From a very young age, Jeff Wall showed that he had the chops to be an athlete. When his mom enrolled him in karate classes he thrived. He won pretty much every competition he entered into and quickly moved up the ranks to earn his black belt. It wasn’t enough to just compete, he wanted to share his love with others. In Sindha Agha’s short film Golden Age Karate, we see Wall teach karate to elderly residents at a local nursing home. He empowers his students by teaching them something new and helping them get in tune with their bodies. This delightful and heartfelt documentary short is a glimmer of hope in an era of generational strife.
Golden Age Karate premiered at the 2021 AFI Fest as part of their Meet the Press programming.
Canadian filmmaking duo Calvin Thomas and Yonah, chatted with me about their new film White Lie which recently premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film stars Kacey Rohl as a college student who lies about having cancer. It’s equal parts fascinating and horrifying (you can read my review here). A must see if you’re interested in human behaviors and love a good story.
Left: Calvin Thomas – Right: Yonah Lewis
Raquel Stecher: What was the genesis of this story?
Calvin Thomas: It’s based on a number of cases…. people [lie about serious issues] a fair bit and especially when we started really looking into it and just discovering cases around the world of people doing this. It became quite popular or, multiple cases came up when social media and GoFundMe websites started, that kind of thing became more common. What we found was a lot of people would post campaigns and then they’d get caught. But most of their lies and campaigning were done through social media, so they’re hiding behind the facade that they would create on Instagram or a GoFundMe fundraising page. They hide behind their computer and not do it.
But then we also discovered several other cases of people who took it way to the extreme like our character does, where they changed their appearance, they shaved their head, they make themselves look ill by losing weight or however they do that. Then they’re also, not only lying to people online but lying to their immediate network and family and friends and that kind of extreme really drew us in.
Raquel Stecher: Can you talk a little bit about how Kacey Rohl came to the project and what it was like to work with her?
Yonah Lewis: Kacey was fantastic, we felt so lucky to have her. We spent a lot of time searching for someone and it was a bit of a tricky search. We saw hundreds of people before we came across Kacey. We’re based in Toronto. She’s based in Vancouver. She sent the tape from afar. We watched it and instantly knew she was really, really fantastic. But it’d been hard to find somebody because it’s tricky role and we needed somebody to shave their head. We weren’t willing to just go with the ball cap. We thought that would feel really false. But Kacey was amazing and weirdly enough gung-ho to shave her head.
Part of her had been wanting to do it for a long time and so this gave her an excuse to do it and she was thrilled at being able to do it, what it would do for her… What it would bring out and changed her performance. She loved the physicality of that, the transformation. We were thrilled that somebody wanted to do it as much as she wanted to do it. That was always a pivotal thing for us that the person shave their head and she wanted to do it. Not only that, she’s also an extremely fantastic actress.
We were always concerned about this character. We knew that they were “unlikable.” We knew that they’re doing something rather despicable. But we needed to find somebody who could bring some warmth and some humor… We needed somebody who would make that character sympathetic in a way because if you’re going to spend an entire film with somebody, you want to not absolutely despise them from minute one.
Raquel Stecher: Can you talk a little bit more about developing her character Katie?
Yonah Lewis: We were trying to focus on… this balancing act between rooting for her and then obviously realizing that [the viewer was] doing that and not feeling great about it. We tried to juggle that as much as possible and we wanted you to feel conflicted and usually, one does root for the lead character in a film, but when they’re doing something as awful as this… we want one minute for you to feel like, “Oh, I hope she gets away with it,” and then realize you’re feeling that and feel bad about that.
Calvin Thomas: We knew that when we made the decision to have the film take place over five days, is a very short time frame in the journey or the life of her faking cancer. We knew that we would focus and hone in on obstacles and the little detail that goes into keeping that lie together. I don’t know if we really thought about it when writing that it would all add up to people feeling closer to her or rooting for her. Because we focused so much on all of these little lies that she’s doing and these little details that she experiences in over the course of the film, I think you get on her side because it’s just things start piling up and piling up and piling up and we’re trying the best we can to focus on… granular day to day things that she’s trying to mend and band-aid.
