g The Film Panel Notetaker: January 2010

Sunday, January 31, 2010

"Off and Running" Opening Weekend Q&A - Jan. 30, 2010

Opening Weekend Theatrical Release
Q&A after 4:05pm screening with Director Nicole Opper and others
January 30, 2010
New York, NY

(L to R: Rita Taddonio, Nicole Opper & Sharese Bullock. Photo by Brian Geldin.)

It has been over a year since Nicole Opper’s documentary “Off and Running" was brought to my attention. I had first learned of it through DocuClub, where Opper screened a work-in-progress version, but I couldn’t make it to that screening. A few months later, I was excited to learn that it would premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, but because of my own publicist duties on another film, Danae Elon’s “Partly Private” (which also coincidentally showed a work-in-progress at DocuClub) that was premiering there, my schedule was full, and therefore I missed “Off and Running” again. Now with the theatrical release of the film at IFC Center this week, I finally got my chance to watch this wonderful film. I asked Opper after the screening how much her film had changed since she screened her rough cut at DocuClub. She told me that the changes were pretty radical. “Being there that evening felt a little messy, loud and complicated,” she said. Fernanda Rossi was the moderator asking a lot of questions asking for their vote, which was split 50/50.  Where it became really useful for Opper was when people would call or write to her independently with notes and feedback, which was worked into future cuts. There were entire scenes that were cut and the chronology changed quite a bit, focusing it more with Avery’s voiceover. And by the way, Opper's new fantastic boots she wore to the screening yesterday only cost $50, marked down from $165. I love it when filmmakers reveal these things, ie. “Burma VJ” co-editor Thomas Papapetros’ reason for the film’s lucky winning streak as revealed to me after this year’s Cinema Eye Honors…Keep’em coming :)

In "Off and Running," Opper shows a complex and layered story of Avery, an African-American high school student and track & field champion in Brooklyn, adopted by two white Jewish lesbian moms with two other adopted multi-ethnic brothers. Avery seems to have a very happy life, but wants to meet her biological mother. When she finally discovers her roots, her attempts to reach out to her birth mother don't go as planned, and Opper sensitively shows Avery's heartbreak and struggle as she comes of age.

The Q&A with Opper along with producer Sharese Bullock was moderated by Rita Taddonio, Director of Spence-Chapin's Adoption Resource Center, one of the many organizations that "Off and Running" has teamed up with to bring awareness of adoption.  Avery, who was at a track meet that day, couldn’t make it to the Q&A, but was there at the sold-out Opening Night screening the night before. Before asking questions, Taddanio said the reason she loved the film is that it shows how a group of people who aren’t biologically related can be a family, being bonded by love and commitment, growing pains, laughter and sadness and have that intimate relationship that makes a family. It was also realistic to her in its portrayal of struggle for identity and showing other people’s stories, not just Avery’s, but her brother and her friends, too. She added that those who are adopted cannot be classified, as some people search for their biological families, and some do not.  Some who search have a great reunion, and some are disappointed. Some relationships are rocky, and others are great. Every adoptee she knows wants to know information on where they came from.

Taddonio’s first question to Opper was, what made her choose this topic and what challenges, if any, were there in making the film? Opper said she didn’t begin with the topic of adoption. When she met Avery a few years earlier, she was teaching a class in filmmaking that Avery was in. They had talked a lot, and she was struck by Avery’s charisma and willingness to open up. Bullock answered, saying that working around a 16-year-old’s schedule that every parent of a teenager can understand is keeping up with the changes. One of the incidental changes was how Avery’s hair kept changing, which was a challenge in the editing process, but more seriously, a bigger challenge as a producer was sticking to the collaboration in the toughest times listening to some really painful moments for everybody involved, sitting inside and outside of that experience.  “We think it’s challenging, but it’s her (Avery’s) life,” Bullock said.

From the audience, the questions of what the timeframe of shooting was, and what exactly did Opper envision the story would become, were asked. Opper said she filmed Avery from the ages of 16 through 19, and she was surprised at every turn. When she began filming, she saw that things weren’t all peachy and they talked a lot. At the same time, she was just getting to know about Avery’s family background. In the beginning, she saw a portrait of a multi-ethnic family and didn’t quite know what the conflict would be, but she imagined that it would be about the discrimination they would face as a family, but that didn’t become the focus.  It turned into something more complicated.

In the film, there’s a long stretch of time between filming where we don’t see some of Avery's personal struggles and isolation, so a question posed by someone in the audience was, what happened to Avery during that time? Bullock said they relied on their practice as media educators, and not just filmmakers, to tell Avery’s story and to be aware of all boundaries and sensitivities. While Avery wasn’t there at this screening to speak for herself, Bullock said that Avery has said in many screenings before that her involvement in the project is part of her development. This journey of telling her story is part of getting through those tougher times. The question for any teenager coming of age is, how does the filmmaker play the support role, but also respect the journey? Opper added that while they didn’t film during that break, she had been in touch with Avery by phone every once in a while, and Avery also had a huge support network from her friends to her track team members and others.

Taddanio asked if they could elaborate on what some of things that might have got Avery through her journey? Bullock said it was due in fact to Opper’s existing relationship with Avery, because she was her teacher first before she documented her life, and there was a trust. Avery’s vulnerability and sense of self unfolded for all of them.

