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Meet the Filmmakers: Barney Broomfield--'Far From Gone'

By Tom White

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 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 is Barney Broomfield, director/producer/writer of Far From Gone..

Synopsis: The civil war in Congo has claimed the lives of five million people. Far From Gone is an intimate portrayal of two Congolese refugees from that war, Stephen and Boniface, who found themselves in a desolate refugee camp in Zambia after narrowly escaping from their war-torn country. For three years they were neighbors and radical preachers at their local church until Stephen was offered a new life in Europe. Far From Gone is not only a story about the breakup of a profound friendship but a rare insight into the reality facing modern-day refugees.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Barney Broomfield: The truth is, I was born into the world of documentary. It was at the National Film School in England that my folks, both documentarians themselves, first met. My mother was teaching documentary there when it was first set up, and after I popped out I was brought along to her lessons and expected to keep quiet (that was the extent of my film school experience). I became properly involved in docs right after graduating from university in the UK. After pretending to know a great deal more about DV cameras than I actually did, I was given the task of filming a motorbike trip from Kolkata, India, to London, England in the summer of 2003. The trip was organized by an Indian-based charity with the aim of raising money for an orphanage in Kolkata. After many technical mistakes and near-death experiences, this 10,000 mile journey turned into my first film, which was later picked up by National Geographic.    

IDA: What inspired you to make Far From Gone?

BB:  Many documentaries and fictional films that deal with refugees present them as objects of pity. As an audience, especially a western one, we rarely see beyond this. We have become all too accustomed to the images of skeletal and malnourished children, of bloated bellies and scenes of desperation and anguish. While these images can be effective as front-page news stories and as a means for drumming up aid and awareness, they also tend to make us a little numb and oblivious to the larger picture. When I met Stephen and Boniface, I knew that I could tell a story that would go beyond the stereotypes and perhaps change the common perceptions we (in the west) have of refugees. Yes, these two men suffered unspeakable horrors and yes, they are refugees that live in a camp with no running water or electricity. But they are not downtrodden and they are certainly not asking for pity. They are proud, full of hope, humorous and fiercely intelligent people that have seen and experienced things that would have destroyed mere mortals such as myself. I couldn't help but film them.         

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

BB:  Truth be told, I had no clue that I was going to make this film, nor did I set out with any intention of doing so; the film simply found me. In the summer of 2007 I had been approached by FORGE, a nonprofit based in California, to go to Zambia and shoot in one of the country's various refugee camps. I had no idea who the characters were or where I would shoot; nor did I have any semblance of a story. I simply knew that I was fascinated by that part of the world and that it sounded like an adventure not to be missed. A week or so after I arrived, I had a chance encounter with Stephen and Boniface (the main characters), and I knew immediately that I had a story worth telling.

During the shoot the biggest challenge was simply trying to capture everything in the limited amount of time I had to work with. From the get-go I knew that I only had roughly two weeks before Stephen left Africa for good. I realized that I had to try and get as much material as possible without smothering Stephen and Boniface and transgressing the friendship and trust that had just been established between us. The refugee camp where I was filming was enormous and there was no transportation (just bicycles), limited electricity for charging and practically no reception for phones. Compounding all this was severe weather conditions, dust, some pretty nasty snakes and insects and the fact that there were no other crew members to help with translation, sound, logging, equipment, etc. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining; I had the most amazing experience making this film, and would do it again in exactly the same way. But I can't say it was the easiest of films to make.

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

BB:  "Want what you get, don't get what you want" is a quote I have repeated over and over in my head during the making of this film. I can't remember who said it--perhaps one of the founding fathers of cinema vérité--Pennebaker, Maysles or Leacock--but it makes a lot of sense to me now. When I had finished shooting the film, I believed I had a fairly clear idea of what I had captured and what story I would be able to tell. Initially, I thought there would be multiple characters with various interviews that I would interweave with archive, and I never thought of the film as being a short. After looking at all the footage, however, it was clear that I had captured something very different and in a way, much more simple and compelling.      

IDA: As you've screened Far From Gone--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?

BB:  People are genuinely moved and fascinated by the relationship between Stephen and Boniface and the story told in the film. Many can't seem to believe that they are indeed refugees. That they speak fluent English, French, Swahili and Lingala and wear clean clothes seems at odds with what many people associate with refugees. Most audiences come out of the film and realize that they have much more in common with people from a completely different walk of life than they had previously thought.  

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

BB:  This is difficult. There are simply too many of them! I of course love all the early masters of cinema vérité--Pennebaker, Maysles, Leacock etc.--but also more recent works such as Darwin's Nightmare, Control Room, Ghosts of Cité Soleil, My Country My Country, Iraq in Fragments, Trouble the Water... The list goes on...

Far From Gone will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles. The final screening is Thursday, August 6, at 5:40 p.m.

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