Beyond the Call, Adrian Belic's latest documentary profiling the three members of Knightsbridge International, opens at San Francisco's Embarcadero Cinema and Berkeley's Shattuck Theater this weekend and Belic, who has been tirelessly promoting and self-distributing the documentary, has made himself readily available for interviews and Q&A sessions after each screening. I transcribed my Q&A notes from the UNAFF screening; Justin Juul interviewed Adrian for SF360; Hannah Eaves' interview for Greencine Daily has just gone up; and Sara Schieron has weighed in with her recommendation at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.
As additional incentive, joining Belic this weekend at the Landmark screenings will be Ed Artis, one of the subjects of the documentary. I had the chance to interview Adrian a few weeks back at the offices of Larsen Associates. Because he was running a little late, I waited for Adrian outside the Larsen Associates offices, enjoying a cookie, a cappuccino, and some Indian Summer sunshine. Adrian arrived with his long hair flowing and his moustache relaxed. Reintroducing myself (we had met at the Roxie screening), I reminisced on having met his brother Roko several years back at a party where Roko attempted to synopsize Genghis Blues. At the time I thought he sounded crazy: a blind blues singer obsessed with tuva throat singing? Adrian laughed.
Genghis Blues, of course, went on to win the Sundance Audience Award and was nominated for an Academy Award. The film played in nearly 100 cities around the US and 40 countries around the world. It continues to play in theaters and festivals around the world today, as well as being a top selling DVD. Beyond the Call had its world premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York, and has won numerous awards around the country. Adrian Belic travels extensively, selectively shooting and producing for other productions and channels. Beyond the Call is his latest effort.
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Michael Guillén: At the UNAFF Roxie Film Center Q&A, you were asked about the genesis of Beyond the Call and mentioned that the documentary had been kickstarted by your agent pressing you to put out a fiction feature following the success of your last documentary, Genghis Blues. Every first-time filmmaker dreams of receiving an Academy Award nomination, but you and your brother Roko actually achieved that dream. But the subsequent pressure from your agent made me wonder if the Oscar nomination truly opened doors for you or if that success has hindered you somewhat as an independent filmmaker? At the Q&A, you sounded disgruntled by what your agent was asking you to do.
Adrian Belic: Well, when you're Oscar-nominated, even in your wildest dreams, you have no clue as to what that's like. It's really been nothing but good. When we call someone up and we say, "Hi, we made Genghis Blues" and if they don't know Genghis Blues—which is often the case—we say, "Y'know, we won the Sundance Audience Award and we were nominated for an Academy Award," and all of a sudden they're like, "Ooooooh yes! Please, let's chat! Or send me whatever you've got!" So an Oscar nomination is a wonderful thing. The thing that was interesting after Genghis Blues—and I'm even finding that now with Beyond the Call—is that, after Genghis Blues, people were pitching us stories about indigenous music around the world or indigenous music in America. With Beyond the Call people are pitching me stuff about humanitarian work and the reality is that for me—and I think I may have mentioned it at the screening—I consider myself a storyteller. I look for compelling stories, interesting characters and exotic locations—which may not necessarily be the other side of the planet; they could be parts of America that I have never traveled to—but, it's character-driven, it's not issues, it's not, "Oh my God, we need more humanitarians" or "Music is the coolest thing on the planet." It's, "Wow, Paul Peña is the most extraordinary person I've met and anywhere he goes great things will happen." Or with Beyond the Call, it's here are these unassuming ordinary guys that could be your uncle, your next-door neighbor, your grandfather, whatever, or your peer, and here they do this stuff that will blow your mind. And on top of that you have this entertaining component where they're unique and quirky and rough around the edges, they're not your classic humanitarian do-gooder kind of characters and I thought, "That makes for such a great story." So with Genghis Blues, we experienced firsthand what it's like to be pigeonholed and for people really not to look at what you're trying to say but just what you've said in terms of how they read it, which is, "Oh, it's about music and indigenous cultures." So we were kind of feeling that. We were getting this pressure from our agent. But we also had personal pressure. We wanted to do something. Like you said, it's a dream come true for filmmakers and Genghis Blues was our first film. We basically made that instead of going to graduate school. We thought, "Okay, let's go to grad school or let's buy two tickets on Aeroflot." Two tickets on Aeroflot won. Then we came back. We thought it would be done in a year or two. Five years later….
And so, y'know, there was … not necessarily pressure because I don't think my brother and I feel pressure, but there was personal expectation. "Hey, we had a kick ass ride and, for ourselves, we should see if we could achieve that again." We were looking at stories very carefully. The other thing about doing these [films]—Genghis Blues, Beyond the Call—those are passion projects. I don't do that for the money. I don't even do that for the accolades because frankly with Genghis Blues, as you said walking up here, when you met my brother for the first time and he pitched you Genghis Blues, I mean, you're up against someone who's insane, an idiot, or lying! [Chuckles.] Beyond the Call was the same sort of response.
