India, INTERVIEWS, NEWS, United Kingdom — 02/12/2011 2:40 PM

Phil Cox (Native Voice / UK) : “independent Asian production is there but with lot of hurdles”

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Phil Cox is the director and producer of “Bengali Detective”, one of the few docs in the Sundance 2011 selection.  The English doc maker speaks about his film and the future of the Asian independent doc production.


. Can you present yourself ?

I am a 35 years old Londoner. I grew up in London but spent much of my youth and study period living and working in Latin America. My studies and passion was literature, poetry and languages. From the age of four to eleven I went to a school that taught Sanskrit and the Geeta and Upanishads – so I also had a knowledge and desire to live and work in India – finally realised when I started making films there in my 20s.

. how old were you and what was the subject of your first doc as director or/and producer ?

I was 18 years old and it was a documentary set in Cuba. I was living there and got caught up in helping a swiss film crew.  There was something about the process that captivated me – like a mystery had been lifted. I never quite knew how they made films before that!   Then the possibilities of capturing everyday stories, raising the mundane to the magical and being able to work out in the real world with everyday people instead of trapped in solitude writing in a library was too alluring for me to resist.

. how many docs you have directed and produced all together ?

I have done a lot of reportage over the last 10 years  – so maybe about 30 – 40 off the top of my head?

. what is your favorite role producer or director ?

As an indie today – its hard to distinguish between the two!   We are all expected to be multiskills in some way – but it has to be directing of course.

. Since its creation in 1998, Native Voice films produced around 30 docs. Most of them were for TV ?

Yes, most were for TV but also feature docs and experimental films.  I worked a lot with experimental films at first – trying to understand montage and how images go together and learn for myself the basic language of film.

. Why did you produced so many films about latin America ?

Because I was drawn to the poetry from there from a young age – and ended up studying in Chile, Argentina and Cuba.  There was something about the rawness of the politics and arts / culture that felt much more immediate and alive than affluent London….so I took an old steamer and made my way round the Cape…

. What was your most successful docs  in term of awards or audience ?


“We Are The Indians” had a cinema release as well as great world TV sales and picked up three international awards. It also had an impact on its subjects and led to legal changes for the land rights of the indigenous groups involved. (video trailer and presentation page of “We are the indians”)

. What is the best / worst souvenir about Asian docs you produced or directed ?

Its not just Asia – every long form doc must tick a year off one’s life!   Perhaps the word ‘bureaucracy’  still enters a nightmare occasionally….

. Your last film is “Bengali Detective”. It was selected at Sundance. How did you get the idea of this doc ?


This is my third feature doc but my previous films in India were more current affairs and reportage. I had long been looking for a story that would be a character based film – with a character who did something that revealed other people’s lives. So I was looking at lawyers in Russia, psychoanalysts in Argentina and eventually detectives in India. Add to this was a desire to make a cinematic feature that could allow a cross over of styles, mixing Bollywood dance and song with a narrative drama following a real character shot in classic British observational style. When teaching in India I began to notice a lot of bill boards advertising private detectives – and people I knew had used them. The reason for the rise in private detectives, I discovered, was that people had lost trust in the authorities. Citizens were turning to detectives and once in their offices would reveal a side of Indian society that was normally kept hidden.  So this was a very interesting space for a filmmaker – a place where people came and revealed themselves. If one could get access to this space, one had a window into a hidden yet real side of Indian modern life. So then it was all about the access…

. Fox searchlight bought the right to make a fiction remake of Bengali. Is it the first time it happen with one of your doc ? will you be involved in this remake ?

This is the first time we have had re-make rights bought.  We are working the contract now and should be involved in some shape or form.

. What was the main difficulties in the bengali project ?


