The Making Of
Director Daniel Junge shares the unique challenges of filming an acting president, his thoughts on Liberian democracy, fufu and bitter balls and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.
What led you to make this film?
Through our producer, Henry Ansbacher, we were afforded a small window of access to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf during her inauguration and first days in office. The idea of watching Africa’s first elected female president reconstruct a war-torn country, apart from being an historical first, was extremely compelling subject matter that we knew would be rich with thematic and dramatic possibilities. So we flew to Liberia not knowing what to expect, and once we got there worked to expand our access and to support the film with material from around the country. A year (and 400 hours of footage) later, we had IRON LADIES OF LIBERIA.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
While our access to a sitting head of state was really quite unprecedented, it was still far from unlimited, and we spent many days looking at the outside of her office door. The challenge was to find a way into that room, to maximize our time with the president, to recognize when important things were happening and to build context for the stories outside of those scenes we were able to film with the president. So while I prefer to work in a more proactive manner, this film was entirely reactive, which can be frustrating, although the end result was fruitful.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
It was a constant negotiation, really. I think our persistence and patience earned some allies who helped us get into rooms at the right time. When the president’s patience wore thin, we spread the focus of the film to the other women around her, which was really helpful. Our partnership with ITVS and the BBC also helped legitimize our presence. And about halfway through production we showed the president a work-in-progress—something we typically wouldn’t do—which really helped solidify her trust.
What do you think Americans, as participants in the U.S. democracy, can learn from this film?
On the one hand, we should feel blessed that the first concern on our president’s mind isn’t an utter lack of resources or the very real possibility of a violent insurrection. On the other, I think the level of transparency, diplomacy and compassion exhibited by the head of state of this tiny West African country will give U.S. audiences pause to reflect on our own executive branch and how it conducts business. Regardless of your political affiliations, you can’t help but think there are lessons to be learned from how Ellen governs.
How did you connect with Siatta Scott Johnson and get her involved in the project?
Through our producer, Jonathan Stack. In the wake of his film Liberia: An Uncivil War, Jonathan established a filmmaking cooperative, Omuahtee Africa Media, with whom we partnered in the making of IRON LADIES. We were particularly interested in working with female filmmakers, and, as luck would have it, Siatta was the sole woman in Omauhtee. She was a fantastic partner on the film.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
For me, the retired soldiers scene is the heart of the film, and it’s one of those rare scenes that you know while you are filming that it’s pure gold. In fact, the main shot of that scene is the longest uncut piece of film I’ve ever used in a film.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
Liberia is the noisiest country in which we’ve ever shot. Either the window is open and the street traffic is terrible, or it’s closed and there are four portable air-conditioners in the room. It was hell for our post-production mixer.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We nervously showed a rough cut of the film to the president, and she was very positive. Her only requests were that we use less graphic images of the war during the film’s backstory and that we include more images of everyday women in Liberia—with which we happily complied.
Siatta was with us when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and she personally received three standing ovations. We told her that doesn’t happen to everyone on their first film!
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
The actual making of films is a reward in itself which motivates us. It’s the struggle to convince others that your product is valuable which is tiresome. After every film we finish, I just hope we can make another.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We have made other films for PBS and, in fact, one other for Independent Lens (CHIEFS, 2003). For filmmakers interested in thought-provoking content without commercial constraints and in reaching out to a large and consistent audience hungry for this kind of programming, there is no better venue than PBS.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t learn to enjoy fufu, bitter balls, palm butter or some of the other staples of Liberian cuisine!