SUE BOURNE - INTERVIEW
I know, this isn’t quite the movie you were expecting to be showcased here.
Looking at the poster, girls getting their Lord of the Riverdance on, you would probably expect to see a movie about girls fluttering about on a stage in their Shirley Temple curled hair, trying to win the affections of judges as they put on a dazzling show of fancy footwork and high stepping legs. You’d be right, to a degree, but this is a documentary I could not recommend high enough to those looking for a good antidote of the steroid-fueled antics of your local superheroes currently decimating the box office.
What I loved most about JIG is the way director Sue Bourne looks at these dancers. They’re scattered all over the world, women, girls, and boys, and it’s endlessly fascinating to see how much dedication these people pour into an activity where the only prize waiting for them to prove they’re the best in the world is a little trophy. There is no farm system for these individuals to go into, this is not a profession that will pour endorsement money into their pockets, and there certainly isn’t a life waiting for them with a skill that simply doesn’t translate to anything. However, all these dancers share passion for dancing and the sharp focus to be the best in the world. There isn’t anything they want more than to thrill an audience with their ability to choreograph something wonderful.
The film is uplifting and makes you believe in the power of a documentary that can make you feel that there is passion out there for something that genuinely lift people’s spirits. I talked with Sue Bourne about her film and the travails she went through to get it to a theater near you.
JIG is in limited release right now:
CHRISOPHER STIPP: Hello Sue.
SUE BOURNE: Hello Christopher. How are you?
CS: I’m doing fine, thank you very much. I had a chance to watch the film last weekend and adored it.
SUE BOURNE: Did you? Good, good.
CS: I thought it was a great, great film I am just amazed that a movie like this finally got made – every St. Patrick’s Day, Trinity dancers and this kind of competition I never knew even existed and to some degree it looked like you didn’t either.
SUE BOURNE: No, I didn’t know anything about Irish dancing and then discovered than no one else had gone in to make a film and of course for a filmmaker that becomes fascinating for us to get inside.
CS: Exactly. And I actually saw a previous interview where you said competition films like this make great documentaries. At what point when you were researching this did you say, you know what, this would actually be an exciting feature?
SUE BOURNE: I think when a journalist came to me and said did you know the Irish World Dancing Championships are being held in Glasgow next year. And I said, no, I didn’t know that. And then we started to do research and discovered that no one else had ever got in before. And then I sent my associate producer to Philadelphia to see the Irish Dancing World Championships and she said this could make a fantastic film. But we are going to have to work very hard to persuade them to let an outsider inside to do it. And all these things go ding, ding, ding, as one of the lures of a movie like this is terrific because this is a national competition and you can follow people on their journey and they are all competing for a prize. They are quite attractive for filmmakers. It’s also the easiest to sell because they know what you’re selling. So we fairly early on in the procedure when we said to the commissioners and BBC that we wanted to make this film, they immediately were interested. And I said way back in the beginning that I want to make a feature film and they said why and I said because I don’t want to make a film about an Englishman, and Irishman and a Scotsman going to Glasgow.
I want to make a film that reflects the fact that this is an international competition and that Irish dancing is happening in over 30 countries across the globe and to do that I need a feature film budget in order to do it properly. And they bought into that. I financed it for the first 6 to 8 months while we did the research and got the access because I didn’t want to compromise how we did it and wanted to make sure we had everything in place and at the end of 8 months we got fully funded and complete access.
CS: What’s amazing is you came out of pocket for some of this…
SUE BOURNE: That’s what I thought the budget was and realized at the beginning I had to self-fund to get the access and do the research and then later on that year we got fully funded. So I made the sacrifice because I didn’t know if this was going to be a film but I decided it was worth the gamble because I could see the potential of it.
CS: One thing that struck me while I watched the film was like as you said, at the end there wasn’t any huge cash prize or career beyond this competition. If you get it, that’s great but what did you find when you asked these individuals who were dancing, what was the end game? Was it for the love of it or was it something else?
