By Jonathan Marlow
September 2, 2005 - 5:23 AM PDT
In these days of penguins and politics, it's easy to forget that documentaries were once an extreme rarity in theaters. With Hoop Dreams, Steve James helped prove audiences would turn out for a great story, regardless of genre. Jonathan Marlow talks with James about how his latest, Reel Paradise, is unlike any film he's worked on before.
When you went into doing this film in Fiji, you had just come off of doing the mini-series The New Americans?
For the series, we gathered together five filmmakers or filmmaker teams who each documented a story of an immigrant or refugee over a period of years. In most cases, we started with them in their country of origin or, in the case of Nigerian story, which is the one I actually directed, we started in a refugee camp. Then we followed them over a period of years, coming to America where they settled different parts of the country. Then we took these stories, which represented 1,100 hours of material, and we distilled it into a seven-hour mini-series where we interwove these five different stories.
Your typical way of working, arguably your ideal way of working, is to shoot a great deal of footage and then cut it down. Obviously, with Reel Paradise, you didn't have that luxury since you were shooting for essentially a month. Was there ever any concern that nothing of interest would happen in that month that you could really structure a film around?
I certainly had that concern going in. Because on Hoop Dreams, on Stevie and on New Americans, all of those projects were films that were shot over a period of years, up to four or five years. While I was excited about the prospect of only filming for a month, for a lot of reasons that you could imagine, I was fearful, nervous about that. I remember telling John in emails, because that was the only way we would communicate leading up to me going to Fiji, I remember saying to him, "I'm not sure that this film will be like the other films, in the sense that there will be a lot of vérité moments; this may be a film that's going to be much more interview-driven - talking about your experience, talking about what it's been like to be in Fiji." He emailed me back, "What do you mean? Why can't it have vérité scenes?" I said, "Well, because I don't know in a month how much is going to happen." It's a very short window. I think as it turned out, it was a pretty action-packed month.
Let me guess - you were behind the robbery...
Yes, of course, you have to do what you have to do! But it ended up being quite an action-packed month between the ten-movie marathon and the projectionist not showing up and the robbery and some of the internal family drama, which really actually grew out of the robbery. What prompted Georgia to leave, the rift that happened that month between her and her family, was the robbery. It grew out of that. So it ended up being a pretty substantial month and so that did form the spine of the movie; but during that month, I also did a lot of interviews with them and local Fijians and the church folks to try and tell, as much as I could, a sense of the story of their year in Fiji.
How well did you already know John and the family? Were you very familiar with their interaction?
I knew John going back to Hoop Dreams because John was one of the first people to see the film before it was even done. He was a big fan of the movie and ended up being a real champion of the film when it came out. That was the beginning of my friendship with John. We had stayed in touch over the years; it was a fairly casual but lively friendship. Over the years, I had met Janet a few times but never really spent much time with her and I'd never met the kids. I really didn't know the family at all, really. I knew John but I really didn't know much about John's family life.
There were a lot of new things about this. I was shooting for a shorter period of time; this was a film that John asked if I was interested in doing; the other projects have all been projects that I have originated totally. This was a project that had been funded without me having to lift a finger. That was nice. There are a lot of different things about the project that made it a unique experience for me, including not having much of an idea what I was going to encounter when I got to Fiji. I knew, going in, that I was interested in the family's experience of Fiji. Sort of the New Americans in reverse - instead of an immigrant family coming to America and whatever their baggage and expectations are and how it plays out, this was going to be the opposite. I was particularly interested in that. I knew the kinds of films that John was showing. I was particularly interested in what the audience reaction would be to those movies. So those were the two topics of real interest, but I had no idea how that was going to play out once we got there.
With Hoop Dreams, you had to go through this whole process of deciding who your subjects were and allowing a story to come out of these people that you didn't necessarily know all that well, initially. With Stevie, it's exactly the opposite, in that you were very familiar with the subject. Which style of working do you prefer? Is it difficult to remain objective while working with the subject that you're personally familiar? It seems that the challenges of Stevie are very present in the construction of the film, challenges that are laid bare on the screen. Your experience of taking that film to Sundance, was it very difficult to then detach yourself from being so very intimately involved in the creation of it?
Stevie is a film that's near and dear to me. I knew that with Stevie, because at a certain point we did, in our own sort of bare bones way, a test screening or two with strangers, which we never did with Hoop Dreams. We were very curious to see how people would react to him, how they would react to me and how they would react to the construction of this film. Those screenings bore out what, in fact, sort of happened to the film, in the way that it was viewed critically. In other words, it was a good bell-weather of that. There were a lot of people who watched Stevie and were powerfully affected by it and said that they couldn't get it out of their minds and it was disturbing and all of those things. Then there were people that said, "I hate Steve James," or, "I hate Stephen Fielding," or, "I hated both of them." We saw that range.
I knew that when Stevie came out, whether it was going to be festival and then it eventually got theatrical, that it was going to be the kind of film that divided people. I mean, it never achieved the level of notoriety in the popular press to become a bigger issue of divisiveness, in the way a Michael Moore film does. The way people perceive it becomes a story in itself. I knew that was never going to happen to Stevie, but among people that see the film... it is one of those films that people have very strong feelings about. I felt like we had done our job right if that was the case. With Hoop Dreams, everybody kind of got it in the same way. Some people got it more deeply than others but there was unanimity to the way in which that film was perceived, and that was not the case with Stevie and it's not the case with Reel Paradise, either. Which is interesting to me.
"It was a pretty action-packed month.""That I understand. That's human to me."
back to past articles
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.
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