Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele: AFI Docs-Lucy Walker on “The Lion’s Mouth Opens”

Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele is a new column that embraces the landscape of film, filmmakers, and film festivals.  This will be a canvas where film reviews, and in-depth interviews into the filmmaking process will be shared, and the world of cinephiles will be celebrated.  A dedicated space to cinema outside the mainstream, the emphasis of Cinema Speak with Sydney-Chanele will be foreign cinema, independent films, documentaries and the filmmakers who make them.

AFI DOCS (June 18-22) is a 5-day international documentary film festival that serves as a launch pad for independent documentaries and has built a reputation for presenting the best new documentaries to the Washington, D.C. area.  Now in its 12th year, AFI DOCS is the only festival of its kind to take these compelling and engaging films and connect audiences and documentary filmmakers together with the nation’s “changemakers.”

 Lucy Walker

Producer/Director Lucy Walker.
Producer/Director Lucy Walker.

Award-winning British filmmaker, Lucy Walker  (Producer, Director) has been nominated twice for an Academy Award.  The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary, Short Subjects. Waste Land was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Documentary, Feature. Her feature documentaries include The Crash Reel (2013), Waste Land (2010), Countdown to Zero (2010), Blindsight (2006), Devil’s Playground (2002).

A graduate of Oxford University, Walker began her career by directing theatre and musical theater, before winning a Fulbright scholarship to attend the Graduate Film Program at NYU.

Her films have also been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, seven Emmys, a Gotham Award, and have won over eighty other film awards.

Nominated for the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (2014), The Lion’s Mouth Opens is Lucy Walker’s documentary film screening at this year’s AFI DOCS Festival.


Sydney-Chanele: Why are you a filmmaker?

Lucy: Gosh, I don’t know how I can sum this up without taking up ten hours which you don’t have. It’s my life’s work, and yet how I managed to wind up here has so many complexities and serendipities; I don’t know where to start? I guess because I haven’t found anything I find more compelling as an artist or as a human being. I could have done anything, I still might do something else, but so far I seem to have spent my adult life making films.

Why do you make documentaries?

Again, where to begin?  Because I can’t get any fiction films financed but I can get documentaries financed. Because it’s an exciting time with non-linear editing, portable high-quality cameras, and cheap data storage to make documentaries that are finely crafted and projectable on a big screen. And I love making them.

Did you go to film school? If so, what advantages did that preparation make way for your filmmaking today?

Yes, going to film school was fantastically useful for me, not least because I had scholarships that paid my way and also it gave me a visa to be in the USA (I’m from the UK). I had never made a film, or even seen a film camera before, when I won a Fulbright scholarship and began NYU Graduate Film Program at Tisch School of the Arts, so I had plenty to learn. In particular that program was useful because it covered all the technical aspects of filmmaking, from sound recording to cinematography to editing to acting to writing to directing, which is especially empowering as a female director to help my collaborations with heads of departments. Also when I am making documentaries frequently the best way is to do some of the jobs, like shooting or especially sound recording, myself.

When did you consider yourself a professional filmmaker?

I got a job right out of film school directing Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues, at which point directing was paying my income, so I’ve spent my entire career as a professional (earning money doing it, even if not much at times, but somehow supporting myself) filmmaker.

AFI DOCS Festival Film: Process & Storytelling

You have a rich history with AFI Docs and have screened several feature length films in the past. What is the plot of your film at this year’s AFI Docs Festival?

The Lion’s Mouth Opens is a 15-minute long short film about a remarkably courageous young Scottish actress who lives in LA and has a 50-50 chance of having the fatal, incurable Huntington’s Disease (her father has it, and the disease gives children of sufferers a 50% chance of having it). The film simply follows Marianna and her friends as she prepares for, and receives the news from her doctor.

How did you get this film made?  What did it take, what were the sacrifices to get your film made?     

