Riveting Riffs Logo One  Toronto International Film Festival - Variety Hosted Event

TIFF Photo A

During the recently concluded Toronto International Film Festival in Canada, Variety hosted the Creative Conscience Symposium, which had as its main topic social activism in films, particularly in independent documentary films. A panel consisting of Mexican actor, producer and director Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries in which he portrayed Che Guevara, directed Los Invisibles in collaboration with Amnesty International, directed Rosewater and won a Golden Globe Award in 2016 for the lead role in Mozart in the Jungle),  American filmmaker Morgan Spurlock who first reached notoriety with debut film Super Size Me in 2004, later Where In the World is Osama Bin Laden, and the television series 30 Days among many others.) Joining Gael Garcia Bernal on the panel were filmmakers Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani whose documentary film The Ivory Game that was viewed at this year’s festival. Actress and author Maria Bello was also originally scheduled to take part in the panel, but due to the sudden death of a close friend she sent her regrets.

The session began with Variety’s award winning editor Jenelle Riley asking the directors to talk about their most recent films. Spurlock began by talking about The Eagle Huntress, which he described as being about a 13 year old girl from Mongolia. He called it “One of the most inspiring films you will ever see.” This trailer will do far more to tell you about the film than this writer could possibly do justice to.

Spurlock went on to talk about his other film at this year’s festival, “The other movie is Rats and it is inspiring, but for a different reason. I grew up loving horror films and I always wanted to make a horror film, so when somebody brought to me the Robert Sullivan book Rats, I said, well why can’t I make a horror documentary? We made a documentary that is just as scary, just as creepy, just as heart pounding as any film you will see.

It is about rat infestations around the world. We shot in New York, the rat capitol of America. For those of you who haven’t been there it is ratastic (this comment evoked laughter from the audience). It is great. We filmed in New Orleans. We filmed in Mumbai. We filmed in Cambodia and Vietnam and in the countryside of England, which sounds very quaint until you see what we shot there.”

Ladkani, “We’re here for The Ivory Game. It premiered yesterday in Toronto. We had the world premiere with Telluride last week. It is a film about ivory trafficking and all of these poachers and syndicates out to kill elephants and selling the ivory tusks to China. It is about the possible extinction of elephants. It is a very serious film that we came together on about three years ago. We decided to make it and to do what we can to stop the killing. What we can do is to make movies and that is what we did. Three years later and many, many crazy lifestyles later we’re here and we are very excited to get it out to the world.” TIFF Photo B

Riley then asked Kief Davidson about The Ivory Game, “Did you ever think of making it more of a narrative film or was a documentary always the way to go?”

Davidson replied, “It is a documentary and it is a topic that is very urgent to get out there, because elephants are close to extinction. Locally there are areas in Africa where eighty-five percent of the elephants have been decimated. In Tanzania sixty percent of the elephants have been decimated. It is a topic that needed to get out there immediately, so we didn’t want to wait at all.”

Ladkani joined in the conversation, “It premiered September 10th in Toronto. We had the world premiere with Telluride (Film Festival) last week. It is a film about ivory trafficking and all of these poachers and syndicates out to kill elephants and selling the ivory tusks to China. It is about the possible extinction of elephants. It is a very serious film that we came together on about three years ago. We decided to make it and to do what we can to stop the killing. What we can do is to make movies and that is what we did. Three years later and many, many crazy lifestyles later we’re here and we are very excited to get it out to the world.”

Responding to Davidson’s point about the urgency to get The Ivory Game out there, Morgan Spurlock says, “I think you are hitting on an important point. There is such immediacy for a documentary. They need to have an impact immediately. The impact of a narrative film is also something that we measured. Using The Eagle Huntress as an example, which is a movie that we love, right on the heels of that we did a deal with Fox Animation (Studios) to do the film as an animated movie. We sold that film right on the heels of Sundance. There is a reach that documentaries can have that can really be amplified by fiction and I think the two of them can play together very nicely. I think you are seeing a lot of non-fiction films that are being optioned now to be turned into films. That is a great way for those two to play nicely in the sandbox together.”

“I think when people watch our film they are going to feel that this looks like fiction. It is a very elevated film. We were really in the middle of an action thriller, the people we were following. We were embedded with undercover ops, activists who were risking their lives with hidden cameras. We really told a film like we saw it and it felt like a scripted movie at times,” says Davidson.

