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Don’t try to make a Cow into a Camel!

Last week we had the pleasure of screening the Scottish premiere of The Women with The 5 Elephants at Edinburgh College of Art, with a long Q&A by director Vadim Jendreyko.

85-year-old Svetlana Geier dedicated her life to language. Considered the greatest translator of Russian literature into German, Svetlana has just concluded her magnum opus, completing new translations of Dostoyevsky’s five great novels—known as “the five elephants.” As a precocious teenager living in Ukraine with an unusual facility for languages, Svetlana was brought to the attention of her country’s Nazi occupiers during World War II, and found uneasy refuge translating for them. She fled in 1943 and never returned … until now.

During the screening  you could hear a pin drop in the audience, who were clearly in awe of Svetlana’s mode of thinking, her poignant use of language – in short her authenticity: whether she was ironing her table cloths, talking to a train guard on her first journey back to the Ukraine, or translating Dostoyevsky.

Svetlana is a unique person, and director Vadim Jendreyko really wanted to share with an audience what it meant knowing her. He spoke at length about what was involved in translating her journey onto the big screen.

Following the talk, Vadim also hosted a weekend workshop for our 11 short listed Bridging the Gap filmmakers, currently developing their 10 min films.

Here’s a few points of reflection gleaned from Vadim about filmmaking:

1. Filmmaking is self development: I want to be a different person when I’ve finished making a film.

2. Try to take the most uncomfortable part of your project, your biggest weakness, and really work on it. People will invariably pick up on it, and you need to have answers for them – and first of all for yourself.

3. Don’t show everything at once. Remember the original meaning of strip-tease

4. Use obstacles in your favour. Not having access to this or that person, location, object – you have to turn negatives into positives, or make the obstacle part of the film.

5. Always look for a personal connection. For my relationship to Svetlana that meant not shooting for 6 months. If you don’t have  a personal connection with your main character, how will you ever translate this into an interesting figure on screen?

6. Again: Authenticity is key. Doors will open – or you will find your way in. Only when I managed to take a still of myself with Svetlana, could I begin the process of recording. In fact we were never making a film, we were her guests. You could never do things twice. She never acknowledged the camera.

7. You have to strategise about getting access. You need patience to understand people’s viewpoints very much unlike your own; you may need to align yourself with the strongest, but perhaps not most likeable character. That person can often open the entire setting or milieu for you, and help you get accepted socially within their environment; other people, situations.

8. At the beginning, always raise a strong curiosity; give us real motivation to watch this film. Always be able to answer the question: Why do you want to make this film? What do I want to learn from it?

9. Be prepared. Know what you’re looking for and trust what you’ll find. Often it will seem serendipitous.

10. Music kills a scene when used as illustration. Use it sparingly. Never forget about the sound. Always get a clean track when you’ve finished a shot.

11. Don’t try to make a cow into a camel. Just try to make a really good cow.

PS: 4.1.2012
For a wonderful review of The Women with the 5 Elephants see Pamela Cohn’s blog: Still in Motion


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Stay the Same – by Sam Firth

Stay the Same is an experimental film project by Sam Firth funded by the UK Film Council and Creative Scotland.

Sam is filming herself every day at exactly the same time in exactly the same place for a year where she lives on Knoydart, a remote Scottish peninsular only accessible by boat. The project is about our relationship with time, nature, and place.

This blog is a record of the process, a collection of related work, and responses to the project from friends, family, other artists and filmmakers. A shared insight into our perceptions of time and modern living.

If you would like to submit a response please see the invite below.


I am collecting peoples personal and creative responses to the ideas behind this project which is about our relationship to nature and the passage of time. The project is an attempt to capture the experience of time, a year of life in one viewing. To stand still each day while time flows around me.  It is partly a reaction to the pace of modern living and the desire to speed up life whilst wanting to deny the inevitibility of death and ageing.

I am keen to move beyond my own personal experience and start collecting other peoples thoughts and experiences as I have found people’s responses to the project and the ideas behind it incredibly varied and fascinating (see Creating a Living Notebook).

I would like to invite you to participate in this project by contributing a response in some way.

I am leaving it purposefully very open. Your responses can be to any aspect of the project, it can be of any size or length and be in any form. It can be creative, personal, intellectual, philosophical or abstractical! It can be film, text, image, poem, handicraft, sung, knitted, doodled or a few words scrawled on the back of an envelope . . . .

Responses will be published on this web space which will stay live until June 21st 2012 then may become part of this or a larger piece of work. By sending a response you are agreeing to it’s use in this way, so please state if and how you would like to be acknowledged.

The deadline is the end of March 2012.

Please send your responses to or by post to:

Sam Firth
PH41 4PL

Thank you in advance for participating and do subscribe to the blog.


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On Building Up Trust and Getting People to Open Up

Noe Mendelle, Director of SDI, was asked to make a documentary about a housing research project led by Edinburgh University and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Here are some reflections on her experience.

The Cement City

The Home Space project is based on a 20 year research on how the suburbs and land around Maputo is changing. The cement city aka Maputo city centre is like a fungus growing at the expense of the land around it. The suburbs around the city are mainly self-built dwellings, first out of bamboo now slowly being replaced by cement blocks and corrugated iron. At a time when land had no value, plots were given to poor people mainly dislocated during the war, to cultivate. Over the years families grew and so did poverty and plots got divided and sold off, often sacrificing the allotments where women grew the household food.

“Barrios”  mushroomed all around Maputo in what appears an up hazard fashion but functionable.  After many years of peace, now Maputo is fast developing into a beautiful city, favoured by many Europeans to move in and make their fortune. Entrepreneurs and land developers are ceasing an amazing opportunity to get rid of the slums and buy off the land for peanuts and build all the infrastructures alongside elegant villas and condoniums. The poor are happy because for a very brief moment they have money in their pockets and the promise of another plot of land far away from the city. Most employment for men will be in the city, therefore to be living even further away than they already are will mean that in no time at all they will mainly drink and eat their cash before having a chance to construct a new house. To put it blantly they are being squezed.

