Documentary film


russian woodpecker poster

The real life protagonist of The Russian Woodpecker, Chad Gracia’s  astonishing documentary feature, the winner of World Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2015, is the most fascinating ideas man you can imagine.

His name is Fedor Alexandrovich and he is an Ukrainian artist with a traumatic past: his ancestors were murdered by the Soviets, sent to gulags or forced to renounce their family, and he was only four years old in 1986 when the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown happened, an event that forced him to leave his home due to the toxic effects of irradiation. Now 33, he is a “radioactive man” with strontium in his bones and a singular obsession with the earth-changing catastrophe – why did it actually happen?


Fedor Alexandrovich

Chad met Fedor on the set of a play he was putting on in Kiev where Fedor worked as a set designer. Fedor kept whispering to Chad about the “Russian woodpecker,” a giant, mysterious antenna nicknamed such for the strange, constant clicking radio frequencies that it emitted during the Cold War and which had been terrorising the radio frequencies in Europe and America during that time, so much so that many Americans believed it to be a Soviet mind-control device.

For Fedor, this strange device that the Soviets built only 2 miles from the Chernobyl nuclear station, represented a very deep and dark mystery: what was its real use and was there more to the Chernobyl story than the Soviet government let on? Is it possible that there might have been a criminal mind behind the Chernobyl catastrophe that the world doesn’t know about? As incredible as this may sound, is it possible that Chernobyl was blown up on purpose??

Duga antenna

The “Russian Woodpecker”

These were questions without answers and just another “conspiracy theory” until the day Fedor decided to confront the Russian Woodpecker that is now rotting away in an off-limits military facility in the middle of the radioactive Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

In one of the most astonishing visual sequences of the film, Fedor is sailing naked across a radioactive sea on a raft of mirrors which he himself constructed following a dream he had about the mysterious device.

Steeped in a climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police threatening Fedor into closing his investigation and all sorts of dangers lurking at every step of the way, Chad Gracia’s documentary is more fascinating than a Bond thriller!


Fedor Alexandrovich, director Chad Gracia and cinematographer Artem Ryzhykov

Dana Knight: The Russian Woodpecker is a most compelling story. I loved the way the pieces of the puzzle were put together by Fedor’s inquisitive mind and the way you conducted the investigation that followed. What wasn’t perfectly clear to me is this: did Fedor form his theory about the Chernobyl disaster not really being an accident before you started shooting or is this incredible discovery a result of the film?

Chad Gracia: No, our main interest was in the antenna, our plan was to debunk the conspiracy theory that the antenna was a mind control device. He just had some sort of artistic fascination with this object, he described it to me many times but he spoke of it in terms of some sort of aesthetic urgency that he had about witnessing it, feeling it, approaching it. Fedor is very sensitive, he sort of follows his instincts, he has his own creative antenna. But I don’t think he had any rational idea for why he has to go there, he was just drawn to it.

Knight: In a sense, it would have been even more astonishing if Fedor put all the pieces of the puzzle together before you embarked on the investigation.

Gracia: Yes but as you see in the film, it only came about because people were very nervous when asked about the antenna. That made him suspicious. And Fedor says that he could never believe such a thing was possible, but that was actually the direction that his research took him. We came about it in a way naively, we really did not expect to find what we found. It was supposed to be a very short film about this antenna.


Knight: I know, but even if he had the idea to begin with, he would have probably only gradually disclosed his thoughts to you, because to hit you with all these crazy ideas from the start, it would have been too much for you to take on, I guess.

Gracia: Well, you would have to ask Fedor, he certainly is a very mysterious guy! But in my opinion it started more as just an investigation: there’s this strange object, this enormous antenna that no one knows much about, it’s standing next to Chernobyl, it’s dying to be filmed, it’s dying to be explored, it’s ready to be questioned. That’s what we did, without any assumptions at all when we started.

Knight: How did you get access to those Russian former high officials? That must have been difficult.

Gracia: Well, when we first reached out to them we didn’t say anything about me, an American, being involved, I would just show up. And after many months of getting nowhere, we realised that my showing up made them not really want to speak with us. That was a step in the wrong direction. So at that point we got a special apartment with a kind of a cubby where I could hide, so they never knew there was an American director involved. I used to Skype to send questions to the team and clarifications during the interview. The question as to why they agreed to meet, I think originally when our Ukrainian contact called them, she said, “Look, they want to talk about your life”. These guys used to be at the top of the Soviet pyramid, they were heroes of their day and now they are all forgotten, living on tiny pensions, in crumbling apartments and no one cares about them. So they have someone coming to talk about their youth and about their technological achievements which were quite significant. This antenna, we don’t have time to get into it in the film, but it spurred a lot of research into super computers in Russia. Being able to assess the signal was incredibly difficult. So they were very proud of what they achieved and they wanted to talk about it but not with an American.

