Thomas Burns is an American film director, director of photography and a teacher of documentary. His career path includes 10 years working in Hollywood, 6 own documentary films, screenings and film awards in the festival all over the world, workshops in Stanford and a dozen other universities and cinema schools in the USA, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan.
MYMEDIA met Thomas at the workshop, which he gave to Chai Khana – media project in South Caucasus, launched with the help of MYMEDIA. We talked to him about what the documentary should be like, the perspectives of the cinema market in the Caucasus and the problems of filmmaking industry in the USA.
How did you get to cinematography?
All kids like movies, so did I. But I didn’t consider it a career until 16 years ago when I lived in the Caucasus and worked here as a journalist. I was writing less, but taking a lot of pictures, and I was really interested to take a non-fiction storytelling to the next level in visual context – films seemed a right solution to me.
But then I faced a lot of questions – did I need to go to film school? Was film school smth that was going to help me, or it was just a place people go to study just for fun? I wanted a program that would help my career and I found a Stanford University master’s degree program that focused exclusively on documentary. When I started it, it was really the beginning of my career in filming.
But why documentary? Wasn’t journalism that enough for you?
I was so enchanted by visual storytelling that I wanted to be able to tell stories without words. This is a kind of form in cinema – stories that have a minimum amount of dialogue, but convey the idea and experience through music and images.
Journalism didn’t give me enough tools to do that at the level I wanted. Films have the power to inspire emotions and actions in a way that a lot of other media can’t. Movies can also transcend barriers and cross borders – I think it’s really powerful.
What is a perfect documentary for you?
My taste is a bit unusual. I like documentaries that give me goose bumps. They have a social message, but I like documentaries in which you are not hit over the head with a it.
There is a wonderful film that won an Oscar in the 90’s called “When we were kings”. It is a story of Muhammad Ali who was fighting in a boxing match in Africa. It is a phenomenal film, and the social messages in it are incredibly inspiring.
Muhammad Ali is a very dynamic character – he’s got leadership. But you never think that this is a movie about raising up the African people, you think it a is a movie about close relationship. The film itself is so moving and the sequences and footage are so powerful that the viewer engages with the story, not its social message.
So you recommend not focusing on social messages directly but on rather on the inspiring plot?
A lot of people come to documentary films because they want to make a film about a social issue, and it’s their number 1 goal. Often they’re not the filmmakers by training, but they’re involved in that social issue – for instance, run an orphanage in Africa, or work in a hospital that treats certain kinds of people. They just look for means to reach the maximum audience with this social message.
But it’s a little bit backwards – the number one goal should be to make a good film.
But if you first concentrate on the film, the message will be there. This is something a lot of documentary filmmakers could do better.
What raised your interest to South Caucasus and why did you choose this region as a permanent place of residence?
I studied in Russia in the 90’s. I didn’t know much about post-soviet area, so I spent a year in St. Petersburg. It changes you. I fell in love with this part of the world.
Russia was interesting, but when I started working in the South Caucasus before I became a filmmaker, my feeling grew even stronger. I like the way people interact here, their family relationships, and the fact that different languages are spoken here – I find it engaging [Thomas speaks great Russian and has been studying Georgian for almost a year now].
Were you interested in problems of post-soviet space, or it simply became your passion?
America has got a lot of problems too. I don’t know how other foreigners will get it, but I don’t think I have a right to come here and say – you, guys, have a lot of problems here, you should do it this and this way.
Don’t you miss the USA?
I miss my family and Taxes, but I spent the last 10 years in Los-Angeles, and I realized the other day that I don’t really miss it very much. It’s a interesting city, I lived there for a big part of my life, but this part of the world just doesn’t fit with my personality.
Here I feel at home. Back in LA I don’t think I ever felt at home. Though I like LA – it’s a strange city. A lot of people have their experiences there – it gave me a world-class training as a filmmaker. I also have a lot of friends there, whom I want to visit.
But at some point you have to ask yourself– where do you want to spend the next period of your life? And I realized I wanted to do it here.
Do you think documentary films can change society?
Yes. They do a couple of things.
For instance, everybody knows they shouldn’t smoke cigarettes, but they smoke anyway. Though if there’s an emotional connection, they’re much more likely to change their behaviors, and I think good documentary films can offer this type of emotional connection.
Secondly, good documentary films can be a call to action – they often show issues you didn’t know about. For instance, when I saw a documentary about dolphin hunting in Japan, it was a big discovery for me. Soon I started reading articles on the internet, asking myself – who can I give 20 dollars to help the organization, and which organization can I contact to help make a movie about it.
But if it’s a direct call to action, showing how poor people are in a certain part of the world with little enjoyable in the film, this call to action will never work. In the past there were too many documentaries that focused on a problem with a very negative approach to it – showing poverty, orphanages, death. Documentary must inspire you to help, seek out more information and change.
What about social advertising – do you believe in its power?
