The Cinematography Podcast Episode 111: Director Ryan White and cinematographer John Benam

When filmmaker Ryan White first heard about the murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in early 2017, he paid little attention to the story until a reporter called to let him know that it might make an interesting documentary. Kim Jong-nam was poisoned in the middle of a crowded Malaysian airport by two young women who smeared a highly poisonous nerve agent on his face. On the surface, these women seemed like bold, cold-blooded killers. But once Ryan and cinematographer John Benam flew to Malaysia to find out more about the story, they soon realized that the political assassination plot went deep, the women might be innocent, and were likely duped by North Korean operatives. The two women, Siti Aisyah and Doan Thi Huong, were put on trial for murder in Malaysia. Ryan was able to speak with their lawyers and eventually interview Siti and Doan. With help from the women’s defense lawyers, the Assassins editorial team painstakingly pieced together all the security footage from the airport and put together the entire sequence of events during the assassination. They were also able to see and use within the film many of the text messages the women exchanged with their handlers, which clearly pointed to their complete ignorance of what they were getting into.

Ryan feels Assassins became controversial and had trouble finding distribution not because of the political content, but because big online companies feared retribution, as occurred with Sony Pictures getting hacked by North Korea when they released the film The Interview.

With the advent of streaming services, Ryan thinks his chosen path of making documentaries is now seen as valuable entertainment, and he’s currently busy working on several different docs with diverse subject matter.

Cinematographer John Benam has worked on several documentaries with director Ryan White, beginning with the the Netflix series The Keepers, about the murder of a nun and the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Baltimore Catholic Church. When John first decided to make a career out of filmmaking, he knew he wanted to stay in Baltimore, and started working in a camera shop during the switch from film to video. Luckily, Baltimore has a bit of a film industry and he was able to work locally on several TV shows, then got a job working for National Geographic shooting nature documentaries.

For Assassins, John and Ryan dove deep into Siti and Doan’s story, exploring where they came from and what brought them to Malaysia. They felt it was important to have the women tell their own story, and it required patience and sensitivity. John is a mission-oriented, emotional cinematographer, and shooting nature documentaries taught him the skill to sit still, keep a low profile, and watch a story unfold. John had to travel light and nimble, taking dozens of trips to Malaysia for the story over the course of two years while the trial was going on. He used two Canon EOS C300 Mark II cameras for shooting, because of its lightness and small size, staying under the radar from the general public. As he learned about the intricacies of the Malaysian legal system and shot the trial, John felt very emotional about the outcome of a guilty verdict for the women, which would mean execution by hanging.

John’s latest project is Rocket to Venus, about two friends who follow the century-old trail of a Baltimore rocket builder and the spaceship he built that would take him to Venus.

You can watch Assassins streaming now in virtual cinemas

Find Ryan White Instagram: @white815 Twitter: @ryanwhiteIV

Find John Benam Instagram: @john_benam

Close Focus: Special guest host Bill Totolo sits in for Ben this week as he recovers from COVID. Illya and Bill discuss Studio Ghibli animated movies, most of which can now be seen on HBO Max. They also discuss the part of the business where sometimes you can be reluctant to recommend someone for a job when asked.

Bill’s short end: NAMM, or North American Music Merchants, has an annual convention where they introduce new products and participants can see different musicians perform. Bill got to attend the virtual version of NAMM this year. He also has a ticket to attend the virtual version of the Sundance Film Festival. It gets expensive to attend film festivals and conventions in person- it would be nice to continue a virtual version of these events.

Illya’s short end: The Betty Eddy is a medium one inch Edison screw light socket on top of a four inch Baby Pin. It’s a simple but powerful piece of grip equipment that allows secure holding of any battery powered E26/E27 thread bulb, like the Aputure B7c. You can purchase the Betty Eddy at Hot Rod Cameras.

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Facebook:@cinepod

Instagram: @thecinepod

Twitter: @ShortEndz

Podcast Credits:

Editor in Chief:  Illya Friedman@hotrodcameras

Instagram: @illyafriedman @hotrodcameras

Bill Totolo Instagram: @btotolo

Producer: Alana Kode

Editor: Ben Katz

Composer: Kays Alatractchi

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