For several days in November, the nation’s eyes were turned to Columbia, Missouri, a modest-sized, leafy town between St. Louis and Kansas City, and the home of the main campus of the University of Missouri. In response to several incidents of racist harassment on campus, which many black students viewed as merely the tip of the iceberg, a group called Concerned Student 1950 — a reference to the first year black students were admitted to the university — began a series of public demonstrations. Catalyzed by student Jonathan Butler’s hunger strike on November 3, and the football team’s threat to stop playing five days later, the president of the Missouri university system, Timothy Wolfe, resigned on November 9. As protestors celebrated their victory in a tent city on a university green, a secondary conflict arose between supporters of Concerned Student 1950 and members of the media, many of them students at the university.

As debates mushroomed in the news and on social media, a small group of student filmmakers began capturing the entire series of events from the inside. The first students in the Documentary Film sequence at the new Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, studying under department director Stacey Woelfel and filmmaker Robert Greene (Actress), these junior-year students grabbed their cameras, gained access, and captured footage that no other outlet could, operating — and learning — utterly on the fly. Field of Vision spoke with the three credited directors of “Concerned Student 1950” — Varun Bajaj, Adam Dietrich, and Kellan Marvin — about the challenges of access, collaboration, emotional investment, and making a film about their complicated university community.

When did you start tracking the developing story on campus?

Varun Bajaj: We had all heard about the incident with Peyton Head, our student body president, being called a racial epithet on campus. We’d all heard about the swastika that was drawn in a bathroom, we’d heard about our LBC court — which is the Legion of Black Collegians — being berated with racial epithets by drunk men. And so there were all these things happening on campus, and I think people in the black community on campus were really getting fed up with what was going on. The protests started, and the rest of campus didn’t really start putting together that this was going to be something bigger until JB [Jonathan Butler] started his hunger strike.

Adam Dietrich: I remember it was Tuesday, November 3. Bill Ross, who worked on Western and 45365, was doing guest lectures in all of our classes that week. Stacey [Woelfel] brought up the hunger strike that had started a day earlier, [and he said] to Bill, “What would you do? How would you go about shooting something like this?” And [Bill] said, “I would literally get up out of class right now, go get a camera, and start shooting immediately.” So as soon as we were done with class, that’s exactly what I did. I grabbed Varun and we headed out toward the campsite. At first they were really apprehensive to let us do anything. They just brushed us off and said, “Here’s an email address, let us know later what you want to do and we’ll get back to you.” They really didn’t seem like they were going to give us access at all. So I spent the next 24 hours asking through friends of friends, looking for someone I knew that might be able to connect me with some of the people that were part of the original organizers of the protest. Finally I found a girl I work with who was able to send a text message to Jonathan Butler himself and say, “Hey these guys are serious and they’d probably do justice to the story and try to tell it right.”

Bajaj: Once Adam got the access through JB, they just opened up to us and allowed us kind of free reign. We just hung out at the campsite for a few days — we weren’t even really rolling, we were just meeting people. And from then on, I didn’t really have any problems with anyone. Everyone was just so welcoming and open once they realized that we weren’t just there to stick our cameras in their faces.

Did you discuss that specifically with them?

Bajaj: Yeah, they had conversations with us about how they felt more comfortable with us. And after a few days, they started to put up “No Media” signs at the campsite, until they just had us [around]. Then as things started to escalate and protests started to happen, they were giving us the protest routes to help us with our shooting. The daytime media wasn’t getting that — I think right off the bat everyone knew we were doing something longform, something deeper. They trusted us, and we are so grateful that they did. Because there’s no way we could have gotten the story without that.

Dietrich: It wasn’t so much a First Amendment approach that we took. They really understood that we’re not from some newspaper or website trying to get a few pictures to put on the internet and make a paycheck. They really understood that we were there to be there, to really absorb as much as we could. And then Kellan kind of took a different path.

Kellan Marvin: I was just there, camping out and going to prayer groups and everything. One night, everyone made Adam and Varun go home and actually get some sleep, so overnight I filmed some stuff. Then Adam approached me because he said they needed an editor because I guess have a reputation for that, and so I started filming with them more. And it was easy for me — people recognized me around camp. But there’s still so much footage of people coming up to us and being like, “Can you guys not be here with your camera?” And I’m like, “I’m with Adam.” And they’re like, “Oh! Adam. OK.”

You got some great footage, a lot of it at close range. Not only did you get access, you were able to capture the sort of intimate, close-up shots needed for this kind of storytelling. Did you have to negotiate that degree of proximity, or did it come naturally as events unfolded?

Dietrich: It was a bit more natural. Earlier on they’d come to us and say, “It’s really cool that you’re doing a documentary. What kind of stuff are you looking for?” Then [at other times people would say], “This is a really emotional time for a lot of us and we’re all probably going to be crying.” And we were very upfront, saying, “Well, if you’re crying, I’m going to bring the camera and put it in your face because those are moments we need to tell your story. But also, if you’re ever at a point where I’m in your face and you’re letting me film you crying, and you’re like, ‘This is too much, I just need a second,’ just say, ‘Adam, go away.’” And I’d turn the camera off and walk the other direction to let them have their time. I can only imagine how grueling some of these things were for them, emotionally and mentally. It was a combination of acquiring access for moments like that and also just being human.

Bajaj: We weren’t afraid to put our cameras down. We filmed a few prayer circles here and there, but there were other times when we joined in on the prayer circles, and times when we cried with them. And cried while we were shooting.

I don’t think there’s a right answer to this, but I’m curious about the degree to which you felt like you were participating in what was going on. You needed to be somewhat removed from it in order to do your job, but you’re also there as a person and fellow student.

