This years festival saw four documentaries featured in the program covering a wide range of topics. I had the privilege of speaking to the directors of two of those films in particular, Daniel Watts of Cabby, and Maude Plante-Husaruk of The Botanist. If you are interested in reading the reviews of each before progressing to the interview click here to find Cabby and here for The Botanist.
Cabby’s showing at Lift-Off was perfect given its Manchester setting. It contained shots of many locations that would be familiar such as Fifth nightclub during freshers week. Giving an interesting insight to the people who aren’t often noticed, I’m sure it’ll spark more people to chat to their taxi drivers on their next night out.
Your film was also shown at Manchester International Film Festival in 2015, why was there such a gap between that and Lift-Off this year?
I made the film whilst at University and after I left I decided to set up my own production company. Since then I have just been doing corporate work for companies like Speedo, with the intention of becoming a documentary filmmaker and hopefully one day doing a feature film. It’s been two years since we filmed Cabby and it just makes me reflect, giving me motivation to make more films.
When you do reflect on Cabby are there things you see now and think ‘if only I didn’t include that’ or vice-versa?
I’m a massive perfectionist, so when I’m watching it I just shake my head at all the mistakes. In the development of making the film I spoke to at least 70 taxi drivers and they can be quite flakey and hard to track down at times. There was one in particular who dropped out last minute which was a shame as they had some really interesting stories.
Was Cabby your first attempt at a documentary?
I’ve done a few documentaries before, for example one about the street art in Manchester. Cabby was my final project though. I love meeting people and always had experiences of going on nights out chatting to taxi drivers and just having random conversations. It’s because of this that I wanted to document the characters.
As you progress through your career, what are the shorts you would really like to make given free range?
Personally I really like obscure cultures and scenes. The different ways that people act that are unique. In the same way I’m a big fan of Louis Theroux’s social commentary documentaries.
Do you watch lots of films or do you concentrate on documentaries like Theroux’s to get filmmaking ideas?
We are starting to see more and more documentaries incorporating a cinematic style which is taken from films. I love both and watch a diverse range of things in order to learn about different styles I could use. I can only see myself making documentaries though. The stripped back feel, just getting to know people and learning about their life experiences. There are lots of topics which have already been done so I try to find the more out-there people.
Are you working on another film? Or have plans for the next one?
Not currently. I want to be a filmmaker but I want to make a living being a filmmaker and sometimes you have to compromise in order to make the films that you want to make. As I said I’m such a perfectionist and once I meet person or subculture I’ll immediately know. Wherever I go I’m always on the lookout for my next topic. Everybody I meet I try to read them and suss them out to try and see if they are short worthy. There is a gut feeling I get when I know I’ve found the right thing.
This was my favourite documentary of the four. Surrounding a former botanist turned part time teacher in rural Tajikistan, we watch as he shows us the inventions that have helped make his life, and the lives of those around him, better. His ever-positive attitude makes this a wholesome watch and I can’t recommend it enough.
How did you initially hear of Raimberdi and his story?
Raïmberdi had been interviewed for a short French TV program about Central Asia. We only saw him briefly on screen but thought he was a very interesting man and that there was definitely more to his story. We were planning a trip to Central Asia and Iran that year (And always research interesting subjects to document beforehand) so as soon as we arrived in Tajikistan, we started inquiring about the « old Kyrgyz man who had built his own hydro electric power station ». Eventually, we got lucky and met a German researcher who knew him and he pointed us in the right direction. His village was two full days of driving away from us at that moment and we didn’t know if he was going to be home at that time or how to reach him, but we decided to do the trip anyways. We felt it was worth trying!
Once you decided to make this short, did you meet him before you began filming?
Before going to Shaymak (his village), we arrived in Murghab, the most populated village in the area. The locals we were staying with had some relatives in Shaymak, so they made a few calls a within minutes we were able to get in touch with Raïmberdi and let him know that we were interested in doing a documentary about him. He seemed enthusiastic and even offered us to stay at his home. In the following hours, we arranged for a translator/driver and the next day we left for Shaymak.
What were the logistical challenges you faced getting to the isolated location?
Transport is an issue, there are very few means to get around in the Pamir and hiring a private driver can be quite expensive. Moving from one place to the next takes some time because roads are not developed nor paved and the terrain is difficult. It took us half a day to get from Murghab to Shaymak even though we were only about 100 km away.
Was the language barrier difficult whilst filming?
The language barrier was definitely a challenge. Our interpreter only had a very basic understanding of english. Knowing this, we had made sure to write our questions in advance and had them translated by an english teacher in Murghab before going to Shaymak. Also, there are other ways than words you can communicate. We’re all human beings and have other ways of understanding each other. Sign language, laughs, smiles, voice intonations. We also knew a few Kyrgyz and Russian words that were quite helpful. However, since our translator had not been able to translate Raïmberdi’s answers very well on the spot, we definitely had a few interesting surprises when we had the film translated afterwards. Thankfully, they were mostly very good surprises.
Raimberdi appears as an incredibly humble and generous person, is there any other qualities that didn’t come across on film?
Raïmberdi has a wisdom that seems to go beyond the boundaries of his own education, age and culture. He is one of a kind and that’s what inspired us to make the film in the first place!
We went back to Tajikistan last summer to show the film to Raïmberdi (The Botanist). We posted this update earlier this year:
“Last July, we decided to go back to Murghab, Tajikistan to show our film to Raimberdi, the botanist himself. We organised transportation so he could come visit us from his recluse village in the Pamir, and organised a small projection event with a few Kyrgyz students. 2 years had passed since we had first met him. He had inspired us with his ingenuity, sense of humour, curiosity and sensibility and it was truly touching to see him again after all this time. When we noticed the tears in his eyes as he was watching the story of his life unfold before him, we knew our mission was accomplished!
The fact of having foreigners coming from the other side of the world, taking interest in his story, his environment and his small daily gestures rooted in a rural lifestyle, inspired him to start a conversation with the students that were present. He discussed the importance of their ancestral practices, of self-sufficiency and of having knowledge of the fauna and flora on which they’re entirely dependent. We have been inspired by Raimberdi’s story and we’re happy to see that he continues to inspire a young generation of Kyrgyz that will have to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world.”
Did you have any moments that you missed as the camera wasn’t rolling? Or you wish you included?
We are happy with the footage we captured while we were there, but there is definitely more to Raïmberdi’s story. We had a very interesting two hour interview we had to cut down for the 20 minute film.
Was the narrative style of your short predetermined or was it a result of going over the footage afterwards?
Being with Raïmberdi and his family in Shaymak was very inspiring for us. We remember having the idea of the chapters while we were shooting, right after he showed us his beautiful herbariums and explained each plant’s part’s benefits. We already had an idea of what story we wanted to tell but a lot of the storytelling structure came about while we were editing the film.
The animations you used were very beautiful, how did you decide to add that to separate the narrative?
The titles are a way to draw a parallel between his passion for plants and the different stages of his life. The plants that are displayed in the titles are all plants that you can find in the Pamir and each one of them has attributes pertaining to the specific part of the plant the chapter is metaphorically presenting.
Are you currently working on another project?
We are now working on a short project we filmed in Nepal last year.
Do you see yourself/yourselves progressing to a feature length documentary?
We’re discussing it, we’ll see!