Over the last decade, The Palm Springs International Film Festival, which rolls out the red carpet every January, has emerged as one of the more alluring festivals in the country. Stellar programming, fiery fest parties, and a bevy of celebrities and filmmakers attending does not hurt, however lovely brushes of creative genius emerge every year from behind the scenes and audiences are the better for it.
Still, the inspiration lingers throughout the year, especially with the fest's summer relative, The Palm Springs International ShortFest (June 21-27), which wins points for film selection, numerous seminars, and special presentations. It has emerged as one of the most innovative--and the largest--short film festival in the country.
The opening night selection boasts major award winners from the world's top film festivals and focuses on the most talented emerging international directors. Elsewhere, there are plenty of other standouts--Romania's "237 Years," Berlin's In Pursuit," and featured programs such as "Sibling Stories" and the Monty Python-inspired "And Now For Something Completely Different" should generate applause.
Heartfelt shorts and docs are on the roster, too. One of them, "Cristina," by Academy Award-nominated documentary director-producer, Michèle Ohayon ("Colors Straight Up"), dives into deep, personal waters. The filmmaker chronicles a soulful 37-year-old woman's inspiring cancer journey--but with a twist. The soulful woman is the director's friend, who, after learning about her fate, encourages Ohayon to make a documentary.
I recently caught up with Ohayon to learn more about the project and the passionate message and legacy her friend wanted to leave behind.
Remarkable documentary. Can you share a bit about when it hit you. When you knew that you must make a documentary about your friend's experiences?
My close friend Bruce, Cristina's husband, called me to say she was diagnosed with her second cancer. Just some time before, we are all dancing the night away on New Year's Eve, thinking she was cancer free. I went to see Cristina, and found her grappling with the big "Why." Why me? Why now? Why again? We were sitting on her bed, she then looked me in the eyes, and said: "Michele, you are going to make a movie about my journey. I want to give a message to the world: Live now." It was my turn to ask: Why? Why Me? Cristina answered that she trusted me as a friend and as a filmmaker. I explained to her that I will be "in her face" with my camera. She knew what that meant (she was a script supervisor) and expressed the sense of urgency. She was on a mission, and hence I was too.
What challenges did you face in this particular project, considering you were filming your friend?
I faced a dilemma every day. Should I film or should I put the camera down and help her? Should I show my friend in her most vulnerable moments or shall I pick and choose? I felt that I had to be true to her story and honest to the core. More than ever.
As I was around her deathbed, her family made room for me, allowing me to film her and fulfill her mission. (An act of courage and generosity of her mother and siblings.) That was the hardest moment I ever filmed. The pain fogged my lens, but I kept shooting while holding her hand. Until the very last moment. I then could not watch the footage for three years. It was too close, too fresh. Too painful. But I had to--for her. With the help of my long-time editor Kate Amend, we took on the challenge. I only had 20 hours of footage, since she died sooner than predicted.
Your friend is inspiring. What do you think it is that keeps us humans moving forward, even during the most challenging points in our lives?
I've filmed homeless women, Holocaust survivors, kids in Watts who try to stay alive day by day, and now Cristina--it always astonished me to witness the inner strength one finds within themselves, one that keeps us alive at all cost. As if the pain turns into a life force. Like Cristina said: "The nearer you are to death, the more alive you are"
What are a few things you learned from your friend? And about life itself; perhaps about yourself, too?
I learned to continue making choices out of courage and never fear, which was always a guide in my life. I learned to appreciate the joy and love around me, and not take it for granted. I remind myself of that every single day. I see her smiling face and piercing eyes in front of me, and it gives me strength to overcome obstacles, to make strong, active choices, and to say, "yes," rather than "no." I learned to live now and think later.
What do you hope audiences walk away with--what feeling?
As challenging as it is to sometimes watch the pain on the screen, I hope the audience will feel the need to allow joy into their lives, even in small, everyday ways. To get perspective on what is important. To WAKE UP. Now. To give love the place it deserves.
Is there a secret or fabulous bit of wisdom to know in terms of how to effectively make a short film or a doc?
The wisdom in a documentary is instinct and intuition. It is following your own truth through your characters. Not to try to please, but rather let your subjects feel safe to be themselves, to bring you to their hearts of hearts. And that, you can only achieve if you yourself, the filmmaker, are truthful. It is also the experience you gain knowing when is the moment to open the door, to exercise the trust you worked to gain, and when to back off. The combination of intuition and knowledge is the winning equation.
Shorts and documentaries have become increasingly more popular; more embraced over the last decade. Why do you feel that is?
I have been making feature documentaries for 35 years. We made strong docs on film, and then the digital era came and the craft disappeared at times by the excitement of the accessibility of the format. I was one of the first to shoot on HD cards, for example. Once we learned to use the powerful digital tools we had in hand, the craft soared and the storytelling benefited from it.
I also think that the audience got tired of the blockbusters and films that under-estimate their intelligence. They turned to documentaries to get a sense of reality. Especially when documentaries were no longer just "boring talking heads," but created a sense of drama within the reality. It is the opposite of the Hollywood "escapism." It's escape to the reality.
The projects you are stepping into, as well as your previous works, seem to delve into deeper issues that lie beneath the surface; why is it important for you to delve into such juicy topics and shed light on these things?
When you get this feeling of: "I wish I didn't have to make this film," you know you have to make it. I am inspired by finding a new angle on a known subject. Breaking stereotypes and misconceptions both in life and through film. I am drawn to the underdog, as I was myself one until I discovered my passion at the age of 18, and made my first film. The camera gives me the courage to go into places and worlds I would never go if it wasn't for the lens. There is a part of me that is like a reporter in a war zone, which is probably what I would have been if not for docs. The other part is the drive to humanize, to understand human kind--all kinds, and give a voice to the positive in the challenge at hand. Some filmmakers make movies about people they love. Some about people they hate. I think it's clear which one I belong to.
What do you love most about filmmaking?
The thrill of the unknown. The combination of art and technology. The power of touching someone's heart through your eyes. The gift of inspiring without preaching. Filmmaking is an extension of who I am. It is part of my purpose in this world: To heal and repair.
The festival runs June 21-27. "Cristina" screens Saturday, June 25 as part of the "Departures" program.