Bajaj: I actually think I got a little bit too involved. I’m a student of color, I’m of Indian descent, but I don’t go through nearly the same things that the black students on our campus go through. But we were spending 18, 20 hours a day with them, so it was impossible, for me at least, to not consider myself part of the movement. But I did understand that I had a different role in the movement than anyone else because we were there as filmmakers. I still consider the people we met to be some of the greatest people I’ve met at Mizzou, and some are great friends now. For me, it got very, very personal.

Marvin: Actually, one of the original members of one-nine-five-oh is in sociology class with me. We would have conversations about this all the time, so I felt way more involved in all of the activism from the beginning, and kind of had a hard time when I was I expected to be a student journalist, because I saw how many journalists were out there just hoping it was their big break. Obviously, I’m never going to be able to entirely separate myself from how I feel about these issues, and the fact that I actually do want to participate in being part of the change, not just capturing it.

Dietrich: There were a few things that I did intentionally through the process to keep myself as objective as possible. You know, I’d put the camera down and hang out and sit with them and just be another student, and then I’d pick the camera up and use the lens as a shield between me and them, to keep me a little bit more objective. But it was really hard. There were a lot of times, especially early on, when it was really emotional. Varun and I would have to pull each other back. I’d see him crying and chanting into his microphone, and I’d go to him and say, “You know, take a second, go calm down so you can appropriately shoot.” And he’d do the same thing for me.

Bajaj: This was such a huge thing on campus. This involved a university president, the highest educator in our university system, so this consumed campus. I didn’t really get to see my friends, [but] when I did talk to them, like via text, I would say, “I can’t talk about anything other than one-nine-five-oh. Is this affecting you guys in the same way?” And everyone was like, “Yeah. No one is talking about anything but this.”

Lets shift over to another aspect of this, which I would imagine was a real challenge considering the personal and emotional toll this was taking on all of you. Amid the developing events, were you strategizing for shot making? Were you considering yourselves, like, camera one, camera two, and camera three — planning out how to cover events on particular days or during particular moments?

Dietrich: Very quickly, Varun and I got really good at talking without talking. We’d see each other in the middle of a crowd and give each other this little look or hand gesture. But we also planned things out beforehand. We established our main eight or 10 characters who were going to pull this thing through when we [got to] the editing process. Depending on the event that we were shooting, Varun would say, “OK, I’m going to take characters. Adam you’re going to take the crowd as a whole and shoot reaction-type stuff or large group shots.” And then when Kellan came on a little later in the process, we would put her on detail stuff — hands, leaves, tightly focused stuff. So we did a lot of talking about it, but it’s really hard to plan how to shoot a protest when they’re marching through campus and the entire thing is live and happening in the moment.

Bajaj: Adam’s great at finding the right people in a huge crowd and getting their eyes, getting what they’re feeling. Kellan is amazing at detail shots and inserts and things that are more metaphorical. For me, I was definitely not afraid to be up front, and to be in the rest of the media’s photographs, so I was inches from people’s faces while they were leading the protest. After a little while, I think all of us realized our strengths. But everything goes out the window once [the action] starts. Then we just do our best, and try to feel the moment.

Marvin: Yeah, I hate group projects, but this actually worked out really well.

Do you feel any anxiety about putting this out there now? A sense of responsibility because of the access that you received?

Dietrich: Definitely, there’s a big feeling of responsibility. Because at this point, I feel it’s our job to do a really good job of telling this story. And then there’s this kind of backhanded piece to it, where I’m a white guy and I don’t want my voice to speak louder than theirs, because that completely dilutes their message, you know? I don’t want this to be whitewashed in any way, I don’t want to be able to see our fingerprints on it very much. I want to tell their story the way they’ve been telling it, because that’s literally the point of their movement.

Marvin: My anxiety is whether or not it’s as clear as we think it is. I’m with my grandparents right now, and I’ve been having a lot of conversations about this, and no matter how clearly I think I’m putting everything, as black and white as I can make it, it’s still not changing minds, it’s still not changing hearts. And so I’m just concerned that we’re not doing as big of a favor as we would like to.

Bajaj: For me, the anxiety comes from the fact that they didn’t want the media there because they knew students were only there to get their big break, and now we’re putting our names on this project. That’s something I’ve had to grapple with every day while working on this. I still don’t know how to feel about that. But this is my role in the movement, getting this footage out there. I guess I feel, the word I would use is a little dirty, that we’re being interviewed right now rather than them. But that’s something that I’m just going to have to deal with.

Everything you’re working through sounds just like the issues at play for filmmakers who’ve made numerous documentaries — the logistical challenges, the personal struggles, the dynamism of collaboration, the anxieties over doing your subjects justice. Yet since all three of you are new to nonfiction filmmaking, what do you feel that you’ve learned? Are you different filmmakers than you were just a few weeks ago?

Dietrich: Every other project, even in the documentary class, has been four- or five-minute short pieces where I could really visualize what the end result was going to look like before I even shot anything. Then one night, Varun and I were unsure of ourselves — like really, really unsure of ourselves. It was the first night that national media had gotten on the scene and CNN was in town, and the New York Times was there, and we started to feel like small fish again.

Bajaj: It was when we found out about the football team [threatening to refuse to play]. We were just like, “What are we doing?”

Dietrich: Then we got on the phone with Robert [Greene] and he’s like, “You guys were stupid enough to pick up the camera and get started on this thing, so finish it.” And that was the thing that we needed — to understand that we didn’t know what we were getting into. Even though I thought I did, I truly had no idea, and to think that I would have some idea of what the outcome would be when I started was just ignorant of me. So I learned to take projects like this in bite-sized pieces, truly just one step, one day at a time. You know — let’s pick up the camera and figure this out. I’m going to shoot here, Kellan’s going to do this, Varun’s going to do that. To spend more time behind the camera, more time with subjects and people that we’re working with, more time working in a team. The kind of things they want to teach us in school, but at this point, I believe you can’t learn that stuff in a classroom, you have to just go out there and do it.

