From LA to Kabul: documentary filmmaker Sam French
Oscar-nominated director Sam French has been producing work for top international broadcasters and news outlets, and creating narrative and documentary pieces all over the world, notably short film Buzkashi Boys and documentary Afghanistan Rising. Listen to our podcast with Sam to hear about what took him to Afghanistan where he lived for five years, and how he sees documentary filmmaking advancing.
Hi I’m George and today today we’re speaking with director Sam French, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker and founding director of documentary production company Development Pictures. Sam French’s work has appeared on HBO, BBC, CNN, Channel 4 News, Al Jazeera, National Geographic and other broadcasters. Sam great to have you on the Movidiam podcast and welcome.
It’s great to be on thank you very much.
Where are you today Sam, where are we hearing you from?
I’m in Los Angeles at the moment.
Great. So you’ve got a real passion for investigating cause of conflict and struggle in an increasingly chaotic world — how did your interests first develop?
Well I’ve always wanted to be a filmmaker. When I graduated college I moved to New York and started working in film production, and then I went to USC film school out here in Los Angeles in 2002.
But then, you know, I’m in the industry and honestly getting a little bit bored, because it’s very insular here in Los Angeles. And then I fell in love with a British diplomat, and she was amazing. She was posted to Afghanistan so I decided, in one of the best decisions that I think I’ve ever made, to pick up and move to Kabul, Afghanistan, to be with her. I didn’t know what to expect but what I found was a country full of amazing, heroic, hopeful people who are yearning for a better future. Definitely unlike anything I had seen on the news, because all you see on the news is you know, bombs and Burkas and bullets.
“When I got there I realized there were stories to tell that hadn’t been told.”
So you follow your heart all the way to Afghanistan and then you’re working on another passion, filmmaking.
Yes — so I started doing documentaries, making stories, and I focused on people who weren’t really seen on the news, the people behind the headlines. I started working for all the broadcast outlets you mentioned, and then I started a company that actually did a lot of work for governments, the UN and NGOs over there to highlight the work that’s been done to rebuild the country.
Very interesting — previously on the Movidam podcast we’ve heard from Sofia De Fay who, as a filmmaker, works in a similar sort of area. So you’re based out of Los Angeles and, that’s the center of cinema and creative cinema, so a very different genre. How do you rub up against people who work in film but in a very different aspect of it?
Well I think storytelling is universal whether you’re doing documentary or narrative, first of all. You have to find the heart of the story, and that’s always a character, right. People overcoming obstacles, trying to achieve something…and I think in a war zone that’s pretty easy to find, because everyone has a big struggle ahead of them. It’s an amazing arena to hone my craft of filmmaking — you can go out and find people and figure out what they want, figure out what’s stopping them from getting it and you can tell their story. So I think my skills as a filmmaker really were honed in that crucible.
Great. It’s a very intense environment I’d imagine to work in, and again Sofia [De Fay] described a similar sort of process she goes through when working in those environments — could you perhaps talk a little bit about some of the titles that you produced and directed in Afghanistan?
First of all let me say that in Afghanistan, when I moved there in 2008 and stayed for five years, the community of people was astounding, and the expatriate community was incredibly stimulating and invigorating. There were all these people there trying to tell the story of the Afghan people and there was a very interesting divide between the people, the filmmakers like myself, journalists and civilians who are working there to rebuild the country, and then the the governments and military, because the government and military live in big compounds. They never get out to see the real country of Afghanistan and they really see it from behind walls. I was there in the midst of it, so finding stories to tell was pretty easy. What I did was I did a lot of stuff for the news; I did stories, for example about children smuggling across the border in Pakistan near Tora Bora, or Iranians providing arms the Taliban. So I travelled all over the country telling those kinds of stories. The documentaries I did for NGOs, the UN and others, were stuff like stories about Afghans de-mining their country from landmines, it’s the most heavily landmined country in the world. So you do stories like that and then I would do longer form documentaries.
