This week’s SnagFilms spotlight takes a look at Matthew Amenta’s “You Are Here”…. “‘You Are Here: A Documentary’ follows a young medical student journey into the heart of rural Africa to volunteer at a community health clinic run by a retired American physician. Through his experiences there, the film examines the question of why, after 30 years and billions of dollars of aid effort to Africa, have many regions of this troubled part of the globe grown statistically worse? The project takes on some of the most troubling problems in Africa on a micro level. Through the eyes of a westerner, ‘You Are Here: A Documentary’ explores the beautiful strangeness of Africa as well as its great potential for both hope and disaster.
Utilizing a fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking, ‘You Are Here: A Documentary’ manages to capture a more intimate look at the often tenuous relationship between the first and third world as seen from the perspective of its young protagonist. The film juxtaposes gorgeous natural imagery from just outside the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest with scenes of crippling poverty and loss. As the story pushes its way through the conflicts, setbacks, and small victories of life in an African health clinic, the question persists, is there a better way? ”
Director: Matthew Amenta
Producers: Jeremy L. Balon, Matthew Amenta
Executive Producer: Ted Reilly
Cinematographer: Tom Sandak
Editor: Jeremy L Balon
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Director Matthew Amenta on the goals of his film…
“You Are Here: A Documentary” is a film about a young medical student who volunteers at a rural hospital in Uganda looking to make a difference. Through his experiences in Africa, we get a glimpse at why it can be so difficult to affect positive change in the third world.
On coming to the story of “You Are Here”…
Growing up in middle America, I’ve always been interested in the disparity between the world’s very rich and very poor. I think there’s always persisted a question of what one individual can do to help those faced with crippling and seemingly inescapable poverty. A question of what is appropriate and useful. I thought that maybe the best way to tackle these questions is to look at one person’s singular experience instead of taking on the problem of third-world poverty as a whole.
When we started shooting, I had so much faith in Dave, the film’s protagonist, I really expected him to change the world over there. I thought we were going to make a film about how much good a really talented, intelligent, dedicated individual could do if they only tried. What the film ended being was a sort of cautionary tale about that exact kind of attitude.
On crafting documentary film…
My unlikely mentor in college was documentarian Jill Godmilow. She pushed me to make unconventional documentaries that didn’t rely on the whole talking-head, panel-of-expert approach. I wanted to make a documentary that was as close to a narrative film as I could by filming live events. Instead of title cards and graphics, I liked using first-person voice-over narration. I severely limited the use of interviews. I find them to be kind of un-cinematic. I wanted to use a style that felt laid-back and natural. I felt that was more truthful somehow.
On the challenges of making “You Are Here”…
I think the real challenge of the film was shooting in a foreign, third-world country that none of us had ever been to before. We honestly had no idea what to expect when we stepped off the plane. But I think that level of naivete and openness affected the film and the filmmaking. We were able to adapt, to change our perspective, as our protagonist did. I think this, too, adds to the truthfulness of the film.
On the payoff for Snag audiences…
The scale of the film is micro, we’re just following one guy around who’s trying to make a difference in a small community. But I think the questions that the film raises are macro. We may not be offering definitive answers or solutions in our film, but we are asking questions of our audience. We are asking the audience to consider, why, after three decades and billions of dollars of aid effort to Sub-Saharan Africa, have things only grown statistically worse? What are the components necessary to make an inter-cultural aid effort successful? What makes them fail? And, beyond that, what do you choose to do when there is no clear answer to a difficult problem? How does your example affect the people around you? If we get people thinking about these types of questions, I think that, on some level, our film is a success.
Amenta on his influences…
I think certainly there were films that influenced me stylistically. The documentary “Comedian” is one of my favorite films. There’s a great intimacy there achieved by the fly-on-the-wall style that I think is really rare. There’s also a section of an old documentary called “Visions of Eight” that I loved.
“Visions of Eight” is a collection of short documentaries made about the Olympics in 1973. There’s one part about the weight lifters that’s told without interviews or real dialogue. Just one simple voice-over narration. The filmmaker says something like, “I’m not interested in sport, but I am interested in obsession.” And that’s it, that’s all you need. She uses image to show you the obsession of these athletes. No need for anything else. I really wanted to emulate that kind of effect.
On the horizon for Amenta…
Our production company, Lifefinder Films has a couple really exciting things coming down the pipeline. I’m directing a short film which going into production this summer called “maria callas said that” based on the short story by Tim Gehling, and we’re developing a feature-length narrative in the fall. We also have a music video coming out for Remy Balon’s single “Silhouettes.”
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