Riley says, “Honestly, in watching your movie I felt the way that I was when I was watching The Cove. If someone told me this is a narrative film I almost wouldn’t believe it and that these people could be so evil. It has a text book villain.”

Ladkani says, “We tried to make this film in a way, so it is also very cinematic, because it has a very hard topic, like The Cove. It took me a very long time, before I was able to sit down and watch it. We had a very tough topic, elephants being killed, but we said okay, we have a tough topic, but we need to make it accessible to millions of people who will want to see it. The first thing that you do is to make it as cinematic as possible. It is also about beautiful animals and amazing landscapes out there. You enhance it so that you make it more accessible to enough people and then try to make sure that it is commercial enough so it reaches a large audience.”

“It probably doesn’t hurt to have Leonardo DiCaprio involved,” mused Riley.

Ladkani replies, “It never hurts. He is a great influencer. His voice amplifies the message of the movie a million times and that is why it was amazing to have him on board, just as it is to have Jane Goodall who is one of our ambassadors. Together they can get this message out. With Netflix as a partner and they have eighty million subscribers, the whole concept works, we hope.”

Kief adds, “We decided pretty early on that we would surround ourselves with a team that was going to give 100 percent. You can’t find anyone out there who cares more than Jane Goodall and it was good to have her involved. She was very inspiring, especially when you are dealing with such difficult subject matter and being out there, risking your lives and having such a strong team.”

Gael Garcia Bernal solicits polite laughter from the audience when he says, “I prefer to watch documentaries than to make them. Well of course I think that we all prefer to watch documentaries than to make them in a way. That is why we became what we do, because we started to watch films and we liked them.

For me the reason is never upfront, because we can fall into a trap I think especially with fiction. It is better not to define the motivation or the authenticity or the outcome beforehand. It is like this is an arts movie; it is social, so watch it. The outcome is what tells the film. We work with tangents as well. For instance there is the direct approach (he then turns to Ladkani and Davidson), which for instance your documentary built. It goes to the very issue and opens up the complexities. Documentaries, the best thing they have is that they eliminate the single discourse. They open up a world of complexities like not many can. It cannot be solved in a tweet. It cannot be argued in a tweet or counter argued in a tweet.”

One of the things very evident during the panel discussion is how much documentary filmmaking has evolved. There now is a very strong entertainment element in documentary films and the cinematography is fabulous.

Kief Davidson addresses that, “We (he and Richard Ladkani) are both filmmakers first, before activists. We are activists as well and we believe one hundred percent in what we are trying to fight and in this case it is (about) the elephants, but we still need to make films that are going to work. We still need to have very strong characters and a very strong story. We made the conscious decision very early on to tell this like a thriller, because that is exactly what it is. We were like wow it is incredible what is going on here and what these people are doing, by going undercover in China and Africa.

When you watch the film there is very much a lo-fi component, which is the hidden camera footage and then there is the majestic hi-fi component, with large format cameras and beautiful aerial cinematography. Richard was also the cinematographer and he did some unbelievable work with that. TIFF Photo C

It is a balance. At the end of the day we still had to tell a story that people would want to watch, be inspired by and they would want to take action. Action is required right now. We couldn’t wait to get this film out there and we couldn’t wait to go through certain distribution channels. That is why we went to Netflix, because we knew very quickly we could get this out to eighty million plus people in nine different languages. The topic and the urgency of it call for a partner like Netflix.”

Spurlock says, “One of the things that I love about what Netflix is doing is they seem to be able to reach an audience of that size and that scope. I am a real believer that ultimately you should have an understanding that you will have an audience watching this. You never come in with an attitude I am going to change the world with this thing. It has to be about the story first and simultaneously you have to understand that the film is part of the entertainment industry and this is an entertainment based business. You need to entertain an audience. There is only so much doom and gloom and browbeating someone can take while watching a ninety minute or longer documentary. There has to be something that sucks me in and whether it is the character, the story or the emotion, there has to be something that I connect with as a human being immediately.

I think that is something that we strive for from the minute that we look at a story. What’s the story and who are the people involved. Why do I care? If you can find and circle those three things early on then likely you can find a really great movie.”

Ladkani says, “I can add to that, because it reminds me of the first conversation that we (he and Davidson) had when we found out about the elephants. It was a New York Times article that triggered it.”

Spurlock interjects, “Everybody loves elephants.”

Richard laughs and says, “Yes.”

