I usually stay away from films with violent words in their titles. I’m sensitive to violence in movies, and I spend all violent scenes covering my ears with my hands and staring stoically at a point somewhere beyond my right shoulder. But last night, something told me to make an exception for The Act of Killing, a documentary showing at SXSW this week.
That “something” was the endorsement of both Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, documentary superstars who I’d like to imagine summering at each others’ houses, and the intriguing description. It’s about the perpetrators of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965-66 getting together to make a fictional movie celebrating and glamorizing their past. They were “movie house gangsters” who took tickets at the cinema, got inspired by the violence in Hollywood movies, and aspired to be even more sadistic than what they saw on screen. One million people were killed in the genocide, and the main character claimed to be responsible for a thousand of those deaths.
The director, Joshua Oppenheimer, introduced the movie. “I won’t tell you to enjoy it,” he said. Awkwardly, the festival organizer came on right after him, told us there would be a Q&A later, and said, “Enjoy the film” as if there was no other way to close it out before the lights went down. Then the Alamo had a threatening message about not texting talking instagramming sexting etc, and the movie’s opening credits were disturbed by a waitress loudly asking our neighbors if they wanted parmesan on their popcorn.
What followed was an intense and powerful film about the state of Indonesian politics and how the killers are dealing with the past. The situation in Indonesia is as if the Nazis won and stayed in Germany, and celebrated their crimes and continued to act like gangsters with total impunity. In one scene, the Vice President of Indonesia gives a speech in front of the paramilitary and says, “We need our gangsters!” In another, the gangsters who are making the movie go on a national talk show, and the host congratulates them for creating a more humane and efficient way of exterminating people, as if Oprah was telling about a woman’s journey to her best life.
Those scenes felt surreal. They’re just so outside the realm of imagination, and also, it’s crazy that such an alternate reality could exist and that I was totally unaware of it. The movie-making scenes were equally crazy, starting one of the gangsters dressed up in drag with a Buddha belly and I’m still not sure why.
But the movie was really about the main character, Anwar, trying to exorcise the demons that haunted him from the genocide. In the first scene the director shot with him, he danced on the rooftop where he said he tortured and killed so many. Throughout the movie, he goes deeper into dealing with the morality of what he did - even though everyone around him glorifies his actions. In one scene, in which he says he understands how the people he killed felt being tortured after acting it out, the director calls him out from behind the camera. “No, you don’t know how they felt,” he says. “Because you knew it was a film and they knew they were about to die.”
After the film, the director did a quick Q&A and explained that although he was no longer welcome in Indonesia (the paramilitary tweeted that if he went back, the film should be called “The Act of Being Killed” which Oppenheimer thought was very clever, but scary), the film had changed the conversation about the genocide. People were actually able to speak out, whereas there had been total silence and intimidation before. He had started making films about the survivors and victims, but found filming stunted by the military. A neighbor suggested that he go and film with the killers. He interviewed 40 of them before he found Anwar, and shot him dancing on the roof.
After we were hustled out of the theater, we spent another half hour huddled in a small circle around the director, talking about the film. This is the kind of thing I love about South By. The thing that struck me about him was that this guy had already done a life’s work: Making a film that made a difference. For me, that’s what the point of art should be. Usually art aims on a small and vague scale of difference making (“start a conversation about…” or “make people think differently…” or “shock”) but The Act of Killing aimed for an overpopulated country with huge problems in the present and past, and made a difference there. That’s incredible; that’s inspiring to me.
The other thing, as an aspiring documentary maker myself, was that the film didn’t always look great. I’m so used to seeing these crisp and visually rich films shot with DSLRs on up. I just took a class on digital filmmaking that focused mostly on shooting narrative films where shots and lights are pre-arranged, and was frustrated by how the documentary I shot was often rough and shaky (I really would have liked a dolly walking alongside my character!). But in The Act of Killing, all scenes shot at night or in low light looked grainy or noisy, and some scenes were out of focus. And that was okay, because the story was just so captivating. I get caught up so often in how things look and it’s a reminder that the most important thing is story. And sound.
So go see The Act of Killing when you can. It’s being distributed by Drafthouse Films here in town, so it should be getting showings across the US.
Also, I’m having my first premiere today, at SXSW! A short documentary I made last year with Robert Melton won the City of Austin film contest and is being shown in a showcase at the Carver Center. It gives me a little bit of street cred, I hope.
My latest story for Studio 360 has taken me a while to share, but that is because there’s so much to say about it. This story had a story from start to finish.
It began when I started emailing a few of my favorite artistically-minded scientist types searching for ideas for a new pitch to Studio 360. My former neighbor Zack Booth Simpson, who was actually a subject for a previous story, told me to take a look at the Mars Curiosity animation. He said he couldn’t stop watching it.
