Christian Frei was 17 when he first realised his vocation. As a schoolboy in Solothurn, Switzerland, he became intrigued by what lay beyond the walls of a monastery he passed every day. The day-to-day lives of the young monks represented an alien world a hidden, fascinating world he could never enter.
Armed with a tiny Super-8 camera, Frei and a few school friends not only gained access to this forbidden realm, but were given deep insights into the moral and spiritual life of an institution normally hidden behind walls and stereotypes.
“Documentary filmmaking allowed me to look at the structure of a hidden society,” says Frei. “Whereas fiction filmmaking unfortunately often deals with clichés and stereotypes, documentary filmmaking allows us to show a much richer world of emotions and conflicts, the fullest range of human experience. And as American documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman once said: There is great drama in every bit of so-called ordinary life.”
Frei, now 42, went on to study visual media at the Department of Journalism and Communication at the University of Fribourg and has been an independent director and producer for nearly two decades, as well as working regularly for Swiss television.
His latest film, War Photographer, was nominated best documentary feature at the Oscars this year. Its subject, photojournalist James Nachtwey, told Frei he was trying to raise a sense of humanity in his work. “This is probably what I am trying to achieve too,” says Frei. We are pleased to welcome Christian to Cape Town, courtesy of Pro Helvetia. He is a Close Encounters Laboratory tutor.
Hetty Naaijekns-Retel Helmrich
A major influence on Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich’s vision as a filmmaker is undoubtedly the rich variety of cultural forms she was exposed to throughout her life. Born in Indonesia to a Javanese mother and Dutch father, Hetty moved with her family to the Netherlands when she was almost two. Later she spent close to a decade in Curacao in the Dutch Antilles with her husband Joris. The experience crystallised an essential ingredient in her approach to producing films.
“It was a wonderful time and gave me the opportunity to travel extensively in South America,” says Hetty, adding that her exposure to Third World countries allowed her to appreciate the relativity of cultures.
Back in the Netherlands she established Scarabee Film Productions and gained a thorough grounding in the commercial aspects of the industry at the Film Business School in Ronda, Spain. Since its inception in 1989, Scarabee has earned international recognition for producing prize-winning documentaries. Hetty believes her hands-on approach has contributed to the company’s success. “I think it’s important to guide and stimulate the directors I work with and always to be open and honest,” she says. Although Hetty’s interest in art is often reflected in the films she chooses to produce, intuition is her guiding principle when it comes to selection. “So far my intuition has never let me down. I have a good sense for quality and I know how to get the best out of people” We are pleased to welcome Hetty to Cape Town, courtesy of The Royal Netherlands Embassy. She will introduce screenings of her productions “The Eye Of The Day” and “Broken Silence” answer questions from the audience and take part in the Close Encounters Laboratory as a tutor.
Vikram Jayanti was born in New York in 1955 but grew up in France, Italy, Switzerland, India, Costa Rica and England, where he did most of his schooling. Initially he wanted to be a painter, but after seeing Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser in the same week he became enchanted by the possibilities of filmmaking and moved to Los Angeles in 1977. He began producing anthropological documentaries at the University of Southern California and later ran two documentary film festivals in Los Angeles. These brought together a community of filmmakers and broadcasters who formed the basis of his future work, which has garnered numerous awards. When We Were Kings, which won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 1996, went on to win an Oscar in 1997.
Since then he has directed a series of feature documentaries which his friends call his American Monsters series, about larger-than-life characters such as Ken Kesey, James Ellroy and Julian Schnabel. His masterful The Man Who Bought Mustique, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2000, was nominated for a BAFTA, and the UK’s Channel Four version of the film won the Indie award for Best Documentary in 2000.
Known for his gonzo choice of subjects, he has also produced high-profile television documentaries with his signature combination of eccentricity and amazement.
Following Encounters Jayanti plans to start work on a new feature documentary about chess genius Garry Kasparov. We welcome Vikram to Cape Town, where he will introduce his films and answer questions afterwards. He is a Close Encounters Laboratory tutor and is sponsored by The British Council.