I like ideas. What they can do. Anytime an idea grows into something that makes a tangible progressive impact, even if only on an individual basis, it makes me proud. From abstraction to completion. As a filmmaker, the proudest moment is when the idea leads to something that has a life of its own, that will continue after you die.
He’s an award-winning filmmaker whose documentary work has taken him to, among numerous other places, the Middle East to follow his subjects, into the Deep South to investigate Ku Klux Klan members and their involvement in decades-old racial killings, and to the outskirts of Ontario to confront suspected child murderers. His investigative work has resulted in cold-cases being reopened and murderers being convicted, and at one point put him down the road for what many thought would be a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
But when I first met David Ridgen he wasn’t chasing murderers in search of justice, he was sticking his camera into a truck full of watermelons that several of us volunteers were emptying out at an elephant sanctuary in Northern Thailand and generally getting himself in the way. A bit of posturing and a few grunts between us and I still wasn’t sure what he was up to – unless it was work on a sequel to one of the all-time great watermelon films – but over the course of the next several days we warmed to each other and spent a fair amount of time discussing conservation, motivation and, of course, gear fetishism. That is, when he wasn’t insisting that I randomly shovel dirt into a wheelbarrow for his camera as some means of replicating the wholly inaccurate notion that shoveling elephant poo is romantic. It’s not. Elephants, however, very much are.
Our conversations would continue after leaving Thailand: the pitfalls, necessary and otherwise, of hero worship; the many faces of justice; tearing everything down and starting over from scratch; and the plight of plankton. Like many artists, David doesn’t especially like being on the receiving end of questions, but like all good storytellers his own can be equally interesting if you get him to open up a little. As for the watermelons? Look for them alongside elephants and the mighty plankton in a series of short films currently in post-production, titled The Metaphorical Elephant.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
David Ridgen: I was born in Southern Ontario but moved before long to a small Eastern Ontario lumber town where my father founded a company that made avionics for civilian and military aircraft and my mother continued her nursing career. I’ve been to lots of schools and have lots of paper: a degree (Queen’s), a diploma (McGill), and an MFA (York). I taught in the Middle East, the Canadian Arctic, and Canadian Federal penitentiaries for a few years, all the while making films. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to be, and after a few years of teaching I decided to go full time with it, working mostly for public media outlets along the way: TVOntario, CBC, NPR. Now I am “independent,” working under contract on one hand, and on personal projects, Arts Council, industry, or passion funded on the other. Teaching is also something I’m continuing with, increasingly so, and have lectured on many occasions on the craft and my experiences.
When did you first become involved with filmmaking? Who or what was it that encouraged you to start looking at life through a camera lens?
David: The first film I made in Grade 7 in Super 8. It was a claymation project about evolution – a subject dear to my heart to this day. Lots of amoebas, fish and frogs, culminating in a mono-colored orange chimp dangling from fishing line. All out of focus. I always wanted to be a special effects guy, and movies like Star Wars and Alien were my ultimate. Then I started making documentaries.
If I’m not mistaken you were also a photojournalist in the Middle East, correct? Can you elaborate on that?
David: I lived in Lebanon for just over a year at a time when Israel was still occupying the South, and Syria still occupying the rest of the place, 1996. Just after the so-called “Grapes of Wrath” operation ordered by Shimon Peres (and sponsored by the USA). I lived east of Tripoli (no, not that Tripoli), in the foothills near an olive grove “protected” by a Syrian squad of anti-aircraft gunners. I’d been researching the fate of Palestinian refugees who fled to neighbouring Arab states during the 1948 creation of Israel and wanted to make a film. The National Film Board gave me some seed money and then the Canada Council gave me some production money, and I was able to return to Lebanon and then go to Israel in 1998/1999 to undertake the bulk of filming. I visited most of the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, and some of the subjects in the film created an original play that they put on as close to the border as they could, at Tyre. In Israel, I filmed in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and the north, and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories I filmed in Ramallah and elsewhere, and also in Gaza City. The result is my feature documentary, On the Borders of Gardens.
