This week we talk to James Demo about Hot Docs Forum 2013 project and Hot Docs official selection 2016 film The Peacemaker, on making your first film about a subject who struggles to connect.
Hot Docs: You followed Padraig (an international peace broker) around the world for more than five years. He’s a man who has acknowledged that he can’t have meaningful, intimate relationships, especially at this point in his life. What was it like spending so much time filming someone who feels no need for connect?
James Demo: Padraig and I had several conversations before we started that, since his work is so closely related to his personal struggles, a major part of the focus of the film was going to be his personal life. Ultimately, if the audience was to connect to Padraig then I needed to first, so I began a long process of earning Padraig’s trust. I think I gained it by a combination of preparation and tenacity. Padraig doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so I really took the time to understand the conflicts he had been involved in so that we could discuss them in the deeper context of his ideas around conflict and reconciliation. I also made a point of visiting him often and, to develop intimacy, I got rid of the tripod and lights early on so we could just chat with the camera on my lap. Over a five-year period of filming, time becomes a great ally in that you go through things together both personally and professionally. We certainly bonded over the lunacy of his process of raising money and the equally crazy process of raising money for a film. At one point Padraig had been holed up in his apartment for several months, and I went over to check in on him and he told me he was self-isolated and the only person he really spoke to was me. I realized at that point the privileged position I had found myself in and that gave me an even deeper sense of responsibility to tell his story right.
HD: You have over 250 hours of footage, and co-edited with Erin Casper. What did your process for collaborative editing look like?
JD: It was more like 400 hours! The first thing Erin and I did was screen all the footage together and we did that for the first two months of post. Not only was it important to get Erin familiar with what was there, but it sparked great conversation around story and themes and it instilled confidence because we learned our instincts and reactions to the material were remarkably similar.
Erin is brilliant at spotting small moments in the selects that put life on the screen, and we were off to the races with Erin cutting new scenes or adapting scenes I had cut along the way. This process revealed to us just how complex a portrait we were making and once we had a rough cut we screened a lot—getting notes from friends, audiences and at labs we were fortunate enough to attend like the Sundance Edit and Story Lab and Film Independent lab. Erin did incredible work on the film and when I took over the edit to finish, many of the building blocks were there.
The difficult part was finding the balance between the past tense and present tense. Padraig had accomplished so much but I really wanted to keep the film grounded in his current inner conflict. Somewhere along the process of making the film, the “why” he does the work became much more compelling to me than the “how.”
"A rare phot of Padraig and I, maybe the only one, on his birthday after we wrapped in Belfast."
HD: The Peacemaker is your first doc. What are your major takeaways from the project?
JD: I think for my next doc I would have someone separate from myself thinking about and developing audience and impact. When I started making The Peacemaker, I didn’t look at it as a social impact film and I consciously avoided the idea and term. Social impact filmmaking, although noble, seemed flawed in that creative decisions and exploration of the subject would inevitably become subordinate to the impact the film was supposed to make. What’s more, making a film about a peacemaker has built in expectations and I sure as shit wasn’t going to venture into ideas of preconceived nobility—or worse hagiography—of someone trying to bring peace to the world.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that my attempt to make an intimate, hopefully, even existential, portrait was not mutually exclusive to social impact. In fact, I have learned that they live quite nicely together, as audiences have emotionally reacted to the film and embraced Padraig’s message. We have now screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK against the backdrop of Brexit, Ambulanté in Colombia against the backdrop of the FARC peace process, and recently in the USA during the most divisive election in the history of the country.
Events have changed the context of the film in a way no one could have anticipated and I feel like we are playing a bit of catch up now given how audiences are looking to the film as a place for answers. We had an amazing discussion at the St Louis Film Festival, screening in a program around the racial divide in urban areas in the US and in Bogota Colombia, where the leadership from their national police force came to get ideas about how to re-integrate the FARC into Colombian society. Also, there has not been a single screening where several people from the recovery community didn’t come up to us and asked about arranging something around discussing the imperfect struggle of addiction and recovery.
HD: Did you make any connections at the Hot Docs Forum that helped you reach your financing goals?
JD: The Forum is maybe the biggest stage within the documentary world to pitch, and I have had people years later mention they saw our pitch and remember the film. Pitching undeniably raised the film’s profile before it was a film really, and having the Hot Docs imprimatur means a great deal going forward.
The Sundance Institute was at the table when I pitched, and I wouldn’t say pitching directly lead to their support for the film, but it was an important part of the natural vetting process all films must go through to get funding. The most important thing I personally got out of the experience is that it developed a critical part of my thinking around the film. You have seven minutes (with trailer) to pitch and the need for economy of words and thoughts are a great clarifying force. The thought about The Peacemaker, “a man who makes peace for others but struggles to find it for himself,” came to me as I thought about the pitch and after became a guiding theme as I continued making the film.
It was a great joy to come back to the festival last year with the film and be part of the special presentations program for our international premiere. The screenings were packed, the Q&As were filled with brilliant questions, and we got important press, including a great review in The Hollywood Reporter and profile in Variety. I will always love Hot Docs and what it has done for my film, while making it and also when it was finished.
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Photo credits: Kevin Belli, John Mulrooney and Mike Hechanova.
Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.
January 06, 2017