Artist Intertview: Costa Botes
Costa Botes is an independent filmmaker from New Zealand. He produced and co-directed the first person documentary, Act of Kindness. The other director, Sven Pannell, shot all the footage and had an idea about the story he wanted to tell about his experiences in Rwanda. Costa came on board the project several years after Sven got back from Rwanda.
How did you get involved with Act of Kindness?
I was introduced to Sven Pannell by a development executive at the New Zealand Film Commission. He thought I’d be able to help Sven get a film out of the box of footage he’d been carrying around for a few years.
What is it that you saw in the project that made you want to work on it?
I listened to Sven’s account of his experiences in Rwanda and I felt his story offered a unique view of a topic that has generally been covered in a stereotypical fashion by Western media. Genocide is a risky subject - horrifying and depressing. I didn’t want to make that film. I saw a story about kindness. This tale led from darkness to light, to an illustration of the best of human nature, not the worst.
Has this process differed to other films that you’ve worked on?
Oh God yes! I’ve edited films for other people before, and I’ve co-directed one other movie; but normally I do everything myself - direct shoot, and edit. This was an odd hybrid experience. Sven had already shot the film a few years earlier, in 2007, documenting his experience searching for the man who had helped him out of a predicament in 1999. Our planned strategy was to incorporate Sven’s actuality footage, with new footage, with me taking the lead in shaping where the movie went. Sven was self conscious about inadequacies in his material, and my own quick perusal indicated many continuity gaps and technical deficiencies. In hindsight, I think we made a critical error in thinking we had to go and shoot more stuff.
Did you do any market research before you started editing the film?
Not as such. I pitched it to some people at Hot Docs in 2010, and at the Toronto Film Festival when I was there the following year. They were quite encouraging. We got a good reaction from the Hot Docs Forum selection panel but weren’t able to participate because I couldn’t secure a New Zealand Broadcaster. That pretty much was the last straw for me in terms of dealing with Kiwi broadcasters. They are terrible, lowest common denominator all the way. But there was early enthusiasm for the story at the NZ Film Commission. There seemed to be enough potential support to persevere with it as a small theatrical project. My ambitions for the movie were very limited. I always saw it as a niche film festival type thing, probably limited to NZ. We ended up showing it in the main centres here in NZ during the NZ Film Festival and it was a veritable hit. It sold out every session. If I could have predicted that, I might have done some things differently.
I know you had a renewed burst of energy to keep going on post-production with the film when you came back from the Durban Film Market in South Africa. Was that because you could see an audience for the film in Africa?
No, not really. That was a slightly confusing time. What happened is that, Sven and I had lost all momentum. The project had been on the books for three years and it wasn’t advancing. But I still loved the story. To break the stalemate I got the bright idea of pitching it as a dramatic film. When the opportunity to go to Durban came up, I talked Sven into letting me try it.
So I went to Durban, and got a pretty good response! There was a potential co-production sitting there. All I had to do was write a viable script. Unfortunately, there were some intractable narrative problems in the material that drove me utterly crazy. In order to jog something loose, I started playing around with Sven’s original footage. Without really admitting it to myself, I was soon back in documentary mode. I edited a couple of sequences, and they came together relatively easily. I thought to myself, if I could only keep going, and figure out clever ways to cover any gaps, the movie could be done, without the need for any further shooting. Or funding. Freed of any responsibility to investors, I enjoyed solving the manifold editing problems that came up. I threw everything I knew at it, every trick in the book, and then a couple more. It worked!
The thing that gave me confidence was I had an epiphany. Seems stark raving obvious in hindsight, but I’m afraid it didn’t hit me until then. The material Sven captured, however imperfect, had one really powerful element going for it - authenticity! I realised how dumb an idea it was to ever think we needed to go and shoot new material. All I had to do was stay true to his first person account, and there would be something worthwhile at the end.
Act of Kindness has a wonderful rhythm to it that builds as Sven’s search for the man he’s looking for ebbs and flows. Did it take you very long to find the story in the footage and shape it into a coherent narrative?
Thank you. I worked extremely hard to create a compelling flow. The movie wasn’t easy to see but it was sitting there all along. It might have been finished much sooner if I’d just dived in and started editing straight away. As mentioned above, there was a lengthy period of procrastination and circling, with little progress. That’s because I was focusing on strategies to make the film, as opposed to actually making it! I had to get out of my own way in the end. It took about 5 months to get to a finished cut. Sven was a really positive collaborator. He supported what I was trying to do, but he also helped me stay inside the truth of the story as he experienced it. That was my guiding principle in editing.
Another thing that happened that helped is that I cut a couple of low budget films meantime; films that had been shot in a fairly scrappy, disorganised way, with poor continuity. Doing these really tuned up my ability to cope with eccentric footage. I developed ways to turn weakness into strength, to make oddness into a style. Limitations can be frustrating, but they can also force one to be creative.
Often with films there are a number of steps to getting to a finished product. Once you had a working cut that opened some new doors for you. Did you send that early edit to people? Did you have to pitch the project?
As explained above, it didn’t work that way. An early promo opened some doors, but they didn’t ultimately lead anywhere. The project was pitched many times, both verbally, and with the promo, and we always got a good response. But there was a persistently unbridgeable gap between that and actually getting a deal done. Partly, that was down to me. Although I believed in the core story, I didn’t have a clear enough idea of how to do it, so I pulled back from serious commitment. When I finally began editing, the needs of other people had ceased to matter. I did it for me, for pride, and for the satisfaction of solving this, hitherto intractable, puzzle. Once I started, I didn’t stop till I was done.
What was it about the film that most interested investors?
I don’t know about investors. I started with some optimism but reality soon set in. I became quite disheartened about the project’s commercial prospects. Distributors I spoke to were not at all optimistic. It's just not that kind of world any more, sadly. Weirdly, everyone I talked to about it, without exception, liked the story. I think, because of the twists and turns, with intrigue and curiosity about the outcome. Other positives were the fact that the background concerned a terrible event in African history which people are curious to understand. And that the story highlights the potential of people to be kind, even in the direst circumstances.
It’s easier than ever, in practical terms, to make movies from the heart. But it’s harder than ever to sell them and make a living. People love authored documentaries … but they don’t want to pay for them. And there are a lot of them out there!
What are the main themes that have emerged in the film?
I love the theme of persistence. I keep coming back to it in most of my films, and this one is no exception. Overcoming challenges requires people to dig deep, and that’s when they find out what they are made of. I think that makes for strong and inspiring stories.
How is it being received by audiences?
People seem to really like it, which is very gratifying.
Do you have a marketing strategy and how is that panning out?
Originally, I only intended to show the film around New Zealand via the NZ Film Festival. I kept my expectations low. I felt a bit regretful about this when the movie got a huge response and I wasn’t able to capitalise on it, but I just wasn’t in a position to put the time or money into a wider release. Apart from the costs associated with marketing, I couldn’t stomach the screening fee that many theatres have been charging - ostensibly to defray their costs in converting to digital projection. Oddly, none of them were remotely interested when I suggested they might like to cover some of my equipment costs if they wanted me to cover theirs.
Is it important to you to build an audience for the film at a grassroots level or, at this stage of the film’s life, is it more important to keep talking to distributors and sales agents to get the film to market?
These are questions I have given up pondering. I am trying to slide gracefully into retirement. I really don’t know any more what it takes to make a buck at this game (if I ever did). What keeps me going is passionate interest in stories and people. I have always belonged to the school of, “if you build it, they will come”.
I think distributors and sales agents and marketing folk have become far too self-concerned. We are constantly being told to consider the needs of audiences, and to ‘build an audience’, as if any self-respecting film maker would not care about satisfying an audience. What nonsense! I believe before we can consider an audience, film-makers need to consider why they want to make films at all, and what special insight they have that will make their film worth watching. That’s our responsibility. Everything else is business. Obviously there has to be business. But I don’t think there’s any ‘correct' way to do that. A lot of it is chance … and persistence. Make a good movie. Then maybe it will connect.
Where will Act of Kindness go once it’s finished in festivals?
DVDs and BluRay discs will be available at my web store, www.costabotes.co.nz. I will also make it available on Vimeo, with reasonably priced downloads and VOD. I’m looking at options like Amazon Prime. It’s quite time-consuming preparing materials for them, but that’s probably where the future is for small, independent DIY film-makers like me.
What is it that you're most proud of about the film?
I love the feel of it. It’s really simple. It just unfolds, twist by twist, leading to an ending that I hope is both surprising and emotionally affecting. And it’s all 100% authentic. Achieving that feel took a TON of hard work, but I don’t think it shows. That’s as it should be. It should feel like it was easy, like it just happened. That’s what I’m most proud of.