The aforementioned Israel/Palestine conflict, Canadian Inuits struggling with addiction, people like activist Norman Finkelstein, and Thomas Moore (whose brother was slain in the ’60s by the KKK in an unsolved case you explored), both of whom were (and still are) seeking a different kind of justice in their respective stories. How do you choose your projects and your subjects? Is there a common theme in each that draws you to them? Perhaps something that is not easily recognized until you’re well into it?
David: In all my work, fiction or non, unifying themes include strong characters who live by their principles; stories that involve intense periods of research, and investigation that expose something raw that we haven’t seen before or perhaps spur justice; stories that provide a voice where there was none before; and experimentation with style and form.
In your interview with Vice News you talk about the personality dynamic between yourself and Thomas Moore. “Thomas was a career Army Command Sergeant Major, and I was a career filmmaker social activist. I was vegetarian, eating Cheerios in the car, and he was a big time meat eater. It was an interesting relationship.” How do you get strong-willed characters like Moore and Finkelstein to open up, both to you and what you’re trying to capture, so their stories can be told as authentically and unobtrusively as possible? Along those same lines, how do you remain neutral to the story and the characters as a documentarian? Are you concerned at all about becoming part of the story?
David: I’m not really conscious of trying to stay “neutral” while filming. Stick with the truth of something and don’t worry about the rest. That applies to drama, too. Trust is built somewhere in the osmosis between listening and being brutally honest. That seems to get me through, whether I’m filming or paddling a river. I can be glacially patient conducting research, waiting for the right moments to occur, and sometimes take a long time to make my projects. My work in Mississippi for the CBC started in 2004 and ended in 2011, resulting in three films. Each of my Canadian Cold Case projects took at least a year to complete concurrently from start to finish, two of them much longer. In that time, it’s easy to become embedded in the fabric of other people’s existence. I’m still in touch with most, if not all, of my main subjects from each of my major works. Crawling through the bush together does that, going through checkpoints, bringing people into high risk situations or places they weren’t prepared to ever go. Films can form their own ecosystems, not only for change but also for connecting with each other through process. So, being part of the story is decided by that story, not by me.
Speaking of checkpoints, war zones, and otherwise dangerous places, people, and situations – like approaching klansmen in Mississippi Cold Case, or confronting suspected murderer Anthony Ringel in Confessions to Murder – have you ever felt in danger or feared for your safety? How does one confront a suspected murderer?
David: It’s the technical that keeps me focused enough to forget any fear that may underlie. I must get the shot, and I focus on that rather than worrying about personal danger. Even when I don’t get the shot to my liking, the act of shooting provides the shield, as if the camera will protect me from any perceived wrong or malice in front of it. Confrontations are built on intelligence gathering, persistence, gut feelings, and creating situations where the luck comes to you. That and lots of lawyering. But sometimes the spur of the moment occurs, and my rule is: if you don’t get it now you never will.
I want to switch gears for a few moments and discuss your equipment, as well as your approach to post-process work. What’s your go-to gear and why? You mention taking a long time and being patient. That, of course, comes at the expense of having a lot of footage when things are all said and done. How long did it take for you to go through the footage, edit, and produce a work like American Radical? In both live filming and post-production, what do you look for in creating a scene? Is there a moment when you know the footage or the scene is “singing” for you?
David: I use a Nikon D800e for stills and HD, and also a Sony F3 with PL mount lenses for HD. Both are gorgeously disarming to me. I use the Sennheiser 416p shotgun and also Sennheiser wireless, Sanken mic’d. I have numerous cameras for investigative work, and of course GoPros and the like along with some homemade supports. I also collect 16mm cameras and have some nice Bolex equipment and a freezer full of 16mm stock on call. In the edit, I use Avid MC and Macs.
I watch everything I’ve shot. That can sometimes be years of material by the time edit starts, normally pulling huge rafts of material into a gigantic timeline. Then I start at the beginning and get the first thirty seconds down perfectly. Often I will go back and re-create the beginning obsessively throughout the edit, until that beginning actually becomes a sequence for later and I make a new beginning that is completely different. Then I move ahead editing sequence after sequence – whatever makes sense “organically.” The ending is as important as the beginning, and I obsess over it too. Then I go back and obsess over character development, transitions for content, and audio mix. Once I’m done, I rarely watch the piece again. It can take several months to edit a piece or it can come together surprisingly quickly, but the key is that all material must be watched.