Raquel Stecher: Can you tell me more about Amber Anderson and her performance as Jennifer? She’s really the emotional core of the film.
Calvin Thomas: I think we knew that we wanted Jennifer to be the one thing in Katie’s life that she genuinely wanted to keep and maintain and have. As much as the relationship is built on this… They met through this, when Katie had cancer and built upon this lie. I think she’s actually means a lot to Katie. When Katie realizes that relationship is in jeopardy, she does anything she can to make sure she doesn’t lose her. For us she was, there’s a bit of a focus shift as the movie goes on… that we wanted Jennifer to reflect the audience’s experience as Katie and hope that they could be connected with Katie’s partner in that way and feel the force of the lie through Jennifer’s reaction.
Yonah Lewis: Amber is fantastic and we thought she was amazing. She was cast very late in the production. We had trouble finding someone for that role and then we came across her and Skyped with her. She was based out of the UK, but she was at just… The thing that we’ve loved about her so much was that she brought this kind of intelligence, anger to the character.
There’s a way in which we were always worried about this character being a sad sack victim and we thought that she brought through just her own personality, through her own experiences, whatever she was bringing to the role. She brought something in the final moment there at the end, when she realizes that Katie’s actually been lying to her this whole time. There’s a mix obviously, of horror and sadness, but also the anger that we thought was really an interesting take on that character and we just thought Amber brought something so fantastic to the role.
Calvin Thomas: We found in these real life cases that people fake cancer, that the money was not particularly large what they were raising. There’s obviously a financial component to someone doing a con like this, but the amount of money gained is not particularly life changing. It’s usually a small amount and Katie says she’s… the $24,000 [CAD] that she’s raised. It’s not a crazy amount. But that was integral to our entry into the film as to what is she getting out of this, why is she doing it?
The first half of the film really focuses on all these obstacles and problem solving that she has to do in order to get a grant and get money from the people around her. But then we wanted to make a pretty clear shift where we forgot about any financial gain and then focus on the emotional gain, which also in real life cases, seems to be quite a large reason why people do this, for attention and emotional gain. That’s what we tried to do and focused more on Jennifer as the film headed its way to the climax.
Raquel Stecher: Can you tell me about how Martin Donovan came to the project and what it was like working with him?
Yonah Lewis: Martin was a dream. We absolutely loved working with him. We had very little time with him because it was such a small, but pivotal role. He was the catalyst that changes up the entire theme. But obviously there’s some tumultuous relationship between him and his daughter. [The] two of them don’t spend much time together. But he was great. We spent a lot of time beforehand trying to figure out that character.
There were so many ways that it could go and we were trying to not hit you over the head with the shaky relationship that the two of them have. It can be a bit of a cliche in movies to have a… kid who’s got a problem come to their parents and ask for money or whatever. We’ve seen a lot of movies where [a] junkie kid comes [in] and just trying to get money out of their parents. We were wary of the way we’ve seen that kind of scene done in many films before. But we loved him, we loved him and Kacey together and we were thrilled by that.
Raquel Stecher: What do you hope viewers will take away from the film and do you see it as a warning against doing something like this?
Calvin Thomas: We tell the audience what we want them to leave with. I think the movies that we love, you’re always walking away as a conversation to be had about and sometimes disagreements to be had about the character, about the story. I think we’ve hit that. We feel good about that where I think there’s a lot of conversation around Katie’s character and her actions throughout the film. It’s really very fun to write and then of course direct and I think it’s very fun for us to hear audience reaction where they feel so conflicted about the lead character.
I think for us that’s the best reaction that we can get from people leaving the movie. Is this a warning? I don’t think it is an epidemic of people doing this. I don’t know if there’s anyone in the audience that during the course of [it who] are contemplating and then like, “Okay, you know, it doesn’t work out great.”
Raquel Stecher: It’s very interesting that you both work as directors on your films, which is kind of rare. What is that experience like? What is it like to both write and direct the films together?
