‘The Peacemaker’: Your Documentary is Only as Good as Your Protagonist’s Motivation
“The unfolding of a story doesn't have to match chronography...there are other pieces of the structure that are just as important.”
A man travels to the most dangerous places on the planet, attempting to forge peace. Why does he do it? Maybe he’s a saint. Or maybe he’s a man whose own internal conflicts are so great that conflict zones in Kosovo, Iraq, Northern Ireland, and Nigeria are a welcome escape. If this sounds like a character outline from a premium Hollywood thriller, it could be. But in this case, it happens to be the real life description of Padraig O’Malley in the feature documentary The Peacemaker. For filmmaker James Demo, it’s just as important to identify the theme of your character in a documentary as it is for a narrative.
The Peacemaker was initiated when Demo began frequenting a bar across from where he lived in Massachusetts called The Plough and Stars. It was a place that drew an eclectic crowd. Intellectuals and musicians like Philip Roth and Van Morrison had created work from the back of the bar. It also had the mystique of history as an Irish ex-pat bar where they would pass around the hat for the IRA. “Then I heard the story of Padraig, who was the owner of Plough and Stars,” said Demo to No Film School. “He was in Iraq getting Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds, to a table. And he was bringing in former heads of the IRA from Ireland, heads from South Africa to speak to them. Then I started hearing the backstory that Padraig was a recovering alcoholic and that he used the bar to fund the work. Immediately, I wanted to know what was this bar owner doing over in Iraq? It raised all these questions, and I had to know more.”
Demo sat down with No Film School to talk about making his award-winning doc The Peacemaker, which is out on iTunes starting August 21st.
NFS: Was Padraig O’Malley receptive from the beginning to the idea of you filming him around with a camera?
Demo: I think we talked for about a year before I even started. Maybe it was about 10 months. I had several conversations with him ahead of time about access. I knew that because Padraig was a recovering alcoholic, and his peacemaking model was based on his recovering from addiction, there was going to be a personal piece to the story. I didn't know what it was. I didn't know how it was going to all play out, but I knew I was going to need access.
Then I knew I'd be going with him to some sensitive places, and I didn't want the doors to be shut in my face as I was trying to film. So, we had this deal that he would wear a lav when we were abroad, that there was really no subject off limits. The reason why I think Padraig agreed to do it was that, I had heard around town, he'd been trying to do the steps in his recovery and one of them is to make amends and tell a history of your journey. He was being very open in his conversations about his addiction, so I think he was looking for a platform for that. He was also starting this new project, and Padraig always has difficulty raising money. I think he was using this as an opportunity to get his story out from a fundraising perspective.
I will say that Padraig is the least self-conscious person I've ever met. He doesn't really give a shit about what people think about him. That's one of the things I love about him. There was never a time where he would stop me from filming. There may be a time when other people would notice the cameras and we would back off if we felt like we were imposing, but Padraig, even if it was something that could be rather sticky around military or whatever, he was for it. When you watch the film, there are quite a few very personal interviews in it. He would point me in a direction to people in his life, and when I'd show up to film, they would say, "The only thing Padraig said was to be 100% honest and tell the truth," That would be his only note to anyone that I was interviewing. It’s just one other way in which Padraig is willing to be brave. It was a wonderful experience in that sense.
"Because Padraig was a recovering alcoholic, and his peacemaking model was based on his recovering from addiction, I was going to need access."
Now, when you're filming somebody for a documentary, it still takes time to develop a relationship and to figure out the film you're making. Early on in the interview process, I had a light up, I had cameras up, and microphones and everything else, and it would become a more formal interview. I realized that this was going to be a long journey, and I started to film Padraig in interview settings that were more relaxed, and have the camera on my lap. I wouldn't put all the lights up. It sort of had a more vérité feel to it, and it was the film that it was wanting to be in that sense. That it was telling us it wanted to be that.
I think once Padraig started to realize that I was more interested in his motivation, he started to open up more. There's a wonderful scene in the film that's about halfway through where he starts talking about how he's addicted to his work and if he stops working for even a couple of hours, he starts going through withdrawal symptoms. He mentions that he his work is an escape from other despair. It’s sort of a quiet scene where he's sharing this with me. I think that was the first moment where I really felt he was letting me in to the sort of internal conflict of why he does the work.
NFS: In addition to capturing private moments with Padraig and this style, you followed him to conflict zones to film these summits he was organizing between people from divided societies. How did you prepare to film in these places?
