CPH:DOX THE CONFERENCE DAY 1

5 Days exploring film, technology, science & art @ CPH:DOX in partnership with Documentary Campus.

Theme Day 1: Art, Technology & Change

The film industry is changing as fast as it can (not very), to keep up with audience habits. New tech however, is lean and flexible by nature, partly because creators are still struggling with finding the right delivery mechanisms, but mainly because it’s all new enough that the possibilities are still pretty open.

Case in point, one wonders if Watson might put me out of a job some time soon.

01

Brainchild of the Multimedia and Vision team from the T. J. Watson Research Center at IBM, WATSON is AI that’s started putting trailers together.

An AI film trailer, put together by AI. Smart.

John R Smith, IBM Fellow and Manager of the department, asked the question “Can artificial intelligence be creative?” A terrifying question for anyone in the business. We can sort of tolerate the idea that AI might be ale to analyse meaning from data, maybe even reach certain conclusions as well. But to mimic the creative process? The mysterious thing that justifies our existence and careers because it can’t be defined? That can be learned?

Not quite yet, but the wheels are in motion.

 

02

“For me creativity in science begins with method” says Smith. In other words, once you define a system of learning, you have a shot, if you follow it through.

Once films have been input into WATSON (in this case horror films), it is taught how to recognize what it sees on the screen: laughter, a car, the color red, the sky, etc. The same is done for trailers for those films, so it can evaluate what makes a good one. Then another film is through WATSON, and it tags everything it recognizes into its database. It files the information and can retrieve specific shots at will. With all the footage tagged and filed, It then evaluates what footage would be appropriate for a trailer, based on the reference films’ relationships with their trailers. In effect, it uses “experience” as a way of deciding what shots to choose. An editor does the creative work afterwards, but the selects come from WATSON.

 

03

And out of 10 shots selected by the beast, the editor agreed with 8 of them. Staggering.

If the method really is the beginning of creativity, I’d better start thinking of getting some AI implants or something. (to be fair, it did give me fantasies of being in my edit suits and saying “Watson, pull everything with a red flower in it.”

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04

Staying in the realm of AI and automation, We’re still deciding what our relationship is with the things we create. David Sirkin’s talk How do we live with robots was a fascinating look at some of the user experience design research being done at Stanford.

Driverless cars, a living room ottoman, and even trash cans were all subjects in the department’s heavily documented research.

The amazing thing is how quick we are to assign personalities to the robots that we meet. A rolling ottoman places itself under a subject’s feet. When it later moves, the subject thought that he had done something to somehow upset the ottoman. Another pets it like a dog when it moves. Or desk drawers that respond to the patterns of the person sitting there. Sometimes they go with the flow, and sometimes against it. One desk even started “chuckling” when the subject dropped something (drawers quickly going in and out like a wheezy guffaw). Subjects’ reactions are measured, but always engaged in trying to understand the machine’s behavior.

We’re a long way from cylons, but what’s clear is that we have to be aware of how we interact with the things we create, lest we risk them becoming our overlords.

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Back in a slightly more 2D world we heard from the realm of impact comics from Ram Devineni, Producer/Director at Rattapallax.

His talk was Augmented reality activism. His project, Priya’s Shakti, is an AR digital comic, that also works as an augmented reality piece that for once is actually targeted at the slums where violence against women, including acid attacks, are at their highest. “We looked at female characters from American comics (huge breasted, scantily clad), and said Fuck That! We spent lots of time creating a new kind of natural hero, steeped in Hindu culture.”

The comic itself is wonderfully different from the usual fare. I’m still a bit unclear about the impact of the AR components, but you can check them out yourself and see what you think.

At the very least, Yay! A positive female role model, and a project that understands that the problem needs to be tackled as a men’s issue (the perpetrators), not a woman’s.

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Ah. Closeness to home, with a project from Montreal’s Dpt.

Paul George presented The Enemy, a VR / AR experience by war photographer Karim Ben Khelifa. He filmed combatants from opposing sides (Israeli / Palestinian for example), answering the same questions and speaking of the same things: Who is your enemy? Have you ever killed your enemy? And so on. In the VR space, users are between the 2 combatants, standing face to face. Looking at the Israeli soldier, he gets into what makes an enemy his enemy, and the Palestinian does the same.