The final question that was more of a comment and opinion rather than a question raised by a man in the audience that caused a bit of a stir from the rest of the audience. He said he was troubled with the issue of privacy, and how could Avery who was only a teenager at the time, give her consent to allow them to intrude on her intimate family life? Doesn’t this present an ethical question, he asked. Opper said it was a conversation she had with Avery all the time, because it mattered deeply to her. Bullock said she appreciated this man’s comments and his point of view, but from their perspective as filmmakers as well as Avery and her family, this film was made to help other families like their own.  The audience clapped. “That’s the greater value of this opportunity,” Bullock said. Taddanio added that this is a very thoughtful film and there are a lot of courageous people out there who are willing to tell their stories so younger adopted people who are going through this search for identity will be able to discuss it. “We’re grateful to you and to the family and their courage,” Taddonio said.

“Off & Running” continues to play at IFC Center throughout the rest of this week, and is slated to air on the PBS Series, “POV” later this year.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, January 25, 2010

Pledge to "Ghosts of Zion" on IndieGoGo

Actor turned filmmaker Michael Stever's feature film in pre-production, Ghosts of Zion, is fundraising on IndieGoGo.com. To pledge, please click on the widget below.

‘Ghosts Of Zion’ is a ‘cautionary tale’ about a young, newly married Mormon couple who both bring some secrets to their marriage which they’ve chosen to keep from the other. It’s very much a ’Pandora’s Box’ story, in that of course the ‘Box’ gets cracked open and all Hell breaks loose. However, it’s much more. It’s also the story of a woman’s desperate pursuit of God & salvation, in addition to being a blisteringly honest look at our country’s various religious sub-divisions, and how they’re often breeding grounds for segregation, violence & fear.
The short teaser (as seen on the IndieGoGo fundraiser page), ‘Ghosts Of Zion’ came to fruition via a ‘challenge’ issued by esteemed composer Michael Nyman to up and coming filmmakers. His challenge was to put motion to his music. Stever did, and the word of mouth has been amazing. In addition, it was not only featured on ‘Shooting People,’ but made it onto their Leader Board.
And so "Ghosts of Zion" continues its search for funding, & Associate Producerships.
Make no mistake, ‘Ghosts Of Zion’ has all the makings to be a true ‘Sleeper Hit.’ View the materials, then please donate TODAY!

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - "Running Fence" - January 19, 2010

January 19, 2010
New York, NY

Stranger Than Fiction's Thom Powers and "Running Fence" co-director Albert Maysles. Photo by Brian Geldin.

Fresh off last week’s Cinema Eye Honors, Thom Powers presented this week at Stranger Than Fiction David and Albert Maysles’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s 1978 documentary “Running Fence.” Albert Maysles, who was also at last week’s Cinema Eye Honors presenting an award, appeared at Stranger Than Fiction Tuesday night to speak after the screening of “Running Fence,” which was a beautiful portrait of artists Christo’s and the late Jeanne-Claude's white 
nylon fabric that stretched along 24 ½ miles of the California Pacific coastline that, like their last project The Gates in New York City, was originally met with opposition and skepticism by residents and local government, but their persistence paid off, and their art was displayed and gorgeously filmed by the legendary Maysles brothers.

Before asking questions, Powers noted how he saw in the credits the names of people who are doing such great work such as Robert Kenner (Food, Inc.) and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother’s Keeper). Maysles said he could understand why they’re making such good movies and while just watching again “Running Fence” on the screen there at Stranger Than Fiction, it reminded him why it is that he keeps doing it. “I’m 82 years old and I got 10 or 12 projects that I’d like to get going,” Maysles said. He recognizes the importance that so much is missing in mass media – “good people, doing good things…documentary has the power to capture that very directly, very deeply, and very truthfully.”

Thom’s first question to Maysles was, what his and his brother David’s origins were with Christo and Jeanne-Claude (as “Running Fence” was just one of many collaborations together). Maysles said around 1962 or '63 when he and his brother were making documentaries in France, they were doing something different by filming with cameras that didn’t need a tripod. It was a whole new thing called “direct cinema.” The French government invited them to Lyon where they met a guy who was designing a new camera, who they brought to Paris with them to show their first film, “Showman.” The guy brought two people along, Christo and Jeanne-Claude. “They were not just people working with a canvas, but they were out in the real world where art was made up of what’s actually going on,” Maysles said. It was perfect subject matter for the Maysles’ films. It did take a while for a film project to come along. Their first project together would be “Valley Curtain.”

Powers asked Maysles while watching the film again that night; did he have any memories of that period? Maysles said he thinks back to the words of Spinoza who said "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare," which describes the nature of this project. He also was thinking about David (who passed away in 1987) and Jeanne-Claude (who passed away last November). “They’re gone, but there they are on the screen,” he said.

While watching Albert’s (and Antonio Ferrera’s) more recent film, “The Gates,” which is the only Christo and Jeanne-Claude project he’s seen in person, it had almost more meaning to him watching it on film than seeing The Gates in person. Maysles said, “That’s the strength of documentary,” Maysles said. “If the camerawork is good, it sees more than you would as a normal person. The viewer is given a better position to know what took place than having been there.” (For my 2007 film review and notes from the Antonio Ferrera Q&A at Silverdocs, go here.)

