Massachusetts-based filmmaker Beth Murphy redefines the word fearless. Along with her team at Principle Pictures, Beth has traveled the world, including many areas of conflict where dangers abound, in search of compelling stories that shed light on the human drama behind the social justice issues we typically learn about through media soundbites. She has directed, produced, and written nearly 20 documentary films for national and international media outlets including The Sundance Channel, The History Channel, Discovery International, Lifetime Television, and numerous international outlets. Her feature-length documentary BEYOND BELIEF chronicles the journey of two 9/11 widows to heal from that tragedy by connecting to widows in Afghanistan. THE LIST tells the story of Kirk Johnson, a modern-day Oskar Schindler who is fighting to save Iraqis whose lives are in danger because they worked for the U.S. government and military to help rebuild Iraq. LEF is currently supporting her project WHAT TOMORROW BRINGS, a film that brings Beth back to Afghanistan to look at the challenges for the teachers and students at a girls school at time when US troops are withdrawing and the Taliban are again on the rise.
LEF Program Director Sara Archambault caught up with Beth right before she was on her way to the University of Basra to teach a 2 ½ week course on cultural diplomacy through filmmaking.
Sara: Field work for your films takes you around the world, often managing story progression from a distance in between trips. Can you talk a little bit about this process? How do you stay in touch with your subjects? How often do you go into the field and why?
Beth: I wish I could stay in the field indefinitely, and even though I can’t – what I do is to fully immerse myself in the place and with the people during my time on the ground. Ultimately, I travel as much as I can to try to make the best possible film. And the amount of time – on any given trip, over any given number of years – changes from film-to-film. There are times when I’ve been in the field and realized that the best thing to do for the film is to stay put. So, I extend the trip. There are times when I thought I was done filming entirely, only to have a significant, unexpected thing happen in a character’s life call me back. And these moments are not only important for the film itself, they are important for me to be there – in person – to share these moments with people who I’ve grown to cherish as a part of my life.
For the times I can’t be in the field, I learn as much as I can about key moments coming up in our subjects’ lives, and then it’s fairly easy to manage what it’s possible to know. If I can’t be there myself, I do have people on the ground who are able to mobilize quickly. Rather than work with a producer to co-ordinate things on the ground, I have preferred to work directly with photographers who have the producer and language skills that are needed. For example, with WHAT TOMORROW BRINGS, on the last day of school the girls are getting their report cards. I want to be there, but I don’t need to be there. I can send a local shooter I know to cover this. Harder to manage are the critical moments that arise that are unexpected. By staying in close touch with my subjects, and often others who are close to them, I’m able to respond quickly when needed. This year, one of our characters tried to commit suicide. For this, we needed to get there – this is a crucial moment in her life. But I also wanted to be there and help her through this crisis in any way that I can because I care about her.
For more consistent communication, I stay in touch our subjects in lots of ways, but it’s usually very individual to that person. Some of them, we only Facebook message one another. Others we only Skype and Skype Chat. And, of course, there are those with whom I only text or email. Those modes of communication are the regular ones. Less frequently we talk on the phone. Right now it’s funny – there’s one guy in Iraq who I only FaceTime with. He’s the only person I’ve ever FaceTimed with.
Sara: Establishing a palpable trust with your subjects is a key piece to your success as a storyteller. Can you talk about how you select your subjects and build that trust and intimacy at a distance.
Beth: Building trust is both immediate and a process. Most people are very open, and if they’ve agreed to be interviewed, they want to fully engage. My experience has been that there is immediate trust. It’s like a ‘love at first sight’ phenomenon. There’s so much excitement that together you’re setting off on this incredible adventure to do something that matters. And that’s palpable. It’s exhilarating.
But like all relationships – the real work of trust begins after the initial honeymoon period when you fall into the routine and rhythm of filming. More than anything, to develop trust, you have to be trustworthy. You have to be reliable and follow through on your words with action. You also have to believe in your subjects – believe that what they say has value, and treat them with respect. It’s important that we get to know each other, and develop an understanding for boundaries. And communicate, communicate and communicate some more. When you’re talking and sharing experiences, you’re getting to know each other, and there’s nothing that can replace that in terms of deepening relationships. When that happens, there’s little room for doubt. Especially, when you spend a lot of time physically apart – there is more opportunity for communication breakdown. I work hard to keep that from happening. I say – look at the best relationships in your life. Why do they work so well? And apply those same principles to your relationships with your subjects. Calling them subjects seems to put them in some separate category for relationships – but that’s ridiculous. It’s all about making real human connection, and that happens when you give of yourself and treat people kindly.
Long distance, of course, is tough, because – out of sight, out of mind. The people you’re shooting can even wonder at times: is there even a film happening? So, for example, with the girls school in Afghanistan, I would like to be communicating with the girls more, but that’s tough with the language barrier. Instead, we’re connecting through the teachers. The teachers share what we’re doing with the students and that helps the connection continue. And I mean sharing not just the work, but things about yourself is really important. The people I’m shooting, whose stories we tell, they love to hear what my life is like too. And that’s where the relationship piece really begins to grow.
