The Denver-based, Academy Award–winning director (for the documentary short Saving Face) talks about awards, Star Wars, and why Colorado may, in fact, be the best place in the world to be a filmmaker. Interview by Daliah Singer
Where did you get the idea for Saving Face?
I knew about the phenomena of acid violence, but I wasn’t endeavoring to make a film until several years ago, when I heard, on the BBC, the biggest radio story of the year. It was on Katie Piper, a model who was attacked on the streets of London with acid. She cited her hero as Dr. Mohammad Jawad. So I called him. And that’s where the adventure began.
It’s certainly a heavy topic, but there are wonderful, bright moments in Saving Face.
I think the power of the film comes from the fact that there’s some amount of redemption. It’s obviously a horrendous social malady, but the fact that we were able to find people who were fighting—and fighting successfully—really helps. With human rights films, there needs to be some element of hope. People switch off otherwise.
You’re walking into a situation where these women have experienced absolute horror, often at the hands of a man and/or a loved one. How did you develop trust?
I had some amount of trust because I was on Dr. Jawad’s hip. But it became immediately apparent that I needed a partner on the ground, preferably a woman. I got to work with Pakistan’s best filmmaker, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. I’ve worked with in-country partners on a lot of my films. I think there’s an ethical imperative there, especially in developing countries, but also, the films are always better because there’s somebody on the inside helping you out.
Tell me about the Oscar experience.
It’s phenomenal to be nominated, but winning really is the coup de grace. It’s just a great recognition of the work of my team and me. A small human rights film like this suddenly has a much more visible stature and a global audience because of that award.
It’s difficult to get people, strangers, to open up. When you put a camera in their faces, it tends to add another layer of tension. How do you cross that bridge?
I’m constantly surprised that people want their stories heard, especially when people are downtrodden and they’ve had their rights stomped on. I also introduce myself to people with my camera in hand. I’m the guy with the camera. That’s how I establish my relationship and try to forge an intimacy. The subjects know full well that I’m a filmmaker first and foremost.
What was the first moviegoing experience that really stuck with you?
The formative filmmaking experience of my lifetime was Star Wars, and I say that with some guilt. It was an incredibly important film for me as a child. But, moreover, it was the first film that also came with this whole culture of discussing how the film was made. We not only got to enjoy the big-screen experience, but all of us, of all ages, who enjoyed that film got to see it deconstructed as well. I think that created a lot of filmmakers.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a film [Fight Church] on the intersection of Christianity and mixed martial arts or cage fighting. I’m making a film with [editor] Davis Coombe in Jamaica on a school for disadvantaged boys that helped give birth to reggae; a lot of great Jamaican music legends have come out of this one school. I’m also doing some lighter, more populist films. I’m doing a film on Evel Knievel, and I’m doing the official Lego documentary with the Lego company. Although I aspire to make a feature, my current goal is to make bigger, more broadly populist documentaries.
Do people often tell you that you should move to Hollywood?
The question is usually posed in this way: “Are you from New York or L.A.?” And then when I say that I’m from Denver, it usually invokes the reaction like a dog hearing a high-pitched noise. But what we’re seeing, especially in the documentary industry, is a real decentralization. The tools now are available for people all over the country and all over the world to make these films. Now, if you can live anywhere in the world, why wouldn’t you live in Denver?
Is it just the technology that’s helping the filmmaking culture grow in Colorado?
I think that there’s a synergy right now in Denver. We’re not working necessarily together, but we’re all working alongside each other and we’re seeing each other. I get so amped by seeing other filmmakers’ work from Colorado, and, in some ways, it’s also just a challenge to make better films. There’s certainly something to the community as well.
I’ve heard the same sentiment—the sense of community here—from many people who work in creative fields in Colorado. It’s an interesting dynamic.
Absolutely. I think there’s recognition that in some ways we’re in the bush here and that we need to be a community.
What’s your advice to young filmmakers here and elsewhere?
I always say, “Don’t wait for anyone to say yes.” You’ve got to pick up the camera and start making your film. That’s what I did. You’ve got to make your own yeses.