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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel--'Pushing the Elephant'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: Pushing the Elephant airs March 29, 2011, on PBS' Independent Lens.

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. 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 are Beth Davenport and Elizabeth Mandel directors of Pushing the Elephant

Synopsis: Rose Mapendo lost her family and home to the ethnic violence that engulfed the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet she emerged from the suffering advocating peace and reconciliation. But after helping numerous victims to recover and rebuild their lives, there is one person Rose must still teach to forgive: her daughter Nangabire, now 17 and living in Arizona. Pushing the Elephant captures one of the most important stories of our age, in which genocidal violence is challenged by the moral fortitude and grace of one woman's mission for peace.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Beth Davenport: I started out working in commercials and music videos. I loved the medium of film/video, but wanted to work on social-justice issue films. In 2003, there was an opportunity at our company, Big Mouth Films, the production department of Arts Engine, to help produce a film about girl rockers and to work on the outreach campaign for Deadline, a film dealing with the death penalty. I jumped at the chance to get involved with such disparate projects and have been at Arts Engine ever since.
We believe that filmmakers who document human-interest stories that deal with social justice issues in accessible ways are creating critical tools for engaging audiences, raising awareness, inspiring action and affecting policy.

Elizabeth Mandel: I had a previous career in international affairs. I felt passionately about the issues I was working on--women's economic and political development--but I wanted the opportunity to approach the challenges to women's empowerment, security and autonomy from a more creative perspective.


IDA: What inspired you to make Pushing the Elephant?

BD & EM: Arts Engine is committed to telling multifaceted stories through an intimate lens, and we have both always been interested in making such a film about a strong woman. With the kind of serendipity filmmakers dream of, we learned about Rose and her family just two weeks before the reunion with Nangabire. Here was an opportunity to make a film about a powerful African woman and a refugee who is a leader and an activist, a model we rarely get to see on film or other media sources. We jumped in, confident that in capturing the reunion, we were on the road to tapping into something both unique and universal. For all the unique circumstances of the story, it contains universal truths about the mother-daughter bond and the importance of family, connection and forgiveness--themes to which women everywhere can relate.


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

BD & EM: Because of distance and time, the first time we met Rose and Nangabire, we were already filming. This is unusual for us, in that we usually spend time getting to know our film subjects, building trust, ensuring they understand what it means to agree to have a camera turned on their lives, figuring out the core of the story. However, we realized as soon as we met them how fortunate we were: Sight unseen, we had found subjects who were charismatic, compelling and willing to open up to us.
This presented us with a second challenge, however: how to do justice to the story with which they were entrusting us, while maintaining an unbiased lens to effectively present what happened. One decision we made early on was to allow Rose and her family's stories to be told in their own voices, from their own perspectives, rather than force our views as filmmakers--especially given that we are white women from a Western country. What we aimed to achieve through doing this was to give a voice to the often unheard--women who can tell how war and conflicts affect them, and also can offer solutions and ways for others like them to become empowered.
We are now working closely with Rose and with organizations committed to the issues dealt with in the film--refugee policy, peace-building and women's rights--to develop an audience engagement campaign, to get audiences involved in furthering those issues. In Rose's words, one person alone cannot push the elephant, but many people together can.
The other great challenge was to make sure that the film captured the joy and resilience of the Mapendo family; both because the truth of the story requires it, and because we want the film to be palatable to audiences and not feel like a school lesson. Throughout the editing process, we made sure to include moments of humor and lightness, as well as a lot of the music that is integral to the Mapendos' home life. We hope that we did justice to the feeling of wholeness Rose has maintained in her family's life.


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

BD & EM: Surprisingly, the film's themes have remained fairly consistent from the beginning. We knew we wanted to make a film about women and war, mothers and daughters, and the importance and challenge of public and personal forgiveness. The big change was that we thought those themes would revolve exclusively around Rose and Nangabire (which, for a long time, was the working title for the film). And then along came Aimee's story. Early on, Rose hinted that there was more to Aimee's story than we knew, and as the full story was revealed, that changed the arc of the narrative. However, it did not change our original themes; rather, it enhanced them. Rose's reveal of it, both as it unfolded to us and as it unfolds in the film, also enhanced the theme of the power of talking and storytelling to heal, and added the complex question of Rose's ability to forgive herself.


IDA:  As you've screened Pushing the Elephant-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?

BD & EM: We have been very gratified to find that we have been successful in communicating the many themes of the film, and that the film has been inspiring people to ask us how they can get involved in the many political issues raised. We have also been surprised to find the many personal lenses people bring to bear on the film, and how that affects their reactions. This ranges from people finding ways to use it in their own activism that we never thought of--such as part of an African women's health initiative--to inspiring people to find forgiveness in their own lives. Following one of our screenings, one of our colleagues received a message from a friend saying that because of the film, she had found a way to forgive someone important in her own life.


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

BD: Films like Marshall Curry's Street Fight and Andrew Jarecki's Capturing the Friedmans have been very influential for me. Films like these take great risks, turning on a camera with no guarantee that a story will emerge. I admire directors who have the temerity to follow their guts. They are also great films in the degree of access they managed to maintain. What makes a family reveal their very deep, extremely dark secrets to the camera--to the public--the way the Friedmans did? A patient, persistent director. Street Fight is a terrific example of getting an audience involved in an issue they might have just glossed over in the newspaper: local politics, deep-seated corruption. It was honest and hard-hitting without being sensationalist. And Curry's faith in his subject was beautiful to watch.

EM: As part of a women's rights seminar in graduate school I saw a film called Something Like a War, by Deepa Dhanraj, about India's forced sterilization program. I think it was this film that first planted the seed in my mind regarding the power of film to educate. Years later, when I was planning a career change, I kept thinking about how that film affected me; it got my attention, made me want to take action, and stayed with me. I also really admire films that tackle difficult subjects in an unconventional way, like Byron Hurt's Beyond Beats and Rhymes. The film focuses on men in its examination of gender and culture (which seems the obvious thing to do, but somehow isn't), and because it's also a fun film with great music, reaches an audience that might not otherwise watch a film about gender dynamics. 
While we are committed to making social-justice issue films, we would both love someday to make a film like Spellbound or Wordplay, which humorously and respectfully examine quirky subcultures, or Touching the Void, which, through a nail-biting adventure story as gripping as any Hollywood extravaganza, explores human relationships, the balance of responsibility between oneself and others, and the will to live. We also aspire to make a film as aesthetically powerful and true as Rivers and Tides, perhaps the most quietly eloquent art film we've seen.

Pushing the Elephant will be screening August 6 through 12 at the IFC Center in New York City, and August 13 through 19 at the Arclight Hollywood in Los Angeles

To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Pushing the Elephant in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for Pushing the Elephant in New York, click here.