Beyond the Call, a portrait of the men behind Knightsbridge International, is easily one of the best documentaries of the year.
It seems unlikely that anyone will pull-quote GreenCine for a poster, but, as artless as it sounds, it's true.
In 1995, Ed Artis, Jim Laws and Walt Ratterman formed Knightsbridge (motto: "High Adventure and Service to Humanity"), a small but unusually effective humanitarian organization whose mission is to bring practical aid directly to reasonably sized groups in dangerous areas, often where other aid organizations fear to tread. Usually this seems to mean personally carrying large quantities of cash to remote, war-ravaged areas, then asking the people there what materials would really help them out, whether it be basic medicine (acquired at a heavy discount through close relationships), tents for the winter, teachers' salaries, or pens and paper. They then follow up, as they say, by delivering the goods, repeatedly. The founders do not take salaries and give all they can to the projects they fund and operate. But despite this synopsis, Beyond the Call
is a life-affirming documentary in the least saccharine sense. Ed Artis, the leader of the group, started off as a renegade soldier in Vietnam, sneaking away from the military the tools he needed to form a working clinic.
Ed, Jim and Walt are self-admitted eccentrics in America's best tradition of kooky, well-meaning, compassionate entrepreneurs. Bullshit-free, ex-army, often isolationist, they are what you think of when you think of what the liberal elite is not. While the group is doubtless after adventure and some sense of emotional gratification, they are good people in the apolitical way that we often dream all regular Americans could be, with no sights set on preaching, glory or riches - just on helping others.
Director Adrian Belic
) is self-distributing Beyond the Call
with the help of Landmark Theatres
, who are opening it in San Francisco on December 1.
So you are self distributing Beyond the Call?
Yep. It was similar with Genghis Blues
. We finished it, we knew it was good, and it appeared right off the bat that other people thought it was good as well. With Genghis Blues
we went with Roxie Releasing
in San Francisco, a small distribution company, because we could work very intimately with them. We had quite a good sense of the potential for the film, and it's the same with Beyond the Call
. I know it's a good film and it appears that the audiences like it as well. I have a broad vision for the film, all the audiences it can touch and things like that, and when I talk to the large distributors that came to us this time - with Genghis Blues
it was the small distributors - now it's like, "Oh, right, you guys were Oscar-nominated, what's the next film? Come talk to us! Come up to our suite at the Four Seasons!" And then they tell you that they can't really give you a big advance because it's hard to make money off of independents, and you're like, "Wow, this is a really nice suite! I'm staying at my friend's place in Brooklyn on the floor. I'm sure this suite didn't cost you anything. You guys are short on money?"
So we're doing this one ourselves and we're extremely fortunate that [the national arthouse cinema chain] Landmark has decided to come on board and screen it. Part of the reason I'm working 30-hour days is that the bookers at Landmark love it, but I think the higher-ups are a bit cautious because we have no distributor. The bookers were very cool and they said, "Okay, give me a couple of cities that you know you can do well in." I was like, "I grew up in Chicago and I grew up in San Francisco." And they said, "Good, those are the two."
So I'm working night and day to make sure that these screenings do well, not only for the film, but also to honor Landmark's trust in the film. And if I could be so bold as to say, the legacy that next time some independent filmmaker with some crazy film about some strange guys going to far off lands, or whatever the story may be, comes to them and says, "Hey, it's a great film but none of the industry people are backing it. Can you give us a chance?" I hope that they can look back at Beyond the Call
and say, "Yeah, we had a great experience and not only was it fun and successful but we made money" - so their higher-ups are happy.
And the impetus is then on you getting people there, to spend money on publicity...
Well, because we don't have a distributor, we don't have a quarter of a million dollar ad budget or something, and all the connections. We have Larsen Associates [publicists in San Francisco] taking us on, then a lot of blood and sweat. Creative problem-solving comes along, coalition building and the like, which is the majority of what is consuming my time right now. We're working with Rotary International
, we're working with AARP
, we're working with military organizations, active members, veterans, families, and then we're working with universities and high schools, which a lot of the large distribution companies didn't believe in. We were just at Stanford University, and sure, there were a lot of grey-haired people there, but there were quite a lot of students that came up to me afterwards and were like, "Damn, man, that was kick-ass!"
I've known a couple of filmmakers that have been tempted to sign distribution deals because of those advertising budgets, which they know they'd never have if they did it on their own, but then they have to be recouped before the filmmakers see any money.
I was at Sundance this year because I had some friends with films there and then Beyond the Call
opened at Tribeca - those are major festivals and it's a huge break to be in any of those as a premiere-status film. So all the big distributors were there. I had a number of friends who had their first film out and they had the very good fortune of having some interest from big distribution companies. The contracts were pretty brutal, but the promise was something that they know they can't attain by themselves in terms of exposure and distribution, so they signed on to it.
But that's par for the course in any entry level of anything. Job, art, whatever you do. The first one's just getting your foot in the door, getting noticed. Now that we're here with the second one, we've learned a lot from the first - a lot! And we've garnered a good coalition of people around us and supporters, and we're going it alone. Honestly, I don't know if I'll do this a second time. I think I'm getting a bit old for it. With Genghis Blues
, my brother Roko
and I could work a somewhat functional 24-hour schedule, which is what I'm now doing pretty much solo. We're really fortunate, people really enjoy the film. I know that I'm having to triage some of the opportunities because I just don't have a 40-hour day.
