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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

Filed under: Filmmaking, Masterclasses, , , , , ,

João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part VI

João Moreira Salles is a Brazilian documentarian and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles. In 2006, he founded the magazine piauí. He has also taught courses on documentary at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and Princeton University.

In 1992 he began shooting a film about Santiago, the butler in his childhood home who left an indelible mark upon the family. Santiago was an educated man who, in addition to his work, produced some 60,000 pages of stories documenting his surroundings as well as tales of aristocratic lifestyles, including that of the house in which he himself served.

Through his personal voice-over, Salles sheds light on his family and childhood, and on the reasons why the film took 13 years to complete. The result is an elegant mosaic with two parallel narratives, dealing with universal topics such as memories, identity, and documentary filmmaking.*

 

To view an extract of the film please click here.

 

This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.

 

*Unknown author.

The reasons behind ‘Santiago’

In this film, there’s something from which you can’t run away, which is… It sounds like by talking about it, I’m defending myself from my tyranny, a cleverly narcissistic procedure almost…  And because I’m talking about it, it’s as if everything is fine. I admit, therefore it’s as if I’m very brave. But it’s not like that, it’s not something that I’m proud of… even when I look at it today I feel embarrassed for having done something I didn’t quite realise I was doing, but I still did it. It doesn’t save me from anything; the film was made under those conditions. So by re-editing the film, not to show that I’m brave or to show what I did wrong – there is no bravery in showing what I did wrong when what I did condemned the relationship I had with Santiago. Now, that was the footage and that was the relationship, so if the film has to be made and if the first film failed because it didn’t show what actually happened, I only had two choices. I could either show what happened and expose myself to the critics of ‘He’s such a good guy for showing this, he’s redeemed himself, this film is a redemption, he saw the light, he’s almost a saint’.

No, that’s not why, but it’s the only way the film can exist, because the other way is to not have the film. And if there’s no film, there’s no way of revealing what was the actual process of filming and the nature of my relationship with Santiago. So I think this sequence clearly shows what I had with him, a relationship of power, although I insist it wasn’t just that. I believe there was affection, there was love, and that showed even if through a class structure, even though I wasn’t aware of it. So inside that class structure, therefore of inequality, there was love and it manifested itself that way.

I defend that it was better to have it made than not, at least from Santiago’s point of view, because we’re here today, some fifteen years after his death, talking about him. And he is, ultimately, an extraordinary and lively character. He would have disappeared without a trace if it weren’t for this film and I think that, somehow, redeems the film; it’s a counterpoint to the violence of the film. The fact that there was someone who went there to listen to him, even though I listened in a very specific way, and some of it I didn’t listen to but some I did. In that sense I’d like to think that the film does with Santiago what Santiago did with his old characters from his lists. He named them out loud and they became real. I made a film about Santiago and he became real too.

Click on the links to read part Ipart IIpart III,  part IV or part V.

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João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part V

João Moreira Salles is a Brazilian documentarian and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles. In 2006, he founded the magazine piauí. He has also taught courses on documentary at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and Princeton University.
In 1992 he began shooting a film about Santiago, the butler in his childhood home who left an indelible mark upon the family. Santiago was an educated man who, in addition to his work, produced some 60,000 pages of stories documenting his surroundings as well as tales of aristocratic lifestyles, including that of the house in which he himself served.
Through his personal voice-over, Salles sheds light on his family and childhood, and on the reasons why the film took 13 years to complete. The result is an elegant mosaic with two parallel narratives, dealing with universal topics such as memories, identity, and documentary filmmaking.*
 
To view an extract of the film please click here.
 
This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.
 
*Unknown author.
 
The Edit and Voice Over Choices
 

Santiago and Memory

In this film we didn’t try to disguise the sound cuts. There’s always continuous dialogue instead. And another thing we don’t have is editing… I mean, there is association but not an obvious one, like, for example, someone saying: “I went to Montevideo.” Then you cut it with someone else saying: “Montevideo is a very beautiful city.” You start hooking these themes, which is a classic way of making documentaries; things go hand in hand and evolve through very obvious connections. In this film that doesn’t happen, instead, the themes change dramatically without the need to indicate it, and all the sequences happen in a single shot so when they’re over it’s a clear indication for the audience that there’s been a cut, therefore the film also tells the story of its own edit.