SUE BOURNE: People ask me if I can see why people get so hooked on it and three years down the road I’m not sure I’m that much closer.
It does seem to me that Irish dancing casts a spell over them. They are hooked. They just can’t help themselves. They love it and they are having fun. They have talent and they work incredibly hard. So all those factors seem to come together. There is no end game. Their goal is to do their best and they have talent to be the best. And as Loretta, the mom says, you just want to win the Irish Dancing World Championships.
That’s why you do it year after year to get the top prize even though there is no money. I think for me that was a terrific answer. In the culture we are in that’s celebrity obsessed fame seeking, money seeking world that we now live in, here are these kids that are doing it for nothing. In fact they are impoverishing themselves because they don’t make any money. It’s quite a journey to go on.
CS: It’s incredibly heartbreaking too to see literally how fast a year’s worth of training or years of training, will essentially, as it’s laid out how fast they can hit the stage and how fast it turns out they are not picked and you’re done.
SUE BOURNE: Somebody said you cast the film really well. And I said, we did but you realize that ?? could have fallen and broken her ankle a week before the competition, so could Julia, so could John, so could Joe. Anything could have happened to any of them. We had no control.
We could choose the characters, we could cast it well but we had no idea what the eventual outcome would be because with so many unknowns between the practicing and the final competition, we were lucky.
CS: Your previous work up until then, and unfortunately I am not familiar with the television series you’ve done for quite a number of years that explored social issues and what have you, did you learn anything about the documentary process by doing this documentary?
SUE BOURNE: If I were to describe myself and what I love doing is that I like to find the extraordinary and apparently ordinary and then film it in a sense that’s there’s no difference. Again I was looking for something extraordinary in an ordinary world. What I did learn though because I hadn’t made a 90 minute feature film for the cinema before is there is a different process in the way that you shoot it and the way you approach it and certainly the way you edit it.
And that, for me at this stage of my career was a fascinating journey to go on. For 90 minutes I do mountains of research and am careful about choosing my characters and I only shoot the people that end up in the film. I don’t just shoot lots of people and then dump them on the cutting room floor. And with this film I was a bit more nervous because 90 minutes is a long time and I didn’t say anything to the dancers because the whole thing could have died before we got to the World’s.
There was one story in the end that we weren’t able to include – in the end it was compromising the other characters – it was already compromised. We had a lot of stories to deal with and this was just one story too many. What I learned is that making a feature film is a lot different from television. It was a great journey.
CS: As you were filming, could you see the narrative taking form or was that not until in the editing bay where you say, ah, here’s where we can shape it and mold it? Was it apparent while you were shooting?
SUE BOURNE: Again, because I am a control freak, one thing you have to do when you’re filming is to absolutely guarantee that come what may you have some sort of film. And then moving it a notch higher is a bonus but you must make sure you cover all your bases.
But I always knew while we were filming that we had a film and covered all the bases and did all the research and asked all the right questions. So you start with no instructions about where you might be going with it in the end. The material is telling you – again, it’s the process. It’s a bit long and rambly – did you get that?
CS: Absolutely. Sometimes it’s the process itself. It’s the process that’s as exciting as the film. They say a movie is made three times, once when you conceptualize it, then when you shoot it, and then when you edit it. Sometimes all three look different.
SUE BOURNE: I love the research because you dream of what’s possible. I find filming much harder because you sometimes watch your dreams collapse.
Sometimes you get lucky and get a bonus material you never imagined would turn up and you go, this is amazing! I think in the end, it’s the editing that’s the most creative because you’ve got what you’ve got and have to turn it into something really good.
ROBERT PERSONS - INTERVIEW
It’s hard to put GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9 into its proper perspective.
It’s a documentary but it’s not. It’s a mediation on the very real aspects of loss, personal loss, but it’s not exactly. This is a film that challenges you to listen to its narrator talk about the way in which Georgia has evolved as a proper state and has gone from something pastoral to something where asphalt and concrete have slowly erased the history beneath it.
