Talking to American director Ross Kauffman is an opportunity to explore the mind of an Academy Award winner (co-directed with British photographer Zana Briski, the 2005 film Born Into Brothels won the best documentary award). It is also a way into the relationship between a documentary filmmaker and his characters.
Making a film about the children of prostitutes in India’s largest red light district Sonagchi in Calcutta, for example, Kauffman and Briski were able to develop a relationship with those children which continued as they grew into men and women and is ongoing today.
Kauffman had been a film editor and cinematographer when he responded to Briski’s call to help her teach those children photography, but he ended up writing, producing and directing the film with her, as well as shooting and editing it, and received an Oscar for his efforts. The film also won an Emmy as well as the audience award of the Sundance Film Festival. No wonder he believes in the life-changing power of documentary filmmaking, which affects both the artist and their characters.
“We spend a lot of time with people, years sometimes,” he says. “It’s true the connection with a film’s characters is manufactured and not necessarily organic but still, it is a relationship. Maybe we choose to continue the relationship because it gives us something. I am not sure what it is but there is friendship. There is trying to take care of people and wanting to be there for them even if they are not kids. I have a continued relationship with many people who I filmed a long time ago. Many of them are wonderful people.”
Part of what Kauffman seeks out in his films is the passion in people. “The moment I catch what their passion is The Moment! Filmmaking in a way is the connection with people”.
Even in Born Into Brothels, which is really about the misfortunes of Sonagchi’s children, Briski’s passion for helping those by giving them a tool with which to liberate themselves – allowing them to regain their sense of self by taking beautiful pictures with the cameras she gives them – plays a large part. In his latest film, too, Taken by the Tiger or Tigerland (2019), about saving Siberian tiger populations, it is the passion of a a Russian World Wildlife Fund activist who risks life and limb that the film targets.
“I’m searching for passion in other people maybe because I cannot find it in myself,” Kauffman says. “Maybe I feel very envious of people with passion. So I say, I wish I had my passion as well! It’s as if you move vicariously through them. It is good to explore life and world through them. Filmmaking is a living but it’s also a way to connect with people for me. Good characters always have passion.”
It was passion that saw him through the life-changing experience of becoming an Oscar-winning filmmaker. “First of all I met the woman who would become my wife around that time, and that was a big change. The award gives you confidence but at the same time it makes you more cautious to take the next step, you keep thinking what is the best way to do the right thing. It is not exactly fear, but that desire that you need to do something not just as good or as important but maybe even better. It is like when you are a high jumper and each time you have a record you want to break it the next time.”
That is why he has only made three feature-length films. The second, E-Team (2014), won four awards including a cinematography award at the Sundance Film Festival. Taken By Tiger (2019), released last March, was screened at Sundance and won the award of the Sun Valley Film Festival. He directed seven short documentaries films, many award-winning. Meanwhile he also produced 16 films. The one thing connecting all his films, he feels, is emotional appeal.
“I am not the kind of filmmaker who is eager to save the world. I want to stay away from being earnest. The common thread is just connecting with people in a sort of fun, sort of somewhat going to the core of what motivates them, understanding their passion and celebrating that. So when somebody comes to me with a film idea I think how can I bring those elements into it, even in a film about tigers.”
A good story is key.
“A great story and great characters make a movie. The thing that I love about movies is when I watch them and I feel something that I did not feel before.” That is how a film can change the way you live. Maybe it is a small change but it is there. After Born Into Brothels, for example, many people told him the film had changed their life. “One person came to me and said I left my job and decided to find out about my passion, maybe it is teaching small kids, this or that. Isn’t it incredible? But the change could also be a little shift like someone telling you ‘I did not know that but now I know’. I believe in films that emotionally change you.”
One of the more interesting outcomes of the Oscar was that he could work with younger filmmakers, helping them start out. Jeremiah Zagar, who approached him when he was 23, became Kauffman’s assistant; now he has made over 16 films, earning 15 awards. His first feature-length documentary In A Dream (2008) was shortlisted for the Oscars, and his latest film We the Animals (2018) won eight awards including the Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT Innovator Award.
“This is part of what the Academy Award gave me. To have the access and the opportunity to help other filmmakers. Now, Zagar is helping me in my films. Isn’t that cool!” His advice to every filmmaker is that having doubts at every stage is a sign they are going in the right direction; if there is no doubt and fear, the chances are there is something wrong somewhere. “You are not alone in those feelings but the only way you can do anything is to be persistent, tenacious, and never give up if you really feel this is your way and what you want to do.”
Through the American Film Showcase, the US Embassy in Cairo, the US Department of State and the Alexandria Jesuit Film School (part of the Jesuit Culture Centre of Alexandria and one of the most prominent film education initiatives since its launch in 2003) collaborated to bring Kauffman to conduct a three-day masterclass with Jesuit students. There were also two screenings of his last film at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The filmmaker seemed pleased with his experience in Alexandria.
“I make movies, I’m good at it. But when it comes to teaching, I really love teaching. Interaction and sharing with people is a great experience that I like very much.” He also appreciates the diplomacy of cultural exchange. “I give the State Department a lot of credit for doing such programmes. It is my first opportunity to cooperate with or contribute to one. It is always good to show what America is from another point of view.”
For his part filmmaker Ahmed Nabil, the director of the Alexandria Jesuit Film School said that hosting Kauffman is part of the school’s strategy to open a window for its students to interact with filmmakers in different fields and of different nationalities.
“This is the way they can widen their vision and realise how to speak to the world through films. And it’s how we choose our guests too. It is not about inviting a foreign artist, but hosting the artist that we believe fits with our Curriculum and the needs of our students.” The American Film Showcase – resumed after a few years’ hiatus – is not the only programme at the Jesuit Film School. Next March Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuhiro Sôda will give a masterclass.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 21 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.