Argentine-Canadian Noemi Weis is a relative newcomer to documentary film making, but has thrown herself into topics that can only be described as harrowing: the damage domestic violence wrecks on children, homophobic discrimination that forces gays to flee their home countries, the search for the missing grandchildren born from the disappeared here in Argentina, and the horrific chastisement Indian widows face – blamed for their husbands´ death and banished from their homes. Desert Riders, her recent documentary about the plight of child camel jockeys, trafficked to the Middle East, abused and injected with hormones to stunt growth, is currently on air in 14 countries.
Here in Argentina, she has recently been interviewing and researching for MILK, a film about the importance of breastfeeding as a means of creating a healthier society, among other activities. She talks to The Argentina Independent about objectivity, heartbreak, and porteño taxi drivers.
You recently screened your documentary ‘Abuelas – Grandmothers on a Mission’ to the grandmothers themselves. How did they react to it?
It was extremely well received, that was really wonderful. I was actually quite anxious to hear their response because I didn´t know how they would see themselves.
They were very touched by the film, they said it was done in a way without showing any blood or anything that would be really traumatic for the viewers. It was done in a very honest way by the protagonists themselves, being themselves, and the grandchildren, and they felt very good about it.
There have been many films done about the Abuelas, this is just a half an hour with the purpose of being an educational documentary, more than anything it´s a tribute to them, and I hope that it will go to schools to tell their story.
I saw on your website that you have no less than 15 works in progress. How do you sleep?
Someone asked me that the other day, I sleep eight hours and I think very fast.
Your films deal with really raw, emotional and powerful subjects. When you were approached to do Desert Riders you said, ¨I don´t know if my heart can take another film of that nature.¨ How do you deal with hearing such tragic stories?
It´s not easy. Every time I finish a film I say to myself ¨I am going to be much stronger and I am going to be very objective and not going to take it to heart¨, but actually it´s not true. Every time I get involved in one of the films it becomes very, very personal. I think that is one of the reasons I am able to talk with people at their level, they always tell me that they have told me things they haven´t talked about before, and in way it´s a very honest conversation I am able to capture.
I have worked with wonderful directors, they also felt every time we got involved in any of the films there was a reason we were doing this and we wanted to be able to raise the voices of these people in the world. Maybe I came to this life to have this kind of mission – that someone needs to bring the voice of the most vulnerable. I am driven by the passion of wanting to help.
The medium of film, with voice and images, is really powerful. I always say that if I am able to change one life, it´s all worth it. My films have been able to make a difference in communities. They´re out there in classrooms and universities and they do make a difference, or also in inspiring people to change their lives, provoking change, and that´s what keeps me going.
How has your work changed people´s lives?
‘Let´s Talk About It’ deals with domestic violence, and shows intimate conversations between parents and children. For some it was the first time they had talked about that intimately with their parents, so there was healing between parents and children in the process of the film. That´s being used in women´s shelters, correctional centres, and classrooms as a tool. That´s definitely made a big impact.
I also made ‘Gloriously Free’, about gay people that had to flee from their countries because of discrimination. I was called by a teacher from a college wanted it to be shown in their Toronto sociology class, and a lawyer from California used the film to defend one of his cases.
‘Teaching the Life of Music’, launched the beginning of last year, deals with El Sistema in Venezuela, rescuing kids through music. It´s a tool that brings people together. When it launched in Canada, the next day I got a call from a man in a tiny town in the north of Ontario, he couldn´t sleep all night, he wanted to create El Sistema in his town. He was ready to create something similar. It´s about motivating and inspiring people to create a better society, giving people the opportunity to be together.
Do you feel that your films in some way (in representing struggles and then hope) reflect your own story as an immigrant? It must have been tough for you to settle in Canada.
For an immigrant no matter what you do, it´s not easy in another country with a different set of rules, a different language and culture. Whenever people tell me they are going to leave their country I say to them, think twice, it´s not all about the money. People who move think they will be more stable financially but there’s a lot more that goes with that. Being an immigrant means that you are away from the things that you grew up with, your family, the most important things. It´s not that easy, but I don´t think I am an exception to the rule. I´ve never had difficulty using my voice. Now I am communicating with documentaries, before it was in advertising.
How was it making the change from working in advertising to making documentaries?
Dramatic. A very dramatic change, from one opposite to the other of the spectrum. Financially, very, very, very different. Though I can tell you, for some reason, I feel very rich right now. It´s the richness of the spirit that keeps me going. I am doing something that I really love.
I have only being making documentaries for seven or eight years, I have produced seven, eight films, it´s a lot, and I have been extremely busy.
I think maybe the background that I had, being an entrepreneur, having my own company, having the discipline of working in business, having a marketing background as well, it all helped. I think for me personally I have to find a balance financially, there´s no question about it. I have been driven by passion and the passion has kept me going. Eventually it will find a balance itself I think.
You make films which give voice to the voiceless, that give power to the disempowered. Was there a specific life experience that you had that led you to follow this path?
Personally I don´t think it comes from my own life. I have always had a strong sense of justice and human rights. When I started Filmblanc back in 1998, I was very busy with my own advertising agency. It was created with an anthropological approach, my business plan was to create an association with producers around the world. I intended to continue the advertising work.
