Interview: Dylan Mohan Gray, Director of documentary “Fire in the Blood”
Having worked with some of the influential names in world cinema like Fatih Akin, Mira Nair and Deepa Mehta; Mumbai-based filmmaker Dylan Mohan Gray made his debut documentary on one of the most complex issues of the century: western pharmaceutical companies and governments blocking access to low-cost AIDS drugs in Africa and southern countries of the world, causing million of deaths and the people who decided to fight back. Fire in the Blood recently screened in World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance Film Festival. DearCinema talks to the filmmaker:
What was the starting point for this documentary?
I read an article in a news magazine back in 2004 which initially sparked my interest in the story. Getting to know a few key players in the events fleshed that out, but I guess the key element in making me want to do something on it was firstly a sense of anger with myself that I didn’t know more about what was obviously a massive historical episode, and secondly my utter shock that the such a huge and important story had not been told in any comprehensive way, either in print or on screen.
When you started out, did you know already how wide-scope this was going to be? Or did you discover that along the way?
It was clearly a global story, so I guess the scale required was evident from the start.
How did you fund this documentary?
First of all, we called in a lot of favours, making it as clear as we could that this was a not-for-profit project. An enormous number of people helped us by donating their services, time, contacts, expertise, music and archival material, and many others worked for far less than they normally do. We made every possible effort to keep the budget low, and unlike most Indian productions did not travel abroad with crew and equipment, but generally sourced them locally wherever we shot. The film was partially self-funded, with help from various people we thought would agree with us that the project was important and that the story had to be told. This is a fairly typical route for documentaries these days, it seems.
What were some of the major challenges involved in making Fire in the Blood?
Besides constantly having to explaining to people why one would possibly spend one’s time making a documentary, I would say the biggest challenge was finding a way to bring a complex narrative with many different strands together in an organic, natural way for the audience. That was very difficult and took a lot of time to accomplish, but it seems we succeeded.
How long did you work on it?
I started work on the film in the summer of 2007 and we started shooting in March 2008. The version we showed at Sundance was finished last month, and we are still remixing sound for our UK release, so in that sense we continue to work on it.
This is your first feature film. Why did you decide to start your filmmaking career with a documentary?
I’m fairly ambivalent about my “filmmaking career”… the story struck me a fascinating, exciting, unusual and important, and this seemed like the right way to tell it.
Having spent a lot of time outside India, how do you view the documentary scene in India vis-a-vis that in other countries?
As I mentioned earlier, most people simply don’t understand why you would even make a documentary in the first place. There is very little support and expertise for making documentaries in India, and films like “Fire in the Blood”, shot in multiple countries and taking on a global story, are basically unheard of. I think people more or less think you’re a self-indulgent freak when you make documentaries, but at least they’re not generally hostile. I know it’s not exactly a walk in the park in other countries either, though in many places it’s definitely far easier…
Have you found a distributor for the Indian release of the film?
We are releasing the film first in the UK and Ireland in late February, and we have an excellent world sales company working on distribution in various other countries, including of course the US. We have put a team together to handle our release in India made up of people from a number of top companies who are passionate about bringing documentaries to cinemas, led by Ranjan Singh, and we are planning to release the film on April 5th.
After training as a historian, what drew you towards filmmaking?
History and filmmaking are all about storytelling and research, so I don’t see them as unrelated disciplines.
Please share something about your filmmaking background. Which films have you worked on before?
I’ve worked on a few dozen films and a few hundred commercials, in various capacities including producer and line producer, second unit director, 1st and 2nd AD, camera operator, sometimes even actor… I’ve been lucky enough to work very closely with some of the most talented and creative directors, actors and technicians in the world, and the greatest lesson you can take from being in the orbit of such people is to do things with full passion and commitment, to fight hard for your work and to do things as the project demands they be done, with no half-measures.
What do you plan to make next?
I have a couple of scripts which are getting close to being ready, plus a few more ideas which are buzzing around in my head and which I’ve done a bit of work on. I look forward to doing more documentaries in the future, because I think the most exciting work happening in film right now is definitely in the non-fiction space, but this one was quite exhausting, so I will most probably do a scripted project next. It will be nice to explore some new territory.