ML: Are there specific elements of the Culture and Media program that you have applied to your career as a filmmaker?
LM: Definitely knowing how to edit. They [Culture and Media] had just purchased their first AVID [editing system] when I was there, so coming out knowing how to operate an AVID was – as hard as it may be to believe – at that time, a marketable skill [laughs]. It's so different now when everyone shoots and everyone edits. I mean, we had big clunky cameras. And at the time, also being able to do sound [was an asset]. Everyone was looking for producers to do sound, because no one wanted to pay a sound person. So, just knowing your way around all the technical stuff makes it so much easier when you're going for those first jobs to just say I can be an AP [Associate Producer], but I can also do sound or I can shoot. They can double up and save money by having you do two jobs and that always helps. It also means that, like when I was at my first jobs, because I was editing on my own, I would literally pull all-nighters editing just to figure out what the hell was going on. So, you make your way through. You can't do that if you're working with an editor. You'd be panicking on paper at home maybe. I'm really glad that I had all the practical skills.
And then obviously the theoretical side of Culture and Media. I was already steeped in this before I got to the program, but just the emphasis… When I was at the Thompson Reuters Foundation they kept saying, “Why can't we use voiceover? Why can't we have commentary? Why are you so insistent on the fact that there can't be a voice leading you through this, we're just using the voices of the interviewees?” And I would say, whose voice is it that should be leading us through? Just the ethics of letting people speak for themselves and figuring out what it is that they want to say or are trying to say. David and Judith MacDougall were teaching while we were there and they were just fantastic because they were great filmmakers and anthropologists. What I remember most from the theory classes were discussions about how people reacted when they watched the films that they were in. That whole feeling of your responsibility to the people in the film, even if you think they're ridiculous or if you don't like them necessarily, that sense of, “Would you be comfortable sitting next to them at a screening watching this?” as a kind of ethical test to make sure you're being fair to people. I definitely have that drilled into me more than people who just go straight into television do. I think that's really important. I see a lot of filmmakers who don't have that, people in television, and certainly very senior people who don't have it.
ML: What are some of your most meaningful projects thus far?
LM: The films that I’ve made on my own, the feature documentaries The Beauty Academy of Kabul, Office Tigers, Shot in Bombay, and Horses. I really like the films where you sit with an idea for long enough time to start seeing things differently.
ML: What motivates you?
LM: I really, really, really love just the process of filmmaking. I mean filming itself, like shooting can get really boring sometimes and these days I don't have the patience to spend three months hanging around in an office or in someone’s house. I'm doing less of the observational filmmaking and more interview and archive, creative reconstruction and studio stuff, but I still really, really love editing. I still love the creative part of filming. I love interviewing people. So, [it’s] just being able to get another job which will allow me to learn about something new, meet interesting people, ask them lots of questions and sort of figure out how to create something which is artistically satisfying and intellectually satisfying. Part of the reason that I realized that I'm glad I didn't get a PhD is that a year is about as long as I can immerse myself in these things, and then by a year and a half I’m really ready to be working on another subject [laughs]. I don't think I would have been very happy in academia just staying on the same thing and going deeper and deeper and deeper. I think that would have driven me crazy.
I like the excitement of taking on new things. And so part of what motivates me is just to continue to have the chance to work on another project, which will be creatively challenging and interesting. And then even if the films I’m making aren’t actively making the world a better place, I do hope that they are making people see the world differently. I want to work on things that bring something good. I just feel like it should be adding to our senses, our aesthetic experience, our understanding of the world. I like to work on projects that I think bring something to people.
ML: What advice would you give Culture and Media students hoping to pursue a career in filmmaking?
LM: Learn your technical skills. Remember all the stuff you've learned in anthropology about the phrase they use here in the UK, “duty of care.” I mean the weird thing about documentaries, right, is that you're asking people to give you lots of time and tell you lots of things and expose themselves and do all this stuff for you, for free. They'll have their own motives for doing it, but it's a huge risk for them and I think it's very easy to stop thinking about them as real people and think about them as characters in your films. There are way too many people in the industry who see it that way. So, remembering that, which broadly goes into just being a really good person to work with. Just being nice and caring and supportive is probably the best way to get more work, because there are a lot of very unpleasant people in the industry and, like I’ve said many times, it's all about reputation and connection. The best way to get work is just for people to want to work with you again.
This conversation was edited for length.