After 10 years in television, including stints at CNN and TechTV, American journalist Davin Anders Hutchins decided it was time to make the big step to feature films. The first result of his career move is the documentary The Art of Flight, a personal investigation into the struggle of Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Shot guerrilla style over the period of a year on location in Sudan and the Egyptian capital, Hutchins’ film was made with a camcorder and a personal computer and not much more. The director also shot, produced and edited the film and arranged its locally-flavoured musical score.
Boyd van Hoeij: This is your first film. How has the acquaintance with the film world been in terms of plugging the doc, finding distribution, going to festivals…?
Davin Anders Hutchins: I am still rather new to all of this so there has been an incredible learning curve. I was fortunate to have a distributor see something of value in my film early – 7th Art Releasing. The distributor has taken a real interest in refining the film and strengthening the storyline and making smart edit choices. This is still an ongoing process and the feedback from AFI Fest and IDFA has been invaluable. I think the best part was seeing fantastic documentary films which has inspired me and convinced me to keep at it.
BVH: In The Art of Flight you say ‘I am no Michael Moore’, but you nevertheless include a lot of yourself [on film]; your personal struggles, ideas and feelings. What made you decide that this personal angle was preferable over the "standard" documentary practice of editing footage together which you shot but in which you are not featured? Did the success of ‘personal non-fiction’ such as Michael Moore’s not influence this decision?
DH: There were several reasons for this. First of all, I had seen a lot of films about refugees in the past and I think there are plenty of standard films that aim to simply evoke empathy or sympathy for the refugee. We have been evoking sympathy for refugees for centuries and yet each year, there are more and more displaced. Our assumption is that our sympathy and charity are enough. It isn’t. The institutions we hold dear to advocate for refugees often become complacent and sometimes, simply don’t work. So I didn’t want to make a film that evokes simply sympathy but goes a bit deeper. I made this film on a shoestring. I knew that the film should begin in Sudan to show the beginning of the journey of refugees from as far away as southern Sudan to Cairo. But I was certain that I wouldn’t be able to follow a single character in this environment due to budgetary and time restraints. I had enough money to stay in Sudan for a month or so. So I thought I should make the same journey myself and describe in a small way the difficulties of migration and this particular journey, I can give the audience a sense of travel. I also wanted to address chronic problems of self-censorship and compromise that I witnessed in my days in corporate news. Since I was self-financing this film, I thought I could and should make some commentary about the deterioration of the values of free press and democracy which I could never make in a corporate environment. The personal tone actually intensified as the film was shot because I realized that my process of filmmaking as a novice and the pervasive fear that permeates Cairo was actually alienating my subjects. Many refugees were frightened of participating in the film for fear of reprisals. Some were very brave. In a police state, people suspect one another’s motives and the consequences of certain decisions. This first person commentary allowed me to explain the unravelling of some relationships and my own ideals in a way I could not with an observational documentary. I don’t think we observe truth in documentaries, just someone’s version of it. Also, the idea of ‘standard’ documentary practice frightens me a bit because I think as artists we should always experience with form and content. The minute the rules are too rigid, it ceases to be art.
BVH: Early on in the film, you boldly state ‘I want to write important stories that turn heads, change policies’. Later you are shown as having censored your own magazine article [also named ‘The Art of Flight’] because of fear of reprisals, something which is partly being corrected by admitting this in your documentary. Why this admission and why now? And do you think you have succeeded, in the end, in telling ‘an important story’ and if so, did you tell it fully and correctly?.
DH: hope the film tells the story that the article could not. People responding to the film in festivals is a long-awaited vindication for me and for many refugees who appeared in it. I think a film is really the only way to explore these issues properly because from magazines to newspapers to television, every medium in Egypt is co-opted and deliberately ignore crimes of the state or by engaging in political apathy. Through this film, I was able to tell a story no one was willing to hear.