Yonah Lewis: We’ve been working together for a long time. We met first year at film school and then we directed four features together and produced several others, written a lot of unproduced screenplays. We’ve been working together for 13 years now and it’s a fairly seamless process at this point. In the beginning, that’s what drew each other to each other. We instantly understood that we had a similar sensibility, like similar films, and then slowly through film school and for 11 years since we’ve surfaced, honing our own style, what we like together. We’ve grown up as filmmakers together and that’s great. I guess we spend a lot of time thinking and talking and working together in advance of getting on set so that there’s just no problems. Obviously, you don’t want to have too many cooks in the kitchen and so we want to be on the exact same page. We tend to not really have disagreements or issues on set. I mean, we tend to not have in advance of that either, but if there are any to be had, we usually work them out beforehand.
Calvin Thomas: We honed our in thinks together over many, many years. Learning great movies… we’ve always done that together. I think we both had the same goal of trying to hold ourselves to a pretty high bar and always reaching for that. With both of us having the same goal of trying to make the right decisions and trying to make the best thing possible, we just both always working towards that and in conversation about that.
Yonah Lewis: But there’s really a team of three of us, there’s Calvin, myself and then my brother Lev Lewis, who’s the composer and editor, as well as an associate producer on the film. He’s heavily involved in all sorts of creative decisions. At the beginning, he’s the first person to read the script. He was heavily involved in all the casting. There’s a lot of heads to bounce ideas around on right from the beginning. The three of us work quite closely.
Raquel Stecher: What are you working on next?
Calvin Thomas: We’re still very, very, very early stages and in the same place. We spat something out in advance of TIFF, just so that we would have something done. The first draft that we did is still quite a mess because we did it in about two weeks just to get something out of our brains and onto the page. But I can’t say too much about it yet, but it’s a horror film.
A big thanks to Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis for chatting with me and to Teri Hart for helping me arrange this interview.
UPDATE: White Lie will have its digital release on January 5th, 2021. It will be available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Fandango, Vimeo, Vudu, Google Play and other platforms. Visit the official website for more details.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka and the cast of Knuckle City, Bongile Mantsai, Sivuyile Ngesi, Thembikile Komani and Faniswa Yisa ahead of the international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Knuckle City is a gripping film about an aging boxer trying to get back into the ring and his difficult relationship with his family, especially his father and his brother. The film was chosen as South Africa’s entry for Academy Award consideration. You can read my review of Knuckle City here.
Raquel Stecher: How do you keep the balance of Knuckle City being both a boxing story and a character drama?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: The human story was always the main thread there. The thing that always resonated with me in that world was essentially that the fight at home was bigger and more brutal than any you can essentially find in the ring. Boxing requires a lot of discipline. Training for a fight, when you get in that mode, it’s insane the regime that these guys have to go through. What’s interesting to me is the direct contradiction to that. There’s none of this discipline in their personal lives. The world our story takes place in our township Mdantsane also has the prestigious honor of having had 18 world champions. Since post 1944. World champions in different levels and different divisions. Yet the majority of them are in a place of poverty or dead or in jail.
Raquel Stecher: Can you talk a bit about the corruption in the boxing world?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: I don’t think guys are necessarily pouring salt into each others eyes but I’ve heard horror stories. Even in America and at top levels… The sport is synonymous with corruption and… these nefarious elements. Which for me what I found was a great metaphor for the fundamental story: this broken man. I say man holistically. It’s the idea of the inappropriate dinosaur trying to find himself in our current space and climate. What do you do with a dinosaur in the age of the woke? What contribution does he have to the conversation?
Sivuyile Ngesi: [Muhammad] Ali was involved with Malcolm X. Even Ali at his peak of his boxing was involved in pure brute corruption…
Raquel Stecher: How important was it to make a film in your home township of Mdantsane?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: It was very important because that place is essentially quite unique in terms of having these particular archetypes: the gangster and the boxer. Sure boxing is fairly popular across the country in this one particular space it really is huge. Even historically the boxers of that region… boxing was brought there by the colonialists through missionaries.