Knight: I found that very funny, the way they became immediately suspicious when the word “American” was pronounced. They are basically still caught in the past.

Gracia: I was surprised too, I thought the Cold War was ancient history, I really did not expect these guys to still be living in that world. But Fedor was the one who kept telling me, “No, Chad, you don’t understand, the Cold War is still alive, the Soviet ghosts are still haunting Ukraine, they are everywhere”. I thought he was crazy. He was also the first one to say that the Soviet Union is coming back, there’s going to be war. And he said this to everyone who was listening but everyone thought he was crazy. This was months before the annexation of Crimea, or the events in Eastern Ukraine. Again Fedor is kind of an antenna, he’s like all great artists, he’s very sensitive to things before the rest of us.


Knight: The timing of your documentary was perfect in a way: the progression of the documentary found resonance in the Revolution that was happening around you.  And this climate of paranoia, with the Russian Secret Police that started interfering with your project, and your own paranoia about the other team members filming a parallel film!

Chad: I know, it’s strange. It’s obviously unrelated that the Revolution broke out. And when I walked into the Chernobyl exclusion zone and when I got into the force-field of this antenna, my life became very surreal. And you’re right, the climate of paranoia engulfed us, as it eventually engulfed the whole city and the whole country. But that’s just a quirk of history and a sad fate for Ukraine, but it made our story so much more dramatic and timely than we expected it to be.

Knight: The moment the Secret Police interfered with your project was a key turning point in the film, you almost lost the project as Fedor wanted out. How did you get over that obstacle?

Gracia: Well, Fedor left and we had no film and I went back, I left the country trying to figure out how to salvage my project. And it was only when the Revolution kicked off that Fedor felt he had a patriotic duty to come back. This was three months later. But he had certain requirements. He said that he wanted to give the Secret Police final cut, final approval of the film, he told them that he would try to convince me of that. So we kind of agreed on that but within a week the Pro-Russian government fell and then luckily we never had to do that. Also we had to put the disclaimer, by way of a contract, Fedor was pressured to put this disclaimer in front of the film, that the film is not intended to disrupt relations between Ukraine and Russia.  I guess Fedor also felt that having his theory out in the world would make him safer than if he was the only one who had the theory. So he felt that, paradoxically, by publicising the theory he was safer. 

Knight: That’s actually the next question I wanted to ask: is Fedor safe now in Ukraine, is it safe for him to be there?

Gracia: In today’s situation, nobody knows who is safe and who is not safe in Ukraine. But when people ask Fedor if he feels he’s personally at risk, he answers: “Look, it’s not just me, it’s all of us. No one is safe as long as there’s such a madman at the helm of a nuclear armed country, who wants to bring back the Great Empire”. That’s what Fedor says. I think he’s safe, we hope he’s safe. We’ve been invited to Moscow to screen the film at a documentary film festival there. Fedor is terrified but I think I’ll go.

Knight: You’re not terrified?

Gracia: Look, I’m an American. As you probably know, an Ukrainian film director was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison following a mock trial. So Fedor is not entirely crazy to be nervous. But my hope is that the government there has much bigger worries than some documentary about some cover-up that happened 30 years ago.

Knight: Fedor is an amazing, fascinating character. Going back to how this project started, I understand that you two met on the set of a play that you were working on in Kiev.

Gracia: Exactly. And I immediately knew he was a special character, like out of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Fedor writing on mirror

Knight: What is also amazing is that you don’t come from a film background, you did theatre, this is your very first venture into filmmaking.

Gracia: Yes. But the film is quite theatrical in some ways, you can definitely feel the influence. But my experience in theatre was also as a dramaturge, dealing with story-structure, so that helped me a lot. But it’s true, all of us were first time filmmakers. Our cinematographer ARTEM RYZHYKOV  worked on something else before but this was his first major picture. He’s a genius.

Knight: He must be, the cinematography is incredible. The whole film is incredible.

Gracia: Yes, it was a magical, miraculous experience. The whole project, from concept, to how we got it financed, to our opening in New York on Friday and seeing people really enjoy it. People find it fascinating and they love it. That’s the best part about it.

Knight: You also mentioned you had a lot of footage. How did things go in the editing room, what did you decide to leave out and why? The film is very well put together, it is seamless.