‘When I started talking in the first person the film started to exist’

Noe Mendelle: In contrast with Santiago’s voice, you then took the decision of using someone else’s voice, not yours. How do you explain this?

There were ideas of sequence. I wanted to make a sequence about flowerpots, so we would find the flower pots and try to edit a sequence together. I would then write the text straight away. Ninety per cent of what can be heard in the film was written on the day it was edited, in the edit suite. I would write it and Eduardo Escorel had a shabby microphone, which he used to record it, and then we would adjust it. The text was written after the image, which I find very important. The image was preeminent. There wasn’t a text to start with and then we would come up with images to illustrate. It was the opposite. The text followed the image’s rhythm. At the end of the process, we had a film with Escorel’s voice, which is in fact very beautiful. So I watched the film like that for a few months. Then, Escorel and a small group of people who had seen the film insisted that I recorded it. Also, during the first week of editing, the text that I had written was in the third person, I didn’t use ‘I’. Again, it was going in the direction of the first failure. I was dissuaded to write in the first person by Lívia and Escorel, and when I started using the first person the film started to exist. It meant that I became a character in the film and my relationship with Santiago became the main relationship established in it.

‘It’s in the middle of that road that documentary exists. It tosses its roots into the real world and throws its hand into the world of fairy tales, into the imaginary.’

Among other things, the film is also about that tenuous and mysterious border between what had actually happened and what I thought had happened; between the house where I lived and the house in Santiago’s imagination. What it is in reality and what it is in the imaginary; a fairy tale of the truth, which I think is the nature of documentary. It doesn’t mean it’s a lie, but there’s an impure, and good mixture between the concrete and the imaginary. And it’s in the middle of that road that documentary exists. It tosses its roots into the real world and throws its hand into the world of fairy tales, into the imaginary. When I started watching the footage again, thirteen years later, very humbly and without any rhetorical feelings, a lot of the times I didn’t know what I was looking at. I didn’t know if some of the scenes had been staged or if they had happened just like that without any external interference. I didn’t know if I had put that white cloth over Gávea’s house furniture. I didn’t know anymore. No one knew. Thirteen, fourteen years had gone past. So there was an element of doubt which for me was very important to include in the film… a doubt, an enigma that can’t be solved and that shouldn’t be solved. Is it the truth or is it not the truth? It’s not a ‘spot the differences’ game, ‘yes, it’s the truth!’ I don’t care… the important thing is to keep that fantasy territory alive, the one that doesn’t know what it is and will never find out.

In that sense, I thought that introducing someone else’s voice, not mine, speaking in my name, was to give the film another layer of illusion. A new layer saying: ‘Don’t believe in everything you see.’ And I could have use Escorel’s voice to do that, or an actor’s voice, which I did, there is a version narrated by an actor. And both Escorel and the actor introduced that layer of illusion, but in a blatant way. It was almost a militant proposal saying: ‘I am lying to you and I’m being blatant about it.’ But I find lying disinteresting. It’s not a question of lying or saying the truth; it’s a question of doubting, of ambiguity, of impurity. I love the idea of impurity but I don’t like the idea of purity which is closely associated with the idea of perfection. By speaking on my behalf, my brother Fernando in a way speaks about things that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to talk about, and he also talks about things that he could, because he lived in that house. He keeps a big part of those memories; they are his memories too. The things that he remembers are also things that he lived. It’s not a lying memory, it’s not a false memory; it’s not an artefact. He’s someone who incorporates my memories and has the right to have them. Not all of them, but most. So, it worked in that sense.

Click on the links to read part Ipart IIpart III or part IV.

Come back next week for the last instalment of this blog.

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João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part IV

João Moreira Salles is a Brazilian documentarian and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles. In 2006, he founded the magazine piauí. He has also taught courses on documentary at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and Princeton University.

