Pull Focus: Susan Koch

By Lauren Ann Donia and Matthew Gordon.

susankoch2_0Susan Koch is an Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker whose most recent film, The Other City (2010), explores a Washington, DC that visitors rarely see; a city ravaged by HIV/AIDS.  Susan is also the director and producer of Kicking It (2008), co-directed and producer of Mario’s Story (2006), and the director of City at Peace (1998). On October 14, Susan joined us at American University to screen and discuss The Other City. Before the screening, we sat down with her for this interview.

How did you find your subjects for The Other City and how long did it take?

SK: It always takes a while to find the right characters because it’s a little bit like casting a film. You’re trying to find the right mix. I knew what I was going after generally, but then needed to find the specific people. In this case, I think what was compounding is the fact that we were asking people to reveal very, very personal information about themselves and that was really a challenge. I had read a series of articles by Jose Antonio Vargas on these issues and met some of the people that would subsequently be involved in the film through him. So, I had an introduction. That said, it was far different writing an article for print than it was putting them on camera. One example is the men’s group, which is the formerly incarcerated men who are living with HIV/AIDS. When Jose did a print piece about them, they wouldn’t even allow their last names to be used. Can you imagine? We’ve gone from not even allowing your name to be used to then appearing on camera. It was just really convincing people or making them understand what the film was going to be about and why we were doing it. I found that when you treat people respectfully and honestly, they are usually pretty open about it. The other challenge was Joseph’s House, which was where people die. You want to balance getting those real moments without invading what is a very personal time for a family. So, I think that those were the bigger challenges I faced in finding the right characters. I want to just add one thing. I really wanted a young African American woman because of the statistic that AIDS is now the greatest killer of African American women ages 25-34. And surprisingly that ended up being the biggest challenge. Not that they weren’t out there, but their lives are so busy. The last thing that they want to be doing is making a film when they are trying to put food on the table and just really survive.

How did you build trust with your subjects from when you first met them?

SK: I am able to show them prior work, and I think that makes a big difference. With the men’s group, I had actually done a film called Mario’s Story on a wrongfully convicted young man and I brought them the film for them to see. I do it for two reasons. One is so that they can see how people are treated and how they come across in a film. Also, I think it’s very hard for people who haven’t been in a film and probably don’t even watch a lot of documentaries to understand what’s going to happen.  Even with the people in this film, when they finally saw the film, they just couldn’t believe it. One example, there’s a young man named Jose Ramirez in this film who does HIV awareness work with Hispanic teens.  He is so busy and so committed to his young people. I had a lot of trouble with him during the filming process because he was always canceling on me at the last minute. He didn’t realize my cameraman was booked and I have to pay him regardless. I’d literally be driving over to meet him for the shoot and he would say, hey I can’t make it. Or I’d even be there and he’d keep me waiting for hours. It really made me mad because I felt like he wasn’t being respectful. But then I realized at the same time that the reason he was standing me up was because his work came first and I had to respect that. And so after the film was done and when he saw it for the first time, he said, I’m so sorry (laughs). He said, I had no idea, I really feel terrible the way I was. Now he is always very prompt and answers calls and does everything. But he didn’t understand and I think his priorities were right. We both had our own priorities, mine was making the film and his was making sure that his young kids were okay. I think that sometimes that can happen. So one thing I do is sometimes I show subjects one of my films. The other thing is, with Joseph’s House, they had me come and spend quite a bit of time there before they actually let me bring a camera in. And I think that can be very useful, building trust and talking. On the other hand, as a filmmaker, you can get very frustrated because you’re there and these amazing things are happening but you’re not recording. You’re thinking, oh my gosh, will this happen again when we actually do have the camera? I think it’s putting in the time, talking to people, answering their questions. There’s another thing I say, and I’ve said this for all of my documentaries — this is the fifth independent feature doc I’ve made.  I tell my subjects that they have the right to ask that the camera be turned off at any time. And they rarely do it, hardly ever happens. But it’s knowing they have that right that is really a big deal. It was interesting when I did my first feature doc, a film called City at Peace about teenagers who come together to write and perform a musical based on their lives. I said to them, you have the right to ask me to turn the camera off. They only did it once, and this is so funny. It was at a pool party when the girls did not want to be photographed in their bathing suits (laughs). So you never really know what some people are going to be self-conscious about. And then occasionally it happens where you have to say, this is why I really would like to be able to film this, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I think by and large, if you treat people honestly and respectfully, they will agree. But it’s more than that. At least for the films that I do, it’s a lot of people who never have a voice and they want their stories told. You would almost think that it was opposite, that they would be embarrassed or feel ashamed, but it’s not that. They feel that nobody’s ever really taken the time to hear what they have to say. I’ve actually done a lot of filming in Africa, some of the worst places and most horrific stories that you’ll ever hear and again, it takes a lot of courage but they want their voices heard. When I did finally get the permission with the men’s group, they would just let me in on everything. They would even forget that I was there. And they never had let a woman in the group, so it was not just a filmmaker, it was a woman, two things going against you (laughs).

