g The Film Panel Notetaker: November 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

One-on-One Q&A: Rory O'Connor - "The Battle of Durban II"

One-on-One Q&A
Rory O’Connor, Director/Producer/Writer

Tomorrow night, November 17 at 6:30pm, will be the first of two screenings of Rory O’Connor’s documentary, “The Battle of Durban II,” at the New York Tolerance Center in New York City. An encore will take place on Wednesday, December 2 at 6:30pm.

The Film Panel Notetaker conducted the following One-on-One Q&A with director/producer/writer Rory O’Connor, who is the co-founder and president of the international media firm Globalvision, Inc, and Board Chair of The Global Center, an affiliated non-profit foundation. “The Battle of Durban II” was produced by Gerald Barad, edited by Linda Hattendorf, and Eric Forman served as supervising producer.

“The Battle of Durban II” takes a deep look and analysis of the history and effects of the United Nations World Conference on Racism and Discrimination that was held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. What was meant to be a diplomatic dialogue against racism and discrimination throughout the world, was overshadowed by a nearby Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) forum where some protesters equated Zionism (the belief that Jews should have their own homeland) with racism, labeling Israel a racist, apartheid state. World leaders and members of Jewish organizations were outraged by this behavior, calling it anti-Semitic. In 2009, the UN held a follow-up conference in Geneva, Switzerland, dubbed “Durban II.”

What starts as an educational documentary on the circumstances surrounding the 2001 Durban conference as told through stock footage, narration and interviews with the people on both sides of the issues, becomes a gripping and suspenseful fly-on-the-wall drama as the filmmaker gains access into the proceedings that took place at the Durban Review Conference in 2009 in Geneva.
TFPN: What brought about your interest in the UN Conferences on Racism & Discrimination, and why did you choose this as the subject of a documentary?

O’ Conner: I have a longstanding interest and lots of experience in covering human rights, racism and intolerance-related issues, including having helped create and manage Globalvision's two weekly international television news magazines devoted to those topics -- South Africa Now, and Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television. I have also been involved in the production of more than two-dozen documentary films. Finally, I have done a lot of work for various UN-associated groups, including UNICEF, UNFPA, UNDP, the DPI, UNIFEM, UNESCO and others -- as well as covering the UN itself for decades.

I thought that looking at the UN and the related issues of racism and discrimination, through the prism of the two World Conferences on Racism and Discrimination that book ended the first decade of this century, would help us to understand why there hasn't been more progress in these areas – and yield some insight into how the relentless focus on Israel and Palestine at that world body -- while perhaps understandable -- is also to some extent standing in the way.

TFPN: Did you get to travel to both of these conferences, and what was it like to physically be there among all the tension that ensued?

O’Connor: Although I have covered South Africa for years (see above) and visited there, I was not in attendance at the 2001 UN World Conference on Racism held in Durban. We did attend this year's Durban review Conference in Geneva, Switzerland.Judging from the footage we acquired of the Durban conference, I guess I would say that in many respects I'm glad NOT to have been there, since the tone of much of the NGO Forum (if not the UN Conference itself) seems to have been so negative. But I can say that being in Geneva for weeks this spring was an amazing experience in many ways -- from the many unofficial events offered by both pro-Zionist and anti-Zionist groups that we covered; to the UN conference itself, with the tumult associated with the speech given by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinjead (see the film's promotional trailer: http://www.durbanii.com/); all the way to the emotional demonstrations and protests staged by the many other NGO groups, such as the Darfuris, Dalits and Tamils, who vocalized their feelings that the world simply isn't listening to them and their cries.Despite the tension you allude to -- and it was very much there in Geneva as well as apparently at Durban -- it still felt good to be able to give voice in some small way to the voiceless victims of racism and discrimination who had journeyed to both the 2001 Durban conference and the 2009 Geneva conference in hopes of getting some attention if not actual relief for their suffering!

TFPN: You do a great job outlining the history, the issues, and the people involved with these conferences in a relatively objective, journalistic way, showing all sides of the matter. How do you personally feel about the issue? Did these conferences do any good in terms of combating racism, or were they merely something that fueled further anti-Semitic sentiments?

