Must see: Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis

Adam CurtisBitter Lake is a phenomenal documentary exploring the recent war in Afghanistan through the intertwining histories of the US, Britain, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, especially through their various economic, cultural, and political interests. I can’t recommend it strongly enough. You have to see it.

I believe the film is free through the BBC’s iPlayer for the rest of the year if you’re in the UK, but you can probably find parts or all of the film on youtube or other sites if you spend a few minute’s searching.

Descriptions of the film call it “an experimental documentary.” The majority of it is presented without much narration through disjointed remixing of what appears to be found footage, archival BBC footage, excerpts of farcical British films, etc. The sound design, at times, feels straight out of a David Lynch film…other times, as in the end of the trailer above, it’s a Kanye West song.

The movie requires patience, but it’s well worth the effort. I was immediately intrigued and entranced by the trailer (embedded above) and the rest of the film’s 137 minutes follow this style. There are moments of extreme violence–blood spatters the camera lens, in one memorable vignette, and there’s plenty of war footage–but then there’s an interlude of a soldier playing with a bird that lands on his helmet, footage from a Morrison-Knudsen swimming pool party, American soldiers getting manicures, and a lot of dancing. There are off-moments of politicians waiting for a broadcast to start, kids hamming it up for a camera, Afghan dogs fighting, soldiers joking about how many people they’ll kill, a desert trader emerging and disappearing into a sandstorm, and so on. Tarkovsky‘s “Solaris” is a frequent metaphor throughout.

I don’t think any description I can come up with will ever do the movie justice. It’s dreamy and beautiful and poetic, but also forceful and informative and polemic. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’d definitely consider it one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Here are a few reviews: The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Telegraph, and Hollywood Reporter.

The Talent: Stefan Djordjevic

I’ve known Stefan – or Steki to his friends – for a few years through mutual friends in Belgrade. I first met him at a screening of the Serbian film Tilva Roš, which was a dramatization of his real life experience growing up in the city of Bor, Serbia. In part because of his experience on set and becoming friends with the filmmakers, Stefan decided to go to film school and pursue cinematography and documentary photography. He recently showed me a short film he made in Bor, and it was enchanting.

“Journey” is a story about an engine driver who travels the same route for eight hours a day. He doesn’t see that route in the same way we experience it, because the imagination is the only thing he has in his monotonous surroundings.

Stefan Djordjevic was born in Bor, a copper mine town in Eastern Serbia, where he started in the skateboarding scene with couple of friends. Their story was documented in the feature movie called Tilva Roš, directed by Nikola Lezaic. He is currently studying cinematography on Faculty of Dramatic Arts. He always had a passion for documentary photography.

See more of Stefan Djordjevic’s work on his Instagram or Vimeo pages.

We receive a lot of submissions of projects to feature on dvafoto and we want to highlight some of the fantastic work we see. Please get in contact if you have a body of work you’d like to share.

In conversation: Tim Matsui on “The Long Night”

Screenshot of Tim Matsui's The Long Night at Media Storm
Screenshot of Tim Matsui’s The Long Night at Media Storm

Tim Matsui, working with MediaStorm and the Alexia Foundation, has just released a documentary about sex trafficking of teenagers in the Seattle area and it’s streaming free this week. The Long Night, MediaStorm’s first feature-length documentary, explores the stories of two young women–Natalie, who found herself forced into sex work but managed to escape; and Lisa, battling drug addiction and still in the depths of crisis–and also looks at the work of a handful of police officers advocating more just treatment of sex workers, looking at them as victims rather than criminals. You can watch the film on The Long Night website, at MediaStorm, or by clicking the screenshot above. Also, check out the film’s Facebook page.

Last week, Tim and I talked over email about the process of making this documentary. It’s a fascinating piece, presented with no narration and mixing interviews, documentary footage, and graphic-novel-esque depictions of events that happened in the past. Here’s what Tim had to say:

dvafoto: First, could you give a little background on the story, what brought you to it, how long it took you to work on it, etc. I know you’ve done quite a bit of work on sexual violence in the past, but what brought you to these specific stories?

Tim Matsui: I’ve been working on trauma and victimization issues for about 15 years. I started with sexual violence, helping people tell their stories through documentary multimedia. This led to my founding a non profit through which I developed engagement programs and won a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

Small non profits are hard and I eventually walked away, ending up in Thailand on a friend’s couch. There I researched trafficking for sex and labor. Finding it very Disneyland-ish, I hopped over to Cambodia and found a more raw experience. It was there I learned a lot about the root causes creating the vulnerability that traffickers exploit. Returning to Seattle in 2009, I saw a report commissioned by the City of Seattle (PDF) on domestic minor sex trafficking. I thought, “Wow, Seattle is starting to do what I saw overseas in the developing world.” I researched, connected, and wrote grants until I won the Alexia Foundation Inaugural Women’s Initiative Grant in 2012. This began the reporting.