Faniswa Yisa: Mandela was a boxer.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: Part of that colonization… the missionaries were concerned what the boys partook in on day to day which was stick fighting. The missionaries said take away the sticks and give them boxing gloves, something we know. That we can at least measure in one way or another. It became very popular in that region. But it’s in a space that is very frustrated as well. The sport itself from an administrative perspective is at its weakest. Even in terms of attendance and popularity. It’s at its weakest right now. And I think that’s a beautiful metaphor what we were talking about is the male dinosaur.
Raquel Stecher: How important was it to explore toxic masculinity in the story?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: Without putting an indictment on any one particular sex the idea around toxic masculinity is a construct of society as a whole. Primarily with the male. I’d say like 97% with the male but there is a little 3% of engagement from the other side. I found the situations that we depict in that particular family has a level of that complexity. Those two young boys stopped growing the day the father died. The moment on they just found a pseudo sense of self. Constructed from their father’s bad habits. The only indictment in terms of the mother in this particular perspective is that somehow after the father’s death it wasn’t addressed. She didn’t help them chip away at the pseudo self that they had. It’s not her fault. Hence I’m focusing on part A: the male image and his own destruction.
Raquel Stecher: Can each of you speak about how you came to the project?
Bongile Mantsai: I worked with [Jahmil] on his previous project Sew the Winter into my Skin. I liked his style as a director. There are two types of directors that I like. There are those that are traffic cops: they tell you to sit down stand up direct you in that sense. And the directors that can bring something out of you as a performer. I think why I was particularly interested in this particular one was first I’m not a boxer. Secondly I was told I have three months to prepare for this character. Within that three months I was thinking of the physical fight but it was more a psychological fight. Because going into training, I was thinking boxing but when I went to Mdantsane I looked at the community. There is a saying that a child is raised by a community. So my interest was to move away from my comfort zone and start to go to a place where you’re being challenged. Not just as an actor. I’m a father. And when I go around and I see how we raise our kids it depends where are they raised from. For me it was just amazing just to observe how we judge communities and how we become part of those communities.
Sivuyile Ngesi: My biggest influence in my life has always been Muhammad Ali. I love him and I’m obsessed with him. I had boxed before. I had lunch with [Jahmil], we were all talking smack about boxing and then I got a phone call saying hey do you want a part in this film. Ironically the producer Layla [Swart], who is the editor as well, who is an incredible friend of mine, I worked with her on a project… It was one of the most difficult projects of my life…it was a terrible experience. But out of it came this. For me it was definitely a bucket list character. This is going to sound so cliche but the cast members and the team is family. We really are family. We chat every day. We love each other. We all come from the same Capetown. I’m known them for years.
Thembikile Komani: I was approached by a friend of Jahmil. I was asked if I was available to audition. Layla [Swart] contacted me and sent me a script. I read the script and I was asked to videotape myself.
[the cast jokes that it was an epic audition tape!]
I sent the video tape and I was there I was connected by Jahmil. I thought I was going to fight. When I read the script playing Duke. But I loved the challenge to play a character.
Faniswa Yisa: I’ve worked with Jahmil before in his short film Stillborn. There were a lot of conversations around… that’s one of the beautiful things. We actually had a conversation about the script on set. We had a conversation about what’s the way forward. Where do we take this character? If you have any questions. We bounced questions. And what [Sivuyile] is saying as well. It was such an amazing space where people were holding each other. He was holding the space most of the time. We felt like we could play more because the space was held. It’s such a beautiful space to be in as a performer when you really want to give.
Sivuyile Ngesi: You just see us all watching it. We all enjoy each others parts. We are celebrating each other in art. While we were on set it was like that.
Faniswa Yisa: All the time.
Sivuyile Ngesi: We all knew it was something special on set.
Bongile Mantsai: For me when I was in Cape Town I was watching my audience more than watching the movie.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: I always watch my films with audiences. That’s who it’s for. Audiences are so different based on where they come from. [The Toronto] audience is particularly special for me because it’s an eclectic audience. It’s a very intellectual audience that is fundamentally free within itself. It’s my third time at TIFF so I can make that assessment. It’s the entire world in one room. It’s also part of the reason why this festival is the biggest and best in the world.