It be effective, but it is usually not. There was an extremely effective anti-smoking campaign in the US about 15 years ago. The rate of smoking over this time dropped 30-40%, which is an incredible success. At that time it was just a series of printed adds and billboards.
The difficult question is how to make an effective advertising and how to make it work.
What are the topics of special interest for you in documentaries, your sources of inspiration?
I can only make films on the topics that I find really interesting. Sometimes I make films because people hire me to make them – it might be a 30-minute documentary film, which is in fact a long-form commercial.
But my rule is that I won’t do this work unless I think it is interesting. I don’t think I can do a film about a political party that has the opposite views. Lots of people can – but can’t fake the interest.
What topics do you think need a better coverage in South Caucasus?
Many things need more attention. Some of them are covered by such Chai Khana. Gender inequality is a very big issue – Georgia is a bit better at it than the neighboring countries. Journalism needs more freedom – it’s a base of healthy democratic state, where citizens can shape their own government.
But these are worldwide problems, not just South Caucasus. I don’t think there are any problems here that don’t exist anywhere else – some of them are a little more acute in this region.
What about the level of filmmaking in Georgia?
It’s picking up, I think.
Some people don’t understand what commercials have to do with making films. In commercials there’s a lot of money behind – they can afford to build the infrastructure needed to make films – they bring cameras, encourage the studios, bring experts and filmmakers from overseas to help out. So it raises the whole level of film production.
And documentary development on post-soviet space overall?
I think it getting better. I’d like to see documentaries move away from journalism and reporting, and start taking more creative risks.
Now documentaries that take these risks start winning serious awards in the industry, and there are great examples in Georgia – when documentaries contain no traditional interviews and narration. So I think the more we can move away from those things – the better.
Do you see any problems in the industry?
Resources are always a problem – in the States too. Documentaries are chronically underfunded in history. People don’t invest the money in them because documentaries rarely pay the money back. But if we make better documentaries, they’ll be able to compete better and people will pay more money for them. So the answer is to keep pushing the boundaries of the genre and try to find new directions.
You say they’ll pay. But there’s a big issue with copyright in Eastern Europe – people have no culture paying for content on the internet. How to deal with that?
I see a lot of commercials that use very popular music from the US and I know they didn’t buy the rights for. I can’t believe commercials do that – there’s a huge legal liability. If you make a Coca-Cola commercial and use a Rolling Stones music and buy no license for that – potentially you can be sued, even in Georgia.
I don’t like that a lot of content that is supposed to be paid for is taken for free via torrents. But I think the way out is to make these films easier to purchase in these countries. If I want to buy a film in the US, I go to I-tunes or Amazon and pay just 2 dollars, here it’s more difficult. I think watching films deserves 2 dollars, artists and production companies deserve to be paid too.
You have taught at universities and filmmaking schools in the USA, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. How do you see your mission as a film director and a teacher?
I want to give people tools they need to tell the stories. Everybody has a story they want to tell, some of them are really great and can change a lot of peoples’ lives for better. Most people lack the tools and the knowledge how to use them. I want to help them get this knowledge and skills.
Where have you worked except the US and South Caucasus?
In South Africa and Costa Rica.
Is there anything these countries could learn from one another?
I’m very impressed with the way South Africa has come to terms with their Apartheid past. There are still a lot of challenges though, but there’s a great progress for the last 20 years. I think US has to learn a lot from this. US problems of race are much worse than in South Africa.
In Hollywood for all of its faults, there are a lot of really talented people. Because they’ve been doing it for 80 years, they’ve learnt how to make very good films. There’s nowhere in the world that level of expertise. So the part of my mission is to share the trainings and the knowledge I got in Hollywood with the rest of the world.
It is difficult for someone in South Caucasus or Ukraine to get this level of training. It’s also difficult in the States anywhere except LA or NY. I worked there for 10 years for some really amazing filmmakers, and I’m trying to share this expertise with this part of the world.
As for Eastern Europe, people have a really fresh view on storytelling, which I think is very inspiring.
What’s your idea of a really good teacher?
The best teachers for me are those who change the way I view the world. They’re probably the minority – 1 in 20 teachers can do this.
I had a couple of teachers, who gave me a real transformation – I had a piano teacher as a child. At that time I didn’t like playing piano, but she was a phenomenal teacher and loved the instrument so much that it came through in her teaching. I played piano when I was 7 to 20, but then I stopped for a long time because it was a very difficult instrument to travel with. But to these days her teaching has stayed with me.
Another inspiring teacher was a film teacher from graduate school. I don’t know if she realizes it, but she had a huge influence on me as an artist. And to these days I can call her and ask her to take a look at the rough-cut for me.
As a kid there were a lot of teachers who would discipline me instead of making me want to come to class. As a result I reached a point when I stopped coming to classes – I felt they were boring and stupid. Though afterwards I realized not coming to class a bad solution either, because then you get to other problems.