documentary

Why This Year’s Golden Bear is Bad Cinema but Good Art

Oh, the highly coveted cutie…

coveted cutie

I’d like to start by making clear that, after the initial bafflement at the Berlinale Awards Ceremony last Saturday passed, I’m actually very glad this year’s Golden Bear went to Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not.

However, this has nothing to do with the film itself, but with the strong public reaction it stirred, especially in its home country, Romania.

There is a huge misunderstanding around this film, which could explain why the press generally disliked it and why many high-profile critics wrote extremely bad reviews about it.

Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not is not really cinema, it’s an art installation, in an unfortunate case where the programmers mistook the medium/format for the final product.

And if you judge an art installation by cinematic criteria, of course it falls short. First, it comes across as highly pretentious and cerebral.

One of the first things I found striking about the film (apart from its insidious visual style that draws so much attention to itself), is the fact that, although the “characters” speak incessantly about their emotions in a tentative exploration of human intimacy, no emotion is actually being transmitted to the viewer.

And for very good reasons:  cinema normally uses a dramatic framework to explore human feelings and emotions, it doesn’t make characters just talk about them.

Well, this is experimental cinema, one might argue. But according to the filmmaker, it’s not. Adina Pintilie strongly rejects this label. And who are we to contradict her, who else knows better what she made than the filmmaker herself?

Another line of reasoning could be that this is a highly conceptual, hybrid construction, more of a documentary mixing reality and fiction, with some of the people you see on the screen playing themselves and talking about their real emotions directly to each other or to the camera. But if it’s real, why does it sound so contrived? Being real and sounding real are two very different things. Good cinema makes believe, in other words, it makes things that are not real, sound and appear real. This film does the opposite – a total paradox. And this is through no fault of the actors and all those participating in it. If you read the transcript of the film, it would probably sound very intelligent. I for one blame it on the film’s style. 

Another of my contentions has to do with the unnecessary adornment of the film with all sorts of film gimmicks that give the impression of something very sophisticated (think Godard in Le Mépris) but in reality don’t serve any clear purpose: such as placing a camera in the frame, to kind of highlight the filmmaker’s intrusion into the artwork. Through this device, the filmmaker is addressing Laura: “You’re probably wondering why I’m in your bedroom”…). But the use of this technique here is ill-inspired, it only distracts and puzzles the viewer or makes him/her ask unnecessary questions (such as one blurted out loud at the press screening: “Yeah, why are you in her bedroom?”).

On the subject of questions being raised by the film, another issue is that the film verbally asks them: “How do they f*cking manage?” (Meaning: how do people manage with their conflictual emotional baggage?). This is, we were informed at the press conference, the core question the film intends to raise. Again, good cinema doesn’t need to verbalise these questions, the viewer is supposed to ask those questions himself/herself. Or are we patronisingly being told what we should ask, think or feel here? When you see a film about the Holocaust, whether documentary, fiction or hybrid, no one is musing on screen: “Oh dear, how do these people actually manage?!”

On the plus side, I’d like to argue that, as paradoxical as it might sound, Touch Me Not is good art. Why? Because of the huge reaction it stirred in the filmmaker’s own country, following news of its being awarded the Golden Bear.  Some TV personalities had very heated words to say about the film, while apparently even the Coalition for the Protection of Family is getting mobilised against it! Scary stuff.

But the film is being attacked in Romania for the wrong reasons. To quote a TV personality who posted on his social media: “A woman trying to cure her frigidity by watching a guy masturbate in front of her. That’s the film. I know, it’s me who doesn’t get wanking as art. All Golden Bears leave cinemas empty, they are cheap films with whores and swearings sold to stupid people as art. Berlinale can take its Golden Bear and shove it up its @ss…”. And on and on, he’s not the only one.

While there is no substance to this statement, while I completely disagree that all Golden Bears are bad films (one only needs to think of, more recently, Fuocoammare or the surreal Of Body and Soul), this kind of reaction points to a debate to be had about what the Golden Bear films should and shouldn’t be, what types of characters should populate them ( i.e. on the virginal side, rather than “whorey” side). How can you even begin to explain to a guy like this the depth of fascination that characters of prostitutes always held over the cinematic imagination? 

But leaving all arguments aside, aesthetic or otherwise, good art should stir sh*t up. What is its purpose, otherwise,  if not to stir things up and make the invisible (thoughts, feelings, ideas, mentality) visible?