Raquel Stecher: Tell me about Xhosa and the other languages used in the film and how Xhosa fit culturally in the story.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: It’s Mandela’s tongue.
Faniswa Yisa:Black Panther‘s tongue in Wakanda.
Jahmil XT Qubeka: It’s indicative of South African society. We have 11 official languages. In the film we have Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, and English. In the township it’s quite a homogenous society in regards to that language. It’s predominantly a Xhosa society. For me it’s quite indicative of the apartheid space and colonialism… separate and divide and conquer situation. I want to give a credence to that space and that conversation. We are essentially flying a flag for one group or another. Which is also convenience and also full of contradictions in itself.
Raquel Stecher: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Jahmil XT Qubeka: I can tell you what I hope they don’t take away. I hope they don’t stay in its locker room allure. Because its far more than the locker room. If one doesn’t want to have an open conversation they can stop at that door. I hope they don’t stop at that door. I hope they realize that what is actually on trial here. That is what we’re actually trying to look at. I hope they go on that journey.
Faniswa Yisa: I hope they are asking questions like you. You asked about the language itself. I hope people understand the complexity because when you’re traveling around the world they think Africa is a country. For me being Xhosa, being from my parents, being from the Eastern Cape, the different texture. Finding a different texture.
Bongile Mantsai: Its high time we come full circle about stuff. Help discussion about stuff. For Knuckle City I think this is a key to open discussion.
Thembikile Komani: In S.A. there were different audiences, who wanted to change what the film was about because they’re coming from families that somehow in some way or another are going to relate to what [is in the film]… We from the townships we know those characters. I have neighbors who swear a lot. People must take the film as it is. It’s our story.
Sivuyile Ngesi: As a performer I’m keen for audiences to see the kind of quality actors that we have. Even some South Africans were shocked at the performances that they’ve seen in Knuckle City and the range of performances. I’m really keen for people to see the performers that we have. And the capabilities that we have and the point of view… act in your language. See what you can do. The filmmakers that we have…. It’s not an apartheid story. It’s not about the struggle. It’s about between 1994 and 2018. It’s character. I would love for them to be like oh let’s book those actors for something.
A big thank you to Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, Bongile Mantsai, Sivuyile Ngesi, Thembikile Komani and Faniswa Yisa for taking the time out to chat with me!
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Neasa Hardiman, the writer and director of Sea Fever. This science fiction film was a hit at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. It tells the story of a marine biologist who joins a fishing trawler on an expedition and the group comes face to face with a mysterious underwater creature. I really enjoyed this film and was thrilled to be able to talk to the woman who started it all.
Raquel Stecher: Your film Sea Fever felt classic but also brand new. Did you have like influences from science fiction movies and what was the inspiration for this unique story?
Neasa Hardiman: In terms of cinema that, the, you’re absolutely right because the kind of references I was thinking of were Arrival, Annihilation, there was that there were a couple of other, The Thing, there was Alien and there was something about all of those films that I wanted to preserve… The story is less of a roller coaster and more of an exploration… It’s rooted in the transformation of the characters. That that’s actually what the story is. That’s what it’s about. That’s where it lives. And that transformation of those characters is about the kind of central pain of taking responsibility, for yourself or for each other, for the broader natural world and where we are and how we got here.
Raquel Stecher: Siobhan [Hermione Corfield] is such an interesting character. How did you come up with her character and how did you develop it over the story?
Neasa Hardiman: Quite early on in the process I was thinking, what is it if you, is there enough funds in the world? What is it that you want to do with this film that that is different? Or that asks question or that articulates something that feels true? What are the things is I feel like, I’m tell me if you agree with this, but I feel like I’ve seen a lot of films where that figure of the scientist is portrayed as somebody cold, disconnected, often very immoral or amoral, who makes choices that have without any kind of thought about the kind of broader social implications of those choices. They’re often a figure that has to be fought against or that has to be corrected or disempowered in narrative cinema. I’m really uncomfortable with that and I’m really uncomfortable with that idea.
