One film at a time?

Wintonick-&-Nyrabia-2-m-kontrastPeter Wintonick & Orwa Nyrabia

PW: Last month, in Amsterdam working to prep IDFA, I discovered that I have one of the rarest forms of liver cancer. The Dutch medical system is excellent, but I rushed home to Montreal, Canada, to get free, top-notch medical care, in my family Herzl Clinic, which 100 years ago arguably was where socialist, public, free Medicare began, one admired the world over. The Jewish General Hospital here is one of the best cancer hospitals in Canada, ironically created because the Jews of Montreal couldn’t be treated in non-Jewish hospitals. Three weeks in the hospital, with Chemotherapy now beginning, gives a man a lot of time to think about life and the life of the world!
As images of Syria flash around the world’s news screens, I wondered about my great care in an over-privileged country, while at the same time seeing thousands of medical workers having to flee Syria for the borders, images of bombed out and targeted health facilities. I thought about Doctors Without Borders but also the attacks by Israel on Gaza’s ambulance services and hospitals a few years back; about attacks on deposed Egyptian president Morsi’s temporary field hospitals in the recent coup.
I’ve had lots of time to ask: why has the public and its civil society institutions again become direct victims of such violence? Not only carpet bombing and nerve gas but also assaults on education and culture and infrastructure and basic human rights? Over the last 80 years, perhaps since Guernica, in Spain’s Basque area, where the war against the people was reignited, has this been the new norm?

ON: Throughout the first year of the Syrian revolution, I used to be irritated by stories of personal pain, it felt too ‘luxurious‘ that someone is in pain, sick, or mourning a loved one, while Assad’s thugs are killing people every minute, killing a mother during the funeral of her son, whom they killed the day before… but then, one dead human at a time, one’s relationship to that develops into a very different thing. Today, I truly believe that we are all, by definition, weak creatures. I do believe that we can’t measure pain after a certain threshold. That the death of four loved ones is as painful as the death of ten. That the fear of losing a dear friend, anywhere, because of a ‘normal‘ reason is as scary as the fear of another being tortured. I am not sure that we can really compare the ‘luxurious’ agony of breaking up with a lover in Montreal, and the agony of watching your home in flames in Deir Ezzor. There is one big challenge: ‘Can one find the energy to continue after such a huge dose of pain or not? Can one find ’help’ to overcome the difficult phase? To submit to a new reality that is harsh and agonizing but is not lethal if one can find the secret, the antidote to surrendering to pain.
Images are becoming more and more painful, from my Syria, and from other places too… so, how can we live with that? How can we, Image People, find a way to ’mold’ and ’sculpture‘ pain into a long-lasting and eye-opening work of reality and cinema at the same time? This, I believe, is the real challenge we face today, it is our only potential way of ’dealing ’with what you called the new norm that is hitting us all in the face at the same time. I don’t know if I am ’wise’ in the way I approach it… but, very frankly, all that I can think of is how to defend myself and whatever it might be that I want to stand for, by finding answers to the question: ‘So, this is how things are… what should we do about it?’
Who are we, dear Peter? What kind of a tribe is this so-called ‘documentary film family’? We, who feel uncomfortable on red carpets, defend ourselves against it by making sure no Tuxedo makes us look ‘conformed’, and we always choose to continue making films that cannot make us money, and live on the old faith that we are among those who will inherit the earth. I remember well that moment on the red carpet in Cannes, when I thought like: ‘I am not going to live aspiring to come back here!’
I remember my first IDFA, when I thought: ‘I want to live aspiring to win these people’s respect’, these are my people! why? are we dreamers? masochists?

The larger a president’s photo or statue is, the more killing and torture is taking place! 

