thelma and Louise” to take part in the documentary?

TOWNSEND: Well first I went through the materials and I pulled out some of the letters that really said something, that really made statements. Because it was easy to answer the questionnaire with two or three words, or one single sentence here and one single sentence there, but that didn’t give me a sense of that person. But the ones that I did feel that really had time to sit and talk about their feelings, those are the ones I thought I’d like to show in the film. And then finding them of course was—

MARTIN: —a bit of a challenge.

TOWNSEND: That’s right, very, very challenging. Occasionally I would Google and somebody would come up directly, but more often than not—I signed up for this service where you get information about people, and I’d put in the name, and there’d literally be like hundreds of names, and of course nobody’s living where they lived twenty-five years ago. And at that time, many of the people that wrote in were in college. So you go away to college, then you go somewhere else to get a job.

Tracking people down, after all of that time, it was very difficult. There were all kinds of things that came out of that. Sometimes I would find the parents of somebody, older parents, maybe they were estranged from the child, and they did not even know how to reach the child. And then maybe I found the child, and the child had helped me find the parent that had written to me. Or then maybe I would find these people, and then they don’t even want to be in front of a camera, which is totally understandable; I didn’t want to be in front of the camera either.

As far as the actors and editor, I didn’t initially plan on having anyone who was in or a part of the film [“Thelma & Louise”], in my film. My film was about the stories of those who wrote their reactions about “Thelma & Louise.” But then in my documentary association they were saying while I was working on the film with them, people would say, “Would so and so be in the film?” So then I thought, well I’ll give it a shot, maybe have a cameo here or there, or something like that. I didn’t want it to be about the film or the personages in the film, I wanted it to be about the audience. So with that constant drumming, I said OK.

I didn’t want it to be about the film or the personages in the film, I wanted it to be about the audience.

So I did send out letters to the agents of the actors in the film, and through that, the two actors [Christopher McDonald and Marco St. John] came in. And also the editor [Thom Noble], I got connected with him directly and he was very open.

THE HEALING POWER OF “THELMA & LOUISE”

It occurred to me that both in “Thelma & Louise” and in my film, there’s a theme of violence against women. That element in particular I feel is a focal point. It’s like the emotional heart of the film. The doom of the violence against women. In that sense, women many times, they react to that in a way that they fully—it was healing for them.

TOWNSEND: It occurred to me that both in “Thelma & Louise” and in my film, there’s a theme of violence against women. That element in particular I feel is a focal point. It’s like the emotional heart of the film. The doom of the violence against women. In that sense, women many times, they react to that in a way that they fully—it was healing for them.

Some of the survey responses about the film “Thelma & Louise”

To see that, to see how these women talked about these experiences. They came away feeling like they were not alone. It was so awesome. We know intellectually, we all know that we are not alone, but it isn’t until you see somebody sharing their truth right in front of your face. You feel like they are on a different, more heartfelt level.

CHANGE IN THE INDUSTRY SINCE “THELMA & LOUISE”

MARTIN: Twenty-five years after “Thelma & Louise” came out, what are your thoughts about how things have changed for women in the industry?

TOWNSEND: I feel like we’re in a very exciting time right now. There’s so many women out there in the industry, that have a presence, and we are getting the acknowledgement that we deserve in terms of fresh and immediate attention. That doesn’t mean of course that we’re anywhere near where we need to be.

When there are so many women out there that are available and that are brilliant and they can be in front of the camera or behind the camera, the question is using that, taking advantage of that. Giving them opportunities, but there are still not enough opportunities. Not by a long shot. But I think we’re in a place that, this problem that we’ve been having with as women in the industry, forever, it’s starting to change. If we keep the momentum going, we will see changes.

CherryPicks founder and ‘Being Frank’ director Miranda Bailey is paving the way for women in film

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Miranda Bailey is not just one thing—she is Miranda Bailey, the producer, director, actor, founder of CherryPicks, mother, and inspiration to women in the industry.

