When Myanmar held general elections on November 8, 2015, it was the country’s first openly contested election in 25 years. The last time open elections were held, in 1990, it resulted in a landslide victory by the National League for Democracy (NLD), a socialist and liberal democratic party led by future Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, yet the results were ignored by a military dictatorship unwilling to yield power.

In the days leading up to last year’s elections, two Canadian filmmakers were teaching a documentary workshop in Myanmar (formerly Burma). Mila Aung-Thwin, producer (Up the Yangtze) and co-founder of Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm, along with cinematographer Van Royko (Monsoon), worked with students, most of whom had little experience, on capturing the mood of the country as politicians and ordinary citizens prepared for the historic day. Moments after The Vote premiered at the New York Film Festival, Aung-Thwin and Royko sat near the reflecting pool of the Film Society of Lincoln Center to discuss how they wound up in Myanmar, their approach to collaborating with students on a collective film project, and the challenge of whittling down hours of disparate, differently purposed footage, into a potent ten-minute film.

How do you know each other, and how did you both wind up in Myanmar?

Mila Aung-Thwin: I’ve known Van since he was a film student at Concordia. He was taught by Dan Cross who started EyeSteelFilm with me. Van has been an interesting all-around cinematographer for quite a while. The Montreal filmmaking community is small enough that we’ve teamed up a lot over the years. So I’d been going to this film festival, the Human Rights film festival in Yangon, since its second year—it’s now in its fourth year. They invited me to put together a team to teach directing, cinematography and editing—sort of the overall producing of documentaries. It’s an 8-week course. And I’d go in and teach everything but directing.

Van Royko: Mila called me up and said he needed someone to teach cinematography. When we made this film, it was the second year we went to Myanmar.

Aung-Thwin: Van comes in and teaches cinematography and then I come back after they shoot for a couple of months and edit with them. It’s very intensive because you teach all day long for two weeks straight. It’s so intensive. I’d never really taught before, and Van had only taught a little bit. You’re using a translator and teaching people who, in most cases, never held cameras before. They’re in their mid-twenties. They’re very eager because there’s been no open filming in Myanmar for decades. They know visual language but documentary is brand new to them.

Royko: They’re more earnest and more serious than any student I’d seen in North America. It’s just so new. They don’t get the chance to make media, they don’t get the chance to hold cameras, so it’s just a novel experience, a very privileged experience. Many of them are chosen from the far reaches of Myanmar where there is no urban infrastructure. They come together to form a cool group.

Aung-Thwin: There’s a very high respect for teaching in general. After the uprisings and the first vote fell apart in the 90s, universities were shut down because they had fostered changed. Elementary schools and primary schools were left underfunded. Teachers weren’t paid enough. We got there and the students were so polite and attentive to everything you say. They’d bring up something you said on day one, like, “But I thought you couldn’t do jump cuts in cinema.” And you’re like, “You listened to that? That was sort of a ‘for instance.’” It was quite a privilege to teach people who wanted to learn.

Royko: But the fundamental mandate, the reason the program came into existence was because the people who started the Human Rights FF, these really seasoned filmmakers, realized the documentaries they were getting from Myanmar were not that good. The quality was really low. The question they wanted to address was: how do we have more homemade filmmaking. How do we tell our own stories? Which is basically the theme you hear all over the world right now. So they said we’re going to have to teach them ourselves. Through some connections and through Mila’s aunt who has been working there, they go a hold of Mila, which was great because Eyesteel has been a leader in integrated filmmaking and in bringing young people and marginalized people to the filmmaking process.

And so your second your session of teaching coincided with this huge national election?

Aung-Thwin: Right. They asked if we wanted to do the course again, which was scheduled for mid-November last year. And I asked, “Isn’t that when the big election that you haven’t had for years is happening?” They said yes, and that it would be really busy. No kidding. All of the students wanted to make films about the election but the teachers wanted to steer them to other things. We always push real-life filmmaking in our workshops and events. The first year we went to parking lots and shops and stuff, but this time it was election rallies. We did workshops in the midst of all of it, and it was fantastic.

Royko: When Mila originally asked me to do the workshop again, I was really busy—as was he. But when he said the elections were happening at that time, I was like, that’s pretty cool. I called him a couple of weeks before and asked him if we were going to make a film about it.

Aung-Thwin: Yet we still had to teach the hardest course in the world.

Royko: Eight hours a day. It’s insane. In this hot classroom, super humid. But we knew we wanted to tell a story about the election. We were going into it pretty quickly and you could have done it any number of ways. Every morning I would get up early, get on the train, and shoot the whole train ride. Sometimes I’d bring one of my students with me to do sound. And then we’d film in the classroom a bit. And then after the class was done, we’d go to rallies. It was two weeks of 16-hour days. We were trying to make the film but also give the kids a really good educational experience.

It’s one thing to be teaching eight hours a day, working with them on their own separate projects. It’s another thing to have them collaborate with you, to be working on a film that you’re making. That’s a different dynamic.

Aung-Thwin: We did treat it differently. We hired them after their hours and paid them. And they really dug that. For those roles we often used our year one students—especially ones we felt were being underutilized [in the industry]. We had this one girl Thu Thu who was so shy, but so talented and she wasn’t getting encouraged by the people who could give her money for her next film.

