written by: Nichole Bazemore
Documentary is one of the most vivid, powerful formats available for telling a story. But it’s also rife with hurdles—obtaining funding, getting licensing and clearances, and compared to other types of projects, it’s not terribly lucrative. Still, there are the few who stare adversity in the face and trudge ahead, all for the love of telling a story, and the hope of making a difference.
Michael Lines, Abiyoyo Productions
“It’s more than a vocation and a job. It’s a calling.”
When a friend told Michael Lines about a children’s prison in Uganda, the Creative Director of the Atlanta-based production company, Abiyoyo Productions, booked the first flight bound for the East African country. “It’s the dumping ground for orphans in Uganda,” he recalls. “We wanted to see it for ourselves.”
The rickety sign outside the facility read, “M: Rehabilitation Center for Children,” but Lines would soon learn that it was the furthest thing from a rehabilitation center. It was much closer to hell on earth.
‘M’ is a facility the Ugandan government created for the country’s unwanted children—the street beggars, handicapped and mentally disabled youth, and unwanted orphans, the latter mostly a result of the AIDS epidemic that has ravaged the African continent. Despite its government affiliation, the facility never received federal funds, and children suffered the effects—dozens were locked in the same room, some were chained to windows, many were severely malnourished, and all were forced to live in their own filth and waste. The squalor and neglect were far worse than anything Lines and his friend had imagined. “It was gut-wrenching,” Lines remembers. “There were infants and children up to 18 years old. Some had been there for ten years. Children were treated like cattle. They were eating off the floor. When I saw it, I knew I was going to make a film. We didn’t know who would see it, but we felt compelled to take action,” he says.
A native Atlantan, Lines started his company in 1996. He named it Abiyoyo, after a popular children’s folk tale he listened to as a child. But it wasn’t until high school, when he produced his senior video, that Lines fell in love with film. “I remember watching people in class watch the story,” he recalls. “They were laughing and crying, and I knew then that film was a powerful medium. I was hooked.” Humble and reluctant to talk about his accomplishments, Lines says he often feels compelled to focus his lens on people and stories that can impact how others see the world. “You think about statistics. You hear things like, ’there are 20 million displaced children in the world.’ But it’s hard to have compassion for that because it’s hard to put a face on that. My goal was to capture what I saw at ‘M’ and recreate the empathy that I felt for others,” Lines says.
That empathy was conveyed in Bereaved: The Abandoned Children of Uganda, the documentary Lines self-funded and produced about the facility. The film has been viewed in private screenings throughout the United States, as well as in Canada and China. It even spawned the non-profit organization, Sixty Feet, whose mission is to bring attention to the plight of children at ‘M’ and improve their living conditions. Since the organization was founded in 2010, signs of hope have begun to emerge where for so long there was only darkness. “The most amazing thing that happened, is that 20 of the youngest children there were rescued,” Lines says. “With government permission, two children were adopted by board members and are now living in a loving, caring environment.” Sixty Feet continues its work to rescue more children from the facility, a goal it hopes to achieve by 2012.
Rhett Turner, Red Sky Productions
“It’s a dream job, but it’s hard won to be here.”
While Michael Lines was bringing attention to the neglected youth of Uganda, Rhett Turner and his team were going where no other journalists had gone before: to the rural, practically inaccessible northern part of that African country.
Traveling with a team from The Carter Center, Turner, president and videographer at Red Sky Productions, followed medical professionals around the countryside as they delivered medicine to victims of Onchocerciasis, or river blindness. The illness, which is spread through black flies which breed in fast-moving waters, causes extreme skin depigmentation, severe itching, and eventually, blindness. Turner recalls his visit to the region: “There had been a 25-year civil war in the country and health care officials couldn’t get to the area. You’d see these whole towns where young kids and adults were blind.” Turner’s work with The Carter Center team will be presented in the film, Dark Forest, Black Fly, and is scheduled to be released in 2012.
