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Friday, June 27, 2014

BAMcinemaFest 2014: Q&A with Joe Callander (Life After Death)

"As impossible to pin down as it is to stop talking about" (Moving Image Source), BAMcinemaFest alum Joe Callander's debut feature Life After Death charts the life of a directionless young Rwandan receiving aid from a charity-minded Christian couple in the US. Lacing this powerful depiction of life in Rwanda post-genocide with touches of wry comedy, Callander delivers one of the most unique and unexpected documentaries of the year. He spoke with us about his inspirations and the audacious and complicated tone of the film.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?

When I first started to really focus on making questionable life choices in pursuing documentary filmmaking back in 2008, I happened to see Jennifer Venditti's Billy the Kid. That film served as a kind of blazing beacon on a distant but not unreachable hill. It's a wonderful portrait of a character at the margins of society, which is the type of story I was trying to tell at the time. You need those films that get you thinking, "There is an audience for the type of film I want to make. I can do this. It's possible." Also, the Fishing With John TV series that aired on HBO back in the 90s affirmed for me that it's O.K. to get a little strange with documentary storytelling.

Beyond that, Burden of Dreams, American Movie, the films of Werner Herzog, and the word-movies of Mark Twain have inspired me immensely.

Considering the subject matter, the tone of your film is unique, unexpected, and complicated. Can you discuss how you arrived at it, and whether it was a conscious choice or one that sprang from the material organically?

I have a real problem keeping a straight face with filmmaking. Humor is kind of a compulsion for me, which, upon first appraisal, may make me an unlikely candidate for a portrait film on a couple kids that survived a genocide in Rwanda. But as far as I'm concerned, there is nothing more serious than humor. It is the most powerful way we connect with each other as human beings. The tone of Life After Death is not specific to the characters or subject matter in the film. It is only specific to me. It is the voice in all of my work, and the best way I've found to try and make sense of a very, very strange world.

For awhile, I tried to stifle and repress this compulsion toward humor, because documentary filmmaking has a bit of a reputation for being Very Serious Business. But that approach got me nowhere, and after a few years of constant failure and rejection I just said screw it, and started doing whatever I wanted. It was around that time the fog lifted, and the voice of the Ancients boomed, "Let the boy pass."

The film is gorgeously shot and we can’t wait for people to see it on the big screen. Talk a little about your visual approach.

In 2010 I hired Jason Tippet to edit a film I was working on at the time. We became fast friends, and over the next couple years I observed him from a close distance as he made his feature documentary Only the Young. Seeing how he worked really got me thinking about the formal elements of filmmaking. Tippet shoots only on tripod and with Zeiss prime lenses, which is the style I have adopted. I added a few lines of my own to the dogma; bringing in some Glidecam, some two-camera setups, stuff like that. It's worth the hassle to work a little harder and try to make every single shot beautiful. Just because it's a documentary doesn't mean it has to look like it was shot on a Shakeweight.

The real feat with all of this is, I shot the whole thing as a one-man crew. Sometimes I'd be running two cameras and recording sound all by myself, all while having no idea what anyone was saying because I don't speak Kinyarwanda. Quite the little sunburnt adventure.

Could you talk a little bit about your experience at BAMcinemaFest last year with Tina Delivers a Goat?

Tina was my first film to get some festival exposure. I didn't really know what I was doing at the time, and I was so shocked it got into True/False Film Festival that I forgot to submit to any other festivals. Luckily, the BAM programmers are on top of their game, and Nellie Killian reached out to me and invited the film to screen at BAM. Everybody knows that BAMcinemaFest is one of the best-curated and most important festivals in New York, and I count myself as pretty blessed that you guys have supported my unusual interpretations of the world, last year with Tina, and this year with Life After Death.

Lastly, what are some of your favorite films of the past year?

Hands down, Ne Me Quitte Pas, by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden. It is one of the most beautifully shot documentaries I've ever seen. It is outrageously funny and desperately heartbreaking, all at once. If I can't at least match the filmmaking quality of Ne Me Quitte Pas with my next film, my whole life will have been for nothing. The bar has been raised so high we're all going to have to drink standing up.

Life After Death screens in BAMcinemaFest on Saturday, Jun 28 at 3:30pm.

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