In visualizing “Running Fence,” how were they thinking through how to film it, Powers asked. Were they being conscious about their approach or more instinctive? Maysles said that each moment was instinctive. There was always something to be filmed, and a lot that shouldn’t be either, but they wanted to make sure they got the essentials.

A question from the audience to Maysles was where did they get the money to fund their film projects? “I don’t remember,” Maysles answered, generating a laugh from the audience. He remembered that some of his films like “Salesman” and “Grey Gardens” they paid for all by themselves. Powers interjected, asking if in the 1970s, they supplemented their films by making television commercials. “Thank g-d we don’t do that anymore,” Maysles replied. But it would have been tough without going with that income. He said he’d love to do another commercial someday if they allowed him to do them the way he likes to do them. He said he has an idea for a commercial for Kleenex where he’d go to a hospital where a woman is about to give birth. He’d start filming the moment the infant is being handed over to the mother. “It’s got to be a moment where there’s tears on her cheeks and she reaches for a Kleenex,” he said. Powers joked, “We may be able to arrange that.” (Referring to his expecting wife Raphaela sitting nearby).

Another member of the audience asked Maysles if he could clarify what he meant earlier as to which moments shouldn’t be filmed. Maysles said that he’s been making a film ("In Transit") about people that he meets on trains where there’s a story about to happen when they get off the train. (Maysles previously discussed this same scenario in some notes I took in 2007 when he spoke at BAM). He was about to film this woman who had a difficult story of a child that she couldn’t come to tell and be identified. He had to get it without offending her, so he filmed her hands. On the other hand, he said it’s so important not to go in the other direction and be so careful that you don’t get much value. It’s a matter of good taste and respect. He’s found over the years he’s filmed people with their vulnerabilities just as well as things that are positive traits done with love and understanding.

On being asked how he’s able to seem so invisible behind the camera while shooting his films, Maysles said that he’s been asked many times how he gets so close to the hearts and minds of the people he’s filming. “It’s because I have my heart and mind with them,” he said. His mother used to tell him that there’s good in everybody. With documentaries, that bridge can be gapped with good material that goes directly to the experience that people are having.

Lastly, Maysles talked about his Maysles Film Institute in Harlem. He said his original purpose to have it in Harlem was so that his four children would have enough space to have their own apartments and all be in the same neighborhood. One of the three buildings they were in houses the film company and a 60-seat movie theater. Unlike anywhere else in New York, they exclusively show documentaries. They also teach kids in the neighborhood how to make their own films. He added that only a few weeks earlier the most exciting moment in his life occurred when the kids showed their films to an audience and during the Q&A, one of the questions to them was if any of them are planning to make a career out of filmmaking, and everyone of them raised their hand.

Labels: , , , , ,

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Nonfiction Films Get Their Due at Cinema Eye Honors

***FEBRUARY 2, 2010 UPDATE: As of this morning, Cinema Eye Winners "Burma VJ," "The Cove," and "Food, Inc" received Academy Award nominations for Best Documentary Feature. Congratulations and good luck to all!

The stellar third annual Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, produced by founding sponsor Indiepix, came back to the TimesCenter in New York City with a new co-hostess, Esther Robinson, along with co-host and Cinema Eye veteran AJ Schnack, who delighted us mid-way through the ceremony with an audience participation Mad Lib. Always the charmer, about half-way through the show, Schnack carried in a bucket of Kentucky Grilled Chicken after showing a clip of the nominated Food Inc., where a woman reveals the horrible conditions of chicken coup where chickens are overfed for mass-consumption. At the beginning of the show, during a pre-taped introduction, Stranger Than Fiction’s Thom Powers hilariously expounded on the glorious nominees, while preggers wife Raphaela Neihausen goes into labor. Lots of humor abounded throughout the ceremony, keeping things running fresh and smooth. While an occasional long-winded acceptance speech may have slowed things down a little, overall, the third outing of the Cinema Eye Honors was one of the best so far. It is superbly wonderful that there is an awards show of this caliber like no other recognizing nonfiction filmmaking, with such presenters as Albert Maysles, Barbara Kopple, Amir Bar-Lev, Carl Deal, Tia Lessin, Doug Block and more.

Top prizes went to “The Cove” for Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking and “October Country” for Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film.  

So what does it take to win a Cinema Eye Honor, you might ask? “Burma VJ” co-editor Thomas Papapetros told me exclusively at one of the after parties, “I got crapped on by a bird and won!” Not once, not twice, not even just three times, but a total of four times did Papapetros get a present from the sky on four different occasions, sealing “Burma VJ”s many festival wins. The first time he was crapped on by a bird was in Amsterdam during IDFA, and the film took home the top prize. The second time was in Copenhagen during CPH:DOX, and the film won. The third time he was actually home in Denmark, but he won an editing award at Sundance that same day. And finally, he got his latest gift in New York, before receiving his latest accomplishment, Outstanding Achievement in Editing at the Cinema Eye Honors. I guess getting crapped on by a bird is good luck after all, as they say, but in all seriousness, “Burma VJ” deservedly received all of its accolades on its own merit.