Marvin: There were two big things for me. The first one was — and this is such a cliché — I learned what I need to learn. I need to learn how to shoot like Varun and find the real action, and I need to learn from Adam how to get access to people who might not necessarily want to be on film. And the other thing for me was, before documentary was even an option at Mizzou, I was like, I guess I’ll just work at [local TV station] KMU and eventually go from investigative into documentary making. I spent a lot of time in that newsroom, which is a very stressful environment, but it’s also very routine. I guess my problem with it was that you never got to develop those [close] connections. But documentary is very different from journalism, and it’s kind of re-learning everything I’ve come to think about what capturing real life should be.

Bajaj: This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. They were grueling days — it was emotionally and physically exhausting. But I found my passion through this process. I didn’t know that I knew how to shoot. I found that out while I was out there. We started this program in August, four months ago. I had no idea what I was doing. I had taken one multimedia journalism class. I’d watched a bunch of documentaries and I’d gone to True/False [Film Fest], but I didn’t know it was something that I could actually do. Adam and I always talked about projects that we wanted to do, and they always seemed so huge and impossible, but now I know that they’re not going be impossible, they’re just going be very, very hard. But if you put your head down and work your ass off, it’s something that you can do. So for me, I have the confidence that I can be a part of something that can mean something. I mean, the story literally landed on our front door, and we just picked up our cameras and went.

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Director Yi Seung-Jun and producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam are the dynamic filmmaking duo behind In the Absence, a World Press Photo award-winning short about the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea.

In the Absence begins on April 16, 2014, the day the MV Sewol, a passenger ferry carrying over 400 people—including school children—sank near Jeju Island. Over 300 people lost their lives that day. In the wake of this horrific incident, people across South Korea, including those whose loved ones had perished, sought transparency and accountability from national authorities. Years later, these families and their supporters are still fighting for answers for what happened on that fateful April morning.

In the Absence, which began production in 2017, combines intimate interviews with victims’ families, survivors, and rescue divers with breathtaking archival footage and audio recordings obtained from the South Korean authorities. The result is a compelling yet compassionate story of the people whose lives were forever changed by this tragedy.

In the Absence premiered at DOC NYC in 2018, where it won the grand jury prize in the festival’s shorts competition and later screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). The film also took home first prize at this year’s World Press Photo Digital Storytelling Contest for Long Form. Shortly after, The New Yorker published In the Absence on its website and YouTube channel, where it has garnered over 1 million views. You can also watch the film on our website here.

Yi and Kam recently spoke to Field of Vision about choosing to make this ambitious and galvanizing film, how the conversation around Sewol has changed in the last five years, and much more.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you decide to make a film about the Sewol ferry disaster?

Yi Seung-Jun: It was a Wednesday morning in 2014 when I first heard through the media that a ferry was sinking. At first, it seemed quite serious. Most of the passengers were high school students on their school trip. I was wishing that no one died or got seriously hurt. Soon, a news report came out that all the passengers were rescued, which turned out to be not true.

In the afternoon of that day, I watched TV news, which said more than half of the passengers were still trapped in the ferry, which was already under the water.

Since then, we heard about the ferry sinking every day, and many of the students seemed to be dead. It was really shocking and sad. My colleague directors visited the harbor closest to the site. They thought there must be something [suspicious] regarding the government’s reaction, and that something was being hidden by the government as well as by the mainstream media.

I was suggested by one of the directors to join the team, but at that time I was busy editing my feature documentary. Moreover, I did not think that I could press the record button in front of the enormous sorrow and fury of the victims’ or missing students’ families. When I saw any teenagers wearing school uniforms in a bus, on the street, I burst into tears without realizing.

From October 2016 to March 2017, there were a series of Candle Protests in South Korea, calling for the resignation of then-president Park Geun-hye. Millions of people, including myself, took part in the protests.

It was at the end of 2016 when Field of Vision contacted me, asking if I was interested in making a short, cinematic documentary about any story related to the protests, or the then-current situation. I talked with my producer, Gary, and we suggested the story of the Sewol ferry disaster to Field of Vision, how the disaster was connected to the protest, and why people were so angry about the handling and attitude of the government about the disaster.

It’s been almost three years, but still the victims’ families and the civilian divers were living in pain, with the truth still not revealed. However, some people made those arguments: we should not talk about the disaster anymore, the victims’ families have got enough compensation, let’s forget about it, do not make use of the disaster politically, and so on.

I came to think that if there is still broadly rooted pain in there, then we need to go back to the time when the pain had begun. We need to look at it and find out what caused the pain, and where it had started. That is why I decided to make this film.

Gary Byung-Seok Kam: I had this weird experience about six months before the tragedy happened. I got an email from an American producer who was ready to make a documentary about a mysterious photographer called Ahae. He described himself as a sportsman, post-structuralist photographer, artist, and nature lover. I was really, really curious about him. So I started to do some research. Later it came out that he was the owner of the ferry company.

The next year, in April, actually, while I’m still doing research, I actually booked [the Sewol ferry] with my partner. It is the only ferry from Seoul to Jeju Island. But the last page [on the website] was all broken. The next day, one of my friends said, "Oh, why bother to go all the way by motorbike? You can just send the motorbike [via airplane]."

So I had second thoughts. I just booked an airplane. The next day, before I went out, I saw news that the ferry was sinking. For a moment, I had goosebumps all over my body. I realized that that was the ferry that I booked.

You're saying that you were almost on that boat? But by some chance happening, you weren't?

GK: Yes. Only two people among the victims’ families know this. Because I could never tell them that I was lucky and didn't get on. After that moment, I always felt that I needed to do something.

First of all, I didn't like the way the media treated the tragedy in general. Three months before Field of Vision approached [the film’s director Seung-Jun Yi], actually one of the victims’ family members contacted me, asking if I'd be interested in looking into all this.

