It is not enough to listen; you need to hear people. Listening is a real skill, and it is imperative in documentary filmmaking (and in life). But you also need to make sure you are hearing people — it is not just about their words, it’s about the intention and need behind it.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kahane Cooperman, and John Hoffman directors and producers of the new documentary The Antidote.
Kahane Cooperman (Director, Producer) is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and television producer/director. Her documentary, Joe’s Violin (PBS), was nominated for a 2016 Academy Award. For 18 years, she had an integral role on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where she was co-executive producer from 2005–2015, and she received eleven Emmy awards and three Peabody awards.
John Hoffman (Director, Producer) is a six-time Emmy award-winning filmmaker, whose most recent films include Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, and Out of Many, One, which premiered at the New York Film Festival, followed by Netflix in 2018. Much of John’s work as a filmmaker has focused on the key health issues of our time, including The Weight of the Nation (HBO), Addiction (HBO), The Alzheimer’s Project (HBO), and First in Human (Discovery) — a 6-hour series set in the world’s largest research hospital, the NIH’s Building 10. John has also been a network executive, he was the Executive Vice President of Documentaries & Specials for Discovery from 2015 to 2018, after nearly two decades as Vice President of Documentary Programming at HBO.https://content.thriveglobal.com/media/bdc88fca565b9629d8c62156dfb7a9f2
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
As a Cornell biochemistry major, I was destined to become a documentary filmmaker. Actually, it was in my last month of college that I made my first film. It was for an anthropology elective. The final assignment was to do a portrait of someone living in Ithaca and I made a short documentary about a violin maker who happened to be the husband of the cook in the restaurant where I was working. The dishwasher in that same kitchen, Tim Squyres, taught me how to edit the film. That was it, I was hooked. A month later I was starting my life in New York City and finding my way onto any kind of production. My first real break was as the production manager on the NBC series, REAL PEOPLE, produced by George Schlatter, the man behind the LAUGH IN. Oh, and that dishwasher? He went on to edit some of Hollywood’s most successful films and has twice been nominated for the Academy Award. Go Tim!
I was fortunate enough to have one of those incredibly influential teachers in college. I was taking a modern drama class freshman year. Naively, I had never given any thought at all about what goes into a stage production beyond the performances of the actors saying the words of the playwright. This professor, Frank Kinahan, opened my eyes in a profound way to all the creative choices and decisions that are being made to bring a play to life — it was truly a revelation to me. Lighting, props, sounds, sets, costumes, blocking. It changed the trajectory of my life. I started working in theater and soon was looking at films in a whole new way as well. Ultimately, the film bug is what took hold and I went on to study filmmaking in graduate school — thinking I would write and direct narrative scripts only to discover that nothing compelled me more than the stories of real people and non-fiction storytelling.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
I was a producer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for 18 years so professionally, most of the comedic moments happened there — but for me, documentary filmmaking has been a source of a vast multitude of interesting experiences. With The Antidote, spending time with a 103 year old woman — a newly-arrived Congolese refugee who arrived in Anchorage, Alaska from a Rwandan refugee camp was one of the more incredible experiences I’ve ever had. There we were with almost nothing in common — her eyesight is extremely poor, we don’t speak the same language, our lives couldn’t be more different — but I felt so close to her and so welcomed by her. We held hands, hugged, and gave kisses on the cheek — I felt very connected to her. What a gift.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
A lot of my films have been about complex health problems faced by millions of Americans and their families, including obesity, addiction, Alzheimer’s, and sleep loss. Whether for HBO, National Geographic or Discovery, these films were all made in partnership with the National Institutes of Health. I value that partnership more than anything in my career. It has brought me into the nation’s most important research laboratories and given me the chance to get to know the best and the brightest of medical research in the United States.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am working on a non-fiction series about mental health for AppleTV+ — there is truly a global crisis around this topic, and we are hoping this series moves the needle on the conversation and helps reduce the stigma.