For the past two incarnations of the Cinema Eye Honors, Thom Powers had moderated roundtable discussions with some of the nominated filmmakers. This year instead of a panel, Thom conducted a brief Q&A with Cinema Eye Legacy Award honoree, “Sherman’s March,” by filmmaker Ross McElwee. Barbara Kopple introduced McElwee saying that in “Sherman’s March,” McElwee’s very outspoken, passionate, and direct friend Charleen decided she was the perfect woman for him, and they would grow old together and told him to shut the camera off saying “this is not about art, it’s about your life.” Kopple said that personally nailed it for her as what McElwee is all about and how much art he puts into his life being so honest and real, a pure filmmaker. Later on, Powers pointed out that McElwee will be at Stranger Than Fiction on February 2 showing two films, “Charleen” and “Backyard.” (I know where I’ll be that night.)

For the Q&A, Powers said he was shocked to read about “Sherman’s March” that for a two and a half hour film, McElwee only shot 25 hours of footage, which by today’s standards is something a filmmaker might accomplish in 2 days…has McElwee’s discipline changed at all moving from film to video and what was it like shooting so little footage? McElwee said he grew up shooting 16mm film. With the discipline it enforces as a crew of one person, he had to develop a way of shooting very little film. After his last film completed in 2004, he finally made the decision to switch to digital video. He said the easiest thing to do, especially for young filmmakers, is to overshoot everything. Powers next mentioned a scene in the film where McElwee’s father asks him how certain things that he shot would be useful for the film. “What’s remarkable about ‘Sherman’s March’…is that it was such a landmark film for opening up this kind of personal documentary,” Powers said. As McElwee was making it, what did he think was going to be useful, how was he choosing what to film? McElwee said that you might get the impression that it’s about nothing but him searching for a woman, but the challenge to him was to weave together several different themes and keep them into some sort of equilibrium moving forward. It’s a matter of developing a kind of intuition, thinking this might be amusing, it might turn up to be funny or poignant. It’s developing a set of radar. Spontaneity is important. 

The following is complete list of last night’s Cinema Eye Honorees:

Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature Filmmaking: “The Cove,” directed by Louie Psihoyos, produced by Paula DuPre Pesman and Fisher Stevens

Outstanding Achievement in a Debut Feature Film: “October Country, directed by Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher

Outstanding Achievement in Direction: Agnes Varda, “The Beaches of Agnes”

Outstanding Achievement in Production: Paula DuPre Pressman and Fisher Stevens, “The Cove”

Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography: Brook Aitken for “The Cove”

Outstanding Achievement in Editing: Janus Billeskov-Jansen and Thomas Papapetros for “Burma VJ”

Outstanding Achievement in Grapic Design and Animation: Tie: Big Star for “Food, Inc” and “RIP - Remix Manifesto”

Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Score: “October Country”: Danny Grody, Donal Mosher, Michael Palmieri and Kenric Taylor

Outstanding Achievement in an International Feature: “Burma VJ,” directed by Anders Ostergard, produced by Lise-Lense Moeller

Audience Choice Prize: “The September Issue,” directed by RJ Cutler

Spotlight Award: “Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo,” directed by Jessica Oreck

Cinema Eye Legacy Award: “Sherman’s March, directed by Ross McElwee

Labels: , , , , ,

Friday, January 15, 2010

Thanks for your pledges so far on IndieGoGo

Thanks to HeaveHoMovie.com and Anonymous for their pledges to The Film Panel Notetaker on IndieGoGo. To make yours, please visit the following widget :)


Stranger Than Fiction - "Snowblind" - January 12, 2010

January 12, 2010
New York, NY

Stranger Than Fiction's Thom Powers and "Snowblind" Director Vikram Jayanti. Photo by Brian Geldin.

 Tuesday saw the official opening of the new season of Stranger Than Fiction with an appropriately snowy-titled screening of Vikram Jayanti’s ("Game Over - Kasparov and the Machine") “Snowblind,” which Thom Powers noted during the post-screening Q&A was their most controversial film yet. Reason being, he received protests via email from animal rights advocates about the content of the film, that being the racing of dogs in Alaska’s famous 1,000-mile-plus dog sledding race, the Iditarod. But the protests didn’t stop Powers from showing the film on Tuesday. In fact, he told me when the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last year, he received no protests at all. In “Snowblind,” Jayanti takes us on the incredible journey of 23-year-old Rachel Scdoris of Oregon, who is legally blind, and is preparing to go on her third Itidarod. When she finally embarks on her sled with her dogs across the bleak Alaskan wilderness, what ensues is a remarkable and dramatic narrative. We see Rachel as a perky young woman with spirit and determination, despite her disability, which never seems to hinder her. She does get help along the way with another “musher” named Joe, who according to the race’s rules, must go with her just to lead her, but can never physically help her, and she doesn’t ever really seem to need it, except perhaps when her dogs get stuck. With not only patience, but also love, Rachel gets through any obstacle, but it gets harder and harder along the way, and the film successfully ensnares us in its suspense. There are so many twists and turns and highs and lows in the film, none of which I will reveal here, because you will just have to discover them on your own when and if you get a chance to see it yourself. Therefore, any discussion of these particular plateaus in the film that were discussed during the Q&A have been purposely left out of my notes below, which highlight more of the inner workings of the production and psychology behind the characters and director’s choices.

