One World Romania Interviews:Tony Gerber, filmmaker – About the picaresque real life character

One World Romania, the documentary film festival for human rights, and Liternet have helped me accomplish one of my goals – bilingual interviews with international personalities from the film industry from various parts of the world – Ucraine, Congo, USA, Germany, Canada, Finland, France, Belgium, Croatia and Kenya.

In the fourth day of the festival I sat down to talk to Tony Gerber, he director, producer and cinematographer and co-founder of Market Road Films, an independent production company.  At the eighth edition of One World Romania, the Romanian audience could watch the movie The Notorious Mr. Bout. Out of all the surprising things that he told me,  the most surprsing was by far the fact that is Half-Romanian as mother was born in Moinesti, Bacau.

J.F.: Your company, Market Road Films, was founded in 2003. What was your purpose for creating this company?
Tony Gerber: I found that having a company gives me a greater measure of independence. I very much love having a production family. So I have a small team, but people who worked with me for many years. By having a company I am able to employ them and keep the family together.
Aren’t there obstacles?
Of course. There is very little alternative. Independent film maker in America means that you don’t have a steady paycheck from any one place. It also means that editorally, in terms of content and authorship if you have a measure of independence. What I do is that I balance work, what I choose to do, projects that I initiate, that I have authorship over, I balance that work with television commissions. So, I also do a lot for work for National Geographic, where I am an employee rather than a contractor, so they hire me film by film. When you make those sorts of television commissions, the whole budget is there, you don’t have to continue looking for money. With independent film by definition, you’re looking for money from the very begining before you’ve rolled a single frame all the way through the edit, sometimes as late as finishing it. You might need additional money to do a color correct, to do a mix or to hire a composer. So, the looking for money never stops with independent film. Whereas TV comission, the comfort and the luxury is that a full budget already exists before you start making the film. The drawback is you don’t have the same agency to author the work. I have a very good relationship with broadcasters especially National Geographic at this point. There is a large measure of trust. I do find that work fulfilling. I’m able to create work that follows a vision. Still, because is their money, at the end of the day if they don’t like something or if they don’t want something to follow a certain programme or agenda, is their call.
What about promoting your work?
Promoting in terms of what?
When the movie comes out, you are in charge of promoting it?
With an independent project. Well, yes and no, it all depends. In the case of the Notorious Mr. Bout, the world premiere was at the Sundance film festival, so it was very much our responsibility to hire a publicist, to handle our own marketing and to do our own social media around the film. That is usually the case with small independent film. There is rarely the bugdet for marketing and publicity. Now, when the movie sells, in our case to BBC Storyville, BBC has its own marketing and publicity division. In advance of a broadcast they will do what they consider to be the minimun of what’s necessary to raise awareness about the broadcasted movie. When an independent film is released by a distributor in the States, it depends on the seize of a distributor, but usually there is a marketing and publicity budget. Before a film sells and if it is 100% independent, the film-makers are responsible for generating press and marketing.
How do you feel about that? It’s an extra-job, right?
It’s an extra-job, but when you are a film-maker, probably in any country, short of being a full-time employed by a broadcaster, a TV station, you are wearing many many hats. You are producing, you are writing. In some cases you are also the cinematographer. On Notorious Mr. Bout I was also the cameraman.
On Notorious Mr. Bout you worked with a Russian partner, whom you described with the same dark sense of humor like you.
Oh, you watched some other interview!
Yes, I saw the interview from the Sundance Festival. So, how important is for your working partners to have the same features like you?
Well, I don’t think that is important that your partners have the same sensibilities, but I think that you have to have complementary sensibilities. In the case of Maxim Pozdorovkin, who was my partner on The Notorious Mr. Bout, we both knew that we wanted to make a film about a very serious subject, but in a way that it was a little more irreverent, that could use humour, that could look at all the complexities of a human life, without shoehorning complexity into a tiny box and making a film that was dry and self-serious. So, I think the answer is to work through a metaphor. That’s what I believe that we achieved with this film about the life of Victor Bout. We used home movies, nearly 200 hours of home movies, as a sort of metaphor for life in a funny way. Victor Bout is the co-author of the film. 60% of the film, maybe 70% percent, is home movies that he shot over the course of twenty years. Anytime he called cut or action, anytime you see him with a video camera, these moments were very important to us. It was important that the notion of a man telling the story of his own life was included within the frame of our film.
Why did you choose the arms trade as a subject in your movie?
The arms industry is the serious subject that I am referencing and saying that like Plato’s cave you can’t see something by looking directly at it, you have to see it through a reflection or by means of a shadow. For us, the life of Victor Bout told through his home movie camera is a way of looking at the arms trade without looking at the arms trade. It’s a complex and serious and deeply misunderstood subject. I will give you an example. There is a piece of footage in the film in which you see Victor with a Bulgarian arms broker named Peter Mirchev. They are like two school boys on a weekend jaunt. They are on their way to an arm show in Bulgaria. In this arm show, you see African leaders, you see industrialists, you see generals of armies. You see effectively what you would expect from a trade show, whether it’s selling birthday decorations of comic books. In this case, it’s selling weapon systems. There is nothing in that footage that is illegal. There are no laws being broken in that footage. When the lawyers from the BBC saw that clip, they were very nervous that we had the vulnerability of being sued, because we were linking individuals whose face was shown in that footage with something that was illegal or dangerous. That shows the depth of misunderstanding about the arms industry, that it’s not illegal in itself to ship arms. One of the things that our film looks at are the various loopholes and tries to make the point that this shadow world is not nearly as shadowy or nefarious, as people think it is.
I also read that you also have two children. What do your two chidren think about this movie?
One of them is six, so too young to have seen it. And my other child who is seventeen, who saw it at the Sundance festival, I think she liked it.
How can you describe the movie for those who did not see it?
The movie it is actually a very funny and absurdist look at the life of a man who lives at a moment in time, in which the world it’s changing very very rapidly. The interesting thing about Victor Bout, and it is a point that we make in this film, is that he changes very little as a character, but the world around him changes tremendously. There is this rule of thumb in screen-writing or in film-making that your character, your protagonist has to change over time, but there is one exeption to that rule in the literary form, it is a form called the picaresque. It is what Voltaire wrote when he wrote Candide. There is a famous cartoon character named Mr. Magoo, who is a blind man and he wonders through the world messing up and doing funny thing because he is blind. His eye sight is so bad and it is tremenduosly funny. That is also a picaresque. He doesn’t change, but everything around him changes. This is Victor Bout. He has the same philosophy about life when he is twenty as he does when he is forty. He has the same approach to business, to making money, to travel, to living his life, but the world changes and the world catches up to him. And what at some point is clever from the point of view of a post-soviet free market economy, by 9’11, 2003, 2004 it is no longer clever, it is illegal and dangerous. He doesn’t understand this why and how the world perceives him as a villain. That gap in understanding is very much the subject to the film.

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