Thursday, May 06, 2010

In their own words: Rebecca Richman Cohen

This is the second part of the discussion from the panel Discussing the Documentary panel held at the recent Independent Film Festival of Boston Rebecca Richman Cohen worked in film, went to law school - interning at the special court for Sierra Leone - and ended up going back to filmmaking. Her first film, “War Don Don”  tells the story of the trial of Issa Sesay, one of those tried for war crimes in Sierra Leone.

Prior to going to law school, Rebecca had meet a director who went to Sierra Leone and interviewed one of the war criminals. While watching the footage she had a visceral reaction: “Oh my God,” she remembers thinking. “I can’t believe you met this person; he must be evil. Did you shake his hand? What was that experience like? This is someone that’s guilty of the worst crimes in the world….”

The turning point came for her while at law school and working as a public defender in the South Bronx,  with clients who - as she says - were involved in terrible crimes but who found themselves in terrible circumstances. She realized that all people are capable of terrible crimes.

She ended up working at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a UN created war crimes tribunal. Walking in to the special court they asked “Defense or prosecution?” and she said defense, in part, she says, because she wanted to see if it was possible to muster empathy for someone who was involved in something on the scale of the crimes that were perpetrated in the war of Sierrea Leone.

This experience lead her to try to make a film that acknowledges and honors very different perspectives; “As a defense lawyer, you advocate zealously for the interests of your client. And as a documentary filmmaker you do much more, you are bound to the truth and to your audience in a different way.”


“If you can understand that it’s not just a bad decision your client might have made, it is ten years worth of the worst decisions in the world, but that they are still human beings and there’s still a way you can connect to them and to understand how violence can be perpetrated on that scale not by sadistic psychopaths but by human beings who in a different circumstance would have acted very differently.”

Discussing the Documentary panel: (ltor) Chico Colvard, Rebecca Richman Cohen and Henry Corra

In discussing the limitations and challenges of filmmaking, Rebecca observed:

“A film that’s been very influential in my thinking about documentary craft was a film by Lars von Trier called “Five Obstructions” where he gives his friend and mentor, Jørgen Leth the challenge to make five short film and he gives him a set of obstructions to remake a film. The obstructions sound crazy and absurd and you’re reaction is ‘how are you going to do it?’ but it’s really that a lot of the creative process comes from these limitations and the response to these limitations.”

With her own project, she ran into problems finding archival footage; the footage they found had been shot by rebels on VHS and then transferred and degraded.

“I looked at it and thought ‘my editor is going to hate it, but it’s really important and how else are we going to tell it?’ And it came to symbolize for us a sort of statement about the decay of historical memory. And so we played it off as a stylistic device and ended up actually degrading some of our other footage to match it because we thought it made an important point.”

Part of their process was to edit as they shot, which she thinks was important, allowing the editing to inform the shooting. All of the interviews were transcribed overnight; they sent MP3s to a service in India that was cheap and fast, though not always perfect. Coming from a lawyerly background, she said that she likes to organize and index things, and have electronic tables of contents [interestingly, Chico Chouvards, who also comes with a background in law went in the opposite direction]

Rebecca Richman Cohen and Henry Corra

From the beginning, she was lucky enough to have a collaborative partner, Francisco Bello who acted as Producer and Editor for the project. They had previously worked together on Fahrenheit 911.

“I am a law nerd, and I gave Francisco the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission report’ and the Rules and Procedure and Regulations of the Special Court and said ‘please read this’ and he said “I will not read this, I am a story teller! You read that, we come together, we bring different things to this process,” and it wouldn’t have been made and it wouldn’t have turned out as well if he hadn’t been part of it and we hadn’t figured out how to push each other in really constructive and helpful ways.
“Films are always collaborative processes. It’s odd that panels are always the director because films are made by teams of people.”

Despite the success of this project, Rebecca warns those thinking of making their own film of the need to be very clear about how much of themselves – and how much money – they are willing to invest in the project. She warns that filmmakers often find themselves in difficult circumstances, at a pivotal point.

“What are you willing to do to tell your story? I think that for some people the answer is “Almost anything.” But maybe for a lot of people it shouldn’t be, and there are a lot of films that get started and don’t get finished or that take many, many more years, and that take serious compromises in your lives.”

“The creative process” she concludes, “often brings you to the brink of despair, and that is a terrible and wonderful thing.”

The film was completed in March, and Rebecca is currently promoting it, while also looking towards starting another project.

“I sort of can’t imagine caring about another story as much as I cared about this one,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing another film, I can’t imagine not doing another film. I don’t know where we go with that.”

[UPDATE 5/7] First two paragraphs rewritten to: correct when she worked as a public defender and clarify/correct chronology.

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