Filmmakers don’t like uncertainties – they can be an awful lot of work and then end nowhere!   But that’s why documentary is such a great medium – it can respond to and thrives off the ever changing and surprising reality that happens before the camera each day. Following a detective – I had to have certain parameters. These being that once one started an investigation – one had to take the audience on a journey to see the case to some sort of conclusion,  which in two out of the three cases in the film happened successfully. We had lots of frustrating false starts though – people refused access many times of course. What was just as important for me though – was not only about revealing the ‘who done it’ end scene – but more placing the audience into the emotional core of what each subject in each case was feeling. I wanted to drop the audience into the lives of various very different people across kolkata in their moments of great dilemma. We don’t have to know any peripheral details about these subjects – only respond to their emotional journey. One young man suspects his very own family of a homicide, another is a middle aged woman who must make a decision about her adulterous husband, the other is a poor shopkeeper caught up in the world of corporate muscle flexing and counterfeiting. All small but powerful and relevant journeys that reflect wider issues in India today.

. What is best / worst souvenir during this project ?

Living in Kolkata with the people of West Bengali.  Wonderful. Never to forget.  Every doc leaves its scars and has its problems – I find it tiresome to moan about them. Its simply all part and parcel of filmmaking – so if you dont like it do something else.


. What was the budget of this doc ? what was your major (financial) partners ?

Budgets?  Started on a shoe string and a small band of motivated filmmakers.  Then came in Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation, CBA WorldView, Reliance Media Works, Babelgum and investment from Almega Projects and private investor.

. Pakistan, India, Japan, South East Asia … You never produced or directed any doc in China. Why ? do you have some projects in this area ?

I would love toBut its about the access and an original story.  I loved the classical poetry of Li Po and Tu Fu and also Bei Dao who is still alive. I see some of the young cinema from there and its raw and brilliant. I still remember images from the film Pickpocket by Xiao Wu over 10 years ago.  Lots of the films from there stay with me.

. Do you have new doc project in or about Asia ? Are you looking for partners in Asia for this project ?

Yes – we are now looking at other stories and developing a few ideas.

. You have worked a lot for NGO. Do you have projects with them in the Asia Pacific area ?

Not at the moment.  I like to mix up our filmmaking and put it to good use sometimes!

. How do you see the evolution of documentary production in Asia ? the emergence of independent producers and directors ?

Its there – but it has a lot of obstacles and hurdles to overcome.  The British / European traditions can be quite observational and dig deep into social issues – whilst I have found the Asian model in general terms has pursued the US network style of making docs. Big and glossy but not really saying much. There are many reasons for this – finance and state backing and private investment being one.  But there is such a rich storytelling vein there that its needs a group of indies to forge their own unique and original way of making – that can blast all us european critics out of the window. Its about support for the independent voices though and that is never easy….

. You are also teacher. Have you done training in Asia ? Would you like to do it ?

Yes – I have taught a lot across India at various schools and institutions. Love to do more.

. Your team is quite young. Do you have contacts with this new generation of Asian doc makers ? do you have asian people in your team ?

Yes, we have had some Indian collaborators – Sounak Chakravorty was our associate director and editor for Bengali  -  along with Taimur Khan.

. How do you see the cooperation potential between European and Asian doc makers ?

Its all about the money  -  and letting Asian filmmakers tap into their own way of doing and seeing and telling. I think there should be a lot more cross format styles – which is something I worked on in Bengali.  And the documentary of social commentary and dry serious topics has its place – but needs to be taken further.


Website of Native Voice Films


More info about “Bengali Detective” :

Selected for Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Documentary Competition
Production companies: A Native Voice Films presentation in association with Almega Projects, Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and Sabotage Films
Director: Phil Cox
Producers: Giovanna Stopponi, Annie Sundberg, Himesh Kar
Executive producers: Angus Aynsley, Karol, Martesko-Fenster, Gernot Schaffler, Thomas Brunner, Jon Thompson
Director of photography: Lisa Cazzato-Vieyra
Music: Dennis Wheatley
Editor: Taimur Khan, Tom Hemmings
North America Sales: Schreck Rose Dapello Adams & Hurwitz
International Sales: Annie Sundberg, Himesh Kar
No rating, 96 minutes

More articles about “Bengali Detective” :

. Sundance: Fox Searchlight Cages ‘Bengali Detective’ (, 24/01/2011)

. Sundance review: “The Bengali Detective” (Reuters, 25/01/2011)

. ‘Bengali Detective’ an Entertaining Documentary About a Dazzling Private Eye (The Hollywood Reporter, 25/01/2011)

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