In an exclusive interview to ADN, the American filmmaker Rick Minnich explains why his new doc project about Bering Strait is very linked to China and Asia. He also speaks about his career and other projects in or about Asia.
• Could you introduce yourself ?
I’m an American independent filmmaker based in Berlin, Germany. After getting my B.A. in English literature from Columbia University in 1990, I re-located to Europe, where I did my graduate studies in directing for film and television at the HFF “Konrad Wolf” in Potsdam-Babelsberg, Germany. Since graduating from there in 2001, I’ve been living as a freelance filmmaker in Berlin with a focus on feature-length documentaries for the cinema.
• How did you get involved and why are you interested in documentary industry ?
I made my first feature documentary “Good Guys & Bad Guys” (about my 10-year high school class reunion in California) as a student in1997. It was co-produced with German broadcaster ORB (now called RBB), and won an honorable mention at its world premiere at DOK Leizpig. After that, I thought about doing a fiction film for my graduate thesis project, but had only documentary ideas.
So I made my next documentary “Heaven on Earth,” which played at IDFA in 2001, and won numerous awards around the world. This film led to another documentary story I shot in the same part of the US (the Ozark Mountains of Southwestern Missouri) called “Homemade Hillbilly Jam,” which premiered at Hot Docs in 2005.
By then I was becoming established as a documentary filmmaker, and didn’t see any reason to stop. I really enjoy meeting people and exploring their lives with the camera. The intensity of the relationships formed during several weeks of shooting is amazing, and gives me a real buzz I’ve never experienced while making any of my short fictional films.
My most recent film “Forgetting Dad” (about my father’s mysterious case of amnesia) premiered at IDFA in 2008, where it won the Special Jury Award. It also won the Grand Jury Prize at GZ DOC in 2009, which brought me to Asia for the very first time.
• When and what was your first documentary as a director ?
I shot my first short documentary “The Book of Lenins” from 1993-1996. It’s what would nowadays be called a mockumentary about my attempt to make a photo book about Lenin statues in Eastern Europe and the USSR. The monuments keep vanishing faster than I can photograph them, much to my publisher’s dismay. Unable to convince him to adapt the book to accommodate pictures of toppled and buried statues, I resort to trying to pass off old photographs of the statues as my own.
“The Book of Lenins” played at DOK Leipzig in 1997, and helped me get German broadcaster ORB (now RBB) involved in my next project, my first feature documentary “Good Guys & Bad Guys,” which I shot as a film student in 1996 and completed in 1997. It’s about my ten-year high school class reunion in Los Angeles. I was curious what had happened to some of my former friends and “enemies” from high school, and decided to go back and visit them. Having grown up in a very conservative suburb of Los Angeles during the Reagan era, I also wanted to find out how my classmates’ attitudes had changed since the end of the Cold War.
• Have you already directed doc film in or about Asia ?
Not yet, but my current project “Crossing the Bering Strait” will be shot partly in China, South Korea and the far eastern part of Russia. And I have another project in development called “Boys & Dolls” about sex dolls and robots and their developers, which would entail some filming in Japan and possibly South Korea.
• Some of your doc film were already shown in Asia (TV or cinema) ?
Yes, my film “Forgetting Dad” won the Grand Jury Award at GZ DOC in 2009. It was also shown at iDocs in Beijing that same year, where I gave a master class. In India it was broadcast nationwide on the English-speaking station NDTV 24×7, and is being released there on DVD by Magic Lantern Movies.
• You are currently preparing a doc “crossing the bering strait”. What is the story and your intention ?
“Crossing the Bering Strait” (Film project page in ADN database) is about an unlikely American duo called George and Joe, who have dedicated the remainder of their lives to connecting Siberia and Alaska via a railway tunnel beneath the Bering Strait. The intercontinental railway would drastically shorten transport times between Asia and North America, and provide vital infrastructure for tapping the Arctic’s vast natural resources. But the challenges are daunting: ongoing economic and political tensions, 5000 kilometers of missing tracks, and a $60 billion price tag. After 25 years of hard work, however, George and Joe are not about to give up.
I’m fascinated by what drives human beings to chase their dreams and reach for the stars, even if they seem impossibly far away.
While George and Joe’s dream of connecting Russian and Alaska may seem far-fetched to many, it’s an idea which dates back to the 19th century, and which has had such prominent supporters as Lincoln, Lenin and Stalin. With the now undeniable decline of oil and climate change firmly implanted in the public mind, it is becoming increasingly important to find new, environmentally-friendly sources of energy, which the Arctic has in abundance. This intercontinental railway project would provide the infrastructure necessary to get to those resources and safely and efficiently bring them to the rest of the world. All these factors will form the overarching theme of the film, but the real focus is on George, Joe and their supporters in Russia and South Korea, and how they are trying to join forces to make their vision become reality. The film is targeted for festival and TV release, but may also have some theatrical appeal.