In 1992 he began shooting a film about Santiago, the butler in his childhood home who left an indelible mark upon the family. Santiago was an educated man who, in addition to his work, produced some 60,000 pages of stories documenting his surroundings as well as tales of aristocratic lifestyles, including that of the house in which he himself served.

Through his personal voice-over, Salles sheds light on his family and childhood, and on the reasons why the film took 13 years to complete. The result is an elegant mosaic with two parallel narratives, dealing with universal topics such as memories, identity, and documentary filmmaking. *

To view an extract of the film please click here.

This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.

*Unknown author.

Santiago and Memory

The film is very close to that sensation of celebrating nostalgia, which I think of as being the conservative idea that the past is better than the present, and that one needs to recover the past, which is impossible, so all that’s left is sadness and melancholy of the time that went past and the feeling you can’t invest in the present. From that you get the happiness of the past too. Nostalgia is necessarily melancholic and conservative. The past is better than the present and therefore, sometimes, better than the future… And I didn’t want to convey that in the film.

So I think the sound design would have had that connotation. I think beyond that, there’s also the need to say the following; past is irrecoverable and what you’re watching now, these images, are images that are missing an essential component, which is live sound. The shouting of those children, the affectionate word, the affection between my mother and my brother, my father playing with him… all of that is gone. If you put a soundtrack on it, the feeling that there’s something missing is lost. And this idea, that time produces a non-material effect is an idea that became very important at the time of filming. Why was that idea so important? Because it was Santiago’s idea. Santiago said: ‘The past passes. Things go past. Things are lost.’ What to do in face of that? Santiago found a way, through his lists and his imagination, by recovering that past by naming those people in the lists; by speaking about them and by speaking to them; by saying their names out loud it was as if they existed again, through memory.

Santiago and his lists

It’s a Greek idea, because their biggest fear was to be forgotten. The hero went to the battle and it was important there was a poet to sing about his bravery in the battlefield, because he would always be alive in the poet’s song. The curse is to be forgotten. That’s why the river that flows in Greek mythology is the river of oblivion, when you die. Santiago had that idea very much alive in him. To remember, sing, name, and say these names to keep them alive.

But there are things that go missing. And in the case of this film, things went missing. We, Video Filmes, my production company, used to be in a part of Rio de Janeiro when I made the film. Thirteen years later we had moved somewhere else in Rio and, during the moving, some things went missing, among them some of ‘Santiago’s’ audio tracks. At the end of the movie, you can see scenes of Santiago talking with no sound, and no music either. Again, it was an attempt to show that this was the subject; time. Time loses things. And whatever Santiago said in that moment, I will never know, because it’s lost. And that is included in the film.

When we started editing again, myself, Escorel and Lívia made the decision to include all those very concrete accidents in the film. If we have sound but the image is lost, let’s use the sound and not the image. Leave it all black. If there’s image but the sound is lost, let’s use the image without the sound, because the history of the footage is in those mistakes, in what the footage has left behind, because it got lost in time and because time went past. So in that scene you can’t hear the noises of the house; the sonority of that house doesn’t exist. Any attempt to create sound for it, would be, in fact, violent in relation to what I was trying to say with this film.

Click on the links to read part I, part IIpart III or part V.

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João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part III

João Moreira Salles is a Brazilian documentarian and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles. In 2006, he founded the magazine piauí. He has also taught courses on documentary at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and Princeton University.In 1992 he began shooting a film about Santiago, the butler in his childhood home who left an indelible mark upon the family. Santiago was an educated man who, in addition to his work, produced some 60,000 pages of stories documenting his surroundings as well as tales of aristocratic lifestyles, including that of the house in which he himself served.

Through his personal voice-over, Salles sheds light on his family and childhood, and on the reasons why the film took 13 years to complete. The result is an elegant mosaic with two parallel narratives, dealing with universal topics such as memories, identity, and documentary filmmaking.*

To view an extract of the film please click here.

This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.

*Unknown author.

Santiago’s freedom and the concept behind the film

This excerpt follows Noe Mendelle’s remark on this scene, in which she asks João if he thinks this was the only moment of the film where Santiago exercised his freedom.

