The Art of Documentary Making with Noam Argov

Nikita Raja

This week we sat down with Noam Argov (Director & Producer), who was featured at WIM’s edition of the HollyShorts film festival for her upcoming short documentary,“My Dear Kyrgyzstan”.  Learn more about her short film and her approach to international documentary filmmaking in this Q&A:


What is your process when preparing for a film?

Like most doc filmmakers I’m a total research nerd so I spend a large amount of time learning about the topic of my documentary. I was one of those weird people who loved writing 20 page papers in college. I love scientists, journalists, anthropologists, psychologists so one of my favorite parts of the process is talking to the people who know way more than I do, uncovering all of the perspectives and complexities of the story. Since most of my projects so far have been international, I also like to spend time in the country and with my subjects while we’re still in development. I want the story to feel like it’s coming from the perspective of the subjects I’m shooting and have their voice in the piece so I like to spend time without the camera just getting to know the people who are bringing me into their lives. I also spend a lot of time trying to understand the themes I think the film is about. It’s early for that in the prep stage and of course I’m open to change, but I’m a big picture person and it helps keep my projects grounded if I have human themes I’m interested in exploring from the outset.

Finally, I spend a good amount of time thinking about safety for my team, my subjects and myself. Many of the topics I’m interested in are very tense in nature, so I spend time exploring possible risk factors and trying to mitigate or just prepare for them. I feel a huge responsibility for everyone. Telling your own story can often be a life-risking endeavor and I always want to make sure that my subjects aren’t losing their livelihoods or even lives for the film.

Who have you been inspired by in your career (visual artists, directors etc) ? 

I really look up to director Alma Har’el (“Honeyboy”, “Bombay Beach”) for the honesty that comes through each story she tells and for her willingness to take risks in her work. I’ve also been inspired by one of my mentors – producer Michele Turnure Salleo (“The Sound of Silence”, “Before You Know It”, and many more) – for her incredible sense for good storytelling, and because she pushed me to write my first narrative script last year. She’s always motivating me, to tell the stories I’m most afraid of diving into and that is definitely inspiring. I also really respect Matthew Heineman (“Cartel Land”, “City of Ghosts”) for his bravery and incredible dedication to any subject he’s shooting. Visually I draw a lot of inspiration from photography as well. I’m a big fan of William Eggleston for his commitment to shooting EVERYTHING. He once famously said, “I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around, that nothing was more important or less important.” I am also inspired by Gregory Crewdson for his commitment to setting up shots meticulously, and Taryn Simon for her extremely cerebral and well researched social commentary pieces.

Tell us about “My Dear Kyrgyzstan”:

“My Dear Kyrgyzstan” is my latest documentary short that I produced and directed along with co-director Alex Pritz. It tells the story of a Kyrgyz man named Emil who takes it upon himself to transform his abandoned Soviet mining village into an international tourism destination.

I first learned about Emil when I was traveling to some of the Silk Road countries in 2015. I heard stories from locals of a mythical man who was trying to put a small mountain village in Kyrgyzstan on the map, bending over backwards to convince tourists to vacation in one of the most remote places on earth. Since I barely saw any tourists across 4 countries in Central Asia when I was first there, I was fascinated by Emil’s mission to expose his small mountain village to the modern world. In making this film, I’ve since been back to Kyrgyzstan 5 times and have really seen it blow up in the skier / mountain biker / backpacker scene. In the last few years, we’ve also seen Emil’s popularity explode…let’s just say he has way more Instagram followers than our entire production crew combined. If we travel, usually we only see places as the tourists we are. Alex and I wanted to provide a more nuanced look into how remote and unknown areas suddenly become the next Bali, Indonesia or Aspen, Colorado.

We recently had a pre-festival screening of our film thanks to Women in Media and HollyShorts at LA’s iconic TCL Chinese Theater. We’ll be having our official festival world premiere at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on February 18. To see if we’re coming to a festival near you,  check out our website – https://mydearkyrgyzstan.com.

This year’s Sundance press was heavily focused around inclusion & diversity. From Mindy Kaling’s “Late Night” to Minhal Baig’s  “Hala”. What are you most excited about next for women in the film & TV space? 

