Two Ithaca College alumni, Landon Van Soest ’04 and Jeremy Levine ’06, took home an Emmy for their film at the 32nd Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards on Sept. 26. “Good Fortune” was honored with the Emmy in the category of Outstanding Business and Economic Reporting — Long Form.
“Good Fortune” examines how international aid efforts to alleviate poverty in Africa may be undermining the communities they aim to benefit. It was broadcast on the PBS series “POV” in July 2010.
Accent Editor Kelsey Fowler spoke with Van Soest about his time at the college, the film “Good Fortune” and his recent Emmy win.
Kelsey Fowler: How did you and Jeremy Levine start working together
Landon Van Soest: Jeremy and I actually met in Ben Crane’s doc research class at Ithaca College. We were in a group of eight people. Basically the premise of the class is we go through the entire process of doing the research and all of the pre-production on a feature documentary, so a lot of the class is about pitching ideas and talking about what makes a good documentary concept — all of the work that goes into laying a foundation for a documentary. Jeremy and I, and six other people, got pretty invested in a story on the U.S.-Mexico border and the vigilantes down there who were talking the law into their own hands, doing their own private patrols of the boarder. We spent quite a bit of time in Arizona during the semester shooting some footage and interviewing these guys, and I guess as time went on, obviously the class ended and I graduated, but Jeremy and I were still interested, so we went down and finished the film, “Walking the Line,” we had started in that class together. We really kind of built our partnership off of that film.
KF: Was this film the moment you realized you could do this as a job?
LV: For me especially. Jeremy was TV-R, but I was actually a cinema and photography major. I spent a lot of my time at Ithaca sort of doing more art-based and more experimental-type things, but really that class was the first time I started seeing this in a more professional sense. It was my introduction to documentary. It certainly bridged the gap for us into doing this more as professionals.
KF: How did you decide on the subject matter for your documentary “Good Fortune?”
LV: I had actually spent a semester in Kenya during my last semester of school. The program looked at economic development and public health. Something always interested me about it independently. That’s actually what appealed to me about the program at Ithaca, because outside of my major I got quite a bit of freedom to explore other things. I got interested in the impact of globalization that I saw happening in Kenya. I had gone to western Kenya to do research on the fishing industry there — the global implications and the way the various development efforts had impacted the fishing industry. So I applied for Fulbright to go back and work on a film about it, but in the process another film came out that was very similar, so instead of trying to walk in the shadow and remake that film, I ended up travelling around Kenya, visiting different development projects and looking at the impact of Western intervention in Kenya. In an aid context, we looked at various economic development projects and shot four of them, then narrowed the film down to two. They provided interesting context, an interesting comparison, for such different approaches to aid.
KF: Did you set out with a goal of spreading awareness?
LV: When we really started shooting it there was this huge wave of enthusiasm and public awareness about sending aid to Africa. The Live Eight concerts were in full swing, the One Campaign — it was encouraging there were a lot of people talking about the importance of sending aid to Africa. But, there was very little being said about how to do it and how to do it effectively. I had seen firsthand as a student there, most aid is not distributed effectively despite fact we were pumping billions, in fact, trillions, of dollars into Africa, very little of it was having a very strong impact. It seemed like a very valid conversation to have. I went with a pretty critical view, but I had actually anticipated that one or two of the groups would end up having a positive effect. I didn’t set out to damn the development industry, it just sort of worked out that way. Our guiding principle was that we were really going to focus on these two people, and it was all about them. Early on I didn’t want to have any outside voice in it, I wasn’t anticipating I would interview the company or the UN at all. At the end of the day it was valuable context to see the two sides. In following these two people, what was convenient or interesting for us that their stories so closely paralleled each other and the results were similar.
KF: The two of you worked almost exclusively on this film. Did you ever worry that you were too close to the subject to make edits or be objective?
LV: It was damn near impossible. It was really just Jeremy and I putting this together. There’s a reason it took us four years to finish it. You’re so incredibly close to it, and it was really hard to gain any kind of distance. We never had any kind of substantial budget to really bring in outside editors, it being our first film, and we had really high expectations, so we ended up with tons of iterations. It really was just the two of us the entire time and a tremendous amount of work.
KF: Would you say that current documentarians have to serve as a jack-of-all-trades in their work in that case?
LV: Absolutely. There’s so much competition out there, so little market, so little money available, there’s so few slots on television, so few films that really break through to find widespread audiences, it’s more than being an artist, being a filmmaker: every film is essentially like starting its own business. You have to understand how to market yourself and navigate the world to put together what little bits of money you can. We were incredibly fortunate to raise a lot of independent funding which enabled us to tell the story in the way we wanted to tell it. That’s a real rarity, and something we made a lot of sacrifices to be able to do.
KF: What was it like to get the news you had won an Emmy award?
LV: Surreal is about the only way I can put it. I spent the last six months working on another project, and the day after I got back I was not feeling well — I was incredibly jet lagged. I woke up, grabbed my laptop to catch up on some emails, and saw an email from the director of “POV,” the series on PBS that broadcast the film, saying we had been nominated for an Emmy. I remember kind of glancing at it and not really paying a lot of attention to it. They had submitted our film to a number of different awards, and we had gotten recognition from smaller organizations, so for some reason in my head I had decided it was not the Emmys the way we think of them, but some sort of other brand of Emmys or something like that that wasn’t as significant. Then I read the email six times and got pretty excited. There have been so many incredible things to happen in this project. Every time we would get a small grant, or recognition from anyone, certainly the fact that it was broadcast at all was so incredible for us, and an incredible validation of the work that we’ve been doing. It’s a relief that it’s getting out there, that all of our work and sacrifice wasn’t in vain. This is beyond our wildest dreams as far as what we hoped for the film. Even being nominated, and winning the award, it was very surreal.
KF: What is the next project you’re working on?
I’m working on finishing up one of the other stories that was shot for this film — trying to get that out there as a short film as a secondary follow up project. We have various other things trying to get off the ground now, we have really launched a company. We’re lucky we’ve been able to keep the paid work we do, in working for a lot of non-profits and projects like that. Most of our time is spent trying to make a living, but our goal was always to refocus and start another bigger project. Hopefully with winning this award, we will have the opportunities to do those things. Jeremy is also working on series of films right now looking at the way that climate change is effecting various communities around the world.
KF: Do you have any advice for filmmakers?
LV: I can’t definitely say that I have all of the answers, but what I can say about the way we’ve gotten here is being proactive and kind of going out and making films. I got an entry-level job out of college at Sundance, but it didn’t feel like type of work I wanted to be doing so much to the dismay of my parents, I quit that job went to Kenya to start working on this. It takes those bold steps, it takes a lot of sacrifice and a lot of persistence to go and do the things that will get you to where you want to be. Go do what you want to do. People say work towards that, use jobs as a stepping stone to get to where they want to be, but we found if you can set out and just do it, you can get there a lot faster if you’re willing to put in the work and make the sacrifice.