Documentary

TIFF ’16: Nanette Burstein dances with danger in “Gringo”

The On the Ropes director talks to realscreen following the world premiere of her Showtime Networks-backed documentary (pictured) on visionary anti-virus entrepreneur John McAfee.
September 12, 2016

John McAfee’s name is synonymous with cyber security, having developed the first commercially viable anti-virus program in 1987.

But in Showtime Documentary Film’s Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee, which enjoyed its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday (Sept. 11), Oscar nominee and two-time Sundance winner Nanette Burstein investigates the mysterious and cryptic life of the visionary anti-virus entrepreneur.

Years after creating the seminal computer program and reinventing himself as a yogi, McAfee relocates to a heavily armed compound in the jungles of Belize, immersing himself into a dangerous world of guns, drugs and increasingly unusual behavior.

McAfee would serve as a person of interest in connection to the murder of American expat and his Belizean neighbor Gregory Faull, who was found shot to death in his home in November 2012. Sought for questioning by local authorities, McAfee fled to Guatemala before being expelled and sent to America where he would ultimately pursue the Libertarian Party nomination during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.

Burstein first caught wind of the Ish Entertainment-made project after exec producers Michael Hirschorn and Jeff Wise approached her with exclusive access to a raft of Belizean residents with new information about McAfee during his time in the Central American nation.

Nanette-Burstein-headshot

Nanette Burstein

“John had burned a lot of bridges and there were a lot of people who were interested in talking, but [making this doc] was scary,” the On the Ropes filmmaker told realscreen. “I went to Belize from the beginning of November through January, and with each trip it started to feel more dangerous as people got more familiar with us and heard about us, so we started to have plain-clothes security with us.”

Though the relationship Burstein maintained with McAfee throughout the filming of this project was cyber in nature – maintained through sometimes hostile emails – she did surprise the millionaire businessman by dropping in on him at one of his presidential events.

Within 30 minutes of ambushing McAfee at the New York pit stop of his campaign trail, Burstein received a flurry of threatening emails.

“It ended with a text message after the most hostile email saying ‘I have something very precious to send you. Can you tell me what your address is?’ I got scared in that moment because… I wasn’t sure what his intentions were. I didn’t speak to him for about a month after that,” said Burstein.

Most documentary films face the all-too-typical production challenge of scraping together financial backing to support the film’s development. For Burstein’s Gringo, however, early footage shot by Hirschorn and Wise was riveting enough to court Showtime Networks to the project (even before Burstein did) as the film’s exclusive worldwide rights holder. The U.S. network will broadcast the project on Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

Instead, the biggest production challenge for Burstein was attempting to separate McAfee’s truths from fiction by ensuring she was able to unearth “at least a few witnesses” willing to recount a detail-specific story.

When she realized that her subject was unwilling to appear on film, Burstein decided that the only way to move the story forward would be to enter the film herself.

“I realized that my relationship with him became part of the story and it was kind of fitting for the film that I was basically interviewing him through a cyber relationship,” she said.

While the film delivers a deep investigation into the strange and mysterious life of McAfee, Burstein said Gringo serves as a timely story that deconstructs powerful American figures capable of manipulating the media to get away with murder.

“For me, it parallels a much bigger issue,” the documentarian said. “I am fascinated by how money, power and fame affects people both in special privileges as well as being under the spotlight. That’s a theme I’ve been interested in for 15 years and this is my third film that examines that.”

In addition to screening exclusively at TIFF, Burstein will speak during the TIFF Doc Conference on Tuesday (Sept. 14) to discuss the true crime doc and her approaches to filmmaking.

Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee next screens at TIFF on Tuesday (Sept. 13) at 8:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre and plays again on Sept. 18. Visit the festival’s website for showtimes.

About The Author
Meagan Kashty is an associate editor of realscreen, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Meagan is an award-winning business journalist. Prior to joining the realscreen team, Meagan was online editor of Canadian Grocer, named Magazine of the Year at the 2015 Canadian Business Media Awards. She can be reached at mkashty@brunico.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @MegKashty

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