She’s produced over twenty films, including Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale” (2005), the Spirit Award–winning “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2015), and the indie hit “Don’t Think Twice” (2016). Bailey’s directorial narrative feature debut, “Being Frank” (2019), starring Jim Gaffigan, Anna Gunn, Samantha Mathis, and Logan Miller, comes out Father’s Day weekend. Her story is multifaceted and I’m so glad I could share her story.

GROWING UP

REBECCA MARTIN: What led you on your path?

Miranda Bailey

I remember walking into the concrete building and seeing this giant dollhouse [the sound stage]. And I was like oh my god, this is like the most huge dollhouse ever. And the actors were living dolls and I just watched them do their takes. And I said to myself this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

MIRANDA BAILEY: It was a pretty intense story. I was eight years old living in Denver, Colorado. My father was a stockbroker before I was born on Wall Street and his buddy stockbrokers were with Brian Dennehy. By the time I was in first grade, Brian was no longer a stockbroker; he was an actor and was in a movie with Walter Matthau. Brian invited me and my dad to visit the set in California. It was a magical moment. I remember walking into the concrete building and seeing this giant dollhouse [the sound stage]. And I was like oh my god, this is like the most huge dollhouse ever. And the actors were living dolls and I just watched them do their takes. And I said to myself this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: What was the film?

BAILEY: “Little Miss Marker” (1980).

MARTIN: That’s amazing. From there…

BAILEY: I tried to get out of Colorado so I could be in the movie biz.

MARTIN: Where did you go to school?

BAILEY: Well I wanted to go straight to New York or Hollywood to be an actor. But my mother was like, absolutely not. And she wouldn’t even let me go to a school that was a specialty of acting, like the dramatic academy. I had to go to a liberal arts school. So I applied early decision to Skidmore College, because it had the cutest boys, and cool dorm rooms.

MARTIN: Were you doing film stuff on the side?

BAILEY: We didn’t have that back then. I was an acting major, but what happened was I kept writing and directing. I remember at one point the faculty pulled me in and were like, no, Miranda you’re going to need to choose between acting, directing, or writing. You’re an acting major, but you’re directing a lot of plays, and you’re going to need to choose. And I was like well, Sean Felman is not choosing, and John Jacobson is not choosing. And they’re like, well it’s different. So I stayed an acting major, but I didn’t stop directing or writing. And then I came to LA shortly after that and was acting. Then I started producing as well. So I was producing stuff that I was acting in.

ACTING AND PRODUCING

MARTIN: What are some of the films that you acted in and produced?

BAILEY: One was “Dead & Breakfast” (2004), this really fun horror movie I made. It was like an American “Shaun of the Dead” (2004). It did really well, it didn’t cost a lot, but it was really really hard to make. I found that I was good at producing, because when shit hits the fan I was always there to clean the shit. … 

And then [another was] “The Oh in Ohio” (2006). I acted and produced that one. I had small roles because I wanted to pick bigger projects rather than bigger roles.

MARTIN: So acting and producing went together hand in hand for you?

BAILEY: Yeah, I had some bad experiences when I was just acting. It’s the typical story that you hear, that happens to most girls when they come to LA, they have to take off their clothes and they are put into a weird situation. And I just wanted more control over what I was doing. Back then Drew Barrymore was like the first one to start producing her own stuff or at least that’s who I had heard about who was a young actress also producing but she was famous already. So it wasn’t really normal for someone like me, a no name, to start making her own work. This was before digital cameras and before the cool confident chicks like Lena Dunham. So I felt really awkward about it, guilty to try to create my own work, I felt like I was being a narcissist.

So I kind of hid away and hid my talent, and hid my desires for acting and focused on proving myself as a producer so I could be taken more seriously. And then somehow ended up directing. And that’s a place where knowing how to act and produce has been such a blessing.

DIRECTING

MARTIN: What was your first directing project?

