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With 24 Oscar nominations this year — thanks largely to Marriage Story, The Irishman and The Two Popes — plus the three golden statuettes it won for Roma last time around, it’s easy to assume that the initial victorious step on Netflix’s recent, and sharp, Academy Awards ascent would have come courtesy of one of the many expensive, star-studded or auteur-shot features in its library.
The honor of being Netflix’s first-ever Oscar goes to the documentary short The White Helmets, a heart-wrenching 40-minute film following a group of volunteers in the Syrian Civil Defense force as they search for survivors amid the rubble of Aleppo during Syria’s ongoing and devastating civil war.
The film — which received the A-list backing of George Clooney and landed the best documentary (short subject) in 2017 — was the work of British director Orlando von Einsiedel and his company Grain Media (his collaborator Joanna Natasegara produced via her own Violet Films banner).
“Going into Netflix’s offices, for a while there was just a single Oscar standing there,” says von Einsiedel, 39, who admits he and Natasegara had been taking turns to lend the company their statuettes. “But they’ve now got quite a few!”
Based in Lewisham in South London, in an airy backstreet office in a residential area that couldn’t look more different than the British capital’s chaotic creative hub of Soho, Grain’s humble demeanor masks a somewhat phenomenal awards track record.
Prior to its Academy win for The White Helmets, in 2015 the company earned a Primetime Emmy and a Peabody Award, alongside a best documentary feature Oscar nomination, for Virunga, telling the story of the rangers of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Virunga National Park.
Again directed by von Einsiedel — who found the film take a dangerously unexpected turn when conflict erupted during the shoot in 2013 — with Natasegara producing (and Leonardo DiCaprio later joining as an exec producer), the feature was picked up by Netflix in the early stages of the streamer’s expansion, especially in the documentary arena (although it wasn’t its first ever nomination: that came in 2014 with Jehane Noujaim’s The Square).
And this year, Grain is tipped to claim its second Oscar for the short documentary Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which won the company its first BAFTA last weekend (and the best documentary short award in Tribeca, where it debuted in 2019).
Directed by Carol Dysinger (with von Einsiedel exec producing), this time for A&E Networks, the film explores the work of Skateistan, a nonprofit that uses skateboarding and education to empower children — especially girls — in impoverished parts of the world, looking closely at the activity in its skate park in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Learning to Skateboard may be the latest film on Grain’s growing gong-gathering slate, but it also helps reunite the company with its origins.
It was around 15 years ago that von Einsiedel — then a professional snowboarder who had been making short travel films about his various sporting holidays (“mostly in places very few people had snowboarded before…the Himalayas, Africa, India, China”) — met Jon Drever, who he says had been doing something similar, only with skateboarding.
The two amateur filmmakers decided to team up, pitching for a new magazine show set to launch on the Extreme Sports Channel, a pitch they — incredibly — won.
Gen-X — as the show would become, combining music and lifestyle with skateboarding, snowboarding and other youth-skewed sports such as surfing — ran for about 18 months in the mid-to-late noughties, with the friends delivering a new episode each week under their new, hastily assembled, Grain Media banner.
“It was very cool, but it was so exhausting,” says von Einsiedel, who admits that the budget — while the “most money they’d ever seen” — meant they had to do pretty much everything themselves, working on location or from a windowless office in London they procured.
The sports element of Gen-X lent itself nicely to branded content, with Grain picking up several commercial gigs, something the company continues to do to this day (recent clients have included Oakley, Tag Heuer, New Balance, Google and the National Theatre).
After the Extreme Sports show, von Einsiedel — who says he had always wanted to work on more serious subjects and make films that “could help change the world” — decided to shift gears significantly, flying off to West Africa to make a documentary about the role of the chocolate trade in intensifying the conflict in the Ivory Coast.
“I was very green,” he admits. “And I very much threw myself in the deep end and got scared very quickly, because I didn’t know what I was doing trying to make something so serious.”
That short film became 2010’s Hot Chocolate — it may not have had a huge amount of experience behind it, but it kicked off Grain’s now predominant geopolitical focus, and aired as part of Al Jazeera’s People & Power doc series, the first of many it would make for the network. Others would explore football trafficking, prostitution and environmental destruction.
Not long after making Hot Chocolate, von Einsiedel traveled to Afghanistan, having discovered the work of Skateistan, to direct the short Skateistan: To Live and Skate Kabul. Not only would the 10-minute film help Grain secure its latest Oscar-tipped short years later (when A&E said it wanted to make a documentary about the organization, its founder insisted they used Grain) but it would lay the philosophical foundations for future projects.
“When it came out, we just put it on Vimeo, and it went viral, within 12 hours having hundreds of thousands of views,” explains von Einsiedel. “It took a while to understand what that was about, but I think it was because it was a story grounded in hope, and from a place where you really don’t hear much good news.”
The response to Skateistan would prove to be a light-bulb moment.
“I’d been making these very serious investigations about really, really dark things, with very little redemption in the story,” he says. “And I thought, I want to make films that are ultimately grounded in joy and hope.”
From this new way of thinking came Virunga, sparked by a newspaper article the director read while shooting a film (about illegal fishing) in Sierra Leone. “It was all about these Rangers rebuilding the country after 20 years of war,” he says. “And I thought, that’s an amazing, positive story, and I’ve only ever heard negative things from the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Virunga’s Oscar nomination may have helped put Grain Media on the documentary world’s map, but this quest to shine a light on humanity in the midst of despair has followed through the company’s other projects, including The White Helmets.
And no more is it present than last year’s short film Lost and Found, the first from National Geographic Documentary Films with backing by the Nobel Prize. Directed by von Einsiedel from inside the world’s largest refugee camp on the border between Myanmar and Bangladesh, which sprang up after 700,000 Rohingya were driven from their homes following the latest campaign of ethnic persecution, the film follows a man dedicated to reuniting parents with their lost children. Bowing in Telluride, Lost and Found later won AFI’s audience award for short films.
Grain’s expanding output has seen the company grow to around 15 full-time staff members (although co-founder Drever left the company a few years ago to focus on scripted comedy), with it now making what von Einsiedel says are five “single big films” and a couple of TV series each year.
“And what’s really wonderful to see is that, over the last two years, most of the films we’ve made I haven’t directed,” he adds.
Other recent titles include the short Into the Fire, which also bowed in Telluride and looked at the Yazidi women de-mining post-ISIS Iraq; the feature length Seahorse, about a gay transgender man dealing with pregnancy; and Evelyn, in which von Einsiedel explored a very personal tragedy within his own family. Evelyn, again produced alongside Natasegara, won the British Independent Film Award in 2018 before airing on Netflix. Grain also partnered with the streamer for last year’s six-part doc series I’m With the Band: Nasty Cherry, documenting the formation of an all-girl alt-pop group by Brit singer Charli XCX.
Given the dangerous and sensitive nature of many of the subject matters it turns its lenses on — British pop stars aside — Grain doesn’t talk much about projects in production over safety concerns for its filmmakers. But one certain future direction is the move into scripted. In 2014, it produced the comedy feature SuperBob, directed by its co-founder Drever, but now plans to flex its more established geopolitical and socially conscious muscles in the narrative arena as well.
With this in mind, von Einsiedel recently directed a scripted short about a real-life situation in the Pakistani city of Karachi, in which the local mafia siphons off public water and then sells it back to citizens at vastly inflated prices.
“It was an amazing experience; very challenging, but I loved it,” says the filmmaker of his first time directing outside the documentary world. “And I want to do more.”
And this “more” could well include perhaps Grain and von Einsiedel’s most ambitious project to date: a feature based on The White Helmets short being produced by Clooney, who first announced he was developing the film during the 2016 awards season. As with many Grain productions, however, von Einsiedel can’t disclose any more information, although he claims that the narrative route opens up more opportunities to bring his uplifting tales of hope amid desperation to screen.
“You can’t always tell every story in a documentary form, by the fact of when they took place or whether or not people actually want to be in the film,” he says. “So to be able to tell stories in scripted form is freeing, and broadens what type of stories we can tell.”
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The Green Knight
Sir Anthony Hopkins