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is cinematic perfection, but so what? If no one reacts to it, if it leaves people pleased but ready to move on, possibly energised but quasi-indifferent…Isle of Dogs is great cinema but does it function as art, in this sense?  And for that alone, for the strong emotional reaction the film triggered, Adina Pintilie’s film/art installation deserved the Golden Bear.

Regarding the film’s reception in Romania where it hasn’t even opened yet, the pertinent question to ask is: what, really, is the public’s problem with this film? It’s not that it contains sex scenes or nudity, we all know that sex sells.

My conclusion is that Touch Me Not was indeed misunderstood. But I seriously doubt that the reason critics disliked it has anything to do with the subject matter, with them being made uncomfortable by what they see on the screen (as the filmmaker herself hinted at) or with them being conservative or prude (some journalist’s misguided assumption). 

It’s simply to do with the fact that their expectations haven’t been met: this film is an art installation masquerading as cinema, it belongs in a different kind of art space, a gallery or maybe a museum. And I’m pretty sure the art world will appreciate it. 

adina.jpg

 

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Patricio Guzmán’s beautiful doc The Pearl Button at IFC Center & other NYC cinemas today

the pearl button

Seasoned filmmaker Patricio Guzmán, whose groundbreaking 1975 The Battle of Chile was a key event in the history of the documentary form, follows his astonishing recent work Nostalgia for the Light (2011) with a similar exploration of familiar themes such as memory and the historical past. The Pearl Button was awarded the Silver Bear for Best Script at 2015 Berlin Film Festival and is opening in NYC at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City this weekend.

Knight: The Pearl Button is a very beautiful and moving film. I was very impressed with the way you used the metaphor of water, that is usually associated with life, to symbolise death and tragedy. And you used this metaphor to link two apparently unconnected stories: the story of the indigenous people who lived in the waterways of Western Patagonia and Pinochet’s dictatorship practice of dumping political prisoners in the sea.

Guzman: First of all we have to consider that Chile has 2,670 miles of coastline, that is a lot of water. Particularly in the South, there are a lot of channels entering the continent. Those channels were once inhabited by six different indigenous groups. And they were all executed by white men at the beginning of the 20th century.

There’s also the story of Jemmy Button, an indigenous inhabitant who was taken to England to be “civilised”. He agreed to go in exchange for a single mother-of-pearl button, hence his English name. When he was brought back to his community in Patagonia, he couldn’t readapt, he remained very much isolated, he died alone. These were discoveries that I made on a trip to Patagonia and served as the basis for the film.

I spent 10 days navigating through the channels with a small vessel, and when I arrived back in Santiago de Chile, I came across another story: a pearl button was found stuck to a rail brought to the surface by ocean divers. And I immediately made the connection between Jemmy Button and this other button. And with that, I pretty much had the whole film. And yes, it is my claim in the film that the ocean contains the history of all humanity. 

Knight: There is a reflection in the film about “the memory of water”, about how water remembers things, events, people. I was wondering if you were referring to the latest medical research from Japan where doctors discovered that water has indeed memory and the ability to form a molecular imprint of everything that comes into contact with it?

Guzman: Actually there are studies about the memory of water that are much older than that. Even in the 19th century in the diaries of FitzRoy, he mentions the possibility of water having memory. There’s another very interesting book by a researcher called Theodor Schwenk, it’s called Sensitive Chaos, published in 1962. This book also talks about water having memory.

Knight: I suppose those were theories whereas now there’s actually scientific proof that water has memory. And not many people know that.

Guzman: That’s true. The very first scientist who started to talk about that was a French scientist in the 1950s. And no one believed him!

Patricio Guzman

Patricio Guzmán during the making of The Pearl Button

Knight: Has the metaphor of ‘sea as cemetery’ been explored by other Chilean artists before or is this the first time it’s been put together in this way?

Guzman: The first time in cinema yes. As to the other Chilean artists I’m not completely sure.

Knight: Could you talk about the potential of beauty and beautiful imagery to convey horror and horrific events in such a powerful way? From this point of view, your film is like a cinematic oxymoron. There’s a disconnect between form and content in your film that mirrors the disconnect that must take place in the human brain when witnessing such horrors.

Guzman: The landscape where I shot the film is very beautiful, especially the channels in the South. There are waterfalls of ice and the sea has a very deep blue colour. There are also volcanos. That’s where the five main indigenous tribes lived and were very happy. And they all died within 2 years after the white men arrived. They wanted the land all to themselves so that they could bring cattle. They hired gunmen to exterminate the indigenous people. Those who remained alive were taken to the missions where they got contaminated with microbes brought from Europe. Today there are only six indigenous people alive.

