Making a documentary often requires directors to gain the trust of their subjects, which can be a delicate process. Dan Krauss certainly knew that would be the case when making “Extremis,” a film about the tough decisions families and doctors have to face when dealing with ICU patients who are being kept alive on respirators.
“You have to imagine approaching people on what may be the worst day of their life and ask them if you can film it,” Krauss told Steve Pond at TheWrap’s Screening Series. “I approached it very gingerly, always without a camera, and always with the introduction of a physician.
“I had a conversation about the goals of the film, and people for obvious reasons felt uncomfortable with participating in the film,” he said. “I got a lot more ‘no’ than I did ‘yes.’ But for the people who did say ‘yes’ … they saw the camera not as an intrusive presence but as an opportunity to connect to other people.”
For his hard work, Krauss has earned a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, and Tuesday night he spoke to TheWrap at the Landmark Theaters at Westside Pavilion about his work with his fellow nominees. Joining Krauss were directors Daphne Matziaraki (“4.1 Miles”), Marcel Mettelsiefen (“Watani: My Homeland”), Orlando von Einsiedel (“The White Helmets”), and Kahane Cooperman, along with producer Raphaela Neihausen (“Joe’s Violin”).
The other directors also talked about how convincing people to let them tell their story on camera took months or even years. For “4.1 Miles,” Matziaraki wanted to film the efforts of a rescue boat on the Greek island of Lesbos as they aid refugees from the Middle East in danger of drowning while crossing the Aegean Sea. She says that these boats were originally used for tourist cruises and their crews had to undergo CPR and other medical training before they could go out and rescue refugees.
“When I realized that the captain and the coast guard was a great place to tell this story, I had to get access on this boat,” Matziaraki said. “I tried for months and months to get access, but I couldn’t because it’s a very bureaucratic process with the ministries of Greece … The footage that you see on these boats comes from a single day. I was on the boat for three weeks and this was from the first day.”
Mettelsiefen told the story of Syrian refugees from a more grounded perspective. His film, “Watani, My Homeland,” shows the struggle of the refugees who do make it into Europe by following three children who start a new life in Germany after their father, Syrian rebel commander Abu Ali, was captured by ISIS. Mettelsiefen said he had been covering the conflict in Syria for several years and decided in 2013 that he wanted to change gears and talk about how the war affects children. That is when he met Ali, several years before the violence escalated, and after a brief discussion he was allowed to follow Ali’s children for three years.
“I started not knowing what’s going to happen,” he said. “Obviously it was not easy to go in and out and follow these children as it became more dangerous. Then, when [Ali] disappeared, I took this decision to leave again. The most difficult decision I had after filming was how I was going to end this with the jeopardy so high in Syria. Then they ended up in Germany … and I realized that it’s time that needs to dictate the speed of the film to show how all these characters changed.”
Von Einsiedel also had to deal with the danger of the Syrian crisis while making “The White Helmets,” which chronicles the deadly missions undertaken by a team of volunteer rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense as they rescue civilians from collapsed buildings in Aleppo after Russian bombings. Einsiedel said the White Helmets were very willing to speak about their work, but the film crew was not allowed to follow the rescue team during their missions in Aleppo because they risked being targeted by ISIS, who have hunted down and killed foreigners and journalists in Syria. Instead, the footage taken from Aleppo was filmed by the White Helmets themselves.
“When we began this project, we thought it should be a feature because there is so much story to tell,” Einsiedel said. “But it just didn’t feel right spending two years making a film about what’s going on in Syria. We felt we really needed to make this film as quickly as possible because it’s just so urgent. With a short, we manage to make it in seven months.”
The most uplifting offering on the list is “Joe’s Violin,” a story about Holocaust survivor Joe Feingold and his beloved violin. Director Cooperman says that she learned about Joe and his violin shortly after ending an 18-year run as a segment producer for “The Daily Show.” She heard on the radio about how a violin belonging to a Holocaust survivor had been donated to the Bronx Global Learning Institute for Girls (BGLIG), which gives young New York girls a chance at an in-depth arts education.
Producer Neihausen said that it took several months of negotiations with BGLIG to get the opportunity to bring their cameras into the school and to talk with Brianna Perez, the daughter of Dominican immigrants who was presented with Joe’s violin as a reward for her hard work mastering the instrument.
“We had to get about three hundred or four hundred release forms from the parents of every girl in the school before we could film,” Neihausen said.
But once they had access, Cooperman and Neihausen were able to show the passion for music that Joe and Brianna shared. When the two finally met for the first time, Brianna showed her appreciation for Joe’s gift by playing a piece by Edvard Grieg whose lyrics Joe’s mother sent to him in a letter after their family was separated by the Holocaust. Joe’s mother did not survive, as she was killed in the Treblinka death camps.
Cooperman said that after a career in TV comedy, she wanted to get back to what originally drove her to get behind a camera: the belief that every person has a story to tell. To her, Joe Feingold and Brianna Perez are a testament to that belief.
“Growing up, I would look at buildings with lots of windows and wonder ‘Who lives in there? What’s their life like?’ I believe that behind every window is a whole story,” she said. “Making this film was two stories that combined into one. It’s not really about a violin, it’s about how people survive and get through life. Documentaries have the ability to show us … the choices people make, and how they open themselves up to cameras and to filmmakers is the most generous thing in the world.”
All the Oscar nominated short films in the live action, animated, and documentary categories are arriving in theaters for a limited time starting this Friday. Click here to find a screening near you.