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.
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.