An intimate portrait of a friend who was diagnosed with cancer, CRISTINA is the latest documentary from Academy Award Nominated director Michèle Ohayon. Michele is based in Los Angeles with her company Kavana Entertainment, which is currently engaged with international projects spanning across different genres. CRISTINA will premiere at the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival on June 25th at 4:30pm.
Born in Casablanca and raised in Israel, Michèle graduated from Tel Aviv University (Film & Television), after serving in the army. She has spent the last thirty years directing and producing documentaries that deal with issues of human conflict, gender and social inequality, and current, relevant issues. She is also an active member of the Academy of Motion Pictures, where she serves on the International committee, foreign film committee and the educational/grants committee.
Michele sat down with Cinema Without Borders to talk about CRISTINA and her process of filming it. What follows is an in depth look inside the mind of a talented documentarian.
Wyatt Phillips: What was it like to undertake a documentary with such personal subject matter?
Michèle Ohayon: It was one of those films that you wish you didn’t have to make, like a lot of my movies actually, and I wasn’t—when Cristina asked me to make this film, I explained to her, first of all, that I want to be there to help her, not to film her; to feed her, to bring her to chemo and she said, ‘no, no, no, I need my message to come across, I can’t travel anymore and be an inspirational teacher and I want people to know you got to live now.’ And I said to her, ‘you know what that means, I’m going to be in your face with a camera in your most vulnerable moments,’ and she said ‘I’m fine with that.’
It was hard to be honest with you, after I shot it, first of all, no one knew it was going to only five months, everybody gave her two to five years to live, so I wasn’t running every day to film her, I was taking my time, here and there when I could, and I was filming another movie so that was that, and I also, once it was done, I couldn’t touch it for three years, it was on my editing machine and every time I looked into it, I shut it down. I just couldn’t handle it and three years later I felt like I was letting her down, I needed to get this to the world, so I asked my long time editor, Kate Amend, who is really amazing, and I said ‘Kate, we need to do this,’ and she said, ‘Ok, let’s do it in small doses, it’s just hard.’ So it took us a while to put it together because we just couldn’t do seven or eight hours of editing a day and finally we ended up with it; but also, being there at the last moment of life was extremely hard because, I- I mean, I was doing the camera and my hands were like shaking and I was holding her hand in one hand and holding the camera in the other and her family, her mother and her siblings were really gracious because they knew she wanted this, so they made space for me around the death bed and let me do this, which was really an act of kindness and generosity and courage. You have this small dilemma of, ok now I’m going to put down the camera, this is the moment I want to hold her but you know it’s my responsibility as a filmmaker to give the audience the brutal truth and in this case it is brutal.
WP: How much of CRISTINA was found footage and how much did you shoot?
MO: I shot everything current, and the stuff of her, like the travel videos, were shot by her and her husband; those are really home videos, but everything is me—I tend to really be in the scene with the camera, not observe from a far. Maybe the first day, I will be a little further, but then I’m in the scene and the quick I get in there, the quicker people get used to me and my camera, and of course I get to know everyone while I’m shooting. It’s crucial, in the kind of documentary that I make, is you have to really have people trust that you’re going to tell their story with truth and with integrity because otherwise they will be hiding something or they will be turning away or they’ll be avoiding. So, with CRISTINA, I had to be close.
WP: Describe your process of moving through your footage and finding the documentary within that
MO: I look for a story. In this case, it’s really a character piece, so I wanted people to have an arch of her life going from, ‘I’m going to beat this,’ to ‘this is not going to happen,’ and her husband kind of, not losing hope, but faith in reality. So the arc is, even if I beat this, maybe I’m not going to it, but then I’m not going to beat it, so at least someone else can benefit from my journey. That was my arc and I didn’t want to make it too depressing and since I only had twenty hours of footage, I was ‘Ok, what else can I do here?’ And I thought, well let me bring a lighter tone and also reflecting on her personality and let me bring those home videos because she does a lot of traveling and something I didn’t capture, but she did. So, I brought in those home videos to lighten up and also really to be honest the main story for me was also the love story, that was the backdrop, that was what propelled me also to tell her story – this incredible love between the two of them.
WP: You did a wonderful job of ending CRISTINA on a strong and inspiring note—do you think it’s important for a documentary to structure itself narratively to get to those ‘strong inspiring notes’?
MO: Yeah, I think, you know the documentary form genre used to have a reputation that it’s just boring talking heads and nobody wanted to see them, it was only PBS; then as the digital era came in, at first everything was all over the place because everybody could take a camera and run around. And then people realized, that’s not really documentary! Documentary is a craft! And then we settled, using the best tools possible, to tell the best story we can and it’s much easier now because you have the digital format to really angle in there and get the shot. So, I think we have to really compete more now than ever, with both fiction and other documentary – we need to grab people’s attention. To really step up and tell a story that people are going to tune in to. So, you know how we always say, we escape to Hollywood? But I think people are now escaping from Hollywood, fed up with blockbusters that don’t understand their intelligence, they’re escaping to us! Their escaping to documentary because even news is not always what it used to be. So they turn to documentaries to get their information and if you can entertain at the same time then obviously we’ve done our job.