This year’s Sundance documentaries include high profile docs like Life Itself, about film critic Roger Ebert, Mitt about, yes, presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, The Case Against 8 about California’s Prop 8 and Cesar’s Last Fast about Cesar Chavez’s water only, hunger strike in 1988. The overall line-up is impressive and already buyers have picked up a few hot titles. One of the much talked about docs is from Oscar nominated director, Edet Belzbert called Watchers of the Sky. Today, Watchers director of photography, Mai Iskander, joins us to talk about the film and her involvement.
Watchers of the Sky tells the story of Raphael Lemkin, a polish lawyer who coined the word “genocide” and four extraordinary people who keep Lemkin’s legacy alive: Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC); Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Rwandan Emmanuel Uwurukundo, who oversees refugee camps on the border of Chad and Western Sudan for the UN; and Ben Ferencz, a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, who follows in Lemkin’s footsteps, tenaciously lobbying the UN for peace. Watch a clip from the film.
Watchers of the Sky is told through cinema verite footage, archival footage and evocative animation with each every element working in unison. The film follows the journeys of the four characters’ first-hand experiences with 20th and 21st Century atrocities, including genocides in, Armenia, WW 2, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Darfur region of Sudan.
When I first met director Edet Belzberg, what had excited me most about working on Watchers of the Sky was her approach to this film. Her vision was for the film to not only depict the horrors of genocide by confronting the desperation, poverty and violence it causes, but also to shed light on the daily struggles and passion of the characters, who are dedicate their life to the genocide cause. Like her Academy Award nonimated film Children Underground, Edet wanted to capture the stories of the characters with raw verite footage.
Before I embarked on this project, I referenced many of the Miramax films, including Paris is Burning, Unzipped and City of God. Each of these share a you-are-there vitality and intimacy that draws the viewer in. The camera work in each of these films doesn’t bring attention to itself, allowing the viewer to focus on the characters and the atmosphere of the setting of each story. In each of these films, the human spirit is somehow laid bare.
It became clear from the beginning that Edet would give me a lot of room to find my own shooting rhythm. I believe that the role of a documentary cinematographer is not so much to capture the story as allowing the story to unfold. The pacing and composition should be influenced more by the characters than the camera person, allowing the characters to reveal themselves. Patience is key.
I had gone to the Darfur region of Sudan and followed Emmanuel, who worked with the UNHCR, Um Dala Babiker, a Sudanese refugee, and her family. Emmanuel is a charismatic, dynamic, welcoming person. A Tutsi from Rwanda, most of his family was killed during Rwanda’s genocide. His personal experience fulled him with passion to help the lives of the Sudanese refugee. He was filled with some enthusiasm and energy – it was a work-out keeping up with him.
In contract, silently observing with my camera, it became clear that Um Dala’s story was one told more with moods rather than words. Lyrical and meditative moments revealed the quiet desperation and grievance of living in a refugee camp. The landscape on which the refugee camp sits is also a character in the film. Its story is one of displacement, poverty, and frustration. This was captured in wide shots or with slow tracking shots that give room for the viewer to take in the vast arid land with its sad and poetic quality.
While the energy and the stories of all characters were different, as a cinematographer and filmmaker, I try to capture what we as human being have in common. In Watchers of the Sky, Edet craftily brings together real life footage, archival material and animation, and characters from around the world and their experiences, each telling one story: the story of our shared humanity.
Mai Iskander works as as both a documentary director and cinematographer as well as working as a commercial Director/DP. She is the producer, director and cinematographer of the award-winning documentary films Garbage Dreams (SXSW, IDFA) and Words of Witness (Berlin, Los Angeles Film Festival). Garbage Dreams was shortlisted for the 2010 Academy Awards in the category of Best Feature Length Documentary, was nominated for the 2010 Best Documentary by the DGA, and won 26 international awards including the Al Gore Reel Current Award and IDA Humanitas Award. Garbage Dreams follows three teenage boys growing up in Egypt’s garbage village. Garbage Dreams aired on PBS/Independent Lens and PBS/Global Voices.
Funded by the John S. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Words of Witness won numerous awards and aired on AlJazeera America. Words of Witness follows a young female journalist navigating the perilous streets of post revolutionary Egypt.
In addition to her work on documentaries, Mai directs commercials and branded content, past clients include IBM, the American Hospital Association, and Partnership for a Drug-Free America.
Get the full Sundance 2014 line-up here and keep checking back to read more great posts from this year’s filmmakers and artists. The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 26th.