PW: I really see that we all posses, along with many other professions, a kind of big, dominant gene; the altruism gene. We are artists, we give our work to share not to exploit. Educators, activists, engaged media people, scientists, environmentalists, doc people, and caregivers are all givers. We believe in the gift economy rather than the greed economy. We believe, like my heroes Gandhi and Mandala, we can live the change we believe in. Of course, everyone is born with the altruism gene, but it is usually beaten out of us by the time we are twelve years old. But this all relates to universal human rights, from J.J. Rousseau, and earlier, where social struggle activists, and their communities share the idea, that we all have free will, but also that we may be born free but everywhere we are chained, like slaves. For me I call our version ‘the documentary vow of poverty’ and I have been trying to practice that for 40 years!
And Orwa, how do you live your daily life given that the odds may be against us?

ON: The odds are against us, persistently. It is a daily fact; and then, many times when they are not against us, that takes place because someone tries to use us against others. I think that the only thing that is not against us is us, this outstanding global network of people who care, really care, and try to be part of the world rather than being mere consumers of it. Daily life is becoming loop of faith and doubt. Can we change this? Are we really capable? Or not? Can we keep up? Move on? Or can’t we?
Daily life is also dependent on the others around you… on our continuous exchange of courage, faith, hope and laughter. It was most inspiring when I asked Pennebaker once in a Q&A in Damascus, at DOX BOX 2010: ‘What is your advice to those, like myself maybe, who want to survive as documentary makers?’ He said: ‘It is like wanting to travel the world in a broken car and with no money, the best thing you can do to yourself is to find a great companion, a real partner.’
His wonderful Chris Hegedus smiled, and I did too, for I did just that, got a wonderful partner and started a lifetime journey of fighting over the right turn at every crossing. This is how the odds become smaller. But then, the odds hit again, and one has to find the next crossing… again!
What is it that makes you most proud after these years with documentary film? What are the moments in your carrier that make you feel ‘Je ne regrette rien’?

PW: I am very proud that the film Mark Achbar and I made about linguist and American social critic Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media is considered by many, inside and outside our business, as a ‘masterwork’. Not everyone gets to make one of those, even if it did take five years to make. I have read studies which directly attribute that film, and its use by the free East Timor movement as playing a significant role in helping East Timor finally achieve autonomy, free from the brutality perpetrated by the Indonesian state. The film was used to create awareness, its existence went up the food chain, with attention from Bill Clinton, the UN secretary General and eventually a referendum was called. Now, Timor is the poorest country in the world, but it is free! Of course not one film can do that, it’s always a collective effort. I am also proud of my work at the agenda setting IDFA, and the hundreds of young filmmakers I have helped and mentored, in workshops around the world. From South Africa to China to Australia, Japan and Burma. My work with the EDN, Esodocs and others is very rewarding. Just to see, as I did in Adelaide when I was ‘thinker in residence’ a few years back, the glow in the eyes of the ten year old kids teaching each other how to make micro docs about their own fears, is especially rewarding. Given all the world’s woes, impending environmental and democratic collapse, there could still be hope! I wonder if there is still any role to play with activist media and the festivals that serve them? Can one still change the world… one film at a time?

ON: I still have flickers of my childhood daydreams coming back sometimes, in which I am a super hero, who changes the world with his own hands. No matter how critical one is to the American Dream, it does find its way into one’s dreams, maybe it is really a ‘natural’ dream.

