Costa Botes and Sven Pannell’s new film, Act of Kindness, which will have its Australian premiere at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival next week, exudes a kind of undeniable and attractive authenticity – it’s a simple tale, told well. The film is comprised of footage that Pannell shot while searching for the man who saved his life in Rwanda many years earlier. Upon his return, Pannell was unconvinced that anything could be made of the footage, eventually handing it to veteran filmmaker Botes. The result is Act of Kindness, the story of one man on an almost impossible quest to find another man in a country whose customs he doesn’t fully understand, with very little information to help him on his way.
Botes has something of an eclectic filmmaking background, having directed numerous feature length dramatic films, documentaries, and television shows. But in New Zealand he’s probably best known for Forgotten Silver (1995), a cheeky television mockumentary he co-directed with Peter Jackson about the incredible achievements of the fictitious NZ filmmaker, Colin McKenzie. Intended as a bit of fun, the film was perhaps more subtle in its humour than Botes or Jackson realised, resulting in a significant amount of public outrage from those who were entirely convinced of the film’s authenticity. These days, the television premiere of Forgotten Silver is considered to be a landmark moment for New Zealand film and television.
There are also many who are likely to have seen Costa Botes’ work without ever having realised it. He spent five years shooting and editing the in-depth making-of documentaries that accompanied the DVD release of the Lord of the Rings movies. By all accounts, this process was an epic adventure in of itself.
In the lead-up to the premiere of Act of Kindness at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, I was lucky enough to talk to Costa Botes about his latest film, and his career as a filmmaker.
I recently had the chance to see Act of Kindness, Costa. I really enjoyed it and am eager to hear about the film’s fascinating production history. But before we jump into that, I’d like to ask you about one of your earlier films, Forgotten Silver. I know a few New Zealanders who describe their first viewing of that film as both incredibly rewarding and deeply traumatising.
Costa Botes: I think Forgotten Silver is probably the title they’ll scratch on my gravestone and I’m not unhappy about that. I’m very proud of the film. It began as a random idea that I had. There was a film that I saw when I was still a schoolboy called Alternative 3 (1977). It purported to be a documentary but after about 20 minutes, it dawned on me that I was watching a hoax. It stuck in my mind and years later I thought it might be fun to have a go at something like that. I had two avenues that I wanted to explore. One was an extra-terrestrial visitation and the other one was a movie about a filmmaker. I settled on the second option and spent quite a bit of time playing around with different ideas. It was just a quiet little private project.
That went on for about a year and a half and then one day I just happened to be meeting up with Peter Jackson. I knew him quite well in those days and we’d meet up every so often for a coffee. When I mentioned this particular project, he got very excited about it and he suggested that it might be something he’d like to collaborate on. To be honest, I’d never treated it as a serious proposition, it just seemed like a fun folly. But Peter was Peter. He has such a powerful self-belief and it was like suddenly having a photon rocket strapped to your imagination. But it would still take three years from that point for us to actually get it off the ground.
We started playing around with it, swapping ideas around. Over a period of about a year various things started becoming clear. It’s a film that purports to be a documentary. But it isn’t, it’s actually a drama. But it’s made like a documentary and so it sort of developed in the way that a lot of documentaries do, with different pieces, you know, tripping over ideas, just combining ideas and it was very organic and probably the single most enjoyable film making experience I’ve had.
I sort of have lingering… not feelings of guilt, exactly, but I can honestly say, hand on heart, it was never my intention to trick anyone. Peter and I talked extensively about that and that we certainly didn’t want it to be a hoax. We wanted it to be a fun watch and we felt that the first 5 or 10 minutes would be intriguing, and that about a quarter of the way through people would realise they were watching something that was a joke. I was as surprised as anyone when, the day after it aired on television, all hell broke loose.
Another of your bigger projects was the Lord of the Rings making-of series, which came with the DVD release. I know that was quite an epic experience and came with a lot of challenges. I’m interested in how that changed you as a filmmaker.