Meeting Luis and Mama Maria

For the documentary I am working with families who are living in different parts of the city to see how they get affected. The family the furthest away – 20km- consists of a polygamist, living with his second and third wife, in a 2 room- house. The furniture consists of one bed and one chair and my guess is that it is for Luis, the head of household. Last year he sold half of his land in order to keep drinking. The first day I was introduced to him and went to ask him for permission to film, the ritual around this request is very typical of traditions of that part of the world. I had a male fixer who spoke Changana and the three of us stood there under the shade of the tree for at least an hour, with a lot of greetings and enquiries about health and good being of the family but nothing too specific, followed by long pauses and silences before we get to the matter in hand, but then quickly diverted by something else, then a return to the request, then another greeting to a passer by and so on… The outcome was to ring him and then maybe we could make direct arrangements. Of course it took several phone calls and several visits before I saw him again. That gave me plenty of opportunities to meet up with the main wife and sit under the tree that she uses to sell her vegetables to passers-by, who are only neighbours as we are in the last rural part of the boundaries of Maputo. But not for long, as neighbours are all splitting their plots and selling it off to better off families from the city centre who are wanting to pursue the national dream of building their own homes. The wife did not say much while I was hanging around and I started to despair that I will not be able to cover their story until I proposed to go with her to her Machamba (allotment), another 8km away from the house. We got there soon after 5am and desperate to get her to open up I took the line of provocation asking if this plot of land will be the next sale by her husband Luis. She retaliated very quickly that the land is hers and not to be sold by her drunken husband. The sad reality is if the land belongs to anyone it will be the man. Widows are often thrown out their houses after the death of the husband either by sons or uncles.

‘It is very important not to give up with the silence of characters and use different spaces to get them to open up’

The allotment was beautifully kept, planning the basic food to keep the drunken husband, herself, her daughter, her 2 grand-children and  the third wife with her off springs and a little surplus to sell in order to buy basic necessities. It is very important not to give up with the silence of characters and use different spaces to get them to open up. The allotment was her space and from then on I could not get her to stop talking.  We kept meeting other women at the water point, with the same determination on their faces and one can only imagine that their stories are not too dissimilar to Mama Maria.


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On Working with Foreign Language

Mama Teresa and her two grandchildren

Noe Mendelle, Director of SDI, was asked to make a documentary about a housing research project led by Edinburgh University and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Here are some reflections on her experience.

Do we need to understand every word to shoot a sequence?

Mama Teresa was my favourite right from the beginning. She spoke a few Portuguese words but went on speaking to me in Changana, her local language. The energy she gave out seemed to allow me to understand what she was communicating. I have used translators in past situations but although we gain information through the translation, I often feel very frustrated because the attention, focus, keeps slipping from the character to the translator and part of me stops feeling the person that I’m filming. So I  took the decision not to work with a translator and allow me to go with the feel of her and allow her to just talk to me, whenever she wants, knowing that I did not understand her. No  doubt I will discover crucial details during editing and probably get kicked by my editor for not having followed some of the leads. But I ask myself:  do we need to understand every word to shoot a sequence? Can’t we sometimes just work on the feel of it?

How do we film the invisible, the impalpable?

By forcing myself to film what I feel next to this woman, I look around and try to use my camera to capture light and images to translate and create meaning to those feelings/energy. I often try to reflect on how do we film the invisible, the impalpable?
It was a risk but something to play with during editing.

Click on the links to read part I or part II of this thread.

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On Filmmakers Participation

Noe Mendelle, Director of SDI, was asked to make a documentary about a housing research project led by Edinburgh University and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Here are some reflections on her experience.


Bank banner advertising a credit scheme in Maputo: 'We will help you redecorate your home, invest in education, go on holiday and look after your health.'

A bank banner advertising a credit scheme in Maputo: ‘We will help you redecorate your home, invest in education, go on holiday and look after your health.’ Mozambique is a Socialist country but with a privatised infrastructure, such as most education, electricity, water, transport etc… all except the land. So technically people get offered a plot of land but do not own it! The power of banks is only starting, as most people are self employed or do not earn enough to be paid through banks, unless you work for the government. Anything they save, they invest in developing their house: a few more cement blocks or cement bags or corrugated iron… With the privatisation of water, most people have a tap in their yard but many cannot afford it, so children and women will walk to a selling point and buy one jerry can at a time for 20 medicais (50 pence). The electricity is re-bought. They go to petrol stations or kiosks and have a primitive system of “pay as you go.”

Buying Electricity

The other day I asked Mama Teresa to take me with her on her next electricity shopping trip. She fed the babies, changed them and then put one on her back and one on her front to walk the 3km to the petrol station. I did not realise it was this far and in good faith happily left her carrying her double burden while filming her walking through the maze of alleys. Only when I realised she was sweating profusely, I understood the effort involved, so I took both babies. If she can do it, I can do it! And then went on filming… Rather badly! Babies and cameras do not mix well! I think that is when the local community realised that I wasn’t just a white woman, I was a mad white woman… and that deserves many laughs.

But I gained trust by showing the community that the woman and the camera are an item and it was no longer a surprise to be met by me filming in alleys…


Click on the links to read part I or part III of this thread.

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On Filming in Maputo, Mozambique

Noe Mendelle, Director of SDI, was asked to make a documentary about a housing research project led by Edinburgh University and Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Here are some reflections on her experience.


