An Afternoon with ‘Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work’

This year’s Sheffield Doc Fest was brilliant – but that is stating the obvious. It is always brilliant and beyond expectations. Unfortunately, I could only attend for two out of the five days. Nonetheless, I squeezed those two days for all they were worth – documentaries, panel discussions, information sessions and even a few social events. The only regret I have is not getting a cupcake from the notorious Joan Rivers – the celebrity personality at this year’s festival.

Joan Rivers is an American comedian, who, besides her caustic humour, is known for her penchant for plastic surgery, her acute sense of fashion on the red carpet and her very sharp tongue. This is a woman who has challenged tradition many a times and at the ripe old age of 75, still continues to shock and bemuse – jokes about 9/11 and anal sex are very much on top of her list. Rivers doesn’t shy away from using foul language in public (she had to be asked to hold back the ‘f’ word at an event for government officials in Washington – most of whom were Republicans). She is uninhibited and fearless.

I attended a questions and answers session with Rivers about the documentary that she has recently featured in, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”, by filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg. The documentary itself is fantastic to watch, because it gives the audience a chance to see Rivers in a more holistic light (not that that was River’s purpose at all in doing this film). We see Joan Rivers, the queen of cosmetic surgery and the goddess of red carpet events, as an honest and sincere woman, who, in real life, doesn’t give a rat’s arse about other people and their opinions.

The Q&A session was a light hearted event – very Riveresque. She laughed at herself and didn’t care much for pretentious questions such as, ‘who is the real Joan Rivers?’; She spoke of her insecurities about her career; her love for drama, comedy and acting; her husband’s suicide, and her relationship with her daughter and her grandson. She made fun of some British pronunciations and even humoured the interviewer for his prudishness and uptight questions. She thoroughly entertained us with her over-the-top jokes and her hallmark honesty.

Rivers is a celebrity through and through and is not apologetic for any of it. She was an Anthropology and English major in college and says that she’d happily take up anthropology again if only she could be allowed to take her hair stylist and make up artist along with her on her ventures. Of her life style, she admits that it is very ornate and opulent – perhaps more so than even that of the Queen of England – but she says that she works damn hard to maintain it and will have it no other way.

Rivers defends her plastic surgeries and endorses the importance of physical beauty. She kowtows to the latest TV fads to increase her ratings– her participation in Celebrity Apprentice is a testament to that – and will agree to do almost anything and everything showbiz related to make some money. To summarize it all, she is quite the television wh*re.

And yet, despite all these superficial things, she appears more honest, sincere and down to earth than most other celebrities (or regular people for that matter).

Joan Rivers’s openness about herself and her disregard for convention, are what keep her act from getting stale. Add to these her love for attention and drama and one can be sure that no other would be able to take her place – without a proper fight at least. In the not-so-exact-words of one of her managers – you will see claw marks on the red carpet before Joan will give it up.

Trailer- Slaves of the Lake

I was at the Sheffield Doc Fest this past weekend and the trailer of my film played at the `World View’ pitching event. They had a brief Q&A session with me, where I got asked a very interesting question – a question that launched a bit of a debate on the ethics of documentary filmmakers, our drive for money and fame, and the whole issue of exploiting characters.

A Zimbabwean woman in the audience felt that many documentary filmmakers who film in Africa, are not giving back to the African community and accused us (all filmmakers in the audience and on the panel) of making these films just to gain a name for ourselves and earning loads of money. I think everyone on the panel felt personally committed to responding to that question/statement.

Brian Wood (famous for his documentary The Dying Rooms, among other works) was quick to dispel the idea that documentary makers get big money from these projects – or sometimes any money at all. He emphasised the fact that documentaries are born out of people’s passion for issues and films, rather than their hunger for money and fame. We all know that in documentary filmmaking, monetary gains are certainly not the driving force behind our hard work and perseverance. Jane Stephenson, executive producer at Media Trust and the executive producer on my film as well, made it a point to tell this lady in the audience that Media Trust didn’t make any money on this project, and that I (the filmmaker) had put in a lot of my own unpaid time into this project to make it work.

Sally-Ann from DFID – the organisation that gives funding for such ventures, also highlighted how in the UK there is a need to view more content from Africa and Asia and not just the US and the UK and that in the future, they would continue to fund more films from these two continents.

I, of course, was the last to answer and said that documentary making is a two way street. People will not agree to feature in your documentaries, unless they are gaining something from the process. In the case of my film Slaves of the Lake, the charity that I worked with, Challenging Heights, was really keen on the publicity. They need money, they need volunteers and they need people world over to know about them. This documentary will help them achieve all this.

