My credo in life is, you don’t ask, you don’t get. — Ric Esther Bienstock
Ric Esther Bienstock is an Emmy Award-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker. She’s a widely acclaimed director whose work often veers into dark and dangerous territory in search of the truth of the human condition. Bienstock’s film subjects range from Eastern European sex traffickers to illegal organ traders to people on the ground in the middle of an Ebola epidemic.
Her films often inspire the question: “How did you do that?”
In 1996, her documentary, Ebola: Inside an Outbreak, about the last major Ebola epidemic, which took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly known as Zaire), gave people an unprecedented look into the heart of the epidemic as it unfolded. The film won several awards including the Alfred I. Dupont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism and Best Science Documentary at both the Hot Docs International Film Festival and the Gemini Awards, reflecting the effect of her storytelling on the world’s understanding of the disease and its impacts.
A lot of her films reveal an incredible amount of access to people and situations it would seem impossible to enter with a film crew, and yet she accomplishes it time and time again.
At a keynote talk at the 2015 Ryerson Doc Now Documentary Media Festival in Toronto, she explains that the secret to her success is simply connecting with people on a human level and asking for what she needs.
“For my work, it’s about human connection, and capturing the ordinary.” — Ric Esther Bienstock
One of the things she credits with her ongoing success as a documentary filmmaker is establishing relationships and trust early with her subjects and with people who can ease her way while doing research or preliminary shooting.
She tells a story of going to set up preliminary filming in one of several countries in Africa she has worked in, and being stuck at an airport for hours while the immigration official attempts to solicit a bribe out of her, in the way many other passengers do while she waits. Eventually, she asks him if she can go to her hotel and freshen up, and then have him meet her for dinner there instead. He agrees, and she ends up spending hours getting to know about him, his family and the life he leads. In that moment, she says, he went from being a corrupt official to being a family man dealing with a corrupt system the best way he knows how. After that evening he became her best resource and paved the way for her and her film crew, and refused to take a single cent for any of it.
“We all judge people by the roles they represent,” she says. “It’s not how different they are that makes them interesting, but the similarities.”
The most basic element that she finds has led to repeated success as a filmmaker is simply asking for what she wants — whether it’s funding from investors, or pitching ideas to broadcasters, or seeking subjects for a film.
Rejection is common, she admits, but the key thing is to simply keep asking for what you want until you get it.
“Don’t get frustrated, don’t take anything personally. Develop a thick skin, and stay in the game.”
Bienstock film is no ordinary documentary
Image Credit: cinemapolitica.org