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Hands down, the founding fathers of this country occupy that space for me. Their bold, brilliant insight that true democracy can only be based on the rule of law, rather than monarchy or church, is one of the most revolutionary acts in world history. In that past months we have seen the rule of law be tested in ways I never thought could happen in America. So far, the rule of law still seems inviolable and now that the election’s over, I am confident I won’t ever live under a king, queen or religious leader.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Social impact was always a huge part of our plan with The Antidote — our aim with the film was to drive a national conversation about the role of kindness and decency in a civil democracy — our dream was for the film to be watched in community with others and have in-person conversations across the country in-person. The pandemic changed things, but we have still been able to have deeply meaningful discussions with large groups of people via zoom. We also have a robust website that makes it easy for people to get involved in their own communities — as well as see short films and learn more about specific organizations featured in The Antidote, www.TheAntidoteMovie.com.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
If kindness, decency and the power of community is the cause you’re asking about, as expressed in our new film, THE ANTIDOTE, then it was the hate-filled march in Charlottesville in 2018 which galvanized us more than anything. The ugliness of that march and its aftermath compelled us to aim our lenses at citizens and institutions who work tirelessly and selflessly against the forces of unkindness in this country. THE ANTIDOTE is about Americans who lift others up in the face of racism, sexism and homophobia, homelessness, lack of access to healthcare and poverty.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I received a beautiful email from a gardening teacher at The Center for Discovery, which is featured in our film. She was so inspired by The Antidote, specifically the story of Amarillo College, that she took her small inheritance from her mom (who had immigrated here from Poland) and called a school where she taught in the past to set up a scholarship for single mothers who want to earn a college degree. Talk about a ripple effect!
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
- Be kind
- Be decent
- Be a force for good in your community
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Moments of silence during interviews are not only fine but also lead to very revealing moments.My instinct is to make people feel very comfortable and so I tend to fill up awkward pauses with my own thoughts. I had to learn to ride it out. Sometimes, people just need a moment to gather their thoughts.
- Show, don’t tell. Film is a visual medium and it’s almost always the stronger choice to show something happening instead of explaining it.
- Put in the time to develop trust with your subject. With documentaries, trust is EVERYTHING. Ideally, you can develop a relationship with your subject well before the camera ever starts rolling.
- It is not enough to listen; you need to hear people. Listening is a real skill, and it is imperative in documentary filmmaking (and in life). But you also need to make sure you are hearing people — it is not just about their words, it’s about the intention and need behind it.
- Always have a protein bar in your bag! As a filmmaker the days can be extremely long and packed. You might be jetlagged or have to eat on someone else’s schedule — but you always need to be on top of it — so have your own fuel source just in case!
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Charles Darwin, the father of evolution and natural selection, published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859 and it soon became a global phenomenon. One of the most misappropriated and abused phrases in the history of science comes from this book. Herbert Spencer, a political philosopher of the same period took “survival of the fittest” to mean a legitimate basis for monarchic rule, economic dominance of the ruling class and racism. To Darwin’s horror, Spencer’s philosophical justification for dominance of a few over many swept Europe and the United States. In Darwin’s final work, “The Descent of Man,” which is about human evolution, Darwin posits that it is man’s unique ability to cooperate with our own species and not just think about our own survival which enabled us to evolve into the highly intelligent species we are. He coined this, “survival of the kindest.”
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Oh man, where do I start? There are so many people doing incredible impact work out there. Lately, I have been especially inspired by the life and work of Jane Elliott and would love to explore that in a feature documentary film. She has been making impact since April 5, 1968 as a diversity educator and anti-racism activist.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
Who hasn’t been handed a lemon, or two or maybe countless lemons? If only the lemonade solution was that easy. Yes, I have had some doozies, but I’ve come to trust that sleep and a long walk invariably start me on my way to solving my problems. That and the greatest problem solver of all, collaboration.
How can our readers follow you online?
More importantly people should follow the film!
FB: The Antidote Movie
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!