… and why I am not too nice – but seem like it.
A couple of weeks ago, ISLAND BUS producer Lindsay Goodall and I joined a record number of delegates at Sheffield Doc/Fest Twenty.
It was a pretty relaxed anniversary festival for us. We had some informal business chats on the agenda and a lot of film watching and catching up with other filmmakers. It also felt very good to answer the standard question: “And what about your film?” with: “We will start sound mix and grading next week.” After 3 years of ISLAND BUS in the making, this sentence comes with a certain glow.
Sheffield is also where we have introduced the project in its very early stages to commissioning editors and sales agents from around the world. So it just felt right to be there during this exiting time. And it’s always good to watch a lot of films – even if in one of them, I fell asleep.
You might shake your head at the headline of this blog post. After all, THE ACT OF KILLING won the festival’s Special Jury Award and had previously been nominated for quite a few other awards. It was hailed as the most amazing documentary to come out in a long time, a must-see, an eye-opener. Well, I am almost apologetic to say this, but for me it was an eye-closer.
This had other reasons than only the film itself and its length of 158 minutes – namely my total lack of sleep during the festival week. But that I succumbed to the urge for a healthy snooze during this screening and not another had also to do with the fact that I think I was right from the start: it is just not my kind of film.
Which is fine. Fortunately, we live in a diverse world and there is room for many different types of artistic vision and effort. I am very glad, actually, that I watched parts of it – though reluctantly – because it helped me get clarity of what kind of film is mine. And now I am able to tell you, and then you get to decide whether THE ISLAND BUS is your kind of film. Winning situation all around! So here we go:
I understand the concept and the enormous effort director Joshua Oppenheimer put in THE ACT OF KILLING. (If you read this sentence without the capital letters in mind, it sounds strange. But I am a sucker for silly puns – see headline.) I appreciate his tenacity and vision. I am also with him on what he said as an introduction to the screening, namely that he would hope during the film we would all remember that no matter how horrific a crime people commit, they are still human beings, that these crimes are committed by human beings who have to live with this for the rest of their lives somehow. I “get” that, entirely. Maybe that’s why I felt entitled to doze off after 90 minutes. I felt I had gotten the message from the start.
I have been told that I should have stayed awake to watch (SPOILER ALERT!) the transformation of one of the contributors in the very end, when he breaks down in tears and vomits after he returns for the second time to the scene of his mass killings and re-enacts his deeds for the filmmakers.
I congratulate the filmmakers on having brought about this cathartic act through their project and I hope that it has served as a catalyst of relief for those involved.
Yet, I don’t feel that I really need to witness it. I don’t know what world you live in, but in mine there is a constant awareness that crime and cruelty exist, up to a point where you could think that nothing else exists. No problem with that if that is what you want to hear and how you want to feel and make your audience feel. Only, most documentary makers would probably claim that they try to contribute to making the world a better place with their work.
So how do you go on about that?
You could argue, of course, that only with an audience the film could have been made and then caused the catharsis to happen. On that level, okay, if I can do my human duty of helping other human beings along to overcome their traumas simply by sitting in a cinema, I’ll sit through it anytime. But that’s a bit like group therapy, isn’t it? Here lies the catch for me: like speech therapy, merely exposing the horror, the bad stuff, the crime only gets us that far. In its worst case, we will end up with our newly gained knowledge of how bad a world we really live in, numbed by the experience – and inert.
Yes, exposing injustice can have and does have cathartic qualities if it stirs up anger AND this anger is channeled and used in ways to change the status quo. But I would argue this: in order to change it, you first have to know in which direction you want to go. And in order to know that, it helps to focus on that, your goal, rather than on what you leave behind. You should be inspired to build something, rather than to take something apart.
I have been told once during a pitching session for THE ISLAND BUS that I was “too nice” and should make the characters suffer more on screen, should include more of the problems and friction. I was “too nice” to point out that I am actually “too wise” to do that. I am making the films I make not because I have a niceness defect in my nature, but by conscious choice. What I am trying to do – and soon you will be able to watch and to judge whether I succeeded – is to focus on those things in life that make it worthwhile.
We all know that millions of people across the world are fleeing their homes and it doesn’t take that much imagination to conclude that that is probably not on your top 10 list of experiences you would want in life. (Arguably, it probably doesn’t make the top 100 either. The two generations of my family that came before me have been through it and they didn’t think it was that great.) Yet, should you find yourself in a situation like that, should you be thrown into a totally different culture like Saeed is in THE ISLAND BUS, or should your country face bankruptcy and mayhem like the country THE ISLAND BUS is set in, how then do you deal with that? How do you still manage to live a life worth living? (Seeing that you probably only get one shot at living, I find this a valid question.) In other words: rather than killing (yourself or others) how do you go on and survive? Not only physically but also emotionally? What might be the circumstances, how come?
Those are the questions that inspire me as a filmmaker. That’s why I am making films that are “too nice”: because they celebrate the things in life that make it worth living – because or despite it all.
If you happen to feel inspired or moved by THE ISLAND BUS, then I am happy to say: that’s what I was aiming for.