So we had a talk. I just told them, “I'm sorry, I'm not capable of finding out the truth, not at this moment, but I will find out.” The government definitely deserves the criticism, but I just want to take one step back and see. It was just too emotional.

[The victim’s family member] liked the idea. We kept developing the idea, not in a hurry. Then Field of Vision contacted Seung-Jun, so Seung-Jun and I discussed. He knew that I had started thinking about a Sewol documentary. We had a long talk. The Candle Protest itself is a great subject, but it's too deep for a short documentary. So we both thought that the Sewol case could also be a strong subject as it was one of the main issues that brought people to join the Candle Protest.

The film is very, very meaningful for, and also to the victims’ family association. Even though it was a really tragic story, they are very happy that the story gets to be shared with a global audience, a bigger audience.

I actually wanted to touch a bit on that. So the film has been shown at several festivals. It's now online at the New Yorker and also on our site. So what has it been like to share this particular story with a larger international—and now digital—audience? What has that been like for you, for Seung-Jun, for the families?

GK: First of all, the victims’ family association—the families—they are very, very happy. I met them right after the New Yorker’s YouTube video hit more than a million [views]. So I told them that happened. They were very, very happy. And they were very surprised. It seemed that most of the comments were written in English. I was sitting with them in a café, and I read the comments. They were moved, and they were pleased to find that the comments were from all different countries, and are actually not so different from what they have gotten from Korean audiences. They were glad that the pain they are going through, the tragedy caused by the incompetence of parliament could be actually [communicated] well with a bigger audience. It's not that they want to be an object of pity. They want people to know what happened.

Any innocent, ordinary citizen of any society could fall victim to tragedy. That's what the [families] want to tell [the world]. That's why every citizen [should] want to show more interest in the safety and regulations for the society, any society. That's what they wanted. They wanted to convert the tragedy into a platform for every society.

Do you think that public discourse around the Sewol atrocity has changed in the last five years? If so, how?

YS: As far as I know, public discourse has not changed a lot. I mean, there were already people who disliked to talk about this issue. Most of them were supporters of the then-government, the then-president and the ruling conservative party. And politicians put a kind “scarlet letter” on anyone, any media, any group, any politician who supported the victims’ families, who criticized the government’s reactions. The yellow ribbon is the symbol of the slogan, “Do not forget the day: April 16th, 2014.” People used to put a yellow ribbon sticker on their cars. I also used to put a yellow ribbon sticker on the rear window of my car. Once, a man asked me what it was and he said it’s better to take it down. I asked why, and he just said, “Well… it is not good to put this ribbon on.” That was it. I was lucky because he did not keep asking. However, there have been people who insulted the victims’ families or were aggressive with people who support the victims’ families, the civilian divers, etc. Their attitude has not changed at all.

But the media has changed after the power shift, I mean, after the then-president, Park Geun-Hye resigned from her office, and the opposite party candidate became the new president of South Korea.The attitude of media has changed. Most of the mainstream media were with the then-government. They did not report the issue well. They wanted to hide as much as possible. But due to the power shift, mainstream media began dealing with many kinds of stories related to the ferry sinking disaster. This project was supported by the governmental fund, and I applied for the fund after the then-president resigned from her office. It would not have been possible to get funded if it were under the previous government.

GK: We cannot treat this as a car accident. We have to find out who's still [accountable]. At this moment, only one person [has been charged]: the captain of a patrol boat. So the families, and those who support these families, they demand justice. Not as revenge, but without setting a good example of punishment or taking responsibility, there won’t be a first step to be a better society in the future.

In the Absence features a lot of archival footage and audio from a variety of sources. There's stuff from broadcast TV, conversations between government officials, and the crew on the ship, cell phone videos from school children on the ship, and so on. Can you tell me about the process of finding those materials and then deciding which pieces of footage or audio to use? Because it seemed like there was such a large set of data that you were able to pull from.

YS: As I said, some of my director colleagues had been filming the situation after the ferry sinking, establishing the 416 Documenting Group. The aim of the group was not only to make their own film or TV program related to the disaster but also to support other directors making documentaries regarding the issue. I talked with them about this project, and they eagerly decided to support this project. They’ve already got tons of footage, some were filmed by them, some were obtained with the help of media, congressmen, et cetera. We were provided with all of that footage. And the cell phone videos provided by the association of the victims’ families, with their permission.

When I looked through all of the footage, I first decided to make a timeline of the incident itself, to make the audience feel what was going on on that day.

GK: The most important thing was to secure the footage from the actual Coast Guard choppers, the patrol boat footage, and also all the conversations among government agencies. Actually, that was only distributed to major broadcasters, just for some parts for the news report. As independent filmmakers, it was extremely difficult for us to secure the footage, but the family association really helped us in contacting one of the congressmen. He was a very well known human rights lawyer. He represented the family association for a long time, and later was elected as a congressman.

Through his office, we could secure the footage and the government recordings. We contacted the broadcasters, and they refused to share footage with us. So the only possible way was to have someone in parliament help us clear that copyright issue. The government will never raise any questions with copyright issues to Congress. So that's how we secured most of the footage.

I wanted to transition into asking you about the film having these really incredible moving interviews with the victims’ families as well as a few of the divers. What was it like to film with them? How did you gain their trust?

YS: The association of the victims’ families decided to support this project officially. We always discussed what to film and whom to interview with the association. One of the most important rules of mine on the shooting location is to try not to [impose]. I just let my characters be there, stay as they are, move as they want. Then I just keep observing them, capturing important moments or emotions as they are. Through this process, characters do not feel bothered, and I do believe that it helps me to gain the characters’ trust.

GK: At the time, many family members were about to go to an island very close to where the ferry sank. There are no hotels or anything, only several private residents of fishermen. It's only two kilometers away from the mainland. We were allowed to join, not knowing where to stay, what to eat… And we ended up staying on a floor, and spent two days on the island with many family members.

