True/False Film/Interview: Life After Death

Life After Death - Trailer from Joe Callander on Vimeo.

I spent a long time trying to write about Joe Callander's amazing film Life After Death but the more I thought about it, the harder it was. The surface subject of the story is difficult and complicated to start as it follows struggling adult Rwandan Genocide survivors that are primarily supported by donations from their religious, white, well meaning "mothers & fathers" in America, a relationship that feels intrinsically helpful but possibly detrimental at once, reminding that there are no clear solutions to fixing the results of unfathomable events. But adding to the difficulty of trying to talk about this film is the layered filmmaking itself. Callander's sly, insightful editing and intuitive directorial choices create a polished, thoughtful telling of this dense story. Similar to the works of writers like George Saunders & Kurt Vonnegut, Callander hits that collision of comedy & tragedy that are inherent in the beautiful, inane, and dark world we've created and manages to do it with the added difficulty of using real life subjects, his choice of main characters ranging from Kwasa (a young man who is funny, mischievous, and deeply wounded by the past) to the cheery, caring, wise, concerned Suzette who dedicates her life to the well being of others, praying with her family over their spaghetti for those in need. After failing at writing about Life After Death for awhile I decided to track down this wry, brilliant director and have him explain how this exceptional work came to be.

1. So, in the intro I wrote to these questions I called you brilliant. Just so you don't say anything stupid, okay? Kidding of pressure!


2. How were you able to make this film. I had to run out of the True/False Q&A so I missed the details about how this film came to be but it seemed to somehow involve a faith based charitable organization? And you becoming the filmmaker in residence at a progressively operated leather works company...? Not your typical indie filmmaker route! 

The leather company and the charitable organization are the same entity. Saddleback Leather, run by Dave and Suzette Munson, makes really high quality leather stuff. Dave and Suzette funnel a significant amount of their profits to relief work in Rwanda. They work with a non-profit over there called Africa New Life Ministries. Suzette also runs a company called Love 41, which is structured as a for-profit company, but she effectively runs it as a non-profit. 100% of Love 41 profits goes straight to relief work in Africa.

Back in 2010 I was struggling as a filmmaker in LA, and saw Saddleback was hiring. So I landed a job in customer service, which turned into marketing, which turned into a filmmaker-in-residence. Dave wants his employees to be doing what they love, and he knew I loved making movies. So he created a filmmaker-in-residence position for me. I do all his marketing videos, and he gives me a lot of freedom to work on my own projects on the side.

I met Kwasa the second time I went to Rwanda with Dave and Suzette. At first, filming Kwasa [was] my own little side project. But after they saw what I was doing with it, they decided to let me run with it. The film was captured on three separate trips over the course of 18 months.

3. The film begins with a figure of how many days had passed since the end of the Rwandan Genocide, a figure that quietly stands in for the memory of a huge humanitarian crime. The title is an affirmative separation between the past and the present. Was this decision just inherent in the producer's story or did you specifically decide that the future is more important a subject than the past? I guess I am preoccupied with this since so many films about incomprehensible tragedy tend to focus on teaching about the tragedy as opposed to focusing on the equally as important results of the event, the cause more than the effect. Reparation seems to be a nearly forgotten aspect of most conflict and is equally as important.

I decided to mark the time since the genocide in days instead of years, as a subtle indicator of what life has been like for guys like Kwasa and Fils. They do not measure their time in years. They have no 5 year plan. Life passes day by day, and most days are a struggle to find enough to eat to see the sun come up again tomorrow.

The thing about the Rwandan Genocide is, PBS and the New York Times have covered it just fine. There's a few real great documentaries out there about the actual genocide. I felt I had nothing to add to that conversation. What I wanted to explore was, how are everyday normal people [are] dealing with it, 20 years later? I didn't want to turn them into talking heads of horrific tragedy and loss. I wanted to show them as human beings that have been through terrible things, and yet, they still have to live. They still have to try and make lives for themselves. And I wanted to show that no matter where you come from, we're all not so different on the most basic human level. We all just want to have dinner with our friends, try to find a stable, secure life, and maybe even fall in love.

4. Even though the film covers a weighty is hilarious. And you skillfully made it that way, interjecting a punchline or observation always at the exact right moment, even if the subjects brought a lot of the humor to the story, your comic timing is impeccable. Are you just an inherently funny person? What led you to the decision to use humor as a tool to tell this story? Laughter is missing from a lot of documentaries and it is a facet of (hopefully) every life.

Thank you. The tone of this film is how I want to tell stories. I think life is inherently tragic, absurd, heart-breaking, and hilarious. When I tell stories in real life, they're usually funny. Why should my voice as a filmmaker be any different than my voice as a human being? Life is strange everywhere you go and a little laughter helps when you're trying to deal with it all.

To me, the film is a very serious film, and the jokes only make it more so. If you're laughing at something, that means you've experienced something true. Laughter is the most powerful way to connect an audience to a film and the characters in the film. Jokes are very serious business.

5. The amount of respect and heart in this film was palpable. You were able to see huge confusions or contradictions inherent in the subjects but the way you went about bringing them to light were beyond fair. As a documentary filmmaker it felt like you managed such an objective, yet earnest, position which doesn't seem natural for most documentary filmmakers who have a distinct did you develop this seemingly honest, autonomous, attitude yet still manage to inject it with your personal creative style? What position did you approach the subjects from? Are you just a nice, brilliant dude?

haha now I'm blushing. Through the humor in the film, I have a little fun with my subjects. But my intent with humor was never to bring them down. I wanted to use humor to reveal their humanity. Some people have mistaken the film for satire. It absolutely is not. If I'm poking fun at anything with the film, it's the fact that we're all here in the first place, stuck on this rock barreling around some tiny star in the middle of nowhere. And we all have to deal with each other.

I wouldn't say the film is objective, but the subjective point of view is more existential then anything else. A lot of people may have trouble seeing that, because when you've got a documentary that covers interactions between Westerners and Africans, we've been conditioned to expect that such material must come with a political, social, or religious agenda. Viewers will certainly bring all that baggage to the film, but I've done my best to focus on the humans first, so if people do want to discuss the film in terms of issues, I hope I've forced them to start with the humans and move out to the issues, instead of starting with the issues and trying to shoehorn the humans into them. 

So the short answer is, yes, I'm just a nice, brilliant dude (Sorry. Couldn't resist).

6. When I left the theater after seeing this film I remember thinking "O, THIS is why I love film! I almost forgot!" The storytelling, voice, production design- all of it- was so unique, new, and hopeful: I want more! What are you working on next?

I'm doing a lot of marketing films with Saddleback at the moment. I've got a few ideas for another feature, which I'm hoping to get started on before next year. Don't want to say too much though. If you keep a little mystery around things, people think you're really interesting and sophisticated. That ones on the house.  



Donna K. is a recent transplant to the Midwest where she can be found exploring culture at large through film programming, writing and her general interest in the world- both on and offline.