Behind the scenes image from "Leaving the Life," an Alexia Foundation supported project on grassroots efforts to address domestic minor sex trafficking in the Seattle area. - Tim Matsui
Behind the scenes image from “Leaving the Life,” an Alexia Foundation supported project on grassroots efforts to address domestic minor sex trafficking in the Seattle area. – Tim Matsui

You’ve done quite a bit of film/video work in addition to still photography. Is that something you’ve started doing recently or has it always been part of your process? For this story, why did you choose video? What’s are your goals with the film? The festival circuit? Local PBS markets? Frontline or similar? Reaching an audience online?

I’ve always worked with “multimedia.” Remember the days of slide projectors? Video became easier with technology and while it’s been a learning curve shifting from photography to video, it’s definitely another great medium for storytelling and increasingly something clients ask for.

I chose to prioritize video for this story because I wanted the characters’ voices to be heard. I wanted people to immerse themselves in the moment. And I think, when people see the theatrical cut of the film, they’ll have that kind of experience. The rage of a father, the hopelessness of a young woman; to hear and see together adds depth.

At the same time, this is shot with a photojournalist’s ethics and eye. It’s not a typical documentary and it’s not broadcast TV. Most of my personal work is outside the mainstream scene. Really, I feel I’ve just been doing my own thing out here in Seattle.

What I shot this for was the subjects, not only to give voice to their struggle, but to take it a step further and allow the stories to create a shift in cultural and institutional norms. The film comes from my much larger project Leaving the Life, which is geared toward creating change.

Could you explain the creating change part a bit? Is Leaving the Life a new thing or has it been going for a while? Is there a way for others to contribute?

Leaving the Life is a concept I’ve built in my mind the past six years, much of it founded off the community engagement work I did with my sexual violence non profit. It uses story to create broad audience outreach, then engages viewers with specific action. The web platform is in its infancy right now; it’s merely a website with a Take Action page with the most basic of ‘actions’ including social media and donation.

However, I’m incredibly honored to be working with A Fourth Act because they bring their mobile web app Harvis and the “Convenings” we’re creating with stakeholders. Under our Fledgling Fund grant we’re developing this model of participatory media and community co-design. Currently we’re working with local policy makers and front-line people working on this issue. It’s an incredible opportunity to co-create solutions and break down silo walls.

Story begets story so, among other things, we are working on developing a way to support community (and photojournalists’) contributions to the project.

Through partnership, we are building a solid foundation for Leaving the Life and we are expanding our offerings as resources and relationships deepen. You’ll be seeing some great stuff in the next several months.

I was especially impressed by the sound design in the video. Can you speak a bit about what guides you in telling the story with audio/music?

The music choice was purely by the editor Tim McLaughlin [from MediaStorm]. He used a mix of licensed stock music and that of a composer Brian Storm hired for the film.

Music can be manipulative, though…how do you walk the line of guiding the audience without forcing emotions onto the audience?

Yes, music shapes the moment and influences the viewer; manipulates them. But given the broad spectrum of what “Documentary” means, I’m ok with that. Documentary can be scene re-creation or directly telling your subjects what to do. I didn’t tell anyone to do anything, I observed and did my best not to interact with scenes. And the music, I feel, simply elevates the emotional response.

Arrested for prostitution, a young adult woman is admitted to the South Correcdtional Entity. The woman declined to go to the Genesis Project shelter, a diversion from jail. Detectives were unsure if she had a pimp, though they found her postings implying sexual services. - Tim Matsui
Arrested for prostitution, a young adult woman is admitted to the South Correcdtional Entity. The woman declined to go to the Genesis Project shelter, a diversion from jail. Detectives were unsure if she had a pimp, though they found her postings implying sexual services. – Tim Matsui

The graphic-novel-like scenes told through drawings struck me as a bold choice. Why tell the story through drawings? Did you consider other methods for approaching events that happened in history?

Over the past 15 years I’ve done a lot of stories that look back into the past. It’s hard to provide visuals for this. Brian Storm and I bounced ideas back and forth. One that I shared was the graphic novel presentation of Colby Buzzell’s experience in Iraq.

Brian had his motion graphics guy, Joe Fuller, work on Sin City-esque illustrations to Natalie’s story. To create those visuals, he asked me to ask Natalie a lot of intimate questions. Some included location references to which I provided google map points and even a video drive through.

Joe did take some artistic liberties, which I’m fine with, although I do chuckle at how New York-ified some of Seattle’s urban landscapes are in the film.

There are two main stories in the film that at first don’t seem connected at all: Natalie’s time as a prostitute, and the work of the Genesis Project with Lisa in the depths of her drug addiction. What connects these stories for you?

For me it’s pretty simple. Natalie, the survivor, could easily have become Lisa, who is addicted and is still in “The Life.”