It was really depressing, first of all, to watch them because—especially the fathers—no one could sleep without drinking. Some were drinking two liters of Korean vodka [each night]. At the same time some were very hostile to journalists—any camera. They felt they had been betrayed by journalists for many years, for almost three years.

When the Sewol ferry was brought into the port [at Jindo], we once again stayed three days [with the family]. We did the same thing. We didn't ask anything.

The family members took turns watching [the port] because they didn't trust the government [to not remove evidence]. They set up a watchtower. At least three to five people, family members, were always on the island at once for three years.

What was it like for you and Seung-Jun to be around so much grief and pain throughout this whole process? How did it change your perspective on the incident and in general?

GK: I am sure that Seung-Jun had a more stressful time, but for me, I have this strong feeling of responsibility to do something for them, and making a film and making their story into a documentary was the only thing I could do for them. And also watching their grief, anger, and frustration, actually, as a filmmaker, it was a great lesson. That makes me think again about how we as filmmakers should treat the people in pain, when we hold the camera or when we want to make stories; to be respectful and hold that distance. Seung-Jun was the only independent filmmaker the family allowed to get in [to the port]. After a family member managed to get a personal look at the salvaged ferry and then came out of the gate, this TV cameraperson ran to her and put the camera right in her face. One of the fathers shouted and swore at camera, "Are you happy? Are you happy that you could shoot this woman crying and in pain? This is what you want?"

When the mothers came out of the gate, Seung-Jun just [fell] back. We moved aside just enough to get the whole scene.

What do you hope future audiences will learn, gain, or feel when watching this film?

YS: We, human beings, are vulnerable to “time.” As time goes on, we forget many things. Time makes us dull. It is like a black hole absorbing our [emotions]. Isn’t it scary to become dull? I want people to remember the day, remember what happened on that day and what was going on, what we told each other. And I hope people do not forget that if some system fails to operate correctly, it results in terrible pain in the end. The pain might not be curable. Please wake up and keep your eyes on [those responsible].

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François Verster and Simon Wood are South Africa-based filmmakers and the directors of Scenes from a Dry City, a new Field of Vision short about the water crisis in Cape Town.

The film looks at the terrifying march towards “Day Zero,” when the city’s water taps will be turned off due to prolonged drought, from a variety of perspectives, including: car washers, anti-privatization protesters, Christians praying for rain in a mass service, and well-to-do golfers on a lush private course. These vignettes are juxtaposed with images of a drought-stricken reservoir and the network of canals that carry an ever-decreasing trickle of water to Cape Town. Though “Day Zero” has reportedly been postponed, the core issues explored in the film—namely race, class, access, and privilege—remain relevant.

Scenes from a Dry City premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in 2018 and later screened at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Mini-Doc Award. Verster and Wood recently spoke to Field of Vision about their award-winning film, what it was like to blend their filmmaking styles, and what they hope audiences will glean from their work.

What inspired you to make a film about the water crisis in Cape Town?

François Verster: Simon and I both live in Cape Town. At the beginning of last year, the public were suddenly receiving warnings that the taps may be turned off, and predictions were being made, ranging from exploding sewerage pipes to typhoid epidemics to social insurrection. Many wealthier Capetonians actually left the city for Johannesburg, the supermarkets ran out of bottled water after panic ensued, people started stockpiling, and there was a general sense of simply not knowing how life would proceed should there be no water. The government issued photos of water distribution points, which would be controlled by the army and would mean queues of tens of thousands of people every day. The public was asked to befriend elderly neighbors and to assist them when the time comes. Schools issued warnings of possible closure.

We were both intrigued by the way hidden social dynamics were coming to the fore in the process, and we both saw a great opportunity for a film that looked at Cape Town through the vehicle of a crisis that went across the board. I had made a film called Sea Point Days that consisted of vignettes of life in a specific part of the city, and Simon had made a film called Orbis, which uses powerful single visual scenes as a medium for storytelling. And we both felt that the situation presented a golden opportunity to deliver a highly creative insight into the bigger societal issues we have explored in our other films. I was in discussion with various people about doing something, and when the opportunity to do something for Field of Vision came up it totally made sense, both because of the urgent timeline and because of being able to contain a very big subject in a tight, limited form.

Simon Wood: Every man and his dog wanted to make a film about Cape Town being the first major city to run out of water last year. Most of these films were expository documentaries positioned around a sensationalist armageddon. I am not and never will be an environmental impact, social justice type of filmmaker. I saw an opportunity to use water as a lens to explore societal dynamics in a place which is rife with inequality. Thematically, I was interested in nature’s indifference to man, which allows the film to use water a neutral device to travel though Cape Town’s surreal maddening at the hands of a disinterested mother nature.

How did this collaboration come about? Had you worked together before?

Verster: We have been consulting on each other’s films and also developing a film called Zephany: The Hidden One together for some time. Because of the urgency involved in doing something on the water crisis, and because there were so many facets to cover, it made sense to try to work with another director. We at one point considered making a longer film that involved different directors from different parts of Cape Town, but in the end the short documentary form worked out very well for us.

Wood: François is South Africa’s greatest observational filmmaker, so I was obviously really keen to work with him! My films have been driven primarily by a strong visual aesthetic and less concerned with narrative, so I thought if we collaborated it would be an interesting clash of documentary personas, and by God it was! Oddly, I think the film works best when it intercuts between our separate styles: the golf scene in the empty canal, filmed by me, blends really well with François’s observation of the protest march. I hope these contrasting styles, opinions, ideas lead to something unsettling that connects with a broader idea around perception and reality.

You discuss showing not only the environmental impact but also the social and economic impact of the drought. Why did you think it was important to show those aspects as well?