I’m honestly most excited about how much work generations of female filmmakers before me have done so that I can even be excited about my career in film. At Sundance 2019, I attended an amazing panel with Nisha Ganatra (“Late Night”) and Desiree Akhavan (“The Miseducation of Cameron Post”, “Appropriate Behaviour”) and it made me realize how hard women who have been in the industry longer have fought, and are fighting for my seat at the table. And how their films (made or unmade) have been pushing the boundaries slowly so that I can come on to the scene with confidence and optimism. And I am truly optimistic because I feel like my generation (both women and our male allies in the industry) is really set on changing the rules of the game for more gender parity. My personal experience has been that there is a strong cohort of men my age coming up in the industry who are very inclusive and collaborative, and that women in my generation are able to hire each other more and more. We’ve still got a way to go and a lot of work to do, but that does give me hope…for what’s going to get financed and distributed in the future.

And on that note, at Sundance this year I was excited to see films by and about women that didn’t center on more previously classic “feminine” themes like love, jealousy, etc. Obviously these are important human experiences, but I’m excited that we’re seeing more female stories that span every aspect of what it simply means to be a person – family, sexuality, career, identity, culture. It finally felt like women were just being seen as people.

Who or what got you into film?

I wish I had a more direct answer or a decisive moment, but it’s just one of those things that feels like it’s always been a part of my DNA, even before I realized it. I’m an immigrant and grew up poor in the US so I always felt this insane fear surrounding money, and a heavy pressure to have a stable and clear job. Filmmaking felt like the opposite of that. And more generally, working in arts and media felt like it was reserved for a very specific class of Americans that I didn’t belong to (another reason why representation is important). 

But even though I avoided filmmaking for years, there were threads of my love for it throughout my life. As a kid I was obsessed with Disney movies and I pioneered my own version of the binge-watch when it was just 5 year-old me popping VHS after VHS into the player. I was always a performer and loved to invent little characters and worlds for myself.I had this character Parika (a singer and CEO) who I would embody by putting two oranges in my shirt (for breasts), taking my dad’s briefcase and bossing people around the living room. Even as a pre-teen I’d make little mini series and music videos with my childhood best friend (who is unsurprisingly now an amazing film editor). 

As I grew up, however, I somehow lost my true north and went into other industries for a while. Following your passion is definitely a privilege, and I was terrified. But after trying out a string of what I deemed to be more “practical” career options, I decided I had to make my first love of filmmaking work. So I set a test for myself: I would make a short film completely by myself and if I could do it, then I’d just keep going from there. It was the most painful experience of my working life, but I was also the happiest I’d ever been. The following year I ended up making three short films and I haven’t looked back since! I didn’t go to film school and I wasn’t writing scripts when I was ten, but the hustle is real. And I can tell you that when I finally committed to filmmaking full time, it was like coming home.

What are your preferred technicals (camera/editing software/etc)?

So far I’ve been directing and producing verite docs so our cameras of choice have been the Sony FS5 and FS7, though I’ve also used the Canon C300. On “My Dear Kyrgyzstan” we used the FS5 for the verite moments and FS7 for more stylized shots. Stylistically, we wanted verite to drive the story, but a more cinematic feel on the landscape that would give the audience moments of pause and reflection. We went with handheld on the interviews and action, while we used the tripod and drone (DJI Phantom 4) for the landscape shots. When we did use the drone, however, or goal was to NOT make it look like a drone.

Looking ahead to future doc projects, I like the FS7 as primary camera because it can be built up with sound equipment and accessories or packed down to the bare necessities, making it perfect for run and gun, intimate verite scenes, or cinematic landscapes. Because of the topics and locations I usually cover – remote and often tense – we try to use gear that will make us as unobtrusive as possible and won’t call attention. Usually we are deeply immersed in people’s lives, so if our subject can forget about the gear then we’ve done our jobs.

Lenses are so specific and really depend on the look we want in each project and shot. For editing, my go-to is Adobe Premiere.

What’s something most people don’t know about you? (Something unique or unusual)

My first dream career when I was a kid was to be a waitress. Waitresses always looked like dancers to me, and I liked seeing the excitement on customers’ faces when their hot food approached the table. 

What’s next for you? Can you share any upcoming projects?

This year I’m producing a feature documentary in the Brazilian Amazon.

I’ve also been flexing my muscles as a writer lately and venturing into directing/producing in the narrative world! I’m in development on an animated short that involves a talking uterus, and I’ve got a few feature scripts in the works. While I love documentaries, it’s been empowering to have the flexibility of using narrative to tell stories based on real events. I’ve always liked the concept of “story truth” – the emotional truth that arises from a fictional retelling of a story – and narrative allows me to play with that.