Royko: When we went back I asked about her. The film that she had shot was by far the strongest technically, and she was just so engaged. They told me she had gone back to her village. That she’s helping her dad rent apartments. I got them to call and say I had a job for her. And she was invaluable. She became kind of our second unit director. Since then it’s provided the boost she needed to just do film. In that context it might never happen again—it’s not something that seems possible without that push.

I’m glad you don’t inform the audience about the cooperation of the students until the very end, because there’s nothing “in training” about the film at all. Van, you’re such an experienced shooter, and the footage is clearly filmed at a very high level. Was there nervousness about being able to incorporate different textures of other filmmakers, at different levels of experience?

Aung-Thwin: We didn’t really have a plan…

That works too.

Aung-Thwin: Van did a fantastic job in choosing the locations and guiding the students to emulate his style to shoot scenes he wasn’t there for. At the end of it we were totally selfish: what was beautiful, what do we like. What works?

You also wound up using footage the students shot for their own projects?

Aung-Thwin: They were all doing their own films. But the storyline of the NLD, in The Vote, where you go into their headquarters—that came from our students from the year before who were already trying to make their own film on that candidate. So we helped out, piggybacked and brought students along. Another student was working on the disenfranchised students who couldn’t vote. So we sort of just looked at the mixture of our year one students and year two students as ways of us to get into already developing stories. A large part of the process was them just showing us everything, showing us the food, showing us the streets. I was showing them what I knew about shooting and they were bringing me into the city. That was a fundamental part of how we integrated them into the film. Those films they made were partially influenced by us but the whole thing was just an entire give and take process.

Royko: We had a lot of really great stories going on, but at the end of the day, we were making a ten-minute film, so that dictated a lot of what had to go. It was a difficult process.

But you weren’t always aiming for ten minutes. Can you talk about earlier versions of the film, and how it wound up at the length and shape it now has?

Aung-Thwin: The first version was quite long and was all about the students and their process. It was more in an interview style and then we’d cut to what was happening. You’d see the kids shooting. It was a different style of movie. I showed that version to the kids and they loved it, but in some ways it’s its own portrait of the school. And it was four times as long. One thing we realized is how little people knew of the political situation in Burma. We were immersed and felt saturated by the news, but you realize it’s only your friends in Burma who are talking about all of this. People who saw the film here didn’t even know there was a dictatorship! What I experienced was a film made in their context, but not in the context of the world. People were like, wow—there was a woman put under house arrest, and then she won the Nobel Prize, and then she won (the election)? So we had to get back to that.

Royko: As much as I liked that film, that more didactic film we’d made, I’ve always prized the mode that is more ephemeral, more experiential. Most of the cutting went on when I wasn’t around. When I first saw the cut, I felt like it didn’t make any sense. I was kind of depressed.

Aung-Thwin: You should hear Van talk about the films that he wants to make. They are so abstract. The notes we got from Field of Vision were pretty cool in helping us sculpt this version. They were like Kung-Fu masters who’d just say: “Try this.” And you’d try it and change something and it sort of developed into a different film.

Royko: It brought us to the film we wanted to make.

Aung-Thwin: People give so many notes on editing but they don’t have a frame of reference with all the footage. If you can just give a subtle note, without the solution, then you [the filmmaker] have to go back and examine your assumptions.

And only you can do that work.

Aung-Thwin: Just tell me what’s not working and give me a little hint.

Royko: It sounds so good in retrospect, but when you get that note, you’re like, “What the fuck?”

Aung-Thwin: Another nice element is that our editor Ryan Mullins did the workshops [in Myanmar] with us too. Then he spent months editing this ten-minute film. When Van suggested we shoot the election, I wrote to AJ that day and he said that sounds amazing—go for it. So we came back with all this footage a year ago. I thought there would be this quick turnaround, right after the election. And that did not happen.

Royko: I think it serves the piece better. It’s not really about the news. It’s not about the results. It’s a political mood piece, if there’s such a thing. It’s a portal. You get to go into a space in time during this monumental moment. It’s a privileged place to be.

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Director Yi Seung-Jun and producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam are the dynamic filmmaking duo behind In the Absence, a World Press Photo award-winning short about the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea.

In the Absence begins on April 16, 2014, the day the MV Sewol, a passenger ferry carrying over 400 people—including school children—sank near Jeju Island. Over 300 people lost their lives that day. In the wake of this horrific incident, people across South Korea, including those whose loved ones had perished, sought transparency and accountability from national authorities. Years later, these families and their supporters are still fighting for answers for what happened on that fateful April morning.

In the Absence, which began production in 2017, combines intimate interviews with victims’ families, survivors, and rescue divers with breathtaking archival footage and audio recordings obtained from the South Korean authorities. The result is a compelling yet compassionate story of the people whose lives were forever changed by this tragedy.

In the Absence premiered at DOC NYC in 2018, where it won the grand jury prize in the festival’s shorts competition and later screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). The film also took home first prize at this year’s World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Contest for Long Form. Shortly after, The New Yorker published In the Absence on its website and YouTube channel, where it has garnered over 1 million views. You can also watch the film on our website here.

Yi and Kam recently spoke to Field of Vision about choosing to make this ambitious and galvanizing film, how the conversation around Sewol has changed in the last five years, and much more.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you decide to make a film about the Sewol ferry disaster?