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BAILEY: I had directed a bunch of theatre but my first film to direct was kind of by accident. One of my producing partners was directing a movie that I didn’t really like and I didn’t want to be a producer on it. But I wanted to support him and I wanted to contribute in some way, so I told him I’d be an executive producer and give some notes and I would shoot all the behind the scenes and making of, which I had been doing for our projects for while. The main producers of the movie were attempting to “green” the film, because they thought it would bring them sponsorship or money from Patagonia or something and I was like “well that’s not going to happen.” Also this is back in 2010 so hybrid cars were brand new; everyone was much more wasteful. I thought maybe I’ll do this little video about the “greening of the film” on the DVD as an extra. And it ended up being such an amazing disaster that it became its own movie called “Greenlit.” It was so much fun; it was a documentary.

MARTIN: When did it come out?

BAILEY: The film premiered at SXSW in 2010. I thought it was a huge long shot to get in because I had a pretty low self-esteem back then. But then it got in! From there I started to think of my second documentary, which ended up being a seven-year long process, a super controversial subject that everyone had an opinion on yet I didn’t want to make a documentary focused on one opinion. I liked documentaries that show all sides of something. “Greenlit” is the good and the bad about “greening” a film. Because nothing is all good or all bad if you look at it from all angles. “The Pathological Optimist” (2017) is a grey-area documentary as well.

“THE PATHOLOGICAL OPTIMIST”

MARTIN: Can you tell me more about the film, the controversial one?

BAILEY: It’s called the “The Pathological Optimist” and it is about Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the guy you hear about in the news that people say started the anti-vaccine movement. I started following him accidentally in 2010, right when he lost his medical license, so no one really knew of him in the United States yet. Originally I was trying humorist approach to it, like “Greenlit” style, which would be called “Chasing Mr. Wakefield.” It would be about me as a new mom trying to figure out what he’s about and if he is a liar or whatever. And he was refusing to meet with me, so I was meeting with other people who knew him, and I was talking to them.

A year and a half in to it, maybe two years into it, he said yes, that he would talk to me. He was filing a defamation lawsuit against the the British Medical Journal, and so then at that point, the movie that I was making stopped. I started making a movie about him attempting to clear his name with this lawsuit. And then over time—a lawsuit lasts a long time—it started to become a hot-button topic, not quite as bad as it is now; people were more open to talking about it opposed to screaming about it.

I didn’t really realize the murky muddy waters I was getting myself into. He had warned me, the people around me had warned me, but I didn’t believe them, I just thought they were a bunch of paranoid people. It ended up being a pretty tough documentary for many reasons. One, there are a lot of people who have some very sad stories, and two, you don’t know if your subject is telling you the truth or not. Things would happen with the doc subject, and I would find out after the fact. There were things that my subject did that would undermine the documentary that I was making. So that was very challenging. So during that time I started to write and direct a fiction comedy. Anyway, the film is called the “The Pathological Optimist.” I still really love it, I’m still pretty proud of it, and the music is amazing!

MARTIN: And you can find this film streaming?

BAILEY: Yep!

MARTIN: I’m going to make sure to watch it soon!

BAILEY: Fantastic, it’s a fascinating movie. What I love about it is that it’s one of those movies where one person can watch one thing and say oh well, this is what it means, and another person will be like, no, this is what it means, you know, like Fox News versus CNN. Everyone looks for their own opinions to be confirmed. And in this movie, you can find it. … People who love him they think the movie is pro-him. For the people that hate him, despise him, think that the movie is anti-him.

MARTIN: I love that you did it that way, because I feel like a lot of documentaries are tailored to this is how you think about the film, and I like how you did it, you presented it and you said, you decide what you think.

BAILEY: You always go, yes, I want to find out more. And I did this poll of people who knew about him and saw the movie and half went back and started researching him, and half of them were on one side and half on the other. You start to write your own personal thoughts on whatever you pick up on in the movie.

CHERRYPICKS

MARTIN: When did CherryPicks come in? Has this been a long project that you’ve been working on?

And I was about to open my documentary and I was editing my comedy, and we were getting reviews that were mixed. And I noticed that there just wasn’t that many women critics, and I had to weed through, like which women liked it, which didn’t. Because this is definitely a movie for women. Then I was like, I wish I could just go to a website with just women critics.

