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Keith Ochwat and Christopher Rufo met as teenagers in Sacramento. (Keith attended Mira Loma High School; Rufo graduated from Rio Americano.) Today, they are partners in a nonprofit filmmaking venture, Documentary Foundation, which is focused on creating “character-driven social documentary.” Since their founding, they’ve made three compelling films on four continents, covering topics as disparate as centenarian athletes, nomadic life in Mongolia and a momentous baseball game in China’s Xinjiang region. Their fourth documentary, “America Lost,” is due out this summer and, like their previous films, will be broadcast nationally on PBS. We talked with Ochwat about his work, his influences and the social value of documentaries.
Filmmakers Christopher Rufo and Keith Ochwat make character-driven social documentaries.
On why documentaries are their focus
Our interests are a little bit different. Of the pair of us, Chris is more of the auteur, more of the artist. I think filmmaking for him is a way to be creative and create art. I come at it from a slightly different angle. I studied politics and policy in college and worked at the Capitol out of college. I felt like documentary was a way to advocate or tell a story that had a purpose and could motivate change or promote understanding of a complex situation.
On the value of storytelling
The best stories are the ones that have good, compelling, relatable, infuriating, lovable characters. The documentaries that I’m most intrigued by and are a model for the work that we do are those that illuminate a topic through the eyes of someone who’s deeply involved in that issue. For example, the film that we’re working on now, “America Lost,” looks at complex social issues in three struggling cities in America. But instead of it being all statistics and graphics, it’s really about people living through the challenges that we’re trying to illuminate.
On his artistic influences
We really respect and admire and emulate filmmakers who date back to the earliest days of moving pictures, like Robert Flaherty. His film “Nanook of the North” was instructive not just for creative reasons, but because how he made his film taught us so many lessons. His resilience was inspiring to me. I think about it all the time when we’re out in the field.
On the value of being born to immigrants
Our parents are both immigrants and came from poor families in their respective countries—my mom is from Korea; Chris’s dad is from Southern Italy. I think that aspect of our upbringing is really relevant for our current film. But I think that it’s also crafted our worldview more broadly and helped make us compatible as we’re working through ideas and projects together. Having parents that are from different places has helped us understand that there are really different perspectives out there. You really want to be empathetic and open when you are interacting with people who are willing to tell their life story for your film. That openness and respect is something that I learned coming from a biracial family with an immigrant mother, and that skill has come in really handy with making documentaries.