• What is the role of China in this project ?
While we do not yet have any Chinese protagonists, this could change. China has shown interest in the Bering Strait Project and could completely finance it on its own. But the other partners do not want to let China call all the shots. China has developed a system of 1 million volt power lines which can transport electricity over vast distances with virtually no loss. This technology could be used to power the railway and to transport electricity from hydroelectric power stations to be built in Siberia throughout Asia. Thus, if a Chinese broadcaster or financier would like to get involved in the production of the film, we would be happy to talk to them. (Film project teaser on Vimeo)
• What is the budget of the film ? How do you finance it ?
The current budget is US$ 950,000. We are hoping to get 40-50% of the financing from European broadcasters and film funds, about 10-20% from North America, and the rest from Asia and miscellaneous other sources. We are still conducting research, and are initially looking for development money so we can travel to some of the locations in question and meet with potential protagonists, as well as pitch the project at film festivals and markets. We do not yet have any international partners.
Because of the subject matter and the location of where the railway would be built, as well as the Asian protagonists who will play supporting roles to George and Joe, we are particularly interested in finding Asian partners.
• So you are still looking for partners ?
Yes, absolutely! We are looking for co-producers, broadcasters, film funds, foundations, NGOs, private investors. Because of the increasing difficulty of obtaining broadcast money, we are also exploring alternative ways to finance the film. We would especially like to get foundations and NGOs involved which have a focus on sustainability, development, transportation, alternative energy, international cooperation and visionary work in general. Ideally this would include forming long-term partnerships over several years, which could help us continue working on the project over a longer period of time. Such a way of working is extremely difficult with broadcasters, who tend to work within shorter time frames.
• When will you start and finish the shooting and the editing of the film ?
This is very much up in the air. We may do some shooting this year depending on what is going on with our protagonists. Ideally, we would complete the film in the next five years. Because our main protagonists are over seventy, we don’t want to wait too long. Both are in great shape, however.
• What is the major hurdles in this project ?
Trying to convince funders that it will be an exciting and worthwhile film even if we never see huge tunneling equipment roll in. While the film will take us to various parts of the world and eventually to the Bering Strait itself, the focus is not on the actual construction of the tunnel, but rather on how our protagonists are trying to find partners from various countries to help make their vision become reality and what is motivating them to do so.
• Do you have new documentary projects about/in Asia?
Besides “Crossing the Bering Strait,” I’m also developing, together with German producer Gunter Hanfgarn, a film about sex dolls and robots and their makers. It’s called “Boys & Dolls.” The idea comes from Gunter Hanfgarn. The DEFA Foundation in Germany gave him some seed money to develop it. I traveled to the Real Doll factory in California last summer to shoot the footage there. We then cut the teaser (teaser on Vimeo) from that footage and shots from various feature films, industrial videos and commercials. We’ve applied for some development money in Germany and are looking for co-producers, broadcasters and funders from other countries. Because of the subject matter and the fact that we would surely shoot some of the film in Japan and possibly South Korea, we would love to have an Asian partner or two come on board. We plan to shoot also in the US and Germany.
. Would you like to dor more projects in or about Asia ?
Since my very first trip to Asia in 2009 (to China), I’ve returned to China twice. I’m fascinated with the country and am very curious to visit other Asian countries.
I’m also quite open to collaborate with Asian filmmakers, producers and broadcasters on their projects or my own. I could imagine doing some commissioned work in Asia as well.
• In the last 2 years, have you seen any Asian documentaries that impressed you?
Unfortunately, I’ve seen very few Asian documentaries during the past few years. There are not very many opportunities to see them here in Berlin besides at the Berlin Film Festival. At this year’s festival, I saw part of a Japanese documentary about Fukushima, but I can’t remember the title. It was interesting to see images from on the ground which were different than what I’d seen on the TV news, but the film didn’t really inspire me beyond that. Sadly Asian documentaries rarely get shown on German TV. Most documentaries about Asia broadcast here are travel reportages by German TV journalists, which are not my favorite thing in the world to watch. I hope to watch more Asian documentaries in the future, however. If anyone has any tips of Asian docs I should see, please drop me a line. You can find me at www.rickfilms.de and contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Interview by mail on 29 June 2012.
Director’s page on IMDb
“Heaven on Earth” Film page on IDFA website
“The book of Lenin” Full film on YouTube