Santiago told me once: ‘I find my hands very beautiful and I remember making these gestures as a child, like an exercise, whilst listening to Bach.’ And he asked me to do that in the film. So you’re right when you say that maybe that is one of the only moments in the film in which he’s exercising his freedom. To be able to do what he wanted to and be proud of it to the point he wanted it to be filmed. And he’s absolutely free and happy doing it, because it’s important for him and it’s beautiful.

When it came to editing, I had a discussion with Eduardo Escorel and with another editor, Lívia. There was three generations in the edit suite. Lívia was 22, 23 years old, I was 40 something and Escorel was 60 something. And as I mentioned yesterday, this film was edited without any expectations. Not only expectations about the audience, which didn’t even cross my mind, but any expectations that this was going to be a film.  It was something made for me, so everything was allowed. We didn’t worry about it being too long or too short, if it’s beautiful and we want to look at it, let’s leave it, because no one is going to judge it.  It’s not a rhetoric film and, I know a lot of people say they made a personal project but this was specifically and truly a very personal project. And no one remembered it existed and there was no pretension to transform it into a film.

So everything was allowed. There was no kind of thoughts asking ‘What about the audience?’

So that specific scene was left long, and Escorel said: ‘But that’s too long!’ and I said: ‘That is a little too long.’ And Lívia, who was the most orthodox and the bravest, said: ‘It’s too short! Leave it for longer!’ She ended up being the radical element in our edit. And it stayed that long because it’s the time he takes… it’s all there is in the film, there’s no more than that. And it lasted for as long as he wanted to show us his hands. So what he had to show us is all in the film, in its entirety, just like a present he gave us. There is no other interpretation beyond that, but I think that you’re right, it is a moment of absolute freedom in which Santiago is not being directed, in fact, the camera is only observing what he chose to show us. And all of it was his choice, including the frame. He said: ‘I don’t want my face in it; I only want my hands, like two ballerinas.’ So we closed in and got a black backdrop in front of him, and he would pass his hands in front of it and do it… There isn’t a place for it either. There’s no geographical place, it breaks from the prison of the apartment, it breaks free from the rigidness of the frame. It breaks from…

Noe Mendelle: Even the hands get out of frame.

João Salles: And the hands break free from the frame too. And they come back when he and Bach’s music decide to give the hands back to the frame. So, you’re right, I’d never thought about it like that but it’s a moment in which Santiago exercises his freedom, right in front of the tyranny of filmmaking.

Noe Mendelle: But you decided to shoot it statically. The frame doesn’t go looking for the hands, it stays put.

João Salles: It stays put.

Noe Mendelle: And you have, there is some sort of respect for these hands that move out of frame.

João Salles: Yes, there is respect in a general sense.

Noe Mendelle: Did you get more than one take?

João Salles: No, no. Everything in that scene, everything you see it’s all that was filmed. There’s no before or after. If I had more I have the feeling that Lívia would have convinced us to put it in. Now, the rigidness of the shot is something that is present in the whole film. I mean, it was a very pretentious film. The original idea was very pretentious. And what was the original idea? Santiago represents to me memory. That is, a sort of vertical axis, fixed on the ground, without moving, except in my imagination. The house, that I filmed empty, was a house that, at that time, for me, only symbolized a place. It didn’t symbolize history anymore, because history had abandoned that house. My family had left it and somehow it lost all its purpose, because times were changing. It was impossible to have such a big house so close to the millennium. This was a house built at the start of the 50’s, when Rio de Janeiro was another city. It was too big a house, too pompous for the ‘90’s. The house was built when Rio de Janeiro was still Brazil’s capital. My dad had been the State Minister and he was Joselino’s colleague. So this house was a centre for Rio de Janeiro’s political life.

Now, at the time of filming, Rio de Janeiro wasn’t the capital anymore; it had been taken over by violence. It lost its consciousness, it didn’t know what it was anymore, and it didn’t reinvent itself… so the city lost its centrality. Brasilia was now the capital; São Paulo was the financial capital. Rio de Janeiro was a memory of something that didn’t exist anymore. And that house represented all of that, for me, a drifting place, without history’s courage, as if it had been ditched by history and it was adrift in the sea. Therefore, because it was pure geography without history’s anchor, the scenes in the house are all moving, just like anything that doesn’t have an anchor.