BAILEY: No, not at all. So I’m about to release “The Pathological Optimist” in theaters … and I’m editing my comedy with Jim Gaffigan, and we had produced a movie before with Lake Bell called “I Do… Until I Don’t” (2017), within a week during this time. And I was about to open my documentary and I was editing my comedy, and we were getting reviews that were mixed. And I noticed that there just wasn’t that many women critics, and I had to weed through, like which women liked it, which didn’t. Because this is definitely a movie for women. Then I was like, I wish I could just go to a website with just women critics.

And I’m driving to work right after that. And this idea flies in to my window, we need to start a site for female critic reviews, and it will be called CherryPicks. It was an exciting idea, so I walk in to my office and talked to my producing partner Amanda, and I said, hey, I just had an idea, what do you think of this? And she’s like, mmmhmmm, that’s a great idea, but you are about to launch a movie, and you have to edit one you just started, so no, let’s not do that right now. And I was like, you’re right, I don’t know what I was thinking. And I tried to put it out of my mind. However, whenever I was in the bathroom, or the shower, I would think about it, it was like “hello, hello.” And I was like c’mon idea! leave me alone! I’m busy. But it wouldn’t leave my brain. So I gave into the idea. I was like okay, okay, CherryPicks or whatever you call yourself, I only know one person that knows about websites and I’m not even friends with her, I’m friends with her sister. I’ll call her and if she’s interested, I’ll do it. If she’s not interested, then you’ve got to leave me alone and go find someone else to pester. Well she was interested so here we are.

“BEING FRANK”

MARTIN: Let’s talk about your latest film. What’s it about?

BAILEY: It’s called “Being Frank” (2019), and it stars Jim Gaffigan, and it’s either a dramatic comedy or a comedic drama. It’s about a man who has a second family and is caught by his seventeen-year-old son.

MARTIN: That’s intense! Did you write the film?

BAILEY: I did a director pass on the dialogue. It opens in Landmark Theatres June 14.

PAVING THE WAY

MARTIN: For the young female filmmaker getting started, any advice?

The only reason I am still here is because I just persisted. You’re not always going to make something good; you have to be able to stick around. Eventually you just stick around, and other people do not, and they fall by the wayside, and then you know, you’ve done more than you ever thought you would.

BAILEY: Everyone has their own path. Honestly, I was thinking about this this morning, the only reason I am still here is because I just persisted. You’re not always going to make something good; you have to be able to stick around. Eventually you just stick around, and other people do not, and they fall by the wayside, and then you know, you’ve done more than you ever thought you would.

MARTIN: What I love about you is that you really support other women, in terms of giving them shout-outs, and lifting them up, and with the CherryPicks site. I think that the work you are doing is so important. And that’s what helps women get stronger in the industry, by looking at women like you who are setting the path.

BAILEY: Yeah, thinking back I was like, why is nobody helping me? And I was like, I’m not going to be that person. That person who is afraid that there is not enough room for everyone.

Director Alison Klayman discusses her new documentary ‘The Brink’

Never in recent memory has there been such a volatile time in politics than today and one man has added his own fuel to the fire—Steve Bannon. Director Alison Klayman has opened the doors into this man’s life with her new film “The Brink” (2019), giving viewers a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes action and the inner workings of politics like never seen before.

Director Alison Klayman

Klayman, responsible for documentary works of art such as “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” (2012) and “The 100 Years Show” (2015), recently spoke with me about her journey, both literally and figuratively, as she captured Bannon from all angles shedding light onto a subject previously existing in the shadows.

The concept of this film came from Marie Therese Guirgis with whom Klayman had collaborated for “The 100 Years Show.” Guirgis had worked closely with Bannon at Wellspring Media for three years and Klayman described that they had a good working relationship. She reported that the two had fallen out of touch “…until he burst on the scene of the Trump campaign…and she got back in touch with him, frankly to send him angry letters saying that she was really disappointed in him….” These letters continued throughout Trump’s election and Bannon’s time in the White House, but the tipping point came after the Muslim Travel Ban and Guirgis “let him have it.” She shared, “I witnessed the way she talks to him. She’s really not holding back.” But soon after, Guirgis realized that perhaps this candid relationship could be brought to a greater use, which was the spark for “The Brink.”

