Alexandria Bombach: Poignant and Pressing Documentary Filmmaking
Words by Gillian Coyne
About the Filmmaker
Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, Alexandria Bombach is an award-winning director, cinematographer, editor, and producer of documentary films. Contrary to most filmmakers, Bombach actually studied business at a liberal arts school in Colorado called Fort Lewis College. Graduating in 2008, Bombach edged away from business and leaned into her personal passion for film by learning how to do video production for smaller projects like weddings or outdoor gear promotional material. This tenacity and sense of adventure that Bombach showed right off the bat from her entry into the professional world has continued throughout her career, as she has taken on more rigorous, compelling, and global projects.
The combination of that business degree, love of film, and undeterred ambition to forge her own path led Bombach to establish her production company Red Reel in 2009. In the same way Bombach weaves stories that draw audiences into her subjects, Red Reel focuses on producing character-driven stories…that also go on to win major awards. Red Reel’s films have gone on to win festival awards, Emmys, and numerous other accolades from both the communities being featured and filmmaking institutions.
Red Reel’s first film – and Bombach’s directorial debut – was 23 Feet (2010). Using an Airstream that was 23 feet long, Bombach and her team of two other women travelled the U.S. filming the lives of people who have chosen to live relatively off the grid in vans, buses and the likes. The film shows what it means, and what the trade-offs are, to giving everything to follow your love of the outdoors. To screen the film, Bombach and her team would set up camp and screen the film right from their Airstream for crowds of anywhere from 30 to 300 people, she said in an interview with Medium.
Since 2010, Bombach has lived nomadically, pursuing filmmaking projects that have taken her on adventures all over the world. She has spent significant time in Afghanistan working on the New York Times Op-Doc Afghanistan by Choice (2016), with the support of the Pulitzer Center, and on her own feature documentary Frame by Frame (2015). According to her bio, a friend once told her “you’re a filmmaker like Indiana Jones is a professor”. To say Bombach has a sense of adventure would be putting it mildly, but it is important to note that her travelling and search for compelling stories to tell do not by any means sacrifice the profound connection she establishes with her subjects.
In each of her projects, Bombach achieves intimacy without intrusion, exposure without spectacle of trauma. In what has become a directorial marker, Bombach interviews her subjects in a simple yet effective style in both her feature-length documentaries. Sitting on a simple stool with a black backdrop, the subjects of her documentaries are given the chance to fill in the gaps from what might be missing on film. In this sense, Bombach deviates from the golden rule of “show, don’t tell”, but in a way that allows her to donner la parole to the people whose stories she ultimately becomes a televisual vessel for. Bombach giving the stage to her subjects allows for a more intimate connection between them and the audience; by removing herself in a sense, Bombach has rendered her work exponentially more effective.
Frame by Frame
In 2015 Alexandria Bombach’s first feature-length film Frame by Frame premiered at SXSW, kicking off the film and the filmmaker’s international festival successes. During the festival circuit, the film received over 25 awards and even screened for Ashraf Ghani the president of Afghanistan. For Bombach, it was the start of a numerous accolades that her films – both short and feature-length – have acquired at festivals over the years.
The film itself follows four photojournalists in Afghanistan who are at the forefront of the rebirth of free press in the wake of the Taliban’s occupation. Navigating the myriad complexities from sexism and homophobia to religious beliefs in a post-extremist atmosphere, the photojournalists are trying to build a mediascape that both preserves and reinvents certain facets of the country.
I first saw Frame by Frame at university in Maine during my first year when Bombach came for a special screening and Q&A event. Besides being blown away by the poignancy of the narratives and the vibrant cinematography, I was super impressed by the way Bombach answered an audience question about how to respectfully depict the culture of another place as an outsider coming in from a radically different context. Bombach replied that for this project in particular, she wanted to avoid any establishing shots of a minaret. She said something along the lines of (not verbatim, just paraphrasing): “I’m sick of filmmakers using a shot of a minaret or having the call to prayer over a dusty city set the tone for the entire film”. If you think about it, that’s exactly what Hollywood does, plus a little colour corrector to give any developing country a warmer tone. There is a way to capture Afghanistan and all its history, culture, vibrancy, contradictions, and diversity without relying on a televisual trope to indicate religiosity or radicalism. The intention behind the way Bombach shoots her films and weaves her narratives is integral to not only the audience’s experience of the screening, but also the audience’s emotional connection to the material.
On Her Shoulders
Three years after her feature-length debut, Bombach took the festival circuit by storm yet again with her second feature-length documentary On Her Shoulders (2018). Over the course of its international screenings, the film won 11 awards and garnered another 15 nominations. Bombach herself won the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
At the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF), the film won the Harrell Award for Best Documentary Feature, with the jury reasoning:
“For using an intimate but respectful gaze to convey suffering through subtle gestures and the use of silence. The film captures the weight of bearing witness by allowing the protagonist to speak for herself. On Her Shoulders transforms a traumatic personal experience into a realization of horrifying and memorable collective responsibility”.
This explanation from the CIFF awards committee hits on the exact and recurring methodology Bombach employs with her films. By turning the platform over to Nadia Murad, Bombach gives the human rights activist and genocide survivor a chance to answer the questions she wishes the Western media would ask her. By bearing witness to Nadia’s experience, but more importantly, to her call on the global community for help on behalf of her Yazidi community, the audience is now culpable, responsible even, for the action/inaction to this testament.
Shortly after the film’s release, Nadia Murad won the Nobel Peace Prize 2018 alongside Denis Mukwege for “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict”. The work, however, does not end there, even if the film’s festival tour did.
Since 2018, Bombach has been working as an editing and cinematography consultant for documentaries and features alike. Additionally, she has been working as the director, editor, and cinematographer (as per her triple threat modus operandi) on a new documentary that is currently in post-production. My recommendation would be to keep an eye out for it, because if it’s anything like her last two feature-length documentaries, Bombach’s film will change the world through honest, intimate, and frankly humbled, compelling storytelling.
On Her Shoulders (2018) is available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, iTunes and Apple TV, Fandango, YouTube, Xbox, and Vimeo. Watch the trailer now!
Frame by Frame (2015) is available to watch on iTunes and Apple TV. Watch the trailer below!
The author of this post is Miss En Scene Guest Blog Writer Gillian Coyne. She is a master's student in Film Studies in London. Gillian focuses her writing and research on film festivals and issues of representation in film programming. A New Yorker born and raised, she is almost always on the go, but remains an avid supporter of local café culture and a recreational film photographer, no matter where she is.