Demo: It takes an incredible amount of preparation to really understand what the stakes are in a conflict zone. Before I went into each place, I always made sure I knew what the stakes were for the parties involved. That took an enormous amount of research and talking to people and fixers from that part of the world. When we went in, we were certainly sticking with Padraig. But I spent a lot of time developing relationships with people on the ground, letting them know what I was doing. I'd always bring a DP with me when I went abroad, unlike when it was generally just me and Padraig at home. I was fortunate I had amazing talents come and film at each one of the different conflict zones.
The danger part of it is a separate thing. Going in, you're thinking a lot about it. You put the Google Alerts for the area you're going into; you sort of understand what the violence looks like. In each space that we went, it seemed like there was a crescendo of violence. In Kosovo, there were some parallel elections going on that were causing violence. In Northern Ireland, the Queen was visiting, and a fringe IRA group was starting to blow up different things around the city. In Iraq, the insurgency was picking up in Kirkuk, and it was still Al Qaeda in Iraq at the time. In northern Nigeria, it was Boko Haram and the “bring back the girls” thing happened sort of at the time we were over there. A peace process or peace reconciliation effort within a community in conflict is, of course, a target.
"In Kosovo, we were on a bridge when a riot broke out. There was machine gun fire and flares went off, and NATO sent in air support and divided the bridge."
In Kosovo, we were on a bridge when a riot broke out. There was machine gun fire and flares went off, and NATO sent in air support and divided the bridge. It was really a tense circumstance and it was really showed stakes of the conflict. And we filmed it, but it didn't fit within the film. I had to use a lot of the restraint not to put that in. It didn’t serve the purpose of what we were trying to do and tell Padraig's story.
The hard thing about making a film about this is that when the conferences happen, and you see the people around the tables, some of them are wearing nice suits, and you're not sure necessarily who's who as far as the conflict goes. There's a scene in the film where Padraig's talking to the Iraqis about paying back some money, and he leans over and says, "I'll get your money. It'll be coming." That guy, Sheik Abdullah Sami, was blown up in his car a year later. Oliver Ivanović, who's in the Kosovo scene footage, was assassinated outside of his office last winter. These are really active conflicts. What makes them important to the film is that they're the context in which Padraig thrives, and the context in which his internal conflict manifests itself in a way that allows him to try to help them.
NFS: Was your strategy to film everything going on as your figured out what would be important for the story?
Demo: We were casting a much broader net in Kosovo, the first one, than we were in Belfast last. When we were filming the riot on the bridge, a wonderful DP Sarah Levy was filming, who was working on The Office at the time. But who had been to Kosovo before and was a wonderful documentary filmmaker.
I thought for sure that that was going to be in the film. Where the intensity of the conflict is on display between the two sides, it's all happening on a bridge, that they're fighting over. NATO's coming in, there's smoke everywhere, there's screaming, you hear an AK-47 go off, and I have to admit that when I flew to Los Angeles to lock the film, that was one scene that I had with me in my bag that I was still deciding on. Was that going to be the scene that introduced us to the Kosovo segment in the film? Ultimately, to go that deep into the conflict raised all these questions about what is the Kosovo conflict? Who are the protagonists on each side of that bridge?
Our north star was the theme of Padraig, and the theme of Padraig was that he was a man who could help make peace with others, but struggled to find it for himself. As we peeled the onion of that story and went deeper and deeper into Padraig's internal conflict, I felt like the conflict footage was taking us too far afield. A lot was in the rough cut. That’s the process of refining. You cut over 100 scenes and you end up with 35. The one thing I love about this process was that, as I sit here today, I don't have any regrets about what's in the film and what isn't. I feel like the film is exactly how it was supposed to end up.
"The major difference in fiction filmmaking is that you have a script at the beginning. In documentary, you're editing and your script is coming at the end."
NFS: Was that the strategy that you picked up from your narrative filmmaking, to have a theme in a documentary and stick to it?
Demo: I think there's basic storytelling that applies to both documentary and fiction. Certainly, at the very beginning, it was an exploration, but it became much more specific as the process went on.
The major difference in fiction filmmaking is that you have a script at the beginning. In documentary, you're editing and your script is coming at the end. For The Peacemaker, I was certainly thinking about inciting incidents. What was driving Padraig's life story? In the first act, Padraig accepts this Harvard scholarship but bets it on the Ali/Fraiser fight. He then has to drop out, and becomes a peacemaker. Well, if that isn't a classic inciting incident, I don't know what is! You definitely have to do some things in the first act. I don't care if it's a documentary, a fiction film, or what story you're telling. There are basic things you have to do at the beginning of a film to get an audience to take the journey with you, and I was thinking about that quite a bit.