Maputo's suburbia from the plane

I rented a room in the centre of town as public transport tends to be reduced to “chapas” – little mini buses which are always so full that you have young men’s bums sticking out of the windows and they have this tendency to break down, making any journey a challenge to time and patience…

First morning, after a night of heavy rain, I woke up to the croaking of frogs and a city landscape transformed into lakes of murky waters and floating rubbish. I’d never thought of packing my Wellington boots. My project is about the way the city of Maputo has dramatically expanded over the last few years, creating a large suburb of what appears to be endless slums. For the first few days it was extremely difficult to access the families I was going to work with, as the lanes were transformed into a slalom of mud. As days passed by I grew more anxious, having only 3 weeks to research and film this project. But the sun returned and I was able to get on with the next challenge, getting to know my families, and start filming.

‘The camera is not only a way of measuring the distance of our two worlds but also an obstruction to a helping hand’

At the beginning of  every shoot I always returned to the same debate in my head: do I start filming immediately, or do I allow myself to settle in? In the context of Africa often you don’t even get a choice as people don’t allow you to film… full stop. There is a well funded suspicion that cameras will take your soul away, only to financially benefit the filmmaker. How can I explain to them that I make a living wanting to give voice to forgotten people… I might be genuine but they don’t really care about me being a messenger. They look at my immaculate white T-Shirt probably produced by child labour in China and my chauffeured 4 wheel drive and hiss “What’s in it for me?” And I think of Sergei Dvortsevoy, when he talked about “feeling bad at turning people’s lives into Art and then abandoning them to their own devices” which led him to his decision to give up documentary. He  could no longer stand that strained relationship with his characters. I tried as much as possible to delay payments by bringing presents, mainly in the form of rice, flour, oil and then at the end some money for the ones who need to buy medication and a new capolena (material used as skirt) in order to offer those women something colourful and for them. But every visit was a reminder and a re-negotiation of that relationship.

It is harder to do it with characters I feel emotionally involved. The camera is not only a way of measuring the distance of our two worlds but also an obstruction to a helping hand.

Mama Teresa

Mama Teresa, left

One of my characters is this lovely old grandma who during daytime looks after her two ten months old grand-children and goes fishing at night. She normally walks 8km to get to the sea, in the dark, barefoot, carrying her nets on her head. The night I went with her, even for the sake of the film I could not let her walk when I knew I had a car at my disposal… so I decided not to cheat it either in the film and pretend she walked there… but how do I communicate the distance she has to walk every night to go fishing? When we got to the beach the tide was still high so we had to hang out for a couple of hours. Mama Teresa  then proceeded to walk in the sea with her fishing companion, up to their necks, despite the rain and the cold wind. They walked and pulled on their nets till 2am.

It was pitch dark and impossible to film so I sat in the car with my assistant, a local young man, who just finished his MA in sociology but could not find any work in his field at university because he was not member of Frelimo, the national party. He went on explaining his political frustration as a young citizen, waiting to see the generation of the Heroes of Liberation to die off to create a gap for change. But he now realised that they have already produced a class of technocrats who were protecting their interests, leaking that corruption into different parts of society… such as the police.

Just as we were mentioning them, a truck with ten officers, armed with old Russian rifles appeared. The chief, short and angry, possibly drunk, made us get out of the car and question our presence at 2am on Friday night by the seaside. Any other country, we may have had an apology for maybe interrupting what could have been a romantic interlude, here we were immediately treated with suspicion. Of course we had to provide papers for the car, and for ourselves. The search of the car brought the presence of the camera, which made us even more suspicious despite my permit for filming. His preoccupation was, it was pitch dark with nothing to film and the car did not belong to a TV company. We insisted that somewhere in the vast darkness we had a couple of fishing people and that not all cameras belong to TV. The rifles got closer to our chests for extra dose of intimidation,  as we were trying to convince them to fine us , if we had broken the law. Corrupt police hate fines, as it is paperwork leaving trails behind and they only get 10% of the fine, which amongst several of them is not worth the trouble… what they really want is to get people into panic and give them money to let go. Disappointed that our cold sweat did not turn into cash, they drove off, just as our couple was coming out of the sea.

What comes first: the film or the people?

I did not dare getting my camera out for a while but when they started climbing the rocks I just had to go. Mama Teresa was shivering in her wet clothes and her tired limbs made her extremely slow at climbing those slippery rocks. I stood there with my camera, thinking that I should go and help her, but if I did I did not have any ending to this sequence and maybe I did not have any scene as it was so dark. Help Sergei… what comes first the film or the people? You have your answer but I am still searching for mine… or in this case I chose the film. Mama Teresa greeted me with a happy laugh and a clap of her hands. She was so delighted that we were still there, not just because they were going to get a lift home, but because she felt we cared enough to stand in the dark and worry about them. Her life is like a little scratch on the video… it will be seen by people beyond her world. She laid her catch at my feet as proud as a cat with a dead bird and when I enquired how much it was worth she said 200 medicais equivalent of 4 beers or 4 cups of coffee local price!

Click on the links to read part II or part III of this thread.

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Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part IV

Marcelo de Oliveira is a filmmaker and sound designer who graduated with an MFA at eca. His graduation film, ‘The Great Flood‘, granted him a place at Herzog’s Rogue Film School, earlier this year.


Day 3: Constructive Feedback

by Marcelo de Oliveira

Our final day began with yet another strong note of caution. As if the previous evening and night had itself merely been an illusion, Werner jumped back into commenting on commentary and advised us to take it easy with text that is overloaded with too much depth. ‘There are moments when you can depart far from the text’, he said. He gave the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams as an example.

Albino alligator in 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams', 2010

The commentary moves into the abstract form of perception with the albino alligators. Only once the audience is comfortable with the subject can you go wild but it is important to anchor it well. The audience has to be taken by the hand and guided through the film.

