Amanda Micheli Going for La Corona

Sean Uyehara January 23, 2008 is reprinting an interview with Amanda Micheli from April not just because she was a welcome sight in Park City, Utah, but because we learned Tuesday that her film, now playing Sundance, has just made the final cut for an Academy Award.

When Bay Area filmmaker Amanda Micheli approaches you can see that she is an athlete. She is sure of herself. She has a magnetic smile, great stories and has steadily built an impressive history of documentary and commercial filmmaking work. Her student thesis at Harvard won a Student Academy Award, and her feature length directorial debut “Double Dare” — about the work and lives of two female stuntwomen — has screened worldwide, including at the San Francisco International Film Festival (2004). She shot and produced “Cat Dancers,” which just premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize. And, most recently, she has been to Colombia where she documented a beauty pageant taking place in a Bogotá women’s prison. This newest project currently entitled “El Reinado” [ editor’s note, Oct. 17, 2007: The film has since been retitled “La Corona” (“The Crown”)]is being co-directed with her old friend Isabel Vega. SF360 sat down with her for lessons in documentary and rugby lingo.

SF360: Where are you from?

Amanda Micheli: Boston, Mass.

SF360: So, that’s the Harvard connection?

Micheli: Actually, when it came time for college, I was ready to leave Boston in a big way, so I went to check out schools in California. I knew that I wanted to work in film, but none of the programs out here seemed like a good match at the time. Despite my initial hesitations about it, I am really lucky that I ended up at Harvard. They have great teachers like Ross McElwee and Rob Moss, a slew of 16mm cameras, Nagras, Steenbecks… all of that… but the film program is part of the general Liberal Arts major.

SF360: So, you weren’t really only studying film, like you might in a Cinema School for instance?

Micheli: Right. I was glad to be in contact with kids from all walks of life — they weren’t all Hollywood-hungry Spielberg wanna-be’s. And the film department there is a well-kept secret, so the classes are small and you get unbelievable access to 16mm film equipment.

SF360: And you played rugby.

Micheli: Yep. I kind of occupied two worlds — sports and art — and probably still do. But, the metaphor — you know, sports as a microcosm for whatever larger challenges we face in ‘real life’ — fits right in with filmmaking and still influences me. You know, when I am finishing a film or even just shooting a challenging scene, I am thinking — ‘It’s the last five minutes of the game; how is my crew, my team, going to get through this? We all feel like we’re going to die but I know we can make it — just play to the whistle!’ I remember seeing Werner Herzog talk after a screening at Telluride. Someone in the audience asked, ‘What advice do you have for young filmmakers trying to make it today?’ He said, ‘Play contact sports.’ I was ecstatic. Finally, somebody got it.

SF360: You ended up playing on the U.S. Women’s Rugby team?

Micheli: Yes, briefly, but most of my serious rugby playing was done at the club level with the dominating national champs, the Berkeley All Blues Can I just say this? Rugby isn’t just about aggression — it really is the ultimate team sport. It takes so many different personality types, physical skills and body types, too. In so many sports, there’s this psychotic body image for female athletes — people don’t get it that female athletes have just as many eating disorders as runway models. So this is a great sport for women, because every type of physical make-up is needed and valued; it welcomes all the misfits out there. I mean you have tall, lanky women and these little tough plugs and everything in between.

[SF360 then digressed asking about “blood bins,” “rucks,” “scrums” and “mauls.” Amanda answered every question and provided a diagram of a scrum, naming all the positions: flanker, hooker prop and more. Micheli herself was a flanker for most of her career.]

SF360: So what happened?

Micheli: Well, after three knee reconstructions, my future in rugby wasn’t looking so bright. Right after I made the US team, I tore an ACL, and I was trying to come back in time to make the World Cup squad while working on my films at the same time. And then, within months of making my ‘big comeback,’ I tore the other ACL, and I was devastated. But, some part of me knew that it would be very hard to continue to pursue high-level rugby and filmmaking at the same time. I mean, I shot parts of ‘Double Dare’ on crutches! Not to mention, no matter how much heart I have as an athlete, at the end of the day, I’m probably better with a camera than a ball. But nobody wants to go out like that; it would have been nice to retire by my own choice …. but such is life. And now I’ve found other, more knee-and-career-friendly ways to get my sporting fix.