How much time do you give yourself to find characters?

SK: It varies. Depends how much time you have, and you may not find them all at once. You can get started on a film without finding all of them. For The Other City, I actually began filming with J’mia, who is the young African American woman at the inaugural ball. But, I wasn’t sure she was the right character so we kind of dropped it for a little bit of time until we picked it up again. I think some came on later. So I didn’t start following them all at exactly the same time, which is okay. I think that’s one of the things that happens if you’re doing a film with more than one character. Sometimes, though, the character is the film. With Mario’s Story, which is a story of a young man who was wrongfully convicted, obviously I knew who my characters would be. Yet I still think that you’re always casting that net. You may find as you get into filming, for balance, what you really need is that person who’s going to give you a certain perspective. I think that with The Other City, the last person we found was Jose Ramirez, the young Latino, because it was important to show the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Latino community.

In The Other City you are dealing with individuals in very vulnerable situations, going through some really rough times.  Did you ever debated whether or not to intervene or compensate your subjects in anyway?

SK: We don’t pay; people sign a release and they know that they are not getting paid for this. But you can take them out to lunch during the day of filming and you can bring a gift for a child. I think that there are little things you can do. With the men, I brought them their snack every week and they really liked that. I really do think it’s very fair to help with bus fair and things like that. Because I don’t feel ever that somebody who appears in my film should lose money as a result of being in it. So I think that there are things you can do. But people ask that question because you see people in really tough situations and it’s your normal inclination. Joseph’s House is losing money, what do I do? Do I make a contribution? Now, I’m not in the position where I can make large contributions, so I don’t have a huge issue. But also, that’s not my role. My role is to shine light on a situation and a story. I really hope that as a result of people going to see the film, people featured in the film receive lots of benefits. And I think they do. It can come later, and from other people.

How much time are you willing to invest in someone when you are not sure if they are the right character? How do you know when you have the right character?

SK: Sometimes you’ll end up dropping or not using someone’s story because something will happen. There was another woman that I was following for quite a while for The Other City. Her story, I thought, was pretty good. She had been unknowingly infected by a man and was trying to take him to court about it. But as I got further into the filming with her, I realized there were just a lot of other issues and it wasn’t as simple. It was complicated. And she had some very volatile relationships going on. I made the decision that that was not really the story I wanted to tell. I gave it a good shot, I really did. Then I realized that J’mia was a much stronger character, what she was saying, what she was going through. Sometimes you know instantly. It’s no reflection on the person. But other times it’s the circumstances. I know with Kicking It, I really wanted a woman player. This is my film about homeless soccer players. We were in Spain and I actually had a female player that we were spending time with. We had been assured that she was going to make the team and then after we came back to the US, we found out she didn’t. So we had to kind of regroup. Sometimes it’s just circumstances. But usually, I would say 80% of the people I start out following will make it into the final film. It doesn’t always work and you shouldn’t feel bad. I always think that the material you get may not work for a full story for your film, but it could be work for a piece for your website. I think there are other ways to use that material so you don’t feel like everybody’s time has been wasted. Personally, I care less about my time being wasted, but feel a little bit bad if the person has given me their time and then I don’t use it. I also think you have to make it clear to people that there’s no guarantees in this, whether someone is going to end up in the film.

How do you see your role as a director in structuring the story and creating the look and feel of your film?