It’s maybe not that surprising because most of the people who make narrative cinema have humanities backgrounds. But I thought, one of the things I want to do is really kind of dig at the roots of thought and go, where does that cliche come from? Cliches become cliches because they’re rooted in something. What is that rooted in? Can we unearth it and look at what’s really happening now? It was really important for me that there are two figures in the story that are really wedded to the scientific method [and] that’s Siobhan and Omid [Ardalan Esmaili]. She’s a very mathematical biologist who’s interested in populations and changes in populations, particularly ecological transformations of what’s happening at a kind of global level. Looking at it through algorithmic modeling.
[Omid’s] equally a problem solver and a, and a mathematician and an engineer. He’s very kind of hands on and uses the scientific method in a very practical way and runs this boat and invents things. It was very important to me that there were two different scientists characters. Because what I wanted to do with Siobhan was explored the roots of that cliche and go, let’s look at what that really is. What is it, where does that come from?
The cliche is the antisocial… sometimes people who are of this character type are quite antisocial. What I think is really not true is the notion of being immoral or the notion of being isolated in a caring.
[Siobhan] does have a slight social deafness. She’s not very good at interpersonal cues. She’s not very good at picking up subtexts and she’s very blunt. I wanted that to be really clear at the beginning of the story.
It was really important for me was to correct that [misconception] or not correct it, but to articulate another version of that. Then also to articulate for what I know to be true of people that are in my life, that that made me think a little bit differently. Which is if I was hanging from a rope off the edge of the cliff, I would want one of those people on the other end of the rope because they would never let me go. They never let me go. And there’s a commitment to honesty and the moral choice, however difficult and however compromising and challenging that I think it goes with that slightly different cognitive style that we don’t celebrate enough. And that’s brilliant. A commitment to focus. Focusing on something and becoming an expert and being able to push forward the minutes of knowledge that goes with that slightly different cognitive style that is amazing.
Raquel Stecher: Siobhan works for something greater than herself.
Neasa Hardiman: Because that’s the moral choice, because there’s a kind of moral clarity that goes with that slight difference in thinking. I really wanted have a figure who embodied that. The roots of this cliche are in something that’s actually much more beautiful and complex and painful and difficult, and brilliant. At the same time I want us to have this other scientific figure in the story in Omid [Ardalan Esmaili] going, “But not every scientist is that.”
There are plenty of people who give their life to science who are also really warm and funny and charming and… don’t have any kind of cognitive difference in that sense. They’re still really good scientists… and really good colleagues. That was already important to me, was to valorize and champion the scientific method. The value of that, of zooming out from your own first responses on what might be your own logic or your magical thinking and to be humble enough to go, “I could be wrong. Let’s explore this and let’s say let’s experiment and find the best solution to this problem.”
Raquel Stecher:Sea Fever has an amazing diverse cast. Can you talk about your casting choices and about the tight knit community of trawler life?
Neasa Hardiman: Trawler life is a really hard life and it has the highest death rate of any profession in our end of the UK. More people die as professional trawler people going in any other walk of life.
It is genuinely really a transnational community. There are people from all over the world working with those. These are little tiny communities. There’s little small boats, sleeping seven people, they all know each other and they all kind of live in each others pockets. You see them on the boats and they’re like cats. They’re climbing all over the rigging. It’s terrifying… They’re really elegant. It’s the movements are really precise and elegant as you can imagine in a space like that sort of thing.
I said to [the trawler consultant] Dana, I went to film, I have this scene where Jonny [Jack Hickey] injures his hand, “Is that truthful or is everybody just so precise that that would never happen? She looks at her brother and her brother looks at her and they went “Well, let’s see, there was Arda, he lost his leg from the knee down. Then there was Shawnee, he lost those three fingers? Then there was a fella got decapitated that time.” I’m like, “Okay, okay, okay, that’s fine.”… it’s hard, hard, hard, hard life and dangerous.
[About the cast]
Neasa Hardiman: Characters are sort of like icebergs, you [only see so] much. But actually you have to have all of their story at the back of who they are and what’s happened to them and what their pleasures and pain is. They were really rich and complicated and that narrows your casting choices then because you have to have somebody who can really embody that and also breath their own life into it and bring something else to it.