BVH: You remark that "They [the Sudanese] see me as another American journalist, out to profit from Sudan’s misery". You also show that you personally found it difficult to retain a purely professional outlook when telling these "important stories" when there is such a big gap (both money-wise and culturally) between the reporter and the subjects of his report; you cannot help but become involved. Has making this documentary taught you something about journalistic ethics or has it only made you doubt them more?
DH: Another documentary filmmaker said to me recently that ‘I think we are vultures’ referring to the documentary community. She elaborated by saying that we hover around people’s misfortunes and then toast one another at galas and film competitions. It’s a terrible burden to bear. I think if I or any filmmaker struggle with whether to be a good filmmaker or a good person, then that’s a struggle worth embracing. What are our motives as filmmakers? Accolades? Advocacy? Real change? We should always question them and be in tune with our inner soul. Easy answers are elusive in this world and we must stay more fully engaged than 70 minutes to find lasting solutions.
BVH: Your film focuses a lot on ‘problems’ and pays relatively little attention to possible solutions. Do you not see a direct possible solution to the problems you portray or was your intention to focus only on the problems a conscious choice (and are you keeping an exploration of possible solutions for a possible sequel)?
DH: For the moment, I don’t really see a solution in Egypt for the refugees unless the Emergency Laws are lifted, the police apparatus dismantled and the legal structure for refugees change. Some people felt that the film lacked a catharsis. This was very intentional. I think this film is one that the audience should find an ending for in their own experience. If they sense an injustice, they should try to find a way to rectify it. They should write the ending… or even make a film. My catharsis was making the film and telling it as I saw it.
BVH: The latter part of your work shows the ‘healing power of art’ for refugees and this is also part of the title; was this a chosen theme from the beginning or did this come about whilst working on the doc? How important is art in your own life and do you consider a mixed-medium such as a film documentary primarily a journalistic endeavour or also art?
DH: I bought the painting featured in the film almost by happenstance from a Cairo art gallery at the same time I was getting to know the refugees. It was some months later I discovered that the same artist had agreed to be in the film. Some of the refugees had some beautiful metaphors for art. One said that if he painted a painting and placed it in a stranger’s house, then there is a friendship between the two men, even if they never met. Another told me that pain and beauty are simply reflections of one another. A philosopher once said that any art intended to engender a transaction, financial or otherwise, is simply pornography, and ceases to be art. Art springs from us because it is the expression of our inner soul. Listening to music or appreciating art can be healing, but the process of artistic creation is where real healing lies. What the refugees I met taught me is that even though our exterior situation may not change, we can still be healed through it… and clinging to hope.
BVH: Your name features on the credits roll for pretty much every task except for the catering. Do you not know how to cook?
DH: There was a scene of me cooking in the film. We cut it. Seriously, I shot the film, edited it and co-wrote the score because I had access to little money and other resources. And I was a little bored. But fortunately, today’s technology allows people to approach filmmaking like an author approaches writing a book. This is a film about the potential of minimalism.
BVH: When and where will the film be distributed commercially?
DA: 7th Art Releasing is the distributor of the film internationally. To date, we have premiered at AFI Fest in Hollywood and International Documentary Festival Amsterdam. We are hoping to enter into a few more international festivals with the final cut of the film in coming months. The rest is up to the audience.
BVH: You are ‘currently looking for a job’ according to the end titles of the film. What are your future projects?
DA: I had the good fortune of moving to Dubai and starting a documentary production company with an established film entrepreneur with quite a production empire. It has given me access to fantastic resources and collaborative minds. My partner and I have much of the same sensibilities and deep down, we are child-like optimists under an outer shell of adult cynicism. So we approach our projects with a sense of honesty that is true to our experiences… telling it like it is… yet hoping for solutions and lasting change. He and I, along with our other employees, are working on several projects at the moment on peacekeepers in Darfur, democracy in Iran, AIDS in the Muslim world and the unknown alternative life of Jesus Christ.