It is his passion for documentary filmmaking that gives Academy-Award winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris the drive to make so many well-known documentaries.
“One of my agents once told me that I don’t make films for money, I make films because I love making films,” said the Academy-Award winning documentary filmmaker in a recent working trip to Vietnam.
“You cannot get rich making documentary films,” he said at the recent official presentation of his famous film, “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” at the American Center under the US Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City.
Interested in human destinies – especially those of children
What was your motivation to make the award-winning documentary movie “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” - the story of the transport campaign to rescue Jewish children?
The mother of Deborah Oppenheimer, the producer of the film, came to England after leaving Nazi Germany when she was 10 years old. She was emotionally devastated, as she had lost her family and suddenly had to live with strangers.
Her mother would often burst into tears whenever Deborah asked her about the train transport of children – the so-called kindertransport – from Germany to the UK. Deborah wanted to understand her mother’s painful memories and experiences, especially after her death, which left Deborah with a lot of unanswered questions.
Deborah’s wishes were mirrored in my own. I yearned to understand my grandfather’s past; he came to the US when he was only 5 years old, in the same circumstances as Deborah’s mother.
The film took me about two years and some $1.5 million to make.
Collecting materials, mostly old footage, for the move took a lot of time. We had many researchers in many European countries, including Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Austria, look for footage in local archives.
In your opinion, how can a story about an event that happened a very long time ago become successful, especially when there are so many other documentaries about events in WW2?
The film has had universal appeal simply because it not only about WW2 or the holocaust of the Jewish people in general, but it focuses on one facet – it’s about children losing their parents at that time.
The movie will touch all viewers as it is about children being forced from the ones they love. The innate sadness of this topic is quite easy to understand and affects everyone.
Also, we tried to make the film from a child’s perspective, so we concentrated on footage that represents the way a child might see the world. A lot of the footage was taken at waist level. This makes the movie unique.
What difficulties did you encounter when making it?
Mostly financial hurdles from the beginning, but with the help of Warner Bros, they were eventually worked out.
Regarding the collection of the footage, it is a painstaking process. My cameraman told me that never before had he shot so much footage with so many tears in his eyes. Another challenge during shooting was encouraging people to talk about their bad memories that burdened them with so much emotion, and keep them from turning away when filming.
There were 10,000 children transported to England during the war, and the producer and I had interviewed about 300 before choosing 18 people for the film. We picked the people whose stories represented certain themes, focusing on their resilience – the ability to recover from such suffering and pain which destroyed so many lives.
I’m very interested in children and how they deal with problems created by adults, in this case, WW2.
On pursuing filmmaking career
In your opinion, what is a successful documentary film?
It is one that makes us look at the world differently and changes our perspective on the world.
You said in Hanoi that this is the best time to make documentary films. In today’s world, anyone can simply make a film with a cell phone or camera. As a professional filmmaker, are you threatened by this?
I don’t feel in competition with other filmmakers because I make films to explore issues that are important to me. The challenge for me is to try to do the best I can and explore to the fullest the subject that I‘ve chosen. I’m not competing with other filmmakers. It’s not something I think about. You make films not for awards, but because you care about the subject that you really want to understand.
You are a successful filmmaker. However, you said that you also made a not-so-successful movie?
No filmmaker I know is successful with every movie that he makes. We all try to do something a little different. When I make a movie I always try to do something I haven’t done before. I hope that with each film I make, I learn more. If you don’t try to do new things, you don’t grow as a filmmaker, as an artist. Film is a process of trial and error. Sometimes you try and you fail but you hope that you learn from those failures, and so you won’t make the same mistakes when making your next film. When you make mistakes, I think that’s the time you learn the most because when something you try doesn’t work out, you are forced to examine “why”.
You have been making documentary films for a long time. What do you think about how much the audience cares about this kind of movie?
I think people are more open to documentaries now than I was when I started it. I think that they realize that documentaries can be entertaining. When I started out, documentaries were mainly on television. And now we see them in movie theaters and in many other platforms. I think people realize that non-fiction can be as entertaining and compelling as fiction.
What can you tell us about the distribution of documentary films now compared to the past?
There are many more ways for us to see documentary films than there were in the past, especially iTunes, Netflix, and YouTube. Digital distribution has made it much easier for people to see documentaries. There are more documentaries in US theaters than ever before.
In your opinion, what are the challenges and opportunities of making documentary films in Vietnam?
Challenges include funding and some restrictions from state management authorities that make free expression more difficult. As documentary films traditionally tell true stories, there may be a risk for filmmakers when trying to tell the truth in some cases.
Regarding opportunities, your country holds many wonderful stories of survival, like the one I explored in my documentary. There have been so many dynamic changes in your society in the last decades that have affected so many people, resulting in dramatic stories.
Mark Jonathan Harris is a documentary filmmaker who has won 3 Oscars. He is also a children’s book author and has held the title of Distinguished Professor of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California since 1983.
He has written, produced, and/or directed many documentaries. Huelga! is a film about the working-class leader and social activist Cesar Chavez who led the famous worker’s strike in Delano, California.
The Redwoods was supported by pro-environmental organization Sierra Club and filmed in the famous Redwood National Park. It won the Oscar for best documentary short in 1967. In 1997, the film The Long Way Home, made for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and documenting the period immediately after the Holocaust, won the Oscar for best documentary film.
In 2000, the film Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport also won the Oscar for best documentary film.