Werner then delved back into the staging of moments in documentaries. For example, there is the scene in the Kinski documentary where we are taken on a visit to his old house, which was all choreographed. The basic pattern of the trip was rehearsed. ‘Sometimes it is better to come as a surprise but here it was right to set up the scene. The real surprise renders the best effects but this is not only always the case. We must sometimes be quick to take drastic steps in order to solve a problem.’

‘Be cautious about festivals’

Turning the focus onto film festivals Werner delivered a scathing attack on the culture of film festivals. He called for a climate of cinema, ‘You have to get a film out to audiences. A movie is not alive unless it is played in front of audiences. Pay attention to what is going to happen with your film. There is a problem with film festivals. Today there are more than 4,000 festivals in which there will be an average of 4 good films. Out of 20 films up for awards at Berlin recently, 15 were garbage. Festivals have become dangerous. Only festival people see the film – there is no distribution. It is appalling that a film comes to life in the incestuous festival circuit. Be cautious about festivals.’

Suspicious of the climate that reigns at festivals, Werner described how Sundance was a complete disappointment. Sundance has 3,600 submissions but it was full of younger people talking to him about film. ‘You meet young filmmakers who talk to you, but they just put on a show about how good they are. They don’t talk about the style of a film, their aim is how quickly they will be signed by a studio. It is a dangerous life of festivals. Beware of this secondary type of culture which circles around its own navel. They are too structured around cliques. You have the duty to find the distributor, to get the movie out there. Don’t neglect it.’ In a post session moment we Rogues mulled over his festival musings, a relief seemingly apparent as conversations agreed that these words were refreshing to hear at a time when film festivals appear often the only way for filmmakers to have their work screened. I recalled how having The Great Flood screened at a certain festival felt frustrating as the people who wished to view the film were often in other meetings over funding at the time of it’s showing on the big screen. Perhaps the funding of films and the screening of films should be held at different times, or even at different festivals? The Rogues pondered this and on the randomness of festivals in particular when a film can be rejected one year from a festival only for the same film to be accepted the following year at the same festival. Surely there must be a better way, we gathered without forming any real conclusions.

‘When an actor can milk a cow, there is something solid about them…’

It was now deep into Monday afternoon and the feeling that the end of this illustrious, illuminating seminar was definitely apparent gained just a hint of momentum when Werner began to talk about the longevity of film directors. ‘Very few directors survive longer than 15 years’, he stated. Filmmakers are very much in danger of being broken by the system. ‘Filmmakers don’t end well. Orson Welles for example had a very short life in cinema. You have to look at those who disappear. Very often it is about ego. They are lured into the abyss by earning too much money. If you are successful the system rewards you, if you are not the system punishes you. What can save us from this force? We are illusionists. It is best to do nothing other than be illusionists. If you have no other legs to stand on it can break you. When an actor can milk a cow there is something solid about them.’

‘Raising children brings you down to earth, do something different. It’s a good attitude to know how to handle a Kalashnikov. A man should know how to handle a hand grenade.’  There followed an exchange of views from various women in the group as to should women also know how to handle a hand grenade. Feeling the nature of his audience, Werner pushed through with his point, ‘You have to take it that you may be disconnected from your peers. Try to look beyond the profession that you are doing. The moment for me came after working on one film after another, for 10 years no one wanted to see my films. I was very lucky as I had a mentor and she said ‘film history is not going to allow you to quit’, and with that she munched on a cookie.’ With that and in wry defiance of his critics Werner uttered, ‘I’ll plough on doing my films because I know you’re all wrong.’

‘I am trying to make a film about dying languages but people are only interested in making films about fluffy animals at the moment, I envy you.’

Post coffee Werner set his sights on some more of our films.  Some great examples of cinema were shown including animations, a trailer for a fabulous looking German winter set thriller made by Wim Wenders’ assistant editor, a cinematic black and white LA road movie starring a bunch of rock drummers made by Rich, the tattooed musician, and an Italian styled B movie with plenty of blood, guts and action. Werner took each film and criticized the flaws with dignity whilst singling out what he thought worked well. He advised where the film could be improved. For example, he examined the choreography of the actors in a wonderfully conceived single shot short drama whilst critiquing the director’s choice to over rely on her monitor specifying that directors should be watching the action instead. He also reflected upon the good acting performances of the two protagonists in Megan from South Africa’s short film about the misunderstandings of love.

'The Great Flood', 2009

It was a requirement for each filmmaker to come up to the front of the class and stand next to Werner after their film had been showed. Megan sat herself back down next to me flushed from the experience of having had her film critiqued by Werner. Those of us around her passed on encouraging comments yet before too much comfort could have been afforded to her Werner called up the next person for his critique. ‘The next film I’d like to show is The Great Flood by Marcelo de Oliveria, where is he?’ That stern gaze scoured the floor of rogues. Reluctantly I raised my hand, ‘Ah, there you are, can we show it please?’ he called to the assistant at the back of the room. The lights wilted in the room as I feared the wrath of Herzog.

