Sunday 30 June 2013

THE LOTTERY OF BIRTH Documentary Release / Interview With JOSHUA VAN PRAAG

THE LOTTERY OF BIRTH finally has a release. This is a film I've been championing since its Film Festival debut at Raindance last year.

The thing about independent films is that you never really know if you're going to get the chance to see them again. In fact, even getting to see them in the first place is uncertain. Raindance had 2700 submissions last year. That 'The Lottery of Birth' broke through is a sign of its quality. This is my favourite documentary of the last year and a film that I believe to be essential viewing. 

I spoke yesterday with Raindance founder Elliot Grove who recalled the impact it had on the festival:

"Audiences were stunned. Lottery of Birth is part of the new wave of social documentaries that force us to question and consider the basic tenants of our civilisation and how we are being manipulated by by corporations and government."

Here's the trailer. I'm honoured to have been quoted in it, alongside Colin Firth and Alan Rickman:

I think there is a common misconception in the film industry today. There is the belief that people have shorter attention spans, that they need bite-size information in as quick and simple a way as possible, whereas I feel what people are really after, is GREATNESS. They're BORED of the same old crap. We skip through the channels and dance from track to track on the iPod because we desperately want to be blown away. It's like when you find a box-set of a show you love, you'll watch it for hours. 

What I loved about 'The Lottery of Birth' is that it was packed with ideas. It wanted to make you think. It had a point of view, yet it is also saying to you, find your own point of you. Look up, look around, and ask questions. 

The film has been released through a new online platform, No, I've never heard of them either. They've just launched, and Elliot Grove is excited about what it means: 

"The fact that Lottery of Birth is available online proves how far film distribution has changed and how the filmmakers have engaged with new financial  web models in order to bring this, and other very important films to the discerning audiences everywhere."

At the time of writing, 'The Lottery of Birth' is 3rd of the iTunes download chart, which is an astonishing achievement, which goes to show the power of independent film. Every blog that reviews it, every person that tweets about it; every single purchase through iTunes; it makes a huge difference. 

Joshua van Praag, the co-director and director of photography of the project, has been keeping me in the loop over recent weeks about the film's journey. Yesterday, I interviewed him in some more detail. Read on for a fascinating insight into the making of 'The Lottery of Birth': 

Interview with Joshua van Praag
The Lottery of Birth
Photo By Josh Boss
Kid In The Front Row: What I love about your documentary is that it isn't dumbed down, the audience has to pay attention -- I think in many ways that is a risk you've taken, as filmmakers. But it's also important, especially considering the content of the film. How did you approach the making of this film, knowing that it was going to be seen in cinemas but also that it is in many ways a talking-heads-documentary? 

Joshua van Praag: We're thrilled that the film has received a theatrical release but it certainly wasn't planned that way. We began with very low expectations in terms of traditional distribution. Our first thought was that, as a series, the ideal platform would be television but we knew that it would be tough to get 'Creating Freedom' on the box, partly because of the inherent political bias that exists throughout the world of TV networks and among the gatekeepers that program content, and partly because of the format we decided on. 

From early discussions with the series creator and my co-director, Raoul Martinez, I understood that he wanted the ideas to be the stars of the film and that the interviews - the backbone of the narrative - would be the vessel for the transmission of these ideas. The choice to go with a black background and a to-camera eye line was in that sense a very deliberate one: we wanted to isolate the ideas from a physical environment and have them connect directly with the viewer. 

Our choices were also constrained by cost: the films have been almost entirely self-funded on a shoe-string budget. Maintaining a simple format meant that we were able to make them in such a way that we could fulfill all of our ambitious goals and still complete the work without having to wait for outside funding or compromise creatively. The interesting thing is that when we premiered the film in London at Raindance lots of people said the same thing: that the film didn't feel like a talking heads piece to them. I think the strength of the ideas and their tendency to challenge and provoke the viewer means that people feel really engaged when they see it.

How do you approach editing interviews with someone like Howard Zinn? It must be heartbreaking to have to cut anything out -- but I imagine you have hours of unused footage. 

Our time with Howard was a real highlight for me. It was shot only six months before his death and he was not in good shape. Nevertheless he was incredibly generous, both with his time and his disposition. We sat with him for a good hour and a half in the living room of his Boston home, during which we recorded an absolutely extraordinary interview, possibly his last. 