O’ Conner: Personally I agree with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay that more space must be created for, and more voice given to, the NGOs and representatives of civil society who were largely excluded from the proceedings in Geneva. I also agree with her assessment that something must be done soon to break the logjam at the UN over the Middle East, since issues relating to the Israel-Palestine conflict take up so much oxygen at the world body that it is rendered extremely difficult -- if not impossible-- to make needed progress in other areas, such as the situation in Darfur, or that concerning the 260 million Dalits, or 'outcastes" in South Asia, for example.

As to the question of how much good the conferences do in combating racism,the jury is still out, but I think any fair assessment would lead to the conclusion that they would do a lot more good if they didn't regularly and predictably devolve into protracted arguments over Israel and Palestine. Certainly it is an issue of concern to the world -- but equally certainly, it isn't the ONLY issue that should be examined, to the exclusion of others...

TFPN: What are your prospects for your film? Are there any particular film festivals you're targeting, and distribution outlooks?

O’Connor: We are now in discussions with various sales representatives and distributors, and will make a deal soon with one of them for global television distribution, as well as DVD sales and educational distribution. Globalvision's previous films have aired in literally dozens of countries around the world, and we hope to have similar success with this film, including airing in Israel, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle Eastern region.

Although the film's content is controversial -- since the topic itself is highly so -- we did our level best to give voice to all "sides" of the issues raised, including interviewing UN Ambassadors from Israel and Iran, as well as numerous Palestinians and their supporters, other Israelis and their supporters, human rights experts, and leading diplomats from countries as varied as the United States, France, South Africa, Canada, and Russia.

TFPN: What are you working on next?

O'Connor: I'm just beginning production on a follow-up film called 'The Obama Doctrine,' which will look at the new American president's first year in office and the steps he has taken and may yet take to re-engage with the world, return to a multi-lateral foreign policy, and reach out to Islam -- while in the process beginning to upset the established order in the Middle East -- and perhaps even open a new path to peace in the region.

Labels: , , ,

Andrew Bujalski presents "Beeswax" at the Dryden Theatre, November 7th, 2009

Andrew Bujalski presents Beeswax at the Dryden Theatre

Saturday, November 7, 2009 at 8:00pm
Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House
Rochester, New York

Jim Healy, Assistant Curator, Dryden Theatre
Andrew Bujalski, Director, Beeswax

Beeswax has one connection to Rochester, New York: Katy O'Connor, who plays Corrine, Storyville's cashier, is a native of the Rochester Area. Andrew first met Katy about ten years ago through Kate Dollenmayer, the star of Andrew's first film, Funny Ha Ha. Dollenmayer and O'Connor worked as animators on Richard Linklater's film, Waking Life. O'Connor's Aunt and Uncle were in the audience.

Katy O'Connor's crying in Beeswax marked the first time Bujalski directed a crying scene, the whole process of which made Bujalski very anxious. "I was nervous. That's a very scary thing to ask somebody to do. [The day we shot the crying scene] was a nerve-wracking day in particular. A lot of takes would be ruined by things like a truck starting up in the alley. At one point, we were shooting and the [store's] owner's car broke down.

Still, O'Connor managed to deliver. "There was all this stuff going on. But I remember going back, and she was listening to something on her IPod that kept her 'in the zone'. I would go back and tell her, 'Okay, it's going to be another five minutes, and she'd go 'WHAT?'. She was fine."

"Was she listening to something to prepare her to cry?" Healy inquired.

"'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' by The Platters.", Bujalski answered.

The genesis of Beeswax came after the completion of Bujalski's first film, Funny Ha Ha, when the notion of making a movie with the Hatcher sisters crossed his mind. However, Bujalski was quick to point out that Beeswax was not an autobiographical film.

"This isn't the true story of Tilly and Maggie Hatcher by any means. I don't know their true story well enough to have written a movie of it. What they project to me is what I could imagine they were projecting on screen, which doesn't tell their whole story, but was something I could use and begin to build a story around."

Bujalski went on to describe the casting process of the film, and how he chose his actors. "The casting on this film was kind of a peculiar process because they're all non-professional actors, but I think they're all really, really good actors. I sought out people who don't really want to act for a living, and yet, they're willing to be roped into it.

One of the things Beeswax has been commended for is its treatment of its handicapped character, played by Tilly Hatcher.

