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An Interview With Anne Aghion, Documentary Filmmaker

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snipshot_bxpdeguf7cv.jpgAnne Aghion is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has covered the slums of Nicaragua, the tragedy of Rwanda, and most recently, the frigid conditions of Antarctica. I had the pleasure of chatting with Anne about her latest adventure in the cold, what draws her to the topics she chooses to film, and the problems with reconciliation in a post-genocidal society.

‘Razzi: What attracts you to the films you make?

Aghion: These are the things I want to do. Rwanda is obviously very compelling – and that’s not very difficult — it’s not a big stretch. The thing with Antarctica is that I’m not sure how I’m going to do it. I know what attracts me to it, which is the same thing that attracts a lot of other people to it. I just enjoy putting myself in those difficult situations. That’s what makes me feel alive.

‘Razzi: You have over 200 hours of tape for this particular adventure? How does this story emerge? Is it very organic or do you go into it with an idea?

Aghion: You know, I’m not sure how it’s going to work. It’s a combination of hard systematic work; to organize everything and think about everything. In the last five weeks since I’ve been back – without even thinking about the film, I’m sub-consciously thinking about it. I’m letting it work. I know what I don’t like. And there are things, you know, like when I tell the stories of what we went through, what we filmed. I look for the reactions of people. What bores them, what makes them come alive. It’s not like I’m going to cater to everyone’s reactions, I also want to find out what drew me down there and my own feelings.


‘Razzi: Is there anyway to relate to what you experienced? Will it be difficult to tell that on film?

Aghion: Yes, it will. It’s interesting — you can’t expect film to easily communicate the story . When you’re up in the mountains — where we were camping — there’s no noise, there are no vehicles, there’s nobody around. Your breath, even though it’s cold, doesn’t show. Basically, it can be minus 20 and there’s nothing coming out of your mouth when you’re breathing. How do you convey on film that it’s so cold, when there’s nothing coming out of your mouth?

‘Razzi: Was it beautiful?

Aghion: Incredibly beautiful. Beyond beautiful. It’s more the feeling you have when you’re there that’s incredible. I don’t know what adjective to use. I’m not sure an adjective has ever been invented that can describe how beautiful it is.

For me, what’s extraordinary is what it does to you as a person to be there…and, for me, the thing is, it was so extraordinarily restful to be where you are, at the time you’re there, and not to project yourself on the world. When you’re down in Antarctica, the only place you’re in, is where you are. When you’re in this tent, the only people that you know are the six people you’re with. There’s an incredible feeling of space.

We didn’t become close. It became our world, but in order to make it work, you don’t become intimate, you let everyone live their lives. Give everyone a lot of space — it’s really the best way to make it happen.


‘Razzi: And now the question on everyone’s mind: Did you see any evidence of Global Warming while you were down there?

Aghion: It was strange because everyone back home in NYC was freaking out with 70 degree temps – and I was freaking out because it was like, “What’s going on back home?” People kept asking me, “So, did you see it melt?” And I was like, “No….”

People study that – and those that have been going for 20-30 years might see things. But I certainly had nothing to compare anything to. I didn’t notice anything dramatic.

‘Razzi: What was the first modern convenience you had upon arriving back in civilization? (New Zealand)

Aghion: Warm showers! We used baby wipes to clean ourselves in the mountains. There was really no smell. I only started smelling myself about four or five weeks in as it got a little warmer. I mean, I only changed my clothes three or four times while I was there. I just slept in my clothing, took off a few layers, added some, etc. When we got back and unpacked everything, it stank. While we were up there, it didn’t really smell. And then, I unpacked my sleeping bag – the thing I had been sleeping in for seven weeks – and it smelled so bad. I couldn’t believe I had been in it.

‘Razzi: When might we expect the documentary to come out?

Aghion: It will be done probably in the fall. I don’t know, I mean, I’m starting to edit next week. Late summer, early fall.

‘Razzi: You’re working on a third film that covers the end of the justice process in Rwanda?

Aghion: There’s more shooting that needs to be done. I’ve been shooting intermittently – about every six months or so. I have a Rwandan cameraman, and he goes once a week to the Trials – or whenever something is about to happen. When I go film, we talk to people — the same we’ve been talking to for seven years — on how they feel about the process. How they feel seems to be where the story is.

We’re working in one village with the same people all the time. It’s interesting to see how they change, how the evolve, and how they react to the whole situation.

‘Razzi: With this one village you’ve been focusing on, the topic of reconciliation comes to mind. Do you believe that there can be reconciliation in a post-genocidal society such as Rwanda?

Aghion: First of all, I wouldn’t use the word reconciliation. I think the best that we can hope for is peaceful co-existence. Reconciliation is a huge concept. It’s a word that everyone uses; and I don’t think it is in the cards. The particularity is that people have to live together in very close quarters. There’s not going to a Hutus land and a Tutsi land. People are completely interdependent. They live in a village where the population density is huge. You can never really be alone in Rwanda. You might be living next to someone or getting water with someone who killed a person in your family. It’s not like you can get away from all of it. So, the fact that they are addressing this, which is what the Rwandans are trying to do, is pretty amazing. That being said, there are enormous demands being placed on these people – attending meetings every week and having it out with each other. It’s been years. Can you imagine having to go every week to a meeting when you have conflicting interests?

‘Razzi: Are there any additional topics on the fringe of your mind that you’d like to make films about?

Aghion: I really don’t know. I’m interested in what grabs me. One of the most difficult things about making these films is almost finding what it is to make the film about. Whatever you set your mind on will have to be something that gets you out of bed in the morning.

You can find more information on Anne’s latest filming project in Antarctica at LivingAntarctica.org She will also be at the American Museum of Natural History on Saturday and Sunday March 10 & 11 to show a clip of the film and talk about shoot at the official New York launch of the International Polar Year (IPY). You can visit her official website here.

photo credits: jeep shot by Anne Aghion, big valley by Richard Fleming

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