Santiago is pure memory, not geography anymore, because Rio was not important to me then, the city didn’t matter anymore, what mattered was the verticality of memory and time. So, everything that happened in Santiago’s house was filmed statically. And all the movement in it is the movement of imagination. In the house, all empty, everything is moving because the imagination has left, it was over. Its purpose is over, its history was over, and the idea was over too, the idea that ended on the cutting room floor… because it was pretentious. That was the idea; that empty place was to be filled by Santiago’s memories. I didn’t have to go anywhere to travel in time. The house was sliding but it couldn’t find rest in reason, or a place where it could feel at ease, anchored or stopped. So that was the big opposition of the film. It’s static when you’re watching Santiago, in constant movement when you’re inside the house.

Click on the links to read part Ipart II, part IV or part V.

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João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part II

João Moreira Salles is a Brazilian documentarian and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles. In 2006, he founded the magazine piauí. He has also taught courses on documentary at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and Princeton University.In 1992 he began shooting a film about Santiago, the butler in his childhood home who left an indelible mark upon the family. Santiago was an educated man who, in addition to his work, produced some 60,000 pages of stories documenting his surroundings as well as tales of aristocratic lifestyles, including that of the house in which he himself served.

Through his personal voice-over, Salles sheds light on his family and childhood, and on the reasons why the film took 13 years to complete. The result is an elegant mosaic with two parallel narratives, dealing with universal topics such as memories, identity, and documentary filmmaking.*

To view an extract of the film please click here.

This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.

*Unknown author.

The film became possible when I realised that these off screen moments were essential for the film

13 years later, when I got back to the edit suite I asked for the transcripts, but these only had information about the actual shots. There wasn’t a single sentence about what came before or after, so I had no information on all the off-screen conversations that took place. I started looking at what came before and after the planned shots and realised that what explained the artificiality in the film was outside of these shots. And the film became possible when I realised that these off screen moments were essential for the film. The off screen that I didn’t control or what I thought I didn’t need to control. And those were my conversations with him, that in the end were the things that weren’t the object of my obsession with control, of the obsession with the aesthetics…

Noe Mendelle: But the difference between these shots seems to me to be in relation to you, not in relation to him.

João Salles: Yes, of course!

Noe Mendelle: He is the same either in or out of the shot, you are the one that changes…

João Salles: Yes, I was the one who changed once I was off screen. And that first edit didn’t have that. And then I started to listen, when I started editing again, to all of the audiotapes, before the beginning of the shot and after. And I also listened to the off cuts of the film which changed my perspective.

Click on the links to read part I or part III.

Santiago in his living room

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João Moreira Salles talks about ‘Santiago’ – part I

João Moreira Salles is a Brazilian documentarian and president of the Instituto Moreira Salles. In 2006, he founded the magazine piauí. He has also taught courses on documentary at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and Princeton University.

‘In 1992 he began shooting a film about Santiago, the butler in his childhood home who left an indelible mark upon the family. Santiago was an educated man who, in addition to his work, produced some 60,000 pages of stories documenting his surroundings as well as tales of aristocratic lifestyles, including that of the house in which he himself served.

Through his personal voice-over, Salles sheds light on his family and childhood, and on the reasons why the film took 13 years to complete. The result is an elegant mosaic with two parallel narratives, dealing with universal topics such as memories, identity, and documentary filmmaking.’ *

To view an extract of the film please click here.

This entry is part of a series of edited transcripts of João Moreira Salles’ Masterclass in Doc Montevideo 2011, hosted by Noe Mendelle.

 *Unknown author.
 

The Beginning

João Moreira Salles, cineasta

At the end of the 80’s, Brazil elected its new president, called Fernando Collor de Melo.

One of the things Fernando Collor de Melo did was to suspend all the laws that supported film production in Brazil. So for three years or maybe a little before that, whilst he ruled the country, Brazil didn’t make any films. I think there was one film, maybe two, maximum, which was a real problem for production companies, such as the one I have with my brother, Waltinho,  where we used to make TV series, documentaries and features.

