Daniel Junge on his Oscar nomination, Saving Face, and the Colorado film industry
This isn't Daniel Junge's first trip to the Oscars. The Colorado-based filmmaker was nominated for an Academy Award in 2010 for his documentary The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner; this time he's nominated in the Documentary Short category for Saving Face, a film that follows a Pakistani plastic surgeon dedicated to performing reconstructive surgery on women who've been attacked with acid. In advance of his trip to Los Angeles for Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony, we caught up with Junge and talked with him about traveling to Pakistan, hobnobbing with celebrities, and the Colorado film industry.
Westword: How did you learn about the acid attacks in Pakistan?
Daniel Junge: Well, I knew about it in the back of my head, but I wasn't intending to make a film on it. But I was listening to BBC World Radio and I heard an interview; there was an acid attack in the streets of London on an aspiring model there, Katie Piper. It was a very big news story three years ago, and she mentioned that her personal hero was her surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad. And when I heard that I thought, "Mohammad Jawad, that doesn't sound very Anglo." So I called him up out of the blue at Chelsea Hospital and I said, "Are you aware of the incidents of acid attacks in South Asia and in the Muslim world?" And he said, "I know about it, I've been going to help some of these women and I'm going in six weeks. Do you want to come?" And that's how the adventure began.
What was the process of making the film?
I should tell you that the process was made much easier by having a great Pakistani partner on the ground. I teamed up with, in my mind, the country's best filmmaker: Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. She's an Emmy-winning filmmaker, and having a partner on the ground there, especially a woman who could go and shoot some of the most sensitive stuff without me, was just great -- not only for safety concerns but for the comfort of the subjects. I think it gives the film an intimacy in rural Pakistan that I wouldn't have been able to do myself.
What made you want to tell this story?
Most of my films have had a strong social justice component, and hopefully they've helped implement change. This was a not terribly well-known phenomenon, an absolutely horrible phenomenon that we felt shedding some light on it might help. And also knowing that it's such a captivating subject, what's happened to these women is so horrific and what Dr. Jawad is doing with his reconstructive surgery is...it's just a natural story and makes for a great film and hopefully is going to help facilitate change.
What do you hope people get out of watching the film?
First of all, I think that when people hear of the nature of the subject, they think it's all doom and gloom and horror, and of course it is, it's extremely dark subject matter. But I hope that when people watch the film, they see Pakistanis addressing a Pakistani problem, and moreover, they see a Pakistani filmmaker, my partner Sharmeen, documenting Pakistanis addressing this problem. I want viewers to come away with a sense of hope and empowering the institutions which are fomenting change, rather than just think it's an unchangeable situation.
What can viewers do to take action?
We are building an extensive outreach campaign -- I think it's a vital part of social justice filmmaking, and it's going to be my strongest outreach campaign yet. My wife is the outreach director and she has already gotten some nice grants and started building the website, the educational materials and the awareness campaign. That's savingfacefilm.com. There's a number of ways that viewers can become engaged after seeing the film. I'm really excited about that.
What films are you working on next? Something about medical marijuana?
Yeah, that film -- although it's currently on the back burner -- is still very much alive. But in the meantime I'm doing a film about Christian Ultimate Fighting.
What is Christian Ultimate Fighting?
[Laughs] Well, you'll have to wait and see the film. It's called Fight Church, so that kind of sums it up. My filmmaking partner Davis and I are making a film in Jamaica on a school for disadvantaged boys that gives birth to reggae called Alpha Boys, and I am currently in negotiations with Landscape Films and a couple of major broadcasters for two big commercial documentaries for my first theatrical-release documentaries on subjects I'll announce soon. They're gonna be great.
What are you planning to do in L.A. around the Oscars?
Well, I'm gonna stay at the Four Seasons and try to get used to that lifestyle [laughs] and live the lifestyle to which I would like to become accustomed. How about that? I'm gonna bask in all the revelry that is the Oscars. We documentary filmmakers so rarely get to feel this sense of glamor and importance. I'm gonna bask in that and over my co-director, she's the first Pakistani director nominated, so I'm gonna enjoy her enjoying it, too.
Do you have any cool stories from the last time you were there?
Well, I will say that the Academy Luncheon is pretty special. You know, you don't sit with your group, they assign you seating, and when I got to my table and saw my name placard, I looked at the seat next to me and it said Morgan Freeman. So I got to sit and have lunch next to Morgan Freeman. This year at the Academy Luncheon I got to talk with George Clooney, with Brad Pitt and Glenn Close. It's such a collegial atmosphere at the luncheon; it has much less of the hype of the actual event and it's only the nominees. So the two years I've gone, that's really been the highlight for me.
What's your pick for Best Picture?
My personal favorite is The Descendants -- I love Alexander Payne and I saw that film here at the Denver Film Festival and absolutely loved it. But I guess word on the street is that The Artist is the front runner. In documentary, I'd love to see Paradise Lost win, because Joe Berlinger, who I've gotten to know over the last few years, I really look up to his work and he's one of the reasons I got into documentary filmmaking. So to be nominated alongside him has been fantastic.
Did you write an acceptance speech?
You really have to. They say spontaneity is great, but be prepared. The Academy, they are pretty clear that they want you to put effort into your speech and not just wing it. So yeah, I have put time into it -- but you don't want to be presumptuous and jinx yourself.
Is there anything else you want people to know about you or the film?
Well, I think it's worth noting that with our last film that was nominated, there are now three documentaries in the last two years that are Colorado-born products. And of course, the precedent was set by my mentor, Donna Dewey, who won the Oscar twelve years ago from here in Colorado. So I think now with three in the last two years, it just indicates that there's such a great filmmaking community developing here in Colorado and that with the changes in the industry and changes in technology you can make films, especially documentaries, anywhere in the world, anywhere you choose to live. And I choose to live in Colorado. I just think it's exciting to see the maturation of the film industry here in Colorado.
Watch the Oscars on Sunday to root for Junge, and catch Saving Face at 7 p.m. March 7 at the Denver Film Center Colfax as part of the Women + Film Voices Film Festival and March 8 on HBO.
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