An Interview with Heidi Ewing
Repeatedly over the past 15 years, Heidi Ewing has shown why she is one of the most important directors of contemporary American documentaries. Along with her production partner in Loki Films of Rachel Grady, Ewing picks out individual characters to unravel some of the most thorny—and often under-told—stories of our times; about poverty (Boys of Baraka), about social fairness (Detropia), about abortion (12th & Delaware), about religion (both The Education of Mohammad Hussein and Jesus Camp). And, they tell these stories in such an elegant and simple fashion that it feels as if the camera is more than just in the room with their “characters,” but perhaps also, metaphysically, attached to the souls of their subjects. Their latest film, however, is a departure in many ways. While still empathetic and insatiably curious, the filmmakers look at not a contemporary subject matter, but explore Norman Lear, the TV producer who brought some of the most important, and socially challenging, shows of the 1970s to the American public. A few weeks before AIFF, the Messenger caught up with Ewing, who will attend the festival and receive an award for her achievements.
Rogue Valley Messenger: You have made a few films for HBO and had films on PBS. It seems as if there are a number of solid and encouraging platforms for documentary filmmakers these days, as well as means like Netflix to get out films. Do you think it easier or harder to be a documentary filmmaker today as opposed to 20 years ago, in terms of reaching and finding audiences?
Heidi Ewing: I think the Golden Age of Documentaries, the arrival of which has been heralded every single year since we started making films 15 years ago, has actually arrived. There are more platforms than ever, more interest in the genre, more opportunity for larger audiences. At the same time the quality and expectations have gone up as well, so it’s more competitive than ever before. In any case, parents can no longer warn their kids that they will starve to death if they enter the documentary field. Those days are over (although Louis CK’s ribbing of the short doc category at the Oscars has some merit; there are still very view homes for short form non-fiction in the USA)
RVM: Why is it called Loki Films?
HE: We started the business in 2001 and were searching for a catchy name. Rachel’s friend has just named his son Loki and we thought it had a nice ring to it. That plus the fact that Loki, Thor’s brother in Norse mythology, was a bit of a handful and troublemaker made it a good fit. Now, pretty much by mistake, we look real cool to the comic book fans out there. Bonus!
RVM: What did receiving an Academy nomination for Jesus Camp in 2007 do for your career?
HE: The Academy Award nomination certainly adds to the bona fides of any filmmaker, but most of us in the field believe that an Oscar win is the big career changer. Each year, as our body of work grows, it gets easier to raise money for our projects and make them happen in the way we want to, without too much network or financier involvement. That’s the real win for us.
RVM: The Boys of Baraka was a very moving film. It also shows the difficulties of documentary filmmaking, in that you cannot script an ending. In the middle of the film/filming, the 9/11 attacks occurred and the boys were not allowed back to Kenya for their subsequent year. How do you handle those moments when the “plot” seems to hit a narrative dead-end?
HE: That film, and all the others, was a real nail-biter, partly because ITVS who was funding the film, got nervous that the cancellation of the school would leave us without an ending. Of course, that development only made the stakes higher and the film more dramatic. Audiences were even more invested in the fate of the kids once they had no life raft. Real life has a tendency to be volatile and that film really gave us the stomach and the chops to work around and with any narrative eventuality.
RVM: In some ways your latest subject—Norman Lear—seems like a departure; not in terms of placing social issues at the core of your film, but in terms of perspective. Jesus Camp, Boys of Baraka, 12th & Delaware were unfolding in real time, whereas Norman Lear is more archival and historical. So much of your style is capturing those moments as they happen. Did this change in perspective challenge that style?
HE: With Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You we had to abandon our regular approach as it was impossible to make a satisfying verite/observational film, for the reasons you point out. Instead with started from scratch and developed a wholly new style that we felt matched the story, Lear’s spirit and the concept of TV “watching” as a transformative experience, as it was during the 1970s when Lear and a few others were shaking up the genre. For us it was pure fun to dive into the creative challenges a biography brings…and we went big.