The director of the uplifting documentary Batkid Begins is still finding hope in this darkness
by Philbert Dy
In 2015, the film Batkid Begins, a documentary the remarkable efforts taken by the Make-a-Wish Foundation and the people of San Francisco in order to grant a cancer-stricken five-year-old boy’s wish to become Batman for a day, warmed hearts all around the world. Its director, Dana Nachman, visited the Philippines last week as part of a joint film cultural exchange program from the US State Department and the University of Southern California Film School. We spoke to Ms. Nachman on the tail end of her tour here, where she screened her film to audiences of aspiring filmmakers and underprivileged children.
ROGUE: How has your trip been?
Dana Nachman: I love it. It’s been great. It’s been super fun. The audiences have been great, and it’s been interesting to talk to everyone. Film has such a powerful way of helping people connect. I think it’s really neat to share my film with audiences. It’s a trip for me to see if they’re going to get the nuances of it. And they totally did.
R: Your film, Batkid Begins, is essentially a film about kindness. But it feels like it was made in a different time, given the political atmosphere today. How do you position the film now, given what’s changed, and how almost archaic it feels?
DN: It’s funny, because I hadn’t seen the film since the election. This is the first time I’ve seen it since then. And archaic is a good way of putting it: how could two years feel so long ago? It feels really different. But I think that the themes in it are so universal that if you plopped down this event next week or this year on November 15th, I think it could happen again. Especially in San Francisco. The constellation of forces that allowed it to happen are still there. It was a very organic thing, and no one wanted anything out of it. They weren’t looking for money or fame. People just responded to that, and I think that could still happen today. I think it’s a great reminder that there is goodness in the world, and we need that even more now. There’s always badness in the world, and we were battling it back then, too. But I think the messages are still very clear.
R: Are you familiar at all with the situation here? And have you felt it?
DN: No I haven’t felt it, and I was really surprised. I don’t know the situation in detail, but I know about your president. I know what the criticism are of him, somewhat. In America, we’re obsessed with our government now. I know there are some similarities, seemingly, between our two administrations. I was expecting a lot of people to talk about it, but nobody has. But I’ve mostly been dealing with kids, and I felt so much enthusiasm and vibrancy from the kids. The vibe of the kids here is so awesome, and I think that should give people a lot of hope.
I felt proud that I was leaving the country to talk about something that’s so American and so good. In spite of everything, this experience has just been really, really positive.
R: So you seem to be staying positive.
DN: Well, yes. One thing that struck me is that when I was leaving America, and I was at the security gate, I felt total pride at being an American. And I’ve always felt that. I felt proud that I was leaving the country to talk about something that’s so American and so good. In spite of everything, this experience has just been really, really positive.
R: Do you feel now, as a documentarian, that you have a greater responsibility to choose positive stories?
DN: Well, it’s interesting, because my trajectory is regardless of what’s going on right now. I did three films before Batkid. The first was about wrongful conviction, people that went to prison for up to twenty years for crimes they didn’t commit. A movie about responses to terrorism, and a movie about chemicals that aren’t regulated that cause cancer and a lot of pain. These were very dark, difficult movies, and the chemical one really put me over the edge. I was looking for something lighter and more fun. So when Batkid happened, it was just so much easier to do, and it was so much easier to get people to see it. But at the same time, it’s still about a kid with cancer. My next movie, which I’m just finishing now, is also very light. It’s about a litter of puppies that are trained for two and a half years to become guide dogs for the blind. So you see: we get into the isolation and being blind and other issues, but it’s also inherently a dog competition movie, so there’s some ease in that.
My next project after that, though, is a documentary about civil rights leader Malcolm X. It’s historical, but it’s becoming really obvious that there are a lot of parallels to today. So I’m really excited about that, even though I know it won’t be easy. So I’m not going totally into a cute puppy direction.
R: Do you have an awareness of what it is that draws you to any particular story?
DN: It’s sort of like finding love. You don’t know why you’re drawn to that one person; you just are. As creative people, we just have a lot of ideas, and some just stick with you. I think when one sticks with you, it’s like they choose you, and you can’t let them go. I do think that in general, I like the story of an underdog. I think that might be the common thread.
R: Has anything that you experienced in your short time here piqued your interest as a storyteller?
DN: Two places really resonated for me. One is Child House. I’ve worked with Ronald McDonald House in the US, and this place really struck me because the man who founded the place told me that before the house existed, these kids would go to Manila and just end up in the streets. I mean, in America, they aren’t living in the streets. Maybe I’m just a naïve American, but that really resonated with me. The other place is Film & Media Arts International Academy. A philatrophist from Singapore bankrolls it, and it’s for indigent kids. I found both places amazing. Resources can go a long way here, and the impact they’re making it great. A film school is so interesting as a philantrophic endeavor, because you’re not just helping the people that are making the films, but you’re helping society as a whole. When people see these films, and they hear these voices that they wouldn’t have otherwise, that’s really good. A few kids asked me if I was going to make film here. And I told them no, you have to make the films here. They need to make their own films, and if this film school grows, then it’s only going to be for the better.