Indonesia, INTERVIEWS, NEWS, Released docs, USA — 05/04/2012 9:22 PM

S. Friedlander (USA): “doc. film is an ideal medium for telling stories of people and cultures that I cared deeply about”

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US born Sasha Friedlander is the lucky producer and director of  “Where Heaven Meets Hell” which is currently shown at Hot Docs. She explains us the production process of her first film and tells us about he new projects.

Could you introduce yourself  ?

My name is Sasha Friedlander, and I’m an emerging filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. I completed my BA from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Culture in 2007, graduating with a focus in Balinese Dance and Documentary Film. I received my MFA in Social Documentary Film from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2011. After UCLA, I received a Darmasiswa Fellowship from the Indonesian Government to study dance and photography at the Institute Seni Indonesia (Indonesian Art Institute) in Denpasar, Bali. While in Indonesia, I began an internship at Bali TV, and because of my fluency in the Indonesian language, was asked to join a team of journalists from the BBC and the Bali Post to launch the first edition of the International Bali Post. Inspired by a brief trip I took to Kawah Ijen crater in East Java in 2009, I returned to Indonesia a year later, to produce “Where Heaven Meets Hell”, my first feature film, which was selected for funding and co-production by ITVS.

How did you had your first contact with Asia ? do you still (partly) live in Asia ?

I started traveling to Asia with my family when I was seven years old – my mother and father both studied the arts in Bali and I became interested in Balinese dance, a fascination that would completely influence my life for two decades. After graduating university I lived in Bali for two straight years as a journalist, before returning to New York for graduate school, where I currently live.

How did you get involved and why are you interested in documentary industry?

My first fascination with film began in undergraduate school, where I’d watch the ethnographic films of directors such as Robert Gardner and John Bishop. As I studied more, I began to realize that documentary film, for me, was an ideal medium for telling stories of people and cultures that I cared deeply about. Once I finished work on my first short film and began graduate school in documentary film, I knew it was a perfect fit for me.

Could you also produce or direct drama film ?

I’ve yet to work in narrative film, but would love to.

Are you more director or producer ? do you want to be more producer or director in the future ?

I much more enjoy the directing side of filmmaking than the producing, but also find that they often go hand-in-hand with successful documentary films.

You have released your first doc “Where Heaven Meets Hell” in 2012. Can you tell us the story ? how did you find the subject ?

“Where Heaven Meets Hell” is the story of four sulfur miners working inside an active volcanic crater in East Java, Indonesia. The film is an intimate portrait of the lives of these miners and their families, as they struggle to overcome the endemic poverty that haunts their community. I discovered the subject while living in Bali – I was told about the beauty of the volcano as a tourist destination, but didn’t realize until seeing it that it was the site of a grueling sulfur mining operation, where miners carry baskets of sulfur into and out of the crater for eight dollars a day. Watching the miners suffer through their labor as tourists passed idly by sparked something in me; I wanted to give the miners a chance to tell their own stories, and felt that their stories would otherwise go unheard. I had become interested in film at this point, and promised myself that, given the right facilities, I’d return there to tell the story of the place and the people.

Has it been difficult to produce such a project ? how did you get the authorization from the government or mine owner to shoot during 6 months ?

 The most difficult aspect of production was the physical hardship of climbing up and down the volcanic crater, and filming amid the toxic fumes of the mine. The mine is on a national park, so I only required permission from the park rangers to film, which wasn’t terribly hard to get, although the process for getting the journalist visa was quite lengthy. The owner of the mine, contrary to what one might think based on the obviously unsafe labor conditions, is rather proud of the mine. He feels that he is offering a great opportunity to the miners, as mining unfortunately pays more than double what people would make doing similarly labor-intensive work in other settings.

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

I raised about twenty thousand dollars combined for the first two shoots with the help of crowd sourcing, donations and small grants. The film was eventually offered co-production funding from ITVS Open Call, which accounted for an additional $180,000.

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

There is a theatrical version, and a television version near completion.

Your company has produced it ? who will distribute it worldwide?

The film is a co-production between myself and ITVS, and while ITVS will distribute the film in the US, we are currently in talks with other international distributors.

Your first doc Where Heaven Meets Hell has been selected for Hot Docs 12. What a nice start for a new doc maker ! What has been your feeling about that ? Does it give you a higher pressure for your next project ?

I find it extremely exciting – this film has been a passion project for nearly three years, and to have been able to make it a reality has been extraordinarily rewarding. It gives me the opposite feeling of being pressured for my next film; if anything, knowing that I can work on a film from beginning to end and have it find success gives me hope that the same would be true for any future project.

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

Being such a new arrival to the documentary scene (I was still in school a year ago!) I haven’t been able to observe the evolution of the documentary industry in Asia. However, after premiering “Where Heaven Meets Hell” at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, I was impressed by the passion for documentary film that both the programmers and attendees of the festival so evidently share. I’m sure that with the excellent quality of new work by emerging Asian filmmakers, the strength of the Asian documentary industry will continue to grow.

Do you have new documentary projects about/in Asia? If so, in which country and what subject? Are you looking for partner ?

I’ve been doing research on several other projects in Indonesia, but my current priority is to focus as much on getting “Where Heaven Meets Hell” into the world as much as possible.

In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries that impressed you? If so, which one?

Two of my favorite documentaries over the past two years are “Position Among the Stars” and “Last Train Home”. The level of intimacy with the story and characters that both of these films are able to achieve, while telling their stories with triumphant cinematography and a beautiful sense of social import, is something that continues to inspire my own filmmaking.

Interview by mail, 1 May 2012

Official film website

See the film page on ADN database

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