Right now we’re finishing up a documentary called Injustice, which tells the story of two heroic Afghan women who have been imprisoned for moral crimes — one of our subjects was raped by her cousin’s husband, and put in prison for adultery, which is a very common practice over in Afghanistan and other places in the world. Women are basically second class citizens. We followed these two women — the other woman was abused by her husband and beaten up for about ten years until she finally got the courage to run away, and she was sent to prison for running away from her husband. So we did documentaries like that which which again highlights the everyday Afghan people. I think both documentary and narrative have their unique powers of storytelling so right now I’m in back in Los Angeles and I’m developing narrative projects as well as documentary projects. One narrative project I’m very excited to be a part of is this film called The Red Thread which is set in Shanghai. It’s about a Chinese antiques dealer who falls in love with an American woman who is living in Shanghai. He finds an ancient manuscript from the eighteenth century which is actually a real document, one of the only memoirs from that time period of an ordinary person. It seems that his life in the present day seems to strangely mirror the life of the lovers in the past, and when this woman he’s fallen in love with falls ill, he has to find the remaining two chapters, which are missing, to see if he can find a way to save her life. So I’m excited about that. What I’m doing is I’m developing a lot of projects that are international in scope, and China specifically for me is an area of interest so that’s another aspect of what I’m doing.
These sort of stories are incredibly important to tell, to broaden your audience’s understanding of these issues which are prevalent in Afghanistan and other places around the world. Have you found that working on certain projects has given lead to more interest, for example, I know the military has commissioned you for projects, has that come as a commercial proposition or is it because of interest in different documentary work that they might have seen?
Yeah well one way I got a lot of work in Afghanistan was because it’s a very small community, so you would be rubbing shoulders with a lot of different people and you get work through that. I did do a documentary called Afghanistan Rising about the Afghan National Army. As you may know the US military and the coalition forces have been in Afghanistan for a long time, they’re pulling out now and so the job of fighting the Taliban falls to the Afghan National Army which I think at the moment is about 200,000-strong and it started in 2001. It’s funded and resourced mainly by the West so all the salaries are paid for by US and other coalition forces. What happened with that one was, I was commissioned to do a documentary to show these incredibly brave and heroic Afghan fighters. That documentary was actually screened before the US Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s sort of to convince them to continue funding the Afghan military, and what we did was we went around to all the different bases and explained the nature of how the Afghan military worked and what they’re fighting for.
And does that project come about from Buzkashi Boys exposure? How does that piece of work come to you, is it just a simple question of proximity and that you’ve become a specialist in Afghanistan?
I think a bit of both, definitely that came about because of Buzkashi Boys. Let me just talk a little bit about Buzkashi Boys because it was a pretty incredible project that I was proud to be a part of, and I’ll explain how that sort of led to other work. I’m a narrative filmmaker by training, so I’d been in Afghanistan for three or four years and doing documentaries, then my very good friend and colleague Martin Rowe came to visit me in Afghanistan and said, ‘Sam, what are you doing doing documentaries, you should be doing a narrative film’. So we sat down and wrote this film called Buzkashi Boys which is about two young Afghan kids dreaming of being Buzkashi riders. Buzkashi is a national sport in Afghanistan, which is horse polo, but played with a dead goat carcass instead of a ball. These guys are pretty rough and tumble, they’re larger than life figures. It’s one of the first films to be shot entirely on location in Afghanistan after the 2001 invasion, and we shot with a crew of about fifty people which is definitely quite a challenge, and I can talk to you more about the specifics of that, but based on that, what happened was we finished it and then we did the festival circuit. We got nominated for an Oscar for that film, and we were able to bring our two young stars to the Academy Awards in 2013 which was quite spectacular, these twelve year old kids who had never left their country and didn’t really have access to the wider world were coming to LA to the Academy Awards, it was astounding.
And fascinating for a story from that part of the world to be told at the Academy Awards as well.
Yeah exactly and it’s interesting because it did a few things; one, we were able to raise money to pay for our young star’s education. When I cast him in the film he was actually a street kid. He was begging on the streets, but one of the most amazing kids I’ve ever met. When I went back to Afghanistan after the Oscars, the film had aired on Afghan TV and everyone I knew in Afghanistan had seen it, so I would get in a taxi in Afghanistan they would recognise me as the director of Buzkashi Boys, which is pretty astounding. When we did our other projects after that, including this Afghanistan Rising film, all the generals of the army had seen the film and everything so I was granted amazing access because of the film, that’s how it helped.