I was so lucky because every single one of them, there was no second choice. It was like, well it has to be Hermoine [Corfield]. There’s such subtlety. She’s actually really a brilliant but when she’s in character, she’s so withheld but it’s all there.
It had to be Adalan [Esmaili] because he has this warmth that occurs. And a kind of effortless charm and that there was nobody else who had that.
It had to be Dougray [Scott] because he has this kind of he’s the life of the party. He’s funny and charming and really warm, and really openhearted little bit, kind of dangerous. You feel it often and there’s nobody else that could do that.
It had to be Connie [Nielsen] because Connie has a real authority to her. She walks into the room, everybody turns to look at her. She just has that charisma and… that was her in the movie for sure. She takes care of people. She’s very attentive to what’s going on around her and very attentive to, people who might be struggling or suffering. It’s not saccharin, it’s with a kind of rigor and authority to it.
Raquel Stecher: What do you hope the audience will take away from your movie?
Neasa Hardiman: I hope that that the questions that it might trigger or that, that the things that it might make you think about… That sense that we’re separate from nature and that what we do is separate from other animals. We all kind of know that’s not true. We’re a part of it. The idea of this circular animal that’s got these kind of radiating and tendrils was rooted in the idea. What if this is a diagram of what the them of the story is. There’s an unknowable center to life and to the kind of unity of life that exists on our planet and it radiates outwards. And when you see it, what I hope is the intention with the animal is that you see it as it’s kind of mesmerizing, beautiful, unknowable.
That was sort of the central theme of the story. That idea that we do things that radically transform a world that we don’t actually really understand yet, particularly the deep ocean. There was a version of the script which I had to cut back as it was like, this is just too expositional, but there was a version of script where Siobhan [Hermione Corfield] has a speech at the beginning of the story where she goes, you could drop the Himalayas from root to tip into the Atlantic ocean and they would disappear and you wouldn’t notice. It’s so deep and so unknowable and there’s so much life there that we have no idea. We have no idea how we’re implanting on that life [with] micro plastics, our noise and our melting glaciers… we’re transforming things that we haven’t even had a chance to recognize.
For me that was a really important part of the story was really important part of the story to say we have to take responsibility. We have to take responsibility for our actions. Both to each other, to ourselves, to the world and to what we’re doing and to have respect for the broader system of which we are a small part.
At the recent SXSW Film Festival, I had the pleasure of chatting with the documentary filmmaker Amy C. Elliott. Her latest film Salvage had its world premiere on opening night. This film follows a group of residents who salvage goods from an open dump in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, one of the most isolated communities in North America. In town with a long history of gold and diamond mining, these salvagers find treasure in their own unique way. You can read my review here.
Raquel Stecher: What inspired you to make your documentary?
Amy C. Elliott: I had always wanted to make a film about a dump. I think it’s interesting what we throw away from an environmental impact level… I also think on a philosophical level, the subjective nature of things is really interesting… the transitory nature of things. I also thought about the idea of a community dump as a watering hole… Who goes there? What do people take out of it? What do people leave? I thought it would be a really interesting look at a community. My beat is about how we’re shaped by where we live.
Raquel Stecher: How did you find out about the Yellowknife landfill?
Amy C. Elliott: I’m based in New York so I wanted to find a dump closer to me. It’s very important to have a site that you have access to. I looked around and in the states most of them are closed at this point for liability reasons, like it’s just not feasible to let people into a dump like the way I wanted to make movie… Then I did some research, just scouring the internet for any open dumps. I found a column in a newspaper called Tales from the Dump which is written by a guy who ended up becoming one of the protagonists of the film, Walt Humphries. I [thought] if there was a community somewhere that their dump has inspired a weekly newspaper column, I think I need to check it out. It turned out to be in Yellowknife. It was the closest dump of size that was open still to the public [but] it was 7,000 round-trip miles so it was not my first choice.
Raquel Stecher: How long did you work on this project?
Amy C. Elliott: It was filmed over close ten years. There’s ten years worth of footage in it. I went there over a period of six years regularly, annually for a couple of weeks [at a time].
Raquel Stecher: What was it like traveling to Yellowknife and did you pick a certain time of year to go?