Anyway, watch the documentary trailer that sparked the debate.

Slaves of the Lake – An Update

As some of you might know, in late August this year, I went to Ghana to film a documentary about children who are sold by their families into the fishing trade. My local contact was a charity called Challenging Heights, which rescues about 70 enslaved children every year. Through them, I met Emmanuel and Dominic, two lovely boys, who had the harrowing experience of being sold at the ages of 5 and 2. They were both rescued a few months before I began filming and this documentary tells their stories.

My film is called Slaves of the Lake, and it was funded by the Department for International Development (DFID). I was one of 6 filmmakers who was shortlisted to come to a public pitching event at the Sheffield Doc Fest last year. I pitched a different film idea that day – a documentary about children growing up in the Swat region in Pakistan. I won the pitching contest by a unanimous vote, and was awarded the funding money. Unfortunately, the situation in Pakistan deteriorated quite a bit in the following months, and DFID did not feel comfortable funding the original film idea anymore. Good news was that they didn’t take the money away. They gave me time to find another idea – and Slaves of the Lake was born.

This film is more or less complete now. It just needs some sound mixing and grading and then it’ll be ready for broadcast on the Community Channel. Sally-Ann Wilson from DFID has been kind enough to invite me to be a speaker at this year’s World View pitch event. They will play a 3 minute trailer of Slaves of the Lake and will then do a Q&A with me about my experience with this whole project.

Once the promo plays at Sheffield, I will be posting it on my website and facebook, so do look out for it.

American Football and Entertainment

I have to hand it to the Americans – they certainly know how to put on a good show. This past Sunday, I attended an NFL game in London, between the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos. The SF 49ers were the home team in Wembley Stadium and yes, that is possible.

My husband and I had been invited to the game by his work colleagues, so we got the VIP treatment through and through. Personalized invitations, no lines, fantastic entertainment at the tail gate party, a sit down three course lunch and fabulous seats. I had felt thoroughly spoilt before the game had even begun.

The football stadium was packed, which I hadn’t expected. Apparently, american football is quite popular in the UK – I encountered a 7 year old British boy who was a die hard fan. He came in his New York Jets t-shirt. The majority of the people attending, however, were Americans (I could tell from the accents I heard all round me). As per conversation conventions, I threw in some stories about my exposure to college football (the music, the barbecues and supporting the Cavaliers) to appear interested and informed. I passed with flying colours.

The pre game entertainment in the VIP suite included music by a jazz band called The Curious Collective, interviews of former NFL players such as Jerry Rice, and a special performance by the SF cheerleaders, Gold Rush, who were extremely dolled up and looked like tarts right out of Sports Illustrated . People queued up to get their autographs and be photographed with them. These ladies don’t get this celebrity status back home and they seemed ecstatic for it. Needless to say, we queued up as well and my husband was quite happy getting close to the pretty ‘uns.

After a few hours of this lovely hospitality, we were shown to our seats and the stadium entertainment commenced and I was blown away once again. Jeff Beck played ‘God Save the Queen’ on the guitar and the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was performed by another award winning singer, whose name I am forgetting. I remember her lovely red shoes though. Then there was more music and more dancing and finally, the fireworks went off. Giant blimp style balloons in the shape of helmets and a football were flown in the stadium, and then the US and UK flags were unfurled. A beautiful opening show to get the audience into the spirit of the game.

Then the game started. Then it got interrupted 5 seconds later. Then it resumed. Then it got stopped. Then there was a commercial break. Then it started. Then it stopped. Then there were some announcements about season tickets and merchandise. Then it started. Then it stopped. Then there was music and the cheer leaders danced (I saw their undies and they all matched). Somewhere in all this, the 49ers scored three points through a kick, but I missed it (I was relying on audience applause and a crowd wave to inform me of such developments). I had some Coke and salt and vinegar crisps to keep myself awake and was just about to pull out my imaginary sleeping bag when the game resumed – for one full second. Then it was half time.

As much as I had wanted to stay back for the post game hospitality and entertainment, there was no way I could have sat through the second half of the game. I decided that it was time to leave. My husband and I helped ourselves to the the half time cookies and coffee, made some conversation about the game with our hosts and then took off. The good part was that we made it to the tube without any rush or queues. The bad part was that we heard the game got really exciting in the second half and that we missed seeing some of the current 49ers as well as Richard Branson after the game. Still, can’t say I regretted leaving. I watched Scott Pilgrim vs. The World that night.