Powers began by asking Jayanti what got him involved with wanting to make this film, and what was it like working in these extreme conditions? Jokingly, Jayanti replied that he’d seen "March of the Penguins" and "Grizzly Man" and “if crazy Werner could do it, I could add to my muster if I do it in mid-winter.” He said the amazing thing about shooting in the cold weather, the camera’s batteries would drain in about three minutes, so they all had to carry spare batteries inside their clothing. They had enough money to do a rehearsal trip the year before the actual shoot. He wanted to find out what it would be like. Walking around in the snow in  minus 45-degree weather, they would get really tired, really quickly, and thought to lie down for a minute…“and that’s how you die.”  They worked out really quickly that they should always stand at the side of each other, never being out of site. The whole experience to him seemed sort of spiritual, and they always felt the claw of death coming up from underneath the snow.

Powers then explained that “Snowblind” turned out to be the most controversial film that Stranger Than Fiction has ever shown, because he’d been receiving emails everyday from people who are against the Iditarod. Had Jayanti and Rachel also experienced some of this? Jayanti said he remembered that someone in Oregon came over to check all 105 of Rachel’s dogs and told him that it’s amazing that these dogs could live to be about 19 and 20 years old, where most people’s pet dogs only till about eight. Jayanti said he doesn’t have a particular opinion about the rights and wrongs of mushing, but he said the dogs do seem to live longer and love running. “I don’t know whether to judge it or not,” he said.

Jayanti said Rachel is a very private person and he had less luck getting inside of her than the other people who work with her. He began thinking the reason she did the Iditarod was so she can get as far away from people as she possibly can.

Powers asked Jayanti about his thoughts on Rachel’s relationship in the film with her father. “I get sued a lot when I make a film,” Jayanti replied, so he confined himself to saying that in a universal position, all adolescents at the cusp in believing that their father is a “g-d and a dick,” he thinks it was very difficult for her to become fully independent. He said she’s 23 and he really shouldn’t call her an adolescent, but in many ways because of her disability, has kept her adolescent, therefore it was a difficult relationship. He does know for a fact that the minute she made enough money from endorsements after her first Iditarod, she built a house on the huge lot that they live on in a trailer and put her father in the house and she stayed in the trailer.

A question from the audience was if Rachel has any relationships outside of her own family, to which Jayanti said that she has a bunch of friends in Oregon, but he doesn’t know if she has a romantic relationship. He doesn’t really go too deeply into people’s personal lives. He’s more interested in their public lives. She attracts a lot of attention, so she meets a lot of people and is really charming and lovely, and you also get to see her at her worst during certain moments [which I won’t reveal] during the race.

Given her privacy, what has been Rachel’s reaction to the film, Powers asked. Jayanti said he thinks she is too professional to tell him what she really thinks. He suspects that she may think that he was unfair about the dogs. It was her father’s idea that maybe she should mix English Pointers with Huskies, which she kind of sticks with, but almost no one else in mushing does that anymore. He thinks she feels he was unfair about the role that the dog breeding played.

Powers said it was an interesting dynamic in the film the interviews Jayanti ask Rachel along the race. Was that something he imagined from the beginning would be a component or did it just come out that way? Jayanti said he went into doing this film with the fantasy that she had this tremendous darkness inside of her that she could only exorcize in the great wilds of Alaska, and when you bring in any pre-conceived fantasy in the making of a film, you’re always going to be wrong. For a long time, he was always sort of trying to crack her open to admit that it was hell being blindish and being caught between her father and hell by being hated by so many people in the mushing community because they feel she’s a danger to other mushers. He thought she would give it up. He thought this would be a very interesting dog film to make. She resisted that for a long time, so he kept pushing. He realized that she was not going to give it up, and he was chasing the wrong story. He’d completely forgotten that she was doing the most incredible things. A lot of the stuff he pushed, he regrets. He cut a first version of the film, which was much darker and realized that the film didn’t like her at all, so he took a couple of months off and he came back to re-cut it to get back in some sense of admiration and affection for her. He did want her to step outside the zone of denial and admit that this fantasy she had of winning the race was not a real fantasy and unrealistic.

From the audience, someone asked Jayanti if he’s given much thought to using the film as a teaching tool and to raise awareness of disabilities. He said that Rachel herself does a lot of work and speaks to high schools, and he hopes his film can become a part of that. He said this is the first time in a long time that he doesn’t own the film, Discovery owns it. He suspects that they will be far more reticent about distributing it, because he imagines they’ll be far more pressured then Powers was from the animal rights community.

Labels: , , , ,

Saturday, January 09, 2010

"Waiting For Armageddon" Interfaith Roundtable

"Waiting For Armageddon" Interfaith Roundtable
Berman Jewish Policy Archives at NYU, New York, NY
January 7, 2010

On Thursday, I attended a panel in anticipation of First Run Features’ theatrical release this weekend of “Waiting for Armageddon,” a documentary by award-winning filmmakers, David Heilbroner, Kate Davis and Franco Sacchi. For a little background, Brian described the panel’s premise here, and the New York Times just posted a great review of the film.