The Lottery of Birth
Photo By Joshua van Praag

When it came time to edit, Raoul did a great job of pulling the out the pieces that best helped tell the story of the film but there was certainly a lot left out, as there was with many other interviews we did. With Zinn we found that just including the quiet moments - a smile at the end of a phrase or an arching of one of the famous bushy brows - helped communicate the ideas he was describing in really beautiful ways. We have the extended interview of Zinn and several other greats on our DVD and they'll also be available digitally through very soon. 

You were also the director of photography on this film, and i think the shots throughout the film do an extraordinary job of supporting the overall message and story. How did you go about filming the b-roll? Did you know what you were looking for?

Raoul and I talked a lot about the look, feel and content of the b-roll - that is to say the non-interview, non-archival content. It was very important to us that the film feel like a piece of cinema in the sense that it could really build atmosphere by juxtaposing big, beautiful images with the stark, minimalist quality of the interviews.  I wanted to take the viewer into the kind of worlds that were being described in the film: schools, offices, streets, playgrounds. 

With a few tiny exceptions, we had no time or resources to stage any scenes so most of what you see is captured on the street. I began in New York City with an HD SLR and a small package of lenses and spent three weeks shooting solo. We had a bucket list of types of subjects and locations that we wanted to hit up. In addition to that I had transferred some of the audio from the interviews to an iPod and would travel about the city by night as I shot, listening to some of our speakers. It put me in the zone but also helped to focus me in on tiny details I would have otherwise overlooked. 

I was able to gain access to a series of high rises in midtown Manhattan from which I filmed scenes of office workers, with the aid of long lenses, in adjacent sky scrapers. We found that capturing these lone figures after dark in their cages of glass and steel was an incredibly effective way of visually communicating a sense of isolation, obedience and control: all themes that are central to the film's inquiry.

The Lottery of Birth
Photo by Joshua van Praag
In terms of composition and lighting, I was very much inspired by the Ashcan school. Painters and photographers such as Edward Hopper and Lewis Hine succeeded in conveying these same fundamental truths by portraying their subjects, often from a distance, in the context of their work day. In that way, the images they created spoke volumes about the oppressive nature of the systems their subjects laboured under, and were constantly suggesting the link between identity and environment. 

My favourite shot is when the boy in red approaches the fountain, thinks about jumping in, but decides against it.  (you can see a moment of it in the trailer, at 1min 38), that is such a powerful moment, and says so much. I think we can all relate to it. Turning that into a question -- when dealing with the selling off your film, did you run into difficulties that led to your own challenges with compromise and obedience? 

We've been incredibly lucky with the way things turned out on this front. A brand new US-based distributor by the name of saw the film, loved it and instantly offered to distribute it through their own digital platform which just launched with the release of 'The Lottery of Birth'.

To say they are filmmaker-friendly is an understatement. Not only have we been able to maintain creative control from the get-go, but we've also been able to participate in every level of the distribution process. This is obviously incredibly rare. Usually we would be forced to just hand over the film(s) to some faceless company that would assume total control for pennies on the dollar, demand all kinds of compromises, and that would be it. With Mangu, we've enjoyed an unprecedented level of input and have maintained a strong stake in the project. Being filmmakers themselves they understand our perspective and encourage our participation. They're also interested in challenging traditional models. 

On June 21st we launched both in theaters and digitally, worldwide in four languages. Just today people from Iran, the Netherlands, Mexico, India and the USA all streamed the film online from their respective countries. We want as many people as possible from as many places as possible to see this film without having to wait. understands this and is helping us make that a reality.

The film leaves viewers with such strong and poignant views. It's a little mind-blowing, in fact. What do you hope is the end result -- what should viewers take from watching this? 

Without a doubt, the most important message the film provides us with is the need to question everything. That we are not born free as many would have us believe but in fact freedom is something we must work hard to attain. Though we come into this world with certain built in constraints that both hinder and help us in our search for freedom, there are many things about ourselves and our environment that we can change. The dominant ideology in our society is constantly seeking to undermine the idea that any real alternative to the current system is possible.

Once we understand that we are products of the environment we are born into, it frees us to begin thinking more critically about the structures that shape our lives. That independence of thought is the first step toward effecting real change. As the film states, "the more we understand the effect the world has had on us, the more we can control the effect we have on the world". 

My review of 'The Lottery of Birth'

Visit the Official Website and Purchase the documentary through Mangu.TV by clicking HERE.

Buy The Lottery of Birth on iTunes by clicking HERE

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1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview and nice to see it's available on iTunes in The Netherlands as well. Looking forward to seeing it soon. Thanks for shining a light on this one!