John Ridley Explores the Art of Documentary Filmmaking for ‘Critical Content’ Series (Video)

Writer-director John Ridley discussed the ins and outs of documentary filmmaking with industry insiders for his ‘Critical Content: Stories That Matter’ documentary film event. 

Ridley, who took home an Oscar for adapting “12 Years a Slave,” sat down with “Flee” director Jonas Poher Rasmussen, “Faya Dayi” director Jessica Beshir, and “Summer of Soul” filmmaker Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. With regards to the animated movie “Flee,” Ridley admitted the film hadn’t been on his radar. 

“I was not aware of ‘Flee,’” Ridley said. “Someone pitched it to me and they said, ‘it’s — in short — it’s a film about immigration.’ But the film is about so much more than just that and there’s some things even in this conversation, I’d love to keep just a little bit arcane because I really believe people need to see this film and they need to feel it.”

John Ridley discusses documentary filmmaking for critical content series. (Credit: Critical Content)

Rasmussen ultimately wanted to capture his friend Amin’s story, and through “Flee” show that being an immigrant is not an identity, but a circumstance. Part of creating a safe space for Amin to feel comfortable sharing his story involved animating the documentary.

“[Ahmin] was really intrigued by the fact that he could be anonymous behind the animation, because what you hear in the film is the very first time he talks about it, his real voice talking about his intimate secrets, his traumas for the very first time,” Rasmussen explained. “And it’s not easy for him to talk about, so the fact that he could be anonymous and not be in the public eye with these stories was really important to him [so] that he could kind of keep control over when he wanted to talk about the story.”

In his one-on-one conversation with UCLA graduate Jessica Beshir about her documentary “Faya Dayi,” which highlights the ‘khat’ leaf as both a cash crop and spiritual substance in Harar, Ethiopia, Ridley wanted to know more about Beshir’s documentary style. 

John Ridley discusses documentary filmmaking for critical content series. (Credit: Critical Content)

“There’s trancelike cinema, there’s hallucination, there’s, I mean, there’s all kinds of ways in which people are trying to articulate what this film is about,” Beshir said. “And it’s not that one is more correct than the other. There’s really no wrong answer.”

Questlove said he put pressure on himself to make sure he got the story of the legendary 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival right.

“It was much more important for me to correct history than it was to make a really dope movie,” he said. 

The conversations were curated by Ridley’s Nō Studios in partnership with .

Alongside the discussions on documentaries, Awards Editor Steve Pond spoke with four female filmmaker grant recipients about their work: Grace Simbulan, Mary Louise Schumacher, Sofie Theodore-Pierce and Janelle VanderKelen. 

John Ridley discusses documentary filmmaking for critical content series. (Credit: Critical Content)

Of her transition from print journalism to filmmaking, Schumacher said, “I had the skills to write a sentence and I went off to write a novel. …I had these basic skills and we set out to do something very ambitious. One of the most basic things is, as a journalist, you try to get people to tell you things, you ask for information, you ask people to give their opinion, but you don’t ask people to essentially reveal who they are in front of a camera, which is a very, very different kind of interviewing.”

Simbulan, who hails from the Philippines, is using filmmaking to bring about change.

“What really got me into filmmaking was this episode were one of the films that I created actually put an end or was instrumental in putting an end in a mining corporation’s operation in one of the provinces in the Philippines,” she said. “And that sort of reinforced my belief in the role of films to create movements for social impact.”

John Ridley discusses documentary filmmaking for critical content series. (Credit: Critical Content)

Theodore-Pierce and VanderKelen have experimental filmmaking in common.

“[Film] provides a space where I can incorporate research poetics interested in photography, art history,” Theodore-Pierce said. “A strong drive for me working in film is how it is just implicitly about conversation and community building.”

VanderKelen echoed certain sentiments. 

“There’s an opportunity to change the world. There’s an opportunity to intervene in systems that aren’t working anymore. And there’s an opportunity to create dialogue and to build community,” she said. “Those are some of the reasons why I do what I do. And I think film is one of the most interdisciplinary intermedia modes for creative production possible. I also work, I’m going to use the term as a total filmmaker, meaning that I write the script, I film, I sometimes edit, I do sound work, I do all aspects of my workflow.”

You can watch more of the interview that Steve Pond moderated between these four filmmakers here.

John Ridley discusses documentary filmmaking for critical content series. (Credit: Critical Content)

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