“We have more in common than we have differences” says George. We fear the same things, respect most of the same values. If we could listen to each other… maybe we could hear each other.”

It’s always difficult to judge how a VR piece functions unless you’ve been strapped into the headset, but the theory behind the project is, I think, sound. Strip away the ideologies and politics and at heart we’re all ultimately human. A Jewish friend of mine with an Israeli girlfriend once said to me “ I can’t move to Israel. In theory you and I could end up shooting at each other (me being Syrian).” The weirdest pre-disposition to violence and warfare seems hardwired in, but it’s still ultimately learned. Maybe going through the VR “empathy machine” can bridge the gap that diplomacy and proximity can’t.

__________

 

05

Ending the day was creative technologist Eric Magnee’s Smartphone orchestra. I don’t want to spoil it for you so check it out here.

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SCREENINGS

Liberation Day

 

20170320_231809I had a tiny hand consulting on this project, but it was my first time seeing it on the big screen. What can I say; it’s a great film! Director Morten Traavik was there for a good Q & A afterwards, and all walked away satisfied.

One screening left Sunday the 26th at 9:30, at the Nordisk Film Palads cinema.

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Coming up: The Conference coverage continues, More film, more industry, and an interview with Matt Johnson of The The fame, on the occasion of his new documentary The Inertia Variations, screening with Q & A Screenings

 

 

 

CPH:DOX DAY 2

MACHINES

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I spent a year editing How It’s Made, exhaustively exploring the rhythm of machinery and human interaction. Working on the program was about as assembly line a job as I ever had too, so my psyche was nicely aligned to the content, until I couldn’t handle watching one more piece of sheet metal get pressed into the form of a sink, or another injection mould endlessly pump out toothbrush stems. I ended up getting my kicks imagining editing an hour long assembly of… something, never revealed except in a series of extreme close ups, made of plastic, wood, stone, every material imaginable.

What the title of Rahul Jain’s Machines, screening at CPH:DOX refers to gets blurry over time. Is it the coal ovens, silk screen printers and rollers that never seem to stop churning out textiles, or the people stoically operating them, working back to back 12 hour shifts to support their families? The distinction is made all the more slippery by the fact that almost nobody speaks in the film. This isn’t manual labor buoyed by friendly chatter, it’s mechanical, silent work done by men who look dead behind the eyes.

I’ve got a soft spot for the quiet, lingering doc that hypnotizes me. Having the time to submerge into simple moments make those moments stay with me longer, play out in my head, get re-evaluated depending on context. The thing I tell creators the most in trailer workshops is to let their scenes breathe more. Give us a chance to be there.

I re-imagined the film as an interactive piece, somehow immersing the viewer in the smell and sights and sounds of that hellish workplace. It wouldn’t require any more talking, just a different frame, with so and so’s name, from such and such a province, however many km away. How many kids they have, how many hours a week they have to work, what their life expectancy is after exposure to chemicals and the relentless wear and tear of heir brutal pace.

Not for the feint of heart, but well worth your time.

 

Less so the first batch of VR on display at the Charlottenborg Kunsthal. The impact series let me down. I spent most of the time wondering why the pieces were VR. Trevor Snapp’s We Who Remain was apparently about the people of the Nabu mountains in Sudan, but it was edited like a film, one with narration and graphics and multiple characters and no clear storyline. I spent real time trying to figure out what the film was about. Not a promising sign.

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Jayisha Patel’s Notes to My Father had more going for it. From the Indian heartland a young woman is trafficked into the sex trade, but most of the film is spent at the family abode. Gorgeous rice fields are seriously heightened in 3d, and there are some genuine moments where time is allowed to pass quietly, slowly, where you can be where you are. But narratively the piece gets muddled, and, like We Who Remain, I struggled to figure out what the piece was really about.

Honestly people, abandon the idea that VR should be like film. Figure out what the language is.

There’s one moment of Inside Auschwitz where I feel the shivers up my spine that I should: when we’re at the ovens, and one can look around, take in the evil, where it’s quiet enough to let the awfulness wash over you. If the piece had been only that it would have been 50 times more powerful.

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A conversation about storytelling today was about the unique possibility of doc to let contradictions tell the story, to trigger the audience to feel and think what the subject does, that gives doc the narrative advantage that it has over fiction. VR is well on the way to finding its edge, but that means letting go of cinematic tropes.