I truly believe that hope is not an option, it is a necessity. We cannot afford to lose hope. I am always frustrated when watching many masterpieces… I cannot help but ask myself: ‘How come the world is so blind?’ Then: ‘How come the world doesn’t learn at all?’ I don’t have an answer… I only know that even while making films in this world, the lives, or at least the minds, of some people do change, they do discover things about themselves. Then, we are still far from reaching the world’s majority with our films… I am in Cairo now, and I am amazed by how the people here, the majority, don’t notice that the country is falling into the same trap of military dictatorship again… I also don’t know how the world can need more and more proof that Al Assad is a criminal lunatic dictator! That the most devastated victims need to ’prove’ to the world that they are being murdered, detained, tortured, raped… while it should be very obvious: the larger a president’s photo or statue is, the more killing and torture is taking place! I can’t believe that humanity hasn’t learned this lesson yet! Maybe humanity, or its armies and corporations, didn’t get to watch the same films we’ve seen! Hence, I think that it is enough that we spend our lives trying to come up with better answers to the question… testing, experimenting, suggesting, surrendering sometimes, then experimenting again… the world is bad, we need to change it! I do believe that it is worth trying to do that, and trying, in itself, is a good enough reason to live! Super heroes do not exist, but dreams do! During such times, with all the blood shed and all the egoism in the world, do you still believe in traditional media? Do you think, we could do what we’d want, or maybe should do, if we maintained the same sources of funding and of distribution? Do you think that the current spree of ‘outreach’ for documentary film does really answer the need for relevance and reach?

PW: Since I was a young filmmaker, I always rejected the idea of becoming a civil servant journalist or having a nine-to-five regular film job. Sure for 10 years I worked on sponsored films, edited feature fictions, cut campaign films for our liberal prime minister, and earned my chops. Outreach is intellectual self-defense, media literacy is but long ago re-discovered doc-media and I have dedicated my whole life to them. My whole life’s work has been to make docs about image making, about documentary and human rights, peace and justice. Docs provide a framework for media literacy and intellectual self-defense. We are now in the Now era of documentary filmmaking – we no longer have to be co-dependent on single source public funding. TV funding is a dead duck in the digital water. We are discovering the hybrid, the multi-platForum, docs financed with new private and filmanthropy sources, foundations, crowd-funding and other new systems. The doc director has become the project manager. Outreach is returning, its called community building. As ‘each one can teach one’ as Mandala wrote, so the (doc)word can spread around the world instantly. This is ALL good. Of course outreach is just an updated word for great distribution, it’s been around at least since the 1930s with Grierson, Paul Strand, the various workers film movements. Long may it live! Long may we all live! _

Directed by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick.
Australia, Finland, Norway, Canada, 1992. 167 mins.


Orwa Nyrabia graduated from the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts in Damascus 1999 and worked as a columnist at Assafeer Newspaper for four years before he started in film where he worked as Assistant Director on high-profile fiction films such as Sacrifices by Oussama Mohammad (Certain Regard – Cannes 2002) and was the lead actor in La Porte du Soleil by Yousry Nassrallah (Selection Officielle – Cannes 2004). After co-founding PROACTION FILM, Orwa worked in a number of documentary and fiction films before he started producing. A graduate of AFIC (INA-Sorbonne 2006), his initial breakthrough was the international co-production doc Dolls – A Woman from Damascus by Diana El Jeiroudi (Silver Wolf Competition – IDFA 2007). Today Orwa continues to produce and co-produce documentary and fiction films and is working on two in-development projects. As a filmmaker, Orwa made one short documentary, co-directing a fiction short and finishing his feature-length doc Queen of Hearts. Orwa is a co-founder and organizer of DOX BOX International Documentary Film Festival in Syria, he is head of programming. Orwa has been seated many times at international festivals as a juror. Orwa is fluent in English and Arabic and speaks some French and Russian.

Peter Wintonick. A career spanning 35 years and involvement in more than 100 films and transmedia projects. Among several other incarnations he is a filmmaker, producer, director, writer, and advisor on all manner of films, multi-media and ‘now’ media. Laureate of the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts, Canada’s highest such honour. 2005 ‘Thinker in Residence’ for the Premier of South Australia, writing recommendations on Media Literacy, Film Policy, Community and Aboriginal Media. Winner of the Ontario Premier’s Prize. Co-founder of the DocAgora on new forms, new platforms and new ways of funding socially-engaged docmedia. Creator of theatrical feature documentaries, educational films, TV docs and internet sites. Co-founder of the Greencode for the Media Industries. He has worked with major movers, shakers (and snakes) in the Motion Picture Jungle.

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