I mean that’s two or three amazing outcomes there and such a human interest story evolves off screen after the final productions are out.
Yeah it’s amazing.
What’s next for you in terms of where you see your medium going, I mean those are two fairly significant projects and you mentioned briefly Injustice, but where do you see the general industry going in terms of documentary — how people are using it and how it’s being distributed?
Yeah I think documentary filmmaking is having a renaissance right now, absolutely. I mean with portals like Netflix and other places, you can air documentaries and the ease of equipment to use, and I think documentaries are really having renaissance. What we did in Afghanistan was we also created this nonprofit called the Afghan Film Project which trains Afghan filmmakers to make their own stories. The challenge has and will be to let the voices of people in these places, like for example now in Syria, how do we get stories out of those places that are told well, that can connect with a wider audience and I think that’s been my mission, it has been and will continue to be — to try to enable filmmakers and show their stories, so that the people in other countries can really connect with their struggles. What we see on the news is tailored for, you know, it’s to shock and awe the viewer obviously but when you put a human face on the struggle then it becomes something different, it becomes personal. For me I’m going to continue to try to develop stories around the world. I’m working on a documentary series right now about youth in revolt who are using new tools to overturn old power structures. It’s going to be showcasing this new generation of kids who are struggling to find their future. So that’s where I’m going to go with my career.
Very interesting, and to use your expression of enabling filmmakers — I feel that ties very nicely into Movidiam’s work which is giving filmmakers the ability to showcase their work and profiling, and to investigate stories that are important to them. From a documentary standpoint, you’re quite a champion of that genre — what do you think of the platform and what you’ve seen of it that might help facilitate in the future?
Well I think it’s an incredible platform. The challenge has always been connecting talented people with other filmmakers who can tell stories together. I mean, I was able to find people to work with in Afghanistan because I lived there for five years, but I think if people start using this site in Afghanistan, and there are incredibly talented filmmakers over there — people we trained and also you know the youth in Afghanistan have an incredible hunger to tell a story so I think if they start using the site and connect with Western resources, money and outlets to showcase their work, I think it could spark some incredible communications. I think the site will hopefully enable that.
Yes that’s really part of developing the filming community in Afghanistan and I agree with you. There’s so many pockets around the world where there is incredible filmmaking talent, whether you’re a 2D animator, 3D animator, you’ve gone out and bought a camera and you’ve worked it until the batteries have run out. We’re seeing a lot of incredible talent popping up in various different spheres and I think, to your point, it’s incredibly important to nurture that and ultimately, if people want to do it professionally, it drives revenue and opportunity to them.
Yes. That’s actually been the number one challenge. Filmmaking is not inexpensive — you can grab a camera and go out and hone your craft to make films but finding an audience is really hard so I think that’s our challenge. When I was in Afghanistan I was doing stuff for international news outlets, but the Afghan filmmaking community was really struggling to find an audience, especially beyond their borders. That was the biggest challenge we faced. Something like Movidiam, my hope for it is that it can break that barrier.
I suppose from a naive perspective it’s films like The Kite Runner, which are focused on Afghanistan, from a mass distribution perspective and it’s stories which are at the documentary level as opposed to the features at a creative cinema level, but it’s getting those out of the villages in the communities which is most important in that case.
Yes exactly. I mean there’s film festivals and that’s quite some outlet, but to be perfectly honest there’s very few people who watch those films in film festivals, so I think even now in a digital age where we have YouTube and Vimeo those outlets, it’s still difficult to find and connect with the audience. When you’re coming from a place like Afghanistan that doesn’t have the same networks or places to build your audience, I think anything we can do to connect Afghan filmmakers, Syrian filmmakers, you know, Iranian filmmakers, with a wider audience, it’s worthwhile.
Sam, thank you so much for your time it’s been absolutely fascinating listening to you and I know a number of our community will be delighted to follow up with you on your Movidiam profile, and indeed watch your films. Dan Myrick has previously been on the Movidiam podcast, Sofia De Fay, and we’ve just listened to Sam French there. Sam thanks so much from Los Angeles and we look forward to being in touch soon.