VR is just a kid, folks. Let it become the grown up its meant to.

CPH:DOX DAY 1 (FOR ME)

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Copenhagen is bigger than it looks, depending on what you’re after.

Which is my way of copping out of not having gotten more done today.

I’m sooo looking forward to the VR content this year. It’s broken down into simplistic, but useful categories, and all of it looks fascinating.

The first bit of the day was spent at the Propellor lab: a genuine movement towards finding new strategies for delivering content to audiences, from the production stages all the way to that after-sex cigarette stage of “wow, that was amazing(or a let down).

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Led by Daniel Johnsen and Erwin M. Schmidt, the format is fast and loose. And demanding. If you’re a participant or observer there’s no holding back. You have to tell everyone your idea for a business model so that your peers can tell you everything that’s right / wrong about your it, and make it better.

The pace is fast, and it seems like everyone is digging deep in their guts, to quickly pull out what’s most important. Will that bring out everyone’s best? Tomorrow will tell.

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The pitches, atThe Rainmaking Loft Copenhagen On Sunday, are open to all. If you’re interested in the thinking that’s drawing us forward, or want to pull that apart, be there!

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Everyday life feels pretty complicated. Until you watch lifeless infants being pulled from mountains of rubble. Feras Fayyad‘s Last men in Aleppo drives a dagger into your heart over and over, making you hope for numbness, so you don’t have to feel the hurt so much anymore.

There are lots of Syria projects around right now; documentary, VR, journalistic and otherwise. But I can’t think of another that made me feel quite so much the “normalcy” of war and death. The “white helmets” whose job it is to save people drowned in the fallout from bombs are just people, like the mechanic you used to work with or the teenager who used to bug you by whipping a hockey puck into your garden or the guy who used to be your pharmacist. Stuck in extraordinary circumstances and determined to do right by their city, by their neighbors, by their own consciences, they don the iconic white helmets of Syria’s saviors and hurl themselves into the most dangerous situations imaginable, on the outside chance that a miracle will happen, and one of the people they can actually save someone. As a Syrian, it makes me ashamed for not being one of those white helmet guys.

Collaborator Steen Johannessen was at yesterday’s screening, while Fayyad was attending a premiere in Switzerland.

20170318_164606“We had a little over 200 hours of footage to go through, plus a huge amount of broadcast archive. There are a million Syrian stories to tell, and every decision was measured. This story is important because it brings us into the day to day reality of the people left behind. Abandoned.”

Not for the feint of heart, but required viewing for anyone who feels the shameful abandonment of an entire people by the international community. Rightful winner of the grand jury prize at Sundance.

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Craigslist Allstars is a whole different kind of beast.

Filmmaker Samira Elagoz made the film as her thesis project, and it got enough attention to get played at the fest. She posted an ad in Craiglist hoping to be invited into strangers’ homes, and document their encounters. I suppose the kink should have been obvious, but I was more interested in the DIY approach of setting up the concept and being invited inside someone’s personal space.

“The sex, in hindsight, was probably the most likely outcome. But that wasn’t why I started making the film. But not a single woman answered my ad, and the men.. are men.”

Two screenings left at the fest. If you want to peel back some of those mysterious doorways, check it out.

SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY (IWD EDITION)

superheroThe old cliché about the day of your kids’ birth is true: it’s a doozy.

My kid happened to be a girl, which made it a gender-specific doozy. It’s just a little bit different than the blessing of a boy, and in my case it suited me to a tee.

So in those moments when I drop the ball when it comes to gender issues, (not calling foul on sexist bullshit, taking my wife for granted or anything of the like), I feel like a pretty lousy dad. Especially in a world where a douche bag like… you know who, gets away with “locker room talk” and the assumption that being a powerful man gives him rights over anyone’s privacy. There are plenty of dark stories that start from the same kind of innocuous jackass.

I’ve got this thing for documentary films, and in particular, I’ve worked on a whole packet of films about women, usually fighters, struggling to make the world a better place, at least for women. My mom is one of my heroes, so I guess I just never understood why one gender would have power over another. It made no sense to me. Lower salaries, shorter professional shelf life, less access to higher positions: I always felt like it made no sense. So now, with a girl to nurture and raise, I see it as not only as an interest of mine, but a responsibility.