Gracia: The editing was extremely complicated. We had five separate films that were apparently unrelated: Fedor’s dream, which was a long journey across Ukraine, we had the Chernobyl disaster, we had the technology of the radar, we had the conspiracy theory and we had the Revolution that was happening in Ukraine. And I was nearly at the end of my wits trying to figure out how to bring these stories together. And the moment when it all became clear for me is when I realised it’s really only one story: it’s the story of Fedor’s soul. The story of Fedor’s psychological journey. From the 4-year old irradiated child to the man who eventually stands up to the Soviet Union. At that point I decided to cut everything else, except for that which supported his journey. And it turned out that all of these things, the history of Ukraine, going back to what happened to his grandfather during the Revolution, even the antenna, all had elements that supported and even clarified and coloured Fedor’s journey. And I wanted the film to be very brisk, I wanted it to be short and feel like a thriller. I didn’t want it to be a 3-hour meditation. I wanted it to be an action thriller/detective story.

Knight: The fact that the film is short makes it even more impactful and it leaves you with a desire to see more. Maybe a sequel would be in order!

Gracia: Maybe, I’ll talk to Fedor about it. My thoughts were that I’d rather have people wanting more than being bored.

Knight: Where is the film on the festival circuit?

Gracia: We showed the film in Bucharest recently, I was there, it was lovely. And we’re going to Copenhagen next, the film is screening at CPH:DOX.

Knight: And do you have another film project you’re working on next?

Gracia: I have but it’s kind of top secret. In a couple of years I’ll hopefully have another film to chat to you about.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER is opening in theaters in Los Angeles on October 30.


THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER opens in NYC July 24 (press release)

THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER is the rags to riches story of one of old time showbiz’s biggest personalities. From 1906 through the beginning of television, Sophie Tucker and her bawdy, brash, and risqué songs paved the way for performers such as Mae West, Marilyn Monroe, Bette Midler, Cher, Madonna, Lady Gaga, and Beyoncé.

sophie tucker

After eight years spent reading hundreds of Tucker’s personal scrapbooks, visiting fourteen archives, and interviewing dozens of family, friends, and fellow icons of stage and screen, Susan and Lloyd Ecker have completed their comprehensive documentary about the Last of the Red Hot Mamas.

“Sophie was like the Forrest Gump of the first half of the 1900s,” says producer Susan Ecker. “She was close friends with seven U.S. presidents, King George VI, young Queen Elizabeth, Charlie Chaplin, J. Edgar Hoover, Al Capone, Judy Garland, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and every other notable of her era.”

“After immersing ourselves in Sophie’s 400+ personal scrapbooks and meeting all of Tucker’s surviving friends and family,” says producer Lloyd Ecker, “this film biography is the complete uncensored tale of this vaudeville, Broadway, radio, television and Hollywood legend. Though she obsessively documented her life, Sophie loved to exaggerate for dramatic effect. Over the years, she told multiple versions of each important event. At the end, not even Sophie knew the difference between truth and tall tale”.

Director’s Statement – William Gazecki

Sophie who? Wasn’t she the fat lady always singing “God Bless America”? (NO… that was Kate Smith). Like many people today, that’s who I thought of when I was initially offered the job of directing a documentary about Sophie Tucker.


William Gazecki

When Tucker was alive, she was indeed buxom, and somewhere in my mind I knew I had heard of her. One of those “tip of the tongue” memories. Later I realized it was probably from seeing a couple of Sophie’s 25+ appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show, the most popular of all the early television variety shows. Those were the days of my childhood when Elvis and the Beatles were thrilling me as a teenager. But Sophie was there too. As I would soon discover, throughout her life, Tucker was everywhere, like a real female Forrest Gump.

When I first met Sue and Lloyd Ecker, they kept me enthralled and intrigued with Sophie tales for hours on-end. I laughed, cried and was amazed… story after story after story… some funny, some touching, some unbelievable (for instance, Tucker befriended both gangster Al Capone and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover). The Eckers knew Tucker so well, they spoke about her as if she was family. What an interesting and compelling life Sophie had. The kind of inspiring and iconic personality about whom you want to know everything. So I happily took on the project.

My first task? Find all the Sophie Tucker experts and get them scheduled for interviews. Unfortunately, there were no Tucker experts. Try as I may, no one on the planet knew as much about Sophie as Sue and Lloyd Ecker. Why? Because no one had ever done that much research on this forgotten icon. The couple had just completed four years of reading, scanning and indexing Tucker’s 400 personal scrapbooks, learning all the stories that in some instances spanned seven decades. They also spent an equal amount of time travelling throughout the U.S. and England interviewing and taping every person they could find who actually knew her. Most of them were successful retired performers who began as one of Sophie’s opening acts. None of them really knew her that well, being not much more than young upstarts when they worked with the “Last of the Red Hot Mamas”. But they remembered Tucker, and still loved her.

As they traveled on their “Sophie mission”, the Eckers had carried a video camera, shooting interviews with everyone they met. My second task was to watch all of these endearing recordings. Sweet as they were, mostly there was a dearth of unusable material for a traditional film biography. The stars had all been kids, impressed for life by a unique and powerful woman in the twilight of her greatness.

