Life on the Ground: Bearing Witness
The Hidden Gems of the Hamptons International Film Festival
by Kara Westerman
The Hamptons International Film Festival has been bringing extraordinary films to the East End for years, 25 to be exact, and this Columbus Weekend, on their 25th anniversary, they are pulling out all the stops.
The festival’s executive director, Anne Chaisson, says organizers “scoured the world” to bring the best films to the festival. Beyond the glitz of Julie Andrews’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the opening night parties, visiting stars and their Spotlight films, there are, as usual, amazing, startling, and ravishing documentaries in the lineup.
Ms. Chaisson was excited to discuss the history of the two Signature Program categories with The Beacon.
Kim Brizzolara, vice chair of HIFF’s board, started the Conflict and Resolution category in 1999 to showcase films that not only effect change, but try to answer the question of what the viewer can do to affect change personally.
The winner in this category is the documentary Hondros (USA/Iraq/Liberia/Libya), directed by Greg Campbell, which tells the story of Chris Hondros, the Getty photojournalist who covered every major world conflict since his start in Kosovo the late 1990’s, until 2011 when he was killed by hostile fire at the age of 41 while covering the Arab Spring uprising in Libya.
He was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal, among other honors.
The Last Pig (USA), directed by Allison Argo, is the winner in a relatively new category for HIFF’s Signature Programs: Compassion, Justice, and Animal Rights, which began three years ago on the urging of longtime HIFF volunteer Zelda Penzel, who convinced the festival that films giving voice to the voiceless was a needed category all its own.
Here is my warning: if you don’t want to be changed don’t watch these films . Seriously.
In the opening scene of the Hondros documentary, amid shouts and gunfire, we realize we are listening to Chris Hondros answer his cell phone in the middle of a battle for Liberian independence. “This is Chris,” he says calmly, assuring the caller that everything is fine. “Could I call you back in about half an hour?”
Hondros and Campbell, best friends who became fascinated with journalism in high school, became war correspondents quite suddenly. As young men, on Hondros’s urging, they threw themselves into the Kosovo conflict by simply buying tickets and flying there with their cameras.
It is impressive and unnerving to watch Chris Hondros’ seemingly innate ability to operate on the ground in the middle of a violent conflict, and in the middle of life’s inconsistencies, with grace and calm. But that is the job of the journalist.
How do you stand apart and document events without getting involved? The answer in Chris Hondros’ case is that he couldn’t.
“The thing about war photography,” Chris said in an early interview, “is that there’s no way to do it from a distance. You have to be close.”
Not long after Hondros’ death in 2011, Joseph Duo, the Liberian soldier who was immortalized in one of the photographer’s most famous images, reached out to offer condolences to Greg Campbell through Facebook. It occurred to Campbell that Joseph knew Chris Hondros in an entirely different context, as a mentor or father figure.
“There was a whole other aspect about Chris that I didn’t know about. I just had this idea that I should go and visit Joseph,” and everything else led from that starting point, he said of the film.
The minute they arrived in Liberia, people surfaced who had known Chris.
“It was humbling and an honor to know my friend as a photojournalist, but there was so much more to him, his life went so much deeper,” said Campbell.
I was moved by Greg’s idea that he might be able “to find pieces” of his friend that had been left with the people, and in the places he was connecting to by retracing Hondros’ steps.
What is revealed when Greg Campbell goes back to talk with those who had reported alongside Hondros, and those that were photographed by him, is the unusual personal intimacy that existed alongside his professional skills. He made and kept close contacts all over the world.
What Campell hadn’t realized was that he didn’t walk away from his photographic subjects either, but involved himself in their lives in a way that photographers generally don’t.
In Hondros’ case it seemed there wasn’t even a question whether he should become involved. If he felt it was right, he stepped up. He didn’t seem to wrestle with the conflict between his position as an “objective” photojournalist and his natural human impulse to connect with and care for people.
We don’t learn until later in the film what Chris’s involvement was in some of the lives he immortalized on film: paying for education, bringing a victim back to America for surgery, making gifts of photography equipment and encouragement — these are just some of the things he gave back.