Well, I felt like I was coming to a kind of crossroads, career wise. My focus had always been drama up until the late ’90s when I made a feature film which failed pretty dismally. That was quite a blow to my confidence. It didn’t do me any favours career wise, either, so I was really re-assessing where I wanted to go. Amidst all that turmoil, Peter and Fran got Lord of the Rings off the ground. I’d always been interested in documentary but I had only made one up to that point. Plus a fake one, Forgotten Silver.
So I rang Peter and I said, “Well, how would you feel if I followed you around with a camera”. It was about as basic as that. The studio agreed to me coming on as the official documentarian of Lord of the Rings and I ended up starting on what I thought was going to be a two year engagement but turned out to be more like five years. It really changed my life, in that I went out day after day without having a clue what I was going to do. I’d been making films for years and my idea of making a film was that you prepare exhaustively, you know what you’re going to do and you go out there and you do it.
But making a documentary about this film, there was no way you could control anything. It was quite a painful first few months, getting used to that and then trying to extract something meaningful from it all. But after awhile I started to like it. I started to enjoy the chaos and the challenge of grabbing bits of reality and turning them into something intelligible. Anyway, it’s quite a long story about what happened next and I talk about it in my blog, but I ended up finishing up with something that I was pleased with and that I think told the truth. I guess that’s what I’ve tried to do ever since, just go out into the world and engage with something that interests me. Gather evidence, gather stories and then knock them together into something that’s hopefully intelligent and emotionally moving.
There are parallels there with your new film, Act of Kindness. You weren’t part of the original creative process. I’d love to hear a little bit more about the production history of your latest film.
Well, Act of Kindness is credited to two directors and really it began as Sven Pannell’s project, whose experience it was. I was introduced to him by someone at the New Zealand Film Commission, which is New Zealand’s film funding body. They said that they heard this interesting story spun by this guy who had some footage but he was sort of stuck, he didn’t know what to do or how to do it. So I got to meet him and he told me about his experience in Rwanda years earlier and then he said that he’d gone back over there and he’d taken a camera and he’d shot some footage and collected this sort of experience. I was interested, I like stories about people looking for people, and there’s been a few very successful ones lately. It’s the kind of story I’m attracted to and I also like the perspective that he had, which is that of a total outsider in a culture he knows nothing about.
He’d never made a film before, so there’s a kind of naivety to the footage, a kind of rawness to it, and yet he made some really good choices. He made some not so good ones as well. When I started looking at the footage, I thought I was going to struggle to extract a narrative from it. I knew there was a powerful story in there, but at first glance the footage wasn’t promising. I kept putting it aside for about two or three years until one day I couldn’t stand it anymore. I thought, “Look, I’ll just dive in. If there’s nothing here, there’s nothing here but I’ll give it a go”. I guess I must have unconsciously made the film in my head before I started cutting it because when I actually really got to grips with the footage, it just sort of made itself.
It’s as good as the best film I’ve ever made. I’m really happy with it. I think it’s got something a documentary should have, which is just the speck of truth about it. It’s just really basic and it goes step by step and it happens and it’s completely authentic.
That process of taking someone else’s footage and having to go through it, how does that work? And you mentioned things Sven Pannell did well and things he didn’t do well, what are the mistakes that filmmakers could learn from?
Well, if you want to depict an event then you have to shoot in a way that presents the event in an intelligible way, what we call coverage. Where was the camera when the event took place and what variety of shots did you get to collect the images of that event.
The gathering of sound is really important. There’s a moment in Act of Kindness where you can see there’s a microphone on a table. Sven, he made the right choice, he’s pointing the microphone at the main subject, the guy who’s doing most of the talking. But Sven’s talking in the scene as well, so every time he talks, he’s off mike, which caused us endless problems. That happens all the time, because normally when you shoot a documentary you have a sound recordist who’s got a boom, and he’s got to swing the mike backwards and forwards and get the sound. But when you’re working alone, as Sven and I have done a lot, you have to make hard choices about where the microphone goes and where the camera is.
It just happens, it’s fate, you know. You can’t control reality as it’s unfolding, you just have to make your best guess and hope for the best and, for me coming along essentially as an editor years later, and someone who wasn’t actually there, that gives me problems but it also gives me a strength as well.