In the end, what seemed obvious turned out to be the best choice. The Eckers were the ideal candidates to narrate the movie. They had to be, or there wasn’t going to be a movie. “Let’s do a little experiment,” I said, and away we went. Fortunately, during their college years Lloyd had worked as a comedian and Sue as an actor. Once on-camera, they were wonderful. The rest is history, which you can now enjoy by watching “The Outrageous Sophie Tucker”!

New York City
Greenwich Village – Cinema Village
Upper West Side – The JCC in Manhattan

Social Media:

Twitter: @SophieTucker SophieTucker.

Fassbinder – To Love Without Demands @!f Istanbul 2015


Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fassbinder – To Love without Demands made its world premiere at the 2015 Berlinale in the Panorama section, a programme dedicated to  films that provide insight on new directions in art house cinema.

The film is a portrait of one of the world’s most prominent and productive directors, Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen was close friends with Fassbinder throughout his career and the film is built around the footage that Braad Thomsen made with Fassbinder throughout the 1970s and which have not previously been published.

Below is an interview with Christian Braad Thomsen taken at !f Istanbul, February 2015


Danish filmmaker Christian Braad Thomsen

Dana Knight: You first met Fassbinder in 1969 when he showed his first film Love Is Colder Than Death at Berlinale and became a close friend of his over the years. How did this friendship grow and develop?

Christian Braad Thomsen: I met him because I was almost the only one that liked his first film. It was furiously booed out by the audience, whereas I thought that in a way it was the first film in the world, a rediscovery of the film language, which had been totally corrupted by Hollywood. So when I met him in a bar, I went up to him and congratulated him, because I thought he needed some comforting words. He was only 24 years old. But he couldn’t care less. This security was what impressed me most from the beginning, – and little by little we became friends .

Knight: You start the film by making a very daring statement: that in 50 years time when film history will be re-evaluated, Hitchcock and Fassbinder will be remembered as the two single most important artists of the 20th century. While everybody is familiar with Hitchcock’s work, probably the same degree of popularity does not characterise Fassbinder’s films. Is that to do with the fact that the bitter pill he served us was not sugar-coated?

Braad Thomsen: Yes. Bitter pills are not popular, but they are necessary against sickness. And Fassbinder considered his society sick. He thought that children were brought up to be talking puppets in stead of independent human beings. He thought that dependency made people sick and in his films he analyzes the causes of the sickness in civilization

Knight: Fassbinder is such a controversial filmmaker, his films are so divisive. What touched you the most about his films that made you become such a staunch defender of his art?

Braad Thomsen: The most touching element in his films is that he is able to describe oppression so clearly that we can all see what is wrong with our ways of creating our families and our society. And no matter how cruel some of his characters behave, he still has a lot of pity for them – and for us.

Knight: In your interviews with him, Fassbinder is more open than ever talking about postwar Hollywood, which was his first love, and psychoanalysis, love, marriage, children and madness. Did any of his views ever surprise you or you already knew his mind based on this films?

Braad Thomsen: I was so shocked by the last interview I did with him at his hotel room in Cannes, that I dared not watch the interview for 30 years. He criticizes me strongly for having put a child into this world, although I should have know better, he talks about sadomasochism as a natural consequence of the world, we have created, and he discusses madness as a possiblev solution for each individual. What he means is, I suppose, what also a psychiatrist like Ronald D. Laing meant in the 1970’s, that in a world as crazy as ours, everybody who reacts against this world is considered mad – though he or she may be the most normal of all persons.

Knight: The film also contains interviews with Fassbinder’s mother, Lilo Pempeit,  the actress Irm Hermann who became his lover and almost committed suicide when he left her,  the actor and producer Harry Bär who was the last to talk with Fassbinder, just a few hours before he died, actor Andrea Schober, who played the child roles in Fassbinder’s early films. How did all these other people enrich the image you held of Fassbinder?

Braad Thomsen: They showed me what love is. How could they love a person that also had so many unpleasant aspects as Fassbinder. And how could I love him so deeply, though I am not the least homosexual.  Made the film in order to find out what love is, and I am not sure I succeeded, because defining love is probably impossible. But I believe what Petra von Kant says in Fassbinders film:  “You must learn to love without demands.”

Knight: In making this documentary, you’re using previously unseen footage, mainly your own interviews with him taken throughout his life. What was it like to revisit those conversations? Anything that struck you in particular?

Braad Thomsen: What struck me most is that Fassbinder never lied, but always was honest. He never talked in clichés, but was always completely sincere and naked in front of my camera.

Knight: Fassbinder died in 1982. Why do you think it was important to wait over 30 years to make this documentary?