Sara: The stories that draw you to them are often in conflict zones. Can you tell me about what you’ve learned about shooting in these areas and what it’s like to manage your team in the field when safety considerations are a factor.
Beth: Just this week a journalist was killed in an unprecedented attack in Kabul – in broad daylight, he was shot in the head while walking down the street to an interview – a place where we’ve traveled often. Last year – 2013 – was the second deadliest year ever for journalists… perhaps even more alarming, though, is the huge jump in abductions. There were 87 abductions last year. It’s terrifying. The fact that things have become more dangerous for us demands that I pay even greater attention to the details.
My belief is that documentary filmmaking is a search for truths – truths about the world, truths about ourselves – and that requires that we be there. That we be present. We have to get up close to know. I realize it’s inherently dangerous, and I accept that. What I do not do, though, is have a flip – “It can’t happen to me” – attitude.
I make plans carefully, and in the field I find that I have razor-sharp focus. My colleague – and greatest ally in the field – Kevin Belli – has a beautiful description for this. He calls it the Zen of the War Zone. People are always asking us about how nervous and scared we are. In fact, I feel incredible peace and more in tune with my surroundings than ever. I am aware of everything around me at all times. And I think that is essential in these environments. Common sense goes a long way. As does experience and luck. But as Benjamin Franklin said, “Diligence is the mother of good luck.”
The first question I ask myself is: Is this trip necessary? Is it really necessary? I have to weigh the risks and the benefits. And I do that for myself personally, and each crew member must do it for him or herself. No one should have a decision forced on them, and I’ve had crew members decline to travel.
I feel an enormous responsibility for the safety of the crew and the safety of those we are filming. Preparation is key – and starts early and involves arranging safe housing and travel for the crew. Most of all, during the preparation stage I’m in touch with other journalists, NGOs and filmmakers who are – or have been – where I’m going to best understand the security climate.
In addition to getting War & Terrorism Insurance, I’ve also tried to learn some practical skills about what to do if something does go wrong. I took a training program with RISC – Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues – and I read anything I can get my hands on from journalists who’ve been through the worst – people like NYT reporter David Rohde who was kidnapped and held hostage in Afghanistan for seven months. I want to understand what happened, how it happened, how they handled themselves, and what they might have liked to have done differently…ultimately, what lessons can be learned from their experiences. For example, with kidnapping, running away is considered the best solution – a much more successful option than trying to negotiate with or appease someone.
Then, in the field we are constantly assessing risk. While we rely heavily on our local team to be our eyes and ears, and we also check in with each other constantly. The translator is often the person who is most tuned into conditions we’re unaware of. If any one person is uncomfortable in a situation, we respect that and get the hell out.
Sara: As a woman working in a Muslim country tackling a feminist issue, do you feel you have either particular challenges or advantages afforded to you because of your gender?
Beth: It has been a unique experience working as a foreign woman in Muslim countries. In particular in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent Iraq, where there is something of a third gender phenomenon.
In the U.S. we experience the dichotomy of gender – and what this dichotomy dictates is that there are two – and only two – gender roles. That of man and that of woman. In Afghanistan, though, there’s a way in which foreign women transcend this reality. I am obviously not a man, but as a foreign woman I’m not viewed entirely as ‘only a woman’ either. And that’s where this kind of odd idea of a third gender comes in. Although I am not treated as equally as a man in these societies – in fact, most men will not shake my hand – I am able to travel and communicate with both women and men. I have found in Afghanistan in particular the ability to visit with Afghan men and socialize with them in ways not afforded to Afghan women. And my ability to communicate and travel with women is something that would be impossible for a foreign man. This is, of course, a huge advantage for filmmaking, but I’m always conscious of the fact that the quasi-equality I’m feeling only underscores the abuses against women in the country.
Sara: When do you know you have enough for a film given all of these logistics, challenges and barriers?
Beth: I never think I have enough film. And that moment before an edit is about to begin, I feel a sense of panic. It’s the “oh-my-god-we-don’t-have-a-film-and-I-am-a-terrible-director” moment. It’s at this moment that I think primarily about what we don’t have as opposed to all the powerful material we do have. And those thoughts are combined with a strong and unrealistic desire to never stop shooting! Fortunately, sanity returns, and I know that gaps in filming will be identified during the edit, and we can address those needs as they arise.
As for what draws me to subjects – I am forever drawn to stories about both the frailty and strength of the human condition – and stories that both challenge us to (and give ourselves an opportunity to) see ourselves mirrored in others.
I learned something important from one of my heroes, Howard Zinn. He said, “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”
Zinn thought that the big question of our time is how to achieve justice with struggle, but without war. And I believe film in particular – and art in general – is part of that, and I want to emphasize stories that show people challenging the worst of humanity rather than accepting it as our destiny.