Verster: I am primarily a social documentary filmmaker, so the human side, which is of course inseparable from environmental issues anyway, was always the entry point for me. As mentioned, the threat of water running out had a profound impact on Capetonians’ existential sense—it was as if society had been prodded in such a way so as to reveal both its fault lines and, perhaps also, its strengths and positive characteristics. In many ways Cape Town’s spatial geography is a monument to Apartheid planning, and now municipal resources are applied highly unequally across the city’s population. What was also illuminating was how many wealthier people would, for example, vocally complain about how car wash operations in the poor townships were wasting water, without any acknowledgement of the fact that in many of those areas a single tap could be serving an entire street. Or of the structural economic advantages involved in being able to dig well points or boreholes to keep gardens and swimming pools going in the wealthier areas. The water crisis cost the region over 30,000 jobs in the agriculture and tourism sectors, and of course the poorer employees were the first to go. The cost of municipal water itself shot up, and this was of course much harder for poorer households to accommodate. In the wealthiest areas, some house-owners continued watering their lawns as before, opting to pay the hefty fines—because they had the funds to do so—rather than saving water. On the other hand, there was also a very positive sense of people pulling together across race and class barriers towards a common cause.

Wood: I guess because people from privileged backgrounds, myself included, love to bang on about the environment, whilst for the majority of people in South Africa the main concern is how they will be able to provide for themselves and their families on a daily basis. These raw realities are somehow ignored and rarely discussed.

What was the process for gaining access for the ride-along with a member of local law enforcement that is featured in the film?

Verster: We had a very good relationship with Cape Town’s city police and had filmed with them a number of times before filming the chase sequencer in the film. The city was fairly open about what they were doing and the police in general, to our mind, seemed to want to cooperate with both the media and with the bigger debates that were going on. Yet it felt very strange and unsettling to be driving around in a police car filming people being booked for washing cars or watering their gardens, particularly in a place that has so many massive other societal problems.

Wood: I had been on several water operations with the police before I shot the car washer chase scene. It was fortunate that I was interviewing the officer in the car as the situation unfolded: the police officers in front of us were in an unmarked car and pulled up to the illegal car wash and all hell broke loose as they jumped out and tried to arrest the guys. It did feel fairly surreal to put so much effort into chasing men who were trying to make a day’s wage by washing cars. Everyone felt fairly deflated after the guys were arrested. But I think the film offers a not impossible view of a future where water is a precious entity and governments will fight to control it.

Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult to shoot due to issues of access, timing, et cetera?

Verster: We were hoping to film more of the excessive use of water by certain richer Capetonians. For example, we had planned to film how farmers—who have water concessions from government—deliver water by truck to private swimming pool owners. In an area close to where I live, a massive multi-apartment complex that boasts fourteen brand new swimming pools has just been constructed, which seems crazy given that the general understanding has been that private pools are no longer a luxury Cape Town can afford. Even municipal pools have been threatened with closure. But because of the sensitivity around this kind of abuse of privilege it was not possible, in the time span we had, to arrange access to filming this.

Wood: The film uses water as a vehicle to travel though Cape Town, so it was really important to me that this journey had a strong aesthetic. I spent a lot of time searching for strong compositional moments in different landscapes: I filmed in underground water tunnels, dams, rivers, under bridges, and obviously underwater. When the golfer got into the empty canal to play the shot, I hadn’t taken a weekend off in two months. It was a Sunday, and my partner Meghna was pissed off that I decided to spend the afternoon filming in an empty canal. I had been wandering around that space for two hours when he nearly hit me with his ball. It’s a rare moment where a really bad golf shot landed in an amazing location whilst the sun was in the right part of the sky, and the right lens was on my camera creating a beautiful compositional observational moment of which I am very proud and makes the many weekends and pissed-off wife all seem worth it. Annoyingly, because it’s a beautiful shot, people think its staged or fake, I promise you it isn’t.

Why did you choose to make a short film instead of a feature-length film about this particular subject?

Verster: As before, this was largely because of the time factor involved and also because the opportunity to make a piece for Field of Vision offered something altogether new for me. I have not made many short documentaries before and have generally tended to be skeptical about them in the sense that one cannot be immersed in a world or in a process in the way I usually associate with the documentary films I value. Yet once we started working, the relative freedoms allowed by the form became a source of genuine joy. I was amazed at how one can combine elements without needing the same amount of exposition, development or even justification. Switches of mode or tone can be made very rapidly. For example, when we get back to the car washers, the real sound environment is cut out and we move to a trickling-water sound, which we thought of as the “essence” of water in auditory form, accompanied by a bass rumble. The film somehow completely changes into something else right there - and we look at subsequent scenes very differently. My idea of documentary is that its value lies exactly in being able to combine different realities, modes of looking, even modes of reality in one space, and the short film somehow makes doing so a lot easier.

Wood: To quote Werner Herzog who combatively believes we must divorce documentary from mere investigative journalism and that the “fly-on-the-wall” approach is for “losers,” he puts it eloquently when he states: “Only by imagining and by creating and by fantasizing and bringing in deep dreams, all of a sudden puts you into a position where you start to see something deeper. You notice something that stays within you forever.” This is genuinely what I strive for, and I believe it’s far easier to take chances, present dreams and fantasies within a short film than it is a feature where we often slaves to narrative devices and economic pressures.

What do you hope people gain from watching Scenes from a Dry City?