Yi Seung-Jun: It was a Wednesday morning in 2014 when I first heard through the media that a ferry was sinking. At first, it seemed quite serious. Most of the passengers were high school students on their school trip. I was wishing that no one died or got seriously hurt. Soon, a news report came out that all the passengers were rescued, which turned out to be not true.

In the afternoon of that day, I watched TV news, which said more than half of the passengers were still trapped in the ferry, which was already under the water.

Since then, we heard about the ferry sinking every day, and many of the students seemed to be dead. It was really shocking and sad. My colleague directors visited the harbor closest to the site. They thought there must be something [suspicious] regarding the government’s reaction, and that something was being hidden by the government as well as by the mainstream media.

I was suggested by one of the directors to join the team, but at that time I was busy editing my feature documentary. Moreover, I did not think that I could press the record button in front of the enormous sorrow and fury of the victims’ or missing students’ families. When I saw any teenagers wearing school uniforms in a bus, on the street, I burst into tears without realizing.

From October 2016 to March 2017, there were a series of Candle Protests in South Korea, calling for the resignation of then-president Park Geun-hye. Millions of people, including myself, took part in the protests.

It was at the end of 2016 when Field of Vision contacted me, asking if I was interested in making a short, cinematic documentary about any story related to the protests, or the then-current situation. I talked with my producer, Gary, and we suggested the story of the Sewol ferry disaster to Field of Vision, how the disaster was connected to the protest, and why people were so angry about the handling and attitude of the government about the disaster.

It’s been almost three years, but still the victims’ families and the civilian divers were living in pain, with the truth still not revealed. However, some people made those arguments: we should not talk about the disaster anymore, the victims’ families have got enough compensation, let’s forget about it, do not make use of the disaster politically, and so on.

I came to think that if there is still broadly rooted pain in there, then we need to go back to the time when the pain had begun. We need to look at it and find out what caused the pain, and where it had started. That is why I decided to make this film.

Gary Byung-Seok Kam: I had this weird experience about six months before the tragedy happened. I got an email from an American producer who was ready to make a documentary about a mysterious photographer called Ahae. He described himself as a sportsman, post-structuralist photographer, artist, and nature lover. I was really, really curious about him. So I started to do some research. Later it came out that he was the owner of the ferry company.

The next year, in April, actually, while I’m still doing research, I actually booked [the Sewol ferry] with my partner. It is the only ferry from Seoul to Jeju Island. But the last page [on the website] was all broken. The next day, one of my friends said, "Oh, why bother to go all the way by motorbike? You can just send the motorbike [via airplane]."

So I had second thoughts. I just booked an airplane. The next day, before I went out, I saw news that the ferry was sinking. For a moment, I had goosebumps all over my body. I realized that that was the ferry that I booked.

You're saying that you were almost on that boat? But by some chance happening, you weren't?

GK: Yes. Only two people among the victims’ families know this. Because I could never tell them that I was lucky and didn't get on. After that moment, I always felt that I needed to do something.

First of all, I didn't like the way the media treated the tragedy in general. Three months before Field of Vision approached [the film’s director Seung-Jun Yi], actually one of the victims’ family members contacted me, asking if I'd be interested in looking into all this.

So we had a talk. I just told them, “I'm sorry, I'm not capable of finding out the truth, not at this moment, but I will find out.” The government definitely deserves the criticism, but I just want to take one step back and see. It was just too emotional.

[The victim’s family member] liked the idea. We kept developing the idea, not in a hurry. Then Field of Vision contacted Seung-Jun, so Seung-Jun and I discussed. He knew that I had started thinking about a Sewol documentary. We had a long talk. The Candle Protest itself is a great subject, but it's too deep for a short documentary. So we both thought that the Sewol case could also be a strong subject as it was one of the main issues that brought people to join the Candle Protest.

The film is very, very meaningful for, and also to the victims’ family association. Even though it was a really tragic story, they are very happy that the story gets to be shared with a global audience, a bigger audience.

I actually wanted to touch a bit on that. So the film has been shown at several festivals. It's now online at the New Yorker and also on our site. So what has it been like to share this particular story with a larger international—and now digital—audience? What has that been like for you, for Seung-Jun, for the families?

GK: First of all, the victims’ family association—the families—they are very, very happy. I met them right after the New Yorker’s YouTube video hit more than a million [views]. So I told them that happened. They were very, very happy. And they were very surprised. It seemed that most of the comments were written in English. I was sitting with them in a café, and I read the comments. They were moved, and they were pleased to find that the comments were from all different countries, and are actually not so different from what they have gotten from Korean audiences. They were glad that the pain they are going through, the tragedy caused by the incompetence of parliament could be actually [communicated] well with a bigger audience. It's not that they want to be an object of pity. They want people to know what happened.

Any innocent, ordinary citizen of any society could fall victim to tragedy. That's what the [families] want to tell [the world]. That's why every citizen [should] want to show more interest in the safety and regulations for the society, any society. That's what they wanted. They wanted to convert the tragedy into a platform for every society.

Do you think that public discourse around the Sewol atrocity has changed in the last five years? If so, how?

