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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “Team Qatar” Director Liz Mermin (World Doc Competition)

Tribeca '09 Interview: "Team Qatar" Director Liz Mermin (World Doc Competition)

Editor’s Note: This is one of dozens of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival in the narrative and doc competitions as well as the Discovery section. The festival takes place April 22 – May 3.

“Team Qatar” Feature Documentary, 2009, 90 min., U.S.
(World Documentary Feature Competition)
Director: Liz Mermin
Producers: Lawrence Elman, Liz Mermin
Director of Photography: Lynda Hall
Editor: Jake Roberts
Original Music by: Nick Fyffe
Production Manager: Emily Murfin

Synopsis: As part of its ambitious commitment to education, the government of Arab emirate Qatar hired a team of recent Oxford grads to coach the country’s first national high school debate team. Led by the springy, quintessentially witty Brit Alex, the five multicultural 15- to 17-year-olds are setting their sights high: their very first competitive debate will take place at the World Schools Debating Championship in Washington, DC. Team Qatar follows the group on a whirlwind crash course in debate that takes them from Doha to London and New York. Can this effervescent group of teens handle the pressure and succeed on the world stage? [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival]

Please introduce yourself.

I make documentary films in a variety of places and about many different things. I used to be a New Yorker but got bored and moved to London. “Team Qatar” is my fifth feature doc.

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

I lived in Dakar, Senegal for a year, where I met some filmmakers. I loved their work and envied their lives. I didn’t think I could do it myself, so I just watched and wrote about films, mostly in an academic way. But the more I watched & wrote, the more I wanted to be making them. Then I found out about a grad program at NYU in Anthropology & documentary filmmaking, and decided to give it a try. There I watched lots and lots of docs, and discovered that they’re actually very interesting. I also discovered that I really enjoyed filmmaking. So I dropped out of grad school (a rather tortuous decision, since everyone kept saying it was impossible to make a career out of documentaries) and gave it a go. I’ve been very fortunate to have been able to tell some amazing stories (at least, I found them amazing), in fascinating places and with great characters, and with creative independence.

What prompted the idea for your film?

I was approached by someone from the Qatar Foundation last spring. They were looking for a filmmaker to document their first national high-school debating team going to the world championships. I knew very little about Qatar, and nothing about debating, but I did some research & wrote a treatment. Two months later they called and asked me to shoot the kids training and competing; then they would decide about funding the film. So I took a risk and filmed the team – I figured it was a strange enough topic that it had a chance of being interesting… it also seemed like a great and unusual way to look at the values and ambitions of people in the new Middle East. They turned out to be fantastic kids, and debating was far more entertaining than I could have imagined – particularly as the kids we being coached by some of the top university debaters in the world (mostly from Oxford). After we’d filmed everything, we got BBC interested in the doc. The foundation decided they weren’t interested in making the film, but we (my producer and I) knew at that point that it was going to be a great story, so we set out to finish it on our own – which was possibly for the best, as it meant we had total creative freedom.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

I was trained in observational filmmaking, and that’s what comes naturally to me – shooting at very high ratios, documenting everything as it unfolds, and making sense of it in the edit room. The kids were confident and trusting, and the footage was intimate and lively. They were also game to do activities and things outside of the debate room, exploring different things in London, Doha, and New York, which we came up with together to flesh out their characters. Inspired by the one of the coaches, who was into American football, we decided to use a sports-film model, and make it rather more dynamic and crafted than a strict observational doc would be. The kids’ characters emerge from their approach to debating, in and out of training, and their ambition and drive carried the film along.

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

The hardest thing about this film (other than financing, the perpetual challenge) was how to edit the debates. We filmed over 40 hours of debating, on many different topics, often rather obscure. We wanted audiences to be able to follow the debate, and the process of the team’s improvement, without getting bogged down in the content. Although we were helped by having an obvious narrative, with a beginning and end, it was a struggle figuring out how to work in personal details and things outside the debate room.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Success… not sure. There’s always a moment when you know that you have a film that works – but it often doesn’t come until very late in the edit. Until that moment I’m quite convinced that the film is a failure; once you hit that point, you know that the film is going to be what it should be. That’s the first sense I have of a success: when I know, intuitively, that the film finally works. But the terms of success keep shifting. Once I know it works, I have to be able to screen it in front of an audience who obviously enjoy it, and get something from it. I also want the people in the film to be happy with the way I’ve represented them. Festival acceptance, distribution, and nice reviews help, too…and lack of those things is discouraging. But I try not to think of that as my top priority or the ultimate benchmark. That said, the film can’t succeed at all if no one sees it, so success means the film is out there, available, and being viewed. So I guess my goals are to make films that lots of people will see, and which will make them engage with a part of the world they didn’t know before or see things they thought they knew in a new way. In an abstract sense, my goal is to shift people’s views and make the unfamiliar familiar, and more human. And to entertain.

What are your future projects?

I’m currently editing a doc feature about racehorses in Ireland, in which the horses are the main characters. It will be about the horses’ personalities, challenges, and experiences – and about how we can ever know these things. We’re not using voiceover or commentary, so it’s rather tricky. I’m also working on an adaptation of a novel – I really want to do a fiction film, I just keep getting distracted by interesting docs.

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