Keith Ochwat and Chris Rufo’s school of doc
Reindeer licking, octogenarian depravity, stellar reviews, one really bad one—all in a day’s work for two local filmmakers
Instead of law school or 9-to-5 jobs, Carmichael-born adventurers-at-heart Keith Ochwat and Chris Rufo took a trip to Mongolia, armed only with a video camera and the hopes of making a travel documentary. What they ended up with was footage of Ochwat, the show’s host, hanging out at a Mongolian wedding, learning how to throat sing and getting licked sensually by reindeer.
The documentary filmmakers’ project turned into an exotic, more youthful version of Huell Howser’s California’s Gold, or perhaps a tamer episode of MTV’s Wildboyz. The show, Roughing It: Mongolia, was picked up by PBS and garnered many positive reviews, from The Sacramento Bee to the San Francisco Chronicle—and even one very negative review from The New York Times.
In fact, critic Neil Genzlinger didn’t mince words, basically calling Ochwat and Rufo full of themselves and uninteresting. “Shut up and put some Mongols on the screen,” he snarled.
But maybe this is where the youthful advantage kicks in: Ochwat and Rufo (for reference: They were both born when Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” topped the Billboard charts) were ecstatic to have made it into the prestigious newspaper at all. Ochwat, who recently quit his job as a Capitol staffer for Republican state Assemblyman Guy Houston, said his former colleagues explained that getting panned in the Times is a sort of bragging right in conservative circles.
“It was a negative review, but, hey: Fuck it—we pulled a good quote and put it in our proposal,” Ochwat says. Their Web site (at www.documentaryfoundation.org, where you can also watch the TV show in its entirety) demonstrates how they expertly turned a scathing review into a praiseworthy clip:
“‘Fascinating! … Good eye for the unusual’—The New York Times.”
Producer/director Rufo is measured, relaxed. On the other end of the spectrum, Ochwat is excited, animated. Shortly after their trip to Mongolia, the friends—since age 13—formed the nonprofit Documentary Foundation. And their polar personalities might have something to do with the company’s snowballing success.
It’s pretty simple: Ochwat handles an array of fundraising duties while Rufo, who produced a number of short documentary pieces in the Middle East for Al Gore’s Current TV, is the artistic visionary. Together, through their foundation, they actively try to create interest in the art of documentary cinema by chronicling fascinating subjects whose stories might not have been told in the past.
Their latest documentary project, for example, is a film titled Diamond in the Dunes: It’s set in China’s Xinjiang Province and tells the story of Parhat Ablat, a young Muslim from western China’s deserts. Ablat fights racial segregation through the game of baseball. And from Ablat, we learn about the strict division of the Muslim Uighers (pronounced “WEE-gers”) and the ruling Han Chinese. There’s even a love interest and some fantastic cinematography.
Rufo, a relative newcomer to the art of documentary filmmaking, says the process of creating Diamond in the Dunes was very much a learn-on-the-job experience. “We had the misfortune of never having actually met the characters or been there before, so it was kind of a shot in the dark that something would happen,” he says. “You kind of have to adapt the characters into your framework. You’ve got to know what kind of tone you want to set and then let the characters, incidents and events to grow into that.
“And then really find the story in the editing room.”
Over that last month of cutting film, both Rufo and Ochwat have sorted through 70 hours of footage and 30 hours of interviews, abandoning original ideas and letting the story of the baseball team speak for itself. If all goes well, they’ll be finished by the end of summer, with a local premiere sometime in November. Then, they’ll take Diamond in the Dunes on a tour of art houses and also shop it at film festivals.
In the meantime, Ochwat and Rufo are full of ideas, having learned from both from their negative and positive press feedback and also excited to work on more projects, like a series based on Roughing It: Mongolia, where they’ll travel through Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Indonesia, northern Australia and the Philippines. And this summer, they’ll head to the Senior Olympics in Palo Alto to document octogenarian-types tempting the grim reaper with feats of athletic prowess.
“We just want to follow the cool stories,” says Ochwat, who explains that he wants to avoid being thought of as strictly a “travel documentary guy.”
Which brings us to this other project that—despite being kind of a secret—Rufo and Ochwat are having a hard time keeping under wraps. But when they talk about their new idea, you know it’s going to be good, because they both acquire the eye glints of madmen.
“We might be doing this film about a very particular retirement community in Florida that’s representative of kind of bizarre, American values gone haywire amongst the older generation,” says Rufo, grinning, trying to maintain professionalism.
Ochwat continues the story despite Rufo’s glare, which says they’ve already revealed too much. “I mean, the village, it’s crazy. It’s like 120,000 people who live there, right?” he asks, looking at Rufo, who appears a bit nervous.
“Yeah,” says Rufo.
Ochwat continues: “And it has the highest STD rate in the whole country.”
Finally, Rufo puts on the brakes. “Let’s not blow the story up yet. [It’s] an absurd, unbelievable, ridiculous retirement community that has an undercurrent of dark and bizarre and sexually perverse … stuff,” he says.
To watch Ochwat and Rufo keep composure while they tell this story of elderly mischief gives tremendous insight into their passion for filmmaking and the tales that they tell. It’s infectious.
Speaking of which: How exactly did they find out about the disease-ridden hotel of horror for the elderly?
“I was there,” Rufo says with a sheepish smile. “I don’t know. My friend’s parents just moved to this place.”
So, um, stay tuned?