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The Origins and Challenges of Cartel Land, Amy, What Happened, Miss Simone? and Winter on Fire

Few festivals do a better job of rounding up the year’s most enticing documentaries than the always charming Savannah Film Festival. During its 18th edition last fall, the festival — largely curated by publicist Steven Wilson and entertainment reporter Scott Feinberg on behalf of the Savannah College of Art and Design — brought many of the leading lights in documentary filmmaking to the northeastern corner of Georgia for its second annual “Docs to Watch” sidebar. The culmination of the program is a panel, moderated by Feinberg, that includes a smorgasbord of directors whose movies will figure prominently in the award season races to come. A veritable masterclass in the craft and exigencies of non-fiction filmmaking, the hour and a half long discussion, held at Savannah’s nearly 100 year old Lucas Theatre, included four of this year’s Oscar nominated documentarians — Asif Kapadia (Amy), Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) and Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire) — in a winding, often freeform discussion. Veering from how their own films were financed to what motivates a documentary filmmaker in an era of declining resources and an overabundance of entertainment choices, the panelists had a lot on their minds, but were especially salient when discussing how they broke into documentary filmmaking. Here are some lightly edited highlights.

Garbus: I made my first documentary film when I was in high school. I started shooting during my senior year and did this very natural in-camera edit, which is inconceivable now. I showed it an art exhibit and one of my friend’s fathers was a documentary filmmaker. I had no intention of going into film. I didn’t have [a knowledge of] the technology of documentary, I just made something. This documentary filmmaker said to me, “Oh, you made a documentary.” That was my awakening, at 17, [to] that form. In college I started working for other filmmakers. So, I never really did anything else. It’s been this constant journey, a kind of constant evolution in understanding race and social justice, and also the intersections of mental illness and genius and art.

Heineman: I studied history in college and then I got rejected from Teach for America. A lot of people said they didn’t even know that you could get rejected for Teach for America. So, three friends and I had this idea to drive around the US for three months. We convinced some stupid companies to give us money, bought a video camera and went out on this road trip to understand what it looks like to be young in today’s America, interviewing people [ranging] from Mark Zuckerberg to students here at SCAD. That was my first film and I absolutely fell in love with filmmaking.

I taught myself as I went and there’s one moment I’ll never forget, being in the Ninth Ward three months after Katrina. This is the first day that they were letting people back into their homes. I was fortunate enough to follow a man into his home, [which] was sort of a spiritual experience for me. Being able to tell that story and experience this deep emotional moment with him, I’ll never forget. I think it’s a huge honor, a huge privilege to tell stories. I can always look at that in the back of my mind and know that was when I knew I wanted to do this.

Kapadia: I didn’t grow up watching movies. I had never been interested [in] watching films. But I worked on a crew and I worked on set in college. My love for film came from making, working on set. For me it was like running away with a circus, having never [left] home. I come from a poor, working-class London background, and my family didn’t really go away. So, I got to travel.

The best thing about making movies for me is, I’m here now. You get to go places, you meet people, you hear stories, you connect that person and that person. That’s where my love for it comes from. I’ve always tried to do a bit of everything. I’ve made short films. I’ve written screenplays. I’ve made feature films, fiction films. My first [documentary was a] short film, because I worked in TV and it just all depends on which story comes along. So, [I’d] done a few dramas until this film Senna come along. I kind of stumbled, and Amy come off the back of Senna.

Afineevsky: I went [to Ukraine] literally at the beginning of the peaceful youth demonstrations. My ambition as I filmed was to be documenting something different. It was clear it would be. For me it was personal — the police brutality, literally beating every person that was in the square at four in the morning. It started to unfold all at once. I had a moment to think about the danger. I was exposed to it.

When the bullets started to fly, the gas was spread over us and the cold water in the middle of cold winter. The air was thick with fumes. You start to understand and realize. But still all of my team and myself wanted to document the history that was happening all around us, and it was a unique experience that I had not experienced in my life at all. It was something that needed to be done. And if not myself, who? I’m ex-Russian, I’m part Russian, so they were following me. I got calls. I was forced to take my battery out of the BlackBerry, because BlackBerry was hot. I was forced to put in a kind of chip to be able to be tracked. [I had] to take it out and even put my cellphone inside the foil paper to protect [myself] from being tracked.