Through images, poetic musings, long stretches of shots that seem to linger in your spirit, GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9 is a film that gets to your spirit if you allow it. There is a lot being said about the transitory nature of our shared history and what it means to mediate on the nature of loss beyond the human void we feel when we lose a loved one. However, the loved one here is the literal land and the things imbued with it as progress demands evolution. It’s power is derived by the cup it presents and what of ourselves that we pour into it.
Believe me, I know it’s difficult to try and being cohesion to a movie, by definition, has no narrative structure beyond the lilting poetry that is spoken over the visual cues we’re given so it was a thrill to talk to director Robert Persons about his first feature that was in years in the making.
GENERAL ORDERS NO. 9 opens today:
CS: First of all I have to tell you that from not hearing anything about this movie a month ago to actually seeing it last week this is probably the most evocative and resonate sounding film I’ve seen all year.
ROBERT PERSONS: That’s awesome.
CS: It’s incredible. Incredible.
ROBERT PERSONS: Wow. Not everyone feels that way. I know it’s not for some people. Some people really connect with it.
CS: And I think that’s the case. And I’m, don’t want to say cynical, that’s not the case, but you see sometimes art for art’s sake and what are they really trying to do but I think the emotion, the honesty is what got me in this film. The film seems to be a distillation of your thoughts and feelings put to film. I’m curious to know – it looked like from the notes it took 10 years and 5 years to film, how did this all begin?
ROBERT PERSONS: It began with me collecting images of things that I liked. I spent a lot of time collecting materials and these are things that I saw around me and a lot of the shots in the film were things I have seen all my life and had been thinking about my whole life and certain images started taking on a certain feel, a certain identity. Before I even knew I had a film, or before I even had a story or a narrative or anything I was collecting all this stuff. That period was really the longest period. Then, over time, I started to organize the material and did not really have a good angle. I needed to find a thread to help me through the jungle. I found the thread when I was studying maps. I was studying old Georgia maps and learning about how maps change over time and how some territories diminish, things are cut in half or divided into smaller tracks.
So taking it out of geography and taking it out of political boundaries and all the historical baggage of what a map represents, I was looking at just the shapes. And, to me, the shapes began to have an emotional resonance like they meant something. I thought about them for a long time and eventually had this breakthrough where I thought about the story of how Georgia’s boundaries changed, etc. was analogous to a spiritual diminishment as well. They were objective correlative for the human condition in the modern world. So that’s what made me think I had a story and the film got started at that point.
CS: How long you’ve known producer Phil Walker? I read that there was something he said or something you brought up that triggered something that essentially pushed this project forward. Was there anything about that relationship that sparked the impetus to make this into a film?
ROBERT PERSONS: Really, I had the story before I met Phil and I wrote a few things in the effort to communicate the idea to other people. So when I found Phil and started working with him, we had a script of sorts. It wasn’t a conventional film script and we had an essay that described the tone and mood and intentions of the film. So I shared that with him and we began to work together. Phil was really integral in getting the film made because even though I had been filming for a while by myself when the shots became more elaborate I needed help and I needed the company. I needed somebody to travel with me and help me with the gear and help me with the camera and he had a good amount of experience so we started to travel together and started shooting.
When the first editor we had didn’t work out I realized that Phil knew what I was going after and I hired him and it was a miracle. A miracle.
CS: On the subject of spiritual diminishment, did you think this was representative of simply Georgia or was it something more than that?
ROBERT PERSONS: I felt that the only way I could make this film was if I kept it local, very particular, but I had the hopes that it was universal. And it’s not just what I feel but what I think is true for all people. For everyone who has moved away, has moved on, has left a home town, I think that you can look beyond it just being Georgia. And I hope that’s the case because it’s something everyone can identify with.
CS: I agree. As someone who has lived most his life in the Midwest and have been transplanted to the Southwest I feel a longing all the time to be back where I grew up and spent most of my life.
ROBERT PERSONS: The film attempts to be, especially after Part 1 is over, sort of retelling history. The film attempts to be not only about changes to the land and the loss of things but of personal loss. Your parents pass away, your grandparents pass away, it’s not just about land, it’s about contending with loss in general.