The Lion’s Mouth Opens is a short film, and made very simply and affordably and shooting just over a couple of days. I paid for it myself and then was fortunate to get a grant from Chicken & Egg to pay myself back. It was extremely simple and extremely affordable as I recorded the sound myself and the costs were paying the wonderful DP Nick Higgins and the wonderful editor Joe Peeler.

How did you first encounter this story, and what was the determining factor in wanting to make a film?

Marianna called me up. I was moved by the story and wanted to make the film as a favor to her. I didn’t really care whether it would make a good film, my first thought would be that it might help Marianna in this difficult time by giving her a purpose of using her experience with the Huntington’s Disease genetic test to help others in a similar situation.  Later I realized it was a very strong short film and I also found that the film inspired me, helped me personally.

From conception to completion how long did it take you to make it?  What were the costs in making this short film and how many edits went into what we will see on the screen?

Budgets are never kosher to discuss. Time – obviously it was quick to shoot. A few half-days only. Editing took a while as we wanted to really craft it precisely, and Joe had never edited anything before, and he did a fantastic job, but it’s always a bit slower with someone less experienced. It’s a documentary there was no script.  Film edits we took a long time given it is a short film.

What has been your process of getting this short film distribution?

The film premiered at Sundance and has played festivals and we are currently figuring out what is next. The film will be used extensively by Huntington’s disease organizations around the world in addition to conventional distribution since it has great value to some people with HD in their family.

Production, 'The Lion's Mouth Opens.'
Production, ‘The Lion’s Mouth Opens.’

What was your biggest surprise? What do you hope audiences will take away after viewing?

I think people will be blown away by Marianna, and by how emotional and strong a 15-minute film can be.

A Deeper Look: Challenges & Inspirations

Truth or Perception – It is easier for a female filmmaker to get a documentary made than a feature film.  What kind of prejudice have you encountered?

It is easier because you don’t need to raise the money all at once, and you get paid less, and you work harder. You can just get started with less permission. However it is still harder for women than men in documentaries.  Just not nearly as sexist as fiction filmmaking. 

What is the biggest struggle for you as a filmmaker?  (Have there been any additional challenges for you as a female filmmaker?)

It’s all a magnificent struggle. And yes, of course, additional challenges as a female filmmaker in an exceptionally sexist field.

How do we change the culture of the disproportionate number of female directors getting studio backing to make films?

Good question, if only I knew the answer!

 Name three of your all-time favorite documentaries? What inspires you to continue with this form of storytelling?

I can’t narrow them down. Or okay, if you make me pick three films, I’ll pick Devil’s Playground, Waste Land, and The Crash Reel.  I love making documentaries. So many inspire me because they are doing great work.

How have you grown as filmmaker since your first film and how have you changed?

My first filmmaking experience was my first film exercises at film school. Although I would argue that the theater that I directed prior to that, and indeed every single experience I’ve ever had in my life, is involved in my directing and in forming me as I am. I’ve changed a lot since then… and yet I am the same human being apparently.

Is there anything you like to share with DCMTA readers about yourself or your filmmaking?

Please visit my website and follow me on twitter at @lucywalkerfilm  Thanks so much Sydney-Chanele!


SHORTS PROGRAM: ( includes The Lion’s Mouth Opens)

TIME WILL TELL (Running Time: 84 min.)

Friday, June 20, 12:00 p.m. at Goethe-Institut –

812 7th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20001.

located within walking distance of the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro Stop on the Red, Yellow and Green Lines.

Sunday, June 22, 10:45 a.m.

AFI Silver – 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

Metro: AFI Silver Theatre is walking distance from the Silver Spring Metro Stop on the Red Line. Parking: There are two public garages that offer convenient access to AFI DOCS: the Wayne Ave. Garage between Georgia Ave. and Fenton St., and the Town Square Garage at the corner of Ellsworth Dr. and Fenton St.

Ticket can be purchased at the box office or online.

Lucy Walker’s Website.

Lucy Walker’s Film – David Hockney IN THE NOW is now viewable for free online.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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