ARTICLE

In conversation with Woman co-director Anastasia Mikova

Anastasia Mikova, standing at the back, prepares for the filming of an interview for Woman in Paris Gare du Nord. To ensure that all footage is consistent, the setup is the same wherever in the world interviews are being filmed, using a Canon EOS C300 Mark II with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens positioned 2.6 metres from the interviewee's chair. © Marco Strullu

After starting out as a reporter on French TV, Anastasia Mikova first worked with Yann Arthus-Bertrand 10 years ago as Editor-in-Chief on his television programme Vu du Ciel (English title Earth Viewed from Above). This began a collaboration that continued as she worked as Assistant Director on Yann's epic documentary film Human, and she now co-directs his latest project, Woman.

Here, Anastasia tells us about her role on Woman and her vision for the movie.

What motivated you to get involved with Yann Arthus-Bertrand's previous film, Human, and how did that experience shape you as a filmmaker?

"I worked with Yann for several years after Earth from Above and then he continued with his projects and I went on with my own work. One day he called and said, 'I'm starting a new film; something you've never seen before, a revolution in documentary. Come and work with me.' At first I thought it was a friend playing a joke on me!"

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"We met and I remember Yann showed me a piece of paper. The whole idea of the film was there: 'I want to speak about humanity, what it is to be a human today. What do we share? What keeps us apart?' It ended in a very beautiful way, with the message: 'Only love can save the world.' That's how we started, and it took almost four years to make Human, which is crazy for a documentary.

"Human completely changed me professionally and as a person. There is before and after Human. I'm a totally different person now. Human was a unique experience. People who you've never seen before would share the most intimate, personal things with you. They'd sometimes say things that they've never shared with anyone.

"Also, the project took me to countries I'd never been to, opened me up to cultures and traditions I'd never even heard about. And it put me in situations that maybe I'd never have experienced if not for this film. I'd been doing documentaries for many years before Human, but every time I was working on a project I'd say to myself, 'This isn't your life, it's your work'. But when people open up to you completely, you can't do that any more. It transforms you."

When making Human, what made you think there needed to be another film on women?

"While we were filming Human, we were really struck by the difference between the interviews with men and [those with] women. We'd come to a city or to a village and introduce the project, and the men would ask a lot of questions, and women often would be there sitting, listening, looking as though they felt a little suspicious. But once they got in front of the camera, it was as if they'd been waiting for this moment their whole life. They really took this opportunity to say, 'We are here and we exist.'

One day Yann said: 'You know, I think we should focus on women.' And when he said it, it became obvious. When we see what's going on with women around the world right now, all these incredible movements of women taking the lead, sharing their stories, we're not surprised because we thought five years ago that this was going to happen."

On a beach, Anastasia Mikova and a camera operator film a group of women.
Anastasia oversees the shooting of contextual footage on location in the Republic of the Congo. © Marco Strullu

Beyond the fact that you're focusing on women, how will the film be different from Human?

"We decided to keep the same interview format with the close-up of the face. We tried different things and discovered that's the most efficient way to listen to someone. Human was so vast that we had to divide it into different topics – war, family, happiness – and between these interviews we put aerial imagery, which is something Yann has been doing for many, many years now. But for this new project we want to go deeper, to explore what is it to be a woman.

"Sometimes this will be expressed by three women of three different generations, sometimes two women from different parts of the world. Sometimes it will be a mosaic of different women talking about a universal topic. There will be more variety. It's also really important for us to get into these women's lives, so there will be moments where we see more of their background. There will also be moments with women singing, because there are things they can express through music that they cannot put into words."

Does it make you sad to think of the great material that will come out of the interviews you're doing that you just won't have space to include in the film?

A woman with short, dyed red hair and tattoos wears a lilac top.

Behind the scenes: post-production on Woman

An insight into the Woman editing room shows how the team met some of the technical and narrative challenges of the post-production process.

The frustration is there every day. [When you interview someone] at best, one of their answers will make it into the final film. It was like that with Human too, and it was difficult. At the same time, what's incredible when you work with Yann is that it's never just a film; it's always a project. There's the main film, which will be released in cinemas, and then there's a touring exhibition. There are documentaries we do for television specifically, things we do for the internet that go viral...

"So even though lots of people we interview won't be in the film itself, they will exist in a way, and that's reassuring. For Woman, we want to go even beyond what we did with Human and create a huge global network of NGOs who work on women's issues. We want to run conferences, debates, screenings all around the world and to create a space for discussion.

"It's also about the individual: each of us questioning ourselves. 'What am I doing? Who am I and what can I do in this world differently so that I can make a change?'"

A woman wears a pink and black Mexican wrestling mask.
Many hundreds of interviews were conducted with women of all ages and from diverse cultures around the world. © Marco Strullu

You've mentioned those really special moments in interviews. What is it that you're looking for? How do you train your journalists to tease out those moments?