YS: As far as I know, public discourse has not changed a lot. I mean, there were already people who disliked to talk about this issue. Most of them were supporters of the then-government, the then-president and the ruling conservative party. And politicians put a kind “scarlet letter” on anyone, any media, any group, any politician who supported the victims’ families, who criticized the government’s reactions. The yellow ribbon is the symbol of the slogan, “Do not forget the day: April 16th, 2014.” People used to put a yellow ribbon sticker on their cars. I also used to put a yellow ribbon sticker on the rear window of my car. Once, a man asked me what it was and he said it’s better to take it down. I asked why, and he just said, “Well… it is not good to put this ribbon on.” That was it. I was lucky because he did not keep asking. However, there have been people who insulted the victims’ families or were aggressive with people who support the victims’ families, the civilian divers, etc. Their attitude has not changed at all.

But the media has changed after the power shift, I mean, after the then-president, Park Geun-Hye resigned from her office, and the opposite party candidate became the new president of South Korea.The attitude of media has changed. Most of the mainstream media were with the then-government. They did not report the issue well. They wanted to hide as much as possible. But due to the power shift, mainstream media began dealing with many kinds of stories related to the ferry sinking disaster. This project was supported by the governmental fund, and I applied for the fund after the then-president resigned from her office. It would not have been possible to get funded if it were under the previous government.

GK: We cannot treat this as a car accident. We have to find out who's still [accountable]. At this moment, only one person [has been charged]: the captain of a patrol boat. So the families, and those who support these families, they demand justice. Not as revenge, but without setting a good example of punishment or taking responsibility, there won’t be a first step to be a better society in the future.

In the Absence features a lot of archival footage and audio from a variety of sources. There's stuff from broadcast TV, conversations between government officials, and the crew on the ship, cell phone videos from school children on the ship, and so on. Can you tell me about the process of finding those materials and then deciding which pieces of footage or audio to use? Because it seemed like there was such a large set of data that you were able to pull from.

YS: As I said, some of my director colleagues had been filming the situation after the ferry sinking, establishing the 416 Documenting Group. The aim of the group was not only to make their own film or TV program related to the disaster but also to support other directors making documentaries regarding the issue. I talked with them about this project, and they eagerly decided to support this project. They’ve already got tons of footage, some were filmed by them, some were obtained with the help of media, congressmen, et cetera. We were provided with all of that footage. And the cell phone videos provided by the association of the victims’ families, with their permission.

When I looked through all of the footage, I first decided to make a timeline of the incident itself, to make the audience feel what was going on on that day.

GK: The most important thing was to secure the footage from the actual Coast Guard choppers, the patrol boat footage, and also all the conversations among government agencies. Actually, that was only distributed to major broadcasters, just for some parts for the news report. As independent filmmakers, it was extremely difficult for us to secure the footage, but the family association really helped us in contacting one of the congressmen. He was a very well known human rights lawyer. He represented the family association for a long time, and later was elected as a congressman.

Through his office, we could secure the footage and the government recordings. We contacted the broadcasters, and they refused to share footage with us. So the only possible way was to have someone in parliament help us clear that copyright issue. The government will never raise any questions with copyright issues to Congress. So that's how we secured most of the footage.

I wanted to transition into asking you about the film having these really incredible moving interviews with the victims’ families as well as a few of the divers. What was it like to film with them? How did you gain their trust?

YS: The association of the victims’ families decided to support this project officially. We always discussed what to film and whom to interview with the association. One of the most important rules of mine on the shooting location is to try not to [impose]. I just let my characters be there, stay as they are, move as they want. Then I just keep observing them, capturing important moments or emotions as they are. Through this process, characters do not feel bothered, and I do believe that it helps me to gain the characters’ trust.

GK: At the time, many family members were about to go to an island very close to where the ferry sank. There are no hotels or anything, only several private residents of fishermen. It's only two kilometers away from the mainland. We were allowed to join, not knowing where to stay, what to eat… And we ended up staying on a floor, and spent two days on the island with many family members.

It was really depressing, first of all, to watch them because—especially the fathers—no one could sleep without drinking. Some were drinking two liters of Korean vodka [each night]. At the same time some were very hostile to journalists—any camera. They felt they had been betrayed by journalists for many years, for almost three years.

When the Sewol ferry was brought into the port [at Jindo], we once again stayed three days [with the family]. We did the same thing. We didn't ask anything.

The family members took turns watching [the port] because they didn't trust the government [to not remove evidence]. They set up a watchtower. At least three to five people, family members, were always on the island at once for three years.

What was it like for you and Seung-Jun to be around so much grief and pain throughout this whole process? How did it change your perspective on the incident and in general?

GK: I am sure that Seung-Jun had a more stressful time, but for me, I have this strong feeling of responsibility to do something for them, and making a film and making their story into a documentary was the only thing I could do for them. And also watching their grief, anger, and frustration, actually, as a filmmaker, it was a great lesson. That makes me think again about how we as filmmakers should treat the people in pain, when we hold the camera or when we want to make stories; to be respectful and hold that distance. Seung-Jun was the only independent filmmaker the family allowed to get in [to the port]. After a family member managed to get a personal look at the salvaged ferry and then came out of the gate, this TV cameraperson ran to her and put the camera right in her face. One of the fathers shouted and swore at camera, "Are you happy? Are you happy that you could shoot this woman crying and in pain? This is what you want?"

When the mothers came out of the gate, Seung-Jun just [fell] back. We moved aside just enough to get the whole scene.

What do you hope future audiences will learn, gain, or feel when watching this film?