Last year alone I got to work on 3 powerful films that tackled women’s stories head on;

 

Biljana Turturov’s When Pigs Come

 

Nima Sarvetsani’s Prison Sisters

 

And my personal favorite, Koen Suidgeest’s Girl Connected

Koen locked me in an apartment in Leiden, without food or water, for a month last spring. We’d met tutoring at Lisbon Docs a couple of years earlier and have stayed in touch ever since. When he pitched me the project and asked me to come to Holland to edit the film I was thrilled.

For now you can watch it the whole film here!

Like me, Koen is surrounded by estrogen, with his partner, 2 daughters and a dog. He’s as empathetic a soul as I’ve met in the doc world, and he (and I) liked that I wanted to be left mostly alone with the material, so I could get as close to the girls in the film as I could. He’d come to the prison cell every day or every two days, and we’d look at where it was going and make decisions from there. It was a race to the finish line, but a fantastic process, and I’m super proud of the final product.

I had a chance to catch up with Koen and ask a couple of questions about his thinking around the project. (and he didn’t really keep me without food and water in Leiden.)

Me: What drew you to Girl Connected?

Koen S: My entire body of work is about people who are underserved, or in a disadvantaged position, and despite that are standing on their feet, progressing and making the very most of their lives. Since my work often involves children’s rights, women’s rights and themes of motherhood, generally in areas of poverty, Girl Connected is a natural issue/topic.

I wanted to make a film, along with ITVS producer Christi Collier, about girls who are fighting against the tide, upstream to what their culture expects from them.

Me: And how did you come to choose those particular girls?

K.S.: I worked with the country coordinators of this educational program, Women and Girls Lead Global. They often suggested stories and characters to me. Often, these stories had already happened and I wanted to film something that was happening currently.

Me: Always a better bet for a “motion” picture.

K.S.: So a lot of stories were put aside. Some of the interesting ones I ended up skyping with. Or if that wasn’t possible, I was sent some video footage through a local journalist. And we chose based on that. There were sports related stories from several countries, but I only wanted one sports story. So we settled on Ayesha. What was important was that there was variety.

Me: Must have been a hell of a process choosing someone based on their skype presence.

K.S.: Oh yes, it was a little risky. But it worked out very well.

Me: I think there’s a remarkable variety of girls, given that they mostly come from similar socionomic backgrounds.

K.S.: Indeed. And I love that we were able to tackle five such important but also different themes. Child marriage, teen pregnancy, leadership, sports & self esteem, creativity

Me: Does it ever enter your head that you’re a guy covering women’s stories? I know my own answer, but I’d love to hear yours. There is often controversy around men telling women’s stories “why can’t a woman make that film? It’s part of the problem” type of thing.

K.S.: Well, there are many women covering amazing women’s stories as well. Of course I am aware of being a man, but I can’t really change that, can I? And I don’t know if I need to be ‘like’ the subject of the film to be able to represent it better. Sometimes it’s actually better to be more of an outsider. And that counts for many differences between maker and subject: films about poverty, about armed conflict, about drugs… whatever.

Me: Yeah, I agree. It gives you that “fish out of water” in the sense that your own journey of discovery is part of the revelation. I think it takes men to stand up and say important women-positive stuff as well. Make it less us vs them.

K.S.: Totally true. Sometimes it takes a man to change a man’s mind.

😉

My skype starts in 4 mins 😉

Me: Alright dude. Thanks a million!

K.S.: My pleasure, of course! And talk soon I hope.

Me: CPH:DOX maybe?

K.S.: Maybe…

 

A cryptic sign off, but we managed to cover the guts of the question, so…

_______________________

I guess what I’m trying to say is happy international women’s day.

But I guess I’m also wondering why, in 2017, it would still be necessary. I would have hoped we’d be past this crap already, and diversity would simply be a fact of life instead of an exception, and guys like the one with the orange hair and skin wouldn’t be where they are.

But they are.

So let’s do what we have to to shut them down, so that eventually this can be known as international human’s day instead.

For my part I’ll keep cultivating projects that tackle women’s rights.

Maybe I’ll even start wearing a pussy hat.

