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Amir Bar-Lev Tells the Two Sides of “The Tillman Story”

Amir Bar-Lev Tells the Two Sides of “The Tillman Story” (photo)

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In his 2000 feature debut “Fighter,” doc filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev followed two Czech Holocaust survivors as they revisit a notorious labor camp, one of whom begins poking holes in the other man’s narrative. As the director himself explains: “It’s about the tension between two friends when one of them begins to question how much of the story has been imposed as an afterthought.”

Seven years later in his controversial but acclaimed “My Kid Could Paint That,” Bar-Lev investigated a Binghamton, NY family whose precocious toddler Marla Olmstead had been vetted by the media as an art-star prodigy. Bar-Lev revealed the facts to be a little sketchy after Marla’s parents handed over the storytelling reins to the filmmaker, then tried to take them back: “A tug of war ensues between who controls the story. Is it mine to tell?”

As diverse as his films have been, it’s easy to see that Bar-Lev is intrigued by the profound variances and discrepancies that can be revealed when storytellers are taken to task. His riveting new film “The Tillman Story” concerns the baffling tragedy of Pat Tillman, the late Arizona Cardinals safety who turned down a multi-million dollar football contract to instead enlist with the U.S. Army Rangers. Deployed to Afghanistan, Tillman was shot and killed in 2004, labeled a war hero by the government and the mainstream media, all before it became public that he was a victim of friendly fire and a subsequent cover-up.

I sat down with the gregarious Bar-Lev to discuss his film “about a guy who doesn’t say anything. The country needs him to be this mythic hero, the facts be damned. After he dies, they rush in like nature abhorring a vacuum, and impose their narrative on him at the expense of who he really was, and his family has to fight for his legacy.”

08182010_TillmanStory3.jpgMost of the major events in “The Tillman Story” happened before you started filming. Where does that leave you from a storytelling point of view?

In the first two films I made, the story unfolds with our camera there. Sometimes when something’s already happened and you show up, there’s a problem with kineticism. There’s nothing to see and it has a lifelessness to it. But the family [provided] such great interviews. The soldiers, also, are pretty good interviewees.

We got really lucky. Like, we had some special screenings in Napa, Calif. Last Wednesday, this guy shows up and introduces himself: “I was one of the camera operators who shot the memorial service back in 2004.” I had been thinking about this guy without having ever known who he was. It’s one of these amazing pieces of great documentary fortune.

People love to talk about how the camera lies, but when people chalk up “My Kid Could Paint That” to artifice, I’m always saying, “Well, yes and no.” There’s a scene where Marla makes mud the first time I’m trying to film her, and it’s the opposite of the camera lying. The camera is actually cluing into shit that the filmmaker isn’t cluing into. It’s leading me. It’s a useful tool because of my own naiveté or discomfort in the room. Interpersonally, I wasn’t noticing it, but the camera was getting shit that I had to watch later in the edit room to really understand.

Similarly, these camera operators intuitively were zeroing in on stuff that they had no way of knowing on a rational level was happening. In this sea of almost 4,000 people, they were zooming in on people who not only would become central in our film years later, but didn’t even understand this was going to be a crucial moment in their lives.

08182010_PhilipKensingerTillmanStory.jpg[Lt. General] Philip Kensinger was fired over this. He ended his 37-year military career over what was happening at that very instant. From a distance, these camera operators noticed the wheels turning in his head without ever realizing. One of the great crutches for us was in having this B-roll that these guys shot “for us.”

So this guy shows up in Napa and says, “I’ve been wanting to meet you. We camera operators got together after filming and said, ‘Something’s not right. Something stinks about this.’ There’s going to be more to this story.” Meanwhile, the rest of the country was talking about how Pat Tillman died this hero’s death. Even the family didn’t quite know that at this point.

What exactly did they uncover with their telephoto lenses?

They saw people in the audience who seemed to be agonizing over what was being said on stage. I don’t know if I can even elaborate. The way the guy put it, “We just filmed a pageant of patriotism, but something didn’t add up.” That was one of the very crucial elements that we had to work with, having missed it at the time.

The other thing we had was this reenactment of the day of Pat’s death, which is not really a reenactment, but a tool for obfuscating. We had this challenge of using [the reenactment] but critiquing it. Because the family was pushing so hard to find out what really happened, the government was forced to do repeated investigations. There were seven in total, but as it turns out, they weren’t intended to get to the bottom of things.

It’s not in the film, but you hear the guy doing the reenactment saying, “Okay, let’s do it one more time. Faster.” The point was to hoodwink the family and the country into buying the scenario, which was this idea that a confusing ambush took place.

08182010_TillmanStory4.jpgWhile the soldiers were suffering from the “fog of war,” beset upon on all sides by the Taliban, they accidentally fired, at a great distance, on Pat’s position in a matter of seconds.

But as the family found out, contrary to what’s depicted in that video and insisted on by the government to this day, the ambush — if there was one — had long since been over by 10 minutes. The distance from the shooters wasn’t 200 meters but 40, and you hear the guy actually struggling to get the GMV Humvee on which the guns were [mounted] to go as fast as they needed it to perpetuate this myth.

You can’t get from here to there in four seconds, much less be firing at a position. So it was a minute to two minutes. There’s a huge difference, and there may have even been time for them to reload. Regardless, they stopped, got out of their vehicle, and he was accidentally caught by an errant bullet.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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