YS: We, human beings, are vulnerable to “time.” As time goes on, we forget many things. Time makes us dull. It is like a black hole absorbing our [emotions]. Isn’t it scary to become dull? I want people to remember the day, remember what happened on that day and what was going on, what we told each other. And I hope people do not forget that if some system fails to operate correctly, it results in terrible pain in the end. The pain might not be curable. Please wake up and keep your eyes on [those responsible].

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François Verster and Simon Wood are South Africa-based filmmakers and the directors of Scenes from a Dry City, a new Field of Vision short about the water crisis in Cape Town.

The film looks at the terrifying march towards “Day Zero,” when the city’s water taps will be turned off due to prolonged drought, from a variety of perspectives, including: car washers, anti-privatization protesters, Christians praying for rain in a mass service, and well-to-do golfers on a lush private course. These vignettes are juxtaposed with images of a drought-stricken reservoir and the network of canals that carry an ever-decreasing trickle of water to Cape Town. Though “Day Zero” has reportedly been postponed, the core issues explored in the film—namely race, class, access, and privilege—remain relevant.

Scenes from a Dry City premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2018 and later screened at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Mini-Doc Award. Verster and Wood recently spoke to Field of Vision about their award-winning film, what it was like to blend their filmmaking styles, and what they hope audiences will glean from their work.

What inspired you to make a film about the water crisis in Cape Town?

François Verster: Simon and I both live in Cape Town. At the beginning of last year, the public were suddenly receiving warnings that the taps may be turned off, and predictions were being made, ranging from exploding sewerage pipes to typhoid epidemics to social insurrection. Many wealthier Capetonians actually left the city for Johannesburg, the supermarkets ran out of bottled water after panic ensued, people started stockpiling, and there was a general sense of simply not knowing how life would proceed should there be no water. The government issued photos of water distribution points, which would be controlled by the army and would mean queues of tens of thousands of people every day. The public was asked to befriend elderly neighbors and to assist them when the time comes. Schools issued warnings of possible closure.

We were both intrigued by the way hidden social dynamics were coming to the fore in the process, and we both saw a great opportunity for a film that looked at Cape Town through the vehicle of a crisis that went across the board. I had made a film called Sea Point Days that consisted of vignettes of life in a specific part of the city, and Simon had made a film called Orbis, which uses powerful single visual scenes as a medium for storytelling. And we both felt that the situation presented a golden opportunity to deliver a highly creative insight into the bigger societal issues we have explored in our other films. I was in discussion with various people about doing something, and when the opportunity to do something for Field of Vision came up it totally made sense, both because of the urgent timeline and because of being able to contain a very big subject in a tight, limited form.

Simon Wood: Every man and his dog wanted to make a film about Cape Town being the first major city to run out of water last year. Most of these films were expository documentaries positioned around a sensationalist armageddon. I am not and never will be an environmental impact, social justice type of filmmaker. I saw an opportunity to use water as a lens to explore societal dynamics in a place which is rife with inequality. Thematically, I was interested in nature’s indifference to man, which allows the film to use water a neutral device to travel though Cape Town’s surreal maddening at the hands of a disinterested mother nature.

How did this collaboration come about? Had you worked together before?

Verster: We have been consulting on each other’s films and also developing a film called Zephany: The Hidden One together for some time. Because of the urgency involved in doing something on the water crisis, and because there were so many facets to cover, it made sense to try to work with another director. We at one point considered making a longer film that involved different directors from different parts of Cape Town, but in the end the short documentary form worked out very well for us.

Wood: François is South Africa’s greatest observational filmmaker, so I was obviously really keen to work with him! My films have been driven primarily by a strong visual aesthetic and less concerned with narrative, so I thought if we collaborated it would be an interesting clash of documentary personas, and by God it was! Oddly, I think the film works best when it intercuts between our separate styles: the golf scene in the empty canal, filmed by me, blends really well with François’s observation of the protest march. I hope these contrasting styles, opinions, ideas lead to something unsettling that connects with a broader idea around perception and reality.

You discuss showing not only the environmental impact but also the social and economic impact of the drought. Why did you think it was important to show those aspects as well?

Verster: I am primarily a social documentary filmmaker, so the human side, which is of course inseparable from environmental issues anyway, was always the entry point for me. As mentioned, the threat of water running out had a profound impact on Capetonians’ existential sense—it was as if society had been prodded in such a way so as to reveal both its fault lines and, perhaps also, its strengths and positive characteristics. In many ways Cape Town’s spatial geography is a monument to Apartheid planning, and now municipal resources are applied highly unequally across the city’s population. What was also illuminating was how many wealthier people would, for example, vocally complain about how car wash operations in the poor townships were wasting water, without any acknowledgement of the fact that in many of those areas a single tap could be serving an entire street. Or of the structural economic advantages involved in being able to dig well points or boreholes to keep gardens and swimming pools going in the wealthier areas. The water crisis cost the region over 30,000 jobs in the agriculture and tourism sectors, and of course the poorer employees were the first to go. The cost of municipal water itself shot up, and this was of course much harder for poorer households to accommodate. In the wealthiest areas, some house-owners continued watering their lawns as before, opting to pay the hefty fines—because they had the funds to do so—rather than saving water. On the other hand, there was also a very positive sense of people pulling together across race and class barriers towards a common cause.

