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Human Rights Watch FF Women Directors: Meet Alessandra Zeka and Holen Sabrina Kahn (A Quiet Inquisition)

Human Rights Watch FF Women Directors: Meet Alessandra Zeka and Holen Sabrina Kahn (A Quiet Inquisition)

Alessandra Zeka and Holen Sabrina Kahn have been producing documentary stories collaboratively since 1998. Their films have focused on Albania, Rwanda, India, Taiwan, Central America, and the U.S. Their projects include Te DuroshHarsh BeautyKatrina and the 3 Million Dollar TigerA Garden Grows in Harlem, and Summer Ghosts.

Their latest film, A Quiet Inquisition, will make its world premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on June 15 and 20. 

W&H: What drew you to this story?

AZ & HSK: We had initially planned to make a film about the prohibition of abortion in El Salvador. Just as we were beginning to do the research, Nicaragua passed the same law. It seemed an opportunity to chronicle the impact of such severe restrictions from its first days of implementation. We were also particularly drawn to what was happening in Nicaragua because the law was being enforced under the presidency of Daniel Ortega, who had been a leader during the Sandinista Revolution. He had been a proponent of women’s rights and equality during those years, and we wanted to understand how the shift had happened.

We knew we wanted to tell the story in a non-polemical way. Early on in production, we met Dr. Carla Cerrato. We were immediately drawn in by her personality and openness, as well as her world and the microcosm of the hospital where she works. It became clear to us that the story of the prohibition’s impact and the complicated layers of politics and religion could be told through her personal experiences of being caught between the law and the Hippocratic oath.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

AZ & HSK: One of the biggest challenges was to quickly build relationships built on trust with the doctors and the young female subjects in the film so that there was both a fully informed consent and an ease in relating what were sometimes harrowing experiences. To be a foreigner with a camera in an emergency room in a Nicaraguan public hospital, to inspire confidence [in that setting], to avoid being a distraction — these were always going to be challenges. In some cases, we left the camera on a chair, rather than use a tripod or anything that could be intimidating, to make the conversations more fluid and to build sincere relationships.

Another challenge was to try and give our audience enough of a background about Nicaraguan history and politics so that they can understand the context for the film without being didactic. We felt it was essential to understand this history, since it illuminates the political climate. There is a general fear that even voicing opposition to this law in Nicaragua could result in negative consequences, especially for a doctor in a public hospital. The bravery of Dr. Carla Cerrato cannot be underestimated.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

AZ: My foremost advice to all filmmakers, female or male, is to be both patient and passionate about their films. When making documentaries, finance is often hard to come by and logistics have to change, but there are few things as rewarding as finishing a film you have been working on for a long time. It is important to enjoy this process even when it’s a struggle and to grow from each film, not only as a storyteller, but as a person.

HSK: I second the above!

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

AZ: My films are often focused on people that are hard to reach, hard to find, and hard to talk to. In the case of A Quiet Inquisition, I often had very little time to make scared teenagers feel safe and at ease to convey their story. I am fortunate that I am able to make quick and easy connections with people. I try to make things look easier than they are. People often underestimate how difficult, and how vital, it is to get this right.

HSK: Documentary films are like a puzzle, and often the pieces can be elusive. My films span years in the making, and in cases, like A Quiet Inquisition, there is no script or road map. This process of creating coherence and building a sense of drama and urgency in the final film is very challenging and requires an ability to trust my senses in an almost instinctual way. A viewer might think there was a linear plan to work from, but figuring out how to tell the story, what it looks and sounds like, how even small changes in pacing can alter the viewing experience — these are something that one has to find out the hard way, and it takes time and patience.

W&H: Do you have any thoughts on what are the biggest challenges and/or opportunities for the future with the changing distribution mechanisms for films?

AZ: We are in a very exciting moment in regards to where our films can be seen, as there is a much wider scope for distribution. The main challenge is not only to keep updated on all the new technologies, but to also be able to use them most effectively to our advantage in order to quickly reach a wider and more diverse audience.

HSK: One of the really exciting parts of the changing distribution landscape is the opportunity to extend the life of a film through streaming, VOD, and other forms of distribution, and to reach a much larger audience quickly. There are also very different forms of storytelling beginning to emerge in our changing technological landscape — the challenge in this will be to find the right fit for each project so the story remains foremost.

W&H: Name your favorite woman directed film and why.

AZ: Lucrecia Martel is one of my favorite female directors. La Cienaga (The Swamp) is my favorite of her films, where she tells a story that goes beyond geopolitical boundaries about a bourgeois Argentinian family on a holiday in a decaying mansion. What I like about this film is how Martel transports you into a world of elegant minimalism with complex, rich meaning. She is a unique voice in Latin-American film.

HSK: As favorites go, it’s the unstoppable Agnes Varda, now in her eighties. She is still making beautiful, provocative, and joyful films like the Gleaners and I and The Beaches of Agnes. In current narrative filmmaking, I am watching to see what Debra Granik does next. She is one of the more interesting writer-directors working in the US right now. She takes subjects that others would work with in predictable ways and imbues them with a deft and subtle touch.

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