Fries, Dam Lies and Videotape

By Lizzie Gillett

Whether it’s McDonalds or mega-projects,documentary maker Franny Armstrong puts commitment before commercial compromise


Drowned Out

drowned-out-franny-armstrong.jpg
Drowned Out, 2002 

An Indian family choose to stay at home and drown rather than make way for the Narmada Dam. “Angry, compassionate, disturbing and yet empowering” – Time Out London.

McLibel

mclibel-franny-armstrong.jpg
McLibel, 1997 

The inside story of the postman and the gardener who took on the McDonald’s corporation. “An often hilarious exposé of big business arrogance... an extraordinary example of independent filmmaking” – Sydney Morning Herald.

Lizzie Gillett: Both McLibel and Drowned Out got turned down by commissioners across the board. What gave you the confidence and commitment to go ahead?

Franny Armstrong: If a story affects me enough to dedicate three years to it, I assume viewers will also be moved. With Drowned Out, I was surrounded by people who were about to lose their whole way of life – their homes, their ancestral land, their culture and their community. They’ve been fighting for proper compensation for 20 years but it’s now clear they’ll never get it, so they‘ve decided to drown when their land submerges. Their level of commitment is in a different stratosphere to mine and, whenever I was tired or hungry, I just remembered how easy I have it and in a small way what a unique opportunity I had to help them.

I was also getting constant reminders that there was a great film to be had; like the time Mr Vyas, one of the politicians in charge of the dam, invited me back to his mansion for tea. This is the man who’s displacing 250,000 mainly tribal people. He gave me a guided tour, on camera, proudly showing off his tribal art collection and, when I asked if he’d give up his house, he said, "if you have to sacrifice a little bit of your own to help the society, do it gladly, willingly, smilingly".

LG: Do you think your method makes for a better film?

FA: Better and worse. Having too little money and backup is obviously detrimental, but a BBC crew wouldn’t have been invited to Mr Vyas’s house as they wouldn’t have had time to build up the same rapport. Some of the villagers only came to trust me – and let me film them – after I’d lived with them on-and-off for four months. Giving the story time to develop and having space to follow lots of leads without sticking to a particular angle because of the broadcast slot are all to the good.

LG: Is distributing your films as gruelling as making them?

FA: Oh yes, but with a bit of creativity the films get out eventually. Our distributors, Journeyman Pictures, sell to terrestrial TV (McLibel was broadcast in 7 countries, but not the UK); then there’s film festivals, VHS & DVD sales, streaming on our website, cable & satellite channels and so on. Because I own the copyright I can give it away at ridiculously low prices ­­– actually I think McLibel has gone a lot further than it would have if I’d made it for the BBC or whoever. A few weeks back it went out on a satellite channel in the US called WorldLink. They paid a pittance, but another three million people watched it. And that’s what counts.


Lizzie Gillett and Franny Armstrong work at Spanner Films. For more information, copies of the films or to arrange screenings, please contact lizzie@spannerfilms.net