Chris was very concerned about whether the American people understood what was happening in these far off conflicts, says Campbell.
“He often wondered whether his photographs were getting through to people.”
Chris Hondros’ way of bearing witness certainly drew the world’s attention to crises that weren’t on the front pages until he sent his eyewitness photos home.
Greg acknowleged that it was an impossible goal to portray Hondros’s exceptionally rich life in ninety minutes. So, he focused on finding the right balance between his professional and personal life. Greg told me how indebted his is to all his editors, his finishing editor Jen Golden, and his director of photography, Mike Shum, for helping him get the right balance.
But not all of Chris’s involvements had Hollywood endings, and the production crew also knew it was important to show some of the ambiguity in the film.
“Chris was always trying to teach us war is hell — obviously — and happy endings are really the exception, that there are no easy answers to any of it, and you have to learn to exist in those grey areas of uncertainty,” Greg remembers.
It was important for them to find the girl who had been five years old when her parents were killed by the military team that Hondros was embedded with in Iraq. The world famous photo of her, mouth open in a wail, covered in her parents’ spattered blood, is unforgettable and did much to confirm some of our worst fears about what was happening to civilians in Iraq.
There was no forgiveness at all from her grown-up self. She was emphatic about it.
“It was so important to find her and include her in the film,” Greg said.
Although they always kept in touch throughout their careers, Greg had a young family and was following a much different route than Hondros, who was always on the front lines. Funny enough, when Chris asked Greg to go with him to Libya in 2011, he jumped at the chance. He thinks it may have been a premonition of some kind, that he may have sensed this was the last chance he would get to work with his friend.
“I didn’t even ask my wife about going to Libya, by far the most dangerous assignment of them all. I just went,” he said. “It turned out to be very important.”
“We were so lucky to find the people to interview who had been with Chris at crucial moments in his story,” said Greg. “I was impressed that each colleague was visibly moved and teary when talking about him.
“And these are hardened war photographers!” Greg laughed. “Maybe we just didn’t realize what we had until he was gone. It’s bittersweet to have these conversations about the film, when I really want to be having these conversations with him! He’s the one I want to show the film to.”
Hondros will be showing at 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 6 at the East Hampton United Artists theater. Tickets are $15 and are available online here.
The Last Pig
Can a movie about pigs be silent, meditative and poetic?
HIFF will screen the New York Premiere of “The Last Pig,” (USA), about a pig farmer who can no longer “peddle in death” by taking his pigs to market to be slaughtered. “After 10 years of looking into pigs’ eyes,” the farmer says, “I realize they are never vacant. There’s always somebody looking back at me.”
This documentary’s award-
winning producer, director, and writer Allison Argo started her career as an actress, but her acting career abruptly ended twenty-some years ago when she stumbled upon a silverback gorilla named Ivan who was helping lure customers into his owner’s shop in the mall. She was shocked and galvanized.
“I never looked back,” she said.
For the last twenty years her company, Argo Films, has been producing and directing documentaries for National Geographic and PBS about animal welfare and endangered species.
Argo Films aims “to raise awareness and instill compassion for all beings,” they say. “We believe that film can make a difference! …champions of endangered life, we attempt to provide a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves — be it endangered elephants, chimpanzees in captivity, or people compromised by a changing world.”
“The Last Pig” is a beautiful film. Every hoof and hand that touched this film was delicate, deliberate, and honest. This is obviously a true collaboration between cinematographer Joseph Brunette, and Director Allison Argo, who also edited the film with David Kennedy.
The opening shot is wide, pastoral and painting-like. We watch Bob Comis traverse his landscape, emerging through mist with his free-roaming pigs in tow. There is a good five minutes without the interruption of a human voice, only the sounds of “pig-ness,” as farmer Bob calls it.