Wood: I guess because people from privileged backgrounds, myself included, love to bang on about the environment, whilst for the majority of people in South Africa the main concern is how they will be able to provide for themselves and their families on a daily basis. These raw realities are somehow ignored and rarely discussed.

What was the process for gaining access for the ride-along with a member of local law enforcement that is featured in the film?

Verster: We had a very good relationship with Cape Town’s city police and had filmed with them a number of times before filming the chase sequencer in the film. The city was fairly open about what they were doing and the police in general, to our mind, seemed to want to cooperate with both the media and with the bigger debates that were going on. Yet it felt very strange and unsettling to be driving around in a police car filming people being booked for washing cars or watering their gardens, particularly in a place that has so many massive other societal problems.

Wood: I had been on several water operations with the police before I shot the car washer chase scene. It was fortunate that I was interviewing the officer in the car as the situation unfolded: the police officers in front of us were in an unmarked car and pulled up to the illegal car wash and all hell broke loose as they jumped out and tried to arrest the guys. It did feel fairly surreal to put so much effort into chasing men who were trying to make a day’s wage by washing cars. Everyone felt fairly deflated after the guys were arrested. But I think the film offers a not impossible view of a future where water is a precious entity and governments will fight to control it.

Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult to shoot due to issues of access, timing, et cetera?

Verster: We were hoping to film more of the excessive use of water by certain richer Capetonians. For example, we had planned to film how farmers—who have water concessions from government—deliver water by truck to private swimming pool owners. In an area close to where I live, a massive multi-apartment complex that boasts fourteen brand new swimming pools has just been constructed, which seems crazy given that the general understanding has been that private pools are no longer a luxury Cape Town can afford. Even municipal pools have been threatened with closure. But because of the sensitivity around this kind of abuse of privilege it was not possible, in the time span we had, to arrange access to filming this.

Wood: The film uses water as a vehicle to travel though Cape Town, so it was really important to me that this journey had a strong aesthetic. I spent a lot of time searching for strong compositional moments in different landscapes: I filmed in underground water tunnels, dams, rivers, under bridges, and obviously underwater. When the golfer got into the empty canal to play the shot, I hadn’t taken a weekend off in two months. It was a Sunday, and my partner Meghna was pissed off that I decided to spend the afternoon filming in an empty canal. I had been wandering around that space for two hours when he nearly hit me with his ball. It’s a rare moment where a really bad golf shot landed in an amazing location whilst the sun was in the right part of the sky, and the right lens was on my camera creating a beautiful compositional observational moment of which I am very proud and makes the many weekends and pissed-off wife all seem worth it. Annoyingly, because it’s a beautiful shot, people think its staged or fake, I promise you it isn’t.

Why did you choose to make a short film instead of a feature-length film about this particular subject?

Verster: As before, this was largely because of the time factor involved and also because the opportunity to make a piece for Field of Vision offered something altogether new for me. I have not made many short documentaries before and have generally tended to be skeptical about them in the sense that one cannot be immersed in a world or in a process in the way I usually associate with the documentary films I value. Yet once we started working, the relative freedoms allowed by the form became a source of genuine joy. I was amazed at how one can combine elements without needing the same amount of exposition, development or even justification. Switches of mode or tone can be made very rapidly. For example, when we get back to the car washers, the real sound environment is cut out and we move to a trickling-water sound, which we thought of as the “essence” of water in auditory form, accompanied by a bass rumble. The film somehow completely changes into something else right there - and we look at subsequent scenes very differently. My idea of documentary is that its value lies exactly in being able to combine different realities, modes of looking, even modes of reality in one space, and the short film somehow makes doing so a lot easier.

Wood: To quote Werner Herzog who combatively believes we must divorce documentary from mere investigative journalism and that the “fly-on-the-wall” approach is for “losers,” he puts it eloquently when he states: “Only by imagining and by creating and by fantasizing and bringing in deep dreams, all of a sudden puts you into a position where you start to see something deeper. You notice something that stays within you forever.” This is genuinely what I strive for, and I believe it’s far easier to take chances, present dreams and fantasies within a short film than it is a feature where we often slaves to narrative devices and economic pressures.

What do you hope people gain from watching Scenes from a Dry City?

Verster: I hope that the film works on various levels. Firstly, we would of course like to draw attention to the crisis itself, and to the social issues that are brought to the fore by it, and to how what is happening here might be a harbinger of future situations elsewhere in the world. Cape Town does have a specific set of circumstances, but it does seem as if what we experienced last year is going to become commonplace around the world. The debates around political responsibility, alternative water sources—such as desalination plants—socio-economic rights, privatization and so on are by no means resolved, and it would be good for different centers to engage on how problems are or are not being resolved. But the film also aims to work at a more existential level. One guiding idea we had was to try to think through what it would mean to see things from the perspective of water itself, one that is indifferent yet central to existence and binding everything together. The hope was that this would then also open up a different kind of look: one that is visual, emotional, perhaps at some level philosophical—at the very tough debates on race and economics raging in the country over the past few years—in a way, both the harsh divisions as well as the connectedness of Cape Town’s human population are revealed. And then of course, we wanted all of this to function partly through the cinematic qualities of the film, so that people have an experience of aesthetic beauty, or at least power, which allows a different—and possibly, at a push, deeper—kind of political engagement with reality at hand.

