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Director Ben Hopkins talks with Documentary Films .Net’s Tom Hamilton about his most recent film – an account of the Pamir Kirghiz tribe and their journey from nomadic pastoralism to settlement in Turkey.

Tom Hamilton. You have a background as a fiction film maker. What led you to make an ethnographic film?

Ben Hopkins. At the end of the last decade I made two fiction films very quickly one after another, and imagined, rather stupidly… in my youth… that this would be how it was always going to be. So I had made two feature fiction films before my thirtieth birthday and then immediately my career kind of collapsed! The market place changed and the British government film funding situation changed at around the same time, making it much more difficult for British art film makers to find funding. I struggled on for a few more years and moved my base to Berlin rather than London because it was easier to make films there.

Meanwhile, I got an offer from Hans Geissendörfer, who was the executive producer on my second fiction film The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, to make a film with him about cluster bombs and unexploded ordnance. I came up with a proposal to film in Afghanistan, which was then the last place where cluster bombs had been used, with Laos being the first.

This became a 42 minute documentary called ‘Footprints’, which Hans and I eventually sold to Storyville at the BBC. Nick Fraser, the Executive Producer at Storyville, saw it and loved it and invited me in to ask what I wanted to do next as a documentary and I pitched the idea of the Pamir Kirghiz film. I knew about them because I’d met an Afghan academic who was helping me with the translation of the Pashtun dialogue in Footprints. He told me the about this tribe and I immediately thought that it was an incredible story that would make a really good film.

T. And the BBC then got behind it?

B. Nick said he didn’t normally do “tribe films”, as he called them, but because it was me he was willing to give it go. Eventually we found a way to get an invitation to go to Ulu Pamir to meet the tribe and when I got there I was struck by their sense of humour and how funny they were… not that I mean they were funny all the time or anything! Because the last film had been so sombre and depressing I was quite happy to run with this humorous nature.

T. Was that a conscious thing, to show their humorous side in this documentary?

B. My default mode, if you like, is humour – occasionally I do something serious but normally I like to be funny if possible. As the tribe were funny I wasn’t cutting against the grain there, so yes I was grateful that they had a good sense of humour. 

T. Why do you think ethnographic film has in the past lacked that comic aspect of people’s lives? 

B. It’s probably a spill over from academia, which in general is not exactly humorous. I know that well, coming from a family of academics. My father was one of those rare things, a humorous historian, and he found it often frustrating to work in that world, that tends towards dryness, and tends towards puffing-up its self-importance by making it difficult for the non-cognoscenti to understand. 

So I think a lot of anthropological filmmaking started from an academic base. It was first and foremost a record, a field recording of a way of life – a document more than a work of cinema.   My film is maybe the opposite as I am a film-maker and not an anthropologist or an ethnographer – it’s a film first, and an ethnographic document second.

T. Some of my favourite moments in the film were the most spontaneous, for example the dough-making scene, where you have two women talking candidly about the camera that’s filming them, and suddenly you get an insight into how they view the filmmaking process. How did you structure the film before you went out to shoot it and did those unprompted moments affect the way the film evolved?

B. Well I plan everything rather carefully and research everything very carefully. We only had three weeks to shoot because we were on quite a low-budget. Some more traditional documentarians would find it very difficult to shoot such a film in three weeks. I’m trained as a fiction film maker and I’m used to working to a pre-determined schedule and so it’s fine by me. 

We knew every day what we were going to be filming. With something like the dough-making scene, I had invited the two women to come to the tent and make something for us and I arranged that we would pay for the flour and the butter and whatever. We arranged all of that a couple of days in advance and it’s a fake situation – they don’t normally cook in a yurt in front of a film crew, lit by a 2.5K HMI light. 

Things like that happen all the time in documentary making, the two subjects whispering to each other or something, and this was the kind of film where I left that stuff in, I didn’t cut it out. Because it’s funny, basically.

T. You seem to portray the Kirghiz in a very honest way, a transparent way, particularly because you include footage of the film-making process itself.

