The Strangest Dream is the first feature-length documentary directed by Canadian filmmaker Eric Bednarski. The film tells the story of physicist Joseph Rotblat, the only participant to leave the Manhattan Project on moral grounds. Rotblat went on to become a leading critic of nuclear weapons proliferation and a founding member of the Pugwash Movement. Established in Nova Scotia in 1957, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs continue to facilitate dialogue within the international scientific community with the goal of worldwide nuclear disarmament. Although not widely known, Rotblat was extremely influential in his efforts to prevent nuclear war throughout the latter half of the 20th century. The film is an inspiring story of an unrecognized hero, but it also provides a detailed history of nuclear weapons and the Pugwash Movement itself through outstanding archival storytelling and engaging interviews with Rotblat's friends, family, and colleagues. You can watch a full version of The Strangest Dream online here.
A few weeks ago Eric and co-writer Barry Cowling received the 2010 Gemini Award for Best Writing in a Documentary Program or Series. I recently interviewed Eric by e-mail and he took the time to respond from Poland, where he is currently running Szadek Productions and working on Neon, a film about Communist-era neon signs in Warsaw. Here's what he had to say:
Your latest film, The Strangest Dream, is the story of Joseph Rotblat, a scientist involved in the development of nuclear weapons. Rotblat later renounced nuclear testing and founded the Pugwash Movement, an organization committed to nuclear disarmament. What was it about Rotblat and Pugwash that inspired you to make this film? What made you want to tell this story?
Having grown up in Nova Scotia I had often heard about Pugwash and the remarkable conferences which had taken place there. After discussing various documentary ideas in 2004/2005 with the film's producer, Kent Martin, we decided we would try and tell the Pugwash story, which seemed fascinating, important and still very relevant today. Since the end of the Cold War I think that many people believe that any danger posed by nuclear weapons has simply disappeared. There is a whole generation now who never experienced the Cold War, and who never experienced the peace movement that went along with it. Nuclear weapons are front and centre of many of the problems in the world today. The continued existence of these weapons still very much affects us all. We also realized that the story of Pugwash was still pretty much unknown. It was not until I got going with this film, when I started doing proper research on the subject, that I learned about the incredible work of Sir Joseph Rotblat. He was from Warsaw, Poland, like my father, and Pugwash is in Nova Scotia, where I was born and raised. So my two worlds really came together with "The Strangest Dream". That made it all the more exciting to work on.
The Strangest Dream is an NFB film. What is the process of working with the NFB? What sort of working relationship did you have with the organization, and what role did they play in the making of the film? How does someone come to work with them?
Yes, "The Strangest Dream" is an NFB film. It was entirely produced by the National Film Board of Canada, which is a Canadian Government agency created in 1939. The process of working with the NFB when I started on the film in 2005, involved writing a proposal, submitting it, having it approved, doing further research, and putting a proper treatment together, having that approved, and then going into production. Finally the post-production stage arrived, and after the film was completed it screened it at various festivals, community screenings, and finally, was aired on television. I had applied for and received two Filmmaker Assistance Program grants from the NFB, before I made "The Strangest Dream". I think it certainly helps to have your work out there... work that may have already been supported in some way by the NFB. After those two FAP projects, I submitted a proposal for a proper NFB film, and amazingly enough everything fell into place after that. I feel pretty lucky I have to say. There is info about working with the NFB on their website: http://www.nfb.ca
A major challenge for new filmmakers is giving story arc to the subjects of their films. You've done a film on Soviet-era housing complexes (MDM), and you're currently working on a documentary about Soviet-era neon signs in Warsaw. How do you develop a narrative from an object? I mean, the traditional formula that we've been learning is essentially: rising action, climax, denouement, resolution. Would you say that MDM and Neon follow this formula? Does documentary need to follow this formula?
How to develop a narrative from an object, or objects? Good question. The bottom line, in my case, with the Soviet era architecture and neon advertising has been to find interesting people and stories behind these things, which can then bring them to life. These people included Warsaw residents, architects, and designers and what they have to say. It is very hard to make anything half interesting without emotion and a human dimension. I guess both "MDM" and "Neon" sort of follow the traditional formula mentioned, but "Neon" is not completed, so I won't actually know for another few months. I've never really thought too much about the "formula" in question, but I admit subconsciously it must be there. (I went to film school too.)
Do you have a set process for taking an idea and making it into a film? What do you do between coming up with an idea and turning on a camera?
The set process I have is first talking to people about the idea, and then trying to put something down on paper. Having a cohesive proposal is the best way of getting a film off the ground and into production. Sometimes proposals get worked on for months. You have to know what you're doing, and feel confident that it will make an interesting film. Other people have to know what you want to do too.