Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Filmmaker Q&A: Nancy Iverson, "From the Badlands to Alcatraz"

What is the focus of “From the Badlands to Alcatraz”?
“From the Badlands to Alcatraz” weaves the past and present of both Alcatraz and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation into a vivid depiction of the awe-inspiring journey five Lakota youth—Alkapoane (ironically, pronounced Al Capone) White Calf, Lisa and Kelly Waters, and Arlo and Philip Iron Cloud—navigate as they arrive in San Francisco from South Dakota and prepare for the extreme challenge of swimming from Alcatraz Island to the San Francisco shore in September 2005. It follows the group’s first plunge into the San Francisco bay through their personal and collective challenges, disappointments and triumphs as they strive to conquer both the Alcatraz swim and the dispiritedness connected to conditions on Pine Ridge.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?
I became inspired in 'steps' along the way. First, I wanted to have a film record that the participants could see to really relive and acknowledge their incredible accomplishment. As the filmmaking progressed, the inspiration of the story itself kept me going. Words alone only capture a part of the sights, sounds and the 'coming to life' that happens so beautifully in a film.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
I've never made a film before, and by starting this one, knowing almost nothing about filmmaking, I put myself on one of the steepest learning curves of my life. I learned that making a film requires much more than just the desire to share a beautiful story.

I started this project and kept it going for the first three and a half years using only my personal funds; working with extremely limited resources (including often needing to serve as producer, director, and my own support staff!) was incredibly challenging.

What do you want to impart on your film’s viewers?
I want viewers of "From the Badlands to Alcatraz" to be awestruck both with the extraordinary beauty of the San Francisco Bay and the incredible heroism of each Lakota participant.

I also want to share the vision of the impossible becoming possible. Whether the focus is on something as vast as making inroads into the bleak conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation or as individual as encouraging someone to do the Alcatraz crossing, change can happen, one person at a time, enhanced by support and community building.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?
As I reviewed sequences of this film, I got to relive moments of humor and triumph over and over. Even though I've seen some footage hundreds of times now, I still laugh, cry or get shivers up and down by spine. It's also been wonderful to see the impact the film-in-progress has had on the participants and their families and the way they've greeted it with such enthusiasm.

What is your inspiration?
Our wonderful San Francisco Bay is a huge inspiration for me. I swim almost every morning in the Bay as part of the South End Rowing Club, often with a group called the 'Sunrisers.' To live in a major world city and be totally immersed in fantastic natural beauty every morning is an amazing gift.

The sense of community and support, both through the members of the South End Rowing Club and of the Dolphin Club, has helped develop and sustain the PATHSTAR Alcatraz swim program. The enthusiasm of everyone who has helped with the program and the making of the film has kept the momentum going. I've experienced many times in this project that when people give of themselves so generously the energy takes on a life of its own.

Imagining someone from Pine Ridge participating in an Alcatraz swim inspired me to start the PATHSTAR program, and picturing the Pine Ridge swimmers in the theater at the end of 'their' film in the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival is the dream that kept me going making this film.

Each of the Lakota participants were awesome. Working with them and getting to witness their struggles and successes has been an enormous blessing.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
Possibly one of the most profound times I remember in making this film was in South Dakota. Richard Iron Cloud, his son, Arlo, and I were watching some of the rough footage we had from the San Francisco 2005 filming which included an interview Arlo had done; in it he talked about what an inspiration his father has been to him. The next afternoon Richard took us out to a spot in the Badlands for filming and shared generously about his personal experience and Lakota values and spirituality.

Don't miss "From the Badlands to Alcatraz," at the 7th Annual San Francisco Ocean Film Festival!
When: February 3-7, 2010
Where: Theatre 39
The Embarcadero and Beach Street, San Francisco


Monday, December 28, 2009

Filmmaker Q&A: Gavin Newman, "To Save the Whale"

The 2010 San Francisco Ocean Film Festival has the honor of showcasing the world premier of Gavin Newman’s film, “To Save the Whale”, which tells the inside story of a group of Greenpeace activists as they attempt to stop Japanese whaling in the Antarctic. Although this is not a Greenpeace film, it is a film made about Greenpeace and their anti-whaling campaign

Since 1975 the environmental organization Greenpeace has been defending the worlds dwindling populations of whales by placing themselves between the hunters harpoons and the whales.

Since the worldwide ban on commercial whaling was introduced in 1982 the Japanese fleet has continued to hunt whales using a loophole in the regulations that allows for “scientific” whaling. Greenpeace ioppose even this scientific hunt, exposing it as little more than thinly disguised commercial whaling. “To Save The Whale” follows the Greenpeace crews as they go to extraordinary lengths to defend the whales from the explosive tipped harpoons of the Japanese fleet amid the icebergs and beauty of the Antarctic Southern Ocean.

This hard-hitting documentary exposes the reality of this hidden hunt whilst also trying to understand the reasons for its continuation and the human faces behind those trying to stop it. Far from the stereotypical environmentalists portrayed elsewhere, the Greenpeace crews are comprised of a surprisingly varied group including seafarers, activists, scientists, doctors, and even ex-nuclear submariners and ex-White House staff. They all have a varied tale to tell, yet never fail to impress with their understanding of the issues at hand, their commitment to the Greenpeace principles of non-violence, and their absolute dedication to save the whales. The story told exclusively in the words of the Greenpeace crews starkly contrasts the hunting with the beauty of the environment and the hopes of the activists for the future.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?
I always wanted to make a film about a Greenpeace campaign and as a diver and underwater filmmaker the campaign to protect the whales was an obvious choice. The annual Japanese whale hunt in the Antarctic goes on so far from the public eye that few realize the true horror of what goes on from a Government backed commercial enterprise that is thinly disguised as scientific research. Whilst it doesn’t make for a pretty or comfortable viewing, the medium of film enables me to bring the real story to the attention of as many people as possible. Secondly, whilst Greenpeace has a very high public profile I always felt that most people have a distorted view of environmental activists and often fail to understand the people involved and the work that goes on behind the scenes of such a global organization. In recent years much television time has gone to promoting the efforts of others to engage the whalers, often openly belittling the Greenpeace campaign. In doing so the role of the activists has become sensationalized and the issue reduced to little more than a reality TV show. By telling the story of the campaign through the eyes of those who have been working on this issue for over 30 years, I hope that I can go towards returning the focus to the real issue -- that of Saving The Whales.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?
Working as a one-man band on this project, lack of budget, and having to work alongside other film crews also trying to make a documentary on board the same ship!