SF360: I saw Cat Dancers. It’s an enigmatic story about the early days of big cat training, adagio, ménage à trios, and death.

Micheli: I guess you could say that.

SF360: Some of the subject matter was touchy. And, it seems like you must have followed and interviewed the main character, Ron Holiday, for quite a lot of time. He really opened up to the film. How does that work? How do you gain their trust? Do you need to like the person that is the focus of your film?

Micheli: I think you do on some level. I haven’t filmed anyone yet that I couldn’t relate to in some way. And, when you can empathize, it helps you to see what is engaging about the person you are recording. In essence, it’s always a collaboration between you and your “subject” (as much as I hate that term), but at the same time, there’s often some element of betrayal in the process.

SF360: How so?

Micheli: You are always wrestling with your subjects, gaining their trust and then exposing intimate details about them to strangers. It’s a constant cycle back-and-forth. I don’t mean to say it’s sinister; maybe betrayal isn’t the right word. And I am always surprised about what ends up being a problem in the end. When I made ‘Just for the Ride,’ I filmed rodeo star Jan Youren with no shirt and just a bra on. She was in her ’60s, and you know, she looks like a 60 year-old woman in her bra — I’m a huge fan of hers, and even though she looked fine to me, I figured she might be sensitive about that image in public. When she came to the first screening, I was nervous about what she was going to think about that scene. Afterwards, she pulled me aside and said, ‘I am so angry with you, I can’t believe you showed that.’ And, I said, ‘When you were changing?’ And she says, ‘No, when I was singing in the car. I hate my singing voice.’

SF360: So how do you get access to film in a Colombian prison?

Micheli: You ingratiate yourself to the prison director. Those were honestly some of the most frustrating shooting days I have ever experienced. We would get kicked out all the time for reasons arbitrary or bureaucratic or no reason at all. Sometimes we would just wait outside the prison doors for an entire day. And once you do get in, you better have everything you need — because if you go back out to get a new battery, there’s no guarantee the new guard on duty will let you back in!

SF360: Assassins, thieves, terrorists competing for a beauty queen title.

Micheli: Right, but the point for me is that these women are caught up in a very ironic culture. They are in this impossible situation, where they have to be ruthless and will go to extreme, unlawful measures to provide for their families in the midst of a civil war, but on top of it all, they MUST be beautiful. Beauty pageants are a national pastime in Colombia.

SF360: I definitely get that out of what I have seen of the film, but it’s not like you are ‘exposing’ this. It’s more about the fascinating fact of the pageant’s existence and the basic human drama of competition — who will win or lose?

Micheli: Well, I don’t see documentary as a form of social work — I just want to tell a good story and hope that people will see the deeper meanings in it without me hitting them over the head. If documentaries are expected to save the world, I think that’s a problem. But that seems to be where the form is heading — every successful doc is expected to be some extreme, world-changing political statement that’s connected to a cause. I’ve wanted to make a film about rugby for a while. ‘Murderball,’ which I thought was a great film, isn’t really about rugby in the traditonal sense, but it’s marketed as a film about rugby, so you have to wonder, ‘How can I compete with that in the marketplace?’ I mean rugby is already an extreme sport, but these guys don’t have the use of their legs; that’s over the top. On the other hand, my version of a rugby story might seem small by comparison, and probably isn’t going to change the world. There’s no activist bent on it or call to action. Someone said to me, ‘How about a story about rugby on the West Bank?’ Well, as far as I know, people aren’t playing rugby on the West Bank, but that’d be a great script! If I ever do make my own rugby doc, I’ll just have to rely on good storytelling and great characters, which is what I most like about nonfiction anyhow.

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