“Rarely watch again” because you’re so tired of living it, or because it’s time to put it to bed and focus on other work?
David: Rarely watched again because 500 times is enough!
Your work takes you to various corners of the world for indeterminate periods of time. How do you fund projects and how hard of a struggle is it to get that funding? On the other end of things, how does distribution work for your finished pieces?
David: Funding can come from broadcasters like the CBC, from organizations like the Canada Council, or Soros Open Society, or the OMDC [Ontario Media Development Corporation], or any assortment of crowd and self-funded sources. And you need to tailor stories, pitches, and proposals for all of them all the time to be continually working. If a broadcaster pays for the film, they play it on their network and even advertise it, so distribution is taken care of. Normally, projects funded through other sources eventually find an audience either through licensed broadcasts, through a distribution deal, over the internet, or via self-distribution. But funding from any source is fraught with challenges, rules, and loopholes, and it can be a real battle to get something made that you believe in.
We met at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand where you were in the middle of working on a film that’s now in post-production, titled The Metaphorical Elephant. Tell me a little about the piece. What is it about and where does the title come from?
David: The Metaphorical Elephant is based on the expression “the elephant in the room” which, in my experience, is used to describe something that is obvious but not talked about for fear of risk or retribution. The elephant in the room expression is sometimes phrased as “the metaphorical elephant in the room.” That’s where the title comes from. It will be a series of short films about notions of activism centred around the very important work of couple Sangduen “Lek” Chailert and Darrick Thomson, and the many people that filter through the sanctuaries they have established in Southeast Asia.
What is “obvious but not talked about” referring to here, and why a film about elephants instead of, say, the plight of plankton?
David: It’s obvious to aliens and onlookers that humans are arguably ineffectual in actually creating change both in their own lives and for the definable long-term “good” of the planet, but few acknowledge that. Instead, we pretend – or maybe “hope” is a better word – that Greenpeace is going to save the day even while we drive cars to work, fly to exotic locations to swim with dolphins or win Oscars making films about them, get tattoos of sayings by Gandhi, or allow factory farming to continue eroding the land and our psyches in the slaughter of other animals and the decimation of life in general. We exploit and do not give back. Blah, blah, blah.
We’ve heard it all before in Fight Club, in manifestos, in songs from John Mayer to Hüsker Dü, and it doesn’t matter. Short term, there are successes, but how do we live with the long-term given our innate tendencies? For me, that’s the elephant in the room. So the film will try to get at the question of change and whether we can make it. It’s experimental, and not really about elephants. But they are in it. And so is the mighty plankton.
What does change look like then? My take from your answer is that little can change us from making a difference and that much of our efforts are for show and to ease our conscience, both collectively and individually. How, then, does one effect change for the better? How do people like Lek make a positive difference, both to the elephants and other animals in her charge, and to those who come to volunteer? Can she succeed without the support of those who fly halfway around the world, as we both did, but who may not know or understand what they can do back home to make less glamorous but equally important differences?
These are questions I’ve been thinking a lot about for some time. Because someone shows up at a rally, a protest, an elephant sanctuary, or wherever, without really knowing what the details are or what the bigger picture is, does that make their actions wrong and invalidate their intentions? Shouldn’t part of the purpose in all this be to educate people so they leave with more knowledge and understanding than what they’ve arrived with? So they can better see the interconnectedness of all things beyond what they’re currently, perhaps selfishly, focused on? So they can return home, share their experiences, inspire others, and make a difference in all things, thereby moving humanity’s marker towards the good? Wasn’t that, in essence, the point of Fight Club? That it all begins and ends with you?
David: In my humble opinion, the global economic system often precludes change because the same system always seems to appropriate it for its own ends. Change gets commodified into something that can be bought, sold, traded, consumed, filmed, tattooed, heroized. The concerned end up wondering what the earth would be like without us – perhaps better off – and advocating population control, even voluntary human extinction. Humans are animals and we just cannot get away from the dominance hierarchies and evolutionary trajectories that come with that.