The discussion provided an eye-opening, fascinating glimpse into a very powerful, popular and potentially dangerous Evangelical belief system, and the political and social implications it might have for people of other faiths. I have been thinking of the subjects raised that evening, and have found myself wanting to discuss them with everyone that I come across. I am certainly enticed to see the whole film and learn more.

I am glad to note that the discussion was surprisingly civil considering the broad spectrum of panelists from across the theological world and the controversial topics that were addressed. The participants were as follows:

Kate Davis, filmmaker
Rabbi Justus Baird, Director of the Center for Multifaith Education, Auburn Theological Seminary
David Elcott, Taub Professor at NYU and Interreligious Affairs Director of the American Jewish Committee
Galen Guengerich, Senior Minister of All Souls Unitarian Church
Paul de Vries, President of the New York Divinity School and Evangelical Christian
Franco Sacchi, filmmaker
David Heilbroner, filmmaker

And the moderator was Michelle Goldberg, journalist and author, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism (MOD)

I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with many of the theology-related terms brought up that evening but I tried my best to document the gist of the discussion below. I thought you might need to be helped along a little too, so I’ve put a couple definitions of terms from the evening at the very end of this write-up.

The panel was organized around four short clips and began with filmmaker Kate Davis remarking that it was an exciting night for her because the roundtable proved that there can be intelligent, interfaith discussions about the issues raised in the film. There was also a brief explanation that the theology guiding the people in Waiting for Armageddon, which is Premillennial Dispensationalism* is only practiced by about ¼ of Evangelicals.

MOD: What role does Israel play in this theology?

Guengerich: The people featured in the film believe in the literal interpretation and absolute inerror of the Bible, but if you try to interpret it without any historical metaphor it can be highly problematic, especially for Israel. (Editor’s note: Evangelicals believe that all Jews must return to Israel as a precondition for Christ’s Second Coming.)

MOD: To put it another way, is this alliance beneficial for the Jews?

Baird: It’s good and really bad at the same time. In my understanding, dispensationalism leaves room for G-d’s covenant with the Jews. There is a respect for the historical relationship between G-d and the Jews and that Jews may be able to be resurrected without conversion. On the other hand, as a Rabbi, I think that good theology doesn’t instrumentalize other people.

Sacchi: The people we met during the filming believed that Jews had to convert or they will die.

Elcott: This is not a strictly Evangelical belief. I think that all three monotheistic religions instrumentalize other people so I’d frame it differently. All of these religions were obsessed with Messianism at various points, so it’s not surprising that it’s coming up for Christians now. The rise of Shi’ite Islam is also related to string Messianic fervor. Each religion uses others toward their own Messianic redemption. The interesting thing is that it’s all focused on the same place: Israel.

MOD: The Tribulation* entails great horrors for much of humankind, so why do the people in the film look forward to it?

Guengerich: Have you been to the movies lately? The human fascination with violence is pervasive and in this case, it’s violence sanctioned by G-d. It will be the ultimate battle between good and evil, and it’s fundamentally human. In the film, some people take a perverse delight in specific aspects of this, like the “bridles of horses.” (Note: a belief that battles of the Tribulation will cause blood to cover the earth as high as a horse’s bridle.) What gives them permission is that G-d gave this revelation that must be followed.

MOD: Is there any part of the Evangelical community that is trying to actively bring this period on?

de Vries: There is a small minority who are but we try to civilize them. I encourage everyone to read the Book of Revelation and get a real sense of it. Someone like Ahmadinejad is dangerous because he is a Muslim Messianic and he wants to bring on the end of days. But there is NO HINT in Jesus’s teachings that we need to immanentize the eschaton.*

Elcott: But that goes against the trend of Western society, which is to make things happen through action and activism. In Michael Chabon’s new book he talks about a 10,000 year clock and then realizes that his children can’t even imagine 30 years down the road. When you look at the disaster films, they aren’t about something that’s going to happen off in the distant future—its 2012. There is something in our culture that’s saying the world is going to change dramatically soon or something’s got to happen.

MOD: Isn’t there something fatalistic about all of this?

Baird: As an antidote to this kind of extreme theology, we recently brought theology students to Israel to Har Megiddo where Armageddon is supposed to occur, to show that in order to lead people into the future they must talk to those on the other side. Jewish students need to understand the rapture from a Christian perspective. The Jewish Talmud* is full of disagreements. The scholar Hillel often came out on top of those debates because he was kind and thoughtful and listened to the other side first. It is our responsibility as religious leaders to respectfully listen to each other and not wish for each other’s destruction.

de Vries: 72% of Evangelicals say that we must do more to help the environment. Every Evangelical believes that the world will be over, but we have to be faithful now so we need to take care of G-d’s earth.

Heilbroner: I just want to give a little context of the clips we’re showing tonight. These give you a sense of some of the issues in the film, but it’s really the story of the Evangelicals we met and their trip to Israel. However, the clip we’ve been discussing really underlines one issue: Demanding that your version of your religion is absolutely right has very dangerous political implications.

