Interview with Oscar/BAFTA nominated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland

I first met Oscar and BAFTA nominated filmmaker Agnieszka Holland several years ago when I had the honor of introducing her amazing 1990 film “Europa, Europa.”  In my introduction I noted that, when I first saw it I was a theatre manager and watched it at 430 in the morning.  I then commented that I loved the film so much that I threaded up the projector and watched it again.  She told me later in the evening that I had given her one of the best compliments she had ever received. She also very graciously signed my “Europa, Europa” DVD.  Her latest film, “Mr. Jones,” tells the story of a Welsh journalist who broke the news in the western media of the famine in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s and is currently available via Video-on Demand.  “Europa, Europa” recently received a beautiful CRITERION Blu-ray/DVD release.  While awaiting start on her next project, Ms. Holland took the time to speak with me about “Mr. Jones.”

 Mike Smith:  What drew you to direct “Mr. Jones?”

Agnieszka Holland:  The script was sent to me by a first-time screenwriter and when I read the script what struck me first was how personal it sounded as well as how relevant it was.  A story about the manipulation of the media – the propaganda – fake news and the consequences of it and how they are relevant to our time.  I realized at the time that the work of Stalin was virtually unknown to the masses and that what he allowed was unjust and wrong. And I knew the story had to be told.  At the beginning, Mr. Jones is curious and bright and a businessman. He wants to discover some new things but what he finds are things that other people don’t see; this incredible tragedy happening to the entire population.  He becomes the messenger that speaks for them.

MS:  Were you familiar with Gareth Jones’s story before you were sent the script?

AH:  Not really. It was only after I agreed to make the film and met with members of his family that I found out they were hearing the story for the first time. It was one of his grand-nephews that discovered the documents that center around the story. After his death his actions had been forgotten. He is best known in Ukraine where he is considered a national hero. Once I read the script I knew this young man’s work had to be brought to the light again

MS:  “Europa, Europa” turns 30 this year. Do people still approach you and tell you the impact the film had on them?

AH:  Yes, the film doesn’t seem to age. They’ve either seen it on television or they have purchased the new CRITERION Blu-ray/DVD.  I hadn’t seen the film myself in quite a while and I recently introduced it at a film festival and I was surprised at how well it stood the test of time

MS:  You work a lot in both film and television.  As a director do you have a favorite medium?

AH:  Television is easier because as a director you don’t have to be totally involved.   You are just helping to tell the story. On a film the director is responsible for everything. On television you have several layers of responsibility from the show runner on down, and rarely does a director do the entire series. I will share my vision but it’s not entirely my own work so things go a lot smoother and entirely faster.

MS:  What is your next project?

AH:  I just finished a film called “Charlatan,”  a Czech film that recently premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. It was supposed to open in European theaters in March but because of the Covid lockdown it will probably be released in the fall. It was well received in Berlin so I hope the people like it. I’m now preparing to shoot a television series for Apple TV which will be filmed in Paris but we are waiting to see when we can begin filming, again due to the current situation. Right now it would be impossible but we are continue to prepare it so will be ready when we are allowed to start.

Interview with “Survivors Guide to Prison” filmmaker Matthew Cooke

Actor/filmmaker/activist Matthew Cooke has long taken in an interest in looking out for the little guy.  His last film, the tongue-in-cheek documentary “How to Make Money Selling Drugs,” was well reviewed and opened a lot of eyes to the drug problem facing this country.    His newest documentary, “Survivors Guide to Prison,” looks at the current state of the judicial system and how it failed two very different men.  As the film begins it’s run across the country (it’s both in theatres and available on Video on Demand), Mr. Cooke took some time to speak with me about his goals and what he hopes to achieve with his work.

 

 

Mike Smith:   What inspired you to do this film?

Matthew Cooke:  I think we have a very large problem.  It’s like when you see a bad car crash or someone has fallen down a well.  You can’t ignore it.  You have to stop and try to do something.

MS:  Was there any one thing that made you tackle this subject?

MC:  Human beings are funny things.  We can walk by homeless people and ignore them.  We have a tendency to become numb.  But sometimes you look into a topic enough that you go, “Oh my God!”  You begin caring about it.  I really don’t think there’s another explanation I can give other than I finally became aware that human beings are being held in solitary confinement FOR YEARS and they don’t need to be there.  In a way it’s like being tortured.   I became aware that, the system that we have in place now, has an 80% failure rate.  That means that 80% of the inmates that are released from prison end up returning within 5 years.  Yet here we are, spending millions of dollars, putting more people into prison.  The U.S. has more people in prison than any other country in the world.  And it’s not effective.  We don’t help the victims of crime heal.  We don’t create more harmony.  We don’t create well-being.  To what master does this monstrosity serve.  And it’s money.  And when you finally learn about something it becomes personal.  “There but by the grace of God go I.”  I could be in this film.  I’m not trying to be overly dramatic but I couch-surfed for a while when I was out on my own.  That could have easily been the road for me.  That could have been me.

MS:  How did you come upon Bruce and Reggie’s cases? (NOTE:  The film follows two men, Bruce Lisker and Reggie Cole, who were imprisoned for murders they did not commit.  Lisker was 17 when he was arrested for the death of his mother.  Cole 23 when he was accused of a neighborhood killing).

MC:  I met Bruce when he was speaking at a fundraising dinner.  I heard his story and thought, “this guy’s story is incredible.  It would make a hell of a movie.”  Reggie Cole I met through the California Innocence Project.  And I just thought that these two stories were so heart wrenching.  And they are both poets.  I think Reggie is one of the most articulate, poetical people around and no one could describe the horrors he endured the way he has.  Between he and Bruce, I just decided that these two guys’ stories are it.    I mean, there can really be nothing more horrifying than being put in prison for something you didn’t do.  This is a fear we all have.

MS:  One thing I noticed in the film is that you shot all of your narrators close up and make-up free.  Every blemish visible.  Was that intentional?

MC:  Yes.  I wanted them to be raw.  I tell people it’s not really a movie.  It’s a film because of the media used but it’s really a public service announcement.  A bunch of us coming together to tell you what’s going on.  I didn’t want it to be polished.  I adore every aspect of film making but I didn’t want to make anything that was purposely beautiful that would take away anything from the informational aspect.  I wanted it to be very, very raw and very up-close.  Really almost claustrophobic.  I didn’t want audiences to enjoy it as if it was exploitative.  Sometimes we make films that are so pretty that we enjoy them too much.  I really wanted this film to be visceral…in your face.   I want the film to be memorable.   It’s my hope that it delivers an educational and raw, unbridled education and that it achieves it’s goal.   Where we no longer think of prison anymore as the answer.

MS:  Have Bruce and Reggie received any compensation?

MC:  Yes they have.  I don’t have the exact figures off the top of my head.  And I’m also of the opinion that financial compensation is no substitution for time.  (NOTE:  Bruce Lisker received $7.6 million after spending 26 years in prison.  Reggie Cole received $5.3 million for his nearly 15 years behind bars, the last 10 in solitary confinement.)

MS:  What’s next on your plate?

MC:  What’s next?  I want everyone to see “Survivors Guide to Prison.”  We worked five years to construct something that is really worth 100 minutes of peoples’ time.  Getting the word out.  I’m all about that right now.