Just look at the DMZ between North and South Korea. Some of the best conservation of endangered living things happens there because people aren’t. Or perhaps we move toward a scenario that seeks to disrupt: being the change, chaining the change, back to the landing it, solarizing it with technological wonders, veganizing it or fruit-only dieting it, and only fruit that has freely fallen. But does beginning and ending with the individual in itself create the tidal wave? Maybe a wave of personal satisfaction or happiness. I’ve done something or I’m doing something tangible. I helped that tree or that child grow right. Or, I’ve fought for the rights of other animals or helped preserve real land. But if it’s an individual triumph, does the system as a whole keep working despite that? In fact, does it arguably work better in its exploitation because it has satisfied you that you are doing something?
If the whole city of Toronto suddenly started hunting deer or living off the land, we’d be in trouble, too. There has to be linkage, growth triangles, critical mass before we can burn the banknotes. And is that the solution? If so, it would involve a perceptually painful delinking from a system built on rapid financial transactions and exploitation of resources – human or non-human animal, ecosystem, or otherwise.
Another side says we should just continue to exploit all things Earth – that’s why it’s here, they say, and it’s our nature anyway, our DNA – until we learn how to go elsewhere to do the same thing. That argument says that the earth will just rebound after we’re gone, or be burnt by the red giants anyway, so what’s the problem, Mr. Suzuki?
It’s inexorable that we’ll be nasty, so let’s be nasty and be damn happy about it. Well, there’s lots of problems with that, and with much of what I’m saying here. That’s the nut I’m trying to pry with The Metaphorical Elephant, with a corn-plastic knife and a camera-full of hope. I think the aim is action that works for the long-term and beyond. Not just in our lifetime.
I guess the point I was trying to make is that you can’t generate critical mass and co-opt change for whatever reason without people realizing that it’s up to them to proactively participate. It’s easy for someone to think that it’s another’s responsibility, or that others will fix, or are fixing, things, when the very real truth is that it’s up to each of us individually to make a difference collectively, regardless if or how things work out in the end. To remain passive is simply unacceptable, in my opinion.
Regardless, as our conversation shows all of this is indeed a metaphorical elephant!
You have several other films currently in production, including Cinemalbum and Cicada; the latter of which you recently announced the OMDC would be contributing to the development of. Can you speak a little about each of these?
David: Cicada is a feature drama I wrote about a female protagonist trying to solve the mystery of herself. It emerges partly out of work I have done in so-called “cold cases” involving victims and the havoc that PTSD can play on their experience and memories. I’m very excited about this project. Danny Iron, one of Canada’s most successful young English film producers, has joined the project as Executive Producer and I’m gathering together an amazing cast and crew to work on it. As you say, the OMDC, a Canadian provincial funding body, has just contributed development funding, which helps to open doors later when we seek out production support.
Cinemalbum is a documentary project I’m working on with Canadian singer-songwriter Bob Wiseman. He is an activist-artist and, to me, one of Canada’s unsung talents. The film is essentially about Bob re-inventing the potential of the singer-songwriter. I follow Bob as he lives his life, and also as he finds and works with several singer-songwriter “diamonds in the rough” to produce for them a recording that he hopes will help establish their career and remove them from obscurity. He’s done this before for others out of his own pocket, including Canadian Ron Sexsmith. The Toronto Arts Council is supporting the project, and I am looking for more support from others.
What’s been your proudest moment?
David: I like ideas. What they can do. Anytime an idea grows into something that makes a tangible progressive impact, even if only on an individual basis, it makes me proud. From abstraction to completion. As a filmmaker, the proudest moment is when the idea leads to something that has a life of its own, that will continue after you die.
Has there been any one project, or moment in a project, that changed or helped define how you view yourself as a filmmaker?
David: I think that On the Borders of Gardens was one of my watershed moments because it was the beginning of being able to do everything myself with relatively inexpensive equipment, from concept through shooting and editing, and also because of its breadth of locations, languages, and subjects. It showed me that a single person with an idea and motivation can complete a large scale project of significance and have it seen by a large number of people.
What advice would you offer to your younger self, or to anyone looking at getting into documentary filmmaking?
David: Go out and make a film. Show it to people. Then do it again. So often students ask me how they can break into the business, and I tell them exactly that. What are you waiting for?