As I say in the story, I am not crazy about space. But this video blew me away. My editor was interested, and I set to finding out who was responsible. The trail led to Kevin Lane, the owner of a small animation studio in Burbank, California.
The most awesome part of the story comes next: I flew out to LA to visit the studio and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is responsible for all unmanned space missions and arguably my favorite NASA base. (I also learned that JPL is not really NASA, just contracted to NASA, and they are quite sensitive about that.)
I came away with SO MUCH GOOD TAPE. I think you have to be a producer to know how that feels. You record data into your little box and you feel like you would find gold inside if you opened it up.
Doug Ellison, the visual producer at JPL, was so incredibly animated and knew how to turn a phrase about space travel like no other. (“A GIANT MARTIAN BACKPACK!”) Tom Rivellini, one of the EDL scientists, was remarkably down-to-earth (pun) about the realities of getting to Mars. (Although I can still hear him chewing his strawberry Twizzlers as he talks.) And Kevin and his team of animators talked to me for two hours about the ins and outs of animating, and off camera told me some absolutely crazy tales about the animation industry. (Involving hookers and blow and outsourcing to Chinese animation students who worked for free.)
Sadly, the hookers and blow studio boss story was off the record and the whole thing had to fit into eight minutes. My editor, David Krasnow, was wonderful to work with as always and made taking those moments of genius out a little less painful, because he is always right.
This story also brought about two of the more surreal moments of my life: The first, being caught stealing electricity from a stranger’s garage as a car was pulling in. My phone was dead after a day of traveling and JPL and I couldn’t find the house where I was staying. Luckily the owner of the car was understanding and let me charge up from his own iPhone cord.
The second, trying to calm a young suicidal driver that I stopped for as I was biking to KUT to voice this story. I don’t want to go in detail, but it was really intense and traumatic and I burst into tears as soon as I saw the studio engineer. One of the things I’m most proud of about this story is pulling it together and sounding normal.
There are radio stories in the pipeline, but my work with Reflect & Record has been occupying a front space in my mind. The holidays are a great time to promise that projects will be done, and thus I have been in a mad multimedia production dash.
I’m really excited to share those projects, but I’ve just sent them out and want to give the families a chance to spend some time with them. In the meantime, I’m totally in love with these vintage Christmas cards I received as part of a family documentary project I’m working on. Arriving at the beginning of December, they might be responsible for how much I’m anticipating Christmas this year. That, and the fact that we’re not traveling.
The city of Austin is digging a subway-sized tunnel through downtown. The limestone foundation rock is the ideal material for tunneling, so why not a subway for Austin?
Well, there are a lot of reasons why not. I go through them in my most recent story that aired on KUT:
This story was produced with StateImpact Texas, a collaboration between Texas public radio stations and NPR. Essentially, that means that this story looks wider than Austin, up to Dallas, where they are decades ahead with public transportation.
Here’s the full text writeup I did for the StateImpact site:
That title isn’t technically correct. Dallas has the only subway in all of the Southwest. The only reason it exists is because it would be a bigger headache, or impossible, to get right of way through the neighborhoods that a new light rail line would have gone through on a route that parallels one of the city’s biggest commuter roadways.
The bottom line is that it’s pretty much light rail or bust. And for all Austin’s talk of being the most progressive city in Texas, it’s behind the curve on public transportation.
I love public transportation stories, so this was really interesting for me, even though I knew coming into it that cost is the biggest issue. The best part was talking to Rob Spillar, the director of the city’s Transportation department. After our interview, he spent a half hour talking about future plans and challenges for public transportation in Austin. I wish I had recorded it!
But I love interviews like that - when you realize your interview subject loves talking about what they do so much, they grab ahold of an interested listener, and you get to learn so much more than you came for.
Radio reporting without a laptop -
This reporter claims to have handed in his laptop and uses only an iPhone and iPad for reporting and editing.
I have heard of this extreme behavior before, and I could not possibly get on board. I think it’s fine for down and dirty, super quick turnaround news reporting, but you’re inevitably sacrificing quality of sound and any suaveness of craft.
He’s basically using the pre-installed voice memo app and SoundCloud to send in audio for the newsroom to put together his pieces.
I just don’t know why anyone would go actually want to turn their laptop in. That stuff is still useful!
Out Of The Ashes Of Dead Trees - Andrew Sullivan -
Andrew Sullivan of the Daily Dish wrote this great piece about the future of magazines.
One day, we’ll see movies with people reading magazines and newspapers on paper and chuckle. Part of me has come to see physical magazines and newspapers as, at this point, absurd. They are like Wile E Coyote suspended three feet over a cliff for a few seconds. They’re still there; but there’s nothing underneath; and the plunge is vast and steep.