While their stories aren’t exactly similar, I feel it builds out a more robust picture of this life. No one story can represent this situation. But Natalie can show us what it takes to enter and leave the life, you see what efforts are being made to shift culture (cops becoming victim-centric), and what it looks like to be struggling far down the road in The Life (Lisa).

There’s no narration telling the basic story of the film or connecting the two main stories…the interviews focus on personal accounts and reactions, and the documentary sections of the Genesis Project are presented mostly without comment. This seems to force the viewer into drawing connections between the various people in the film and to draw their own conclusions about the subject matter. Can you speak a bit about this strategy? What do you hope viewers take away from the film? Are you worried that some viewers won’t get what you’re trying to communicate?

I’m really glad there’s no voice over, but I think I hear you saying it’s rather complex. But it’s real life, literally, and we do need to draw our own conclusions.

To direct part of those conclusions, I’ve been working on an engagement program that creates themed chapters out of my raw content for training, education and community involvement. I won a Fledgling Fund grant with A Fourth Act in support of this work. We’ve designed a participatory media experience with facilitated co-design of solutions which, in real-people speak, means we use these stories to help people work together to create change.

Although MediaStorm took the liberty to cut its own chapters from the film, the film in theatrical or chapter form remains a broad audience outreach tool. The benefit I see in their chapters is it simplifies the stories for the less observant viewer and gets it out there. The concern I have is their chapters lack any kind of support or community engagement; they are merely content to be consumed.

Change requires exposure to new ideas and participation in creating solutions—or conclusions. If the film raises questions, then we’re heading in the right direction.

You can learn more at

Detective Brian Taylor looks around after barging into a hotel room, hoping to find a young prostitute's pimp. It appeared the prostitute was staying by herself and hadn't had any "tricks" in her room that night. - Tim Matsui
Detective Brian Taylor looks around after barging into a hotel room, hoping to find a young prostitute’s pimp. It appeared the prostitute was staying by herself and hadn’t had any “tricks” in her room that night. – Tim Matsui

When I saw that this was about girls on the streets of Seattle, I immediately thought of Mary Ellen Mark and her husband’s work in Seattle in the early 80s, especially the movie Streetwise. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that film…but, thinking specifically of the image of Tiny in an evening gown, that work almost seems to glamorize life on the streets a little while still showing the tough parts of the subjects’ lives. Having never worked in film but knowing a little about the process, I imagine the editing process can have a substantial effect on how the subjects’ personalities are portrayed to the audience. What guided you in that process? Were you worried about making the girl in the Genesis Project section look too much or not enough like a victim? About portraying the Genesis Project people too much like knights in shining armor?

I see what you’re saying, that nothing is truly objective.

I have to hand it to the editor Tim Mclaughlin for his work here. I think he stayed really true to the stories that unfolded. There’s a lot of extra stuff that didn’t make it in the film, but over time I’ve come to terms with it as I’ve realized it would just confuse the viewer. McLaughlin honed it down to the essence of each character, to the essentials. Cops like knights in shining armor? If they appeared that way, that’s how it was. I didn’t influence, I just showed what happened. And all McLaughlin had to work with was what he received from the field.

To that end, I did my best to anticipate and be there when things happened, as a photojournalist does. For instance, Lisa is an addict. I’d been asking her for weeks if I could be there when she uses. And I wanted to meet her dealers, etc. She said yes to the using and asked her dealers (you can imagine how that went) but I was having trouble connecting with her; she’s catch as catch can.

One night I was driving the Track with Carey Wagner and happened to see her [Lisa]. Carey was driving so I hopped out. Lisa had just pulled a trick, visited her dealer, and was going to McDonalds for dinner and to get high in the bathroom. I knew it would be hard to film in the women’s bathroom, so when Carey pulled a U-turn and circled back, I introduced Lisa to Carey, vouched for her, and Lisa agreed to let her tag along. I shot from outside McDonalds while Carey shot inside. McLaughlin ended up using that scene in the film, and it’s pretty powerful.

You spoke about showing Lisa using drugs, and you’re right that it’s an intense scene? Why was it important for you to show that? Focusing on the act of drug use always strikes me as a difficult choice. It’s so in-your-face that it risks overshadowing the subtleties of the rest of the story. Did you have any concerns about this?

I think for a lot of photojournalists, both from a personal and visual perspective, photographing drug use is an impactful moment because it can be so intimate. Generally it requires a pretty solid relationship with the subject to get that kind of access.

The importance of showing this in Leaving the Life and The Long Night is it reveals how central heroin is to Lisa’s life. Every few hours she needs to get high. She turns tricks in order to support this habit. It then emphasizes what she says in jail; why, beyond the physical need, she is hooked on heroin.

For me, this moment in jail is even more powerful than the drug use. But to get to this place, the viewer must see her reality.

Thanks to Matt Mills McKnight for putting me in touch with Tim about The Long Night, by the way. And you can read a bit more about the film at the New York Times’ Lens blog and MSNBC.