Wood: Beautiful! I’d like to end the interview by saying I agree with François.

Watch Scenes from a Dry City on Field of Vision.

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Field of Vision announces today a new fellowship and its first-ever artist-in-residence. 

The Field of Vision fellowship is a year-long, collaborative program designed to support filmmakers in achieving their long-term artistic goals. The four 2018 Field of Vision fellows are: director Garrett Bradley (AloneBelow Dreams); director, actor, and activist Michelle Latimer (RiseChoke); filmmaker Charlie Lyne (Fish StoryBeyond Clueless); and Lyric Cabral, director of the Emmy-winning documentary (T)error.

“We are establishing this fellowship program to support filmmakers beyond project-based commissions, and to invite artists to collaborate in our editorial process," said Field of Vision executive producer Laura Poitras.  

The first year of fellows were selected from filmmakers who had worked with Field of Vision over the last three years. In addition to creating a framework for idea development, creative support, and a grant, Field of Vision will conduct workshops throughout the year in the areas of digital security, research, and legal issues. Fellows will also be invited to participate in Field of Vision’s editorial process, from identifying urgent stories to offering filmmaker feedback and guidance.

“We have wanted to support filmmakers in as many ways as possible since the beginning of Field of Vision,” said executive producer Charlotte Cook. “We are so thrilled to create these fellowships to be able to collaborate further with these incredible artists, all of whom are visionaries whose work is at the forefront of exploring the ways of combining art and storytelling and expanding the form.”

In addition to the four fellows, Field of Vision and First Look Media are jointly supporting data artist Josh Begley as an artist-in-residence in 2018. On staff at The Intercept since 2014, Begley has regularly collaborated with the publication’s co-founder Jeremy Scahill on multiple projects, including The Drone Papers. Begley’s first project as artist-in-residence is Concussion Protocol, a short film made with footage of all reported concussions sustained in the NFL this season. It has been viewed over 1.6 million times. 

January was a landmark month for Field of Vision. Yance Ford’s Strong Island, made with support from Field of Vision, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, marking the first nomination for an openly transgender director. 

Five Field of Vision-supported documentaries also screened at Sundance Film Festival, and three received special jury awards: Steve Maing’s Crime + Punishment; RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening; and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Our New President

Founded in 2015, Field of Vision has funded over 70 shorts and provided support for 10 feature documentaries. Field of Vision is the recipient of the International Documentary Association’s Best Short Form Series award and a News and Documentary Emmy nomination. 

About the Fellows:

Garrett Bradley

Garrett Bradley is a New Orleans-based filmmaker. Her debut feature documentary,Below Dreams, premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Her work has been exhibited in several prominent venues, including the Getty Museum, Hammer Museum, Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Festival du Nouveau Cinema Montreal, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Rooftop Films, New Orleans Film Festival, Hot Docs, and SXSW. Her short film Alone (Sundance 2017), which was released as part of the New York Times’s Op-Docs series, won a Sundance Jury Award and was shortlisted for an Academy Award. She has received fellowships from the Sundance Institute, Ford Foundation, and Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Garrett is also the co-founder of Creative Council, an artist-led afterschool program that helps high school students develop strong portfolios and applications for college. She currently teaches filmmaking at Loyola University.

Recent Field of Vision films: Like (SXSW 2016), The Earth is Humming (to be released)

Lyric Cabral

Director Lyric R. Cabral creates investigative work that exposes new information for the public record. Cabral’s directorial debut (T)error won an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Documentary and was hailed by Variety as "a vital exposé.” (T)error has screened at more than 50 film festivals worldwide and is now available on Netflix. Lyric is a recipient of the International Documentary Association’s Emerging Filmmaker Award and has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. A current Rockwood/ Just Films Fellow, Lyric is a former Sundance Women in Film Fellow and a veteran of Sundance Institute’s Edit Lab and Creative Producing Lab. Prior to making films, Lyric worked as an editorial photojournalist; her photography was recently on exhibit in Gordon Parks: The Making of An Argument at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.

Recent Field of Vision film: The Rashomon Effect (in production)

Michelle Latimer

Michelle Latimer (Métis/Algonquin) is a Toronto-based writer, director, activist, and actor. Her body of work includes Choke (Sundance 2011), which received a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Honorable Mention in International Short Filmmaking and was chosen as one of TIFF Canada’s Top Ten in 2012; The Underground (TIFF 2014); Nimmikaage (Oberhausen 2016); the feature-length documentary ALIAS, which was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award; and the Viceland docuseries Rise (Sundance 2017). Michelle is currently working on her first dramatic feature The Freedom Project, adapting the bestselling novel The Inconvenient Indian (HBO/NFB) for screen, and being the showrunner for the seriesRed Nation Rising, which is in development for Sienna. She has programmed for ImagineNATIVE, Hot Docs Film Festival, and the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.

Recent Field of Vision film: Nuuca (TIFF 2017, Sundance 2018)

Charlie Lyne

Charlie Lyne is a filmmaker and film critic, best known for the essay films Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself. He has also directed a number of shorts, including the award-winning documentary Fish Story, and the 10-hour protest film Paint Drying. His work has screened at festivals including Sundance, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and SXSW.