"For Human I did more than 600 interviews, and with Woman I think I'm approaching 1,000. I can't say there's a technique. You bring your own personality and the way you see the world. I have journalists who have two children, who are 45 with a lot of experience, and journalists who are 27, who started two years ago and who I trained myself.

"I say to all of them: when you start an interview, you have to tell yourself that the woman in front of you is a blank page. You don't know what will be written on that page. The whole interview is trying to get inside that person. Not in her mind, not just to the facts of her life. But really trying to get a deeper understanding of who she is.

"There aren't 10 incredible moments in our life that have shaped us. Generally there are one or two. They can be linked to motherhood, to work, a difficulty that you went through, love, anything. You have to find what that moment was for that particular person. All of the questions are just to help get you there. Once you feel something, then you focus on that. Because that's the story.”

Anastasia Mikova stands with two young women wearing Woman film t-shirts.
Anastasia with colleagues at the filming of Woman in Paris Gare du Nord. © Marco Strullu

Sometimes those moments you're talking about are quite harrowing and sometimes they're more positive and uplifting. Are you conscious of striking a balance between the two?

"When we started, it was important for me on paper to say that the film would be very balanced. There are questions about the difficulties, the discrimination. Questions about love, happiness, empowerment. But to be honest, most of the stories we hear are very hard. The life of a woman is often a fight.

"You find women CEOs, women in politics, women who have incredible careers who have experienced violence as much as women from small villages who aren't educated and have no rights. But what we try to show is the inner strength that women have and what they're capable of."

Most of the production team are women themselves. Why?

"All of the journalists who work with me are women because there are a lot of intimate questions. We speak about periods, sexuality, our relationship with our body. Many women wouldn't open up to a man in the same way. But there are camera women and camera men. In some cultures you need the husband to agree to the interview and [in those cases] it may help to have a man in your team. It's reassuring for them to think, 'I can talk with him and my wife can go with this lady.' I don't want Woman to be a film done by women for other women only. The aim is to talk to everyone, so I think it's great that there’s a man and a woman behind this film working together."

A woman wears a purple headscarf decorated with colourful triangles.
Even in countries where certain topics are taboo, Anastasia believed it was important for her journalists to ask the same set of questions that they asked to women in other countries. © Marco Strullu

Do you always ask the same questions, even in countries where certain things are taboo?

"Always. When we arrive in a country, generally, the translator or the fixer says, 'Oh, you know, in our country we don't speak about that.' And we say, 'Of course.' And then during interview, you ask the question anyway. There's no exception. It's never happened that women wouldn't talk about taboos. There is so much to say – you just have to open the door and not be afraid."

You mention fixers. What's their role in helping you access closed communities?

"When you come to a community where women never share things with strangers, you have to prepare things. We work with fixers for up to four months in advance to create a situation where people feel comfortable. For example, next month we go to Bangladesh, and we plan to interview Rohingya women. They've had to leave their country. A lot of them have been raped. We're working with an NGO that's helping them on an everyday basis, so they can explain the project.

"It's very important that all the women we interview feel confident, that they trust us, so that they can open up completely. And it's important that they are ready to share their story with millions of people. So we also work with psychiatrists who can say they have the strength to be there in front of the camera."

The trailer for Woman posed the question "What will the place of women be in the world of tomorrow?" What do you think, based on your experience making the film so far?

"I feel very hopeful about the future. These women who have never been given an opportunity in their life – imagine if tomorrow their opportunity's there, what will happen? Women don't want to wait any more. We were thinking, 'Maybe if we wait, it will change. Maybe if we explain a little bit better, men will change. Maybe if this or that happens...' More and more, women say, 'I don't want to see what will happen tomorrow. I want to be part of that change and I want it to happen now."

Kirjoittaja Rachel Segal Hamilton


The Woman project's kitbag

The key kit for filming an international documentary

Two men and a woman look at the back of a Canon video camera with a long lens.

Cameras

Canon EOS C300 Mark II

The EOS C300 Mark II captures stunning 4K/Full HD video with an incredible 15 stops of dynamic range. Its XF-AVC format at 410 megabits per second "is the perfect balance between quality and size," says Thomas Lavergne, director of post-production on Woman.

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160). This was the B-camera on Woman, with Canon Log delivering footage as close as possible to that from Cinema EOS cameras, as well as capturing a wide dynamic range.

Lenses

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

A workhorse telephoto zoom lens with a durable design, a four-stop Image Stabiliser and ultra-low dispersion lens elements to ensure high contrast and natural colours. In the Woman shooting protocol document, this lens was always used with the C300 Mark II, positioned 2.6 metres from the interviewee's chair.

Canon EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Extender 1.4x

A professional-grade 200-400mm f/4 lens with a built-in 1.4x extender that boosts focal lengths to 280-560mm. A four-stop Image Stabiliser maximises sharpness and instinctive controls enhance handing. This lens was used by the Woman team for capturing some of the exterior contextual footage.

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