Political passions: Soldiers of Conscience by Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan (above) plays the Burning Fuse Film Festival this week.

Weimberg/Ryan on Conflict and Conscience

Sura Wood June 7, 2009

Gary Weimberg and Catherine Ryan are a Berkeley-based filmmaking team whose 30-year professional and personal partnership has produced a resume of award-winning commercial and social-issue documentaries, working with a roster of clients that would be the envy of many production companies. Their foray into mainstream network programming, The Story of Mothers and Daughters and Fathers and Sons, a pair of documentaries that aired during primetime on ABC, gained them access to an audience largely unavailable to independent filmmakers. Both have feature-film experience—Weimberg on Colors, Godfather III, Ryan on Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi— and have worked separately on other projects as editors/producers/directors for hire. But, throughout their career, they’ve maintained a passionate commitment to social-justice filmmaking. Their latest project, Soldiers of Conscience, made with the cooperation of the U.S. Army and narrated by Peter Coyote, is an exploration of the volatile moral dilemma confronting soldiers in wartime: To kill or not to kill? It aired on POV last October and is screening at the Roxie June 8, as part of the Burning Fuse Film Festival. Weimberg and Ryan will be in attendance.

SF360: What are the roots of your interest in social justice filmmaking and why did you head down this particular path?

Gary Weimberg: We just want to make films that matter, that are different or a cut above the 24/7 media deluge. In the end, we are proud that we make social justice films AND commercial films; both have their place in the world and in our hearts. But of course, it is especially sweet when we’re doing something that makes a difference. We’ve made films that people said saved their lives, changed their lives, and other films that literally helped get people out of prison when they were held unjustly. What could be more satisfying and rewarding?

Catherine Ryan: Social justice filmmaking is our way of responding to the world we live in. Rather than screaming at the news, we try to make films that highlight alternatives to the obviously failing status quo. Perhaps the greatest privilege of being independent filmmakers is the opportunity to have a different voice and be heard.

SF360: Do you try to keep your own politics out of the process and/or is that possible?

Weimberg: Every film is a self-portrait of the filmmaker. If people say they can keep their own politics out, they are lying. But more importantly, we do not make our films for ourselves; we make them for the audience. So, the important thing is to express a point of view in a way that the audience is willing to think about. For example, Soldiers of Conscience is highly controversial, and yet it has been loved and praised by both soldiers and peace activists. It respects everyone’s point of view, it presents everyone’s point of view; thus, all audiences come away learning something. The result is that Soldiers of Conscience is to be part of the curriculum for cadets at West Point, and is also in use at Quaker peace churches and with other peace activists.

Ryan: Our politics guided us to want to make Soldiers of Conscience and then we put our effort into making a film that brought political perspectives that are different from ours into the film. I am very happy to say that after screenings with dozens of audiences in theaters and a national broadcast on POV, we’ve consistently received positive comments from a range of sincere war fighters to sincere peace activists, including many comments from folks whose position on questions of killing in war were changed after viewing the film.

SF360: With the election of Obama and the planned pull out from Iraq, stories about the war have all but dropped off the front pages. Does that concern you and do you think it affects the timeliness of your film?

Weimberg: Sure that concerns us. But this is not a film about Iraq or the Iraq war. The film tells the story of U.S. soldiers who served in Iraq because that is what is happening now. But it is a story about the essential truth of not only this war, but all wars. Wars are about killing but mostly that is a taboo topic. Soldiers of Conscience is a film that will never cease to be relevant as long as nations send their youth to kill strangers on the battlefield. The moral landscape of war is a terrible reality and that is what the film is about.

SF360: What kind of reaction have you gotten to the film from the military and from other quarters?

Weimberg: Soldiers are the biggest supporters of this film. Naively, we thought only peace activists understood the pain of war. The opposite is true. Soldiers have come up to us after every screening with profound messages of support for the film, respect and appreciation for the message, and their own tales of pain. We have objective evidence to show how the military itself realizes the importance and truth of the questions the film raises.

SF360: Did the soldiers your interviewed feel their safety was at risk for taking the stands they did?

Weimberg: We worried more about soldiers’ safety than they did. Every soldier who has a speaking role in the film saw the edited film before it was done and gave us their personal okay, in addition to the legal okay we got before shooting. The subject is so sensitive that we HAD to know that each soldier felt they were treated honestly, fairly and respectfully.

SF360: How do you choose the topics for your films?