Suddenly we couldn’t do that anymore. So we, like any other production company in Brazil, had one solution only, and that was advertising. We all started making adverts. Video Filmes, which is our joint production company, became one of the biggest advertising production companies in Brazil. The other production company was Fernando Meirele’s O2, based in São Paulo.

That had another consequence, which is not important to this conversation now, but as a little parenthesis, a whole generation of directors in Brazil learnt film practice by making adverts, and come the 90’s one can see that in a lot of films. Productions extraordinarily… well, very well produced, virtuous filming techniques using all of film’s technical resources. Extraordinary photography… and all of this was a consequence, for better or worse, of a generation of directors who started making films, having learnt the basics of filmmaking on 30 second film sets with big budgets, because the advertising industries in Brazil have always been expensive and required a lot of money.

‘We didn’t have a “project” or an “incentive”

So there you have it, a little parenthesis. And what does this have to do with Santiago? Well, it’s very hard to make adverts even though it’s an important learning curve; it’s a job without any perspective of permanency. It’s never work that “lasts”. And that has consequences in our brains. One starts to feel as if one is living in a desert. So, in ’92-’93, I decided to start using the off cuts of some advertising campaigns to start filming ‘Santiago’. It’s a film that, at that time, in its origin, was made completely unprofessionally, in the sense that we didn’t have a “project” or an “incentive”. We picked up the cans that were left from other advertising projects and spent five days at Santiago’s house, someone who had been very important to me. At the same time, around ’93-’94, Collor’s mandate was over, and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the following president, had already changed the laws of film production in Brazil, and Waltinho, my brother was already in production of ‘Foreign Land’ which was made with the same off cuts, same camera, and same cinematographer, Walter Carvalho. So some of the footage was adverts and some of it was my brother’s film, ‘Foreign Land’. With those offcuts and a crew we went to Santiago’s house and we shot the film in 5 days.

‘I gave up’

Jorge Luis Borges, writer

I got into the edit suite just after that and then, as I told you yesterday, I tried to edit it but I couldn’t do it. The film was to be all about Santiago as an exotic character… a character that already existed before being filmed, I mean, he existed in my head more than anything. I just wasn’t prepared to take in whatever Santiago had to tell me. I had preconceived ideas. The character that I had imagined could have been taken from ‘Funes, the Memorious’, that story by Borges. And I thought Santiago was similar. Therefore, I never meant to be a character in the film, my relationship with him wasn’t to be part of it. All those takes weren’t to be used, except for the last one and it wasn’t supposed to be narrated. It was to be a portrait of a picturesque character. And… the film didn’t work! We can talk about it later. But… I gave up. I couldn’t see that it should simply be a film about the relationship we had… and I didn’t touch the film for 13 years.

Click here to read part II or part III.

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The Edges of Things

"I rather go towards things that frighten me ..." Penny Woolcock (Photo: Alan Marcus)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I didn’t want to be a woman looking over my shoulder. I rather go towards things that frighten me – and draw attention to the situation.” Penny Woolcock

Penny Woolcock, born 1950, grew up in Argentina’s English ex-pat community before settling in England in 1970, working in factories and other jobs. Even as a school girl she was more interested in the edges of things – for example the life in the favela underneath the bridge she passed every week on the way to church. She only took to filmmaking in her thirties and never formally trained as a filmmaker, which has led to some crew members commenting: “you work really differently!” Penny says: “Ignorance can be bliss!”

Here are some of Penny’s approaches to filmmaking across documentary and fiction:

1) Be mindful your “characters” are people, and it’s their lives you’re documenting. I don’t like calling people in my docs “characters.”

2) I always have the fear of failure. It’s never left me. Something really amazing can happen when you’re not in your comfort zone.

3) When you’re casting non-actors for your film, cast them as close to their natural emotional range as possible. All my fiction films are based on heavy documentary research. I realised there is a depository of wasted talent in places like an estate (for example, for the film Shakespeare on the Estate)

4) You never regret what you don’t use in the edit, only what you haven’t got. Better to shoot a bit more than not shooting it at all, or redoing a take.