Braad Thomsen: I didn’t know how to make it. The task seemed overwhelming, and  I thought I needed to overcome his death, before I made the film. But finally I realized that those who were close to him, will never get over his death. He was not only a father figure for most of us, he was also a child. He didn’t want to grow up in this world, but insisted of remaining a child – and yet, he was, of course, the most mature and wise of us all. But he was also a child, whom we tried to protect – and we never get over the death of a child.

Knight: In the last film interview with Fassbinder, shot just a few hours before he died, he said something striking that sums up his contradictions:“To be complete, you need to double yourself.” Can you comment on that?

Braad Thomsen: The translation in the subtitles is not quite precise. He actually says “To be complete, you need yourself once again.” I think this is the most important he ever said. The mirror was his favourite symbol, because in the mirror we have ourselves once again. When we wake up in the morning after a hopefully beautiful dream, we see the sad reality in the mirror in the bath room. On a deeper level he may af thought of Sigmund Freuds understanding of our personality: we are divided between law and lust. The law of our parents and our society is represented in our superego, which plays the dominating role in our lives, whereas our personal needs and lust is put away in the id. Fassbinder admired Freud, and one of the projects he never realized was a film based on Freuds “Moses and Monotheism”, where Freud splits Moses into two very different persons, a cruel dictator and a mild shepherd. Fassbinder wanted to unite the superego and the id, the dictator and the shepherd.

Colombian Documentary Encounters: Ricardo Restrepo Interview @ Havana Film Festival 2014

I saw quite a few documentary shorts at Havana Film Festival 2014, including the immensely entertaining A Conversation with García Márquez About His Friend Fidel, directed by Estela Bravo (a film that is soon playing at the 16th HAVANA FILM FESTIVAL New York) but Ricardo Restrepo‘s The End of the Terrible Night was by far the one that touched me the most for the rawness of its images and the urgency of its message.

Below is an interview with Ricardo Restrepo taken in Havana,  December 2014 at Hotel National de Cuba.

Could you please introduce yourself and the documentary film you are presenting at Havana Film Fest 2014.

My name is Ricardo Restrepo, I’m a Colombian filmmaker, DP, independent producer, working alongside other independent filmmakers as part of the Colombian production company Pathos . For about 15 years I ran the Colombian Film Academy for Documentary and The International Documentary Encounters. My latest documentary short, The End of the Terrible Night, was selected in competition here at Havana Film Festival and I really think it’s the best place to show it because the film talks about what we call in Colombia our “internal war”. As we speak, in Colombia, in the same city, the guerrilla forces are in talks with the government trying to find peace after 65 years of war. It’s perfect timing.

The End of the Terrible Night is a 25-minute short, it was finished in 2014 and premiered in Cartagena Film Festival. It is a personal film and a political film with social issues. It is made up of archive material shot by my grandfather.

ricardo restrepo havana

Colombian filmmaker Ricardo Restrepo

Talking about that, the footage you’ve got is amazing.

Yes. And I still don’t understand how this medical doctor, which is what he was, could have such an amazing eye for framing. He never studied cinematography. So when you see the footage made between 1939 and 1952, it is just amazing how he frames everything and how he constructs those images narratively. Basically I just found this footage that was lost for 65 years. And some of it was mainly about one specific date that is the most important date for contemporary Columbian history,  April 9, 1948 when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán is assassinated in Bogota. […]. And we haven’t seen one single day of peace in Columbia since this man was killed.

What was your relationship with your grandfather?

Unfortunately I didn’t get to know him, he died very young in 1956. But I read all his books and now I discovered his images.

How did you discover them?

Actually I was looking for them for 30 years. I knew he was an amateur filmmaker, actually I used his camera when I was young and a film student. I still use it. So I was looking for this footage for a long time in my parents’ house. Finally last year when my father had to close his medical practice, we had to put all things in storage. And going through all that stuff, we found these 24 cans of footage shot on 16mm. I decided to digitalise the first one, which was more like a family album. And then I found what I was looking for, which is the first images ever discovered of that event, in colour, and shot by someone who was part of that event. […] 

This is quite an amazing discovery, given that the national archive only had a 15- minute record of that historical event until now.

Exactly, the only footage that exists of that event is only 15 minutes, in black and white. And this footage has been used so many times already, we know by heart what’s on there.  So this is quite an unusual new footage, never seen before. And what we have here is the perspective of a medical doctor during those four days of riots in Bogota. And amazingly, because he’s a medical doctor, he doesn’t film corpses, not even injured people. On one hand he has to do his medical duty, on the other hand he’s making this film.

Why do you think he didn’t film dead people?

My guess is that he stayed very ethical, in the sense of the photojournalism of the time.

However, the footage is quite harrowing. And the voice-over commentary is also very powerful and very poetic.