Davidson jokes, “Rats though, I don’t know.” (It evoked much laughter from the audience and from Spurlock)

Ladkani continues, “We read this headline that said ten years until extinction for the African elephant. In reading it, it kind of reads like a spy, thriller movie with all of these elements that you would want in a good movie. You had this cause to stop this from happening. We had the right ingredients and that is why it was obvious that this could work. There were the spies, the whole undercover element. We had the Chinese syndicates and mafia and the Vietnamese mafia. There were gangs across Africa killing elephants and working together with traders and putting them in containers. You have the western world that comes in and tries to stop this from happening. When you put this all in there you have this strong cause. Why are they doing all of this? They are fighting it to stop the largest land mammal to go extinct. You had all of these elements, so we thought this could work.”

Riley guides the conversation to focus for a few minutes on potential dangers faced by these filmmakers.

While acknowledging that there are dangers, Davidson says, “but it is really nothing in comparison to the people that we follow who are in danger every single day. I think that it is important to know that. We were flies on the wall following these people, undercover intelligence operatives and undercover activists who were going into very difficult and dangerous situations. In those situations we had to be really careful not to interfere and to lurk in the shadows and never, ever expose them. They are the ones who were risking their lives.

We did a film together twelve years ago and we haven’t worked together since mainly because you (Richard) is in Munich and I am in Los Angeles and maybe (he jokes) it was traumatizing by the time we finished the last one. (Morgan interjects “and therapy”) There was a lot of therapy. That was a movie called The Devil’s Miner and we were working 17,000 feet up (he gestures upward) and then 3,000 feet below (he points downward). That was substantially more dangerous, but we were also twelve years younger, dumber probably and we didn’t have families.  

The family situation was a conversation that we had and I think was our original hesitation to want to even be doing this project. What will we tell our families? Will they support us? Can we do this and minimize the risk as much as possible. You have to watch out for your crew people as well. It is not just us; you have other people to consider as well.”

Ladkani recalls, “But it was my wife who kicked me in the butt and said you have to go out there and do this. Even though we have two kids and everything, she was the one who said the cause is so big. You can’t say no to this. She lived in Kenya for three years, so she was very attached to it. Without her, I don’t know if I would have had the courage to convince her and to explain to the children why we would be going into the field for three years and risking a lot. I felt that this film was more dangerous, because it was more unpredictable. You go in and you are not prepared for gun raids in the village in the middle of the night and with night vision goggles. I didn’t train for that. We are filmmakers.

What was great and what was very crucial is we put technology onto these people and they could get footage that took us out of the line of fire. GoPros, Spy cams and thermal imagery cameras. We placed those technology elements with a task force going in and with the undercover agents. That helped us a lot of the time. They came back and they had the great footage.”

Davidson lightens up the conversation by asking Spurlock, “Did you get any kind of rat POVs with hidden cameras on the rats?”

At first Spurlock was caught off guard and then he replies, “There are some great rat POVs.”

Returning to the topic of danger, Morgan Spurlock notes, “The moment you have that child you become infinitely more mortal. (Kief and Richard) were saying what do they tell their wives and while I was in the middle of Afghanistan making Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden, I am telling my wife it’s all fine, but I was out with the military in the middle of a Taliban ambush, as we were being shot at. I lied a lot during the course of making that film. She said to me, I can never believe anything that you tell me again. This is not what happened.

After we had our son, my priorities changed. I don’t think they changed in terms of wanting to make movies or telling them differently. They change in terms of where you want to put yourself and how much danger you want to go for.”

We could write a lot more about this excellent panel discussion and the fabulous participants who did not need to be coaxed into talking about their craft and in a very transparent fashion. There was no sense of competition and they all had an equal opportunity to share their views and stories. They also interjected just enough wit and humor to keep the discussion from becoming too heavy.

Riveting Riffs Magazine would like to thank Variety and the Chief Marketing Officer for Variety, Dea Lawrence for giving us the opportunity to sit in on this wonderful event.

Top Photo:  Gael Garcia Bernal, Middle Photo: Morgan Spurlock, Bottom Photo: Kief Davidson           Return to Our Front Page

This interview by Joe Montague  published September 19, 2016 is protected by copyright © and is the property of Riveting Riffs Magazine All Rights Reserved.  All photos are the the property of  Riveting Riffs Magazine and all  are protected by copyright © All Rights Reserved. This interview may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved