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Doc U Recap: Shooting Overseas

By KJ Relth

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In this increasingly globalized world, more and more documentary filmmakers are finding themselves traveling to all parts of the globe to get their story. Just last year, American filmmakers whose work was nominated at the 27th annual IDA Documentary Awards traveled as far afoot as Afghanistan, Liberia, Japan, and China, to name a few. As these filmmakers and many others can probably verify, shooting in a foreign country can be intimidating, frustrating, and rife with problems for even the most experienced filmmaker. But with the right preparation and local partners, filming overseas can be the experience of a lifetime.

It was only appropriate that our Doc U panel Shooting Overseas: Making Your Doc on Foreign Soil would be featured at the Association of Film Commissioners International (AFCI) Locations Show, which took place June 15 and 16 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. On the afternoon of June 15, we gathered doc filmmakers who have traveled the globe and film commissioners who make filming in their countries as straightforward as possible to discuss their experiences in their respective fields.

The panel was moderated by IDA Board Member Senain Kheshgi (Project Kashmir) and included filmmakers Laura Nix (The Light In Her Eyes (Syria)), Amanda Pope, co-director with Tchavdar Georgiev of The Desert of Forbidden Art (Uzbekistan & Russia), Till Schauder (The Iran Job (Iran)) and Katherine Fairfax Wright (Call Me Kuchu (Uganda)). The filmmakers were joined by George David, General Manager of The Royal Film Commission in Jordan, and Thandeka Zwana, Production & Development Executive at the National Film and Video Foundation in South Africa.

Introducing the panel was Mary Nelson, president of the AFCI and a film commissioner herself in her home state of Virginia. She spoke to the importance of the AFCI, a nonprofit educational association with members from around the world who serve as commissioners for their governmental jurisdictions, whether city, county, state, or regional. AFCI's Locations Show, the film industry's premier arena for bringing together filmmaking professionals, was organized this year with the goal of ensuring that the production community could have access to everything film commissions have to offer, including incentives, locations, and supportive services essential to a high industry-wide performance standard.

Ms. Nelson next handed over the mic to Senain Kheshgi, producer of several documentaries including How to Hold a Flag, The First Year, and the aforementioned Project Kashmir. With all the projects she has produced both at home and abroad, she admitted, she never once has enlisted the help of a film commissioner. "Documentary filmmakers have such an indie spirit," she emphasized, with most of them preferring to work on their own. Actually, none of the filmmakers on the panel had ever actually sought out the help of a film commission either. Senain asked each filmmaker to explain why they hadn't chosen to go that route, and whether they were happy with the shooting process while working on overseas.

Starting with Till Schauder and his Los Angeles Film Festival-selected project The Iran Job, Kheshgi asked him how he got started shooting in a country known for its aversion to foreign journalists. Schauder tried to get a journalist visa because initially, the film was supported by HBO Real Sports. Problems arose, however, when HBO was unable to insure their crew because of an embargo with Iran. That roadblock lead them to enter the country as tourists, which put the film on a totally different trajectory. Having to hide and contain all of their equipment so it didn't appear to be a professional operation, Schauder and his small crew had just a tiny camera, a wireless mic and a clip-on mic. This set up worked out better than it would have with a ton of heavy equipment, he said, because it made them much less obtrusive.

One of the more difficult things, Schauder admitted, was not being able to divulge the full story he was filming to anyone. The sensitive nature of some of the things he was capturing on camera - for example, unmarried women visiting a man in his apartment without supervision and openly discussing sex, politics, and religion - lead him to keep most of his project under wraps. The basketball team he spent the most time with, however, was extremely supportive of his work, giving him access to their apartments before a game, the courts during gameplay, and the locker room after a victory.

On to Katherine Fairfax Wright, the Columbia University grad who already has a number credits under her belt. Her latest film, also an official LAFF selection, is Call Me Kuchu, a chronicle of the LGBT activist community in Uganda. Much like Schauder, Wright and her small team did not use a film commissioner. They didn't have much prep time, but they were able to secure media passes. She admitted that while she was happy with her crew, a database or open communication with a government officer might have been helpful to her and her team.

Again, much like Schauder's project, Wright was documenting a very sensitive issue in Uganda, where the new Anti-Homosexuality Bill would mean that HIV-positive gay men could be killed and those who fail to turn in an openly homosexual individual face a prison sentence. It was for this reason that she knew she would be filming behind closed doors for much of her time in the country, but obtained the media pass for occasional on-the-street filming. When describing the project to officials and locals, Wright and her team didn't hide the fact that they were following the gay community, but they also didn't entirely disclose it either. This is because although there is some sense of freedom of the press in Uganda, the filmmaking crew wanted to go to lengths to insure the safety of their subjects.

Laura Nix, whose film The Light in Her Eyes was shot at a Qur'an school for women and girls in Syria, decided to enter the country on a tourist visa--since there is no freedom of the press in this country, a media pass just wasn't a possibility. They lied to most people and said they were shooting a wedding, an effective diversion since a lot of weddings are sex-segregated. Of her own admission, "people tend to not take you seriously (in Syria) if you are a woman." When they were on the street, they used their Canon 5D camera so as not to be conspicuous. All of their equipment was in backpacks or otherwise disguised, allowing them move around with their all-women crew without drawing too much attention or suspicion.

For various reasons, filmmaker and USC professor Amanda Pope's The Desert of Forbidden Art (co-directed by Tchavdar Georgiev) took six years to make. They felt that their biggest initial challenge was learning something about the culture they were entering. They also hit a roadblock when they tried to work with a film commission, who wanted to charge her and Georgiev $200 a day to film there in Uzbekistan. After trying to work with a film commission and choosing to instead work on their own, they had to stay under the radar and work very privately. She emphasized the importance of field producers, who along with her her co-director could help navigate the unfamiliar territories.

After all the filmmakers had their chance to speak, the film commissioners were asked to describe a bit about their organizations. Thandeka Zwana, the Production & Development Executive at the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF) in South Africa, spoke to how her organization acted as a mother figure for the three film commissions in South Africa. NFVF would be the first stop when someone wants to shoot in South Africa, a location coveted by dozens of narrative and non-fiction filmmakers from inside South Africa and beyond. While Zwana mostly works with narrative features, she also has a counterpart for documentary filmmaking, which lately they are trying to encourage. She made a point of mentioning that South Africa is fiercely protective of its citizens’ freedom of speech, which means that those seeking to work with NFVF wouldn't have to deal with any interference from them in terms of content.

Moving over to the only actual film commissioner on the panel, the General Manager of The Royal Film Commission in Jordan David George admitted that not many films have come out of Jordan. One of the main reasons for forming this commission was to nurture and advance the local film industry through various efforts, including a film school that focuses on documentary filmmaking, a film fund with a special section for docs, as well as massive incentives for filming in the country. In fact, George insisted, documentaries are even more advanced than narrative filmmaking in Jordan. The main goal of the Royal Film Commission, he emphasized, was to promote expression through films. And that can only be done through a lenient content policy and adequate financial support.

The audience was next allowed to ask questions, including how to find the films discussed and what happens to the subjects after a film is released they are filmed discussing a sensitive subject. After the panel, commissioners, filmmakers and industry professionals mingled in the conference room and hopped from booth to booth at within the convention center, speaking with representatives from as close as Ventura and as far as Morocco.

The IDA was so happy to be a part of this exciting show, and we hope to work with the great people at the AFCI some time soon!