Garbus: For years and years and years people have tried to make documentaries about Nina Simone and there were some false starts and there were big fights and they’d fall out. The footage would fall away. There was a scripted feature in which they cast Zoe Saldana to play Nina Simone. This upset the family so much, for so many different reasons. They were putting Zoe in blackface to darken her. The script was based on a love affair [with] a nurse of hers who was actually gay, and they never had an affair. I think at a certain point [the family] decided they had to let go and allow someone to tell the story. I think the stumbling block was the director saying they wanted creative freedom to find out Nina. Finally, because of this other project, I think they were ready to have someone do it. Once they gave me that space, they were strong in letting go and respecting my process. It was sort of amazing.

Heineman: I really wanted to see how these drug wars were affecting everyday people and the response of everyday people in rising up to fight back, the ramifications of what happens when citizens take the law into their own hands. So, I embedded myself in both of these groups for about a year. I’m not a warrior, I’ve never been in any situation like this before. This film led me into some crazy places: shoot-outs between the vigilantes and the cartel, meth labs, torture chambers, places that I never thought I’d ever find myself. I felt a huge duty and obligation to capture these things.

Obviously there is extreme violence and there are very disturbing moments in Cartel Land. These are moments that were purposeful. There were moments that I knew shootouts would happen. For me to not capture that on film, I wouldn’t be telling the truthful story. I knew torture was happening. So, for me not to capture that wouldn’t be telling the truth. I knew meth was being cooked, so I really needed to capture it on film. These weren’t just things that I wanted to capture because it’s great footage. It was integral to telling the story. And for me I think to go back to the original question of the hurdles, I think for me one of the hardest things about this film was it was a constantly moving target. As a director it was constant changing every single day.

Kapadia: On our film, I didn’t know where to start. There was no expert, there was no one I could think of that seemed to be a go-to person. So, I just talked to as many people as I [could], everyone and anyone around Amy to try to figure out if there [was] a film at all and, if so, what it might be. What I found very quickly [was] there were a lot of people who had something to say, who were very angry, uncomfortable, bitter, guilty, or just a little [in] pain. Everyone I met was in pain about what had happened to Amy.

The film started only a year after Amy died. I thought, “It’s too soon. This is really weird. I’m not quite sure about this.” People didn’t want to talk to me. So I told everyone, “I don’t owe anything to anyone in the music business. I’ve never done a music video. If you just want to talk to me off the record, that would be helpful. But I don’t talk in a café, because everyone knows one another. London is a pretty small town. So the safest place I [can] come up with is a sound place, which is secure. I will have a microphone, because I don’t want to sit there writing notes. I just want to talk to you. I don’t have questions.” I would get people to come and talk. I would turn the lights off and pretty much just sit in the dark and chat. It’s like radio. If at the end of the day, if you don’t sign a release form, great, you’re not my problem. That’s how it worked. Just the two of us in a room. The mixer would be in another room. It would start with twenty minutes and then maybe two hours, five hours. Some people would speak for five hours and want to come [back] the next day. The whole process became therapy for the people around me who had never spoken out about what happened. It felt like [an] investigation. Something terrible, abusive, awful had happened in front of us all. Nobody seemed to care. Nobody in the media seemed to be bothered.

So my producer and I would just look at each other after the interviews and say, “This is some heavy shit. Who are we actually making this film about? Why are we doing this? Who is it for? Who is going to gain from it?” All of these issues came out of it. But then at a point we said, “We do have this opportunity — we now know quite a lot. It’s down to us to slog our way through. We owe it to her, for the people out in the world to kind of understand who she was and what really went on with her.” Because it was really easy for her to get all the blame, to be attacked and to have such a terrible reputation. And actually she was just a young kid who got pulled into this stuff.

Nick Shymanksy, her first manager, was the first person who trusted me enough to speak. But he said “Look, this film is never gonna happen. I don’t want to be in the movie, but I’ll help you.” Eventually he trusted me enough to open up his laptop and show me some of the videos that he’d shot. That early material — [Amy] just driving around, [changing] in restrooms, playing pool, being really funny and bright and intelligent and happy — was when I thought, “OK we’ve got a movie now. Suddenly I get it. She is not the person that we all think that she is, she’s someone totally different.” You can see the kind of journey she had. Nick became a bit of a friend — he really got us to her older friends, who had become very much the emotional heart of the movie. Because they’ve never spoken to anyone before when you see the film, there’s a lot of tears. Their voice is always breaking because they have never talked about this. They kept breaking down during interviews.

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