Mike Seely, like many a documentary filmmakers before him, concluded that longform was the way to go. He’d found a subject—father-and-son doctors operating on Ecuadorians living in remote corners of the country without the means and access to major medical care—that he figured was catnip to the guardians of institutional purse strings. “I thought it would be easier to fund,” Seely recalled. “It’s a clear-cut social issue, and it deals with an inspirational rural health program in the developing world. These are all things PBS likes.”
Seely seems like an even-keel guy, and there’s no edge in his voice even when he’s saying something controversial. Well, you may not find his POV controversial, but I can think of a few people who would.
“When trying to get funding, there’s definitely a PBS-ITVS style to conform to for sure,” the San Francisco filmmaker said. “They say they’re open to films of all types, but there’s definitely a style and also certain types of issues that are more likely to get funded. I think what that translates into is producers and directors not experimenting more.”
You might deduce that Seely didn’t get the deep-pocket backing he was seeking for his Ecuador project. He went ahead anyway and produced a 19-minute portrait of Dr. Edgar Rojas, Senior and Junior, for Frontline/World’s online “Rough Cut” series in June, 2007. Convinced that the topic warranted more than a broadcast-length segment, Seely obtained grants from SEEDS (Supporting Equanimity on Earth and Diversity in the Sacred?) and Pacific Pioneer Fund to make a third shooting expedition to the South American country and return with a stand-alone documentary.
The Most Distant Places debuted last September at the Kos International Health Film Festival in Ippokratis, Greece, and receives its local premiere this Saturday, March 19, in the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. At 32 minutes, Places is well short of the one-hour piece Seely originally envisioned. But it’s the right length, which is no slight against its crisp, compelling craftsmanship or Peter Coyote’s dulcet narration. Instead of frustration at the piece’s length, Seely evinces the feeling that he learned something about both filmmaking and himself.
“Maybe it’s just my impatience with myself,” he confided. “I don’t make films very quickly. So if I’m going to direct something, I feel like I really want to make it my own. And since it’s been hard raising funds, working on short documentaries enables me to experiment with form and work on different films more often.”
A 2005 alumnus of Stanford’s renowned graduate documentary program, Seely readily admits that The Most Distant Places isn’t exactly radical in its structure or approach. His first priority was to expose and honor the doctors’ work, though he took careful steps to prevent the film from veering too far in its admiration for its frankly admirable subjects. A key element that keeps the doctors grounded, so to speak, is the authentic, indigenous music composed by none other than the driver of their truck-cum-operating room.
“It’s acoustic and slightly out of tune but I like the feel of it,” Seely said. “That’s one way we kept the tone more measured and realistic. It’s not omnipresent. We keep it carefully placed where it’s only going to add to the story.”
Seely has made a number of shorts while working as a producer, cameraman and assistant editor on other people’s films. His current personal project is editing two short portraits he shot while he was in Poland on a Fulbright grant researching Polish documentaries.
“The Fulbright Association specifically states that they don't fund films,” Seely emphasizes in a clarifying email. “That said, I can make a film as part of my research, as long as I provide the tools and materials to do so separately (which I did). “
The first film profiles a metalworker who worked alongside Lech Walesa in the Gdansk shipyards during the Solidarity movement, and now lives in a shelter on the outskirts of Warsaw. Inspired by Kazimierz Karabasz, the father of Polish observational documentary, Seely says the piece is in the venerable social-realist tradition.
The second film was shot in Lodz and, according to the filmmaker, echoes “Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ironic perception of reality.” Its subject used to be involved in a violent soccer club before he converted to Hasidic Judaism. We can see where a sense of irony might come in handy in conveying this fellow’s evolving identity.
Notes from the Underground
Ray Telles and Kenn Rabin grace the stage of the Smith Rafael Film Center Thursday, March 31 with The Storm That Swept Mexico. … David Lee Miller’s kinetic and taboo-challenging My Suicide will be distributed beginning in May by Big Air, a new company that will release films in movie theaters, on pay television, on DVD and on subscription services.
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