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By Phil Hall | June 14, 2000

To most people, the concept of alternative health practices can be defined as the use of homeopathic remedies or a visit to a naturopathic physician or an acupuncturist. To documentary filmmaker Eli Kabillio, however, alternative health practices involve treatments which seem closer in spirit to John Waters instead of Dr. Andrew Weil.
In the past three years, Kabillio has directed a trio of one hour documentaries on health regimens of a most unusual nature. “A Hole in the Head” explores trepanation, the science of drilling holes in the skull for physical and emotional therapeutic value. “A Matter of Life and Breath” focuses on Leonard Orr, a charismatic and controversial guru who espouses Rebirthing, an acute form of prolonged hyperventilation which aims to return the patient back to the birth stage while helping to cure diseases ranging from cancer to AIDS. And then there is “Urine: Good Health,” which celebrates a somewhat unlikely health elixir which is currently not for sale in any known health food store, supermarket or pharmacy.
To most people, the therapies which Kabillio’s films cover can charitably be defined as outrageous. Yet despite the sensational aspect of his subjects, Kabillio helms his films with complete and total seriousness. By avoiding the sensationalist aspects of his frequently shocking topics, the filmmaker has created intelligent and complex productions which aim for a higher denominator rarely achieved in contemporary documentaries. Not surprisingly, Kabillio’s mature approach to production (giving the audience the right to respect or reject what is being presented) has resulted in several major awards on the festival circuit, a home video distribution deal and a prime time US cable television broadcast for “A Hole in the Head.”
In addition to his documentaries, Kabillio has produced several independent dramatic features including the pan-sexual melodrama “No Ordinary Love” and the less-than-assuringly titled “Paranoia.” Film Threat recently caught up with Kabillio at his New York office to discuss his special approach to cinematic creation.
[ What inspired you to create your alternative health documentaries? And how did you avoid the very strong temptation of approaching these rather curious subjects with a tongue-in-cheek flippancy? ] ^ The inspiration for each of the documentaries was different. My business partner, Cevin Soling, came up with the idea for “A Hole In The Head” after reading an interview with Paul McCartney that mentioned the subject. It sounded like a great idea and the subject lent itself to what we want to do at our company Mad Dog Films, which is to make fun and educational documentaries on subjects generally not covered anywhere else.
“Urine: Good Health” came from years of hearing about Urine Therapy, originally from my father and then one day hearing an alternative practitioner discuss the subject. After a little bit of research, I realized how many people were using their own urine and I was on the next flight to Los Angeles to start shooting.
“A Matter of Life and Breath,” our documentary about Rebirthing, was not planned. We were interviewing Leonard Orr, the main subject of the documentary regarding the practice of Urine Therapy, and literally stumbled over his alleged “cult” and the small town religious controversy surrounding him.
In my approach to the documentaries, I purposefully avoided a dismissive approach to our subjects. I have seen short pieces on trepanation since “A Hole In The Head” was broadcast, and while they have been shocking and fun to watch there is absolutely no educational value as the discussions are one sided with the filmmaker/journalist in the paternal role of preaching the stupidity of the practice. I think that most (if not all) viewers will understand that they shouldn’t drill a hole in their head — but without respecting the subjects and interviewing top doctors to rebut the claims made in the piece, all we would be doing is creating more “shock TV” without much depth.
[ Each documentary runs approximately one hour. What was the average amount of footage shot for these one hour films, and how did you determine what made the final cut and what got jettisoned? ] ^ We average about 50 hours of original footage per one hour of final documentary. This does not include hours of stock footage and hundreds of photographs and other material used for “B” Roll. I have a lot of trust and respect for my editor, Sean Casey (“Urine: Good Health” & “A Matter of Life and Breath”) and give him a great deal of room to select his favorite material before we start to work together. We usually arrive at a first rough cut in approximately four weeks and then spend approximately twelve more to finish the picture cut.
[ Your films have won several awards on the festival circuit. What is your criteria in choosing the right festival to show your films, and how do you leverage the festival experience to further promote the films’ artistic and commercial viability? ] ^ When submitting to film festivals, the criteria differs by film. The most important issues are buyer and media attendance. Since the documentaries originated on video, we were shut out of most of the large festivals and decided to submit to festivals that would have media coverage. I try to avoid submitting to every single festival as it can get very expensive with very little return.
[ When “Urine: Good Health” was slated to run at the weekly Light+Screen Film Festival at New York’s Siberia Bar, the magazine Time Out New York noted its appearance by listing the title and adding: “We’re not even going to touch that one!” One can easily assume that this is not the sole example of queasiness regarding the subject. How have you been able to market this film without upsetting people’s sensibilities and stomachs? ] ^ The selling and marketing of “Urine: Good Health” has been very difficult. It took a while to receive a domestic distribution deal, but the documentary is now being released on home video by Beatnik Home Entertainment. The film is also being sold to alternative health sources, libraries and bookstores through Beekman Publishers. It is amazing to me that the discussion of urine in an educational setting is more upsetting than the drilling of a hole in one’s own skull, but there’s not much I can do about that except to keep promoting the film and hope the distributor can break through the initial fears.
