Filmmakers in Focus - Above All Else, Butterfly Girl & Damnation

Written by Jim Kolmar | February 3, 2014
Filmmakers John Fiege, Cary Bell, Travis Rummel & Ben Knight

In this edition of Filmmakers in Focus we talk to the filmmakers behind three truly inspiring, cinematic films in our Documentary Spotlight program. Austin filmmakers John Fiege and Cary Bell discuss Above All Else and Butterfly Girl, respectively, two very different but equally galvanizing films that tackle serious issues in ways that are both intimate and thematically universal. Meanwhile filmmakers Travis Rummel and Ben Knight dish the details on their dynamic environmental doc, DamNation

John Fiege on Above All Else

Tell us a little about your film.

Above All Else tells the story of David Daniel, the man at the center of a very unusual campaign of civil disobedience that took place in East Texas to stop construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. David is a former stuntman and circus performer who moved to East Texas to find tranquility and start a family. He built a house by hand, and just as his daughter was born, he discovered plans to build a Canadian tar sands oil pipeline through the dense woods behind his house. David began to educate himself, organize his community, lobby politicians, and join the growing national protest movement to stop the pipeline and confront climate change. When he realized his efforts were not enough, he embarked on one last stand against the project: a tree-sit in his backyard. As we follow the process of David’s act of resistance, we reveal the movement that emerged around him, the pathology of corporate power, and a complex internal struggle to decide how to act.

Why did you start making films?

From a young age, art, cameras and light fascinated me. In high school I saw the public television series, Eyes on the Prize, about the Civil Rights Movement, and I knew I wanted to make films that tackled pressing social issues.

Have you been to SXSW before? Any tips?

Yes, as the director of photography and co-producer on the feature documentary, The Least of These. Also, I live in Austin, so I attend every year to some extent. Advice: ride a bike.

Tell us a random fact (or two!) that would help our attendees get a better idea of who you are.

I began developing this film soon after I was diagnosed with cancer and found out that my wife was pregnant with our first child.

Following in the footsteps of the film’s main character, David Daniel, I tried the flying trapeze for the first time a few months ago. Loved it!

Cary Bell on Butterfly Girl

Butterfly Girl photo courtesy Cary Bell

Tell us a little about your film.

Butterfly Girl is the story of Abbie Evans, a teenager who sells merchandise for her dad's honky-tonk band, despite the fact that she battles a rare, life-threatening skin disease. Because she is a teenager, Abbie wants nothing more than a life of her own, away from parents, the hospitals she frequents, her mother's house where she recovers, and the band van where she spends so much of her time. But for Abbie life is not simple, and coming of age is more difficult than it is for most. Ultimately, Butterfly Girl is about overcoming whatever it is you are up against, and is a beautiful reminder that family and life are precious.

Why did you start making films?

To get rich, duh. Just kidding, you can't get rich making indie movies- don't believe what they say. I love telling stories that make you think twice about your own life. My goal as a filmmaker is to make work that stays with you long after you leave the theater. If I can make you cry, laugh, and think, then I've done my job. I'm so inspired by how tragic yet beautiful the human experience is, and being able to translate stories that teach me something in my own life into a film is a gift. I feel lucky every day that I have been able to come this far and hope that I am able to continue making work that reaches an audience for years to come.

Have you been to SXSW before? Any tips?

I have attended SXSW film for the past three years, and am so thrilled and honored that this year I am coming with my first feature documentary. SXSW is CRAZY! My best tip is to drink a lot of water (in between all the booze) take it one day, one film, one panel, at a time and have fun. Try your best to not get overwhelmed and enjoy the amazing program Janet and her team put on every year. I am so excited to share this film with an audience- Abbie has a beautiful and inspiring story and I can't wait to feel the energy in the room during our premier. You should come!

Tell us a random fact (or two!) that would help our attendees get a better idea of who you are.

When I'm not working on this film I scour the country developing docu-series and often find myself in the most unusual and strange places- usually by myself, usually with a red neck. It's an odd job that I love and I'm constantly meeting new people- which is a passion of mine, so come find me and introduce yourself! I love dive bars, noodle soup, my family, and anything that is new to me. I am a Texan girl through and through, and although I travel a lot for work, I always look forward to coming home. I'm also tall- and loud- and hard to miss.

Travis Rummel & Ben Knight on DamNation

DamNation photo by John Fiege

Tell us a little about your film.

Travis: "The history of thinking in the western world is radical ideas eventually can become conventional and a couple of decades ago it was radical in terms of thinking that you could take a dam out. It was unthinkable. You can go back 50 years it was legitimately crazy talk. The conversation has changed." — David Montgomery from DamNation

Ben: DamNation is a story about Man’s attempt to harness the power of water at the expense of nature, and a movement to remove harmful dams that have impounded rivers in the name of progress for ages. Hydropower is billed as clean energy—but when short-sighted projects destroy a fishery, drown a national treasure or impact water quality, I don't see how anyone could label that "green." We tried to tell the controversial story of dams in the U.S., but most importantly we tried to do it in a way that doesn't suck. My hope is that DamNation will encourage folks to think about the rivers in their backyard a little differently.

Why did you start making films?

Travis: I started making films about ten years ago, with no background or education in filmmaking. Thankfully my timing could not have been better with the advent of digital video cameras and searchable internet forums, I was able to learn in real time. The learning continues.

Ben: I guess I started making films because I met this weird guy named Travis Rummel. We both wanted to try it, but didn't really have the nerve to go at it alone. Travis bought a video camera, and I figured out the whole editing mystery. My job had always been to tell stories with still photos, so when we got a taste of adding sound and motion we both freaked the fuck out. It was ridiculously hard to do well, but it seemed like no amount of effort was ever wasted. I think what really hooked us was the challenge of getting an audience to care about a subject they've never thought twice about before.

Have you been to SXSW before? What are you most looking forward to?

Travis: No, this will be my first time attending SXSW. I am really looking forward to premiering our film DamNation. It has been a labor of love for nearly 3 years and the energy around a world premier always gets my heart racing.

Ben: I have never been to SXSW before, and I'm scared shitless. I still feel like there may have been a glitch in the system, and any day now they're going to call and say "Sorry, we regret to inform you the screening committee was drunk when they picked DamNation." Nevertheless, I'm simply looking forward to sharing this film in Austin for the first time. What an unbelievable dream come true.

Tell us a random fact (or two!) that would help our attendees get a better idea of who you are.

Travis: I am an eternal optimist and a strong believer in the power of film to effect change.

Ben: Hi, my name is Ben Knight. This one time, when I was fifteen, I went to Kinko's to use their computer to design a fake letterhead for a fictitious magazine requesting a press pass to Lallapalooza so I could photograph the Beastie Boys. My Mom was in on the plan, so she left a special message on our answering machine: "Hello, you've reached Flow magazine, we're sorry we couldn't take your call." The request was granted over the answering machine one day when I got home from school, and my Mom dropped me off at the concert a couple weeks later. I was escorted by giant security guards to the front of the stage, and it was AWESOME. Anyway, I was born in Chapel Hill, NC and I've lived in Telluride, CO for the past 17 years. Oh, and I like cats.