Guengerich: The U.S. and Israel are secular states. In the U.S., twice as many people believe in the Virgin birth as believe in evolution, and these ideas are diametrically opposed. People and countries have a choice about which philosophy to employ, and the U.S. and Israel go by a secular agenda rather than a religious one.

That is technically true but in my opinion it a realistic appraisal. The U.S. went to war with Iraq against Islam. There are definite policy implications of Christianity. Israel is not secular—it is confessional. I am Jewish and I recite a prayer three times a day that basically says “I’m right, and you’re wrong” and in Islam they believe people must submit themselves to their god. It’s not that Americans want another world war, but there is a cost to fighting evil. In World War 2 it cost 50 million lives. My point is that it’s dangerous to say “It’s not us, it’s them.”

Sacchi: It’s important to look at where religious and “modern” intersect. They can co-exist within boundaries. This way of reading the Bible is actually modern—to interpret the Bible so literally—like a manual to be read in a rational way. This is not a traditionally religious approach.

de Vries: Modernism has definitely affected Fundamentalists to approach the Bible like a chemistry textbook. I don’t think G-d interrupts the flow of nature—He made it. He made the Virgin birth as part of it. We use the term “natural causes” to leave the big questions outside of the lab. I invented the term “methodological naturalism.” Once we take our lab coats off, then we can ponder the things we studied as part of a bigger picture.

Baird: It’s dangerous territory when we tell people how to read their own religious texts. It’s our job as human beings to make sense of our own experiences through our religious inheritance. It’s not just Evangelicals who have been affected by modernity.

Elcott: I became involved in civil rights because I felt G-d commanded me to do so. I’m not prepared to allow people to hurt others in the name of G-d. I’m willing to say that as a human, there’s a huge chasm between me and G-d. I, too, have fundamental beliefs and I’ve fought others over them. I’m not distant from someone who is fighting on faith-based beliefs. As I said before, it’s dangerous to say “It’s not us, it’s them.”

Davis: That’s why we made the film. The intersection of religion and politics is at the core of the way people spoke to us—whether small-town, Midwestern families or educated theologians. We act out of our spiritual selves in the decisions we make. It’s not a clean line. In the film, someone says, “The separation of church and state is a joke.” We really need to understand that worldview.

MOD: The fictional
Left Behind series about the end of days has sold 70 million copies. In the video game based on the novels, you form Christian militias to kill global peacekeepers and the Secretary General of the U.N. is the Antichrist. (Editor’s note: SERIOUSLY?!) What are the implications of this theology for a 2-state solution in Israel?

Sacchi: That’s one of the things I took away from making this film. Whenever I hear the Secretary General of the UN on TV now, I wonder if millions of Americans think that the Antichrist is on TV. The people we featured see everything through this lens.

Elcott: In 1917, the British Cabinet approved a Jewish state in the Balfour Declaration because they were Evangelical Christians. But they’re not alone—it’s not just Evangelicals preventing peace in the Middle East. It’s Muslims and Jews, too, each for their own reasons.

Baird: David earlier highlighted the question: How do people who believe different things differently duke it out in the public square without killing each other?

Guengerich: In a modern constitutional democracy, you can form your convictions based on religious views, but arguing public policy must be done on terms that are fair and understandable to everyone. In this country, the Constitution trumps religious texts. We need to demand that religious people make arguments other than “My G-d told me so.”

de Vries: The Constitution is wonderful, but it doesn’t trump scripture. There are Evangelicals who respect human rights and the Palestinian people as equal players in the Middle East. Although 100 million believe that the Rapture and Tribulation will happen, only a tiny minority wants to force it. (Editor’s note: The moderator attempted to press Mr. de Vries by asking how Evangelicals can coexist with the Constitution as American citizens, but he evaded the answer.)

Audience question: Where do we draw the line between tolerance of other religions and intolerance of certain religious behaviors?

Elcott: Anything that kills, destroys, or dehumanizes in the name of religion is intolerable. I’ll never give up on G-d, but I’ll give up on that religion. I’ll fight it tooth and nail. Back to the idea of religious beliefs dictating policy, Sarah Palin was recently explaining her support of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank because, she said that more Jews will be coming to Israel and they’ll need a place to go. This is not actually consistent with immigration numbers. She is referring to the Evangelical belief that Jews must return to Israel to hasten Jesus Christ’s return to earth. It’s faith-based policy.

Audience question (to de Vries): I am a gay Jew. How can you use religion as a discriminatory tool?

de Vries: Evangelical means “good news.” The scriptures that we accept as authority provide instructions for how to live a godly life. But no one has the right to judge or condemn you. You won’t hear that from most Evangelicals.


Premillennial Dispensationalism:
One form of Evangelical belief about the end of days that teaches that second coming of Christ will take place in two phases. In the first phase, Jesus will bring both dead and living believers to heaven to save them from the coming 7 years of tribulation, or basically mass death and destruction of earth and all of the nonbelievers on it. After the tribulation, they believe that Jesus will again return to Earth (phase 2) to set up his kingdom. At this time, he will reign from as king from earthly Jerusalem for 1000 years, after which he will resurrect and judge “unbelievers.” According to many Christians, this version of events refutes the Biblical teaching on the resurrection in which they believe that all of the believers and non-believers will be resurrected and judged at the same time.

