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PARK CITY '06: Joseph Mathew: "I learned how to just hang out and let the story come to me."

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 14, 2006 at 10:18AM

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.


Joseph Mathew directed "Crossing Arizona," screening in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary section. The film takes a look at the human stories taking place in Arizona as the state tackles its illegal immigration crisis. His first feature documentary, "The Last Season: The Life and Demolition of Baltimore's Memorial Stadium," was released in 2002.


Please tell us about yourself...


I was born in Kerala, India, and just recently celebrated my 40th birthday. My background is in economics and finance. After coming to the U.S. in 1994, I changed careers and became a photojournalist. Documentary filmmaking seemed a logical progression after that. I now live in Brooklyn.


What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker?


I quickly burned out covering spot news, and I really wanted to explore long-form storytelling. Also, about that time digital video came onto the scene, and that made everything so much more accessible.


How did you learn about filmmaking? How did you finance your own film?


I did not go to film school, but I did photography. I think I was able [to] bring many of those qualities to making docs. I learned how to just hang out and let the story come to me. We financed this film with our credit cards and lots of help from friends and family.


Where did the initial idea for your film come from?


The rising death toll in the Arizona desert was the greatest motivation. Around the time of starting the project, I was also attending the International Affairs program at NYU and learned about the Sanctuary movement of the 80s. After making a few phone calls I discovered that many of the same activists were still working on border issues. After my first trip to Arizona things just started falling into place.


What are your biggest creative influences?


Photographers like Henri Cartier Bresson and Robert Frank were early influences. As for filmmakers, Wim Wenders and Satyajit Ray stand out.


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?


Once we started the project we quickly realized that we had the obligation to tell a more comprehensive story rather than just focus on one issue along the border. Since the subject matter is complex, this was extremely challenging.


Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.


I was at home when Shari Frilot from Sundance called. It was the best phone call ever, and I still cannot believe it.


What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?


As far as the success of the film is concerned I would like to keep my expectations on an even keel. Of course, it will be great if we land a distribution deal. But above all, I hope the festival will establish me as a filmmaker and make the road to making the next film a little easier. I hope to soak in the atmosphere of the festival, see lots of films, meet other filmmakers and generally have a blast!


What are a few other films you're hoping to see at Sundance and why?


James Longley's "Iraq in Fragments" is definitely a priority. I saw his earlier film "Gaza Strip" and was really inspired by it. Christian Frei's "The Giant Buddhas" is also a must-see on my list. I also hope to see as many docs as possible.


Who are a few people that you would most like to meet at Sundance?


It would be unbelievable if I get a chance to meet Wim Wenders. I think there will be other wonderful filmmakers like Gus Van Sant and Michel Gondry at the festival as well. It will be great if I can meet them. Above all, I hope to hang out with my compatriots in the documentary competition!


If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?


Such a possibility never occurred to me! Hmm. I think I would use a higher end production/post pipeline and of course, pay everyone well.

This article is related to: Features, Interviews