Australia, India, INTERVIEWS, NEWS, USA — 04/28/2012 6:31 PM

Penny Vozniak (Australia): “very personal stories are actually the stories of the whole world”

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Few hours before the world premiere of her first documentary in Toronto, “Despite the gods”, Penny Vozniak speaks about the shooting in Bollywood and her new projects in kabul or Japan.

Could you introduce yourself ?

I was born in Australia, but these days I live between the US, Europe and Sydney. Like most filmmakers I tend to spend time where my projects are.

I studied English literature at university, and worked as a freelance photographer to put myself through these studies. I then decided to focus upon observational documentary, as it blended my two passions of exploring the world and it’s people and capturing images. So I started a 1 year post graduate diploma in media arts, but I left jut before my graduation as I found a job in documentary…much to the disappointment of my course lecturers! But I had learned what I needed to learn. Most my skills have come from learning on the job; on my own projects and from working on other peoples. This was my version of film school and it suited my personality to a tea.

How did you get involved and why are you interested in documentary industry? Could you also produce or direct a drama film ?

I love storytelling. It’s a way of sharing important concepts and ideas without being didactic. It encourages the viewers to think for themselves rather than just accumulate extra information. Observational documentary always drew me in as an artform because it is real and raw but tried and true traditional storytelling techniques are naturally and organically at work when you film this way. 

You are focusing primarily upon the human journey; the stories in our lives that shape the world and us. I love being reminded of how these seemingly very personal stories are actually the stories of the whole world. We’re all in this together.

How many documentaries have you already directed and / or produced ?

I have directed only one film, “Despite the Gods” and for my next film (“Ordinary Wonderlands”) I will be co-producing.

Your first doc “Despite the gods” will have its world premiere tomorrow in Toronto at HotDocs. How do you feel few hours before ?

Excited, a little nervous, relived, grateful, humbled (there are some incredible films in this years lineup). It’s quite a thing to put years of hard work up there on the screen, in a dark room, and hope that the audience will engage with the story, feel the things you want them to feel, understand the human journey, feel some kind of connection. Film page on hotdocs.ca

Can you tell us the story of this film ? how did you get involved in this story ? why did you call the doc “Despite the gods” ?

I was inspired to make this documentary after I met Jennifer Lynch in Mumbai by chance. I was on my way to kabul to work on another documentary and I stopped off in Mumbai to catch up with Govind Menon, the producer of hisss and an old friend of mine .

He asked me to stay for a few weeks to shoot a DVD extras video for hisss, but after spending a week with jennifer and her daughter I decided to stay for the entire shoot and make an observational documentary  centered around Jennifer’s experiences making hisss.

Jennifer is a documentary filmmaker’s dream protagonist: very open and expressive and she was strangely comfortable for me to film her around the clock in all her incarnations.  This is a rare thing… She has no facade. From the start I had intended the story to be told from her perspective, her experiences both personal and professional making a movie in another strange land, far far from Hollywood. I did initially plan (in that first fateful week) for a more ‘Bollywood meets Hollywood’ angle. It was after a few weeks of pre-production that I realized most of the great footage I was getting wasn’t strictly about movie-making. In fact, not much of what was happening was about movie-making; it was about relationships, cultural differences, personal crises that triggered deep seated fears for everyone involved. It was Jennifer’s personal odyssey that I was witnessing and documenting.

The title ‘despite the gods’ just felt right. It isn’t questioning faith or prayer, it refers more to how even when we have all the elements in place the best laid plans can fall apart. It was actually inspired by one of my favourite woody Allen quotes: “if you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

Was the shooting of the doc easier than the shooting of the film ?

Maybe not harder, but I certainly had my own set of issues to deal with. “Despite the gods” was not produced in the most glamorous conditions. 

Physically, it was gruelling…I spent eight months shooting solo in observational style up to 14 hours a day in challenging conditions.

Because I work as a solo operator there was added pressure. I had to make sure that i was getting the story AND that technically the film was on track at all times. Ie the shots were good the sound was clear that I had enough battery power, card space  etc.

But making a film is never an easy task, we all had our own issues personal and professional to work through. I’d expect India to inspire nothing less in those who visit it!

You were supposed to do the EPK of “Hiss” but at the end your film “Despite the Gods” tells the untold tale of Jennifer Lynch’s Bollywood odyssey and also reveals what went wrong with “Hiss”. Are you still a friend of Jennifer Lynch ? How did she accept to show the behind the scenes of her film’s production as well as her “unique” and some time crazy personality?

Thankfully Jennifer and I have become close friends…it was a very bonding time over those 8 – 9 months in India.

She was so willing to share every experience as she was having it was such eloquence and clarity, and she wasn’t afraid to be embarrassed, to lose her shit, to look small, to look a little crazy, too.

I don’t make any efforts to hide her breakdowns or intimate moments because she made no efforts to hide them from the camera and me. When she arrives in India she is like a fish out of water: repelled by the chaos, the culture, the heat, the noise, the lack of organization, the ‘way things are done’ in India… but then throughout the course of the film she learns how to let go of her fears of failure and go with the chaos. And ultimately, that’s what the film is about: this journey.

I feel that the documentary shows Jennifer as an incredibly strong, creative, independent, freethinking woman who is not afraid to share how she feels about a range of subjects from her sex life, shortcomings, feeling lonely, and her inabilities to cope. All the things that most of us aren’t comfortable talking about, she brings them up and is a startling mirror.

Jennifer trusted me implicitly…and in a way, my presence on set served a confessional for her and a record of the indefinable madness she felt herself spiraling into.

It was a symbiotic relationship indeed. I like to work this way with the people in my films. It is very intimate.

Is it a film about a film, about the Hollywood/bollywood contrasts or a film about Jennifer lynch ?

It’s definitely a film about Jennifer Lynch. The Bollywood/Hollywood contrast is an interesting and  significant part of the context, but it is certainly a lesser theme in the film. Jennifer’s personal journey has always been the spine of the film for me.

Did you show her the film before the end of the editing and the release ? what was her reaction ? Did she ask some change ?

Yes, I showed her rough cuts along the way and she was happy for me to share these difficult moments because ultimately they’re a part of her journey. She loved that I was there as a confessional for her, to capture this transformative experience for her, but it was also a painful reminder of hard times on Hisss.  She actually gave some very good objective feedback regarding the story arc which surprised me: I thought she’d take seeing herself on screen in all incarnations and moods much more personally.

After how many days did you realized that you had a good subject for a doc ? Finally did you do the EPK of the dvd ?

Probably about a week into shooting I knew that a larger story was unfolding. I felt compelled to stay and make an observational documentary based upon how natural and open Jennifer was in front of the camera.

I delivered the DVD extras (a 20 minute piece) at the end of 2009. It is a very different project in the style of a typical EPK: Head shoulder interviews cut with footage from the film.

How long did you stay for the shooting of your doc ?

Between 8 and 9 months total.

 

You started the shooting of this doc with no plan, no preparation, and no research. Would have you made the same film in a different context ?

Probably not. Personally I feel that this immediate approach to filmmaking is always the best one! For all of my shoots I rarely have a plan. Sure, I book tickets, organize my equipment, etc… but I do not plan any activities or have agendas, lists or questions for my shoots; I like it to be organic and without parameters.  It may feel risky at first, but over time the story line inevitably emerges and you just need to be vigilant and watch where it leads you. Life, as it is, is more profound and complex than anything I could write or re-create. The process then involves being intensely focused upon what is unfolding in the moment on camera, and being able to intuitively weave the storylines together as they appear. This is perhaps to me the most enjoyable part of the process. 

What was the budget of this film ? How did you financed it ?

It is entirely self-financed.  My father passed away in 2010 and left me a small amount that I invested into the project, but aside from this all the finance came from my savings and my producer’s bank account.   It is difficult to give an accurate figure of how much it has cost because we have not ever paid ourselves…and I have been on this project for four years!

Is it only for theater or did/will you edit a TV version ?

So far we only have a theatrical version, but we are planning to edit a Tv 1 hour cut down for future sales.

Do you have new documentary projects about/in Asia?

I have a future project planned in Afghanistan, and another in Japan. I hope to develop these further over the course of 2012.

When you stopped in Mumbai and started to shoot “Despite the gods”, you were on your way to Kabul where you had a film in development. What happened to this film ? Is it the same film ? 

Yes, I still plan to return to Kabul and continue that filmIt’s a musical documentary project that is not the typical documentary story out of Afghanistan. I love this film. It has only been put on hold to finish “despite the gods” and my next feature doc, “Ordinary Wonderlands”, about 4 real life superheroes in North America. 

What do you think about the evolution of Asian documentary industry? Do you have contact with emerging independent producers in Asia ?

I think documentary is evolving all over the world, beyond the parameters that once defined this artform.  Boundaries are being pushed in terms of style and subject matter every year. I have a few wonderful contacts in Kabul and India

In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries that impressed you? 

 

“My Barefoot Friend “ by Seong-gyou Lee is just amazing.  (film page on IMDb , video trailer) As is “position among the stars” by  Leonard Retel Helmrich (film page on wikipedia, video trailer). Both are very innovative in form and gripping human journey stories.

http://www.despitethegods.com/

Interview by mail, Pierre Lochon

Date of the interview: 28 April 2012

Film page on ADN database

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