Once I started to make documentaries, it took a life of its own and my time to become completely absorbed by the stories, by the places, by the mission, by where I had to travel and be part of, which was not always next to me at home, so it took a life of its own.
How is it to be back in Argentina working?
I adjust very easily to wherever I go, I love different cultures and I travel easily to many places, and I speak several languages which gives me a very easy way to communicate with people.
I am from Argentina, I was born here and I grew up here, but I lived my adult life in Canada.
I left for Canada in 1975, so very, very young, thinking I was going to go for a year as an adventure. It was hard to come back, the situation here in Argentina was not the best situation in those days, so what was an adventure became a lifetime.
So in a lot of things I am an outsider, in the sense that I don´t know the day to day things that people manage, but I feel comfortable because I do understand the culture completely and speak the language. But on the other hand, people are very surprised when I ask very simple questions, they look at me because I speak Spanish like everyone else, I never lost my Argentine accent, and all of a sudden I come out with a question that I should have known, but I have to explain that I don´t live here, and I am not from here.
It´s the same for me to be working here as anywhere else, because I am always an outsider wherever I am, but I do understand the culture and the language, and I can communicate. That´s the main thing for me.
How difficult is it to find funding? Have social media and crowdfunding made an impact?
Funding is the worst part, it´s very difficult. It´s a lot of work. Crowdfunding has been very successful for a lot of people out there, but I haven´t tried it yet. I´ve been fortunate to get funding with an enormous amount of effort. I work very long hours and I don´t give up, I think it´s a lot of patience and determination, if you believe in it, but it can take a very long time to get funding for a film. Once you have funding, the work is not difficult.
With the kind of topics that I do, people should be knocking on the door, society would save (money) in so many other ways.
How has being Argentine-Canadian impacted your work?
As a writer, director and producer, I think film making is very personal. I am Argentine, my Argentine culture is strong in me and people know me as Argentine around the world. My language and culture is very Latin.
When I was here I studied architecture, I have always been a very visual person, all of that has to do with who I am. As a half Canadian half Argentine, I feel very comfortable in both worlds, but then I feel comfortable in Paris, or in Italy or in Spain. It´s part of being Argentine. Argentines are really encyclopaedic, the European influence that we have here is very, very strong, it´s part of our identity problem. They feel themselves European but they are part of Latin America, so they never know where they belong. I guess I am Argentine because I never know where I belong.
You´re used to being the interviewer, not the interviewee. How does it feel for you? Would you consider yourself a private person?
I am private, but I don´t have any problem being interviewed, I interview people all the time. I think it´s important to be able to share the ins and outs of how films are made, the audience is always interested to know.
‘Abuelas’ deals with a painful period in Argentina´s history. How did this affect you and your family?
I left Argentina before it started. I lived it all from a distance. There was talk, there was something in the air. My (immediate) family was not affected directly, though there were a couple of cousins who disappeared. I remember being in Canada and receiving letters from people who were studying with me in the faculty of architecture telling me what was happening, and I heard it all from a distance.
Doing ‘Abuelas’ was important to me, I felt I needed to tell the story of what happened in my country.
What do you miss about Argentina when you are outside the country?
I miss my family and my friends. It´s nice to be here in the summer, I miss the cosmopolitan part of the city, the romance, the passion of the city, the culture of the coffee, that you can sit for hours and talk about changing the world. The culture here is more laid back and people have more time to do that.
You are currently doing interviews here for MILK, your documentary about the benefits of breastfeeding. What is it like interviewing Argentines?
People are very open, they love to talk, the moment you open the microphone you have a hard time getting a break in there to ask a question. People have a lot to say. They have a lot of opinions, a lot of stories; they have no problem in telling them. Even in a taxi the conversations are fantastic! They tell me so many things without me saying one thing. The cameraman says that I ask questions and I trigger them, maybe I do, but my god they tell me so many stories, it´s wonderful!
What is it about the topic of breastfeeding that interests you?
I think people need to know about breastfeeding. It´s incredible that in 2013 there are still controversies about breastfeeding, when it should be something so natural. My interest is in showing the benefits, bringing a message to society at large.
There are many issues that need to be covered: number one is the health community, the doctors are not prepared to help the mothers as much as they need to and that´s why so many mothers have so much trouble.
There are also issues culturally. Each country has different laws, here in Argentina the mother has to go back to work within three months, if she wants to breastfeed it´s not that easy because it´s a very short period of maternity leave.
Multinational companies continue to spend a lot of money on marketing, when it should be something that comes from governments. Governments should realise that they would be spending less money in health, if they were taking care of breastfeeding.
In every documentary that I work on, it all has to come to the root of the problem. We can´t resolve anything, yes, we can raise awareness, but we can´t raise awareness with the mission of making a change until we realise what the problem is, with the hope and the goal that someone will pay attention and maybe make a difference. That´s the idea.
We´ll be covering the documentary from different angles, without placing judgement on women who decide not to breastfeed, but I will give them the opportunity to explain why.
For more information and to buy Noemi Weis’ films, visit the Filmblanc website.