Approached by Guirgis to participate in this vérité style of film, Bannon initially declined, but eventually welcomed the proposal. Klayman, before accepting the director’s position, wanted to meet Bannon. Maria introduced the two, and before Bannon agreed, Guirgis “was in full form,” Klayman chuckled, worried that he wouldn’t agree under these circumstances. And this was just the beginning of peering through the Lookingglass, a term Klayman said that was used as a first working title of the film.

Klayman and Bannon traveled together around the country and the world for thirteen months as she captured more than one hundred hours of footage, which were then distilled into the film we see today. While we see glimpses of Klayman’s personal viewpoint, the filmmaker expressed that she took great care in her editing process to create fairness in the film. “I felt like the strength of the movie would come from a fair treatment of the subject and the material. That didn’t mean that I came in as a neutral member of society. I think that would be a lie.” She continued, “This film has a filmmaker. Here are the clues to how the filmmaker sees this story.” She added, “Documentary film is not just the facts ma’am kind of a thing, but I thought it needed to be fair in the sense that I was there to make a story out of what I actually found, not what I wanted to find or what I expected to find.” Klayman punctuated the fact that she was profoundly careful in her editing, saying, “If I found a person who was charming people and had charisma, I can’t cut that out. I can’t take a scene and edit it manipulatively; that will discredit the whole piece.”

Klayman had remarkable access to meetings, dinners, and casual moments with politicians and far right leaders from around the world. While she sometimes was limited in what she filmed, stating that she was occasionally “invited to leave,” indicating the private conversations were off-limits for public knowledge, she was particularly proud of being able to film the meeting with global extremist leaders in London. She gave Bannon credit in calling him a “great advocate” as he would encourage others to be a part of the film.

In addition to the leaders, Klayman captured Bannon’s interviews with renowned and respected journalists, many who had heated conversations with Trump’s right-hand man. In her downtime, oftentimes waiting with the journalists for their time with Bannon, she explained her position to them as an independent filmmaker. Met with initial skepticism, which Klayman understood, most welcomed her filming and were excited to see the final product as journalists “don’t get the time or the space to write that kind of piece.”

The intimate and candid moments Klayman captured were not only eye-opening, but mind-boggling. From conversations with John Thornton, the former president of Goldman Sachs to private meetings with Lena Epstein and John James, Congressional and Senate candidates in Michigan in 2018, Klayman was proud of the fact that these particular scenes “…raised a lot of questions I don’t have answers to.”   However, she feels confident that the hypocrisy, false information, and “…the fact that a lot of Bannon’s messaging when it comes to helping people, the little guy, being revolutionary, with a different view of economics, that, to me, if anything, that shows that that’s false.” She deduced that he is not a threat to the super rich and that both he and Trump want the same thing. “I think that was really important to show.”

What is the ultimate goal of the film? Klayman hopes that the role of the media in upcoming elections is discussed; “…not whether to cover these people, but how.” She added, “As we have more elections coming up in the EU in 2020, it’s crucial to have a more thoughtful discussion…questions about who is funding these far right movements and how do we keep them honest about what they’re really fighting for and what they’re really doing. To me, those are the things that transcend and are still vitally important. And frankly, the cast of characters you see in the film are all also not going away…so who knows what’s going to come next.”

Bannon, as a courtesy, was shown the finished film prior to its premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. His response was guarded, which Klayman interpreted as his way of waiting to see what the press thought of the film. “I think that’s what matters most to him.”

Education and knowledge are power, and this powerful documentary “The Brink,” seen as a fly on the wall, allows you to ask and sometimes answer your own questions that will no doubt be relevant in the next news cycle, global election, and the 2020 campaign.