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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Kicking It” Director Susan Koch

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Kicking It" Director Susan Koch

Director Susan Koch‘s Sundance ’08 doc “Kicking It” (co-directed by Jeff Werner) centers on the Homeless World Cup that was established in 2001 with the idea to give homeless people the opportunity to better their lives through sports. In the five years since its creation, 20,000 people have competed on street teams. The film captures the 2006 Homeless World Cup in which 500 players representing 48 countries traveled to Cape Town, South Africa. Seven players are profiled… Liberation Films opens the film in limited release Friday, June 13.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

People are usually surprised when I say that I am a filmmaker and live in a place called Cabin John. It sounds like it must be in the middle of nowhere — it’s actually just outside Washington, DC, along the historic C & O Canal. Washington is a great city for documentary filmmakers. People are engaged in a wide variety of issues and there’s a lot of production going on, but the reality is that you can be a documentary filmmaker anywhere. There are stories everywhere, and since I’m often traveling for my films, it really doesn’t matter where you’re based.

I never set out to become a filmmaker. It’s not something I ever thought about — it just evolved. I was never a television watcher as a kid. I was an avid reader. So it was unexpected when my first job out of college was at the local PBS station. I started out working in broadcast news — covering Capitol Hill, elections, and major political events and issues. I know I drove my bosses crazy, racing down the hall with my finished piece as we were going to air. But it was good training for being able to work under pressure and within a finite amount of time and resources. Later, as a producer for Roger Mudd at NBC News, I developed my research and interviewing skills and began to find stories before they appeared in the Washington Post or New York Times.

My husband and I then set up an independent production company, directing and producing non fiction programming for television broadcast and international distribution. Finally, about 10 years ago, I directed my first feature length doc. It took me four years to raise the money. I vowed never to do it again, but for better or worse, I had caught the independent feature doc bug. There was no turning back. There’s nothing like seeing your film on the big screen with a live audience, and having 90 minutes to tell a story.

How did the idea for “Kicking It” come about?

I was reading a blog from the World Economic Forum in Davos, and I came across a brief item about the Homeless World Cup. I was instantly intriqued. It sounded bizarre but the more I looked into it, the more excited I became. When you think about it, many of the best soccer players in the world come from the streets, so I realized there would be a high level of competition. At the same time, this was an opportunity to get a sense of the global issue of homelessness — and the different reasons for it. I’m always looking for unique stories that can highlight important issues in entertaining ways. Neil Barrett, a Brit and huge football (soccer) fan, came on board as Director of Photography, and together we set out to begin meeting and filming homeless men and women from all over the world as they trained and competed for a spot on their country’s homeless world cup team.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

Our approach to making this film was always to make sure that it was a honest story about homeless people as well as an engaging sports film that sports fans would want to watch. The overall goal of this project was to make a film that “matters” and would have legs beyond the film itself. This objective is key to my producer, Ted Leonsis, who coined the term “filmanthropy.” Ted understands the power of films to move audiences to act — and is developing innovative ways for people to do so that relate directly to what’s in the film. (Check out www.globalgiving.org where we’ve set up a site for charitable donations that relates directly to the characters featured in the film.)

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

The biggest challenge was trying to figure out what players (and teams) to cover. Forty eight teams from all over the world were competing. We were looking for a cross section that reflected the different reasons for homelessness in the world — such as war refugees (Afghanistan), poverty and AIDS (Kenya) heroin epidemic ( Dublin) as well as strong characters. We ended up with seven players from six countries, so it was also a challenge to make a film with this many characters. Jeff Werner, my co-director and editor did an awesome job weaving together all our characters and their individual story lines.

A scene from Susan Koch and Jeff Werner’s “Kicking It.” Image courtesy of Liberation Films.

What is your next project?

I’m now working on a new feature doc about the part of Washington, DC that many people have never seen. There’s the nation’s capital and there’s DC. Most people don’t know that DC has the highest HIV/AIDS rate of any capital city in the world — 1 in 20. I’m excited to be collaborating with Neil Barrett, who was the DP on “Kicking It” as well as Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter, Jose Antonios Vargas. I’m also interested in making a film about Iran and hoping to bridge the divide and lack of understanding between our two countries. I think we’ve all seen the consequences of false or inadequate information.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

I hope that every film I do pushes me further — I don’t want to ever become complacent or predictable. I’m writing this from a film festival and I always try to see as many films as possible. It’s great to see what other people are doing. You have to be adaptable when making a doc — the creative choices go hand in hand with the the story you’re telling and the money you have to make the film. The Internet is changing the entire model of distribution, and like many filmmakers, I’m exploring how to best maximize these new opportunities.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

Coming from broadcast journalism, the idea of being “Independent” usually meant not having a point of view, or at least not letting your point of view impact the way you tell a story. But I think most people realize that one’s point of view always comes into play to a varying degree — whether it’s deciding who to interview, what questions to ask, or what to leave on the cutting room floor. For me, “independent film” now means having the independence to tell the story that I want to tell, not the story that the broadcaster or distribution outlet feels will “sell the best.” That doesn’t mean I don’t want to be successful commercially — but not if it means turning a story into something that it really isn’t or manipulating the facts to make it fit a preconceived notion of what the story should be. Being an “independent filmmaker” means being able to tell stories that others are unwilling or unable to do, because they’re not considered politically correct or mainstream enough. It means being able to take risks both in terms of the stories you’re telling — and the way you decide to tell it.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Follow both your passion and intuition.

Please shane an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…

I’m most proud that I’ve been able to forsake the secure and stable environment of steady employment for the tenuous but far more exciting and creative world of independent filmmaking. It’s not easy, and every film is a challenge, especially in terms of raising the funds. I’m also proud of the fact that I’ve been able to give voice to many people who deserve to have their stories told, but would have otherwise remained voiceless. It’s possible to make films that matter and are also entertaining, and I think I’ve accomplished this with all of my independent films, most recently with “Kicking It.” I’m hope audiences will agree.

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