“MADAGASIKARA”: Interview with Filmmaker Cam Cowan

“Madagasikara” is a documentary by filmmaker Cam Cowan who decided that the story of the people of Madagascar needed to be told.

“Madagasikara” is a new movie by filmmaker and former attorney Cam Cowan who became interested in filmmaking when he decided the story of the people of Madagascar needed to be told. The result? An award-winning documentary, now available on VOD, titled “Madagasikara.” He recently discussed this movie and more via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM):  I’d like to congratulate you on not only the film – but the awareness you’re bringing to the people of Madagasikara. What was the motivation, initially, for you to do this production?

Cam Cowan (CC): Thank you so much, Meagan. I attended a human rights presentation by law school students about Madagascar. I knew nothing about the country, other than some basic information about lemurs, and was stunned by what I heard. Why did I not know about the real Madagascar and how did it become one of the world’s poorest countries? The more I researched, the more alarmed I became, including about the role domestic and international politics played in the country’s growing poverty. I soon developed a passion for bringing a story about the real Madagascar to the West.

MM: When was the first time you visited there?

CC: My first trip to Madagascar was in June 2014. As part of my research, I wanted to visit different parts of this vast island to better understand its social, economic and political structures and to try and meet people who might help me with production. Like most who visit Madagascar for the first time, outside the exclusive coastal resort enclaves, I was struck by the widespread extreme poverty. However, I was also captivated by the warmth of the Malagasy people and, particularly, the strength and determination of the women.

MM: I imagine you had several ideas after visiting, seeing there’s so many stories there, but had to settle on one main subject?

CC: Right. I knew I wanted to tell the political story, which would be developed by interviews with experts and archival footage. I also knew from the beginning that I wanted to follow the lives of real Malagasy people, so that viewers of the film would be able to understand, at a human level, the true nature of their struggle and courage as they are acted upon by politicians, domestic and foreign. So, yes, there were many political stories between 1960, when the country gained its independence from France, and today; and there were many, many stories about individual women and their families struggling to survive. It wasn’t until we were in the editing room that we narrowed our focus to the major political story in 2009 and the three women in the film.

MM: What are you hoping audiences learn from the film?

CC: We hope that audiences will see and remember the devastating effect that universal sanctions imposed by the U.S. and other nations had on a population of about 25 million, one-half of whom were children and where one-half of the children were grossly malnourished. And we hope viewers might begin to ask questions.  re such sanctions necessary? Were they warranted? In the context of that country, did the international community commit a human rights violation by imposing those sanctions? And when the inevitable unconstitutional change of government happens again, what should be the reaction of the international community this time? We also very much hope that audiences will see the fortitude and perseverance of the people of Madagascar and begin to focus on them as a population worthy of our attention and compassion.

MM: How hard was it to cut the documentary down? Was much left on the cutting room floor?

CC: Oh, yeah, so painful, right to the very end. It is an 84-minute feature, but I loved the 120-minute rough cut. Loved it. There was more depth to the political story, and we featured 4 women, not just 3, and their families. But we knew it was way too long and had to end up somewhere between 82 and 85 minutes. Tiffany, my lead editor, and I decided to bring in a consulting editor to help us make the tough decisions. That worked out very well. I will say, though, that I watch the rough cut now and again and play with the idea of creating a longer “director’s cut” someday, even if only for friends and family.

MM: I believe I read that it took three years to get the film done?

CC: After a year of research, we had three years of production, with filming during frequent month-long trips to Madagascar. We knew it would be a multi-year production because we were following the lives of the women in the film. We were editing for about two years, but that overlapped with production. Tiffany was also my co-producer, so our production and editing often alternated. In total, the film took over four years to complete.

MM: Where did you first screen it?

CC: Interestingly, we won our first award at the Scandinavian International Film Festival in Helsinki before our first screening at the Awareness Film Festival in L.A. The Helsinki festival was our second screening, but they announced the jury awards in advance that year. So, we won an award before our first screening, which was strange and exciting. That award was for best feature documentary, and then we won for best cinematography at the L.A. festival, where I watched the film in a real movie theatre for the first time. It was a big screen with big sound. Because we made the movie for that kind of viewing experience, we were very fortunate and truly grateful to the festival.

MM: How rewarding was it snaring all those awards on the festival circuit?

CC: This is a wonderful question because it reveals something that I’m sure many indie filmmakers struggle with. We wanted to make a quality film we believed in, that reflected our passion for the production.  But our goal was to get as many eyeballs on the film as possible – to raise awareness about the real Madagascar. To do that, the film needed to be accepted at good festivals and it had to win awards. The sales agents I first talked with were not interested in helping.  After we began to rack up the awards, though, the phone started ringing (well, actually, the emails started coming in). We ended up with a sales agent who helped us connect with Global Digital Releasing, and they really believed in the film and have been wonderful to work with. So, yes, the awards were rewarding as confirmation of our efforts, but more importantly, they were necessary to bring the film to the public, which will now happen on June 26 in our debut through Amazon Prime and Docurama.

MM: Do you feel it’s an even more appropriate time to release the film now?

CC: I do. Definitely. The pandemic has painfully revealed the stark reality of global wealth inequality and its consequences. The World Bank estimates that 40 to 60 million people could fall into extreme poverty (living on less than $1.90/day) in 2020 as a result of the pandemic. And we know that those most likely to suffer and die from COVID-19 are the economically marginalized. Madagascar is the only non-conflict country in the world that is poorer today than it was in 1960. It is quite possible they will be joined by other developing countries this year or next because of the global economic dislocation. But we also see in developed countries such as ours what it means to be living on the economic edge when a major disruptive event occurs. Most of us are not immune to poverty. “MADAGASIKARA” at its core is a film about human resilience in the face of violent poverty, and it is a film, I believe, in which we can witness extraordinary strength in the worst of times and know that we are not alone.

MM: How are you keeping busy during the coronavirus outbreak?

CC: We finished our second feature film, “OPEKA”, late last year and started the film festival circuit earlier this year. Our world premiere at the Beverly Hills Film Festival was postponed because of the pandemic, but fortunately we were also accepted at the Brooklyn Film Festival, which went online this year, like many other festivals which will screen this film over the next few months. So, the virtual festivals have kept us engaged. I also started developing a project last year and thought I was going to start filming about now. That isn’t happening, but the silver-lining I guess is that I have more time to build it out and plan the production. I would give all of that up in a heartbeat, though, to be able to hug friends again.