“I would say ‘Don’t do it, you’re crazy!,’” says Anne Aghion, award-winning documentary moviemaker whose film Ice People, the story of the internal and external journeys of scientists living in Antarctica, is currently playing in theaters in the United States while her other film, My Neighbor My Killer, an intimate portrait of the impact of the 1994 Rwandan genocide on both its victims and perpetrators, and the subsequent creation of Gacaca, community courts set up for the murderers to confess their crimes in exchange for reduced sentences and the opportunity to return to their community and co-exist again among the family and neighbors they once terrorized, is screening as an official selection of the Cannes Film Festival.
Aghion’s speaking, of course, about her advice to aspiring documentary moviemakers. “I met a South African man in his 60s on the jury of a film festival I attended in Brazil. I was telling him ‘I’m broke, I don’t know…,’ and he said, ‘I’m broke, too. I tell young people that this thing we do either keeps you young or it kills you,’” she laughs casually over the late lunch din on the terrace of The Majestic, a trace of the exhaustion that comes from a true labor of love coloring her voice. “It’s an incredibly high-risk thing. Every time you raise the ante a little bit more.”
“My favorite thing about the entertainment business is that it has an influence on the world. It’s something that can have a major impact on people,” says 29-year Cannes veteran Steven Paul, CEO and chairman of Crystal Sky Worldwide Sales, currently in post-production on Opposite Day, Tekken and Robosapien, and in development on several projects, including Richard Branson’s life story, Losing My Virginity. “You can influence people’s thinking, make a statement, bring attention to important issues. It’s a big deal—a really big deal. It’s a big responsibility.”
What is it about the lasting power of a film, be it a documentary or a feature length narrative, that gives us pause? Pause to escape, pause to reflect, pause to double over in laughter or say, “I recognize that. That is familiar to me. I’ve felt that way, too,” or, alternatively, “I never knew that existed. I can’t even imagine.”
Think about the fashion influence of iconic characters portrayed by Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday or Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. Or the generations of youngsters confidently wielding light sabers in response to an imaginary playmate’s utterance of “May the force be with you,” as a result of the awe-inspiring impact of watching Star Wars. Or the cumulative hours of enjoyment gained worldwide from repeating “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse,” ad nauseam in homage to Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Or Michael Moore’s sparking of a raging and curiosity-filled dialogue from his 2004 Palm d’Or winning documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
In both subtle and significant ways, our patterns of cultural perspective and interest are influenced and shaped by the people, the images and the story on the screen in front of us.
This is mirrored in the very individuals fueled by the drive to produce art for the public to share in and react to, often with unpredictable results for what the process and end product will yield. Perhaps this is most prevalent in documentaries.
Aghion spent 10 years with her Rwandan project, ultimately working with her editor, Nadia Ben Rachid, to turn 350 hours worth of footage into three separate one-hour documentaries and the 80 minute My Neighbor My Killer, which is also the title of a book she is working on regarding the same subject matter.
“It’s very complicated, especially with a story like this,” says Aghion. “It’s tricky to have people treating you as if you’ve become a member of their family and then you go back and ask them what you need to ask them. At first, I was sort of trying to melt into the landscape and as I progressed I realized I couldn’t melt into the landscape. As time went on, I felt like I had more responsibility in the way I related to people on the film. You take on different responsibilities as you go along. You show up and people tell you that you’ve gained weight or you’re looking pale today. They start talking to you like you’re family, which is both good and bad.”
The Belgian-German-Dutch co-production of Altiplano, directed by husband and wife team Jessica Woodworth and Peter Brosens, screened in yesterday evening’s market and shot on location in Peru and Belgium using Spanish, French, Farsi, Quechua and English language. It is the contemporary story of Grace, a war photographer who renounces her profession after witnessing a violent act of murder in Iraq and then later journeys to Turubamba, a remote village plagued by mercury poisoning from miners in the Andes of Peru, to see where her husband Max met his death while working in an eye clinic. Combining three radically different cultures (Belgian, Peruvian, Iraqi) with cobbled together financing from three countries speaks both to the modern plight of independent film financing and the forced synergy of our diverse, eclectic and radically different cultures throughout the world.
“It’s a matter of how much risk you want to take,” says Paul Hertzberg, president of CineTel Films, which is devoted exclusively to genre films and currently in pre-production on a remake of I Spit On Your Grave. Hertzberg could be talking about life or documentary moviemaking, but he happens to be talking about producing movies in general. “No matter how bad the market is, no matter how many companies go out of business, people come back. They come back as a different company. No one wants to leave the business. As dire as it is, somehow people manage to survive.”
And survive they do. The fledgling movie producers, the fictional characters of a tiny, primitive village and the real-life survivors of a horrific genocide endure, they go on. “There are fewer boats out there,” Paul comments, nodding in the direction of the Mediterranean vista beyond his balcony doors. “Usually it looks like a crowded parking lot.”. And then, after a brief moment of silence he adds, “Well, there are still a lot of boats.” Ah, the relief of the glimmer of hope.
“I don’t know what’s next,” Aghion chooses her words carefully. “What you have here is a window to the world that most people know nothing about, a look at how we are able to negotiate survival. It’s been intense. Now I want to take time off and look at the world a bit. I need time to think.”
And, after all, where is there a better place to start thinking and recharge one’s artistic batteries than the south of France? From overpriced hotels and savory cuisine, from white-capped waves hitting the sand to free-flowing wine, from stimulating worldwide cinema and animated conversations of film in competition and in the market of Cannes, to the producer’s girlfriend’s chilled breast that distinctly, accidentally and prominently popped out of her evening gown for a jaunt to greet me and my delighted companion while we were en route to La Pizza late last night, there is indeed something for everyone. MM
Ashley Wren Collins is an accomplished actress and writer living in New York City. She welcomes your comments and thoughts at [email protected].