Turner also partnered with The Carter Center on another project in Africa, this time as videographer for the documentary, Foul Water, Fiery Serpent. The film chronicles The Carter Center’s work to eliminate Guinea worm disease, which infects people who drink water that has been contaminated by the parasite’s larvae. Filmed from 2006 through 2009, Turner follows health care crews through remote villages in Ghana and Sudan, as they take steps to prevent the spread of the disease. The documentary, produced by Cielo Productions and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, has won ten awards, including the Los Angeles Reel Film Festival Award, in 2010.
An environmentalist at heart, Turner developed a love for documentaries as a child when he would watch them with his father, media mogul Ted Turner. As a teenager, Turner traveled along the Amazon River with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the marine explorer and environmentalist. Turner indulged his love of important stories and developed his storytelling ability as a sound tech and editor at CNN in the 1980’s and 1990’s. He served as an editor in Jordan during the Gulf War and later at CNN’s Tokyo bureau. But eventually, he returned to environmental documentaries.
The one of which he says he’s most proud is Chattahoochee, the 2010 documentary that chronicled the twenty-year disputes between Georgia, Florida, and Alabama and their shared water systems. The film examined the need for conservation and the economic ramifications of failing to do so. Chattahoochee went on to win an Emmy. Turner continues to make environmentally-focused documentaries. He’s currently working on a project with the International Crane Foundation in hopes of bringing attention to the plight of fifteen different species of the birds. He’s also working to bring attention to issues affecting America’s heartland through the PBS documentary series This American Land. Turner works as videographer for the series, which is co-produced with Biscardi Creative Media.
Walter Biscardi, Biscardi Creative Media
“I don’t take myself seriously, but I take my word very seriously.”
Stepping into the lobby of Biscardi Creative Media is a bit like being transported into a 50’s-style diner. Actually, it is a diner, something the firm’s owner, Walter Biscardi, said he always wanted. But get past that, and your attention is diverted to the oversized, flat-screen TV in the same room. Or, to the vintage soda machine and nine edit bays, all thematically decorated and named after popular movies like Mulan and The Final Frontier. There’s a screening room, color-enhancement suites, an old-fashioned popcorn machine, all the coffee you can drink and all the candy you can eat. And of course, frequent guest appearances by Biscardi’s sand-colored Labrador/Greyhound mix, Molly, aka The Wonder Dog. “I want people to be comfortable, to kick their shoes off, relax, and stay awhile. Television is supposed to be fun,” says Biscardi.
But don’t be fooled by the whimsical atmosphere. Biscardi Creative Media, a full-service production entity housed in an impressive 6,000 sq ft space just a stone’s throw from Lake Lanier, produces some of the most important, hard-hitting documentaries and environmentally-focused programming on the airwaves today.
The winner of 13 Emmys, more than 20 Telly Awards, multiple Peabody’s and an Aurora and Cable Ace Award, Biscardi began working on documentaries more than 20 years ago as an editor at CNN’s Environmental Unit in Atlanta. That was when his love of storytelling took off. “That was one hell of a group. I learned so much about editing and storytelling from that group, because they were telling stories that no one else was. The message was, ‘take care of your little world and that helps everyone around you,’” Biscardi says.
In 2005, Gary Streiker, former CNN international correspondent and African bureau chief, approached Biscardi about doing some editing work for him. That conversation marked the beginning of an ongoing partnership, and the two have collaborated on dozens of projects since. One of those projects: the award-winning documentary, Foul Water, Fiery Serpent.
Biscardi’s firm also handles all of the post production for Streiker’s global health projects and documentaries, many of which air on CNN, CNNI, the Weather Channel, PBS, Univision, and Al-Jazeera International. Their most recent collaboration is This American Land, a weekly documentary series that examines environmental issues impacting American landscapes, water, and wildlife. The series is widely distributed on PBS stations around the country.
