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Meet the DocuWeek Filmmakers: Paul Taylor--'We Are Together (Thina Simunye)'

By Tom White

Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 17-23. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Paul Taylor, director/ producer of We Are Together (Thina Simunye).

Synopsis: We Are Together tells the moving and inspiring story of 12-year-old Slindile and her remarkable friends at the Agape orphanage in South Africa. Filmed over three years, with unforgettable kids, soaring music and a plot full of surprises, We Are Together arrives as a stirring and uplifting theatrical documentary.


IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Paul Taylor: I first became interested in documentaries while studying film in the UK. We Are Together is my first feature. We started shooting while I was still at film school, and it's taken four years to complete. I've always been interested in stories and the connections we make with compelling characters in films, so I guess this is what led me down the path of making a character-led documentary.


IDA: What inspired you to make We Are Together?

PT: I met the children of Agape while I was volunteering in South Africa in 2003. I was fortunate to spend a lot of time there and I became close to the kids, but it was only when back in the UK that I started thinking about making a film. It was partly because I knew the children's incredible personalities would make a great way for people to connect with these issues, but I mainly just wanted to find a reason to return so I could spend more time with them!


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

PT: One of the biggest challenges was getting the film funded. We shot it on a really low budget and put everything on our credit cards, doing that whole story that independent filmmakers have to do to make their first film. It was difficult convincing people that this film about "African orphans" was going to be any different from the stuff people had already seen. Fortunately, when we got back with some footage and people saw some of the depth to the characters and this refreshing story, it started to catch on and we managed to get completion funding. But up until then it was a real challenge and a bit of a headache.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

PT: It was interesting, because some things really evolved and changed during production, whereas there were other things that stayed very much the way I had imagined. I always knew it would be Slindile's story because I knew her well from my first trip and I couldn't imagine it being anyone else's story. And I knew that if we spent enough time filming, some incredible things would unfold, but of course I never knew what they were going to be.

What the film was about evolved and refined itself the further we went, and really only became apparent in the edit. For example, in the end it became just as much a film about family and family dynamics as it was a film about the issues that we were expecting. Also, the longer that we were there, the more we started to see an intricate relationship unfold between sorrow and joy, and these emotional dynamics became very important. I became fascinated by how Slindile and the children would deal with so many lows, yet also incredible highs almost simultaneously, and how they could come together and laugh and find joy so quickly after terrible things like the death of their brother. This contrast actually became the main theme in the edit: It was all about exploring the relationship between sorrow and joy. Fortunately we had an enormously talented editor, Masahiro Hirakubo, who really managed to balance and explore the interplay between these emotions. Interestingly, Masa is a fiction editor (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave) and this was his first feature doc, so he brought a very different perspective to the film, and I think it makes it more interesting as a result.


IDA: As you've screened We Are Together--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

PT: People actually seem emotionally charged when they come out of the film and tell us that they've cried, yet also laughed so much. I always feel quite guilty when people say we made them cry, and I end up apologizing for it! But the fact that people are feeling this range of emotion is incredibly rewarding for us. People are also very complimentary about the film. They say it's a different and more refreshing perspective than they were expecting. They tell us it seemed to be a very honest and genuine portrait of the kids, which is a real compliment. So we are very pleased with audience reactions. Perhaps it's because people are too polite to tell us what they really think! The most memorable screenings were at Tribeca because we had 15 of the kids across from South Africa and the audiences were always moved and gave them an incredible response.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

PT: There are too many to mention, really. While I was making this film I was watching a lot of Maysles and Wiseman films, so they must have influenced me in a way. I also love Kim Longinotto's films and the amazing intimacy she manages to get. Plus, there have been an incredible number of good films I've seen on the festival circuit recently. I'm constantly inspired and in awe of our contemporaries and the films they are producing.


We Are Together (Thina Simunye) will be screening at The LANDMARK.

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