B. It was an easy decision to include that footage because the film was phrased from the beginning as a record of the collaboration between me and Ekber, my Kirghiz Co-Director. That comes up fairly quickly at the opening of the film – that this is a film we are making together. Having introduced it like that we could easily include the process of filmmaking in the completed cut. For that reason you are seeing the history but you are also seeing how we filmed the history and how two people from quite different cultures collaborate together and try and make something together. Given that overall context it seemed honest and perfectly easy to include those ‘making of’ scenes.

T. Did your experience with the Kirghiz affect your view of economic development? Is there some intrinsic value in the cultural practices that are being lost by the Kirghiz because of development, or is it just change? 

B. It is unspoken within my film, but I think it’s there, that you see the life the tribe used to live and how hard it was. The figure that really stands out for me is that nearly fifty percent of children died during childhood when they were nomadic. Now, with the tribe settled in Turkey, the figure is less than one percent. So yes it is a shame when cultures get lost and get replaced by satellite television and internet cafes, but on the other hand there’s another side to that which is, in moving to a more “advanced” way of life, there are substantial improvements in things like infant mortality and so on. 

Personally, I like things like fridges and DVD players in my own life. Occasionally people talk about the need for preserving cultures but I don’t know what it is they’re talking about. I mean – how do you actually legislate for that?  I don’t know whether they’re talking about building some sort of concentration camp for the remaining un-technological people from the earth and forcing them to stay there so that we can keep them in some kind of zoo. Ekber says at the end of the film ‘things change’ and he’s relaxed about that. Things do change.

T. So it’s mainly a historical story in that sense, rather than a lamentation for the loss of Kirghiz culture.

B. I think there is a slight feeling of melancholy or lamentation in the film, because that’s how some of the Kirghiz feel about change. But I certainly wouldn’t want to say – and I don’t think the film does really – that it’s terrible that this culture is being lost.  Like Ekber says – “things change”.

I’m a Londoner, I’ve lived here my whole life. It’s a shame that certain streets I used to like have changed, I’m kind of irritated that a pub I used to like has turned into a different kind of pub… but … well that’s tough! Shit happens! It is sad when something passes from the world, but it has to happen.

T. Was any particular film a precedent for ’37 Uses For A Dead Sheep’?

B. Well I’ve never really seen anything quite like it! My main hero in documentary film is Werner Herzog. Of course he does re-enactments but he does them in a different way. Apparently it’s a bit like Jean Rouch’s films – I haven’t seen them but a few people have told me that there is a similarity. And then obviously I’m copying certain sorts of films within the film, like the short sections of soviet silent film that are in there. But overall, it seems that it is fairly, well, unusual as a piece of documentary – which is nice, because I like to do things which are slightly unusual!

T. You seem to have found a novel approach between historical documentation and drama. How do you see the future of the documentary genre in drawing on fact and fiction? 

B. I know fiction film very well. I’m an anorak – a really boring, sad film buff. But I know less about documentary, it’s not a tradition I know inside out, not like my favourite film styles like German Expressionism or something. But to me the contemporary documentary situation seems quite rich actually. People are doing all sorts of things – Kevin MacDonald doing his big-budget constructed ones, me doing what I do, Paul Watson recently on alcoholism, Spike Lee, there’s still fly on the wall, cinéma vérité, there are a lot of directions to go in.

Perhaps we’re all a bit fed up with fiction, perhaps it’s because news media are all so controlled, which makes them wooden and boring, or limited in their scope – because of this, people seem to want other sources of information. For instance, I’ll watch Spike Lee’s documentary on Hurricane Katrina tonight because I don’t really know what the fuck happened there. I know from the news media that there was a hurricane and that the authorities were a bit rubbish – but that’s it.   Hopefully, Spike Lee’s film will give me a lot more information, in an absorbing and entertaining way.

As a group of people documentary makers are finding stories that need to be told.  In a world of controlled and mainly uninvestigative, unimaginative news media, the documentary community creates an alternative source of information.

T. So that’s the quest for you?

B. Yes, and I hope it’s a noble one too!


Production Company – Official Website

View the trailer.

chris on January 14th, 2007 at 3:21 pm 

Thanks guys, I was wondering what tensions must have been running around in Ben and company’s head as they put this (great) piece together.

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