Guillén: To backtrack a bit, the subjects of Beyond the Call, I would agree that they're ordinary-looking; but, I wouldn't say that they're ordinary guys. My understanding is that you met Ed Artis at a screening of Genghis Blues? Or at the Academy Awards?
Belic: No, we met Ed Artis, the main character, the guy who was the Vietnam vet paratrooper medic, at a screening of Genghis Blues at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Their mottoe is "High adventure in service to humanity." So they heard about Tuva, contacted Ralph Leighton who was the founder and head of Friends of Tuva who gave us the whole Genghis Blues story, contacted him and said, "Hey, we want to go to Tuva. This is what we do around the world, this hardcore kind of stuff. Heard about Tuva. You're the only guy we know that's ever been there"—which is the same pitch we gave to Ralph seven years earlier—"We really want to help in Tuva." Ralph said, "Tuva doesn't really need your kind of assistance. Many other places, unfortunately, need your kind of assistance. But if you're interested to see what Tuva looks like, these two brothers shot this film in Tuva and you might get a kick out of it." So he came to Santa Barbara, Ed lives in L.A., went up the road, saw the film kind of for kicks, and really enjoyed it. Then heard what my brother and I had to say as to why we make films, how we make films, and he realized in many ways that's the exact same way he does his stuff. He does his humanitarian stuff because he can, when he can, that's it, period. He figures it out along the way. He wants to go to Rwanda, he didn't know how to even spell the damn country when he went there in 1994, but, he started going there and he met people and it all kind of turned into this big thing, and that's kind of how my brother and I seem to make our films.
Guillén: You say Ed Artis does this because he can and at the Roxie Q&A you mentioned there were a couple of people who had walked out of the screening leaving some scathing remarks and some people in the audience who took issue with the fact that Knightsbridge International does this because they can. What's your take on that?
Belic: It's interesting now that we've started to screen the film around the country—and we've screened from Tribeca in Manhattan to Homer, Alaska, a tiny little place, Taos, New Mexico, San Francisco—these guys break a lot of molds. These guys aren't your average Vietnam vet. They're not your average do-gooder. They're not your average old person. They do stuff that college kids would dream of having the guts and the ability to do. So I knew that there would be … at the extreme poles these guys would rub some people funny. In the most liberal of places around the country, San Francisco being one of them, there are some people who take umbrage with these guys enjoying what they do, with adventure being a big part of it.
Guillén: And yet the good of what they do is undeniable.
Belic. Yeah. And that's what makes me realize that Genghis Blues was a much more benign story, a loveable guy doing wonderful things. This one has some edge to it. It's got political connotations. Everyone's looking for an angle and this film is in the middle of all that stuff. Ex-soldiers and humanitarian work and war zones. So we get from some groups, y'know, yeah some groups these guys don't totally fit what they assume. And that's fine. Because, honestly, this film is made for the middle 80% of this country or 90% of this country. It's meant for every single person who's ever dreamed of doing something and every single person who's fed up with systems, whatever it is, governmental, corporate, their family, whatever….
Guillén: I know a few people like that.
Belic: [Laughs.] We all know them! And I'm sure that each and every one of us has had our moments where we've said, "Man, if I only had the balls or the opportunity to just say, 'Go screw it and I'm going to do my own thing!', these guys embody that.
Guillén: In terms of demographics and showing the film in different parts of the United States, do the audiences in the Midwest react differently to the documentary than they do here in urban centers like San Francisco?
Belic: As someone commented at the Roxie screening, in the beginning there were a couple of people in the audience who didn't quite warm up to these guys, who were skeptical, who didn't understand what they were doing, were suspicious of their motives, but as the film goes on it's clear, it's undeniable, these guys are on the front line. And whatever joy they get out of this that the tried-and-true leftwingers might find issue with, as you said what they do is undeniable, and that supercedes—for 99% of the audience—any qualms they may have about how they do it, what other motives they may have about doing it like personal joy, curiousity. For people who sit through the whole film, they get it. Just like with Genghis Blues the power of this film is that, yeah, it many ways it's totally outside your comfort zone, it's totally outside your knowledge base, it's totally outside your experiential life, but ultimately it's a story about our humanity and it's the story about the journey of an individual in a very complicated world. I had an idea for the film, met the guys, thought this would be an interesting story, I then lived it for four years. I then came back and crafted it for two years. And now the final stage in the storytelling is I'm showing it and it's amazing what people come back with, what they see in it, and what I always dreamt of this film being is not so much a film about those guys, it's a film about me, me the individual sitting in the audience with my ideas, with my friends, with my experiences, with my abilities and resources, and me in the audience thinking, "What the hell am I doing? And what do I really want to do? Because if these guys can do what they're doing, damn sure I can do something."