NFS: What was your visual strategy and what tools did you use to accomplish it?
Demo: From a visual standpoint, I wanted the conflict zones to be big and bright, to shoot wide, big, cinematic. Padraig is larger than life in those settings. He puts on a different persona in the conflict zones. He comes alive. So, we wanted that to be big, bright, and very cinematic.
We started out with a Panasonic HVX200, and a Canon 5D. The HVX200 at the time, in 2010, was a workhorse. When I went abroad, I would buy a second used HVX online on a filmmaker's site and use it for the trip, and then sell it at the end of the trip because I wanted to have one for my DP and one for myself. We had a 5D that we could shoot more furtively and where there were military and things like that. In 2010, that nobody knew that it could film! They thought it was a regular photo DSLR, and so we were able to get some great shots on the street, not attract too much attention.
As the technology improved, we moved to a Canon C100. I think in Iraq, my DP had an ASF100 that he liked, so we used that. I was agnostic as far as cameras. As long as we stayed to the philosophy of big and bright and wide in the conflict zones, and small and intimate and dark in Padraig's sort of isolated life, we were on the right track.
"I was agnostic as far as cameras. As long as we stayed to the philosophy of big and bright and wide in the conflict zones, and small and intimate and dark in Padraig's isolated life, we were on the right track."
NFS: I'm curious about when you knew the story was done. It's confusing as a documentary filmmaker to know when the story is done, unless there’s a clear event, like “they finished the race” or something. When did you know you had it?
Demo: I knew I had it when, there's this scene near the end of the film where Padraig is walking down the stairs with his suitcase. The film is about this existential thing of what drives Padraig. Padraig is driven by his own internal conflict, and that's what allows him to do the work that he does.
So, after everything about him, his internal conflict, his health issues, the intractability of the conflicts, and what he's up against, if I could justify to an audience why he walks out down the stairs with his suitcase at the end to go into another conflict zone, I was done with the film.
The other thing from a visual perspective about him is Padraig has to always be on the move. He’s like a shark; if it's not swimming, it'll die. There’s a lot of movement of Padraig in the film. It starts off with him in Iraq. We're in the SUVs with him, and we're going down this road with all of these cars and there's an oil field off to the side. The film mirrors that exact shot at the end of the film, except for Padraig's by himself in a taxi on that same road with a flip phone.
So, the peacemaker's at the beginning of the film, and Padraig with his inner conflict is in a taxi on that same road at the end of the film. The juxtaposition of those two shots is the epitome of the arc of the story.
NFS: In doc, it’s also easy to become mired in the reality of the footage you’ve shot. This happened, and then this happened, and then this happened. But it can be detrimental if you feel stuck to just literally put footage in the order to create the reality of the story.
Demo: I think the unfolding of a story doesn't necessarily have to match chronography. Certainly, time is a great arc, so, and we use it in the film. But there are other pieces of the structure that are just as important, and a lot of this stuff you find as you go.
I gave Padraig the flip phone. I had no idea that when he was going to Iraq, he would be on that same road, and he would film the same burning oil well that we filmed on the first trip with him. I bought a cheap flip camera and gave it to him and I said, "Listen, just film whatever the hell you want, and try to film every day something." I just thought it'd be interesting to have him with his own hand shoot some things in a conflict zone.
When he returned and he gave me the camera, he's like, "Jim, I couldn't get the damn thing to work." I was like, oh, shit. That didn't work. I pull out the card and I put it in my laptop, and there's 15 gigs of footage. So, it was this happy accident. Mirroring or juxtaposing them in a different way towards the end of the film was this happy accident to show the subject's arc.
NFS: What’s your advice for other filmmakers?
Demo: I think documentary filmmaking is, without question, a lesson in persistence because it's an incredibly difficult thing to make a film. There's issues around funding, there's issues around time, there's issues around telling the story, distribution, you name it. The old saying that you haven't failed until you've given up is quite true. You have to be willing to constantly learn everything about every aspect of it. One minute you're learning about the proper camera to take to Kosovo, and then the next minute you're learning about a theatrical release and what kind of press you're trying to get and how does that translate into the next stage of distribution.
It's an ongoing process. I think that's why I love it, and I think you have to love it to do it. If you're just looking to make a film because you want to be a filmmaker, I don't know if that's the best way to go about it. It has to be something where you have to tell the story you're telling. Because you're going to need persistence and an intellectual curiosity about all aspects of it to be able to come to a successful conclusion.