Amy C. Elliott: It’s only 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It’s extremely isolated. At the time, it was literally at the end of the highway. There were no other roads leading out. It was an ice road… I don’t think people realize how isolated it is. I had to take three planes to get there. It’s also stunningly beautiful. It’s one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. [Traveling there] was an obstacle. I would say it was the biggest obstacle.
I went in the Spring because I thought in the height of summer the dump would be a little too much in terms of the smell and the bugs. It gets extremely cold there. Regularly negative 50. It was still snowing [in April]. It was still super cold but it was enough light and it was warm enough that the dump smelled okay. The waste was solid enough that I felt like it was a good time to go but it was [still] not the height of mosquito season.
Raquel Stecher:What was like what was filming the dump like? Part of the fun watching the movie is all the discoveries the salvagers make. Was there anything about the dump that was shocking?
Amy C. Elliott: It was all shocking to me because I never experienced anything quite so unregulated. When I first started shooting there, we were on the open face of the dump. You see people kids, people barefoot, you could just do what you wanted. It was really a free-for-all. I got a tetanus shot before I went and filmed.
In terms of the stuff there… I thought the food was shocking for sure. Some of the most shocking stuff were the new items. like clothes with the tags still on, kid’s toys still in plastic wrapping… you just can’t help but feel like there are people who would need that stuff, would like that stuff, who would benefit from that stuff and it’s just being thrown away. I never quite got used to it. I thought that there was something really poignant about that.
For me [personally it was] the unopened rolls of film. There were just bags and bags of it. I just wanted to take it and send it to The Rescued Film Project and see what was on those rolls of film. The idea that that would be gone forever was really interesting.
Raquel Stecher:One of the biggest takeaways of the film was how resourcefulness is looked down upon. What are your thoughts on that?
Amy C. Elliott: It’s that idea of thrift. Even as the old-fashioned virtue of thrift. It seems like something out of Benjamin Franklin days. It’s hard though… Do you really want to rescue and repair a broken DVD player? You can get one for $20 completely new. We’re living in a time where we have such access to cheap things. It’s easier… and time is valuable so is it really worth your time to go rescue. That’s the dilemma of where we are now as the world came to Yellowknife.
Raquel Stecher: Was there a point when you were going to stop filming and then you continued when things started changing at Yellowknife?
Amy C. Elliott: I knew I wanted to film at least five years. I was committed to that unless something radical happened like the dump closed.I knew it was going to take a long time… The changes in the town, I could see that coming. I could see that there was something happening at the dump that was mirroring what was happening in the town. As the world became smaller… “the values from down south” as Tony talks about at the end [of the film], the consumerism, the concern with loss prevention and liability, the bureaucrats in the city were becoming more in tune with the rest of the South. It just mirrored what was happening in the dump. I think they’re intertwined intrinsically.
In my films I love exploring how where live shapes us culturally… our behavior is shaped geographically by where we live and that’s becoming rarer and rarer as the world becomes more homogeneous. As there’s a Starbucks on every corner as the world becomes… you can go anywhere now and have the same experience.
Raquel Stecher: How has the SXSW experience been for you?
Amy C. Elliott: Amazing. I love this festival. I think it’s the best. It’s one of the top tier festivals in the world but it’s also offbeat enough and different enough. They play films that you wouldn’t necessarily see it at other festivals. They really curate a different slate and the audiences who come appreciate that. A doc like Salvage is small. It’s not flashy, you do have to have some patience for it. It’s a hard film in some ways. But there’s going to be an audience here. It’s perfect place for an offbeat film like Salvage. I know that I’m going to get an audience that is engaged and wants to see that kind of stuff. I love SXSW.
Raquel Stecher:What do you hope that people will take away from Salvage?
Amy C. Elliott: That’s a two part answer. On a surface level, what I hope people take away is being more mindful of what we buy and [to think] about where it ends up. Do we really buy this next thing? Be mindful of waste. Do we have to know shepherd our products to a slightly better home rather than just throwing them out without thinking about it? The second thing would be to appreciate what’s distinct where you live and where you visit. What is special about a place and why?