Knight: What aspect of filmmaking have you found the most challenging in the making of this film?

Guzman: The most challenging part was navigating through those channels, there are very few boats that venture that way. Days and weeks can pass by without encountering any other human beings. And storms happen out of the blue. In those cases, you have to take shelter in a narrow channel and wait for it to pass.

There was another challenge near the coast of Santiago where Pinochet’s political prisoners were dumped. In this case the challenge was not geographic but the fact that there are still very few people willing to talk about it. All in all, it was a difficult film to make.

Knight: This was actually my next question: I read in your interview with Frederick Wiseman that the Chilean television is still a bit reluctant, even now, to show your documentaries on TV, is it true of this film also?

Guzman: We don’t know yet if the Chilean television will be interested in this film because the film is opening next week in cinemas in Chile. So we’ll see what happens.

THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER opens in NYC July 24 (press release)

THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER is the rags to riches story of one of old time showbiz’s biggest personalities. From 1906 through the beginning of television, Sophie Tucker and her bawdy, brash, and risqué songs paved the way for performers such as Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé.

sophie tucker

After eight years spent reading hundreds of Tucker’s personal scrapbooks, visiting fourteen archives, and interviewing dozens of family, friends, and fellow icons of stage and screen, Susan and Lloyd Ecker have completed their comprehensive documentary about the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.

“Sophie was like the Forrest Gump of the first half of the 1900s,” says producer Susan Ecker. “She was close friends with seven U.S. presidents, King George VI, young Queen Elizabeth, Charlie Chaplin, J. Edgar Hoover, Al Capone, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and every other notable of her era.”

“After immersing ourselves in Sophie’s 400+ personal scrapbooks and meeting all of Tucker’s surviving friends and family,” says producer Lloyd Ecker, “this film biography is the complete uncensored tale of this vaudeville, Broadway, radio, television and Hollywood legend. Though she obsessively documented her life, Sophie loved to exaggerate for dramatic effect. Over the years, she told multiple versions of each important event. At the end, not even Sophie knew the difference between truth and tall tale”.

Director’s Statement – William Gazecki

Sophie who? Wasn’t she the fat lady always singing “God Bless America”? (NO… that was Kate Smith). Like many people today, that’s who I thought of when I was initially offered the job of directing a documentary about Sophie Tucker.

gazecki

William Gazecki

When Tucker was alive, she was indeed buxom, and somewhere in my mind I knew I had heard of her. One of those “tip of the tongue” memories. Later I realized it was probably from seeing a couple of Sophie’s 25+ appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular of all the early television variety shows. Those were the days of my childhood when Elvis and the Beatles were thrilling me as a teenager. But Sophie was there too. As I would soon discover, throughout her life, Tucker was everywhere, like a real female Forrest Gump.

When I first met Sue and Lloyd Ecker, they kept me enthralled and intrigued with Sophie tales for hours on-end. I laughed, cried and was amazed… story after story after story… some funny, some touching, some unbelievable (for instance, Tucker befriended both gangster Al Capone and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover). The Eckers knew Tucker so well, they spoke about her as if she was family. What an interesting and compelling life Sophie had. The kind of inspiring and iconic personality about whom you want to know everything. So I happily took on the project.

My first task? Find all the Sophie Tucker experts and get them scheduled for interviews. Unfortunately, there were no Tucker experts. Try as I may, no one on the planet knew as much about Sophie as Sue and Lloyd Ecker. Why? Because no one had ever done that much research on this forgotten icon. The couple had just completed four years of reading, scanning and indexing Tucker’s 400 personal scrapbooks, learning all the stories that in some instances spanned seven decades. They also spent an equal amount of time travelling throughout the U.S. and England interviewing and taping every person they could find who actually knew her. Most of them were successful retired performers who began as one of Sophie’s opening acts. None of them really knew her that well, being not much more than young upstarts when they worked with the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”. But they remembered Tucker, and still loved her.

As they traveled on their “Sophie mission”, the Eckers had carried a video camera, shooting interviews with everyone they met. My second task was to watch all of these endearing recordings. Sweet as they were, mostly there was a dearth of unusable material for a traditional film biography. The stars had all been kids, impressed for life by a unique and powerful woman in the twilight of her greatness.