Yes. The commentary is partly based on his diary and partly my own. He wrote a diary about those events and in the images you can smell death, you don’t need to see it. And yes the commentary is very poetic but because he was a medical doctor he could go into very precise details and it’s very disturbing. So I left that out of the film. But he was very shocked with what we could do to ourselves.

There is this very powerful and beautiful comment towards the end of the film that kind of sums up the entire film:“seeing ourselves in shame as we are and what we represent to ourselves”

Yes and that’s amazing because that was in 1948 and you see Columbia today and it’s the same image, in a way he foresaw the future. He also asks himself in his diary: “I wonder what will happen with this country”. And he was right, we lost track from there. And you can see today, there’s only one guerrilla group left and fighting is spreading all over. He was a visionary man, I think.

How difficult is it to make films in Columbia, considering all the political and social unrest?

Actually it is quite easy. Especially in documentary. We have to talk about what’s happening, what we have in front of us or behind us.

It’s not all about high production values like in the Western world, you actually have a reality to deal with!

That’s right. But that’s a problem also because Colombian people don’t want to see on the screen something that they already see all day long in the streets. So we have this problem with the audience that wants to see only Hollywood films to distract themselves. But we have to try harder to get the audience into the theatres. And the same goes for television. The film was actually shown on Colombian television on the same date, April, 9, 2014, which was the 65th anniversary of the event.

You said that you have a lot more footage than you used in this short. Are you planning to turn it into a feature-length documentary in the future?

Yes,  what is in the short is only 10% of all the footage. In the feature, I want to tell the story of this medical doctor rather than focus entirely on the events of 1948. I want to go deeper into his mind. He wasn’t only a medical doctor, he was a historian, a journalist, a writer, he wrote many books. And he was a very clever political thinker. I want to dig further into his mind because I think I will find not only my grandfather but also the roots of what Colombia is now.

That sounds like a great project.

Yes and I have two more projects that I’m working on now. One of them talks about another member of my family, also a medical doctor, who worked in a prison on an island in the South Pacific at the same time as these other events, from 1948 until 1957. During this time of political violence, the government sent guerrieros to this island where they were tortured. And he was a medical doctor for that island and he worked alongside the volunteers. Their aim was to bring some peace to these prisoners, but they also wanted the prison to shut down. So my story starts there and finishes today, with his son and her son (?) who are now political leaders but from very separate and opposite ways. They want to find peace in Colombia from different angles. And they can’t see each other. […] So I’m trying to put together this film which asks: “Can we talk about peace while these guys for instance don’t understand each other?” One was my parent and the other is my friend, he’s a senator now. How is this going to work?

Can you talk also about your previous documentaries, are they all historical documentaries?

I am lucky to have had parents and relatives who were medical doctors but also fans of the moving image. I inherited that and my films talk about the family’s past but it’s not only about discovering myself through them, it’s also discovering our country through their diaries and images. All my documentaries are most of all about political and social issues while being deeply about all kinds of things, birds and turtles…I hope to be moving along and keep working from my little point-of-view. Colombia is not at peace, it’s not only the cease-fire that we’re looking for, we’re looking for justice in a broad sense. And my films will talk about that.

Social justice has been a big theme in Latin American cinema from the very beginning of that cinema.

Yes it has. And nowadays the situation is worse, with all the multi-national companies and international banks coming for what’s left after the civil wars. There was some gold left! But now it’s all gone, so now they’re coming for the rest of it, the water, all supplies.

It’s a crazy world.

It is a crazy world and we are crazy to live in it!

Where else can we go?

Well, people are thinking of Mars and also the moon!

But if we go there, we’ll exploit and corrupt that environment too! Is this human nature?

Oh yes it is. Mankind is so beautiful but at the same time so raw. It’s hard to understand but if you manage to cope with it, once you understand that, I think it’s up to you which side or path you choose.

RICHARD LINKLATER Takes SILVER BEAR at BERLINALE 2014. Here’s a Portrait of the “Best Director”


Winner of the best documentary on cinema at the Venice film festival 2013, Gabe Klinger’ debut documentary Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater offers a joint profile of two American filmmakers from different traditions and generations: the Austin-based indie pioneer Richard Linklater and the veteran avant-garde purist James Benning, whose self-produced films border on abstract visual art.

A low-budget debut feature completed with a Kickstarter fundraising campaignDouble Play was  mostly shot over a single weekend in Texas. The film is a very perceptive, fresh portrait of two filmmakers and friends who have more in common than one would assume at first sight.

This interview was taken at the Danish Cinemateket in Copenhagen on November, 10, 2013, as part of CPH:DOX Documentary Film Festival.

Dana: What sparked this project and how did you approach Richard Linklater and James Benning?

