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PARK CITY '06: Christian Frei: "A documentary never starts with an idea. It starts with something 'r

Indiewire By Indiewire | Indiewire January 15, 2006 at 3:11AM

Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance '06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview and each was sent the same questions.
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Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance '06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview and each was sent the same questions.


Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei directed "The Giant Buddhas," screening in the World Cinema Competition: Documentary section at the '06 Sundance Film Festival. The film focuses on the destruction of the famous ancient Buddha statues by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001. Frei is probably best known for his 2001 doc "War Photographer," which earned him an Oscar nomination. This is the U.S. debut for "The Giant Buddhas."


Please tell us about yourself...


I work as an independent, "true" filmmaker -- writing, directing, producing and even editing my feature length documentaries myself. Being nominated for an Oscar for "War Photographer" was surely helpful to my career, but my every day's work did not change at all. "The Giant Buddhas" is my third documentary feature.


What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? Did you go to film school?


What precipitated my interest in documentary filmmaking? Three things! First: curiosity. Second: being bored by stereotypes. And finally, [because] I can get into places that I would never get to without a camera. This is why I became a filmmaker. Almost thirty years ago, I went to a teaching school, [and] on the way, I passed the walls of a monastery. Every day I'd wonder what was going on behind those walls. So, when I had the opportunity to take a super-8 film class and we were given the option to choose a documentary film topic, I said immediately that I wanted to document life behind those monastery walls. I was intoxicated by this medium.


With a camera I could enter into a hidden a world--a world which for me would not have been otherwise accessible, and I was fascinated by the pure documentary approach. How do these monks live [and] how do they deal with sexuality? What were the conflicts in the monastery? It was a cute little 40-minute film that got some distribution on Swiss TV, and enjoyed a pretty good level of success for that sort of thing. That was my first film, almost thirty years ago. It took me a long time to become an independent filmmaker. I deeply love my work and I am very grateful for the opportunity to be able to work like this. Without subsidy, I would be forced to focus much more on sensation and journalism. I like to work for the screen -- being creative [and] bringing real people's emotions, dreams and conflicts on the big screen, bigger than life--far away from TV and journalism.


Where did the initial idea for your film come from?


A documentary never starts with an idea. It starts with something REAL happening. Gripped by factional fighting between the Taliban and Northern Alliance, and suffering its worst freezing winter in 30 years, Afghanistan was in desperate straits back in February 2001. But the world paid little heed before Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar issued an edict that all non-Islamic idols across war-torn Afghanistan be destroyed. Despite a resounding chorus of international condemnation, the Taliban insisted its obligation to Islamic fundamentalism was greater than its debt to world heritage. And so, the statues were destroyed, exactly six-months before the destruction of another pair of cultural icons, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.


I took the destruction of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas as a starting point for a cinematic journey, an essay on fanaticism and faith, terror and tolerance, ignorance and identity. Shooting the film started two weeks before the outbreak of the Iraq war in March, 2003. Cinematographer Peter Indergand and I managed to get an interview with "Al Jazeera" star reporter Taysir Alony. He was the only journalist permitted to film the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, as he was the only journalist to do an interview with Osama bin Laden.


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the doc?


It was extremely difficult to get this interview, because dozens of TV crews were hanging around in Doha, Qatar and everybody had the idea to do a piece on Al Jazeera. Peter and I [visited] four times in the remote valley of Bamiyan for the filming. We were shooting in China (corruption makes it very difficult) and in Europe and Canada [for a] total of twenty-four weeks of travel and shooting. Almost half-a-year, just the two of us (I do sound myself) filming. Along the way, we talked to those who witnessed the statues' destruction, retraced the steps of a monk who once saw them in their ancient glory, and even traveled with an Afghan expat on a spiritual journey back to Bamiyan. We shot on Digi-Beta 16:9 with a wonderful wide-angle-lens. I do not like to shoot with small cameras. It is not my definition of independent film that everything is slightly out of focus.


What were some of your initial impressions upon learning of your acceptance to Sundance?


My first feature length documentary, "Ricardo, Miriam y Fidel," was invited to 35 film festivals all over the world, [while] "War Photographer" won twelve international film festivals and participated in over thirty. Sundance is the fifth fest for "The Giant Buddhas." It won the "Silver Dove" in Leipzig. [Am I] thrilled because of Sundance? Sure! I have never been there. I am a Sundance-virgin!


What is your definition of "independent film"?


"A country without documentaries is like a family without a photo album," said Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman. Documentaries are necessary to fight the loss of memory in society and to focus on important issues. We NEED strong documentaries. Do we need "independent" documentaries? Well, are there any others? As a documentary filmmaker, I do not have to define my work as "independent," because even mainstream docs like Michael Moore or the "penguin film" are produced like independent pictures.


What are some of the people you'd like to meet at Sundance and/or some of your goals while you're there?


I believe in the power of the movie itself. "War Photographer" became a worldwide success, but not because I am a good salesman, it's [because of] the film itself. It's all in the film. But of course, I have to fight for attention like everybody else. Sundance especially, seems [to be] famous for this! I hope to meet filmmakers at Sundance and I hope I will find time to watch other films.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews