5 Minutes with Richard Gregory

5 Minutes with Richard Gregory

Tell us about yourself – who are you and what do you do?

I’m a documentary filmmaker, in a pretty general sense. I direct, I shoot, I edit, I produce – but I prefer to focus on the first two of those activities. I’ve been working in the documentary world since 2006. I started out self-taught – I bought a Sony Z1 while I was living in Japan (it was a pretty hot camera at the time) and taught myself to shoot and edit through filming friends of mine, particularly in the Tokyo music scene. When I came back to South Africa, I started working on NGO projects, and that’s been a lot of what my production company GOOD WORK has done (goodworkpictures.com). After I’d been working in the industry for a couple of years, I decided to go to film school to do my Masters – I always had an inferiority complex because I thought filmmakers who had gone to film school must have access to knowledge that I didn’t have. To be honest, the biggest thing my Masters degree taught me was that working hard for a few years at figuring it out through doing, had already taught me more than I ever realised. 

What are you currently up to? Are there any exciting projects ongoing?

I’m currently in production on my next doc feature, called The Radical. It’s about the world’s first openly gay imam, and the inclusive mosque that he started. It’s a project with lots of moving parts – it’s an international co-production and putting the financing together is a juggling act, but it’s very satisfying to work on.

What’s your best project/work to date?

That’s tough, it’s like asking a parent to choose their favourite child! There have been lots of highlights over the years – I happened to be the last person to film Nelson Mandela in a private setting, I got to direct Liam Neeson for an international campaign, that sort of thing – but I still get a kick out of the bond that I formed with a group of Afrikaners living in deeply rural Patagonia while making my last feature, The Boers at the End of the World. The community has been there for over 100 years, so their history is entirely separate to that of Afrikaners in South Africa. I stay in touch with them, and it still feels like I’ve got family at the other end of the world.

Who or what inspires you?

The people who I create documentary work about, especially the activists and campaigners who dedicate their lives to a cause. I’m in awe of people who are able to be so selfless, and so when it comes to NGO projects, my job is really to amplify the work that they do. 

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

Things that don’t involve screens, ideally. Boxing, rock climbing, and getting out of town with my wife and our dog, Goose. 

Finally, what tips or advice could you give to other documentary creatives, just starting out or to the most experienced creatives needing a bit of encouragement?

Two bits of advice for people new to the field: the first is to not forget that the documentary format can be entertaining and full of delight. Too often, especially in South Africa in my opinion, people treat documentaries as being synonymous with activist or educational work. Yes, it’s important stuff, but watching a doc doesn’t have to feel like taking your medicine – my favourite documentaries are the ones that have the issues in the background while focussing on telling a rocking good story. Of course, the truth is that you’re far more likely to get funding for a film that is focussed on social or environmental issues, but that’s a conversation for another day.

The second is to be a scavenger, be curious about everything. Read and watch widely: news, current affairs, classic films, contemporary culture, ancient art, books on screenplay structure, animal behaviour. A rounded worldview is essential to be able to do this job across borders and cultures.