The Norwich Film Festival recently spoke with Ferne Pearlstein winner of the Best Cinematography Prize for feature documentary at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival for her work on “Imelda.” She is a graduate of both the International Center for Photography and the Stanford University MA Program in Documentary Film. Pearlstein is one of a handful of female cinematographers featured in Kodak’s long-running “On Film” advertising campaign. She has recently Directed, Produced and completed the Cinematography on “The Last Laugh” which is a feature documentary about humour and the Holocaust, examining whether it is ever acceptable to use humour in connection with a tragedy of that scale, and the implications for other seemingly off-limits topics in a society that prizes free speech. This film will be having it’s UK Premier at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2016 and we at the festival would thoroughly recommend booking tickets for this brilliant and thought provoking documentary.
NFF: The Last Laugh examines how acceptable it is to use humour in relation to tragic events such as the Holocaust. What was it about this particular project which inspired and attracted you to tell this story?
FP: An old friend of mine and I were in Miami in 1991 with a group of journalists who were being given a tour of Miami’s then-new Holocaust Memorial, led by an elderly Holocaust survivor. My friend, Kent Kirshenbaum, had just finished reading Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and asked the guide what she thought of it. She reacted very strongly against it and said to him, “You cannot tell this story through the funny pages! There was nothing funny about the Holocaust!” We explained to her that although Maus used a “comic” form, the story of Spiegelman’s father surviving Auschwitz was told with complete reverence and not funny at all. The only so-called comic moments may have been in the complicated interactions between him and his father in the present day story. My friend went on to ask: “Have you read it?” to which she replied with an emphatic “No” That moment stuck with both of us, as we were both people who were drawn to a certain dark humor to help us get through difficult times. The following year we both went off to graduate school to pursue our different degrees. While Kent was was getting his PhD and I was getting my Masters in Documentary Film from Stanford, he wrote a 25-page paper called “The Last Laugh: Humor and the Holocaust.” When he was finished he handed the paper to me and said, “Make this into a movie.” And I eventually did.
NFF: You also managed to get a great line up of comedians to contribute to this particular film, what challenges did you experience around getting people to become involved in this documentary? And how did you overcome these obstacles?
FP: No one wanted to be the first comedian to say yes. In the beginning we got a lot of: “Great idea! Let me know when someone else comes on board!” A lot of that was when we were still trying to raise the initial funding, so it was all academic as we didn’t have the money to start shooting yet anyway. I don’t think they were afraid of the difficult topic, as they all deal with this type of humor in their work, but I definitely had to gain their trust and prove that I would deal with the topic in a tasteful way. When we finally did get our first start-up money—18 years after my friend handed me the paper—we went to my husband/producing partner’s agent who immediately called Rob Reiner and asked him if he would agree to be interviewed. And Rob said: “Sure, How’s a week from Wednesday?” So that jump-started everything. Rob Reiner is so beloved and lent so much credibility to our project that we were then able to get a number of comedians based on his involvement. Among them were his father Carl Reiner and a handful of others like Susie Essman, Harry Shearer, Alan Zweibel, David Steinberg, Gilbert Gottfried, and Judy Gold. And with each new interviewee we built our credibility and were able to get more and more people to agree. We had compiled a long list of comedians and artists who used taboo humor (and/or specifically Holocaust humor) in their work. From this master list, there were some people we knew we couldn’t make the film without—such as Mel Brooks– so in those cases we had to keep finding new and creative ways to approach and re-approach them until they agreed. Mel Brooks took a few years, a few very close connections, and a lot of luck to get him to finally say yes. But once we had Mel, of course his participation really opened doors and he was very supportive of the project. In fact, he personally helped us get Sarah Silverman, who was also on our “must-have” list and was also very hard to get. Mel personally wrote her an email encouraging her to do it, which was incredibly generous of him.
Joan Rivers was one of the first people to say yes but she was always so busy it was hard to pin her down with a time. We actually finally did schedule an interview date for October 1, 2014, but tragically she died two weeks before that date arrived.
