Mary Ellen Davis has made films about political and cultural resistance in such disparate places as Guatemala, Mexico and Palestine. She’s not a preacher but a poet in her filmmaking sensibility. Her camera eye no stranger to the pain and passion of the human heart, if she shows people in struggle, she shows them in spirit too, using music and other creative forms of expression as a longing, a counterweight, a desire, a resistance, a transcendence.
Last year was a prolific one; she and her team produced three very moving and distinctive documentaries, two long, one short: Territories, Los Musicos, and A Day in Palestine. I’ve yet to catch Los Musicos but can report that A Day in Palestine, co-directed with José Garcia-Lozano and Will Eizlini, is six minutes that cleverly manages to convey a haunting evocation of the every day in Palestine (and how long is that).
In Territories, Mary Ellen follows Larry Towell (the great Canadian photographer of where political meets mystical) on the road from his home in rural Ontario (where his family planted 6000 trees on what, according to Larry, was once native land) to Palestine, to the US-Mexico border and to New York; a contemplation of occupation, exploitation, documentation and the role of the photographer and his art (See the excerpt).
Mary Ellen’s films have won a number of awards and documented many changes, so I thought her well-placed to answer a few searching questions regarding the significance of cinema and its’ bearing upon the phenomenon of change.
Does cinema change reality Mary Ellen?
Cinema, like writing, graffiti and other forms of expression can change reality if it succeeds in elevating peoples’ awareness and if people act accordingly. However, cinema can also be like TV and numb peoples’ minds and their capacity to question power. Beyond this dichotomy, cinema should always try to offer viewers an experience of pleasure, even when it reveals tragic, terrible realities. The horror and the beauty, as a woman in the audience said, in Mexico City. Cinema should speak to the mind, to the heart and to the senses.
Would you say cinema has changed you?
Cinema has changed me and influenced me, as all artistic forms have. When I was a teenager, with my friends, we used to consider society structurally crippling, oppressive, alienating, and we’d say that art was our liberation, or at best, when we were feeling defeated, our pair of crutches.
I am a product of the May 68 uprising in Paris and France, of street protest, of grassroots activism, having been the young witness of events that happened 40 years ago. I’m listening right now to some radio archives: “Quelques enragés bouleversent l’histoire: des centaines de pavés… les premières occupations… la grève générale… la bourse est en feu…”
Can you explain how a film or two has changed the way you make films?
The first films that struck me were dramatic films: for ex. La Bataille d’Alger by Pontecorvo, Glauber Rocha’s Brazilian films, Federico Fellini’s world of irony and fantasy, Buñuel’s strange and subversive works. Later I became addicted to Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Ozu. They represent a variety of styles ranging from surrealism to history, from the individual to the mythical, from utopia to lyricism. All these films changed me.
Then came the documentaries. It’s hard to distinguish one in particular, so many have been an inspiration. To mention only a few: Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, Harlan County by Barbara Kopple, Bombay Our City by Anand Patwardhan, Metal y Melancolia by Heddy Honigmann, The Three Rooms of Melancholia by Pirjo Honkasalo…
Do you personally make films with the express intention of changing reality?
I make films because I feel the need to do them, just like one feels a need to speak, or to speak out; when a subject is visually, intellectually and emotionally compelling, and remains outside of the beaten tracks.
I sort of gave up dreaming about the revolution, but I like the process of making documentary films: it’s a quest, a learning path, an experience of constant discoveries and encounters. That in itself is a great pleasure. You meet many people of all kinds, your network expands; there are so many stories in the world.
Afterwards, I fight like mad to get my documentaries seen, hoping to make the viewers more aware and more sensitive to this reality. No matter what the outcome is, I make my documentaries for the pleasure, it’s true, but the pleasure comes along with other feelings: anger, outrage, frustration, surprise, disappointment, laughter, irony…
Since your Guatemalan trilogy (three feature documentaries made between ‘92-‘01) how would you say you’ve evolved as a filmmaker?
My films are mostly political, they often deal with the legacy of war and conflict, dispossession, repression, social injustice. I include the peoples’ forms of cultural expression, which are always vibrant and meaningful. So the documentaries are about political and cultural resistance.
Have your documentaries helped change reality?
Not tangibly. They are part of a collective effort to provoke change, to protect human rights, to show how people resist, to break the silence, to stop impunity, racism, discrimination, exploitation.
What’s the best way to reach an audience? What changes would help documentaries change reality more?
There are two ways to reach the audience, basically, and a third one is appearing:
Showing our works in film theatres, auditoriums, screening rooms is great because there can be a dialogue with viewers and lines of action can be proposed. TV is great but it is a fortress, very hard to access, and they will show shorter versions, often along with advertisements interrupting the flow of the narrative.
So we must count more and more on the internet to offer access to our work. But there’s a lot of competition for attention on the web. How do you raise curiosity, enough for people to want to preview or view or download your work?
Our other problem is economic. We are entitled to make a living from our work, so we can’t offer our work for free. Private viewing should cost less, public viewing more. Sharing is fine but we need to survive.
If we are lucky we get some grants to do our work, but the bigger amounts of money from different levels of government are tied to TV: if Canadian TV stations invest in your project, you may access decent amounts. Otherwise, it’s extremely difficult. But at least you remain independent in spirit and in practice.
Organizations such as the Canada Council for the Arts, le Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec are extremely valuable and should get much bigger budgets in order to help independent artists and writers.
What can filmmakers do to change reality?
There are associations and collectives, as well as media arts centers, which are helpful. Filmmakers can also be activists in different areas. But corporate and ideological interests are making it more and more difficult to access mainstream media.
Is your activity as a filmmaker rewarding?
The process itself is rewarding, and once it’s finished the other satisfaction is when the viewers express their feelings about it, be it in Montreal, Canada, the U.K., Lebanon, Greece, Mexico, or Guatemala. I wish it was more rewarding financially, but I’m not the kind to tackle ‘fashionable’ or ‘safe’ topics, or invade my films with my ego in order to establish myself as a ‘marketable’ figure.
Can you choose a recent film of yours and describe a significant moment for you in the making of it?
I travelled to the occupied Palestinian territories 2 or 3 times with Canadian photographer Larry Towell, before I went there for the official shoot of “Territories” in 2006. I could not get permission from the Israeli government to visit Gaza, but I could move around in the West Bank. It was a great privilege to go with Larry since he had been there numerous times over many years.
I had always felt solidarity with the Palestinians, but in a kind of abstract way. Going there changed my way of understanding the conflict. I saw the human face of the Palestinians. I saw the tangible effect of occupation: the wall’s construction kilometers away from the green line, the non-violent resistance in the villages, the checkpoints on all the roads, the humiliation, the territorial fragmentation, the forbidden roads, the illegal settlements inside the West Bank, the demented settlers in Hebron, the invasion of the old city of Jerusalem by settlers, the crumbling economy, the endless stories of arrest and imprisonment, the military incursions. I was and remain outraged. It is apartheid!
Do you ever think that perhaps your time could be better spent?
As well as being a filmmaker (*1) I also help organize cultural events such as Regards palestiniens (*2) and Festival Présence autochtone (*3). I’m a part-time teacher at Concordia University’s School of Cinema, and I’m an activist. So I’m busy!
A while ago I was actively involved in solidarity efforts with Guatemala, now with the Palestinians: so I appear every second Saturday at a picket in front of Indigo on Ste-Catherine [here in Montreal] to promote a boycott, since Indigo/Chapters’ major shareholders use their profits to reward soldiers of the Israeli Defense Force, though Heseg, a foundation that they created themselves. Feel free to join us (*4) to protest against Israeli Apartheid (*5).