Weimberg: The topics choose us. Either someone brings us a project, or we read something/learn something and the next thing we know we can’t get it out of our minds and we must make the film.

SF360: When formulating an idea for a project, do you begin with a particular person and expand outward or have an idea for a subject and search for individuals?

Weimberg: We start from chaos and look for truth in the faces of people who go on camera and then we return to chaos in the editing and continue to refine the chaos until the truth emerges in the footage itself. Then we surprise ourselves by looking at the film over and over with many different test audiences and ultimately find that the film itself reflects our own voyage of discovery, and that the audience experiences the surprise of the truth revealed to them, just as we did in the process of making the film.

SF360: Have you had to become more innovative in finding funding sources and is the chase easier or more challenging now that you’re established?

Weimberg: Become innovative? There is no other way! We are constantly reinventing how to fund films. We have made films with every conceivable type of arrangement of funding: grant money, corporate money, private investors, network money, no money.
Sadly, it never gets easier. We reinvent the wheel each time.

SF360: In the case of The Story of Mothers and Daughters and Fathers and Sons, you worked with ABC, which offered the opportunity to reach a large mainstream audience. Could you talk about that experience and how it did or didn’t work for you and whether or not it was a good model?

Weimberg: We wanted to break out of the PBS documentary ghetto, so our brilliant business partner, Judith Leonard, created a model of getting corporate support to open doors for particular documentaries at the networks. It was hard, and risky, but worthwhile for quite some time. Mothers and Daughters was seen by over 7 million people. Who wouldn’t be happy with that? But it wasn’t a long term, sustainable model. All the financial risk was all on our shoulders and there was no safety net whatsoever. So, after 7 years we moved on.

SF360: Please fill us in on your work supporting non-profit organizations through fundraising videos. Who have you worked with?

Weimberg: After that 7-year period, we became discouraged about national television— too big, too obnoxious. So, we decided to focus on media for non-profits, to make smaller films, and moved from broadcasting to narrowcasting, and that became a series of around 65 (and counting) short documentaries for non-profit organizations, including the Women’s Foundation of CA., the San Francisco Foundation, the Bay Area Black United Fund, Earth Justice and lots of others. I think organizations raised over $1.6 million using our videos and that, too, is something we are deeply proud of.

Ryan: As filmmakers, we get to document what is working in the world. We get to witness the power of social change and help the organizations show themselves in a way that encourages other non-profits and community groups to make change. Spreading the word and encouraging hope feels good, but that’s not the goal. Our films have been very successful fundraisers for the organizations, supporting their work and helping them to grow.

SF360: You have a diverse client list that includes Zoetrope, Skywalker, Michael Jackson and Dennis Hopper, NBC and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How did you develop such a range of contacts and clients?

Weimberg: If you’re truly indie filmmakers— and we are— you gotta be able to handle anything and everything. If the boat sinks, you jump into the canoe and keep paddling. We’ve made films with and for billionaires and we’ve made films about the desperately poor. The diversity of human experience is what turns us on and we are proud that we are not filmmakers who have only one thing to say or only one theme. But then again, perhaps, that’s because we define ourselves, not as filmmakers, but as storytellers.

SF360: You work ‘for hire,’ producing/editing/directing other projects. Assuming that docs are your primary interest, how does this outside work contribute or take away from your primary focus?

Weimberg: The coolest part of filmmaking is that it is a collective art form. So, working for others is an honor and a privilege (I’m proud to be co-editor/writer on Ballets Russes) and working for others makes us better at working for ourselves. Specifically, if you are always in charge, the tendency is to start to think you are always right. That is the road to ruin. In addition, working for others helps us find new/different creative approaches to solve problems, leaving us with more tools in the tool box and as artists, more colors on the palette.

SF360: You’ve worked together as a team for almost three decades. Do you divide up the work between you or do you confer and collaborate on every aspect of a project?

Weimberg: We collaborate on everything, but certainly also divide the labor.
If one of us needs to be the berserker warrior, the other one will be the diplomat.
If one focuses on the details, the other focuses on big picture. We actually found that, if we are nervous and one of us takes a chill pill, it calms us both.

SF360: Do you enjoy the process as much today as you did when you started out?

Weimberg: More today.

Ryan: I enjoy it more today because I feel like we’ve learned some things along the way and I am confident that the process will result in something that we will love and that will work for audiences. And I love our collaboration. Working with your true love is about as good as it gets.

SF360: What’s on tap for you?

Weimberg: More Love, between us, and on screen.

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