SK: They’re all different. I think the subject matter plays a big part in how you’re going to shoot the film. I think about that a lot. What is the look of the film I want to have? Sometimes you can’t shoot with a great camera and you’re not going to capture those intimate, verite moments with a big camera. Some of it is dictated by the circumstances and practicality. I think that in terms of structure, with a verite film especially, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and to me that’s the scary part but it’s also the exciting part. You have an idea of how your film’s going to be structured, but you also have to be willing to be very flexible so that as things change, you change. You don’t let yourself get so locked in with your idea of ‘my film’s going to go this way.’ Then, when something happens, you don’t know how to regroup. I would say that if I look back on my initial pitch, or write-up, or one-pager, or two-pager that I do for my films, they end up being pretty close. They may not be exact, the characters may not be the same, but they’re pretty close. For example, with Mario’s Story, the story of a young man who was wrongfully convicted, I was so naïve. I thought when this high-powered law firm took on his case that he’d be out in a year, because that’s all he needed, this prestigious law firm to take it on. I ended up working on that film for 8 years because that’s how long it took. There were no guarantees. Now that I know that, I always say, what’s unique about this film is not that he was wrongfully convicted, because many people are wrongfully convicted. What’s really unusual is the fact that he had his conviction vacated once he was wrongfully convicted. I think as you go along, you might have notions or presume things that actually, as a result of working on a film, get changed. And I think in terms of structure, you’re not going to know exactly what your strongest scene is going to be. In The Other City, there’s a very powerful scene with J’mia where she is trying to find housing after she’s been evicted. She’s got this list of 72 places she can call and there are no openings. Well, that just happened. I didn’t go over to her house that morning with the idea that this was going to be her making these calls and getting rejected. But I knew I was going to spend the day with her as she tried to deal with her housing situation. So I think you may have a rough idea of what you’re going to do but you may not know the particulars. And I love that part of it. That’s the most exciting part of what we do — it’s real life.

What was your experience living and making a film in the Washington, DC area?

SK: I think that there were advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that I was here if something was happening. You want to have such a good and close relationship with the characters in your film that they’re actually calling you if something is going to happen. Obviously, I had that relationship with Joseph’s House because I couldn’t be there 24/7. When Jimmy was getting sicker and sicker, they would call us and tell us what was going on. But when you’re doing a film that’s halfway across the world, you don’t have that luxury. On one hand, you can never leave it when it’s a local film. Sometimes I’d feel like, ‘I’m tired, I really don’t want to do this shoot today.’ But, it’s here, I’m here, and I can do it. And I do shoot myself. I have a camera, but I prefer to work with a cameraman. If he’s not available, and there are instances when it’s last minute and something comes up, then I will do it. I find that to be a very great advantage. When you do things oversees, you go and you shoot, and you leave and come back, you’re always worrying that you’re going to miss something. There are ways around that too. Sometimes you’ll make an arrangement with a local cameraperson so that if something big comes up, you can say, can you pick this up for me? But that’s not always possible, depends where you are. With this film, it was easier to be able to be present. Sometimes I would plan it because I had to book my cameraman, but there was also some flexibility. If they called me and said something was happening, I would try to cover it.

Do you see your role as a documentarian different from that of a journalist?

SK: I do. I mean my background is broadcast journalism. I worked at NBC News. I think as a documentary filmmaker, I have a lot more leeway; at least I give myself a lot more leeway as a filmmaker. I’m more willing to show my point of view. I think we all have points of view and we all have biases and that’s an issue that’s always debated. How much of that is reflected in journalism? I think I have a lot more freedom and I don’t worry about that so much. But I like to have my characters tell their own stories, so I try to be a fly on the wall as much as possible and not interject my own feelings and opinions. It starts with what you choose to film and then what you choose to put in that film from the footage you shot. You make those decisions. But if I was doing journalism, would I feel the need to have all sides represented on every piece of the story. I might approach it differently.

How much do you allow yourself to stage things? Specifically, I am thinking of one of the opening shots of the journalist, Jose, entering the Washington Post and the camera is already positioned inside. 

SK: I think that even in news pieces, you’ll see that all time. How many times on the nightly news do you see somebody, “hello, senator so and so’s office?” Do you think that just happens? Or the classic shot is walking down the hall or walking through the door. You can’t stand them! I’ll tell you where my journalism background really, I think, is still very much a part of me. I’m a stickler for telling the truth. I’m a stickler for correct facts. I’m manic about that. That will never change. I will not put incorrect information in my film and I check things over and over and over. That doesn’t mean somebody can say something that’s their point of view and doesn’t reflect my point of view. So I do a lot of research. That’s just part of my background. For this film, I did a lot of independent research. It may not end up on the screen, but it does inform my thinking. And just in ways we’ve already talked about. What are the demographics? I want the demographics represented. Or, with the needle exchange, I did a lot of research. Sometimes I’ll look back and think, why did I decide to research this? But I think that’s the great thing about today, and the Internet. You can Google anything and find out anything. For a while, I was really curious, what was the impact on communities that did have needle exchange? Did they see their rates go down? So a lot of times I would do research just because I was curious to see what that information was going to provide. It probably informs my thinking in the way that I’ve shot the film, and the way I’ve edited it, although those exact facts may not be right there on the screen. I think that I’m probably more cautious than many filmmakers. I don’t like to stage things. You mentioned that one shot. Now, I had two DP’s working on the film. One is a feature film cinematographer as well. But that shot, I mean he was out there and he just did it. He may have done that more than once. We were just actually there at the Post and it was an amazing shot, I agree. And that’s where it’s collaborative too, because sometimes your DP will just have a great idea for a shot as well.