Biscardi is also Post-Production Supervisor for Science Nation, a production by Kate Tobin Productions / National Science Foundation, which is hosted by Miles O’Brien, and produced by much of the old CNN Science Unit. Right now, his firm is also performing rough-cut stages of the documentary, Dark Forest, Black Fly, which chronicles the Carter Center’s campaign to end river blindness in the African nations of Ghana and Sudan.
Suzanne Jurva, Independent Filmmaker
“Stories find the form they need and the person that needs to tell them.”
Suzanne Jurva is that rare combination of right-brained creativity and left-brained analytical thinking. Trained as an engineer, Jurva realized almost immediately after college graduation that she wasn’t cut out for that work. “When I was done with the program, I said, ‘This isn’t me.’ My teachers all said I was a good writer, but I didn’t know what to do with it.” So, she headed to Los Angeles and started volunteering as a production assistant at the American Film Institute, where she says she “climbed the ladder the old fashioned way, rung by rung.”
Eventually, Jurva headed to Wisconsin to hone her skills in small market television. She worked for WPTV where she learned how to put documentaries together. She made seven. “There were no adults. I could do what I wanted, and they said, ‘ok.’” She headed back to LA and eventually got hired by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios.
“I am a storyteller, not a technical person,” Jurva says. But it was her technically-trained brain that got Spielberg’s attention. She eventually became head of research for DreamWorks, validating the historical accuracy of films like Saving Private Ryan, Amistad, and Gladiator.
But it was an off-the-cuff comment by her brother-in-law that would change the course of her life forever. “One day he said, ‘I wonder whatever happened to Billy McLaughlin. He was one hell of a musician.’” When someone she worked with posed the same question, Jurva began to investigate.
For more than 20 years, Billy McLaughlin had mesmerized audiences with his masterful command of the acoustic guitar. At his peak, McLaughlin played more than 200 shows a year and even made the Billboard Top 10. But for more than three years, McLaughlin had been harboring a secret: an incurable neuromuscular condition, focal dystonia, prevented him from using his left hand—the one he used to play the guitar.
By the time Suzanne met him, the musician had not only lost the ability to play his music; he’d lost everything, including his recording contract, publishing deal, and his family. “He was practically living out of his garage,” Jurva remembers.
But he had also had his guitar restrung for his right hand and was relearning how to play, note by note. A natural storyteller, Jurva wanted to be part of that journey. So for the next four years, she followed McLaughlin as he retaught himself how to play. One day, the guitarist had an idea: he would book a date for a concert, but he wouldn’t promote it, unsure whether he would be able to play or not. “That story went counter to everything I ever knew documentaries to be, because we didn’t know how it would turn out,” Jurva remembers.
It turned out that in 2007, after six years of learning how to play his songs from scratch, Billy McLaughlin made a comeback. Jurva chronicled his journey in her documentary, Changing Keys, which began airing on PBS stations around the country in 2010. That film won the Platinum Remi Award at the Houston International Film Festival in 2009, beating 4,300 other films that were submitted.
In 2010, Billy McLaughlin received the American Academy of Neurology’s Public Leadership Award, an award previously given to celebrities, including Michael J. Fox, Janet Reno, and Julie Andrews. Currently, McLaughlin is touring the country and speaking about his battle with focal dystonia, in hopes that he’ll inspire other musicians who suspect they have the disease to get treatment.
McLaughlin’s dramatic turnaround and her ability to capture that via documentary solidifies Jurva’s respect for the medium. “That’s why the documentary format is good to me. You can tell a story and do some good with it,” she says.
Frederick Taylor, Tomorrow Pictures
“We’re not making a movie. We’re trying to change lives. Bipartisan or partisan, that’s it.”
For Frederick Taylor, advocacy and activism started at an early age. Perhaps it’s only fitting, then, that documentary is his preferred method of storytelling. The son of a professor and jazz musician and pianist, Taylor says his mother exposed him to feature-length films and journalism at an early age. “The Lincoln Conspiracy, Beyond and Back—my mother would make me take her to see these films. I developed an appreciation for that type of media,” he says.
