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Documentary filmmaking is both athletic and aesthetic
Phil Cox has made several investigative documentaries in the 14 years he has run Native Voice Films, an outfit he set up because he couldn't find a job. He brought some of the earliest images of the ethnic cleansing in Darfur to the Western press in 2004 and has appeared before the UN commission on human rights in Geneva. His footage will be used for future prosecutions of war crimes in Darfur. The Bengali Detective, which premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and Berlinale last year, happened because Cox wanted to make a character-based film. TOI-Crest meets the man who brings reportage alive
Which of your documentaries has been the most risky to make?
Many films have had their risks - from covering the Sudan Darfur conflict to the ultra-violent Camorra Mafia in Italy. But I love the physicality of documentary filmmaking - one has to be athletic as well as aesthetic. I am most proud of Breaking into the USA. Here I wanted to tell the story of people who illegally cross the Mexican border to work as cheap labour for the US economy. I made the film alone - travelling with illegal immigrants for six days and nights walking across mountains and the Arizona desert, running from wild bears, US spy drones, narcotic smugglers and the coyote people dealers. Although I couldn't walk for two weeks afterwards, I did manage to make a film that brought people closer to the deeper motivations and human issues that compel poor Mexican men and women to make such a dangerous journey. This was important - for the 'news' at the time was purely sensational, only about 'fear' and immigration 'waves' and the need for fences and vigilantes.
What are the inherent dangers of the investigative journalism you pursue?
I took more risks when I was younger but now, as more of my friends have been killed, I am more hesitant. When I smuggled myself into Sudan with the rebels during the Darfur war in 2003, I kept a compass on me and measured time and distance on my own map. All the soldiers laughed at me. But when we were ambushed at night and I was walking alone, it probably saved my life. So lots of preplanning and analysing is important.
Native Voice has made several films in India. Is this an easy country for a foreign crew to make a documentary?
Working with Indian people is a delight - they love the camera. At times, they love it a bit too much! Start to set up a camera in any street with a proper crew and you will have a crowd of 50 locals with directing suggestions in about two minutes. Some foreigners get stressed at this but I embrace it. People just want to see what's going on - and it is their country! We have made serious political and social commentary films - from Delhi, to Bihar, Kashmir and Orissa. All the struggles of the world are being played out in India - from land ownership, water, environment, tribal peoples, gender, religion, corruption, corporate dominance - and we have had to tread carefully. But we always work with very low-key crews of two people maximum and from the bottom up - from the mouths of the people concerned - not the experts or politicians. For foreigners, it is easier to cover sensitive political subjects. Local journalists have to stay here so the danger of threats is much more real. And this does happen continually in India which is a real threat to its democracy and government's accountability to the population. Sadly, this often results in self-censorship or poor journalism that simply espouses the official line. The other main issue for foreigners working in India is bureaucracy - it can take so long to get permission it is exasperating and there can be strong political control over access of journalists. But if one is a good filmmaker or a good journalist - then one will always find a way to the heart of the matter...whatever obstacle is put in front.
Commercial viability and independent filmmaking - are the two easily reconcilable in documentary making these days?
As much as a fish and a bicycle...television is ever more formulaic and series driven but it pays for our upkeep.
How have new media, satellite TV, not to mention film festivals, changed the way documentaries are now made and viewed?
Film festivals have always been around and are such an important part of filmmaking. Too often we work in isolation, never meeting other filmmakers or their new works, and never meeting our audiences. Showing a film in a cinema returns one to the organic collaborative process of watching a film together with real people - it's such a special and too often rare experience for a filmmaker today - but so important, so profoundly exhilarating. As filmmakers, we have to learn to embrace new ways of storytelling across different platforms - not just stick our heads in the sand and think only of a theatrical cinema conclusion. There is a massive audience waiting not just on new satellite channels, but on the web for example - and we have to direct and tell these web stories differently from the big screen. New media has helped with this enormously - and hopefully it will help us connect more directly with audiences themselves, rather than having to pass through whimsical and too often narrow minded distributors or broadcasters who are the gatekeepers.
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