So it seems like you're actually a member of Knightsbridge; at least it reads that way on the website. Are you actually an active member or are you listed because you went on these missions as a filmmaker?
I think I'm an honorary member at this point, as many people are with Knightbridge. You can't do it alone, so Ed [Artis] has got all kinds of friends from around the world that help him. There are many times in making this film where I just slung the camera over my shoulder and started hoofing bags or whatever needed to be done. Ed's in a meeting in one place in Tajikistan and I'm over in another part of Dushanbe getting IDs or whatever needs to be done, trying to wrangle a car. That's one of the reasons he asked me to make the film - because he realized that I'm a full immersion filmmaker.
So Ed had approached you, then, instead of you becoming aware of Knightsbridge and approaching him?
We met him at a screening of Genghis Blues
at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. We came up and did a Q&A and we talked about how and why it came about and our passion about filmmaking - how we do it, just two brothers, we never went to film school, all that kind of stuff - and he and a lot of other people thought that was kind of a fun story. He realized that that was very much the way he does it - he never went to "humanitarian aid college" or something; he was a street delinquent that went into the military and really saw the world and learned about himself and realized that he could do something and continues to do it to this day.
So he just came up to me, as many people did at that time, and pitched me a story, you know, "Hey, we've got someone you should meet," or "Hey, we have connections with this or that," and, as I like to say, he pitched me a story I couldn't refuse. A few months later, we sat down with him and interviewed him. What was going to be a one-hour interview, just to get the basic gist of the film, ended up being six and a half hours. At three in the morning, he was telling me all of these incredible stories about getting kicked off a train in Azerbaijan, sneaking into Chechnya and Rwanda, and all this amazing stuff. Going back to Cambodia and helping the people that he was fighting 30 years before. He's just such a unique character. He's a guy you wouldn't look twice at. He's a bus driver, he's a cop, he's a grocery store clerk, he's an accountant, he's a doctor, he's normal, he doesn't stand out, and that's what I love about him. He's everyone's uncle and granddad, but he does stuff that, frankly, my Berkeley friends wish they had the balls to do. That's why I was so intrigued because, to me, who they are and what they do speaks to not only every American, but everyone around the world.
So when you set out, you probably didn't have the structure already laid out. I assume that it was by going on several missions that you realized that the heart of the film lay in these three men, Ed, Jim and Walt, and their personalities.
I used to always make little fiction films, but I have traveled all around the world and have met extraordinary people and have listened to true stories. So in the documentaries, I try to fuse those two. My documentaries are not issue-oriented documentaries, they're not educational documentaries, even though they play at universities all over the world. They're character-driven documentaries. And they're entertaining. Underneath that, you have themes and issues and lessons to be learned and things to become aware of.
It was very much like Genghis Blues
. My brother and I met Paul Pena
and we thought, "Holy shit, anywhere this guy goes, great things are going to happen!" And now, stick his ass in Tuva? That's a no-brainer! That's so obvious, whereas most people thought we were nuts. And this was the same thing: it was just so obvious. These run of the mill ordinary guys doing amazing stuff in exotic locations: of course! Which, once again, 80 percent of my friends thought I was nuts for going to war zones with three half-cocked guys as far as they saw them. We had 248 hours worth of footage. The film is 82 minutes long. It was a hell of a cut job.
One of my philosophies in filmmaking is, from first frame to the last frame, it has to be compelling, and the story has to move forward. I look for character stories and, maybe because I have a brother, I like buddy dynamics, so it was quite obvious that Ed and Jim are a pair. They revolve around each other; they're such a foil for each other. But then Walt came on the missions and Walt was just such a different character. At first, I wasn't really sure, honestly, that's why there aren't a lot of photos of the three of them in the field, because I didn't really shoot Walt a lot. On occasion, they do bring extra people. Someone with a specific knowledge or skill or connections or something like that, or someone that they think would benefit greatly from coming, would go back to their hospital or their university and do great things. But the people usually don't last because often they are either in it for selfish reasons and Ed figures that out real quick and, fuck it, they aren't ever going on another trip, or they can't handle it. They didn't think it'd be that intense. They didn't think it'd be that powerful of an experience and that dangerous.
So I thought Walt was going to be one of those guys. It was quite clear within a few days that Walt was not one of the average guys. He was a very unique character. Not only that, he worked with them. These guys, they're slightly rough round the edges. They'll tell you, just as quickly as they'll tell you that you look sweet today, they will call you an asshole. Not a lot of people can handle that kind of stuff. But Walt was just the perfect third piece. Honestly, I was supposed to go to Sri Lanka for the tsunami because they were there on the second day, and I really had to think to myself, Do I have everything I need? And I sort of did, again, in terms of a character study.
For me, the ultimate goal is to inspire people and that's why I love coming to the screenings and I love sitting in the back of the theater and watching the film with the audience because I love watching them discover all the things that I discovered. It's not just, Oh, look how cool that looks, but, Look what I feel. Oh my God, I'm scared; I'm crying; I'm so hopeful; I'm shocked; I'm moved; I'm perplexed; I understand. I consider myself a storyteller. I choose motion pictures in time because it's the most powerful medium. And it's fun to watch that medium play out.