Gabe: It happened really quickly, I didn’t fully realise until we were making it, it was never a calculation on my part that I would start making this film, it was just: “Oh, wait, now I’m doing this”. It was a project of 5 or 6 months, but then it just took over my life and for a little film like this one, we shot it in 4 days, it’s a tremendous amount of work because it’s not just 4 days, there’s postproduction, editing, working with all the archival material, it’s really finding the ideas…We recorded many many hours every day, we were working for 16 hours a day and you have all that material and you really need to find the subject of the movie, the ideas that are hidden in all that material, and that takes months. But to answer your question more specifically, it was an idea that I took to James and to Rick in Berlin, at the Berlin Film Festival this year (2013) and it was after the premiere of the film Before Midnight, we went to have a few  drinks and as the night went on we had more drinks and then they went “Ok fine it’s a good idea”. And then I went to Paris a few days later and one of the producers on the film, Eugenio Renzi took me to see André S. Labarthe who is the co-founder of this legendary series called Cinéma de notre temps. It’s over 100 films now spanning about 50 years, documentaries about filmmakers, there’s even one on Dreyer that was made by Eric Rohmer, which is very good. So I wanted the film to be part of this series and I thought maybe if André  accepted the film to be part of the series, we could get a bit of money to do it. So I asked Eugenio what kind of whiskey André liked and I bought him a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label and I showed up at his doorstep. And the rest is history.

Dana: What was it like to balance two filmmakers that are so very different cinematically speaking?

Gabe: I think I’d already seen certain connections between them and their work when I started to think about them together. And the way that I discovered that they were friends was that a childhood friend of Benning’s showed me some footage that he had on his cell phone of James and Rick throwing a baseball, like the way they throw the baseball in the movie. And I was like: “Wow, these guys are friends, that’s amazing!” So that was the genesis of the idea. So I started to think about how their work might be similar. And I realised there were all these elements of time, of duration, of time passing, in Linklater, the way the time passes between his films, like the Before trilogy, which are all made at 9 year intervals. I’m of a certain generation where I saw Before Sunrise at a certain age when it came out, and I was another person when I saw Before Sunset. And when I saw Before Midnight in Berlin this year I’m yet another person, we keep growing and those characters in the movie, played by Juliette Delpy and Ethan Hawke, I don’t see them as movie characters, I see them as people in my life. And when I watch Benning, the same thing is sort of happening, it’s testing my idea of what cinema can be. And I remember watching a James Benning film when I was a teenager and thinking “This is awful, I hate it, I’m so bored right now”. I just wasn’t ready for James Benning. And then a few years later I went back, and it was this process of something awakening in my mind and I can’t really pinpoint the moment when that happened but it happens and then that’s it, you’re fucked for life! …You can’t talk to your parents anymore at the dinner table, your interests are too obscure and weird…

Dana: How did you go about deciding how much screen time to give each filmmaker?

Gabe: People usually say there’s not enough of Linklater, there’s more Benning. It’s a compromise, because you have to accept that the television format is a certain way and this is a film, 70 min long, and that one shot from in Thirteen Lakes that appears in the film, that shot lasts for 10 minutes. And you can’t put a 10min shot in a 70 min movie. Benning saw the film in Vienna a week ago and his observations were that he really liked it, he enjoyed it, he thought it captured the spirit of their friendship well but he said “It’s a good film and I told my students not to make good films”! So I thought, that’s great, it’s a good movie, it’s not a radical reinventing of the wheel of cinema, I kind of accepted certain limitations that were presented to me and tried to work within those.  And some of the best comments I got are exactly about the length, people wanted to see more, or wanted to find out more about Benning. So if that’s an outcome of the experience, I think it’s a good one.

Dana: Was Linklater reluctant to show you clips from Boyhood?


Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Gabe: I don’t think he calculated fully in his head what the effect would be, if it’s a marketing opportunity, partly because none of them knew how the film would turn out, none of us did. I didn’t know if we were going to have a movie at all!  But by the end of the first day’s shoot I thought, “Okay, we have a movie”. I think he thought it was going to be just me, with my camera and Rick and James, and Alexandra, and we’d be in the editing room, just the four of us maybe. But then there was the crew, we had two cameras, a couple of operators, camera assistants, sound guy, production assistant, my producer, myself. I hope you don’t notice it in the film but we had a big crew, we had about 10 people with us all the time. But the idea was to preserve this sort of intimacy and I think we were able to create that illusion quite well, but in the editing room sequence Rick was just like “Oh, this film I’ve been working on for the last 10 years…” So yes maybe he was a bit reluctant, and I can see why. Just to give you an idea: no movie studios would ever produce a project like that because contractually, legally, you can’t have a contract for more than 7 years. So that means if you cast Brad Pitt, you can only cast him for seven years. After that you have to renegociate the contract. That’s why the guys who make the Simpsons, they make a ton of money because every year they can renegociate their contract and they know that they need them, they need the voices of the Simpsons. So it’s like suicide for a big Hollywood production, in this case the Independent Film Channel who finances the movie, and they’ve been doing it for 12 years and there are different management teams that come in and they look in the books and they go “Oh, there’s this weird movie that we’ve been filming for 12 years, what is that?” And there always has to be someone who says “Oh, that’s ok, we’re still gonna finance that”. So it’s like a big battle and I think emotionally for him, for Linklater, that’s the big deal, that he’s been able to do that, it’s a big victory. So I think in that way he was a bit reluctant, and he is […] a sensitive guy. Like if you compare him to Tarantino. He’s very much that sensitive, introverted kind of guy […].