COME BACK FREE

There are days I can’t bring myself to read the news, and others I wish I hadn’t been able to. It might be irrational (or totally rational), but it feels like war, or at least violence, is right around the corner.

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Watching Ksenia Okhapkina’s documentary Come Back Free, dread was palpable, though clearly not the point. In her film it’s a ghost, an uneasiness that lives in their everyday. In this small town in Chechnya, war has already come and gone, and left its mark. They’re hoping for the best, getting married, swapping stories, shooing away unwanted livestock, but they’re preparing for the worst.

The opening is a wonderful example of what I call immersive film. It takes a moment to figure out what you’re looking at, then as you do it gets almost feverish: an organic, abstract smear flying across the screen, the sound building in intensity.

That’s as detailed as I’ll get by the way; you’ll just have to go see the film.

I met Okhapkina at the Below Zero pitching forum in Tromso, Norway, and got a look at her new work in progress, which seems to follow her atmospheric and thematic development. I told her I’m reminded of Pirjo Honkasalo’s The Three Rooms of Melancholia (high praise from me). She didn’t punch me in the gut so I guess I didn’t offend.

She did say my storytelling was probably strict. Strict!

“By saying strict, I meant that you don’t go much inside the atmosphere, which we in Eastern Europe and Russia love a lot. Sometimes this love for observing life like a flood drives totally away from storytelling. But building the film only on action without any place for the useless things must mean that you’re telling something really new and incredible. This is hard, cause then comes the question: what kind of a story can surprise? I believe only in fairytales. And in observation.”

What observation means when you’re making a documentary is up to the storyteller; are you waiting for the moments that unfold or capturing time in motion and in stasis? Understanding time was a challenge I really had to work with when I made the leap from fiction to documentary. The good thing about a film like Come Back Free is that time is built into the narrative. It’s practically a character.

Okhapkina says that the film is partly about “our constant attempts to come back to some time and place, where we were happy, facing the irreversibility of things. That’s what I felt making this story about the place, changed by the war reality at a very deep level.”

Indeed, the film is slices of life; little moments that might never have ben noticed by anyone inside the village for their very banality. How women walk away from the church, how one deals with a cow in the wrong place at the wrong time, how you clear the snow. All perfectly normal, but hanging behind it all is the specter of a not long ago war, and the noticeable absence of too many young men.

There’s something magic about how our minds can make those cognitive connections; how experience, assumptions, perceptions, prejudice, everything that makes us us, get triggered into a form of understanding, when all the puzzle pieces of a work of art line up. Okhapkina seems to have an impressive handle on those tools. The sort of narrative structure she works with would be a good how-to guide for young filmmakers.

I wish it could have curd my dread, but at least it’s the story of how a community came through the other side, battered but still kicking. Time will tell our story.

 

HAM-FISTED SUBTLETY

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During a doc interview, a subject says “I’m really shy.” Cut to the subject at a party, having a ball.

Or they say it in interview, but that doesn’t make it into the film. Instead you see them having a ball at that party, then get close enough to see that their eyes are nervous as hell, maybe they’re a little drunk, or maybe they’re a little startled when somebody bumps into them. Uncomfortable in their skin.

The first example tells me things, then it’s up to me to decide which I believe. Left to interpret the second example, I can reach my own conclusions about what’s really happening. I can relate to being at a party, to being out of my element but putting up a front. I’m making a hundred internalized connections that will stay with me. The first example will roll off my back, just like a duck.

Now that’s me, and it’s probably a bone head example, but hopefully it’s a functional one that cinema should be cinematic, the information should come through the context, not be stated. Tell me a story, only don’t TELL me the story.

Working with my own stuff I’ve been as guilty as anyone of telling instead of showing from time to time. It’s always a bit trickier when you know everything about your subject. Working with creators on their projects is, in a way, a bit of a cheat. Without their baggage I’m able to cut through material pretty quickly.

Grey Violet – Odd One Out, is a case in point. I met Finnish team Reetta Aalto and Liisa Juntunen (Finns really like doubling the letters in their names) when they pitched the film at the Baltic Sea Docs pitching forum a couple of years ago. It follows the journey of Grey, a complicated, “queer”, mathematician/art activist from Russia to Finland, where ze seeks asylum and some sort of meaning. I fell for the team right away, and the punk rock attitude of the material, coming as it does from the same environment Pussy Riot sprang from.

