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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, , , , , ,

Dokufest: Prizren, Kosovo 31/7-7/8


After a stunning flight over the Swiss Alps, Venice and the Croatian coast, the weather turns hazy and I can see numerous farm fields on fire and it starts to rain. At Pristina airport I realise  my luggage didn’t make it through in London and that I’ll have to wait for 2 days for my suitcase. Oh well! I share a lift with filmmaker Rowland Jobson who is here with his Venice-premiered film Girl Like Me. I’ve been invited to be on the jury for the international competition, and we’re screening Peter in Radioland by Johanna Wagner, Unearthing the Pen by Carol Salter and Amy Hardie’s The Edge of Dreaming at the festival. It takes us two hours from Pristina airport to Prizren, a beautiful town in the South of Kosovo, in stop and go traffic. The sun is setting and the light is stunning, looking across the mountainous countryside – houses half-built, abandoned cars on the side of the road, a traffic accident…and we pass the German army barracks as we enter Prizren; around 2000 soldiers are still stationed here we’re told.

We make it just in time to go to the opening night film, Into Eternity by Danish director Michael Madsen, which deals with a unique solution for nuclear waste: how about we bury it 500 metres deep in the north-west of Finland for 100,000 years, in a “permanent depository”? But how do we prevent future generations from thinking they have found mystical burial grounds, a hidden treasure? How do we communicate the “invisible” danger of radioactivity to future humans who will not share the same signage as we do now? The film provokes and meditates on these issues and plays with the notions of time well beyond the human imagination. The audience is captive, the screening is open air and around 10pm the local mosques’ call to prayer add to the film’s powerful soundtrack. Slightly surreal!

Prizren is buzzing – it is holiday and wedding season, and scores of young people (and a vast majority of men) are out and about and partying until late at night. Tomorrow I pick up my pass and start watching films.



Today I had breakfast with the lovely Pamela Cohn (check out her documentary blog still in motion) and tackle the first films in the afternoon – Day of Darkness by Jay Rosenblatt, a moving film about suicide told through found b/w footage, and The Mouth of the Wolf, the most talked about documentary coming out of Italy right now, which chronicles the relationship between a macho ex-con and his lover, a transsexual former junkie. Afterwards we meander along the river towards a festival dinner with local food on the menu and meet October Country director Mike Palmieri, and Doug Block, who is here with his film The Kid’s Grow Up.  Just as the sun is setting over Prizren, Mike and I head up to the castle walls, where one of the three open air screens towers high above the city.

An appropriate film to watch from above: David Needs to Fly by David Sieveking (produced by Lichtblick Film) – is an unconventional expose film about David Lynch and Transcendental Meditation, or “TM” (made famous through The Beatles and Donovan in the late 60’s), centred around the director’s search for his own “truth”, as Lynch suggests to him early on. Little does he know quite what the truth will reveal, besides a hefty charge for his own initiation into TM. With many twists and turns, the film keeps surprising the viewer in its increasingly epic scale. Perhaps only a German filmmaker could have made this film – and it rightly opened the Berlinale Panorama/Dokumente section this year. I salute the first festival in the US to programme the film…


Today I used the small but fine videotheque to catch up on some films and chased my suitcase, the first delivery of which was thwarted due to an incomplete address (and a brandnew hotel which hasn’t even opened its doors officially yet), thus the luggage had travelled back to Pristina one more time. We had an official invitation from the municipality today and were escorted to the mayor’s “white house” for a reception, apparently a first in the 9 editions of the festival! We walk past plenty of bridal shops and clothes stores full of festive wear and shake ten officials’ hands upon entering the gardens. The tables are heavy with food, wine, cheese and the media is on standby with cameras. (The media sponsor prints and distributes a daily festival newspaper in English every day during Dokufest.) The mayor suggests the fest is well on its way of becoming the “new Cannes” and announces his pride in the increasingly international reputation of the festival. We eat plenty of food and mingle. I speak to Sven from A Wall is A Screen who is preparing for his screening programme in the centre of Prizren tomorrow evening. With more than 500 shorts in their archive they select interesting and relevant locations to project short films onto walls as part of guided city tours of a different kind. This is the first “performance” in Kosovo, and there have been quite a few technical difficulties.

View from Castle

The nightlife in Prizren is astonishing. With an average age of 25, Kosovo bears the Saatchi and Saatchi marketing strapline of “The Young Europeans” (a fancy ad campaign tells us before every film). Since Kosovo’s independence has not been declared illegal last week, the passport situation has actually become worse for “normal” Kosova people – until general visa restrictions are lifted, especially in those countries which have acknowledged Kosovo (including UK and Germany for example). So for the moment Kosovo finds itself in an interesting situation: Somewhat independent, but also locked into their own region; lots of young people trying to get out to make a living. The population in the summertime rises by about 1 million Kosova who come back for an extended holiday, a Swiss-Kosovo-Albanian tells me.

Filed under: Festivals, , , , , , , , ,

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