Verster: I hope that the film works on various levels. Firstly, we would of course like to draw attention to the crisis itself, and to the social issues that are brought to the fore by it, and to how what is happening here might be a harbinger of future situations elsewhere in the world. Cape Town does have a specific set of circumstances, but it does seem as if what we experienced last year is going to become commonplace around the world. The debates around political responsibility, alternative water sources—such as desalination plants—socio-economic rights, privatization and so on are by no means resolved, and it would be good for different centers to engage on how problems are or are not being resolved. But the film also aims to work at a more existential level. One guiding idea we had was to try to think through what it would mean to see things from the perspective of water itself, one that is indifferent yet central to existence and binding everything together. The hope was that this would then also open up a different kind of look: one that is visual, emotional, perhaps at some level philosophical—at the very tough debates on race and economics raging in the country over the past few years—in a way, both the harsh divisions as well as the connectedness of Cape Town’s human population are revealed. And then of course, we wanted all of this to function partly through the cinematic qualities of the film, so that people have an experience of aesthetic beauty, or at least power, which allows a different—and possibly, at a push, deeper—kind of political engagement with reality at hand.

Wood: Beautiful! I’d like to end the interview by saying I agree with François.

Watch Scenes from a Dry City on Field of Vision.

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Field of Vision announces today a new fellowship and its first-ever artist-in-residence. 

The Field of Vision fellowship is a year-long, collaborative program designed to support filmmakers in achieving their long-term artistic goals. The four 2018 Field of Vision fellows are: director Garrett Bradley (AloneBelow Dreams); director, actor, and activist Michelle Latimer (RiseChoke); filmmaker Charlie Lyne (Fish StoryBeyond Clueless); and Lyric Cabral, director of the Emmy-winning documentary (T)error.

“We are establishing this fellowship program to support filmmakers beyond project-based commissions, and to invite artists to collaborate in our editorial process," said Field of Vision executive producer Laura Poitras.  

The first year of fellows were selected from filmmakers who had worked with Field of Vision over the last three years. In addition to creating a framework for idea development, creative support, and a grant, Field of Vision will conduct workshops throughout the year in the areas of digital security, research, and legal issues. Fellows will also be invited to participate in Field of Vision’s editorial process, from identifying urgent stories to offering filmmaker feedback and guidance.

“We have wanted to support filmmakers in as many ways as possible since the beginning of Field of Vision,” said executive producer Charlotte Cook. “We are so thrilled to create these fellowships to be able to collaborate further with these incredible artists, all of whom are visionaries whose work is at the forefront of exploring the ways of combining art and storytelling and expanding the form.”

In addition to the four fellows, Field of Vision and First Look Media are jointly supporting data artist Josh Begley as an artist-in-residence in 2018. On staff at The Intercept since 2014, Begley has regularly collaborated with the publication’s co-founder Jeremy Scahill on multiple projects, including The Drone Papers. Begley’s first project as artist-in-residence is Concussion Protocol, a short film made with footage of all reported concussions sustained in the NFL this season. It has been viewed over 1.6 million times. 

January was a landmark month for Field of Vision. Yance Ford’s Strong Island, made with support from Field of Vision, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, marking the first nomination for an openly transgender director. 

Five Field of Vision-supported documentaries also screened at Sundance Film Festival, and three received special jury awards: Steve Maing’s Crime + Punishment; RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening; and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Our New President

Founded in 2015, Field of Vision has funded over 70 shorts and provided support for 10 feature documentaries. Field of Vision is the recipient of the International Documentary Association’s Best Short Form Series award and a News and Documentary Emmy nomination. 

About the Fellows:

Garrett Bradley

Garrett Bradley is a New Orleans-based filmmaker. Her debut feature documentary,Below Dreams, premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival. Her work has been exhibited in several prominent venues, including the Getty Museum, Hammer Museum, Sundance Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, Festival du Nouveau Cinema Montreal, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Rooftop Films, New Orleans Film Festival, Hot Docs, and SXSW. Her short film Alone (Sundance 2017), which was released as part of the New York Times’s Op-Docs series, won a Sundance Jury Award and was shortlisted for an Academy Award. She has received fellowships from the Sundance Institute, Ford Foundation, and Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Garrett is also the co-founder of Creative Council, an artist-led afterschool program that helps high school students develop strong portfolios and applications for college. She currently teaches filmmaking at Loyola University.

Recent Field of Vision films: Like (SXSW 2016), The Earth is Humming (to be released)

Lyric Cabral

Director Lyric R. Cabral creates investigative work that exposes new information for the public record. Cabral’s directorial debut (T)error won an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Documentary and was hailed by Variety as "a vital exposé.” (T)error has screened at more than 50 film festivals worldwide and is now available on Netflix. Lyric is a recipient of the International Documentary Association’s Emerging Filmmaker Award and has been featured in Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film. A current Rockwood/ Just Films Fellow, Lyric is a former Sundance Women in Film Fellow and a veteran of Sundance Institute’s Edit Lab and Creative Producing Lab. Prior to making films, Lyric worked as an editorial photojournalist; her photography was recently on exhibit in Gordon Parks: The Making of An Argument at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive.

Recent Field of Vision film: The Rashomon Effect (in production)

Michelle Latimer

Michelle Latimer (Métis/Algonquin) is a Toronto-based writer, director, activist, and actor. Her body of work includes Choke (Sundance 2011), which received a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Honorable Mention in International Short Filmmaking and was chosen as one of TIFF Canada’s Top Ten in 2012; The Underground (TIFF 2014); Nimmikaage (Oberhausen 2016); the feature-length documentary ALIAS, which was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award; and the Viceland docuseries Rise (Sundance 2017). Michelle is currently working on her first dramatic feature The Freedom Project, adapting the bestselling novel The Inconvenient Indian (HBO/NFB) for screen, and being the showrunner for the seriesRed Nation Rising, which is in development for Sienna. She has programmed for ImagineNATIVE, Hot Docs Film Festival, and the Dawson City International Short Film Festival.

Recent Field of Vision film: Nuuca (TIFF 2017, Sundance 2018)

Charlie Lyne

Charlie Lyne is a filmmaker and film critic, best known for the essay films Beyond Clueless and Fear Itself. He has also directed a number of shorts, including the award-winning documentary Fish Story, and the 10-hour protest film Paint Drying. His work has screened at festivals including Sundance, International Film Festival Rotterdam, and SXSW.