Guillén: That is the power and the inspiration of Beyond the Call. Going to see one of your films is always a geography lesson, which is important because we live in a country whose citizens have barely a rudimentary grasp of geography. Further, your film reminds us that humanitarianism is not just an intellectual exercise; it's a visceral exercise. As a filmmaker who has lived this story for four years, you appear to have no obvious fear to enter these war zones and landscapes of crisis. Aren't you afraid?
Belic: Sure. You hear that all the time with people who do extreme sports or soldiers or whatever: "Aren't you afraid to go into these places?" Some people say, "No, you can't be afraid." And others say, "Of course. Because if you weren't afraid, you'd be insane." I know what I'm good at and I know what my resources are and I know what my skills and talents are and I know what I'm not good at. I try, in whatever I've done in my life, whether it's sports or making films, girl friends or friends, is to team myself up with good people. Ed, Jim and Walt, the Knightride guys, they've had guys interested in doing their story before and theye never said yes to any of them. Then we met, that was one of those weird things: we never wrote a contract. We just talked in Santa Barbara, chatted on the phone for a few more months, while my brother and I were traveling around the world with Genghis Blues, and we sat down one night for what we thought would be a one-hour interview, ended up being six and a half hours, and Ed told us all these stories. We shared stories of ours. Then a few months later Ed called me up and said, "Do you want to go to Afghanistan?" I said, "Yes!" People have asked Ed, "Why'd you pick Adrian to invite to go?" He goes, "I'm not sure. I felt something about him that he's an upstanding guy and it was a test and he passed it. And so we invited him again and again and again." So scared? Yeah, you're scared. But it's a calculated scare. I've a poster in my room that I got in college that has this picture of these cool islands in Thailand, azure water, and underneath [the picture] it says: "Destiny is the choices you make not the chances you take that determines one's destiny." Honestly, when I was in college, I had no idea what the hell that meant. Because we were all gung-ho, full of testosterone, and I was going to live forever and it was all about chances. I was a guy who takes crazy chances and goes to far-off places, and now as I guess that I've matured, I realize that the reason I'm successful and the reason I'm alive—which is one level of success—is because I think I'm fairly educated and savvy about the choices I make.
Guillén: And the company you keep. The people who guide you.
Belic: That's one of the choices. When I was in Afghanistan in October, 2001, as the bombing first began and I was leaving, there were all kinds of journalists coming in and wanting to do stories and there were all kinds of people bailing out when there was talk of tactical nuclear weapons and all this insanity was going on. This was before the Northern Alliance bought on with the U.S. side again, when they were in that twilight zone. The bombing began before the Northern Alliance signed on so no one knew what was happening. [I had] a lot of offers in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, as I was meandering my way back out of Afghanistan. You could see the people that were coming in because all their clothes were clean and the few that were coming out, we were all covered in dust. The sand in northern Afghanistan is like talcum powder. In these huge lobbies where all these journalists and foreign people were, you could tell the ones who had been; they were just a few. So I got all these offers from people who would say, "Hey, we'll pay you twice the money, cash up front, to go back in." I'd have a drink with them or go and have something to eat. They'd get plastered drunk, forget their wallet, can't find their way back four blocks to where the hotel was. Now, I'm not going to walk with that dude across Market Street in San Francisco let alone go back into a war zone where no one's got a clue what's going on. So, yes, I'm scared. Yes, I'm fearful. But I think that I make the right choices and [side] myself with the right people that I increase my chances of success, one of those being coming out alive.
Growing up, I loved quotes. I'm not really into novels and long dissertations; I'm into pithy little things. Because I want to understand fundamental lessons so that I can extrapolate anything I want out of those lessons and I can apply them anywhere and scale them anywhere. Growing up half in the United States and half in Eastern Europe, [with] English not being my first language, and spending many of my summers in Eastern Europe under the Soviet Union, I realized that I'd never fit anywhere so I had to figure out ways of fitting everywhere. One of those things was to try to figure out what are the fundamental lessons and what are my fundamental skills. Me being able to survive in a war zone, the skills that I learned there, are just as applicable as choosing who my producing partner is, who I'm going to go clubbing with, who I'm going to go mountainbiking with, who I'm going to go sailing with. I have to size up their character and size up what kind of personality are they? If we flip in the sailboat in the Bay, are they going to have their heads screwed on straight? Or are they going to bail? If I go clubbing, is someone going to get totally plastered and be a liability to me? The lessons that I've learned doing these extreme [activities], I apply [them] to each and every day of my life. Taxis in New York: do I get into this taxi or that taxi? All those skills, all those kinds of gut instincts and heightened sensory perception, I use every single day of my life no matter what I'm doing.