Interview with Jeremy Xido, director of "Death Metal Angola."
About the film:
Sonia Ferreira and Wilker Flores, a pair of music lovers in the second largest city in Angola, dream of staging the country’s first major rock concert with a list of metal bands from around the country. The film unfolds showing the ups & downs faced by the couple in trying to organize this concert as well as the influence of death metal in Angola.
GUITARKADIA: Tell me a little about your background. What did you grow up reading, listening to, and watching? What influenced your work as an actor, dancer, and filmmaker that stemmed from your childhood?
JEREMY XIDO: I grew up in Detroit as the only white kid in my neighborhood. It was a very physical world – basketball and American football in the streets; racing bikes through the neighborhood; breakdancing for money. Above all, dancing. Dancing was king. We loved kung fu and kung fu movies. The world I grew up in was pretty poor with a fair share of violence, but at the same time a tremendous sense of community and perseverance. I think growing up in my neighborhood has influenced everything about how I see the world and myself within it, and this in turn has influenced by work as an artist. I believe the world is a poly-cultural mashup. There are no clear lines between forms or identities. Which on the one hand can be destabilizing and confusing, but on the other hand, incredibly empowering. The world around us is rarely what it seems to be at first glance. It is often way more vibrant and complex that what we usually imagine. Growing up, in order to find some peace, I used to pop down to the Detroit Institute of Arts on Sundays when they had these "Brunch with Bach” concerts. I hid up in the balcony with my sketch books, listened to the music and drew pictures. I loved the museum. It was my sanctuary away from the streets and other people. I spent hours upon hours in the Diego Rivera mural room. It was here at the DIA that I was introduced to two films that for whatever reason made a lasting impression on me:
Robert Duvall’s Angelo my Love and Erroll Morris’ The Thin Blue Line.
Both blurred the lines between what is real and what is fabricated, which to this day is a line I continually play with in all of my work. And then I watched every Hong Kong Kung Fu film I could get my hands on, including everything by the Shaw Brothers. And of course the original Star Wars trilogy.
These are some of my deepest early childhood influences.
G: How did you find yourself making documentaries? What led to that path?
JX: My background is as a dancer and an actor for stage, TV and film. In 2000, I got a Fulbright grant to Barcelona and founded a performance and film company, CABULA6, with the Austrian choreographer Claudia Heu. We often mixed live performance, site specific performance and film, and toured the world. In 2006, we were commissioned by a consortium of European theaters to make a series of six films around Europe focusing on local criminal cases. This really was my first proper experience behind the camera and it has continued ever since.
G: As I understand, you were working on a different project when you stumbled into the story of Wilker and Sonia in Huambo. Can you tell me that story?
JX: Ok, well this is the story I tell:
It all happened by accident.
A few years ago, I was traveling through Angola researching a film about a railway being rebuilt by Chinese construction workers when I stopped at the only cafe in the bombed-out former capital, Huambo, that served a decent cup of coffee. A young man in a blue button down oxford shirt and tiny dread locks waved me over. I sat with him for a while and chatted. We talked about what I was doing there and I asked him about himself. He said he was a musician. "Oh really?" I asked, "What do you play?" He looked me right in the eye and said, “Death Metal.” Stunned, I asked him if he would play for me. He got very excited, said he’d find an amplifier somewhere and that I should meet him later that night at “The Orphanage,” and slipped me the address. I assumed it was some sort of club. So I invited some of the Chinese construction workers to join me for this rock concert. When we arrived in the middle of the night we landed in this abandoned milk factory in the middle of nowhere. It was clear that this was no club. There he was, Wilker Flores, the young man in a blue oxford, with tiny dreads and an electric guitar, surrounded by 55 orphaned boys who called the place home. Siphoning electricity from the neighbor, Wilker proceeded to play one of the hardest and harshest impromptu concerts imaginable, lit by nothing more than the head lights of the Chinese construction workers’ SUV. It was absolutely magical and terrifying.
After that night, I went back home and continued to raise money for the train film I was trying to make and eventually got enough together to go back to Angola and shoot some more. I called up Wilker to let him know I was coming and before I could get another word out, he got very excited, "Awesome!! We are organizing the first ever national rock concert and YOU are going to film it!"
This is all true, but it leaves out one important detail. I had actually met Sonia a day or so before this event (the initial meeting of Wilker in the cafe). Someone had put me in touch with her because she’s known in Huambo as an organizer and person who helps people. She helped me find a place to stay while I was in Huambo working. Wilker happened to be in the car and saw me. This is why he actually waved at me in that cafe.
G: How long did the filming last and during that time did you know where the heart of your story was? Did that evolve? What challenges did you face as a filmmaker in the early stages?
JX: We first shot in May 2011 for five weeks. I then went back myself for two weeks in February 2012 for pickups. And then we finally finished editing in December 2012. So all in all, not particularly long for a documentary film.
Along the way, there were numerous moments of revelation as we slowly zeroed in on the heart of the story. I think when we filmed Sonia’s long interview and were there for the scene of Pancho – the nine year old boy who shows up one night at Okutiuka – I had a very strong sense that this was the heart of the film. What I didn’t know at that point was how to balance the elements of the orphanage with the concert and the rock movement. It was obvious to me in an associative sense, but still unclear narratively. Striking this balance was a big part of the evolution of the film.