In the end, what seemed obvious turned out to be the best choice. The Eckers were the ideal candidates to narrate the movie. They had to be, or there wasn’t going to be a movie. “Let’s do a little experiment,” I said, and away we went. Fortunately, during their college years Lloyd had worked as a comedian and Sue as an actor. Once on-camera, they were wonderful. The rest is history, which you can now enjoy by watching “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker”!

New York City
Greenwich Village – Cinema Village
Upper West Side – The JCC in Manhattan

Social Media:

Facebook.com/OutrageousSophieTucker

Twitter: @SophieTucker SophieTucker.

Tumblr.com Instagram.com/RealSophieTucker

DOC NYC 2014

Hailed as “ambitious” (New York Times) and “selective but eclectic” (Village Voice), DOC NYC burst upon the scene in 2010 and has since become America’s largest documentary film festival. Based at the West Village’s IFC Center, Chelsea’s SVA Theater and Bow Tie Chelsea Cinema, the eight-day festival showcases new achievements in documentary film along with panels and conversations.  It also seeks to make connections that happen “only in New York.”

In 2014, the festival showcased 150+ films & events, presented by 200+ filmmakers & special guests. Below is a selection of interviews with filmmakers who presented their work at DOC NYC 2014.

RIC BURNS Interview – Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man behind the National Enquirer 

MARY DORE InterviewShe’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

JOHANNA St. MICHAELS Interview – Penthouse North

NORAH SHAPIRO Interview – Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile

TONY SHAFF Interview – Hotline

Bare-breasted Feminism & Tough Girl Activism – Filmmaker KITTY GREEN Explains Why UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL

Ukraine is not a Brothel poster

No doubt, everyone has heard of FEMEN by now, the Ukrainian female activist movement famous for its unconventional and controversial protest tactics. But while we’re all familiar with its gutsy members and their very daring topless public appearances, fighting patriarchy and oppression in all its forms, from Putin to the Pope, we know very little about the private stories and histories of the individuals who created this organisation back in 2008 and its most ardent campaigners.

And because a good story is never straightforward or devoid of ambiguities, Australian filmmaker KITTY GREEN spent fours years trying to get to grips with this awe-inspiring movement and getting to know the people behind it. The documentary UKRAINE IS NOT A BROTHEL is the result and fascinating account of her time with the FEMEN group.

This interview was taken on October 16, 2013 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, London, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: You spent four years with the members of Femen, filming them and getting to know them…

Kitty: Four years yes more or less. I spent a year then I went back to Australia to find some more money then I came back. It was a long process.

Kitty+Green

Filmmaker Kitty Green

Dana: So tell me a little bit about your experience living with them, you must know this movement inside out.

Kitty: They are very popular in Europe and there was a lot of media coverage of them, whatever they were doing, I knew they were getting a lot of press, CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and everybody there every day. So I wanted to make a film that was more intimate and show the different sides to the girls, and more about why they are doing it, where they come from and the country they come from, which is very patriarchal, a really terrible place for women to live. They don’t have many rights there and they don’t have a cultural life often.So I lived with them and I really tried to get that intimate experience, and get to know them really well, and get them to trust me, and I did that by living in a two-bedroom apartment with five Femen activists on the outskirts of Kiev. A very ghetto Soviet apartment but we loved it and it was really good, they are like my sisters now, I’m really close to them. People often said “don’t get too close to them because if you want to be a documentary filmmaker you need to be objective”…

Dana: Being objective is probably an unattainable goal but I suppose you do need a bit of distance…

Kitty: Yeah but I think I managed to find a way to have a bit of distance. Because I’m coming from a Western background, I grew up in Australia, I could see the contradictions within the group, they were more clear and apparent to me than they were to them. So I was able to sit back and question them and ask “What’s going on here?

For a taster of what is going on, watch the trailer here:

Dana: Because there’s a lot going on, the movement is quite paradoxical.

Kitty: Yes, it’s a strange story. So it was nice to be part of them but also to be able to question them. And from my questioning I think they learnt a lot about themselves, it forced them to look at themselves, it gave them some introspection. It really changed them, they became a much stronger organisation as a result and I was really amazed to see that change.

Kitty-Green Femen VeniseDana: How much footage have you accumulated?

Kitty: About 700 hours.

Dana: That is a lot. What was the editing process like?Did you have any help?