CS: It’s evocative that way. The film works because of that without being preachy. It seems so personal. Do you think you got it right with balancing the poetic with the narrative elements?
ROBERT PERSONS: I feel like I did those things, yes. I’m happy with that part, yes. I found that some audiences come into it expecting to see a documentary and to understand everything that they see and, when they don’t, they feel some antagonism towards the director. But that wasn’t my goal. It was meant to be felt, to be experienced. The film is meant to be experienced.
While we got a lot of attention for the trailer, people were saying, “It looks intriguing but I don’t know what it’s about.” But I couldn’t imagine a more perfect response. I don’t want them to know what it’s about when it’s over. I want them to go home and think about it.
CS: The title of the film refers to General Lee’s letter to his troops from the civil war, it’s his goodbye essentially. There’s a callback to the past with the title so I’m wondering if the title means something about how things are never going to be the same again. Do you have hope that there could be some way to salvage the past?
ROBERT PERSONS: I don’t think anyone wants to salvage the past. I think the past is verboten, like from Nazi Germany. I think there are things from the past that are valuable but I’m not the right person to parse out what those things are but the title is his letter of surrender to his troops. I think it’s a very beautiful piece of writing that spells out the terms of surrender. And the reason I chose it as a title is because it became a metaphor for the film itself because the film, it’s biggest aspiration, is a spiritual surrender. The title is a little bit of a misdirection and a bit of abstraction but I hope the film’s title begins to refer to how people feel. But, in general, it’s a metaphor for the film itself, it’s a spiritual surrender.
THE CHINA QUESTION - DVD REVIEW
When you see a documentary about China and the manufacturing implications it’s had on the American landscape it’s not hard to feel a sense of overwhelming dread about the power they economically wield but filmmaker Brook Silva-Braga took the time to actually talk to authors and pundits and those who are actually on the ground observing what is happening to a changing landscape where dollars are losing ground to the Chinese Yuan.
The film takes not so much a sympathetic approach to presenting a story we’ve been hearing from loudmouths on the television as jobs leave our domestic shore to the shores of the Far East but an approach that supposes that maybe we haven’t heard the full story about what is happening out there in the fast changing landscape of vacillating global economies.
I was amazed by the level hand that Silva-Braga takes to show what the real effects are as it pertains to the economic superpower that is China. While he is able to show the deplorable conditions many factory workers in China have to deal with (just do a Google search for Foxconn and Apple and tell me what you find out about what’s happening to those laborers) just to make a living, they weren’t the ones who negotiated the shifting of jobs from America to over there, he is also able to easily show the effects of what happens to our own country when corporate giants make decisions based on bottom line savings and not on American pride.
This is one documentary that finally is able to show what is happening to our country as it pertains to what the real effect is of what is happening to our economy as we slide more opportunity to a country who is more than willing to work for pennies on the dollar.
About the DVD:
What does China’s rise mean for America? Through the stories of ordinary people and analysis from the world’s leading experts including Niall Ferguson, Wu Jianmin, Orville Schell, and Susan Shirk, THE CHINA QUESTION explores the challenge America faces as China becomes the world’s second superpower.
To understand the economic, political and moral implications of China’s rise, filmmaker Brook Silva-Braga spent over a year traveling both China and America. On a thoughtful, personal journey we meet Chinese and Americans dealing with extraordinary change and reflect on the twists of fate and history that brought us here.
- Niall Ferguson, renowned economic historian
- Susan Shirk, former State Department official and author of “China: Fragile Superpower”
- Orville Schell, Director of the Asia Society’s U.S.- China Center
- Barry Naughton, author of “The Chinese Economy”
- Wu Jianmin, former Chinese ambassador to U.N.
- Cui Zhiyuan, a leading member of China’s New Left
- Yasheng Huang, author of “Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics”
- Yan Xuetong, one of Foreign Policy’s ‘Top 100 Public Intellectuals’
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