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Catching up with filmmaker Alex Gibney

Alex Gibney - director of The Armstrong Lie documentaryKFTV caught up this week with Academy Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, who was in London to promote his latest documentary film The Armstrong Lie at the 57th BFI London Film Festival.

The Armstrong Lie offers an intimate portrait of the cyclist who has captivated audiences both during his multiple wins and multiple losses. Initially setting out to make a documentary about Armstrong’s comeback, Gibney had to leave the film for what it was after the sportsman’s controversial loss – first of the tour and later his fall from grace. But nothing had prepared the filmmaker for what was about to happen a few years later, when Armstrong picked up the phone and said he was willing to own up to his mistakes. Finally, would the audience get to hear the truth about the seven-time Tour de France winner?

After packed-out screenings at the festival and positive reviews from press and public alike it is interesting to hear the director’s own take on his work, but unfortunately Gibney is a little reluctant to cloud our minds with his personal views. “I think it is okay for people to feel different things at different moments in the film. I’m reluctant to say it means exactly this or that.

“In a way I think the weakest part of this film is also his strength. At the end of the day we just don’t know if Armstrong is telling us the truth and that is what the film is effectively about, that doubt. So what makes the film is, in effect, its weakness. It’s a meditation on what it means to have doubts, and to lie.”

Last year it was also Gibney who won the Grierson award at the very same BFI London Film Festival with a fierce exposé of child abuse within the Catholic Church, entitled Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. The truth was laid bare in that film with a rawness that knew no boundaries - and was long overdue.

Though the two stories could not be more different, it is clear that an immense amount of trust was needed to produce both films. The fact that Armstrong opened up on camera to a mere two people; Oprah Winfrey and Gibney, is pretty impressive evidence of this. So how, do we ask, does a filmmaker like himself built up this type of trust between director and subject?

“It doesn’t always happen, Julian Assange didn’t want to speak to me [the main subject of his previous documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks]. I think it is about making people feel that you will treat their testimony with respect, that you will listen to them and present what they say in a way that is not dishonest. It is getting people in your chair that very first time, persuading people that you can be trusted. Once they get in that chair everybody wants to tell their story.

But Armstrong seems to behave differently, more calculated perhaps, as Gibney explains: “I think Lance is holding back and I don’t know why. Part of it may be legal – he is facing a lot of lawsuits, some of which could cost him $100m. But it might also be that once you have lied for such a long time it is hard to admit all of the lies all at once. It takes time, for example, for Floyd [Landis, who was also caught with doping] it took a number of years before he could be honest enough to open up and tell the world what he had done.”

Does Gibney feel confident though that he left relations in such a way that he could pick the story up again when it continues – and would he even want to?

“I always like following a story if there is a reason for it, I have gone back to a number of people over the years, sometimes on camera, sometimes off camera. With Lance, I was the one who told him that it would be called The Armstrong Lie and I felt I could be honest about this. That is one of the things you need to think about. If you make a film about someone, you need to have the feeling you can look them straight in the eye and defend what it is that you have said about them on camera.”

Finally, just as the busy press ladies from the festival try to usher us away, the Academy Award-winning director (he received one in 2008 for his film Taxi to the Dark Side) gives us his three tips for documentary success.

“Firstly, know how to raise money. Secondly, if you have a story, think about telling it to someone in five minutes in such a way that they feel utterly compelled by the story. And third, make sure you embrace the contradictions of everyday life. Don’t be afraid of things that seem contradictory in people or situations because that ends up being the most rich and interesting in a documentary - nothing is simple, you need a counter voice.”

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