‘Can you come up here to the front please?’ The previous five minutes having felt like five seconds. Staring out to my fellow rogues I noticed the uncontrollable shaking of my hands. ‘Can you tell us how you came to find these people?’ My voice trembled with humility and fear. I told him how I went in search of the story of the spirit of noise that was not true in the end. He said, ‘do not worry about that’. I tell him of how difficult it was to go to Patagonia and the problems we faced in filming. My explanation summarized before Werner interjected, ‘There is great serenity in your film, it is deep with serenity. There is a good pace and rhythm, keeping to the rhythm of the pace of the footage and not pushed in the edit.’ He added to the other rogues that there is too much quick editing and not enough attention paid to the pace of the footage. Thank you Fiona and Josh, I thought. Werner then asked, ‘Did you do your own voice over?’ I humbly nodded, eyes down expecting retribution, ‘Stick to doing your own voice overs and I say this as someone who does his own voice overs.’ As the reverberation of that comment faded away within my mind I felt myself becoming incredibly emotional. Werner’s sentiments were the echoes of thoughts previously reflected by my father who, at that moment, had been very ill. Finally, with the shaking now spread to my toes he looked me in the eye and told the audience, ’You have been to this place where there are only fourteen people left in the world and their culture will soon be lost. I am trying to make a film about dying languages but people are only interested in making films about fluffy animals at the moment, I envy you.’ With that he ushered me back to my seat, I sat back down, my head spinning. My body trembled like someone walking barefoot for days in the Antarctic winter.

A final handshake from the man, a final smile, a perfect postscript

Werner Herzog signing the book 'Conquest of the Useless'

Back down on Earth, a book and individual certificate signing signalled the end of the session. We were called up in groups, a final handshake from the man, a final smile, a perfect postscript. So the curtain came down on the thoughts and insights of Werner Herzog. His reasons for conducting his own seminars are very clear; his mistrust of the traditional film school mixed with the desire to share the experiences of a maverick filmmaker, one who goes it alone when necessary. Now in his third outing of the Rogue Film School and perhaps his last for a while, his desire to share the craft of filmmaking that is changing quickly and yet celebrate it as an art form was clear. Could it be that he is out of touch with the new ways of filmmaking in an over saturated digital world, or is it that he has truly mastered his craft in a way few others have? Interestingly no one mentioned 3D. Whatever the answer, for me this experience was one that constructed new inspiration deep down; an experience that felt down to earth and truly rogue.

In the bar for the last time with the last pint, we Rogues mulled over why this had been such a unique experience. Werner Herzog’s convictions and his stoic belief that he is on the right path stood out, as did the extraordinary insights into how he makes films. When Werner told us to look into the hearts of men, I assumed I would be looking elsewhere. However maybe I ended up looking into my own heart. Perhaps this was not new confidence, just a reaffirmation.

I shall walk on foot whenever I can, I shall look into the hearts of people when looking for a character in my next film, I shall not be a slave to facts, and my first film document has already been forged with complete success…

With gratitude and dedicated to Jader de Oliveira.

For more info on ‘The Great Flood’ please visit:

Click here for Part 1, Part 2 or Part 3.

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Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part III

Marcelo de Oliveira is a filmmaker and sound designer who graduated with an MFA at eca. His graduation film, ‘The Great Flood‘, granted him a place at Herzog’s Rogue Film School, earlier this year.

Day 2:  Being a lion tamer

by Marcelo de Oliveira

The morning session began with an unexpected occurrence, an occurrence that sublimely facilitated the forgetting of the Fitzcarraldean trial that was reaching Crawley train station first thing on a Sunday, whilst engineering rail works shut down the entire local network. There was, of course, the other painful recollection that it was indeed early on a Sunday morning. Werner began the day with the reading of the passage of the horse’s death from Virgil’s ‘Georgics’. His eyes gazed at the manuscript with intent yet they burned wildly, completely transfixed in the text. Werner read the passage with that distinct accent of his whilst we hypnotically stared, captivated in a long gone moment in time. He explained how Virgil saved his Antarctica film. Arriving with no notion of what he would find Werner stepped onto the South Pole, looked around and thought ‘We will do it like Virgil!’

‘Yoga will not make you into a great filmmaker as it empties out your thoughts’

Digressing somewhat into the notion of the outdoor spirit, Herzog encouraged us, film students, to do constant sports, particularly physically challenging ones. For example, we should try boxing or basketball, the choreography of which is good for understanding cinema, he said to a surprised audience.

With that Werner changed direction into the topic of producers. ‘I never stick to schedule and I finish much earlier,’ he proudly pronounced. ‘Try to see the film from their point of view’ he said; ‘do not go over budget and deliver on time. Do not, for example, produce a cut that is over 4 hours long. If a director cannot deliver the film then you are an incompetent director. The film will be wrestled away from you. At least earn your money for your film. Then you will understand the necessities of budget, financing and marketing.’

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski on set

‘Directing is practical. It’s an endless chain of humiliations, banalities, and you have to be a lion tamer out there. If you are not the lion tamer you may not make a film on time, to budget, nor make a good film.’ Must remember where I put that whip, those boots and the top hat, I thought.

‘Yoga will not make you into a great filmmaker as it empties out your thoughts’ he bluntly stated to scattered gasps. In provocation Werner asked, ‘Do we need to declare holy war against yoga classes?’ Werner championed the opposite of emptying oneself of meaning and thoughts, ‘You do not always have to understand all the ramifications of what people are doing. There are limits to understanding. Dismiss pre-conceived ideas in a documentary. Only find out what drives these men. Go there and make sure the camera does not fail in extremities.’

In Antarctica there was no clue as to what would happen but he went there with some order. Werner underlined that he does not believe in writing scripts for documentaries.’ This only creates dead films as seen on TV’, he said. He does not need a proposal for TV, though he will write one when it is needed. He does it reluctantly however, and is pushed to do it if it is necessary. Otherwise, he said, be cautious of scripting a documentary.

Werner probed us about character finding, how do you fall in love with someone and blindly follow him or her around? How do you introduce your character and bring the audience to like your protagonist? He showed us the beginning of ‘Viva Zapata’ where Herzog claims that you cannot achieve any better than how Brando’s character is introduced to us. At the start of the film the other Mexican workers hide Zapata from the audience and yet, when he is revealed, you cannot help instantly liking him and it’s not just a question of camera positions.

