|VIFF 2015 Interview: HANNAH: BUDDISHM'S UNTOLD JOURNEY director Adam Penny
by Jason Whyte
HANNAH: At VIFF 2015
"HANNAH is about how Buddhism came west through the eyes of a Danish hippy called Hannah. She and her husband were instrumental in bringing a particular school of Tibetan Buddhism west. They were in Poland and Russia as communism was breaking down and they were kidnapped by Guerrillas in South America. There is a big political angle that involves the Chinese and the Tibetans. It's a rollercoaster through the last 40 years of the world with the Buddhist ideal of freedom at its core. But I think the best description of the film didn't come from us it came from Huffington Post; "HANNAH presents an inspirational portrait of a pioneering strong woman, a child of the '60's who dared, and accomplished, greatly." Director Adam Penny on HANNAH: BUDDISHM’S UNTOLD JOURNEY which screens at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Is this your first time to the Vancouver International Film Festival and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?
It is our first experience and we were very excited to be selected. Unfortunately I won't be able to attend but Marta, my much better looking co-producer/director, will be in attendance.
So tell me a bit about yourself, your background and how you got here!
I have been a producer for a number of years, producing video content, commericals and documentaries. But when Marta came to me with this idea I knew I wanted to be involved as a director as well. It was such an important story for me. Hannah is an incredibly inspirational woman, and since I had such a clear idea about the look and feel I wanted the film to have, there was no question.
So with your love for the material, how did this movie come together from your perspective?
The key for us was research. Making sure that we had the most inspiring stories, but also that we were expressing key Buddhist themes through the film as well. We wanted something that would inspire and reach out to people. There had been a lot of dry and badly made documentaries on Buddhism, we wanted to show that it didn't need to be like that. That you could have a film about Buddhism that had deep meaning as well as being rich and engaging. This was really the starting point.
There are so many stories and it was a five year project. But the thing that really stuck out for me was the support we got from around the world in so many different ways; financially, emotionally, with archive, with interviews. Hannah seemed to touch so many people in very personal ways, that we didn't even realise until we started the project. So when it came to getting the film made it was a truly awe inspiring experience.
While you are working on a movie, especially for this long, what keeps you going?
Five years is a long time, especially on a low budget doc. Editing alone took over a year. I think the thing that kept me going was the fact that I thought this was an important and powerful story that I wanted to tell to the world. And that once it is done it is done. There is a fantastic quote from a documentary on Pixar, "Pain is temporary, but film is forever." That was how it felt.
So with all the years in production, what was your biggest challenge with getting HANNA to the screen?
With such an amazing woman, and a life that literally covered the globe, including the complex political situation between the Tibetans and the Chinese, it was hard to know what to leave out. We had to keep coming back to the question, "What does a non Buddhist audience need to know and why should they connect to this character?" I think it was John Batsek who said the best documentaries are where the human story transcends the subject matter. That was what we had to keep coming back to.
So out of all of that, if you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you had something great?
The closing moments of the film. I remember us doing an interview with Lama Ole, Hannah's husband. And he talked about when he and Hannah had first met and what it would be like when they met in their next lives. I knew then how we should start and close the film, and how we could bring it full circle.
For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how that all came together via photography and editing.
It's a historical documentary. But we were also on a low budget, so there wasn't the opportunity to do big set builds and costume designs. We wanted it to be engaging but we had to make it cost effective. So we filmed scenes like they were memories. Giving the viewer glimpses of different things but not showing the whole story. Evoking a mood rather than "say what you see" film making.
Additionally I want to talk a little about the editing. We spent a long time to get it right. If you are doing a documentary, don't underestimate the need to think about plot and character development. We did several versions of paper edits not to mention several re cuts. For the second bout of editing we had a wonderful editor called Simon Barker who works a lot with Eugene Jareki. He said that for a good doc, they would edit for a year non stop.
Where is this movie going to show after VIFF? Any theatrical release?
Next we show at a festival in Mexico City, called DocsDF. Then a few other venues in Mexico. But excitingly we also picked up a North American distributor recently. The wonderful Alive Mind, part of Kino Lorber. So we are just working on the North American distribution strategy.
What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?
"I would make them think about their movie-going karma, of course!"
With all of your years of work on the film, no doubt you have learned quite a bit. For any aspiring filmmakers reading us, what would you offer as advice for people wanting to make a movie?
We have a lot of new people in the industry working at our company. I generally offer two pieces of advice. First, be relentless in your pursuit of what you want to do in this industry. If you want to work in documentaries go and work for the best documentary house you can find, know why you like the directors you like, the films you like and approach those individuals. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, don't be afraid to make bad films when you are learning. EVERYONE has to go through it. EVERYONE. No one wakes up as Ridley Scott, or Martin Scorsese. You have to learn your craft. And the only way is practise.
And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
I saw the premiere of THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND at London Film Festival a few years ago. I remember the producers getting up and saying that they spent 6 years trying to get it off the ground, just trying to start the film. Then Kevin MacDonald came along and they knew they could get it made. If that isn't dedication, I don't know what is.
Be sure to check out more about HANNAH: BUDDISHM'S UNTOLD JOURNEY at the offical website, and on Facebook!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from Septembe 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.viff.org or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte
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originally posted: 09/24/15 15:00:39
last updated: 09/24/15 15:06:54