Kitty: No, I kind of did everything myself. Most of it was in Ukrainian and Russian and I didn’t want to translate it all, I couldn’t afford to do that. So I had to get it down before I could even start.

Dana: So you speak the language.

Kitty: Yes, I speak Ukrainian. I kind of learnt, my grandma speaks a bit of Ukrainian and I learnt more in order to make the film. In order to speak about politics, gender, inequality, you need to know more.

Dana: Out of 700 hours of footage, what went in, what did you leave out?

Kitty: They wanted me to make a propaganda film basically and I was more interested in making a film that really showed the contradictions in the movement, something a bit more controversial.

Dana: How early on did you become aware of the contradictions?

Kitty: Pretty early,  if you see an image of them, that is contradictory immediately. They protest topless to get attention and that is a contradiction in itself. But the more I observed them, the more contradictory it became, and it upset me a lot, the way they were being treated by certain people, and used by men in that country.

femen inside femen

Dana: Could you give me an example of that?

Kitty: The idea of the film is that it reveals that it was actually men that were running this organisation. I was the only one who had access to that guy [Victor Svyatski]. Because I was their videographer shooting the protests […], I saw the way the movement was being run, and the press doesn’t get to see that, they only see the glossy Femen machine whereas I got to see exactly what was going on behind the curtains. They wanted me to shoot something about Femen and explain who they were but I wasn’t prepared to shoot that. So I had to pretend that I was shooting a propaganda film. So a lot of those 700 hours is me shooting things that they wanted me to shoot, ’cause I knew ultimately that that footage was not going to end up in the film, I was only interested in the things that were contradictory and the things that were honest…

Dana: Is this a project that you initiated or they commissioned you to make this film?How did this project come about in the first place?

Kitty: I wanted to make this film, they wanted me to be their videographer, they needed someone to shoot protests and I could do it well and I fit in, I’m a blonde girl, I could travel with them easily.

femen member

Alexandra Shevchenko, one of the founders of FEMEN

Dana: Did you have to bare your breasts too?

Kitty: (laughing) No way, no. I would go with them often, like they get flown to a certain country and they would bring me along and I would get there and be the videographer. So it was kind of good because I got to go places for free. But what they needed from me was to give them access to videos to put on their website, to get the videos out there and in exchange I made a film out of it. So if  I gave them videos and they gave me their time, I got to sit down with them and do proper interviews and get the footage I needed. So it was a nice exchange.

Inna Shevchenko, one of FEMEN’s most well-known campaigners

Dana: Are they happy with the film? Were they okay with you revealing all these contradictions and paradoxes?

Kitty: Happy is not the word I would use to describe it but I think they were relieved to get a story like that off their chest, they know it is the truth, and they knew it wasn’t right and they knew there were a lot of problems with their organisation. And I think they are really happy that finally someone could speak honestly about what was going on, especially someone they trusted and who knew exactly what was going on. But the fallout was kind of hard because the press really latched on to this idea of these sex-crazed men running this organisation. And he talks about sex in the film and what were his motivations but he’s politically-driven, he’s got his own agenda, so yes they got quite a lot of negative press. And since, they were happy at the screening and they were crying and we were relieved to have that story out but since the press latched on to it, it’s become a whole other thing entirely. And I want more people to see the film because I think it really explains it properly, and there are nuances to it, it’s not just this evil man…

Dana: It never is…

Kitty: Exactly…

Femen pro gay campaignDana:  And now, what has changed in the Femen group?

Kitty: Everything! At the end of my film, one of the girls leaves for Paris to start her own independent Femen headquarter, and four others moved there with her. And they opened a branch in the Netherlands, they sort of escaped Ukraine in a lot of ways and they are opening branches all over Europe. He is no longer a part of it, we don’t know where he is exactly, we think he is somewhere in Switzerland, he’s hard to track down, all the press try to contact him to speak with him.

Dana: Is this as a consequence of the documentary?

Kitty: No, it’s actually a consequence of problems in Ukraine with the Secret Service. So they were hunting down Femen over the last year. He left Ukraine in order to escape, he was beaten up really badly by them actually. It was really horrific, the photos were horrible. He left Ukraine for his own reasons and the girls left Ukraine independently and they are living in other countries and they are finally free of control. Which is lovely for me to see. When I arrived, after opening the film in Paris, I was so so proud of the girls.

Dana: This sounds like a better life for them but I’m thinking Ukraine is more in need of a movement like this than either France or Netherlands is.