Editing, commentaries and funding

Seamlessly adjusting his thoughts onto editing, Werner advised us not to shoot a large amount of material. Editing is related to what you are shooting. For example, Werner has never been a slave to continuity. ‘Material of great substance will always fit together. Be relentless with your footage. You have to be able to throw out a scene. Throwing away a scene is hard but it is the fate of filmmaking.’ Werner recalled how he was very careful with his raw stock, as he was conscious of the expense. Poverty and a question of filming in barefoot in the past affected his expense, but even now he tries to be disciplined and economical with his footage. He had thirty hours of footage for ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams‘. ‘With digital technology you can edit as fast as you can think’, he warned. ‘This is dangerous. You can make too many versions and become lost in parallels.’ Editors may be surprised, as may those who like to edit in their own space, to note that Werner always sits with the editor except if there is technical stuff to do.

Werner Herzog in 'Grizzly Man', 2005

Commentaries can be an art form per se. There were wild commentaries in ‘Grizzly Man’ and in Antarctica. He underlined that he tries to say something intelligent. He has no problem in being opinionated yet he stepped in to say that he is not totally wild about commentary. Interestingly enough he mused on being a character in his own films. ‘It is not too healthy to become a character in your own films – it becomes embarrassing. The joy of storytelling is throwing yourself in it, it is healthy to look at yourself with a sense of irony.’ Admitting he often makes up quotes at the beginning of his documentary films Werner summed up, ‘Think the unthinkable, go anywhere when making a film.’

Before the afternoon break Werner spoke about how hard it had become to find funding for his films in today’s climate. However, his determination to follow the topics he thought were achievable showed no sign of waning. Werner’s current project, a documentary film about inmates on death row, is not too expensive to film yet he confessed to us that the proceedings of this Rogue Film School seminar were to be invested into this film. A Rogue in the audience roguishly exclaimed if we were therefore all owed a credit on the film. Thunderous laughter resonated in the room, Werner laughed and smiled but without any further comment he moved on. By no means though did this seminar give the impression that it could feel comfortable sat among the ever- increasing ranks of gala fund-raising events by previous prime ministers or CEOs. There was passion in what was said and shared by Werner. Yet the fear that many of my fellow Rogues felt, that this would just be a session of anecdotes and memories, also failed to materialize even if some of the more biographical questions from the floor could have encouraged that type of seminar.

During the coffee break, I went up to Werner to tell him that I liked the idea of my fee going into his latest project. I reflected that I had wondered what would be happening with the money. I also commented that it was a shame that we could not choose which of his projects these funds could be applied to, as I would have preferred to have my money funding his dying languages project. Werner replied that right now the climate does not wish to know about endangered human species whose cultures are almost extinct. The TV channels, he mustered, merely wish to see films about fluffy animals. There was an air of resignation in the sound of his voice that perhaps reflected his perception that this project, although perceived as an incredibly important aspect of humanity to document, was as doomed as the people he is trying to film. His words resounded the saddest point of the seminar for me, that a filmmaker with the experience and achievements of Werner Herzog cannot find funding for a film that he is so passionate about. It was perhaps a little naive of us to assume that a legendary filmmaker such as Werner Herzog could just brainstorm an idea one moment and make it happen the next. That look of resignation upon his face brought my general mood back down to that of the real world, even if only for a moment.

Wild imaginations and the passion of people from within

Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, volcanologist

With the end of the break, Werner announced that the guest speaker would be Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, the volcanologist from ‘Encounters at the End of the World’, who he met up a volcano in Antarctica. He had come to talk about wild imaginations and the passion of people from within. Him and Werner dove into a discourse about the fragility of human culture and civilization. They delved into the world of volcanic eruptions and pondered with great excitement and depth into how 74,000 years ago the population of the human race became decimated to as low as between 2-10,000 people due to the huge volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in South East Asia. Humanity was almost at its end. Fascinated in their personal, yet public imaginations, it seemed as if they were lost in their topics cocooned within a certain childhood splendour and curiosity. These conversations led Werner to step out from their world for a moment to ask us in the audience to imagine what would happen here in the UK if all the power were to be cut off, ‘after 2 weeks there would be pandemonium!’ he exclaimed.

Day two did not quite finish at that moment but continued in my mind, past the now traditional post class bar session and onto the 21:34 train from Crawley, elatedly musing upon the power of the human mind, it’s wonderment and our desire to tell stories even if these desires were slightly tarnished by the realities of financial restraints.

Click here to read Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part IVClick here for Part 1 and Part 2.

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Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part II

Marcelo de Oliveira is a filmmaker and sound designer who graduated with an MFA at eca. His graduation film, ‘The Great Flood‘, granted him a place at Herzog’s Rogue Film School, earlier this year.

Day 1: Read, read, read, read.

by Marcelo de Oliveira

I wanted to be as far forward as possible to be able to see Herzog’s every muscle move in his face, to observe every movement, to completely concentrate and to listen. My notepad quickly opened, my pen at the ready, my only purpose to be attentive and to write down everything he uttered.

Rogue Film School, 2011

Werner entered the front of the room and took control of the microphone, a screen hung behind him and a projector fanned in front of him. Two speakers dangled either side of him. He welcomed us and began with his Rogue Film School mantra, ‘I will say this again, if you want to be a film director you must read, read, read, read.’

Forge, steal, pick locks…

Werner launched straight into his European Rogue Film School by delving into two topics advertised on the website: lock picking and document forging. However, he counselled that he was not trying to encourage illegal activities, but as a filmmaker one had to be prepared to step across the borders. Film school, he stated, will not teach you that we have a natural right as filmmakers to steal a camera or steal certain documents. He reminisced upon the stealing of a camera whilst at Munich Film School on which later he shot ‘Fitzcarraldo,’ amongst others. Werner took out and passed around a brochure explaining how to pick locks. He recalled picking the locks of various summerhouses around Germany when he decided to walk around the country’s border, taking shelter in these rarely used homes in his quest to connect with his country. ‘Patience is required’ he informed us, ‘as is being tactile.’