The problem is that I wasn’t there, so I had to actually either find out or infer what happened to understand what I’m dealing with. But the strength is that I have objectivity, I’m not locked into it, and I think that was Sven’s problem. He couldn’t make the film because he was so disappointed in his own footage. He thought he’d completely failed. But I come along and I’m looking at it more from a narrative point of view. I’ve got a lot more experience than Sven in actually fixing things, in finding solutions to editing problems, and it so happened that I’d edited two or three other films from the past few years which were quite similar in that they were shot by inexperienced people. I found it more enjoyable than frustrating.
When you put the film to the side and didn’t know exactly what to do with it, were you in contact with Sven at all? Did you talk about it?
Yeah, we did, because all the while we were intending to try and do something and the first intention was actually to go back to Rwanda and shoot a bunch of footage to fill in all the holes that we thought were in the footage. It just kept being too hard, for one reason or another, and it never happened.
And then I got this rush of blood to the head and I thought, “You know what? This would make a really good dramatic feature film”. That was my genius idea. Well, not a bad idea, maybe, but it became another distraction. I started working on a script and then I got really horribly stuck and so to unstick myself from writing a dramatic feature film based on a true event, I thought I’d go back and actually look at the footage and that’s when I really saw it properly for the first time and I just started, “Ah, you know, maybe I should cut that sequence together to see what it looks like”. So I cut the sequence together and I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll just do a little bit more, maybe I’ll do a little bit more”. After three months of that, I had a film and didn’t want to write the feature film anymore because I felt like I’d done it.
Was it a matter of showing the finished film to Sven or did he input from there?
We kept in touch. There came a point where I needed him to record some bits of voice over and we collaborated on that and he looked at the sequences and he was a really good collaborator, actually. Things worked out the way they did because I always found him really intelligent and creative and I think, contrary to his own self-appraisal, he was actually a pretty good filmmaker. He did a good job considering the limitations of his resources.
I’m guessing he was happy with the final result, given what he thought he had?
Yeah, I showed him the first cut and he had some really good suggestions, but he was always nothing but supportive and liked what I did with it. I tend to test films quite extensively. The first cut is just the beginning. I previewed it a couple of times and I’ve got some really good editor friends who aren’t at all shy about telling me where I’m going wrong. There was one in particular who said something like, “Well, it’s very television, isn’t it, Costa?”
That was not what I wanted to hear. We talked it through and she lit up some light bulbs in my head. When I dove back into it I remember thinking, “Wow, I’m really glad I had that talk because the film just got 5000% better”.
I actually had quite limited ambitions for it, which were met, really. I just wanted to show it around New Zealand and we did that at the New Zealand Film Festival. It was really surprising. It played around the festival circuit here and sold out every screening and people really liked it. So I thought, “Oh, great. Let’s see what else we can do with it”. But I’ve also been really tied up and busy. I’m a university lecturer mostly these days and that has to be my main focus, so running around and trying to distribute films for pennies isn’t really working for me.
Does that mean there’s nothing currently in the works?
No, no. I’m certainly going to carry on making films and they will be in line with the sorts of things I’ve done before. I mean, Act of Kindness fits in quite well, in that my films tend to be focused on individuals who are, lets say, persistent people who are quite passionate and are being tested to go the distance.
I suppose after Forgotten Silver, my most successful film would be a film called The Last Dogs of Winter, which is about a man in Northern Canada who breeds this very rare Inuit sled dog, otherwise known as Canadian Eskimo Dogs, and he does it in a place that can only be described as indescribable. It’s a freezing cold climate and the place where he keeps the dogs is also migrating ground for polar bears, so for three months of the year, the dogs share their space with these migrating polar bears. I’m very proud of the film. I still have ambitions, but these days my ambitions are more to do with just picking a really interesting character, going deep into them and making the best film I can.
But I don’t really have any commercial ambitions anymore. I’m quite happy when I make a film that moves people, and I know when that’s happened because I talk to them and they talk to me and I can feel the response and it’s quite a buzz. I’ve never grown tired of it.