DOX (Documentary Film Magazine)
DOX (Documentary Film Magazine published by the European Documentary Network)
Uncrumpling the Cultural Divide
Two filmmakers from two different continents recount their experience of collaborating on a documentary project. Slavic passion and American efficiency had to blend successfully. LEON GERSKOVIC, originally from Croatia now based in Washington DC, and ERICA GINSBERG, from the US, made the best of their cultural differences and arrived at a deeper understanding.
Erica Ginsberg: It began with a crumpled piece of paper in March 1999. Kosovo was a mess. I was a mess. Feeling helpless as my country took actions in a place most of its citizens couldn’t find on a map. I didn’t know what to do, so I did what little I could. I volunteered for a Red Cross fundraiser. That’s where I met Leon. Originally from Croatia, he planned to go back and document stories in the region. A crumpled piece of paper in his back pocket was his proposal. I read it on the way home. A journey back to the Balkans to see how ordinary people are rebuilding their lives once the journalists have moved on to the next war. I e-mailed Leon as soon as I got home.
Leon Gerskovic: Erica came across as very rational, very down-to-earth. It was unusual to find a person who knew so much about the Balkan region and its people, but had no hidden agenda. She seemed the perfect person to help me produce this project.
EG: What impressed me about Leon was that he was an insider, but with a lot of open-mindedness. He didn’t want to make a film about which side was right or wrong, but rather just show people as they were. His passion was infectious and it also made up for the fact that he didn’t have a lot of the specifics worked out.
LG: Erica worked by-the-book. She likes to have everything planned and a path laid out. I, on the other hand, like to walk step-by-step and see where the path leads. Spending six weeks in the Balkans and filming people willing to talk. I wanted this film to be different from anything I’d seen on television since I moved to the U.S. Something deeper.
EG: That was the point where our cultural differences caused a lot of creative tension. Leon had this noble vision, but it was hard to pin him down on specifics. I come from a very American tradition of ‘get to the point and support it with details.’ I think Leon often saw this as a sign of rigidity, lack of creativity, even superficiality. To me, it was about finding a way to tell the story which included all the things he wanted, but still kept in mind the viewer. I was fine with his idea of not wanting to use expert analysts or historians, but we still needed to make the audience understand the context. Otherwise, it will be a very small audience that will see this film.
LG: Sometimes it felt to me like Erica was trying to make this into too mainstream a film. I would have this fantastic piece of interview and Erica would say “we can’t have a subtitled talking head on camera for more than a few seconds without seeing any b-roll.” I never intended to make a mass-appeal film where everything would have to be completely spelled out. I felt like we weren’t giving the audience a chance to respond to an alternative view, but were boxing ourselves into some kind of mold. I was scared of getting lost in all this nitpickiness and forgetting the real issues I wanted the characters to convey.
EG: I don’t think Leon ever forgot the issues he wanted to convey and that is his strength as a director. We disagreed on some things, but we were always able to work through our disagreements. It was just a question of spending enough time on communicating with each other. And that took some adaptation. Whenever we’d meet to discuss the project, we’d first have to spend at least an hour socializing because that’s how Leon does business. I saw this as a necessary evil at first, but now I cannot imagine working any other way. It’s the only way to get to a level of trust, a necessity in any collaboration. So, many cups of coffee and crumpled papers later, I think our creative debates have resulted in a much stronger film. Not to mention a strong friendship.
LG: What a Hollywood ending! I would never end this article that way. All I know is that our disagreements were a natural part of our collaboration. Some of that came out of our cultural differences and some just out of the differences between two stubborn individuals. The debates sometimes slowed the process down, but ultimately the film was better because of the collaboration. Now if we can just agree on a title…
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