A couple of years later, and Reetta, in rough cut stage, has reached the end of what she felt she could do on her own, and mother hen Liisa calls me in to lend a hand. She sends me the rough cut.

“Too much of a good thing” is an apt description. Reetta clearly likes a lot of what Grey has to say, and I mean she really likes a lot of it. And it’s all in the film, and it, and Grey, are just too much. And we all know it. So again, the question (over a crappy skype connection because I don’t live in Finland) : “What’s your film about?”

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It turns out it’s sort of about all of Grey’s strange theories and hard to decipher political positions, but not really. It just so happens that one thing that makes Grey an interesting asylum seeker to follow instead of one of the thousands of others is that ze does have these thoughts. But more to the point, ze doesn’t fit the mold, ze’s very, very odd. And therein lay the beginning of the core we worked towards.

We talked about a lot of strategies on identifying one focal point and building around that. There were very concrete suggestions thrown around, as well as more subtle abstractions, and then off she went with her notes.

The rough cut I saw next was totally transformed. She’d run with some of our ideas, totally ignored others, and showed me a character and a film I suddenly felt things for. And for that simple reason, a lot of Grey’s ideas flowed through me, and the one core theme rams home. It’s openly stated, but it really sinks in because of the way Reetta put everything together before that moment. A whole new film.

I still had tons of notes for her (because I’m a nitpicker), but all pretty specific; with the structure and emotional beats laid out, what was left were details.

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-14-11-40So does the information get lost in the story? Some people will always think so. Some will want more of that, and less heart, or more heart and less politics, or whatever. My mission is always to help creators to craft films that will linger, with unanswered questions, honest characters, and a unique spirit.

Does Grey Violet do that? You tell me.

FACIAL ANALYTICS : IDFA EDITION

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How much is too much?

At IDFA, Watching Pawel Lozinsky’s new film “You have no idea how much I love you” the question hung there, in every exchange, every cut. An experiment in form, the film is the simplest of concepts: a mother, a daughter, a therapist, 3 cameras, and extreme close ups only. 5 Therapy sessions filmed weeks apart chart the evolution of relationships, the heightening of tension, and tension’s release.

Each face that takes space on the screen is laid naked by the unforgiving close ups, every twitch, every movement of the iris telling a critical part of the story.

“That’s a nasty look,” says the therapist, when the mother involuntarily changes expression. “I’m juts trying to understand,” she replies. But true enough, under intense scrutiny, our faces can betray our real feelings, or be completely misinterpreted through the prism of our own experience.

With 3 camera angles to chose from, and such a subtly complex exchange of glances to play with, the editing, as Lozinsky himself said, was really, really difficult. Is it more potent to see a mother’s pain as she tries to explain her past behaviour, or the stoic, blank face of her daughter, as we wonder whether she’s interested at all? Or even the therapist’s intense, analytical stare, as he looks to interpret every syllable of every word.

The choices made, in the end, don’t edge towards that exploitative path. We don’t linger long on a reaction or an analyst while we hear the subject. Arguably we don’t linger there enough. At a given point, once the dynamic and language are established, I believe the editing could have veered further away from its matter of fact position. There was, in all likelihood, a wealth of possibility to explore that could have released another level. Like when someone you know is saying something publicly, and the person they’re talking about is there, and you find yourself much more interested in the person’s reaction than the person speaking. It’s not a clinical film by any stretch, but I think the form could have been taken further.

So maybe the question should be reframed as “how much respect is too much.”

TO THINE OWN SELF…

screen-shot-2016-11-20-at-11-23-39It’s been a season of rough-cut screenings, trailer critiques, trailer building, and project tutoring. What’s nice about this more fractured pace, as opposed to spending long stretches editing a single film, is a reminder that, not only is there a huge variety of ways to tell a story, but that one of the most important bits of storytelling is the genuine honesty of the storyteller’s voice.

Any of you who have seen David Lynch’s Inland Empire might agree that it’s an opaque, mysterious film. I’m still not sure I understand… any of it. But, there’s not a second of screen time that I don’t firmly believe. Whatever Laura Dern gets up to feels absolutely genuine. Wherever the narrative takes us, weird, crazy and uncomfortable as it is, feels completely immersive and natural. The world Lynch creates is grounded in human experience, but it taps into the loony, subconscious way each of us, individually interprets the world. The performances, the editing, the cinematography all create a seamless weave, unique to Lynch’s vision.

