30 for 30 Chat: Amani Martin
In "Ali: The Mission," Martin delves into perhaps one of the most important, but least known, feats of Muhammad Ali. In 1990, the legend traveled to Iraq to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of U.S. civilians taken hostage. Only six weeks after Ali brought 15 hostages back home to their relieved families, Operation Desert Storm bombarded Iraq.
An Emmy-winning producer and director, Martin's previous "30 for 30" work included the feature documentary "Benji." He also worked for HBO, producing Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel, Inside the NFL and the network's Wimbledon coverage.
Send your questions now and join Martin Thursday at 4 p.m. ET!
Amani, what about this story drew you to want to make a film about it?
Amani Martin (4:00 PM)
What drew me to it is the fact that with Ali's incredibly well documented life this was a story that I had never heard of. I watched a good amount of TV during the Gulf War, but I was not aware of this. It's a part of Ali's life that's not well documented.
Since the film is a short, how did you go about editing it, knowing you could just add in pieces and not worry about it getting too long?
Amani Martin (4:01 PM)
I've worked on a lot of long documentaries, but I used to be a news magazine producer. For this film, I put on the cap that I used to wear, thinking in 15 minute terms. I always thought what is the best way to tell this story in under 15 minutes.
What's been the reception so far to the film?
Amani Martin (4:02 PM)
From following mainly on social media, the response has been very good, I think. I've been pleased. What's been important to me, especially for younger audiences who might not have known about Ali in his prime, I hope that it sparks the younger audiences to learn more about this great man.
did you know a lot about Ali's visit or did you have to do a lot of research?
Amani Martin (4:04 PM)
I did a lot of research. I did not know much at all about the visit. I spoke to one of Ali's biographers, who was writing a book about Ali right around his visit to Iraq. One of the things I was curious about was why did he want to go. There was a ton of video. I actually did the project for Core Media Group and they had a ton of video on Ali. I relied on them a ton.
When you first saw the sound bite from Ali that you use at the end of the film, where he says you need to be sincere in helping people, did you know right away taht was how you would end the film? I think it's a great way to finish.
Amani Martin (4:05 PM)
Thank you. Absolutely. I knew that's how I would end the film. In my years working in documentaries, I've looked at a ton of Ali footage, but that was the first time that I heard him explain how a lot of humanitarian efforts were done quietly. It was a eureka moment for me. That's it. That's how he conducts his business.
What is it about sports that draws you to make films on the subject?
Amani Martin (4:06 PM)
I think because people are so passionate about sports and invest so deeply into the athletes they admire that it gives the athletes a platform to do great things outside of sports. Ali could not have gained that kind of platform without sports. What's remarkable about him is how he used that platform. Sports just offer a really great lens into looking into social movements.
how much did you have to cut out before you finished the film?
Amani Martin (4:07 PM)
A lot. It is tough when you have such a big subject. It's the story of the trip, but also the context, Saddam's invasion of Kuwait. It took a lot of editing. I had some great interviews with some of the former hostages. Those interviews were the toughest to cut down.
How many of the hostages did you end up talking to?
Amani Martin (4:09 PM)
Well there are 15 of them. I realized that when I started my research that 6 of them had passed on. When I first started, I tried looking them up and some of them were tougher to find, because they were older and not into social media. Of the living hostages, I spoke to all but 1. Then I chose a couple based on who I thought had strong stories and vivid recollection of what happened there. And those that had a strong, meaningful interaction with Ali after the rescue.
with all of the corporations now, do you think we'll see another Ali type?
Amani Martin (4:10 PM)
Great question. Probably not in the same way. That's a good point about how athletes have such a close connection with brands, it probably, conscsious or subconscious, does limit the risk they'll take. Being the heavyweight champion was so important in the context of the 1960s, 70s, 80s gave Ali a big platform. But I don't think it's the case any more.
what made this story better for a short vs. a full length documentary?
Amani Martin (4:11 PM)
First of all, this might be the only film of Ali where the narrative is not driven by Ali talking. I think that limited the length to which it could be. He was 6 years into Parkinson's at the time and he was impaired. I'm sure it could be done longer, but I think this is a good length for the subject and the story.
will (san diego)
what are your thoughts on Ali after seeing all of this old footage of him?
Amani Martin (4:13 PM)
I've seen a ton of footage over the years working on other documentaries and I met him in New York last year. He still has this unbelieveable aura that you feel. Even though he's not talking or moving around the room, he still has a presence. But at the same time, it's bittersweet, because you can't get the other images out of your head, of him being handsome and a dynamic speaker.
what are your memories of that time period, during the first Gulf War?
Amani Martin (4:14 PM)
My memories first were, personally, that hoping we didn't go to war. I felt it was inevitable, since Saddam was not going to leave Kuwait. Fearing that the conflict could flare up into a huge war. At the time, Saddam had such good propaganda that the perception was that he had such a good military that he could drag America into a long war.
What is your next project?
Amani Martin (4:15 PM)
I'm working on a couple of different projects, including a documentary series on an NFL agent. Honest, ethical agent who sometimes has huge challenges holding on to his players, because honesty is not always helpful in that arena. I'm working on a couple of other projects and others that I'm considering.
what is it about documentaries that draws you to them?
Amani Martin (4:16 PM)
I love the process. I love going through archival footage, both from periods of time in my own life or before I was alive. I've always been a huge lover of history. Documentaries give you a chance to look at history and see how relevant it is to your time. The Ali trip to Iraq happened in 1990, but if you look now to what happened in the last 20 years, it becomes fascinating to look and review those moments.
Amani Martin (4:17 PM)
Thanks for all of your thoughtful questions. Thanks for watching the film. Be sure to say Happy Birthday to Muhammad Ali, who turns 71 today.