Moving on to the forging of documents, Werner recounted one experience during the filming of ‘Fitzcarraldo’ in Peru in 1981. Whilst having difficulties with the local authorities in a remote part of the jungle, a wharf that had served as a port for the ship in the film had been attacked many times and often burnt to the ground due to an ongoing border war. Military coups kept popping up, soldiers would fire at them and Werner could not move on with his filming further down the river. So he explained how he went up to the military camp to speak to the commander in order to allow him to pass.

Klaus Kinski in ‘Fitzcarraldo’, 1982

The commander asked to see a permit in order to let him continue on his way up the river. Werner said he needed to return to Lima in order to fetch it. ‘This story was an entire fabrication’, he roared above the laughter. Of course he did not have this document so upon his return to Lima, Werner forged the document whilst stamping the parchment with any stamps that he could find including a couple of German ones he had with him plus the addition of two fake signatures for that extra authentic aesthetic look.

Upon his return to the camp Werner showed the document to the commander who promptly stood up, adjusted his uniform, clicked his heels, saluted and instructed him he could move on. ‘Be street smart in filmmaking,’ he wryly commented to us, ‘Be prepared to do unusual things, it is encouraged.’

A hushed room, it’s silence merely broken with the deft tones of scribble, scribble, scribble. Already swept away by his insights, with a wrist writing evermore furiously than a bush fire in a gale, a grin pinned between my ears showed no signs of abating. Looking around the room it seemed I was not the only one enjoying this experience.

Sound Sound Sound

Now onto the more serious side of filmmaking, Werner began with a topic that seemed to surprise most in the room: sound. Yes my fellow filmmakers and Rogues, sound. Werner showed us the first of the films he had selected from our entries as examples of work that were open for him to constructively criticize, a film called ‘Traum Im Traum’. It was an animation with specific attention to detail in the sound and a simple story aimed at children. Werner spoke about the art of being a boom operator and in doing so how I thanked the angels of film. He reiterated how boom operators move and how they are aware of the movement of the camera. Perched in a type of figure that resembled a cross between a rave dancer and a praying mantis, he adopted the pose of the lesser-spotted boom operator. ‘It is a very important craft’, he stated to us. He continued over the course of the morning to delve into the importance of a director paying attention to sound, how important collecting wild tracks is and how important it is to build up a catalogue of sounds. Werner spoke about the intensity of recording ambiences. Sound is a particular type of awareness and you need a cornucopia of sounds. He concluded by announcing that he really likes fanatical sound recordists! Before I could don my Che Guevara sound recording outfit he roared, ‘Bring life into your films through sound.’ This is cinema heaven, I thought.

Werner Herzog (right) in ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’ 2010

Music, admitted Werner, is his other great passion. ‘Establish a feeling for space’ he told us, ‘do not just use the panning of a camera in order to achieve this, you can also use music.’ Sometimes, he confided, he has the music before he has the film. This was the case in ‘Fitzcarraldo’, in ‘White Diamond’ and, more recently, in ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’. Werner spoke of the pace of the music whereby he insists in sitting in the studio live room with the musicians from where he can direct the flow of the music.

Not a festival of placid admirers

Although easy to gasp in wonderment in his stories and be floated down the enchanting stream of his enigmatic presence, not in any way was this a Werner Herzog festival of placid admirers. I imagined him to be in some cauldron surrounded by over affectionate yet ravenous people all wanting their share of him. Scrutiny and questioning from my fellow Rogues was relentless. He was questioned intensely and under minute detail over some of his filmmaking decisions throughout the course of the seminar. In this instance the well-informed crowd laid siege to the scene in ‘Grizzly Man‘ where Herzog is seen listening to the tape of his protagonist’s death. We do not hear the audio on the tape, a decision that was scrutinized by the Rogues. Werner maintained his principles that he wished to preserve the dignity of somebody’s death. A vacillating debate enthused over the use of intense footage in today’s films, for example in showing executions on the Internet. ‘YouTube has a dangerous side of revealing everything. Develop your own framework of values.’ There, the principles of Herzog, the man himself, appeared to be laid bare. He took the comments in his stride yet respectfully countered what others were saying. Werner re-iterated that this was his way of doing things and that he was in no way preaching to us as to how we should make our films. On the boundaries of what you show in documentary film Werner asked us to think about how far do we go? What do we show? He summed up by reminding us that we must form our own ethical perspectives, as he is not Moses.

“We should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings.”

‘Encounters at the End of the World’, 2007

On finding characters for documentaries he offered some interesting insights into working on the fly. Werner sees a quest in someone who pops out from the screen and becomes very human. ‘How do you introduce a person within a film’, he questioned? It is a very difficult thing to do. The film ‘Encounters at the End of the World’ was made on the run. There was no time to properly research much yet he managed to persuade the seemingly un-persuadable. ‘There is no art of persuasion, only knowing the hearts of men,’ he explained. ‘People who touch you will make you want to listen to them,’ he stated whilst looking far beyond us into perhaps an abyss of experience.

Much is staged in his documentaries he told us; they are feature films in disguise. We search for a deeper truth in cinema. There is, ‘an ecstasy of truth – something that is beyond the sheer facts, something that points beyond the image itself. Guide the audience into this. These are moments of illumination.’

With that he galloped into yet another provocative statement, that he is ready to do battle with the cinema verité believers and will do so at any opportunity. ‘Cinema verité is the cinematic answer to the 60s’ he professed. ‘Today we have a huge onslaught on reality. Everything can be manipulated. Realities have shifted to the reality of brands and virtual imaginations.’

