Jul 29, 2008

Interview - Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, Lumo & Les Vulnerables

An internationally lauded documentarian (Lumo) and narrative filmmaker (Les Vulnerables), Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt was named one of Filmmaker Magazine's 25 new faces in independent film last week. Like Benh Zeitlin below, I had the chance to profile him for the new issue of Filmmaker. Here's the full transcript of our interview for the magazine piece.

CEC: You've made two incredibly lauded films - a doc and a narrative. What do you find to be the unique challenges of each format and which do you prefer?

Perlmutt: When I shoot a documentary, I like attempting to capture events as they unfold because I believe that characters are usually more engaging when you observe them in action rather than just listen to a retelling of their story. This style of filmmaking is obviously challenging - you never know what's going to happen and must always be able to adjust to unforeseen circumstances. You also never know how the film is going to end until after you've finished shooting (or even editing in many cases). But that's life! This challenge is what makes documentary filmmaking exhilarating. In the case of Lumo, our biggest challenge was in the editing room. Life is a lot messier than a feature length film, and it was hard to decide what moments of the 200+ hours we shot would make it into the final cut. We spent five months in Congo making the film and then over a year in New York editing it. Originally we had focused on six different women in the hospital, but the more we got to know Lumo, the more we realized that we could make a film completely based on her story. Lumo was insightful, humorous, and deeply sensitive, and her recovery process provided a natural arc for the film.

As far as my narrative films go, I find shooting on location to be extremely challenging, particularly in crowded areas. I've shot all of my films on location, and each experience poses many difficulties both to my actors and crew. But I love placing actors in "real" environments and seeing what happens. With that said, I can't say which form I prefer because I see my documentaries having many similarities to my narrative films. My docs have always been character driven and don't contain many voice overs or interviews. They there have the feeling of a narrative film. On the flip side, when shooting narratives, I frequently work with nonactors and write their characters based on who they are in real life, rather than characters who I come up with in my head. I love both formats and hope to continue making both types.

CEC: What continues to draw you back to Africa to make films? Will you continue to do so?

Perlmutt: I have traveled to Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo six times and have lived there for over a year. It's become my home away from home and I intend to continue going there for the rest of my life. I first went to Goma to volunteer in a hospital that had just been destroyed (along with the rest of the town) by a volcano. Each year I go back to be a part of the vibrant and resilient community that has lived through volcanos, wars, and countless other horrors. I shot my first film ever there and have made a dozen films since on projects ranging from UNICEF films about children associated with armed groups to music videos featuring local musicians. The best part of making a film there is collaborating with my friends. Sometimes I direct, sometimes I act, and sometimes I just watch and learn from many of the skilled filmmakers living there. Congo has a rich storytelling tradition and I hope to have many more opportunities to make films there.

CEC: Do you consider yourself a cinephile? What are your biggest cinematic influences? What were some of your most formative cinematic experiences growing up?

Perlmutt: I love films and have been fortunate to have seen a lot of good ones through my studies and teachings at Brown and Columbia University, as well as by being a member of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures in which I have to watch as many films as possible each year. My favorite directors include Tarkovsky, Antonioni, Sissako, Kiarostami, Godard, Fellini, Bresson, Wong Kar Wei, Jim Jarmusch, Albert Maysles, Frederic Wiseman, Ross McElwee, and Jean Rouche.

I didn't take a film class until my Junior year in college, so my cinematic influences came from other sources. I loved listening to oral histories and I think they taught me that a good story is a good story, regardless of whether it was fiction or non-fiction. They also taught me how to LISTEN and not impose my own judgement and opinions on others, and that everyone has an interesting story to tell. Taking a lot of science courses taught me how to better visualize my thoughts and ideas, a skill that I've found invaluable as a filmmaker. My experience working in international public health offices opened my eyes to the rest of the world and helped me gain a deeper sense of empathy with other cultures. My music background helped me develop a rhythm and tempo necessary in my writing, directing, and editing. Lastly, my creative writing courses enhanced my curiosity and passion for crafting a good story in any genre.

When I was younger, I loved dirty comedies and will never forget watching Coming to America in a rowdy theatre in Times Square at age 9 with my parents. I also memorized all the words to Revenge of the Nerds around the same age. I love comedy and have always tried to have an element of humor in my films. My most formative cinematic experience in college was waking up one rainy Saturday morning, putting on a Buster Keaton film, and acknowledging the fact that I was doing homework!

CEC: Are you ever going to go to medical school?

Perlmutt: My MCAT scores expired last year and I'm having difficulty remembering basic math equations these days, so I don't think they'd ever let me in!

CEC: When did you first realize filmmaking was what you we're meant to do? How did it make you feel? Was it scary, liberating, both?

Perlmutt: The first time I thought seriously about becoming a filmmaker was when my senior thesis advisor had asked me what I was going to do with the screenplay I had just written for my honors thesis. I hadn't given it much thought until she suggested that I use it to apply to film school. I was about to head to Congo to work in a hospital there for six months, and right before leaving I decided to apply to a couple of film schools in New York. I then went to Congo and forgot that I had even applied until my mother called me up angrily one day saying that I had interviews with Columbia and NYU film schools. I told her not to worry and that even if I went to film school, it would only be for a couple of years and then I'd start med school.

When I got accepted to both programs, I felt completely liberated and as if I had found a path that encompassed all of my eclectic interests. I chose Columbia because I loved their philosophy of integrating several aspects of filmmaking into one rigorous curriculum. I strongly feel that one can't direct without knowing how to write, edit, act, and even produce. Columbia's program allowed me to learn the basics of all of these areas while I focused on being a director. I still wasn't sure I was going to make a career out of filmmaking until I served as a co-producer and editor on Control Room (Magnolia Pictures, 2004), a documentary about the Arab and US media coverage during the Iraq war. The process of making this political documentary from start to finish encouraged me to pursue film as a career rather than just a hobby. I get nervous sometimes about not knowing where I'll be or what I'll be doing in the next several months, but I feel lucky to have found something that I love doing and have never looked back on my decision.

CEC: What we're the biggest challenges in making a film in Swahili, in an incredibly turbulent part of the world?

Perlmutt: Since I've been going to Congo on a regular basis for the past six years, I've seen it change a lot. Progress has been made in many areas, but the overall security in Eastern Congo is still volatile. With that said, I've never felt threatened or afraid to be there. On the contrary, I've always felt welcomed to make films there. Congolese people are eager to let their voices be heard, and as a result I've never had any problem shooting in Congo. The biggest challenges were keeping the crowds down while shooting on the streets, having to direct actors in my poor French and Swahili, dealing with afternoon rainshowers and sporadic electricity, and accessing some locations (such as the volcano) by foot. But these are minor problems compared to the joy I have in making films there.

CEC: What's your next project?

Perlmutt: I'm editing a documentary that I directed about two vegetarian professors from New York City who decide to go on a deer-hunting trip in Wisconsin and eat what they kill. I'm also working on a feature script.