5) I’m interested in the disenfranchised and their inventive ways of dealing with their situation and the connections between people. I wish I could make a “quiet film” – mine are usually quite “populated”.  I choose not to make socio-political “lament films” along the lines of Ken Loach.

6) For my fictionalised work, my scripts are very specific, but I put no dialogue in it. Often my sound or camera people don’t know what happens before the first take. This gives my films a spontaneous & documentary feel.

7) As my dear friend Peter Symes once said to me: “Take risks – at worst it’s a disaster – at best it’s fantastic.” It’s good to be honest about what you’re doing, and not try to make it sound easy.

(8) If you know it’s not going to work out with an actor you have cast, for example, you have to let them go as swiftly and as quickly as possible. If you have that nagging feeling something is wrong, you have to act on it fast.

9) I fictionalise when I realise that what I know through my extensive research can’t actually be put  in a documentary. (eg. Tina goes Shopping)

10)  Whatever it is that turns you on, and gives you passion – that’s where you have to be. It’s too hard otherwise.

11)  I feel so lucky being a filmmaker – I look forward to going to work. I think success as a filmmaker is largely about how much and how hard you are prepared to work.

Penny Woolcock gave a masterclass at Scottish Documentary Institute on 14 Jan 2011.

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How to pitch a poem

Pitching workshops can be a bit brutal. They ask you to distill your film into a sentence or paragraph and sometimes simplify your film a bit too much. Focus is good, but you do need some unknowns to keep the mystery of the filmmaking process alive, and the urge to find out more.

Our commissioned Bridging the Gap filmmakers were relieved when they realised that the directing workshop with Mike Palmieri and Donal Mosher (October Country) was not about finding the great one liner, but going deeper into the heart of their films, uncovering what makes a character great, what made the filmmakers interested in them, and how to get most from them.  It was an intense two days in which Mike and Donal gave themselves whole-heartedly to the films and filmmakers. Often it’s not about discussing camera technique, or “knowledge,” but what you bring to the table as a person with life experience beyond your identity as a filmmaker.

The sessions were informed by filmmakers bringing along their trailers, interview excerpts, rough footage, animation samples. Often it can be hard to share materials at this stage, but even “unsuitable” footage generated productive discussion for the films. How do you bring these two characters together, do you need a third? How do we get behind the headlines of an idea and create a cathartic journey for the audience? How do you deal with someone who’s not who he says he is?

Here’s a few summarising thoughts on the “Palmieri/Mosher approach”:

1.       Do keep it simple and spontaneous. Don’t put equipment between you and your character and setting. Strip the equipment to the bare essentials.

2.       Do your research and know your themes but treat “interviews” like a conversation between two people. Don’t over-prepare.

3.       Find the overlapping interest in what you want to say with your film, and what your character/s want to get out of being in the film.

4.       Look at people closely. Is the action in someone’s face, or what do repeated hand gestures say about a character? Try to capture the essence of the person, with as simple means as possible.

5.       Life is complex, so don’t underestimate the intelligence of the audience

6.       Use the mystery you have about your chosen character/s or story as a driver for the film.

7.       Don’t outstay your welcome, know when you and your characters are “done”.

8.       Good films can’t be summed up in one sentence. Or rarely!

Mike and Donal also did a Q&A in Glasgow after screening October Country at The Glasgow Film Theatre, to very enthusiastic audience reactions. Rarely had they seen such a lyrical representation of a documenary about a working class family. We discussed the difficulties of “selling” the film in the UK, although it shares a working class film heritage.  So far it has had no TV or Cinema release here, and our screenings were only its second outing in the UK after premiering at Sheffield docfest in 2009.

All I could think of is: “How do you pitch a poem”? Some films you just have to take a chance on: see it, love it and spread the word.