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?
Being in the Antarctic, the most pristine environment on earth, having the satisfaction of completing such a challenging project and [for those that have seen it] the audience response to the issue.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?
Being woken early one morning to be told that the ship was surrounded by whales and then spending the next few hours on an inflatable boat amongst the icebergs filming nearly 50 humpback whales both above and below water.

How or why did you begin creating ocean-focused films?
I've always loved the ocean. I started diving when I was a teenager and always loved to capture the underwater world first on still pictures and later on film and video. Working as a cameraman for both the BBC Natural History Film Unit and Greenpeace has over the years allowed me to see both the best and worst sides of what goes on in our oceans. Hopefully through the medium of film we can bring both the best and the worst sides to the attention of those who don't have the opportunity to go out there and see for themselves.

Why did you choose to submit your film to the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival?
I decided to submit this film to the festival because there is not a more iconic symbol of both the ocean and man’s relationship with it, than the whale. It’s the perfect event at which to premiere this film.

Other stuff…
Whilst the organization had put no editorial or financial input into the project, the film would not have been possible without the fantastic support from Greenpeace in giving me open access to their extensive video library and the trust shown in me by the crews onboard the ships. I have sailed as a cameraman on many Greenpeace ships in the past and this inside knowledge of the organization and their knowledge of me undoubtedly gave me the edge to be able to make this film.

Newman also recently won an Emmy Award for cinematography on the BBC Travel Channel's “Wild China” Natural History Series.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Krist Jake, Festival Founder

We open our blog with an interview with Krist Jake, who along with his wife Laurie, founded the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival in 2004.

Krist, this is the 7th year of the festival, what is new and exciting this year?

First is our partnership with the Aquarium of the Bay, which is taking a large role in publicizing and producing the festival. Second is our move to Pier 39 where film goers will have better access by public transportation, a wider choice of dining options, along with reasonably priced parking.

What was your original inspiration for creating the film festival?

Well, I’m curious and prefer non-fiction books and films. The waterfront is a place I like to be because of the interesting things and people there. In the late 90’s, after being exposed to the Banff Mountain Film Festival traveling program, I attended a screening of several short silent films from 80 or so years ago on various sea creatures - octopus, jellyfish, seahorses, and the like. They were by a French filmmaker I’d never heard of, Jean Painlevé, and they were wonderful. Soon thereafter a light went on – why not a festival that would screen ocean-related films? At the time there were over 20 mountain film festivals all over the world, but nothing we could find called an “ocean” film festival.

What has been your favorite memory through the years?

The many “thank you’s” proffered by attendees after they’ve enjoyed a program. Also, the enthusiastic interaction between our audience and the filmmakers or special guests who enliven our programs.

What about your proudest moment?

It hasn’t been one moment per se, but the growing feeling that SFOFF has legs - that it will continue to gain advocates as a unique channel that increases the visibility of under-distributed films and the filmmakers’ messages in an interactive setting to a growing audience, an audience which will be better informed on the ocean and its issues.

What have been your greatest lessons learned since you started the festival?

The overall lesson is that, while putting on a film festival could be easy, producing one that maps in some sense to the scale of the ocean, what it deserves, and its many stakeholders, is a large undertaking. There are many moving parts to this film festival, and I’m thankful for our team of volunteers. A second lesson, or at least a reality, is that the economics of a non-commercial film festival are challenging and need creative thinking and a lot of elbow grease. A third is that starting a non-profit, assembling a board, creating some infrastructure, and producing even an annual event can absorb a lot of time. But that’s the cost of doing business.

What film/film maker has been your favorite and why?

Every film we’ve screened has merit and audience surveys convey a range of audience favorites. In part because they screened at the first Festival, I’ll mention two personal favorites - Flip Flotsam, because of its story and storytelling, its production values, music, etc., and that it interweaves the ocean and human cultural issues. Also because it is an excellent film on what is certainly an underappreciated item of apparel, the lowly flip flop. Another favorite is Berserk in the Antarctic – this is a low budget but very well done reality film with a story line, humor, scenery, wildlife, and some tension. Of course another was Heart of the Sea. These were all in Festival #1 and we hope to bring them back before long.

Some of the shorter pieces I’m fond of are Selling Songs of Leyte, The Sinking Ship, Nobody Loves You, Abridged, Christmas at the Bait Shop, etc. Shorter pieces are often creations of filmmakers early in their career, often made for a university class. The shorts we screen are delicacies – they tell a story or convey a message without fluff.

Is there anything else you want SFOFF enthusiasts to know?

SFOFF volunteers work hard to make the Festival come to life, sourcing films, selecting them, publicizing the festival, producing it, etc. We welcome inquiries from prospective volunteers.

Thanks Krist!

Bookmark our blog for Q&A sessions with the 2010 festival film makers. And, you can also follow us on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.