It sounds harsh. But without even realizing it, I’ve come to the same view. I said I’d never give up the feeling of a book in my hand, the satisfaction of turning a page in a newspaper, admiring the layout of a magazine.
I remember where I was standing when I said this, my senior year of college: The office where we were laying out a print magazine.
But technology has a way of reducing our ideals to nostalgia. I got a Kindle as an un-asked for gift, and now when I read a physical book, I wonder why I can’t pull up the meaning of a word on the page itself.
In a personal last stand for physical media, I ordered a subscription to the Sunday Times, during Labor Day weekend. It hasn’t come yet. Apparently, it’s a huge hassle to get a carrier to deliver it to my house. (Andrew Sullivan mentions delivery problems too, NYT, stop whining about the death of print and get it together!) I’ve called or emailed five times now, and I want to cancel my subscription. I tried! and was defeated by print itself.
Sullivan sees the future of magazines as existing only in extremes: High-end luxury product, or low-end grocery line tabloid. I think that’s realistic. But it assumes that everyone in the mid-range (those who would read Newsweek, for example) has access to a tablet reader. That our lives are filled with increasing amounts of physical technology. I feel like I’m already there, living in the future.
Not making a living as an independent producer -
My friend Ashley Milne-Tyte’s recent blog post has been attracting attention in public radio circles in the past week or so. It addresses, straight-on, what is almost a taboo subject: The fact that you can’t make a living as an independent producer.
I’m secretly proud to have contributed (via Facebook chat) what has become the catchphrase of the post: It’s radio’s dirty little secret.
The post was triggered by Ashley’s experience at the Third Coast Audio Festival, a bi-annual conference that celebrates independently produced work, and where many people from the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR) meet up.
I found it hard to sit there applauding at the idea that AIR has so many more members, when a lot of these members will be 20-somethings who will find it very hard to make anything more than $200-$700 a story, depending on the outlet and the ‘tier’ of pay the outlet decides the producer deserves.
If you do the math (and I don’t, both because I’m scared of numbers and the results of said math), you might end up making minimum wage or less on a radio story. That’s because it’s the nature of us public radio folks to make the best work we can, regardless of pay. You can’t charge for getting an interview that wasn’t originally discussed, or invoice extra for a second edit on your story. Or you might end up making nothing, like Ashley does on her high quality podcast, The Broad Experience.
I’ve been complacent about pay. For me, making radio is a luxury. I knew when I left my steady radio job that freelancing alone wasn’t going to pay the bills. I once accepted $200 for an 8 minute story just because I’d wanted to do the story for so long. There’s a priceless value for me in reporting a story and getting it on air.
But I do wonder why we’re not more up front about the fact that it doesn’t pay very well. In a way, it’s the same ethical dilemma all across journalism: Should we tell j-school students that they probably won’t find a newspaper job? That more likely, they’ll be blogging on a crappy website for nickels? It’s not such a bright and shiny future if you aren’t willing to be creative about it. I feel lucky to have found life stories, and learned not to put all my career eggs in one shrinking basket.
Last week I flew out to New Orleans with a light HD camcorder and a 60 lb bag of lighting equipment on my shoulder. I was shooting my first family history documentary - four interviews that I’ll weave together to tell the story of a wonderful Southern family living in an idyllic Southern town.
One of my unexpected favorite parts of the interview was this reading. One of the interviewees had stumbled on a church program that focused on the importance of family stories. She thought it was akin to divine intervention.
Linda Smith Reading from Reflect & Record on Vimeo.
As you can see, the interviews can get very emotional. I’m tearing up behind the camera. Each interview is fascinating and beautiful. It’s a rare opportunity to reflect - with seriousness and intention - on the meaning of time gone by.
It’s a real privilege to be a part of moments like these, and in some ways, responsible for bringing them about.
* The above video is completely unedited. It will get nicer with editing!
**Also, re: heavy and huge lighting equipment bag: Fly Southwest! Tell them when you check in that you’re with media or a commercial filmmaking company, and you can preboard so your precious gear does not get checked.
Tasered youth fare as well as adults, new research says -
This press release headline first caught my eye because I thought it read, “Tasered youth fare well as adults”, which implied that tasering a youth teaches them an effective and valuable lesson.
What it really means to say is that tasering a youth is not a big deal and no one should complain about being tasered (“Don’t tase me, bro!”). The study looked at 100 adolescents who had been tased - a group which turns out to be older and larger, more similar in physiology to adults than children. They found only 20 mild injuries, most of which were puncture wounds from the weapon’s probes. That sounds like it kinda hurts. But they also found that there weren’t any heart problems associated with getting tased, which was backed up by an earlier study with volunteer police officers. Who volunteered to get tased.
I don’t know. Getting tased still sounds unpleasant. Although, as the press release concludes, it’s obviously safer than getting assaulted with a baton, fists, or firearms.