The filmmaker is a Tool. An interview with Milena Kaneva [+Video]

Milena Kaneva

Milena Kaneva

Milena Kaneva is a smiling and bright person, a filmmaker and film director who in 2006 produced one of the most inspiring films about Burma, Total denial.
The main characters of her film are activists Ka Hsaw Wa and his wife, and they wanted to make the difference by documenting how Karen villagers had been treated in Burma. The case came from the building of a pipeline that Unocal, a former oil company, that was built next to the Andaman sea to connect Burma to Thailand: Karen villagers ‘who stood in the way to progress’ – to say it with the oil company’s managers words – have paid their opposition with all sort of human-right violations.
Ka Hsaw Wa engaged and led an 8 years lawsuit agains Unocal and 15 Karen vilagers sued Unocal for human-right abuses with the support of Burmese military.
This is an inspiring story, the story of the victory of Ka Hsaw Wa and the victory of Karen vilagers who have seen recognised their rights in an US court.
Milena has followed this story for 5 years, between 2000 – 2005. Milena’s career yet is not that of a ‘classic’ filmmaker or journalist: she started as an actress, but then her interest towards society and stories that can inspire people has taken the lead and, inspired by the Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and lending the title of her book, she funded the Free from Fear Foundation. The foundation’s aim – as stated in the website ‘is to use the power of film, free media and other initiatives to educate and empower people about human rights and to denounce human rights violations everywhere. By telling the truth we remove the veil of fear.
Something Milena already did and keeps doing, lending herself and her work to the cause of Burmese people and to those who are oppressed.
When She cames in, she is curious and excited – she immediately loved the concept of a LEGO based interview, and the whole interview had been a relaxed engaging and inspiring talk.

Milena Kaneva's initial Model

Milena Kaneva’s initial Model

‘What is filmmaking?’ I ask her letting her playing as much as he liked.
‘The black base it was ready’ she says ‘In my film, I already had a great story. The base is the story that you want to tell, that you are passionate about. In my case, I didn’t know how to tell the story, because it was about a country like Burma where you couldn’t get into easily, because it’s quite dangerous, and I have been there already tricking the authorities, so I knew it was not a game… But I accepted the challenge and then… You see?’ She says showing me her model and moving from serious to smiley – ‘It happened like here: you gave me all these elements to play with!’
She laughs while taking the spare bricks in her hands.
‘And what are those elements?’ I ask.
‘Well, in filmmaking they are the people involved into the story, it’s your capacity to communicate with them, to get to them, to make them trust you. It was all the gears that I already bought, because I knew that I liked to film myself and I liked to be in control, because the story I am passionate about are stories that the TV stations nowadays are not ready to produce, and sometimes are even afraid to show. So, they don’t give the money, but my tool… my secret tool’ – she says rescal – ‘was that I already had all these elements: I already had shots, reportages, and I have found out that ‘Oh, I am able to do it!’. I have a good eye so, I just took some lessons from friends who are camera men, or figured out the way to put this thing and this thing together, and it turned out that it was building up!’
She loves what she does, her passion and her enthusiasm are evident and contagious.
‘And where’s the filmmaker?’ I ask noticing the lack of a human figure.
‘Filmmaker is …’ she thinks and giggles while adding a head to her model ‘He is the mind and the energy…’

Milena Kaneva and Patrizia Bertini during the interview

Milena Kaneva during the interview

‘But legs are detached’ I point her out.
‘Yes, because he is everywhere. We are used to see figures in one, two or three dimensions, but actually in filmmaking, the filmmaker is multidimensional. Because you have something and you have a whole story with the subject, the emotions, ideas…’
‘And where are emotions, ideas and subjects in the model?’
‘They are everywhere… let’s say emotions are the orange pieces, the ideas can be this black antenna that comes out a bit, because ultimately, any film, like any piece of art, is done because there’s a message that you want to give. Maybe because you first want to understand what is the message for you, and then, once you’ve understood, you want to transmit it’

MIlena Kaneva adjusts her model

MIlena Kaneva adjusts her model

‘And what are these on the top of the legs… if these are legs…’
‘I wasn’t aware that these are legs, now that you tell me… Yeah, they can be legs…’ and by saying so, Milena plays a little with her model, adjusting it and adding some bricks to it. Her enthusiasm is amazing and her attitude open and curious.
‘The legs become the motor for some powerful windmill and the windmill for me it’s the great story… You know, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!’ she laughs at the idea.
‘And where do you get the story?’
‘I am born with this story…’ And then she keeps playing ‘Look, we have another spinning energy transmitter or acquiring energy from the universe for the filmmaker and he is a happy one…’ The she becomes personal – ‘The truth is that I don’t like to be serious when I am dealing with serious topics. I was very lucky in my film: the story is quite tough and while I was making it, I thought there’s no way it can have a happy ending, but the main character was somebody who joked all the time, and he has been into so much and in such difficult times …’ and she keeps playing with the bricks until she puts a brick underneath the black base

MIlena adds the flower on the head and the bricks underneath the base

MIlena adds the flower on the head and the bricks underneath the base

‘ Yes! You see…’ She shows me enthusiastically – ‘At the beginning I thought the base had to be big and solid but I see now that it can be a much smaller base!’
It’s a true discovery and constructive process: we talk, Milena builds, observes, thinks and connects thoughts and bricks at an incredible peace.
‘So, what’s that small base then?’ I ask.
‘The black base is the story, what’s underneath is what makes you find the story: your intuition and our intuition goes into the direction of our subconsciousness, because that’s what we are. And a story can be like a flag and an inspiration to many other people, which I have found out it happened with my film. I was surprised by how many, especially young people, get inspired and motivated…’
‘Is filmmaking about inspiring?’
‘Yeah!. You see there’s an eye… it’s eye opening!’ she says finding her answer into her model and choosing to reinforce her answer by adding even more eyes.

Milena Kaneva adds more eyes to her model

Milena Kaneva adds more eyes to her model

And thereafter she keeps playing around with the spare bricks, building and searching for inspiration in the bricks, until I pass her a brick to help her building process, and even that small gesture becomes meaningful for Milena: ‘Ah! You see… You always have to have a good partner in filmmaking, especially the editor, because, in my experience, I was on my own, filming and doing the story, but when I had to edit and put everything together, I really thought I needed a second pair of eyes and ideas’
‘And what if we take out the filmmaker?’ I challenge Milena. She is so much into the process, that I keep playing with her and her model.
‘Filmmaker really opens the process, because the filmmaker is a tool – in documentary filmmaking at least. Because you need to be so open to what the story really is about and what life is putting in front of you… And you don’t want to [take] control, because every time you think I know better than the characters or I know how to put together the story, you put yourself in the middle and block everything… this tower perhaps could have been higher and bigger and by putting this…’ – she says pointing at the human elements – ‘I have blocked it!’
‘But you know what?’ – she says – ‘I take this challenge as the wishful thinking, that the story, Total denial, has a continuation. And it’s much more important now than when I did it years ago, and maybe I should do a follow up and update it… ‘ she says while building her tower higher and going upwards, after she has taken off the blocking human figure.

Milena Kaneva final model: going upwards

Milena Kaneva final model: going upwards

And the passion, the enthusiasm and the curiosity that Milena has proved during our interview are certainly a sign that she has already something going on in her head and that she is going up, straight to the top, to build her new story.

The second part of the interview, where we talk about what is information, will be published shortly on the London Progressive Journal, and here’s the video of the interview…

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