This is an observant camera, a lens obviously in love with its subjects. It quickly drops to the ground in order to also tell this story from the pigs’ point of view. I marveled at the intimacy of the film, the relationships between the land and the farmer and the farmer and the pigs, the pigs and the camera. Allison told me that the intimacy was created because there were only the two of them, she and her cinematographer, Joseph Brunette, working without pay. They couldn’t afford lighting or sound equipment and that forced all concerned into this delicacy. And the delicacy of their relationship informed what they were able to film.
“So much is left out,” Argo admits sadly. “I have so much more footage, but the film needed to be spare.”
Argo told me she had often wondered how to make a story that featured farm animals compelling, but so far she hadn’t found the right material. A friend brought her an article written by pig farmer Bob Comis called “Happy Pigs Make Happy Meat?” She was immediately convinced she had the makings of a film, and set out to document Bob’s transition from livestock to vegetable farming.
Unfortunately, Bob Comis was an isolated and depressed farmer who had already had a bad experience with cameras. Undaunted, Argo convinced him to let her and her cameraman make the five-hour drive from opposite directions to “just come up and meet him” at his farm and talk.
Bob agreed to let their team of two film his daily life at the farm, with the caveat that he might have to back out if he fell into one of his depressions. The filmmakers agreed to take the risk, a big one since there was no money for the project.
They filmed Bob Comis for almost 10 months, during one week per month. He never had so bad a day that he couldn’t allow them to film.
“Bob was willing to lay himself emotionally bare — call himself a murderer,” says Argo.
But he was also the easiest subject she has ever filmed, because of his almost complete lack of self-consciousness.
This is not a factory farm and their keeper is fully invested in keeping his piglets healthy and happy so that they grow. He even has a segregated special needs section of pigs that will never be big enough for meat. Farmer Bob says he wants to give them the best life he can before they go to slaughter, but, as he says in one of his rare sentences in the film: “This communion is a lie.”
When I asked her how she achieved putting the camera near to the ground to film from the pigs’ point of view, she told me that most of the time her job was to protect Joe and the camera, by distracting them momentarily so he could get the shots he wanted. “Pigs are so hungry for life, so gregarious! Their world is super social — they vocalize all the time!” Argo tells me. “They loved the whole filming process.”
One of the hardest things to watch is the trust established between the farmer and the pigs and to hear the carefully learned, reassuring, soft cadence with which he speaks to them, and then finally herds them into the truck with the same reassuring voice.
Allison and her cinematographer Joe talked at length about how to handle the harder, more explicit sections of film. Even their deaths are filmed in an extraordinary way, on the ground with them in great respect, in silence, with only sounds and visuals of the hands doing the slaughter. The silence makes it all the more terrifying. There are no blood and guts scenes, but there are moments that are unbearable.
Argo was the second set of eyes for the camera, whispering into Joe’s ear what to film, “the hands, the hook, the knife, the water…”
Bob told them it was a strange thing, but once the killing began it became almost natural.
“Once the killing machine starts…that’s what it’s made for,” he said.
Near the end of the film, Bob plays God with a can of green spray paint, marking the pigs he will select. We see the heaviness of the decision the universe has saddled all of us with, the dillemna and the weight of playing God in the lives of other beings, but perhaps only those on the ground are aware of how closely this ties us all together. He is in need of redemption, but knows there won’t be any for him.
Even though he managed to save eight pigs for sanctuary, it was a small and even ridiculous gesture, he realizes.
Argo told me that, on the last day of filming, it was bitter cold and flakes of snow were coming down as she followed the trailer with the last pigs. She didn’t know how she would be able to film the last scene. “I almost pulled off the road because I was so hysterical,” she admits.
The last shot of Bob traversing the snow alone and without “pig-ness” is profound. She tells me that he did fall into a deep depression after the last pig was taken away and the filming had ended. “I couldn’t bear to bother him,” she said, but when he was reachable again in a few months she asked him if it was the film that had depressed him. He told her it absolutely wasn’t.
“The Last Pig” will be showing will be showing at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 8 at the East Hampton United Artists cinema and at 2 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 9 at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $15 and are available online here.
The Hamptons International Film Festival runs Oct. 5 through 9. More information is online at hamptonsfilmfest.org.