No stranger to challenging projects, New Zealand-based filmmaker Costa Botes’ career spans more than 30 years and the spectrum of passions.
Perhaps most widely known for his work documenting the making of Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, his latest films from the past decade are no less notable taking viewers on moving, intimate, and at times, haunting trips into the heart of what it’s like to be human in an imperfect but often surprising world.
One of these films is “Act of Kindness,” a film about a young Kiwi, Sven Pannell, and his search for a homeless beggar in Rwanda named “Johnson,” whose sense of compassion over cruelty during a time of chaos made a lasting impression on Pannell who returns to the country years later to find and express gratitude to the man he never got to thank.
While it was Pannell who shot the film, his first documentary, the footage remained in a rough state for years as he struggled with figuring out how to piece it all together. Cue Costa Botes who came on board as co-director and editor to the project, a film which would both test and humble but ultimately reward in its depiction and story of hope.
Ahead of its screening July 16th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, I asked Botes about his unique experience working on “Act of Kindness,” what the best piece of filmmaking advice he’s ever been given is, and what for him makes a documentary so appealing.
Documentary Drive: How many hours of footage was shot for “Act of Kindness” and what was your gut reaction after combing through it all?
Botes: About 30 hours, give or take. My gut reaction was, “Oh God, not enough, and what a mess!” It was not easy to discern a coherent film. I was hooked by the story that Sven told me about his experience, but the footage – a bunch of DV tapes stored in a plastic lunchbox – seemed very raw and incomplete.
However, by the time I was done editing, I came to respect Sven’s directorial choices. He was working under duress, with little or no experience, and no idea at all of how his mission was going to play out. He didn’t do a bad job at all under the circumstances.
Documentary Drive: I would imagine as a director that not having control of how and what’s been shot might be incredibly frustrating, how did you cope with this and did you find yourself analyzing the footage thinking what you might have done differently had you been filming or was this something you had to tune out of your thinking entirely?
Botes: The relationship between directors and editors covers a wide spectrum and I’ve been on both sides.
From the outset, I did not want to just curate 30 hours of footage and take dictation about how to put it together. I wanted to apply a systematic and coherent vision to realising a movie.
Sven had been unable to do this himself in the years after shooting. But it would have been patently unfair to take a solo directing credit. Sven was the physical director of “Act of Kindness.” I saw my role as a combo of mid-wife, steward, and chef. I didn’t create the ingredients, but I was responsible for the outcome.
Of course, I couldn’t help screaming at my computer screens and asking God why Sven or Fabrice (his companion, guide, and erstwhile camera assistant) hadn’t secured the camera on a tripod for some vital shots, or why they’d failed to get more ‘coverage.’ Sometimes, it did get very frustrating. There is one sequence in the film where Sven is trapped inside a house because of heavy rain. When it rains in Rwanda, it pours. Well, there were various shots of the raining and the pouring, but I couldn’t use any of them because the camera was constantly zooming and wobbling around like crazy.
For better or worse, I had to work with the available footage so I treated it all as precious. And as I went along, assembling the story, I saw that contrary to my earlier fears, there were nearly always just enough shots to make the connections that needed to be made. And when there weren’t, well, I think that’s where I earned my credits!
Documentary Drive: Can you describe what your collaboration process was like with Sven? Was there a lot of back and forth or did you mostly have free rein on piecing the narrative together?
Botes: I largely worked alone, but I’d consult Sven strategically at various points. Whenever I asked Sven anything, he’d always come back with an intelligent and helpful response. He’s got a good analytical mind. And he was able to be objective. He was also really creative when we recorded the bits and pieces of narration that are used in the film.
I think Sven’s problem was that he’d perhaps suffered too much shooting the film. It must have been nerve-racking at times. Worse, he was disappointed and self-conscious about the results. He feared his footage looked clumsy or amateurish.
I always felt Sven’s story was inspiring and important and this far outweighed any technical imperfections. He took heart from my confidence and let me get on with it. But I always wanted his authorship to be clear. I think we helped each other and were a good team.
Documentary Drive: Is there a scene in the film that most resonates with you and why?
Botes: Yes, but I can’t talk about it in detail for fear of spoilers. There is a scene where we find out some backstory. As the person is relating what happened to them, and the penny drops about the enormity of their experience. . . that always destroys me.
Documentary Drive: How important was choosing the right tone for you going into this project?
I think my favorite thing about the film is that it’s hopeful in a variety of little and big ways, especially in its depiction of Rwanda and its people as resilient and being on a forward trajectory not stuck in war.
Botes: Tone is really important to me. I would say the tone of my films is characteristically wry, non-judgmental, but fairly acute as well. I’m not scared of big emotion, but I never ever want my work to feel overblown or ‘cheesy.’ The way this film begins, the title, the music – these are all expressions of tone. It’s almost as important an element as authenticity, because it supports a feeling of ‘truth.’
Documentary Drive: What is the best piece of advice or criticism you’ve received that has helped you in your career so far?
Botes: Ha ha. Well, two pieces of advice, both from the great Kiwi cameraman, Alun Bollinger. The first is, “you can’t make movies with a pencil,” which can be interpreted a number of ways. Obviously preparation is important, but it’s more important to ‘be in the moment.’ To observe and act on what is actually happening rather than what you wish were happening.
And the second bit of advice, “when shooting documentaries, using your ears is as important – maybe more important – than using your eyes.” When I shoot, I flip up the left side of my headphones. By listening carefully to what’s going on around me, even if I have my eye glued to the camera eyepiece, I can anticipate where to point my camera next. On a good day, your footage can look telepathic.
Documentary Drive: As a filmmaker and a film fan, what draws you to documentaries as an art form and are there qualities that make a documentary particularly good for you?
Botes: My response to that might seem contradictory. On the one hand, I’m drawn to documentary because there’s more latitude in this genre for formal or structural innovation; I think the interplay of actuality and narrative in documentary can mitigate against cliche and predictability.
Yet, what I admire in many documentaries are narratives that powerfully evoke orthodox classical structure. Personally, I don’t want people to be obviously aware of this, but I want to take them through a journey that satisfies the deep paradigm of storytelling we all have inside us. I enjoy seeing all the ways that filmmakers from many lands have found to present their versions of truth in fresh and surprising ways.
Documentary Drive: Finally, we never stop learning. What’s one thing you learned from your time working on “Act of Kindness” that you’ll take forward either personally or professionally?
Botes: This movie would have been made a good deal sooner, and with less angst, if I had reviewed all the footage in detail right at the start, before making any judgments or attempting to edit anything. So, a lesson not so much learned, as powerfully confirmed, first find out what you have to work with, then decide what to do with it. Learn the ingredients before designing a recipe! And, one steady, static wide shot can be worth a hundred wobbly, handheld zooms!
“Act of Kindness” screens July 16th at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Botes will be in attendance for a live Q&A after the screening. Tickets are available through Moshtix. For more information on the film and to learn about Botes’ other works, visit: costabotes.com.