2009 Cinema Eye Honors Roundtable Discussion
Round 2 of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, presented by Indiepix and supporting sponsor ArtsEngine (home of DocuClub), saw its festivities move from last year’s location of the IFC Center to this year’s at TheTimesCenter. In the tradition of last year’s surprise roundtable discussion in the middle of the awards ceremony, another stellar panel of distinguished nominees was questioned by Cinema Eye Co-Founder and Stranger Than Fiction head honcho Thom Powers. This time around, Powers probed The Order of Myths director Margaret Brown, The Betrayal - Nerakhoon co-directors Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk (Thavi) Phrasavath, Man on Wire director James Marsh, and My Winnipeg producer Jody Shapiro. Below are some highlights from that discussion.
(L to R: Margaret Brown, Ellen Kuras, Thavisouk Phrasavath, James Marsh, and Jody Shapiro. Photo courtesy of Indiepix.)
Powers: (To Brown) It’s been a year since your film played at Sundance. It’s quite a remarkable film that’s so rooted in the community you came from. What was this year’s journey like with the film…taking down to Mobile (Alabama)?
Brown: I think that night was probably the most surreal night out of my life because it’s the audience that gave the movie and also you’re sort of giving it back. The film had a standing ovation after we showed it there, but there were some walk outs, too. It was definitely mixed. It was really weird because the audience was talking to the film. It was a very interactive experience.
Powers: (To Kuras) With your film, you worked on it for over 20 years.
Kuras: (She invites Thavi to the stage and he gets a round of applause.) Thavi and I worked on this film for 23 years. It started out back in 1984 before I met Thavi. I started making a film about another family. When I met Thavi and when he wanted to learn how to speak the language, he was living in Brooklyn. I put the word out in the community that I wanted to speak Lao. Thavi called me up and said, ‘Who are you? Why do you want to speak Lao? Do you even know where Laos is?’ Since that time, I ended up working with Thavi making the film about him and we made the film together. It was really a film where two people came from two different cultures and could speak the same language, that’s the film language. It really was an amazing creative exploration of ideas and making documentary a different form, because Thavi was the subject of the film and ultimately became one of the filmmakers. I worked with him to make a film with a personal point of view, which is a very difficult place to be.
Powers (To Phrasavath): You were also the editor of the film. With such close personal material, what was that like for you to spend all that time editing it?
Phrasavath: To look at myself on the screen and also thinking there’s a character to tell the story…and tell the story that needs to be told instead of ‘G-d, look at my teeth, why did they film it that way?’ It’s been a phenomenal experience for me.
Powers (To Marsh): One of the things that we observe is the way critics and reviewers and the way documentaries get digested is often as individual films and not really recognizing a director’s career. How do you see Man on Wire fitting into your overall career?
Marsh: Before I made Man on Wire I made a feature film called The King that was widely loathed by many people…Man on Wire came along as a way of salvaging my career because The King had sort of become a dead end. It was much more of a hostile world the world of fiction filmmaking. People are much more unpleasant in it just generally. The great kind of discovery on Man on Wire was the film playing at festivals and meeting a lot of people who are in this room and having passionate respectful conversations with other filmmakers…As far as my career goes, I didn’t really feel I got one. It’s what Philippe (Petit) says, you sort of blunder on from one fool hearty adventure to the next and sometimes you get lucky and on this one, we got lucky.
Powers: (To Shapiro) You had produced Guy Maddin’s fiction films before this. Was there anything different about doing a documentary for him and the process?
Shapiro: It actually was a very difficult project for him to tackle. As a fiction filmmaker, and he’s even made autobiographical films as a fictional filmmaker, he’ll tell stories about himself, but they’re totally fabricated. This time, he actually had to be truthful and reach inside himself and figure out what Winnipeg meant for him. It actually proved to be a long process. We thought when the film was commissioned we could do it in six months, but it actually ended up taking over two years.
Powers: (To Brown) What do you see your future (for your career)?
Brown: I think actually I’m working on a narrative next. I shouldn’t say that in front of this audience…I think of myself as a storyteller and not just documentary. I want to be able to do both. I’m not sure what I’m doing next. I’m still thinking about it.
Powers (To Kuras) With 23 years from the first one, do you think you can maybe do one for ten?
Kuras: Very funny. I’ve made about 40 films in between as a cinematographer. I think when you become a director…everybody asks you, ‘are you going to direct?’ As a cinematographer, I’ve made so many films and I really enjoy being a cinematographer. I love working with directors. I love having that collaboration. It really depends on the project. I’m not about to leap into doing the next romantic comedy…I think it’s really like as Margaret said, telling stories…and having an aesthetic and having a more eclectic taste…these are ideas I want to explore.