Marsha Emerman

The Emerald PAVE Festival opens this year with a special treat – a Q&A screening of the award-winning documentary On the Banks of the Tigris, on April 11, 7:30 pm.

Produced and directed by Emerald resident Marsha Emerman, the film won Best Documentary at the Baghdad International Film Festival and has been a hit at festivals in Australia and worldwide.

I had the chance to ask Marsha a few questions.

What inspired you to wanna make documentary films?
Documentary filmmaking attracted me because I’m interested in people’s stories, in understanding the world we live in, and in working for social change. When I was at University I majored in Sociology. I also took photography classes and did a lot of black & white photography. I wasn’t making films yet, but I often went to see films. One film that really inspired me was a documentary called “Harlan County USA”. It’s about a coal miner’s strike in Kentucky and how hard the miners and their wives had to fight for union recognition. I was very impressed by the filmmaker’s commitment and the trust they were able to build with the community. I still love that film, and show it to the classes that I teach.

What made you decide to become a Director/Producer/Writer?
Becoming a documentary director was quite a slow process for me. When I realised I wanted to learn to make films, the first thing I did was to enrol in filmmaking classes and take every course I could – writing, directing, producing, editing, film history. Then I spent a lot of years as an intern, doing various jobs, both volunteer and paid, on other people’s films. I did production work and also got trained as an assistant editor. Later I went back to school and did a Master’s Degree at San Francisco State University. It was the time when people making documentaries were switching from film to video, so I learned about shooting and editing on video.
After I migrated to Australia in 1989, I continued working on films – mostly as a researcher. Gradually I started to research and develop my own projects. But it wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1999, which I finally built up the confidence to make my own documentary. That was Children of the Crocodile, a film about East Timor’s independence struggle. It was screened on SBS TV, on the very day that East Timor gained its independence and became the world’s newest nation.

What was life like for you when you first started as a new Documentary film creator?
Documentary filmmaking has always been a big challenge and it still is. Every stage of it is challenging – from the early stage of developing an idea and finding participants, through the filming and production phase, and then the editing. If you’re doing both producing and directing, as I have, it’s an enormous job to juggle those roles. Producing means being highly organised, dealing with all sorts of practical problems, finding funds, and a whole multitude of other things. And directing means knowing the story, building and sustaining relationships with the participants, and having a creative vision.
I feel like I’m still a beginner, as I’ve only made a few films of my own. So in a way, it’s not that different now than when I started. From many years of teaching and watching, I have quite a lot of knowledge of documentary film history and theory, and I have some filmmaking experience to draw on, but I’m still learning.

How happy were you when you heard that your film On the Banks of the Tigris won Best Documentary at the Baghdad International Film Festival?

Majid (Shokor) and I were so excited when we heard our film won the Best Documentary prize at the Baghdad International Film Festival. It means a lot that Iraqis are ready to accept this film, which uncovers a hidden chapter in their history, and embrace its themes of peace and harmony. And for Majid personally, it’s a real validation to have the film recognised in his hometown of Baghdad. We’re proud of winning this award, and the Audience Choice Award at the Arab Film Festival in San Francisco. Plus the film was a Finalist in the ATOM Awards here in Australia. Those are given by the Australian Teachers of Media, so it’s a good sign that the film will get a lot of use in schools and for educational purposes.

How does it feel standing and teaching documentary filming to film schools and universities?
I love teaching documentary film. Luckily, I’ve been able to teach at the VCA School of Film & TV for the past fifteen years. That’s a privilege really, as the VCA attracts fantastic students to the documentary course. It’s a master’s degree program, so the students are mature age, very talented and highly motivated. In my screen studies class, we watch a lot of excellent films and discuss them together. We talk about different styles and approaches to making documentaries. Engaging with the students in class and then watching them go on to make great films, both as students and once they graduate, is really rewarding.

If you could make a documentary of anything in the world what would it be about?
That question is nearly impossible to answer, because the world is full of fascinating people and subjects for documentaries. I can see certain patterns in the films I’ve made so far – that I’m interested in cultural identity, in the experiences of refugees and migrants, and in music and the arts. But it might be fun to make a film about something entirely different from what I’ve done before.

What’s next for you?
For now, I’m still focused on promoting and distributing On the Banks of the Tigris After spending 10 years making the film, I feel it deserves my continued commitment to make sure it is seen as widely as possible, in many different contexts. I think this film is really important now, as it has a message of peace and understanding that needs to be heard.
I’m not sure how soon I’ll make another film, but I’d like to continue teaching, mentoring, and advising new filmmakers. I also still love doing research and film programming, so perhaps I’ll find a role where I can put those skills to use.

With over 25 years of experience in the industry what advice would you give to someone that wants to follow in your line of work?
I’d advise them to have patience and stamina, as it can be a long process to make a film. To only take on a subject if they really feel it’s important and believe in it. I’d advise them that good relationships with your participants are absolutely essential, so they need to take the time to cultivate those relationships. Also I’d say that it’s good to have collaborators. Doing everything by your self is too hard, although some people are making films that way now. But I think the best work comes though collaboration and pooling of skills and talents.

It was very nice getting to chat with the very experienced documentary director Marsha Emerman.

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