Kitty:  That’s true and I think they will go back, it’s just a matter of finding a safe place for them to base themselves. They are not going to leave Ukraine for good, there are so many things going on there.And that’s their homeland. They will always go back to protest.

Dana: Did you have time to experience life in Ukraine outside the Femen group?What is life really like for women there?

Kitty: It was shocking for me when I first arrived, ’cause I grew up in a fairly progressive area in Melbourne and my mother worked and my friends’ mothers worked, so I never saw this kind of gap or gender inequality, I wasn’t exposed to that at all. So arriving in Ukraine where the men worked and women stayed at home and cooked their breakfast and had to look pretty, it was all very shocking to me. So I was really taken aback by that and provided me with a motivation to make the film because I was really overwhelmed by all that.

femen in Paris

Dana: But do you think this is purely as a result of patriarchal pressure or are there economical reasons for this, like lack of jobs for women?

Kitty: I guess it’s both cultural and economical, it’s everything, it’s a very poor country so yes, there aren’t enough jobs. But they would always pick a man over a woman in a country like that because it is a very patriarchal country. So it’s a lot of different factors at play, but right now there aren’t many opportunities for young Ukrainian women who are graduating from university, a few of them in the film were formerly strippers, one of them has a college degree but she couldn’t find work. So she had to become a stripper then she became a Femen activist. Even in the film, all of the girls have different stories of why they became involved with the movement, it’s either to do with how they were brought up, it’s often due to poverty, or an abusive father, or being a stripper. They’ve all experienced patriarchal dominance and wanted to be free of it so they joined Femen.

Dana: What about your future projects, have you got anything lined up?

Kitty: I really want to keep making films about women’s rights, this is where my interest lies, but once you say “I want to make  films about women’s rights” people say “oh that’s so boring” so you gotta find a way to make it attractive, make it sexy. So I’m now looking towards the Middle East, thinking of doing something there, right now it’s interesting for women there but it’s still very early days.

Find out more/Donate/Become a member of  FEMEN here.

Should Truth Always Prevail? Acclaimed Documentarian ALEX GIBNEY about THE ARMSTRONG LIE

Known for his gripping, deeply insightful documentaries, Academy Award winner ALEX GIBNEY is one of the most accomplished non-fiction filmmakers working today. His 2008 film, TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE, received an Oscar for Best Feature-Length Documentary, a Best Director nomination from the Director’s Guild of America, as well as a Writer’s Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay. He also received another Academy Award nomination in 2006 for ENRON: THE SMARTEST GUYS IN THE ROOM, which also won the Independent Spirit Award and the WGA Award, and he served as an Executive Producer on the Academy Award-nominated NO END IN SIGHT (2007).

Alex-Gibney

Alex Gibney

His new documentary, THE ARMSTRONG LIE, follows one of the most fascinating stories in the history of sports, the extraordinary rise and  fall of former cycling champion, Lance Armstrong. Embarking on what he believed would prove the ultimate comeback story, Gibney started by turning his cameras on the sports hero, his teammates and trainers in 2008-2009.  But once Armstrong admitted to using performance enhancing drugs in early 2013, the film emerged as a riveting insider’s view chronicling the collapse of one of the greatest legends of our time.

The following interview was taken on October 16 at Filmmakers Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013.

Dana: Why Armstrong in the first place?

Alex: Well, I had an opportunity, a famous producer Frank Marshall and a guy from Sony, Matt Tolmach, were developing a fiction film on Lance Armstrong and they couldn’t get the script rights so when Lance wanted to come back they thought of making a documentary and asked me if I would direct it. And I thought that that would be a pretty interesting film, following a champion as he came back, and what interested me about Armstrong, even with the rumours of doping that we all knew even back then, was his will. So I was interested in making that film.

Dana: When you found out everything that happened suddenly, what was your first thought, that you had been lied to or that the film was a lie?

Alex: I was pissed off, not so much that I’ve been lied to, I’d certainly been lied to before, but I felt that I’ve been used. That I was used as kind of a prop and promo campaign, and that did piss me off. But remember this happened over a period of time, it wasn’t like there was a lightening bolt that came down and suddenly it was like: “Oh my God, everything’s changed”. Bit by bit by bit stuff came out and Lance for a long time responded as he always had, which was: “bullshit”, denial, so I had time to work it out. And was I pissed off?Yes I was pissed off but I wasn’t shocked.

the-armstrong-lie-posterDana: What do you think of him?