Tribulation: A period of 7 years referred to in the Bible where massively destructive war and suffering will occur on earth before Jesus Christ returns to rule. Different Christians believe that the Tribulation will occur at different times, either before or after Christ saves all of the true believers from earth.

Immanentize the Eschaton: To trigger the apocalypse or end of the world by creating mass chaos and; destruction on earth

Talmud: The Talmud is a central text of mainstream Judaism, in the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, customs and history. (Wikipedia)

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction - "Which Way Home" - January 5, 2010

IFC Center
New York, NY
January 5, 2010

Stranger Than Fiction's Thom Powers and "Which Way Home Director" Rebecca Cammisa. Photo by Brian Geldin.

***FEBRUARY 2, 2010 UPDATE: As of this morning, "Which Way Home" received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Congratulations, Rebecca!

For its Winter 2010 pre-season, Stranger Than Fiction presented the Academy Award ® shortlisted documentary feature “Which Way Home.” Director Rebecca Cammisa (“Sister Helen”) spoke after the screening for a Q&A, led by Stranger Than Fiction’s Thom Powers.  “Which Way Home” shows the harrowing stories of migrant children taking treacherous journeys on top of freight trains through Mexico in hopes of entering the United States for a better life. Cammisa’s fly-on-the-wall approach is both captivating and heartbreaking, and brings to light a most serious issue. The Q&A after the screening was very captivating as well, because it brought out answers as to how she and her crew were able to capture these images under dangerous circumstances, and also raised ethical issues as documentary filmmakers, such as where do you draw the line when it comes to helping these children?

Powers began by asking Cammisa what made her choose the subject matter for the film, to which she replied that a friend of hers from acting school called her to tell her about an article about the issue of children trying to find their parents in the U.S. She had no idea this even existed, so she started researching it, because she thought it would make for an incredible film.

Powers pointed out that much of the film take place on the edge of the law, where these kids are already at risk, and now she was putting both herself and her crew at crew at risk…were they doing this as an official capacity or were they flying under the radar, and did they ever run into problems with the authorities? She said because the story is about kids jumping onto trains to get into the U.S., it was hers and her crew’s job to show that.  They would get permission, and it would fall through, but they had to proceed anyway. They had support, but when support was withdrawn, the job was to continue anyway.

To be a 14-year-old kid going on these trains is one thing, but to be an adult carrying a camera and gear must have made them feel even more vulnerable…what did that feel like, Powers asked. She said it wasn’t fun. It’s wasn’t as if they had a ticket and a seat or that someone would watch their stuff when they got off. For example, if the two boys Kevin and Fito had decided to get off the train to get something to eat, it meant they had to jump off with them and take their gear and film the action, and as soon as they wanted to get back on a train, they had to get back on with them. They didn’t have much time to eat or drink themselves, so once they got back onto the trains, so sometime the kids would share their food.

Powers then opened the questions up to the audience. The first question was, who amongst the crew would conduct the interviews? She said there were four people in the crew including a driver, herself, a cameraman, and sound person. She also shot. They would discuss what she wanted to know and what the interviews would be. Her Spanish wasn’t as intricate as some of the others. Sometimes the cameraman would function as a field producer. They had to keep it to such a small crew, because of the budget.

Recalling a scene in the film where two small children, a boy and a girl named Freddy and Olga are introduced, Cammisa’s photojournalist friend Alan in the audience asked if it ever crossed her mind if she would or could help them? She said that the first thing that kept them safe while making this film was understanding their role and not stepping beyond it, because the situation of smuggling children down there is a criminal network. Everyone’s part of making money off of it. She and crew wanted to spend more time with Olga and Freddy, but they were in the company of smugglers, therefore they had to be extremely careful about how they behaved. If Olga and Freddy had said to them, “Please help us,” that would be one thing. But they weren’t. But if you start stepping in, you them become a smuggler, and if something happens to these children on the road, you are at fault. On the issue of giving the children money, Cammisa said that if people had seen them giving out money, they could have taken the kids for hostage. You really have to know your place and be extremely careful, especially because these were children, not adults. They did their best to be ethical.

The next question from the audience was if by them having cameras, did it alter their relationship with the children at all, making them show off to the camera or alter their behavior? Cammisa said they constantly made the children aware how dangerous this was. When you show up with your camera, it could be an added incentive, but these children started on their trips days before they arrived and in different countries than in Mexico where they met them. The children’s need to come really had nothing to do them being there. They were going to go anyway, and asked then to stop scaring them, because they were going to go, and were not going back from where they came from. She doesn’t think that the camera propelled them forward. They were very clear to the children, telling them they were there to observe them, not to feed them, pay for them, or transport them. They understood that they were there just to go for the ride.

The final question was, how many days did she and crew spend with the children? She said they ended up with 240 hours of footage. The film took six and a half years to make, of which they only filmed for five and a half months, within which there were never two months in a row. There was a lot of starting and stopping. And her three-month editing window once the film was shot was very problematic, but she said her editors did an amazing job.

Cammisa concluded by saying that people can go onto the film’s website to make donations to shelters that comfort and aid immigrants at http://www.whichwayhome.net/takeaction.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Pledge your support for The Film Panel Notetaker on IndieGoGo