Tuesday, February 17, 2009

"Oscar" Doc Shorts: THE FINAL INCH and an interview with producer Tom Grant

Along with Smile Pinki (covered last week) THE FINAL INCH is one of four short documentaries nominated this year for an Academy Award. Because the father of the film's producer, Tom Grant, has been a good friend for a number of years, I took this opportunity to get in touch with his son -- also named Tom Grant -- to find out more about the movie, which I saw yesterday at a screening held at MoMA.

The film -- which details the ongoing attempt to eradicate the Polio virus from developing countries, in this case India -- begins with a quote from the late Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "The rule of the final inch consists in this: not to shrink this critical work, not to postpone it… one's purpose lies not in completing things faster, but in the attainment of perfection." In this case, that would signify total eradication of the virus, but in more personal terms, it could also mean that important moment in which the two drops of necessary medicine are finally inserted into an individual child's mouth (see photo at bottom of post). We don't of course see the former happening (it's still far away), but we do see the latter being done by diligent volunteers throughout India, despite the objections of certain Muslims who don't feel a woman volunteer should be seen outside her home or fear that these drops might be an American plot to cause sterility in the Muslim state.

We spend time with Munzareen Fatima (above left), a wonderful foot soldier in the Polio war, and with Ashfaq Bhat, who oversees the volunteers who vaccinate some of the country's most isolated children. Polio survivors Mikail Davenport and Martha Mason -- the latter has been encased in an iron lung over the last half century -- also share their experiences. As usual with the narrative documentaries, the experience is bracing and salutary. Having now seen three of the four short docs up for this year's award (in The Conscience of Nhem En, we meet the man who took many of those now infamous Khmer Rouge death photos of the thousands of Cambodians -- men, women and children -- who were then summarily executed by Pol Pot), I can't imagine how Academy Members might go about choosing the best among these. Not that any of these films are close to perfect. But their combination of form and content make them important documents of necessary truth-telling. (The fourth film, as yet unseen by me, is The Witness -- From the Balcony of Room 306 which evidently is an archival piece regarding the reflections of one of the witnesses to the assassination of Martin Luther King.)

To learn more about how a documentary such as The Final Inch is made, I spoke briefly with Tom Grant, shown below right, who is the producer of the film. Next to him is the film's director Irene Taylor Brodsky.

TrustMovies: How did you become involved in this project?

Tom Grant: The director Irene Taylor Brodsky's and my history go way back. She was a journalism student -- particularly photojournalism -- and I was a film student. We both even lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, around the same time. She was based in NYC for awhile and went to the Journalism School of Columbia University. Hear and Now, the film Irene made about her parents, was her first feature film as founder of Vermilion. Irene was born of two deaf parents and raised in the deaf community in Rochester, New York, and her film won an audience award at Sundance.

When did you first work together?

We worked at the same production company for awhile, then she went on to CBS-TV. Her husband is a neurologist, and when he got a job in Oregon, she relocated and set up a company. For the production of The Final Inch, I was based in Portland for awhile but for the majority of that time, I was abroad in India and Afghanistan.

I didn't notice any Afghanistan footage. Did I miss something?

No. When the documentary needed to be brought down to a shorter length, we had to cut that part out.

You've worked on both narrative and documentaries: Which do you prefer?

These days, in the film world, all the new technology has helped level the playing field for both genres. I generally find myself comfortable doing the documentaries. But every once in awhile I get the itch to go dramatic again. But it's been so long….

How long?

I've been dealing in the documentary field for about a decade.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about The Final Inch?

Only that, in a way, this Oscar nomination has sort of taken the focus off what the film is all about -- its original impetus. It was the folk at google.org who brought the original idea to Irene, which was to raise awareness here in the west that Polio still exists in the world -- and what a massive undertaking this is to try to eradicate it completely, by any means necessary, and to show that these workers and volunteers really need to be supported. As world citizens, we all bear responsibility to protect the children of the world. We hope the film raises consciousness about Polio and its eradication efforts.

It does -- and it will. What's next for you?

It's possible that I'll be going to Alaska in the spring of 2009 for a new cable documentary series. I'm also doing freelance work in Nepal and India for HD Net. And I have been working for awhile now on another documentary about what happened during the protests at the recent Olympics in China. I am hoping to have this finished by early Spring.

Tell me about this Tibet/China doc.

During this past summer, I was shooting for the Students for a Free Tibet and I became a kind of coordinator and technical adviser for them, gathering and disseminating information, coordinating teams to document the protest and then to disseminate to the press. I, and others, were arrested and sentenced to ten days' detention -- which was truncated to six days once the American ambassador in Bejing voiced his concern. Then we were all deported.

What does this mean about your going back to China?

It's probably not going to happen.

How do you think the whole economic thing that the world is going through will affect China?

My hope is that the moderate voice in China will gain more momentum. A lot of the Chinese people put up with what the central government was shelling out because of the economic growth. But once you remove that growth from the table, things will probably change. And the people will not be as willing to put up with everything. This is already starting to become apparent. Now that all that fervor leading up to the Olympics -- and China's sort of "coming-out party" -- is over, maybe the Chinese people will see that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.

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