Alex: On a day to day basis, I like him. I like hanging out with him, I’m interested in talking to him but I also recognise that I can’t always trust him.

Dana: How challenging was it to change the initial film into the final version?

Alex: It was hugely challenging. I think the only way it was going to work was for me to became a character in the film. I had to become the person to whom this had happened. So that I could explain it all in its many levels. And also I stood in for the fan or for the cancer survivor who felt that they invested so much in this myth that Lance had created and now they were disappointed. From a filmmaking standpoint it was hugely complicated because it involved fracturing the narrative, going back and forth in time, in 1999, before that, 2009, the present, pre-Oprah, post-Oprah. It was a very complicated story in that sense. And the only way possible to make it I think was telling it through the first person.

Dana: Michele Ferrari was quite a cue, how did that interview come about, was it just a question of building trust?

Alex: He wouldn’t do the interview unless Armstrong gave his permission and Armstrong did. And I think that was all part of a campaign at the time which was: 2009 – I have nothing to hide, come take a look. So I was surprised that I got the interview with Ferrari but I was pleased.

Dana: How do you think Armstrong felt when the truth came out?

Alex: Well it came out over time. I think Armstrong was probably surprised that the old tactics didn’t work. Let’s remember, he’d already accused his critics? many times in the past, he always defeated his enemies by attacking them or sometimes slandering them and he tried to do the same thing here but it didn’t work this time. Why?Because the level of details was so enormous that his story was no longer believable and I think that was a blow to Armstrong and suddenly, while he always had enemies and critics he also had millions of fans and suddenly his fans started to run for the hills.

Dana: Has he seen the film?

Alex: No. He sent his representatives to see it and so far he hasn’t seen the film, I hope he will. We gave him the opportunity to.

Dana: Have you spoken to him since making the film?

Alex: The last time I spoke to him was when, there were some bits that I went to him with while making the film, because he had some interesting information about UCI and sponsors but the last time I contacted Lance was when I told him it was going to be called the Armstrong Lie.

Dana: And what was his response to that?

Alex: I don’t think he liked it but he accepted it. I heard from other people that he said: “I’m ok with it. I did lie”. In some ways Lance is honest, in some ways he’s not so honest.

Dana: As a filmmaker, are you glad about everything that happened, because you now have a much more interesting film than the original one…

Alex: That was a different film. This one is much more layered and frankly much more like the themes of all my other films. So in that sense while I was hoping to do something different, I ended up being back at base camp for me as a filmmaker.

Dana: What has been the biggest challenge in making this film?

Alex: The biggest challenge in making the final film was to find the structure for it because it was so intricate and complicated in terms of understanding what had gone on before and how to present to the viewer a sense of going back in my experience in 2009 and seeing with the eyes of today what I’d seen in the past. And at the same time recreating my feeling in the past so you could see how I would become excited and enthusiastic about Armstrong only to realise I’d been deceived.

Dana: Where did you stand with him at the beginning anyway?Were you a fan?

Alex: I didn’t know that much about him, or about cycling. I told him the first time I met him: “I know you ride a bicycle and that you’re good at it. That’s about all I know”. But I’ve come to a lot of subjects that way, I was interested in him because of his will. And I assumed from the beginning that will was both an inspirational thing and something that was also quite dark.

Dana: Does he come from a position of arrogance, he can sometimes strike viewers in that way.

Alex: He certainly does and he rubs a lot of people the wrong way as a result.

Dana: What did you learn from this film and would you do it differently if you had to do it again?

Alex: I hope I wouldn’t have to do it again. I guess what I learnt from this film was one of the most amazing things about this story, I talk about the Armstrong lie as if it was a big secret that was suddenly exposed.  But it wasn’t really like that. It was a secret hiding in plain sight. Hundreds of people knew that Lance had doped, not just a small number, and a lot of critics had come forward with the evidence. But it was the power of the myth that Lance created that was so enormous that no one wanted to believe any of that stuff. And in fact everyone realised that they could make so much money, and the cancer survivors realised that they can have so much hope from this story that no one wanted to believe that it wasn’t true. That was the most amazing thing to me.

Dana: On this note, do you think truth should always prevail, considering how powerful and beautiful this story was, and important for some people?Is truth more important than anything?

Alex: Almost.  Truth is very important and I can think of times where a little truth is not necessary to tell within a certain context but in an essential way, truth is very important.