In the early stage, just getting a crew safely to Angola and getting back out with all of the footage was a huge challenge. Anyone who has filmed in Angola will know what I mean!
G: You had an unsuccessful Indie Go Go campaign a couple of years ago. Any other filmmaker would have seen that as a major setback and packed it in. But you didn’t. What kept you going?
JX: I actually had a successful Indie Go Go campaign [Ed: It was actually a Kickstarter campaign] early on to raise money for travel to do research and development on the initial film about the Benguela Railway. It was on this trip that I met Sonia and Wilker.
After we finished the film, had traveled the festival circuit for a while and were looking to find wider distribution, we teamed up with the Fulbright Association to launch a Rockethub crowd funding campaign. We raised part of the money we needed to get the film into the world, but not enough to do it on our own, so we eventually teamed up with the Vladar Company.
I’ve always felt that the film is a tricky sell at first glance. People have a lot of preconceptions. A film about post war Africa which isn’t salacious or about corruption or a pseudo political thriller is a difficult sell in the United States and Europe. A film about Death Metal is a difficult sell. Then putting the two together and adding Portuguese subtitles into the mix just causes marketing headaches. The trick has been to get people to not balk at the title and to actually sit down and watch the film. I’ve always believed that if we could just get people to actually see the movie, connect with the subjects and the world, then the film would speak for itself. Through word of mouth, the film would travel.
So my goal has just been to get the film out in whatever way I can. A bit like how Sonia and Wilker just pushed forward to make their festival happen. I just feel this story needs to be out there and given a chance, people will respond.
G: Tell me a little about the shoot: mainly gear and crew. What were some of the technical challenges and how did you work them out?
JX: I worked with a small and incredible crew. There was Johan LeGraie, a brilliant Belgian cinematographer. There was Oswaldo Julian, a fantastic Angolan sound recordist. Tchiyna Matos and Tchiloia Lara, the production coordinators from Angola who worked for a young vibrant Angolan production company, Geração 80 run by Mario Bastos and Jorge Cohen in Luanda. We had Travis Burgess from Coalition Films with us. And then myself as director and second camera. We shot with a Sony EX1 and EX3 and occasionally with the Canon 5D for very low-light situation.
And then we were supported by the Association for Angolan Rock and Okutiuka. And these partnerships made all the difference.
The biggest issue to contend with technically was electricity. Sometimes the electrical grid would be overloaded and we would lose electricity, but we somehow managed and pulled it all off.
G: What was the editing process like? How difficult was it to balance the parallel stories of the Sonia and the Orphanage and the suspense building up towards the first concert Huambo and Sonia are putting together?
JX: I was blessed with an extraordinarily talented editor, Todd Holmes. We worked together for a number of months, came up with an initial cut, which we were pretty happy with. Put it down for a while so we could come back with fresh eyes. We shared it with other editors and folks in the industry who we trusted to give us honest feedback. And realized that I needed to go back to Angola to shoot some missing parts of the puzzle. We then edited on an off again for another 6 months, when another very talented editor Adam Kurnitz came on board to work with us and tie up some lose ends.
Finding the balance between the story of the orphanage and the rock festival was very tricky. I’m not sure we nailed it 100%, but I think we did a pretty good job. And I attribute this to the talent of Todd and Adam as well as those who helped us with feedback on the way.
G: Often is the case with documentaries, some story lines are left out on the cutting room floor. Do you have any that you were disappointed you couldn’t use in the final film?
JX: We have amazing footage of the musicians' home lives. More in depth stories about each of them. But this all had to go for the sake of the larger narrative. If we ever come out with a DVD, we have fabulous material for extras!
G: As a filmmaker how did you respond, if you did, to Martin Tsai’s review in the L.A. Times? I’m curious if you’re experiencing surprising responses to the film from critics and viewers. Is there a disparity? How do you process all of that?
JX: We have toured the film for nearly 2 years screening at over 80 festivals around the globe. We’ve gotten tons of press and across the board, I’ve been shocked at how good it is. During these two years, we’ve only gotten one bad review – from Martin Tsai at the LA Times. I feel super fortunate about how well the film has been received and know that tough reviews are an occupational hazard. Everyone comes to a film with their own filters and subjective experiences and I have to accept unfavorable responses as much as the favorable ones. It never feels good to get a tough one, but I totally accept them as part of the game. That said, Mr. Tsai’s piece, was very unusual and somewhat disturbing. He didn't criticize the film itself. Instead he directly attacked the intelligence and education of one of the subjects of the film – someone who is actually incredibly intelligent, articulate and well-read. Also, someone who is not in a position to defend himself or answer back in a public arena.
In getting a bad review, I normally stomp around and curse for a while, then just suck it up, lick my wounds and continue with the work at hand. This was a very special case and I felt like I couldn’t let someone be attacked who wasn’t in a position defend themselves. So in response we wrote a letter to the editor of the LA Times. They never responded.
G: What are you working on next?
JX: I am working on two film project. One is about dinosaurs and the international dinosaur bone trade. The other is a narrative film. It’s an Islamic road movie through the United States. I’m super excited about both.