Award-winning Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha is the Media Director at Just Vision, an organisation that raises awareness of nonviolent activism in the Israel-Palestine conflict through films and outreach campaigns. Julia tells us why she got into film and shares her advice for would-be social issue documentary makers…
When did you decide you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I never expected to have a career in film. At first I was going to be a lawyer but ended up studying Middle Eastern history at Columbia University in New York and then thought I would go down an academic path. I got accepted to do a master’s at Tehran University in Iran, but when I graduated in 2003 the US had just invaded Iraq so I couldn’t get my visa. I got invited by a filmmaker to come to Egypt to intern on a project. My hope was that from Egypt I would be able to get my visa to Iran.
When I arrived and started looking through footage she had captured from the Iraq war, that was a turning point for me. I had been engaged politically against the war and saw a chance to channel my frustration. I taught myself Final Cut Pro and became the editor and writer of the film. Control Room premiered at Sundance. It was one of the highest grossing political documentaries of all times in the States and the first film with a more critical view of how American journalists had covered Iraq, so it really had an impact. I realised that documentary offered an opportunity to do a lot of the same work I wanted to do in academia, but to have a wider public
How do you find stories and people to feature in your films?
We are a team of Israelis, Palestinians, North and South Americans, with an office in east Jerusalem and full-time staff who attend demonstrations, go to communities and figure out what’s happening locally. Many of the news outlets have correspondents who are basically foreigners landing in the society. They don’t go outside the comfort zone of their editors who are stationed in London and New York and freaked out about whether they are going to sell newspapers. Anybody who has been watching the news for the last 40 years has seen the recycling of the same story – either of negotiations that break down or footage of violence – and little attention is given to civil society. We go completely beyond that scheme to a grassroots basis of finding our stories.
How should documentary filmmakers approach interviewing?
Spend a lot of time with people you are interviewing to build a relationship where they don’t feel that you’re just coming to them to extract a bite that you need to tell your story. Make sure you’re genuinely interested in their story and that what you’re going to cover is based on what you hear, not on preconceptions. If they sense they can trust you, they will open up and opening up is the most important thing for the interview.
Keep an eye out for personal stories. Often when you enter a politically charged context, people will at first want to give you a laundry list of the political complaints and the usual slogans, and sometimes you need to listen to that for a while, but encouraging people to talk personally about their stories is ultimately what’s going to interest audiences in the stories you want to tell.
Is there anything particular to keep in mind when making docs with a specific campaigning or social issue agenda?
Make sure you’re not thinking about the social change agenda and that you’re telling a good story. Find compelling people who have gone through dramatic change. Finding the arc of your film and having a beginning, middle and end where people can follow and identify with characters – that’s the most important thing. Don’t try to make your political points in your film. You can do that as part of the campaign that you launch with the film.
Be aware from the beginning which organisations could use the film and start conversations with them early on. Often filmmakers come to an issue that is very new to them. It’s important to have the humility to know that people have been working on that issue for decades. Sitting down and talking with them can be helpful in understanding how best you can tell the story.
Main image by Ben Kelmer. Second image courtesy of Just Vision.
My Neighbourhood (trailer above) is now screening at various locations. Find our more on Just Vision's website.
Watch Julia Bacha's TED Talk: Pay attention to nonviolence.
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