 

Filed under: Bridging the Gap, Masterclasses, , , , , ,

How to Get to Cannes….from Edinburgh

Last Friday, Scottish Documentary Institute and CMI (Centre of Moving Image) held their first joint masterclass with the special guest Gaelle Vidalie, representing  the legendary Cannes Director’s Fortnight.  The idea of that session was to engage Scottish filmmakers with a festival whose philosophy is based on discovery and creative energy. As an introduction Gaelle screened the documentary film “John Cassavates” by Hubert Knapp and Andre Labarthe.  It was a beautiful recording of John Cassavetes, shot in Hollywood 1965, while he was editing “Faces”, and 1968 in Paris, when the film was finished. Fifty minutes listening to the inspiring credo of Cassavetes affirming that you can make independent, free films in America if you dare to follow your convictions and forget about the limits of your credit card. His words and creative energy was wonderful, life enhancing, a must-see –  not just for every film student but every filmmaker in the room to be reminded why we make films. It was fascinating that the truth of many of his statements was still meaningful to 2010. Perfect choice of film to describe what the Director’s Fortnight search is about.  (You can watch a 10 min excerpt here).

Last year, Directors’ Fortnight selected eleven first films, four documentaries, and one its films won the Camera D’Or award. For Gaelle Vidalie, who recently joined the team of programmers, it was the culmination of a year of travelling, discussing and watching films. The purpose of the Festival, set up in 1969, is clear: to dig deep, find and reveal new talents and offer audiences new forms of cinematic expression.  We caught up with Gaelle after her presentation at the Filmhouse, to talk about her background and how the programming process happens at the festival.

What is your background and how did you start working with Directors’ Fortnight ?

GV: I worked with the Cinemateque Francaise for almost 20 years. During that time I had the opportunity to see a lot of films and meet a big variety of people, from film critics, to filmmakers, to festival directors and film lovers. I also worked with the EntreVues Film Festival, created by Janine Bazin. The Festival was devoted to showcasing first, second and third films and it quickly became a very important place for filmmakers to kick-start their careers. We also aimed to create a warm, welcoming and nurturing environment for the filmmakers. For me that is very important. I found that same spirit in the Directors’ Fortnight so when the opportunity arose to join the programme team, I took it.

The 2010 edition was not only your first festival but also the first year for newly appointed Artistic Director Frederic Boyer….

GV: This team of programmers is quite rock & roll! We are deeply involved in making sure we continue the innovative tradition of the Fortnight, and of course I feel that responsibility. It is also true that our team reflects Frederic’s artistic programming direction. He chose this team and decided we could work together. Each person brings difference experiences to our decisions. Programming is of course totally subjective. What we present every year is simply an “offering.” There’s definitely an amount of risk-taking involved, which makes it fun as well. It’s hard to explain why the films we select are touching or moving. We can and do discuss structure, cinematography, storytelling, etc… But emotion is what is at the core. That is what cinema is about: sharing.  We don’t present an absolute truth because there is no such thing as the perfect selection. Our audience, the film critics or the journalists, they can – and will – all contest or debate it, of course!

Tell me more about the programming process…  and how do the documentaries you screened fit in this picture?

GV: A lot of people send their films to Directors’ Fortnight. Last year we saw around 1,000 submissions. It sounds as if we wouldn’t need to go and look for films, but that would be a little bit lazy, I think. If you are looking for new talent, you need to be a little bit more involved in establishing relationships, in order to find the people, their work and to convince them that they may have a place in our programme.

The four documentaries we showed last year are a good example of that. If we had not looked for these films we would have not received them because nobody knew that Directors’ Fortnight is also interested in documentaries. The way we understand film is that we don’t want to separate fiction and documentary. So we had to find them. Maybe this year we will receive a lot more documentary submissions. I also think that travelling and having conversations with people around the world allows you to have a feel for where the heart of cinema is beating and where cinema is heading to. Even if it’s really hard at the end, because we only take 22 films, it’s very important to watch everything. Of course it’s not possible to take them all, but it’s important to know what’s going on in South America, in Africa, in Eastern Europe, everywhere. It gives us an overview of what’s happening and informs our vision of the festival and what we might want to follow up on in future editions.

Directors Fortnight 2010 Selection

Documentaries:
Benda Bilili (France)
Boxing Gym (USA)
Cleveland versus Wall Street (Switzerland/France)
Stones in Exile (UK)

The selected total of 22 films represented 22 world premieres and 20 countries.

Isabel Moura Mendes

Filed under: Festivals, Masterclasses, , , , ,

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