The founder of London-based Roast Beef Productions talks to Screen about his latest feature doc, Danfung Dennis’s Sundance winning Hell And Back Again, which will jointly premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest and the EIFF.
After a career in television production, Mike Lerner set up Roast Beef Productions together with fellow producer Martin Herring and company director Ian Wright in 2007. The Soho based production outfit specialises in internationally based cultural documentaries and has produced for the BBC, Channel 4 and HBO.
Roast Beef’s latest offering is the hard hitting war doc Hell And Back Again which is competing for the special jury prize in Sheffield before going on to screen at the Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of a special “war reportage” strand of the festival. There will also be a special screening for veterans to coincide with the UK National Armed Forces Day on June 25.
Directed by acclaimed war photographer Danfung Dennis, it tells the story of one soldier’s demons both on the battlefield in Afghanistan and back home again in American suburbia. The film won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Award and the World Cinema Documentary Cinematography Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and picked up a special mention at Canada’s Hot Docs. It sold in Cannes to the new distribution arm of Luc Roeg’s company Independent, which will release in the UK.
Lerner will also be presenting two more projects at Sheffield’s MeetMarket, with a view to securing financing: Kristof Bilsen’s White Elephants, a portrait of three fading institutions (the post office, train station and local broadcaster) in the Congo and Victor Buhler’s The Negotiators, about the challenges facing peace negotiators, also set in the Congo.
Also in production is Havana Marking’s latest documentary, Smash And Grab: The Story Of The Pink Panthers, about the world’s most successful diamond thieves, which is backed by BBC Storyville and the UKFC. Roast Beef produced Marking’s first feature documentary Afghan Star (also a double winner at Sundance) about Afghanistan’s equivalent of pop idol.
How did you get involved with Hell And Back Again?
Danfung is a photo journalist. He didn’t set out to make a film, he just found himself in that situation with a canon D5 which shoots video and just thought why not. He came back from Afghanistan with a hard drive full of rushes and was working with a friend of ours, Richard Jobson, doing some cinematography for one of his films, and Richard suggested he talk to us, because we had made films in Afghanistan, and knew the terrain.
We actually met up in Sheffield in 2009 and he liked us and we’ve been working together ever since. Then we went and shot the second part of the film in North Carolina, which was slightly safer, but in some ways the more painful material.
You’ve been attracting attention in some high places…
We have had a request from the vice president of America, Joe Biden, to see the film, because he is interested in vet issues. Obama should see it. It’s a very educative film. And an increasing issue as more and more soldiers come home as they wind down the war.
You’ve made several documentaries set in Afghanistan [Hell And Back Again, Afghan Star, Vote Afghanistan, An Afghan Fallen Star for HBO]. What’s the attraction?
It’s an amazing country to work in and for the kind of films we make, there is so much potential there. We would seek to do more.
In many way it is an easy place to film compared to Iran of Syria where you’ve got the government breathing down your neck. Although you have some security issues and potential danger, the actual freedom you have to film is great. In some countries people don’t want to be on camera. We had people queuing up to be interviewed. And you can get a visa easily, compared to other parts of the world. So ironically, Afghanistan has its advantages.
The Helmand Province is very dangerous, but we tend to do stuff in Kabul and the cities which are delightful and brilliant places despite of all the trouble, although Danfung’s film was entirely in the Helmand Province..
Has winning prizes at Sundance opened any doors?
You get to meet the people that might fund your next film, and it means that people answer your emails and look at your projects. But it’s still tough. The broadcasters are putting less and less money into these sorts of films.
What are the biggest challenges in the documentary world right now?
The biggest threat to film-making is the lack of possibility for the ‘x factor.’ People won’t invest in things that aren’t a certainty. They want to know what’s going to happen and obviously part of the beauty of documentaries is that you don’t know.
It’s very hard to get a feature doc commissioned from a piece of paper. You have really got to demonstrate a hell of a lot more than that. And to do that you need money to develop something worthwhile. But while the BBC has got an in house department no one is paying us to do that, so to get to the stage where they might commission something is very hard, especially as there is less and less terrestrial output of docs.
Danfung shot half of Hell And Back Again off his own back. Fortunately, as he was a photo journalist, he was sent out there for the NY Times. Because we would never have got a commission to make that, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s one of the problems.
You have lucky breaks, like with Afghan Star, we were lucky with the way the narrative went and the characters that emerged. But we weren’t to know that when we set out.
With the traditional sources of funding drying up, where do you look for funding?
Darfung’s film was partly funded by Impact Partners, an organisation that raise private equity to put into films of social merit. They put money into The Cove and An Inconvenient Truth. Then there are people like Brtidoc and Tribeca.
By getting your funding from various sources it gives you greater control. It’s a question of trading money for control. If you get fully funded by a big broadcaster, they have a big say in how the film will turn out.
So many films are the sacrifice of an individual. People working for nothing in horrible conditions to bring a story. Those are the films that money can’t buy.
You are currently in production on Havana Marking’s second documentary Smash And Grab…
We like to make films with people we’ve worked with before, but also we do like to work with young new directors. Afghan Star was Havana’s first film and Hell and Back again is Danfung’s first film.
Smash And Grab is a documentary, but it is part animated, because the gang want to remain at liberty. They are based in Serbia Montenegro, but they do their robberies all over the world, they’ve done big ones in Bond Street, Japan and America. As a gang they have taken almost quarter of a billion pounds worth of diamonds.
We got to them through journalists and fixers we know in Serbia. But these guys are actually very media friendly, they are very proud of their status. They are not your normal mafia bullies, they have many an ingenious way of doing what they do. Sometimes they befriend the shop owners, they dress up, they don’t kill people They take all their money back to Serbia and spread it amongst their community where they are seen as folk heroes!
We haven’t done any fiction yet, but we are trying to branch out into drama docs. We have a film in development about Eva Braun, a book that we have the rights to, it’s the second world war from the point of view of the women and the wives of the Nazi leaders. She has been airbrushed out of history a bit.