Taylor studied journalism at Temple University, but switched to documentary journalism halfway through. He launched his professional career by directing music videos. That showcased his skills and gave him leverage, but he burnt out. “I grew up in the 80’s and 90’s, when everything was about the bling. I never saw the value in it, and I couldn’t get with the program,” Taylor says.
In 2005, he started the internet TV channel, tomorrowpictures.tv, to show programming he thought was relevant. Then, in 2008, Taylor’s company began feeling the effects of the recession. With clients drying up and his company on the verge of bankruptcy, Taylor began making radical decisions. He started to mingle in political circles where he eventually met a producer who had been Bill Clinton’s AIDS czar. She asked Frederick to go to the city of Mukuru, a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, to film a documentary to raise awareness about international efforts at AIDS relief. “It was the worst abject poverty I’ve ever seen in the world,” Taylor recalls. The film, titled HIV FREE GENERATION, was sponsored by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.
In short succession, requests for documentary work kept coming. Taylor was tapped to go to Romania to produce a documentary about survivors of a pediatric AIDS epidemic that surfaced in 1989. The film, After the Fall: HIV Grows Up, is a riveting story about teens and young adults, long-term survivors of the pediatric HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept Romania after the fall of communism.
In 2008, Taylor was working in India on the day Barack Obama was elected president. “I was talking to homeless kids living on the beach who were helping me, and I was asking them how they felt about Obama. That’s when I realized the importance of what I was doing,” he says.
Since then, Taylor has produced several micro-documentaries in places like New Delhi, Mumbai, and South Central LA. The work is a welcome change of pace for the long-time, go-to producer for corporate projects for companies like the Georgia Lottery. “I pinch myself every day and wonder, ‘why me?’ You want to be able to make a contribution to humanity and leave a mark and say, ‘I mattered. I did something,’” he says.
Lance Lipman, Video Assets, Inc.
“We made the film we wanted to make. That was important to us.”
Sometimes, you pick the story that needs to be told and sometimes, it picks you. That was the case for Lance Lipman, who directed, edited, and supervised post-production of the documentary, Dying to Live. Shot at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and the subjects’ homes, the film follows four people for a year-and-a-half as they wait for organ transplants.
In the film, you see the patients’ health deteriorate; you see their families break down; you see the patients as they prepare for and emerge from surgery. You feel your heart break when all but one, a father of two young children, receives a new organ. And you learn how incredibly bureaucratic the process of getting a new organ is, and that an estimated 100,000 people are waiting for a transplant at any given time. “There were very emotional portions of the interviews. We were deeply affected by then and were emotional. It reinforced the fact that this was a worthwhile project,” Lipman says.
Lipman, President of the Atlanta-based firm, Video Assets, Inc., was contacted about the film by its writer, veteran scriptwriter, John Robbins. Robbins got the idea for the film after his brother died of organ failure. “In the process of doing the film, I learned that 20 people a day die because not enough of us are donors. I doubt too many people know that,” Robbins says.
Lipman started his career in public television after graduating from Ithaca College in the 1970’s. He worked for the PBS station in Wilkesbury-Scranton, PA before he started his company, which focuses mostly on corporate, HR, and financial projects.
After getting clearance from Piedmont Hospital and the patients’ families, Lipman says the team ramped up production pretty quickly with the goal of the piece being “accurate, compelling storytelling, not investigative reporting.”
The documentary, which Lipman and Robbins funded themselves, aired on Georgia Public Broadcasting on Labor Day 2011. It is also airing on public TV stations around the country, and thanks to a non-broadcast distribution agreement, can now be used as a teaching or education tool in universities, teaching hospitals,
and for patients waiting for organs.
“This is the largest, most important independent project of my career,” Lipman says.
© Oz Publishing, Inc. 2011