Meet the Filmmakers: Amanda Micheli and Isabel Vega--'La Corona (The Crown)'

Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is nominated for IDA Documentary Awards
in the Feature Documentaries and Short Documentaries categories. 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 Amanda Micheli and
Isabel Vega, directors/producers of La Corona (The Crown),
which is nominated in the short subject category.

Synopsis: The
contestants are murderers, guerillas and thieves. The runner-up
will cry when she doesn’t get the tiara, wiping her tears with
a tattooed hand. The winner will be crowned Queen, but she won’t
be invited on a press tour as a role model for young girls. Instead,
she will be escorted back to her cell. This is a beauty pageant like
no other, and it happens every year in the Women’s Penitentiary
in Bogotá, Colombia. La Corona is a character-driven
documentary that follows four inmates competing for the crown in the
annual beauty pageant of the Bogotá women’s prison.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Amanda
Micheli
: I was the photo editor of my high school newspaper and
loved the freedom the camera gave me; I could drift anywhere, from
the football locker room to the teacher's lounge, and I didn't have
to really "fit in" anywhere. As a teenager, this might have
been a desperate coping mechanism in an awkward social situation, but
somehow I managed to convert it into a meaningful career.

Isabel
Vega:
I studied
film theory at Wesleyan and was originally interested in fiction.It wasn't
until I had the opportunity to work on the HBO documentary Thin that the nonfiction world became my focus. I enjoy finding
interesting subjects and following a good story. I love the direct contact you
can have with your subjects and I am constantly learning from everyone that I
film.

IDA: What inspired you to make La
Corona (The Crown)
?

AM: My partner, Isabel, is originally from Colombia and had always
wanted to make a film there. She was developing an idea about beauty
pageants, and heard that there was a pageant in the Bogota women's
prison. She told me about this and I was instantly intrigued, so
we decided to team up and make the film together. I am always drawn
to stories about tough women and how they identify and struggle with
their femininity, so this was right up my alley!

IV: I read an article in a newspaper
about the beauty pageant in the prison and I knew that this was the story I
wanted to tell.

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

AM: As you can imagine, there was a ton of bureaucracy and we had to
constantly beg our way back into favor with the prison warden, who
was none too thrilled to have a film crew running around her jail,
but she slowly came around. Isabel did an amazing job keeping us in
good favor with everyone from the head of the prison system all the
way down to the grumpy guard on the night shift. Pretty much every
day, we had to bring a typed list of what we wanted to film to the
director's office and get her to sign it. Some days, we would
wait outside her office all day, knowing that we were missing a great
scene inside, and other days, even if she signed the paper, if a
guard inside questioned it, we got the boot. Typically, we were only
allowed to shoot a few hours at a time, so we just had to be really
patient. We were a three-woman crew—we didn't really have any
assistants unless it was a big pageant day, so once we got inside the
secure area, we had to make sure we had everything we needed—you
couldn't just run out and grab a new tape or battery, and there were
no cellphones or walkie-talkies allowed. So it was more challenging
than the average production, to be sure, and we just had to be
patient and adjust our expectations accordingly.

IV: There was a lot of red tape to deal with. No one wanted to take
responsibility for a film crew running around the prison for fear of losing
their job. We had to be extremely patient! Each day in order to get inside the
prison, we had to have a list of what we wanted to shoot signed by the warden.
Inside, we were escorted by a guard. We had to often remind ourselves that we
were guests and that any access was incredible.

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

AM: The thing that I think we all had to adjust to the most at first was
that the prison didn't really look like a prison to our eyes.
Many of the women there are very young, and they all wear street
clothing, jewelry and makeup. At first, it makes you think it's not
that tough in there, but then you find out that the reason they don't
have uniforms is because the prison can't afford them, which
puts it in a different perspective! The women are really poor, and
often have to scrape together money for basic needs that the prison
can't provide, which is tough to do from the inside, to say the
least. When we were watching dailies, we often had to struggle
with the concern that the place might not look tough enough to an
audience, but that's the amazing thing about vérité
films: You can't go in with a script in your head—“Thisis what a Colombian prison looks like!”—you have to work
with what's really there. Rather than try to drum up some predictable
prison drama, we decided to focus instead on the event of the pageant
itself and what it means for these women. We didn't really have
time to set up intricate back stories of each character or the
complex social situation in Colombia; this would have been a
challenge even for a feature film. Once we decided to embrace the
confines of the short form, the film took on a new direction as a
concise slice-of-life within an extreme environment.

IV: We originally thought we were going to do follow-ups on the lives of the
women, post-prison. However, once we started shooting and the pageant became
the structure of the film, it became clear that the story would stay within the
confines of the prison walls.

IDA: As you’ve screened La
Corona (The Crown)—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?

AM: What surprises me most is the wide range of reactions we get.
Some people find the film inspirational and fun, others find it to be
very sad—and for me, it’s really something in between
that's very bittersweet and ironic. But it doesn't matter what
we as filmmakers think; audiences will always bring something to the
film and take something different away from it as well.

IV: I
love to hear the audience cheer when the queen is announced. People are moved
by the women's stories and their joy and passion for life, despite the fact
that they are in a prison. Earlier this year we screened the film at the prison,
and it was very emotional for the inmates, particularly at the end when one of
the pageant contestants is being freed. The woman was murdered less than a year
after her release. Watching her on the screen, the women had tears running down
their cheeks.

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

AM: I am so grateful for the work that still inspires me: Robb Moss and
Ross McElwee were my mentors in college and they showed us original
prints of The Maysles, Pennebaker, Leacock, and Jeff and Joel
Kreines' high school epic Seventeen, which made me fall in
love with observational shooting. More recently, I really look up to
Steve James and (Joe) Berlinger & (Bruce) Sinofsky, but my
personal, "not-P.C.-but-always-entertaining-favorites" arePumping Iron and American Movie; I'm often more drawn
to story and character than explicit social issues in a
documentary.

IV: Maryann De Leo has been a great inspiration for me. She has
always been very supportive, and she was the one who encouraged me to
make my own film. She is an excellent storyteller, and I continue to learn from her.

As
for films, I’ve always been a fan of the Maysles. I love Grey
Gardens
. Other documentaries I love are Paris Is Burning, Capturing the Freidmans, Bus 174 and Harlan County U.S.A.. Recently I saw Man on Wire and loved it! I love character-driven stories. I’m
fascinated by the complexity of the human being.

The winning films in the Feature Documentary and Short Documentary
categories will be announced at the IDA Awards on Friday, December 5,
at the Directors Guild of America Theater, 7920 Sunset Blvd.

They will also screened the next day, December 6, as part of
DocuFest at the Eastman Kodak Screening Room, 6700 Santa Monica Blvd.

For more information about the IDA Awards, click here. For more information about DocuFest, click here.

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