[ Leonard Orr, the “rebirthing” guru of “A Matter of Life and Breath,” did not seem like a figure who would welcome intruders into his domain, let alone a film which would result in negative publicity for his work. How were you able to approach him to make this film and how did he interact with you during its production? And was he pleased with the final result? ] ^ Actually, I think that Leonard Orr is the perfect example of the old saying “there’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Leonard thrives on the notoriety and the attention that the documentary and the related news stories brought his group. I was most surprised, however, by Leonard’s response to the film. He called immediately after watching it to tell me he loved it and has since purchased hundreds of copies to resell to his followers. I think that the most important reason, however, that I get people to tell me their stories is that I respect them, listen to them and am never condescending, regardless of how ridiculous I might think their ideas are.
[ “A Hole in the Head” was broadcast on The Learning Channel. Securing a TV deal is clearly a major goal for most filmmakers. Can you share your experiences on bringing the film to TV and offer advice to aspiring filmmakers on the do’s and don’ts of attempting to win a TV broadcast deal? ] ^ We were in a great position with “A Hole In The Head.” I showed a rough cut to my good friends Megan O’Neill and Harold Warren at Forefront Films (before they moved to Atom Films) and they loved it. As soon as it was done they sent it to The Discovery Channel (parent company of The Learning Channel), who bought it immediately.
Showing the rough cut to a distributor, however, is generally a big mistake. I only did this because I trusted Megan and Harold and wanted their input on making the program easier to sell.
My first advice is to make sure your first five minutes are captivating. Most buyers will not give a film, even a documentary, time to build.
A big mistake for foreign sales is a documentary that relies too much on the “talking head” format. Foreign buyers generally do not want to see talking heads, even if the heads have holes in them.
[ Your documentaries were initially self-distributed, but have since been picked up by Monarch Films/Beatnik Home Video. Can you share your experiences in self-distribution…and is this a course you would recommend to others? ] ^ Unless the filmmaker is independently wealthy and has nothing else to do, I would not recommend self-distribution. Although the Internet has made self distribution much easier, the expense to put out a first rate product is enormous. We are lucky to have our own graphic designers, an 800 number, an in-house web designer and a merchant account so that we can accept credit card purchases, and the expense is still enormous. Tape and video box reproduction alone are enough to bankrupt most indie filmmakers; and without advertising, sales are next to impossible. Mad Dog Films was in the great position of having a national broadcast of “A Hole In The Head” on which to advertise the video release. We also had a lot of publicity before and after the release which has continued to date that allows us to plug our website. And people tend to return to site they like to see if there is any new material.
[ Outside of the documentaries, you’ve produced several dramatic features. Have you found it more challenging, from both a film making standpoint and an emotional experience, to create a nonfiction feature or a dramatic feature? ] ^ My experiences as a feature film producer have been totally different from my experience on the Doc side. Independent features are grueling by nature and it almost becomes a battle just to finish. The documentaries are much more laid back and cerebral and therefore much more enjoyable to make and much more rewarding on a personal level when completed. The biggest difference for me, however, is related to the fact that I was the director and producer on the documentaries and “just” the producer on the features, and as you know, everybody wants to direct.
[ Your first feature as a producer, “No Ordinary Love,” opened in New York in January 1998 to some excessively caustic and savage reviews. When critics seem to go overboard in barbecuing your efforts, how can you react…and what, if anything, can you learn from the experience? ] ^ Reading the bad reviews is one of the toughest parts of business. But one of the best parts is reading the good reviews. And on “No Ordinary Love,” we had enough good reviews to fill the movie’s poster and video and DVD boxes. It definitely tests your will to stay in the business, however, and hopefully you develop a thick skin because there is not much art that gets universal acclaim and eventually everyone gets a bad review.
[ What projects are next on your horizon? ] ^ I am presently completing my first personal documentary, which takes a comparative look at alternative healthcare for humans and animals. The documentary focuses on my dog Sheba, who passed away last year, as she and I undergo similar modalities of treatment for our various aches and pains. The film is funny, informative and ultimately heartbreaking when we learn of Sheba’s death.
I am also preparing to travel to Japan to direct a documentary this summer entitled “Kokujinn: Soul Made In Japan” about the infatuation of Japanese youth with African American culture. It should be pretty interesting to see Japanese teenagers tanned to the point of being brown, with dreadlocks & afros and rapping.
Eli Kabillio can be visited online at Mad Dog Films.
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