Recent Field of Vision film: Personal Truth (IDFA 2017)

About the Artist-in-Residence:

Josh Begley

Josh Begley is a data artist and app developer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the creator of Metadata+, an iPhone app that tracks U.S. drone strikes. Begley’s work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, The Intercept, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Recent Field of Vision films: Best of Luck with the Wall (Doc Stories 2016, True/False 2017), Concussion Protocol

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American football is a beautiful sport. There’s a tremendous amount of grace that goes into it. For a moment, men can fly; the highlight reels are spectacular.

It can also be horrific — like watching someone get hit by a car.

Since the season started, there have been more than 280 concussions in the NFL. That is an average of 12 concussions per week. Though it claims to take head injuries very seriously, the National Football League holds this data relatively close. It releases yearly statistics, but those numbers are published in aggregate, making it difficult to glean specific insights.

I have been tracking these injuries all season. Using a variety of methods, including reviewing daily injury reports from NFL.com, I have created what I believe is the most complete dataset of individual concussions sustained during the 2017-2018 season.

The resulting film, “Concussion Protocol,” is a visual record of every concussion in the NFL this year.

This film does not make an argument for ending football. Rather, it invites a set of questions. In the spirit of Saidiya Hartman, I am interested in “defamiliarizing the familiar.”

When we watch American football, what are we seeing?

By cutting together only these scenes of injury — moments of impact, of intimacy, of trauma — and reversing them, I hope to open up a space to see some of this violence anew.

In his recent book “Black and Blur,” Fred Moten asks, “What is it to rewind the given? What is it to wound it? What is it to be given to this wounding and rewinding?”

Representing this series of collisions in reverse — and in slow motion or “dragged time” — I hope to make strange what has for many of us become normative: the spectacular, devouring moment of a football hit that knocks a player out cold.

Rather than making a film about concussions with a flurry of hard hits, however, I am interested — inspired by Hartman — in looking elsewhere. How might we see the totality of this violence without just replaying the violence itself? “By defamiliarizing the familiar,” Hartman writes in “Scenes of Subjection,” “I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.”

In a moment when black athletes are being chastised for kneeling in protest of police violence, it should not be lost on us that calls to “get back on the field” or “stick to football” are also calls for players to subject themselves to the slower forms of violence the football field contains.

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Field of Vision is debuting their new film, A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN by Marshall Curry.

A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN (Dir. Marshall Curry)

In 1939, twenty-thousand Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism – an event largely forgotten from American history. A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN uses striking archival fragments recorded that night to transport modern audiences into this disturbing gathering. With chilling resonance in light of events in Charlottesville and around the country, the film is a reminder about the power that far-right ideology once had in America and a wakeup call about the importance of to addressing it today.

From Field of Vision Co-Founders:

Laura Poitras: "When Marshall approached us with the film two days after Charlottesville, my first thought was, 'we need to put this film in cinemas,' and release it like a newsreel."

Charlotte Cook: “When Marshall first showed us this footage we were stunned. We felt that due to this political climate it was essential to get this film out fast, but also that to do so we needed to try a different style of distribution. By playing in theatres across the country first we hope this the film will be able to reach beyond our usual audience, and into a range of communities and cities around the US. Creating a conversation around the film from the ground up. It’s extremely exciting to be able to do this with Marshall, a filmmaker we’ve been wanting to work with for a long time. And this film is so incredibly well, and thoughtfully, made. We can’t wait for people to see it.”

On Sunday September 24, the film will be shown across the country at 22 screens in Alamo theaters in:

Kansas City

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/american-assassin

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/it-2017

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/kingsman-the-golden-circle

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/mother

Yonkers

https://drafthouse.com/yonkers/show/3-d-rarities

https://drafthouse.com/yonkers/show/solaris-4k-restoration

San Francisco

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/ingrid-goes-west

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/beach-rats

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/infinity-baby

Brooklyn

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/zardoz

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/dunkirk

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/good-time

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/mother

Austin Lakeline

Austin Mueller

Austin Ritz

Austin Slaughter

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/mother

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/grindhouse

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/stronger

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/the-big-sick

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/brads-status

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/tough-guy-cinema-repo-man

The film is also playing at the IFC Center in New York until Friday playing before the 12:30pm showing of “The Unknown Girl."

The film will be part of a special event at the NYFF, and more festivals to come, along with an online release.

About Marshall Curry: MARSHALL CURRY is a two-time Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker. His film, “Street Fight,” follows Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, NJ and was nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy. His follow up documentary, “Racing Dreams” tells the story of two boys and a girl who live in rural America and dream of one day racing in NASCAR. It won numerous awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and aired on PBS and the BBC. His third film, “If a Tree Falls, a Story of the Earth Liberation Front” peels back the layers of a radical environmental group that the FBI called the number one domestic terrorist group in the United States. That film won the award for Best Documentary Editing at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to be nominated for an Oscar. Marshall was Executive Producer and an additional editor of “Mistaken For Strangers,” a comedy rock-doc about indie band, The National. Most recently Marshall directed and edited “Point and Shoot,” a documentary about a young Baltimore native who set out on a 30,000-mile motorcycle trip through Northern Africa and the Middle East and wound up joining the rebels in Libya fighting Gaddafi. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and was released in theaters and aired on PBS and the BBC. Marshall is a graduate of Swarthmore College where he studied Comparative Religion and has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Duke, Columbia, NYU, and other colleges. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.

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