(Above – Mel Brooks in The Last Laugh)
NFF: How did your vision for the “The Last Laugh” change over the course of the pre-production, production and post post-production?
FP: Honestly, the final film is very close to my initial vision. I had a strong sense of what I wanted before I started shooting and we set out to shoot material to fit that vision. Partially that was the result of spending so much time — years, really — thinking about the project and writing outlines and proposals before we ever began production. And I was very adamant that I didn’t want this to just be a talking heads-and-clips film. I always wanted to interweave a cinema verite thread (which turned out to be a portrait of an Auschwitz survivor) with interviews and archival. I thought of the interviews as functioning sort of like a Greek chorus. I will admit that it worked much easier on paper than in practice, as it was very hard to strike the right balance without it feeling like I was intercutting two totally different films. So it was definitely a challenge to weave those two stylistic threads together and make them feel like one seamless film, but I didn’t give up on my vision and just kept at it until it finally worked.
But another challenge that I hadn’t imagined was how hard it would be to keep up with current events. With each new shoot, year after year, more taboos were being broken….from rape jokes by Daniel Tosh, to jokes about Bill Cosby, to Charlie Hebdo, to the arrest of the anti-Semitic French comic Dieudonne in the wake of those attacks in Paris. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that as new taboos were being broken, the tolerance for using satire and making taboo jokes about difficult topics had changed over time — sometimes dramatically. So the theme of this film was very much a moving target that was constantly evolving even as I was making the movie.
NFF: You have focused a lot of your career working within the documentary field whether this be as a Cinematographer or Producer. What is about this documentary genre that pulls you in?
FP: I started my career as a documentary still photographer. I was drawn to entering someone else’s world and getting to know them and gaining their trust first before ever photographing them from that intimate place. I felt safer entering other people’s worlds behind my camera. And ironically, although I loved movies all of my life, it had not been my lifelong dream to become a filmmaker. It hadn’t even occurred to me. I just wanted to be a documentarian. And the only reason I found myself drawn to filmmaking was because when I heard that Stanford had a documentary film program I thought this would expand my abilities and possibilities to pursue making “documentaries.” Once I entered Stanford it didn’t hurt that I had a photography background, and I naturally gravitated to cinematography, which was a helpful skill that I could use to make a living in between trying to make my own documentary films.
NFF: What documentaries or docmakers have inspired you over the year’s?
FP: For years and years my favorite filmmaker was Robert Altman. Even though he worked in the narrative world (or maybe especially because of that), his documentary-like style with its improvisation and overlapping dialogue really inspired me. But as far as documentaries and documentary filmmakers who have inspired me over the years, (in no particular order): “Sherman’s March” by Ross McElwee, “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter” by Debbie Hoffmann, “Daughter from Danang” by Gail Dolgin and Vicente Franco, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, “Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer” by Nick Broomfield, “Grey Gardens” by the Maysles, “Man on Wire” by James Marsh, “Marlene” by Maximilian Schell, “The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl” by Ray Mueller, “Capturing the Freedmans” by Andrew Jarecki, “When We Were Kings” by Leon Gast, and “In Her Own Time” by Barbara Myerhoff are of my favorites.
NFF: Can we ask you your thoughts on shooting on film vs Digital. Do you think up and coming filmmakers are able to handle celluloid? What is that attracts you to shooting on film?
FP: Shooting in film for me is very personal. It’s definitely not the practical choice, even though I do own my own 16mm camera. And although it is an aesthetic choice, it’s not only that. As both a cinematographer and a director, I thrive on the challenge of working within the confines of a limited number of 10-minute rolls. It’s my way of thinking through the process and mapping out the film while not overshooting, which is a big risk in shooting digitally, especially in documentary. I think it is difficult for up and coming filmmakers to handle celluloid, but only because the infrastructure for shooting in film is collapsing all around us. In the years we were shooting (from 2011 to 2015), Kodak filed for Chapter 11, the last lab that processed film in New York City closed, the equipment houses both in New York and LA had fewer and fewer people who knew about servicing motion picture film gear, and there were fewer and fewer camera assistants who had worked with film who were available on a moment’s notice, which I often needed. But even with all that, I do think I am a better cinematographer for training in film, so I highly encourage young filmmakers to pursue it if they’re so inclined. But you have to be really, really dedicated, because it’s not an easy path!