"Nine times out of ten, if you see someone in a wheelchair in a movie, it's about the transition, the adjustment, which kind of makes sense, because the audience generally likes having an entry point for watching the movie. 'Oh, what if something happened to me?' But if that's your life, that's not what you're thinking about all the time. We liked the idea of a character with a disability. With that being said, it's a major presence in the film. I realized early on as I was writing this, that it didn't make sense for me to go too far out of my way to call attention to it because it's a visual medium."

"I can't think of a single film where disability is not a part of the story except for your film." Healy added. "Or at least it doesn't seem like a plot mechanic. Even when Lionel Barrymore was in a wheelchair, it was always figured into the story. It was a metaphor for him being a warped, twisted old man."

Healy delved further into plot mechanics. "One of the things that is wonderful about this film is the complete disinterest in plot mechanics. An obvious set-up of something that is going to influence something. Instead, it's about behavior. You're much more interested in watching people as they are, rather than having them decide that 'THEY MUST DO SOMETHING!!!'"

Bujalski responded, "Too often, when I go to see a conventionally plotted film, very often, I'm most interested about the things, that, whenever the cops are like, 'We gotta get there!', and they jump in the car, I always think, "What did they talk about in the car?', and then I make a movie about that." The audience laughed.

Beeswax is Bujalski's version of a legal thriller. "Legal thrillers are almost always offering all these connections. You start to see the big picture of how everything is connected. And I thought, anyone who has been involved in legal problems, it's not thrilling, first of all. It goes on forever. A lot of it fizzles, and it's a great expense, and it doesn't go anywhere. That was something I was interested in."

"In the last decade in particular, I think there's been a real trend in the 'everything is connected' movie. Sometimes they work great, but they always kind of bug me in the sense of, 'I've been around awhile', and not everything is connected. Some things are disconnected. I like films that are more conventionally structured, too, but they feel less magical."

Bujalski and Healy talked about the mumblecore genre, the usage of the word "mumblecore", and the connotation tied to it.

"I'm just as responsible for letting that word out. I thought it was funny. When my last film played at SXSW, there were a few films at the festival that year that were chatty films that were made cheaply. Some blogger felt that with these films, there was a movement afoot. I was talking with my sound mixer, Eric Masunaga. I said, 'Eric, as long as there's a new movement, what would you call the movement?' and he said, 'Mumblecore!'. I thought it was funny. I repeated it to a journalist, and I ruined the day. It's not so funny anymore."

"My problem with it is that it seems to be used more often than not to dismiss a group of films."

"They abuse it," Healy chimed in.

"They'll say, 'Oh, I hate mumblecore!' I'm confident there are lots more people who hate mumblecore than people who have actually seen the films. My other problem with being lumped in that group--and I understand the convenience of the term--but of all those films, some of them are really good, and the ones that are good, the things that are good about them are not the similarities, but the differences."

Healy added, "Like any genre, if everything played by the rules, then it's completely boring. For example, anything with shadows and fog and voiceover narration is considered Film Noir. But really distinguishes Film Noir is the immorality."

Having three films under his belt, Bujalski finds himself at a crossroads. With pressure coming at him from all sides, Bujalski feels he could go either way the next time around.

"I've never made a film with a corporate officer looking over my shoulder. That's very rare. Not many filmmakers get to do that even once. [Beeswax] cost more than my first two films combined. The biggest increase in price just comes from the fact that you're making a film where everybody that's working on the film is in their thirties, as opposed to their twenties, and you have to treat them better. People, like want to sleep on beds, and not have pizza for every meal."

"With or without economic collapse, I feel like the world would close in a little bit if I continued this type of filmmaking. I've gotten older, I've gotten married, which is great! But it doesn't make me think that I should go spend a lot of time and lose all my money again. I have a fairly wide contrarian streak, which has led me to make noncommercial films in the first place."

"Everytime I make a film, there's more and more external pressure. I have a Hollywood agent, and my Hollywood agent would not like it at all if I made another cheap movie that would lose money, which kind of makes me want to do it again. Whatever [my next movie] is, it will either cost ten times as much to make, or cost one tenth as much to make. The pressure is on this film, and I could either try to do it bigger, which a lot of people like me to do, or I could get a lot weirder, which I'd be happy to do."

Healy concluded the conversation. "I'm sure you'll be back, whatever it is. Thanks for coming again."

"Thanks for having me."

Labels: , , , , ,