Werner implored us to move away from the facts and do something different. In Werner’s case it is through the ecstasy of truth. ‘Move away from sheer facts as they do not contain truth. Only truth can create illumination.’ With a battle cry against those who follow cinema verité Werner rallied with passionate eyes, ‘we should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings. Seize the opportunity to be a filmmaker. You are not a slave to be fact based. We are filmmakers. We shape the film. We are not slaves to the material. We are directors. Go absolutely and completely wild.’

Filled with the ecstasy of the truth and drunk with the desire to really go wild, stomachs rumbled, lunch beckoned and our first break of the day came as if it had been days since that early breakfast.

How do we beat the TV system?

David Gobler, Channel 4 Commissioning Editor

During the afternoon session we were introduced to the real world, specifically personified by Werner’s friend and Channel 4 commissioning executive, David Glover, to talk to us about how to obtain a TV film commission. I could see why Herzog was a friend of this seemingly standard TV commissioner when Glover fired straight into a question for all of us; ‘how do we beat the system? How do we make the types of films that we want whilst adhering to the broadcasters demands? Some documentary proposals felt like essays’ he said, ‘make sure the proposition is clear and appealing.’

Werner asked him what he looks for in a character. Glover responded that he had no real answer; it is his deepest fascination of a character that lures him towards him. Something hits him hard in the guts that this film has to be made. In feature films it is similar, never leave the protagonist out of sight.

With the concept of being illusionists fresh in our minds, the illusion of time played with our notion of the time. 6pm had come to pass and the end of a memorable long day resonated with the many echoes of that distinguished Germanic voice. My notebook bulged with words from that intense mind whilst my wrist ached from poorly trained frantic writings. The bar beckoned and with the fellow Rogues we unwound, mentally exhausted, whilst letting the information of the day settle with the aid of a second pint.

Click here to read Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part III. Click here for Part I.

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Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part I

Marcelo de Oliveira is a filmmaker and sound designer who graduated with an MFA at eca. His graduation film, ‘The Great Flood‘, granted him a place at Herzog’s Rogue Film School, earlier this year.

The Rogue Film School: Meet and Greet

By Marcelo de Oliveira

Whilst on the 16.27 train from Clapham Junction to Crawley many peculiar thoughts entered my head. First of all, why Crawley? Werner Herzog had chosen the furthest hotel from Gatwick Airport for his first European and third in all Rogue Film School, a hotel that happened to sit on the fringes of this town. Secondly I had to remember to breathe as I found myself reliving the moment the email fell into my inbox with the subject heading, “Congratulations!!!”

‘The Great Flood’, 2009

I happen to recall that in the moment of receiving that email I had been in a pub, somewhere in Edinburgh, with, as a coincidence, the director of photography of the film that I entered ‘The Great Flood‘, Scott Ward, and one of the editors of the film, Fiona Reid. Within that second all sound faded out of my cacophonous conscious state and all sight focused on the wording of the email, I looked to them pale as coconut milk and asked, ‘Should I go?’

On the train to the Friday evening’s Meet and Greet I found myself re-enacting that moment over and over. I looked around at my fellow train passengers, and in doing so a surge of euphoria entered my body recognizing the fact that I had been chosen as one of sixty others seemingly sufficiently rogue enough to be asked to attend this unique opportunity.

Werner Herzog

Arriving at the hotel I asked reception where the Rogue Film School was taking place. Anxious anticipation now provided a false state of bravado. I darted towards the desk where only two people sat still preparing and organizing our passes. To the right hand corner of my eye however, a figure lurked in a dark grey suit. He turned in a flash, Werner Herzog stood there and I almost bumped in to him head on. He smiled, extended his arm and asked’ Hello, who are you?’ in that ever so distinct voice. ‘Marcelo de Oliveira,’ I mumbled, shaking his hand. ‘We’ll be five minutes,’ said Bernie, the coordinator of the seminar. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I said before quickly turning around and rushing for the bar with other sheepish looking Rogues who had experienced a similar fate.

Expecting my fellow Rogues to be mostly British and European I was incredibly surprised to find a table by the bar filled with people from all over the world. A heavily tattooed denim clad guy from Los Angeles named Rich sat next to me and immediately asked, ‘Are you in a band?’ Things were becoming distinctly Herzogesque.

Finally Bernie announced the start of the proceedings and herded us into the secluded bar where canapés and drinks from the bar followed our registration. Werner individually introduced himself to each Rogue, his notes attached to him so that he could specifically talk to each individual about their submitted film, whilst also finding out a bit more about them.  ‘You are the one who went to Patagonia?’ he asked upon my turn whilst his eyes gazed at his notes. I nodded, wide eyed and in complete silence, ‘I really loved the photography of your film,’ he said to me as emotion in the form of elation, a quivering jaw and a general bodily shaking sensation took hold (as I’m sure it did to my DOP later upon hearing this compliment). ‘I am trying to make a film about dying peoples of the world but no one is interested in funding it at the moment,’ continued Herzog. A thousand thoughts raced through my head, should I leap into the abyss and go for a co-production? Should I see if he would like an assistant? Should I volunteer all my knowledge in order to help him and be a researcher? ‘Oh yes, I know, it’s tough,’ said I picking on a prawn canapé.

The Rogue Film School, 2011

With the canapés almost devoured Werner made an announcement regarding the nature of the next three days, he instructed us that he would show clips from his films as well as some of the films we sent in. As Werner continued to introduce himself to the other candidates I would see his instantly recognizable face come into focus between my fellow Rogues from time to time. Surreal and strange were the feelings shared amongst us in between beers.

Click here to read Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School, the experience part II.

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