Dana: How much did you intervene in the filming?

Gabe: There was very little intervention that was necessary on my part. They made it very easy for me, although there were still decisions to be made about where to put the camera […]. The project was that I would let them take it where they wanted to take it. And they did, in this really beautiful way. There were certain scenes that we restaged for whatever reason. But those are secrets that are staying with the crew!

Dana: There was a scene in which Benning is in front of this big, impressive wall. The scene stands out stylistically, why did you put him there?

Gabe: Linklater had to go and put in his “dad time”, he has three young daughters. And Benning said “let’s just go and shoot some stuff”. So we just went off with Benning alone and we found this great wall that is the Lyndon B. Johnson Library  at the University of Texas campus. It’s just this monolithic building, an incredible building. And Benning was very fascinated and drawn to it, he’d never seen it before. Or maybe he had and he forgot. And we just started walking around it, so I just said ” Give me the opportunity to be a real movie director, walk from here to here”. And we did it three times until we got it exactly right. But for me the meaning was to try to emulate a Benning film, to lose our own language and to try to appropriate Benning’s. It was me and my DP’s idea to stage that scene but Benning is always excited to act and the moment where that comes out the most is in the baseball scene where he falls down. I mean he fell down, legitimately, and he kind of hurt his leg, and the rest of the day he was limping… But I think he was also trying to have his Buster Keaton moment.


From left to right: James Benning, Richard Linklater, Gabe Klinger

Dana: Did they challenge you at all at any time, or did they question your decisions?

Gabe: I really only felt challenged by Benning […]. Linklater is used to being around a lot of people in a film crew, so he knows the dynamics of the set very well and how the set works, the hierarchy, the director is not exactly a dictator but he’s making the decisions…And sometimes Benning just wouldn’t accept my decisions. So in one sequence I wanted to do something and Benning said audibly in front of everyone that I was an idiot. Affectionately! And he won’t deny it. But then Linklater would come in in this really sweet way and say ” So Gabe, what do you want us to do now?” So Rick knew enough about Benning and he would behave in a way to protect me from Benning!

Dana: Have you considered being part of the frame and interacting with them or it was your initial intention to be behind the camera?

Gabe: There were two models for me for making this film, one was Jacques Rivette’s documentary about Jean Renoir and Michel Simon from 1966. And it’s just Michel Simon and Jean Renoir talking at a lunch table at a very busy Paris restaurant. And Henri Cartier Bresson and Rivette and a bunch of other people were in the room but you don’t really feel their presence, you feel that Simon and Renoir are having a moment. They were very good at kind of acting. So there’s an illusion that you are living this real moment sitting down to lunch with Renoir and Simon but really there’s the whole machine behind it, the filmmaking, and them being aware that they are putting up a show. So I think Linklater and Benning understood that we are putting up a show of sorts. And the second film was Jacques Rivette and Serge Daney made by Claire Denis, again we’re having two people, two for the price of one!

Dana: How challenging was it to make a documentary about two of your favourite filmmakers?

Gabe: It was very challenging for me because I admire them a lot. I know Benning very well, I’ve known him since…since I couldn’t drink legally and yet he’s a difficult guy in some ways to get close to and he’s a minimalist and doesn’t like a lot of attention sometimes. But then I told everybody in our crew to be really curious and when we had breaks or went out to lunch, all the young people in the crew would ask him about his life and his films. So he lit up, he felt loved and that made him open up to the experience. So that was a clever way to get them both to trust me more. And Rick is just… I mean anybody who has spent time in Austin, Texas has probably encountered Linklater and maybe even had a favor… He’s the nicest guy to approach, he’s very accessible, and he loves movies, and he’s genuine. So he probably recognised that my intention was a very serious one.

Closing Ceremony Red Carpet Arrivals - 64th Berlinale International Film Festival

Director Richard Linklater poses with his Silver Bear for Best Director after the closing ceremony of the Berlinale February 15th, 2014. Linklater won for his film Boyhood.