Recent Field of Vision film: Personal Truth (IDFA 2017)

About the Artist-in-Residence:

Josh Begley

Josh Begley is a data artist and app developer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the creator of Metadata+, an iPhone app that tracks U.S. drone strikes. Begley’s work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, The Intercept, The Guardian, New York Magazine, and at the New Museum of Contemporary Art.

Recent Field of Vision films: Best of Luck with the Wall (Doc Stories 2016, True/False 2017), Concussion Protocol

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American football is a beautiful sport. There’s a tremendous amount of grace that goes into it. For a moment, men can fly; the highlight reels are spectacular.

It can also be horrific — like watching someone get hit by a car.

Since the season started, there have been more than 280 concussions in the NFL. That is an average of 12 concussions per week. Though it claims to take head injuries very seriously, the National Football League holds this data relatively close. It releases yearly statistics, but those numbers are published in aggregate, making it difficult to glean specific insights.

I have been tracking these injuries all season. Using a variety of methods, including reviewing daily injury reports from NFL.com, I have created what I believe is the most complete dataset of individual concussions sustained during the 2017-2018 season.

The resulting film, “Concussion Protocol,” is a visual record of every concussion in the NFL this year.

This film does not make an argument for ending football. Rather, it invites a set of questions. In the spirit of Saidiya Hartman, I am interested in “defamiliarizing the familiar.”

When we watch American football, what are we seeing?

By cutting together only these scenes of injury — moments of impact, of intimacy, of trauma — and reversing them, I hope to open up a space to see some of this violence anew.

In his recent book “Black and Blur,” Fred Moten asks, “What is it to rewind the given? What is it to wound it? What is it to be given to this wounding and rewinding?”

Representing this series of collisions in reverse — and in slow motion or “dragged time” — I hope to make strange what has for many of us become normative: the spectacular, devouring moment of a football hit that knocks a player out cold.

Rather than making a film about concussions with a flurry of hard hits, however, I am interested — inspired by Hartman — in looking elsewhere. How might we see the totality of this violence without just replaying the violence itself? “By defamiliarizing the familiar,” Hartman writes in “Scenes of Subjection,” “I hope to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.”

In a moment when black athletes are being chastised for kneeling in protest of police violence, it should not be lost on us that calls to “get back on the field” or “stick to football” are also calls for players to subject themselves to the slower forms of violence the football field contains.

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Field of Vision is debuting their new film, A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN by Marshall Curry.

A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN (Dir. Marshall Curry)

In 1939, twenty-thousand Americans rallied in New York’s Madison Square Garden to celebrate the rise of Nazism – an event largely forgotten from American history. A NIGHT AT THE GARDEN uses striking archival fragments recorded that night to transport modern audiences into this disturbing gathering. With chilling resonance in light of events in Charlottesville and around the country, the film is a reminder about the power that far-right ideology once had in America and a wakeup call about the importance of to addressing it today.

From Field of Vision Co-Founders:

Laura Poitras: "When Marshall approached us with the film two days after Charlottesville, my first thought was, 'we need to put this film in cinemas,' and release it like a newsreel."

Charlotte Cook: “When Marshall first showed us this footage we were stunned. We felt that due to this political climate it was essential to get this film out fast, but also that to do so we needed to try a different style of distribution. By playing in theatres across the country first we hope this the film will be able to reach beyond our usual audience, and into a range of communities and cities around the US. Creating a conversation around the film from the ground up. It’s extremely exciting to be able to do this with Marshall, a filmmaker we’ve been wanting to work with for a long time. And this film is so incredibly well, and thoughtfully, made. We can’t wait for people to see it.”

On Sunday September 24, the film will be shown across the country at 22 screens in Alamo theaters in:

Kansas City

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/american-assassin

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/it-2017

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/kingsman-the-golden-circle

https://drafthouse.com/kansas-city/show/mother

Yonkers

https://drafthouse.com/yonkers/show/3-d-rarities

https://drafthouse.com/yonkers/show/solaris-4k-restoration

San Francisco

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/ingrid-goes-west

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/beach-rats

https://drafthouse.com/sf/show/infinity-baby

Brooklyn

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/zardoz

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/dunkirk

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/good-time

https://drafthouse.com/nyc/show/mother

Austin Lakeline

Austin Mueller

Austin Ritz

Austin Slaughter

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/mother

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/grindhouse

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/stronger

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/the-big-sick

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/brads-status

https://drafthouse.com/austin/show/tough-guy-cinema-repo-man

The film is also playing at the IFC Center in New York until Friday playing before the 12:30pm showing of “The Unknown Girl."

The film will be part of a special event at the NYFF, and more festivals to come, along with an online release.

About Marshall Curry: MARSHALL CURRY is a two-time Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker. His film, “Street Fight,” follows Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, NJ and was nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy. His follow up documentary, “Racing Dreams” tells the story of two boys and a girl who live in rural America and dream of one day racing in NASCAR. It won numerous awards, including Best Documentary Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, and aired on PBS and the BBC. His third film, “If a Tree Falls, a Story of the Earth Liberation Front” peels back the layers of a radical environmental group that the FBI called the number one domestic terrorist group in the United States. That film won the award for Best Documentary Editing at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to be nominated for an Oscar. Marshall was Executive Producer and an additional editor of “Mistaken For Strangers,” a comedy rock-doc about indie band, The National. Most recently Marshall directed and edited “Point and Shoot,” a documentary about a young Baltimore native who set out on a 30,000-mile motorcycle trip through Northern Africa and the Middle East and wound up joining the rebels in Libya fighting Gaddafi. It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and was released in theaters and aired on PBS and the BBC. Marshall is a graduate of Swarthmore College where he studied Comparative Religion and has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Duke, Columbia, NYU, and other colleges. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children.

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