Was there an outreach platform built around this film?

SK: There is now. There always was, but it’s much more so now. I think that’s been one of the great parts. What is perhaps a little bit different from other films I’ve done is how many constituencies there are and how many groups have gotten behind the film. I think I’ve developed a lot more relationships with organizations than I have on any other film. And everyday, there are more and more contacting me. That’s really exciting because I think that really helps in terms of building a buzz for your film and building an audience. We’ve been in the limited theaters and that definitely helped turn out people. After they’ve seen it, they’ve told other people, so I think that’s really key. Now in retrospect, I wish I had started building those partnerships even earlier. But I think you tend to get really immersed in your filmmaking and you don’t always do it. I did it to some degree because I was working with organizations. I was working with Joseph’s House or I was working with Family Medical, with the needle exchange. So some of them were already there but casting that wider net nationally, I think that’s come about. And it has happened in part because of people who heard about the film. We were invited to screen at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna. And then we were the opening event for the US Conference on AIDS and after that happened, you really start getting these grassroots well. If I were to do it again, perhaps I would have gone to the US Conference on AIDS a year before the film rather than with the film.

Your last five films are feature documentaries that you have produced yourself. What are the ways that being located in DC is an advantage or disadvantage for this type of work? 

SK: I think this is a great town for filmmaking. For documentary filmmaking especially because we have Discovery and National Geographic. We do have people who are working on nonfiction programming, quite a few people. First, I was with public television, then I was with NBC, and then I had my own production company where we were a work-for-hire in the sense that Discovery would say, ‘we’d like you to produce a show on such and such.’ The difference now with what I do is I come up with my own ideas and I raise the funds, and then I sell it. I’ve lived in L.A. as well, and I spent a lot of time there. And I still edit my films in L.A., I should say, my bigger films in L.A. I like to think that it’s an advantage being in DC, but maybe I just want to feel that way. Especially as a documentary filmmaker because people are always talking about issues and stories and ideas. I like that part of it. I think in L.A., it’s more about movies than documentaries. Perhaps there are less people doing it here than there are in New York or L.A., so you tend to have a smaller community. I don’t know what it would be like. I mean I’ve lived in L.A. I was still doing my documentaries there, and there were great stories there. This is the first film I’ve made based in DC since my first one. And that was one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I felt like I had not done a film in my own community for about 12 years. I wanted to. In part, it was that I had been doing a lot of traveling and I was ready to stay put a little bit. But I think it was more that I wanted to reengage with my own community in terms of what was taking place and see what the stories were.

Do you have a project you’re working on now?

SK: I don’t. I have also finished another film at the same time, which was about a leading African singer, her name is Yvonne Chaka Chaka. It’s a different kind of film. It’s combining her music with the stories of African women. We travel throughout the continent of Africa to tell stories of ordinary African women who are really doing some extraordinary things. So the fact that I have two done right now is getting me out there. But I also work on smaller pieces, which I love. I work with various non-profits and other groups doing videos on subjects that interest me. I like it for two reasons. I like doing the smaller pieces because I can fit them in with the long form documentaries, which take a long time. When you’re making a long form documentary, you’re talking about a minimum of a year and a half from start to finish. That’s quick, maybe two years. So it’s great to have other projects that you can do. For example, I filmed in the Congo in March, with a group called Women for Women International. It brought together survivors of the genocide of Rwanda with women from the Congo for International Women’s Day. Now I’m editing a video about that. So I have quite a few of these smaller projects and sometimes what you’ll find is a smaller project will lead to a bigger project. And it’s a way of finding a story because I like to find my stories before they’re in the Washington Post or the New York Times or somewhere else. I shouldn’t say that because with The Other City, the fact that we had an AIDS epidemic was in the Washington Post. But I actually didn’t see it at the time it came out. It was only later when I was thinking I want to do a film on Washington, started reading, and thinking about the city that I came to that. But I think that the more you get out there, the more you experience life, the more you just try to get off the beaten track, the more likely you are to find a story that you might want to do. In terms of my next big doc, I don’t know. I’m open to ideas (laughs).

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