NFF: What tips would you offer short documentary filmmaker’s?
FP: I would say, really understand what your strengths are and what you can personally bring to the table. My strength is knowing how to listen to criticisms while trusting my own instincts. As a director who shoots and edits my own films, I often get told that I won’t have the perspective to shoot and edit my own work and that I should hire an outside editor. I understand that logic, but to me editing is so crucial and so personal that I can’t not be hands-on about it. At the same time, I work very hard to surround myself with consultants and trusted friends to make sure I have that outside perspective that’s desperately needed. As soon as I feel that I won’t have that perspective, I am prepared to pass that job on to others. But so far it hasn’t happened. So I would advise young filmmakers to stick to their guns whenever it comes to outside advice if you really know deep in your heart that it’s not the right advice for you. The trick is knowing when it is and when it isn’t, and what to listen to and what to skip!
NFF: What are the biggest challenges have you identified when working in the role of Cinematography and equally what have been the biggest rewards?
FP: Ironically what has become my biggest challenge in documentary has been the transition from motion picture film to digital on the production side. Early on I made a career shooting documentaries in film. But now all that work has become digital, which is simply less interesting to me. So I do far less work these days as a cinematographer for hire, and concentrate instead on my own projects, which is the thing I find most rewarding.
NFF: Looking at the films you have worked on previously, our difficult has financing projects been? Can you offer any advice for filmmakers out there looking to seek support around financing their film?
FP: Needless to say, raising money for documentaries can be extremely challenging, especially if they’re not social issue docs. With THE LAST LAUGH, for instance, because of the nature of the topic we had a really difficult time raising money from granting organizations. We were finalists for more than five large grants, but in each case we were ultimately rejected. We had very strong proposals and a strong academic team behind us explaining why the subject was important, and how it offered a new approach to something that felt like it had been looked at from every possible angle. But the film was still risky from the grantors’ point of view. Understandably, no one wanted to offer what might look like an endorsement of the idea that “it’s okay to laugh at the Holocaust,” even though that was not at all what we were saying. In the end we only received one modest grant from the New York State Council of the Arts. The rest of our funding came from one anonymous philanthropist who believed in the project from the beginning. Then once we got to picture lock, an investor came in with the finishing funds we needed.
NFF: The Norwich Film Festival is primarily a short film festival (which includes a category for short documentaries). How important do you feel the festival circuit is for short doc maker’s and why?
FP: I think festivals are extremely important for short films. Apart from the Internet, it’s one of the few places they can really be seen and reach a large audience. My very first short film that I made at Stanford was at the San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival where it caught the eye of Independent film consultant and guru Bob Hawk who immediately brought it to the attention of Sundance where the film played the following winter. That completely altered the course of my career as a documentary filmmaker, for obvious reasons.
NFF: Finally, any last words you would like to offer short filmmakers out there?
FP: Sometimes you have to make your own luck. For me, I wanted to shoot documentaries and I wanted to shoot them in film. When I was graduating from Stanford, one of my professors—Jon Else, the brilliant documentary director and DP– told me, “If you want to shoot your documentaries in film, and you want to be hired by others to shoot in film, you need to buy yourself a film camera so you can be a package deal.” Figure out what YOU want, and find ways of making it happen. And don’t listen to the voices that say you can’t. The first feature I shot with that camera was “Imelda” by Ramona Diaz, which I won the Sundance Cinematography Prize in Documentary in 2004. The most recent feature I shot with it was “The Last Laugh.” So that was some pretty good advice Jon gave me, and I would offer the same advice to others out there. These days, with digital cameras, it’s a lot more affordable as well….unless you’re a celluloid purist like me!
The Last Laugh will be screening at the following events:
Interview by Craig Higgins