November 2, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Ted Braun

SCA Professor talks about his upcoming event

Professor Ted Braun can be described many ways. He’s an award winning writer/director whose film Darfur Now shaped the international conversation about Sudan. He’s a sought after professor, known for his passionate and detailed style, whose classes fill up quickly and always have a waiting list. He’s a proud SCA alumnus.

SCA Professor Ted Braun

Professor Braun recently got in touch with SCA Family Stories to talk about his upcoming conversation with the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo on Sunday, November 6th at 5 PM.

To RSVP for the event, please follow the link:

Moving the World: An Evening with Luis Moreno-Ocampois a really great opportunity for students to learn and discuss the role of film in relation to human rights. Tell us a little about the event and what we can expect. You can expect a fascinating evening with a major figure on the global stage, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, holder of arguably the most powerful office in international justice, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. The Prosecutor and I are going to talk about ways in which the cinematic arts can be used to shift the global conversation, particularly narratives - types of stories and characters - that deal with mass crimes of the sort his office prosecutes: war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Following that conversation we're extremely fortunate to be joined by Sid Sheinberg, the former President and COO of Universal Pictures, now Vice Chair of Human Rights Watch, Dr. Stephen Smith, Executive Director of the Shoah Foundation, and USC Alum Jed Jenkins of the social action documentary group Invisible Children, who will join us to expand the discussion with their considerable experience and expertise.  The evening closes with the Prosecutor fielding questions from the audience in a rare open public forum.

How did the event come about?Mr. Moreno-Ocampo and I got to know each other while I was directing Darfur Now, a feature documentary about the ongoing crisis in Sudan that Participant Media and Warner Bros financed and distributed.  He was one of the principal subjects of the film and the experience of making the documentary and the results were satisfying for us both. Since then we've stayed in touch, discussing ways we might work together again.  When I learned he was visiting Los Angeles in early November, we spoke about a visit to USC, where there's a great deal of interest among the faculty and students in various aspects of human rights and international justice.

The Prosecutor had a number of invitations to speak while here in Southern California but chose the

Luis Moreno-Ocampo

School of Cinematic Arts at USC because he wants to connect with the filmmakers of the future.  Our Dean, Elizabeth Daley was immediately supportive and we were fortunate to have had the partnership and support of the Gould School of Law, its Dean Bob Rasmussen, and the director of their Human Rights Clinic, Hannah Garry.

USC and the School of Cinematic Arts have a long history of working with human rights from the Shoah Foundation Institute to your Darfur Now. How important is it for media makers to be conscious of bigger world issues?A awareness of world issues is as important for media makers as it is for any individual.  As the 9/11 attacks of ten years ago reminded Americans, you never know when the problems of the world can reach out and affect you, or when and how you or your country can affect human beings across the planet.  But I think there's an added pair of elements for those of us practicing the cinematic arts  - an opportunity and a responsibility.  The opportunity is that the world is full of incredible stories. When you open yourself and become curious about other people and their dreams and struggles you discover no end of great films, television series, documentaries, games and so on.

In the process, you also engage in one of the most satisfying acts of all - bringing to life on the screen a reality that others recognize and are moved by.  In other words, you find an audience.  As our interdependence becomes more apparent and as the global dimension of the business of cinematic arts becomes more fundamental, an awareness of bigger world issues opens doors. That's the opportunity.  The responsibility is one we all share as participants in the global conversation - its a responsibility to our shared humanity. Because the cinematic arts have such reach and speak such a universal language we owe it to ourselves to stretch our imagination to inhabit the lives of others.

Look, I know not everybody wants to make or watch films that explicitly deal with "big world issues." But that's not the point.   To the extent you become conscious of bigger world issues, you exercise your capacity for empathy which makes you better at practicing the cinematic arts and, dare I say it, makes you a better person.  That's a basic professional responsibility - even if, like me, you're interested in the minute details of everyday life immediately around you or enjoy wildly escapist fantasy fare.

You have a reputation in your work for taking on very serious social issues. Have you always been attracted to human rights issues in your filmmaking?Not at all. I was writing a comedy about a straight guy on a gay soccer team when my longtime friend and then agent, Dean Schramm, asked me if I thought the crisis in Darfur would make a good subject for a documentary.  I was peripherally aware of what was happening in Sudan but didn't know much.  So I told him I'd look into it and two weeks later emerged from my research outraged at the atrocities occurring in Darfur and equally outraged at the world's indifference to them.

I also found that a dormant frustration had been awakened.  I'd traveled to South Africa in the mid-80's just after I'd graduated from college.  It was the height of apartheid and I had been stunned by the systematic injustice I witnessed but felt completely incapable of responding to it.  South Africa under apartheid blew my mind, in the sense that I didn't have any way of talking about or expressing what I'd encountered there.  When I looked into the Darfur crisis, I was reminded of that piece of unfinished business with the continent of Africa.  The difference was that in the intervening years I'd acquired the skills of a filmmaker and could act on the outrage I felt.

Since then the experience of making Darfur Now and living in Sudan for the better part of five months changed me and made me interested in issues of global conflict and the Muslim world and in particular issues involving international justice.  When you go where there is no rule of law you become keenly aware of both how fundamental justice is to the dignity of individual life and the catastrophes that result when it's stripped away.  Those are good elements for dramatic filmmaking.

What advice do you have for students who want to take on bigger social issues with their projects?Our first obligation as filmmakers is, as the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel said, to avoid boredom at all costs.  If no one wants to see your film because it's dull, it won't matter how fine your intentions are or how important the social issue.  So make sure you've got a great story and are telling it in a riveting way.  Related to that piece of advice is to remember that humor is often the greatest weapon of all.  Some of the finest, most moving and most lasting indictments of war have been comedies - from Dr. Strangelove, to The Great Dictator all the way back to Lysistrata.  Earnestness is often the enemy of lasting art.  Look at all the different ways of expression open to you and hit the subject with as much engaging emotion as you can. 

What’s next for you?I've just completed the script for a feature film that New Line hired me to write and direct about Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan who became a US Olympian and led the US delegation into the 2008 Beijing Games.  I'm also developing a feature documentary about Somali piracy with Plan B Entertainment, Brad Pitt's Production company, that USC has generously supported with a research grant.  I just have to figure out a way to get there and back safely.