 

What sucks about industry, is that formula is inevitable. In doc we sit around tables and talk about slots and 3 act structures, and the market. Sometimes we even talk about the audience. But there are only so many stations, so many broadcast hours in a day, so many docs we think audiences can stomach. So as an expert, I can gently coax creators towards the kind of structure and narrative that I know the BBC is in the market for, or that might work for Sundance. “You’ve got a good idea but for the sake of distribution you should X, Y, and Z.” That’s the market. That’s the whole shebang if you want to make your films for an audience of more than one. At IDFA this week, a massive part of the industry focus is on gearing creators to think that way.

In a mini-doc about Atom Egoyan I once made, he said “it’s absurd that a medium as young as film should already be so locked in form and content.” I agree, and it’s probably why I fell off the feature film wagon for quite a while. (until I saw The Lobster. Sensational!)

The danger in critiquing other people’s films is the risk that you might go past the questions that bring filmmakers closer to their own voices, and instead put your own stamp on it. Unlike the editing process, where your job is to influence the content and challenge assumptions, the development stage is more delicate; the film is slowly coming into focus and the filmmaker needs to get there more or less on their own.

Refreshingly, a couple of years ago Albina Griniūtė. was pitching her stunning Paradise Gowns at Lisbon Docs. Broadcasters didn’t know what the hell to do with a slow, contemplative, black and white doc where the main character was a place! But one of the sales agents at the table encouraged her to go farther “more of that! Build the cache and make it even more of what it already is.” (I’m paraphrasing. It was a while ago).

But then there’s life, and mortgages, and bills to pay and kids to feed, and cultivating an uber-creative voice in a flooded market is no guarantee of anything except frustration and struggle. There’s not any one answer. But asking the question on a regular basis keeps me honest. I hope.

HEALING THE HEALER

03

editors are lonely in Malaysia too

“I could see you fighting yourself to keep from grabbing the controls and doing the editing yourself.”

The struggle in question: watching a somewhat new filmmaker making the exact opposite edits than I would make, on more or less every frame, and dialoguing in my head “if only I could… Why doesn’t he…But he’s trimming the wrong way…”

But, contrary to my colleague’s interpretation, I would never try and take over. I’m a professional. Besides, the guy was working on Final Cut X, and I can’t imagine anything that would motivate me to jump into a project built on Final Cut X.

06

Somewhere in this mess: the venue

We’re at a pitch pilot workshop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, brought in especially by FINAS and MyDocs to work with regional talents shooting for the coveted international market, and building their pitch pilot trailers to do that. We have three days to pull four projects apart, and help their creators put them back together; better, stronger, faster. As my colleague put it, it’s about more than just a trailer or pitch, it’s about the film itself.

With no connection to the projects, no stake in them, we come in blind, knowing nothing except what we read in the proposals, and looking for clarity. Which, as is always the case, we don’t get from the first pitches.

04

calm before the storm

“There’s this blind football team and it’s amazing to watch.”

“Great, what happens in the film?”

“…”

Or, after a 6 minute pitch that’s full of energy,

“So… It’s about?.. “

09

Several hundred questions later we got to the heart of his story; essentially about a shaman being stalked by the spirit that blessed him with healing powers, and laying the equivalent of a restraining order on that spirit through a healing process run by another shaman. The kind of project that makes me rub my hands together like a b-movie villain, because nothing gets me going like a story the creator knows everything about but can’t put into words.

—–

07

Pulling an idea apart to build it back up is a tricky thing; a process designed to help creators make a dynamic story, while remaining true to what they wanted to say in the first place. As my colleague said to the shaman director, ”I’m your worst possible audience. I’m as earthy as they come, and I’ll never believe what you believe.” But that’s fantastic. An opportunity, and a path towards the deeper corners of the story.

One of the first questions I tend to ask is what drew the creator to that project in the first place. In his case it’s because he believes, in shamanism, in spirits, and in his character’s story. However, if he pitched it straight-faced and matter of fact : “this shaman is trying to make peace with the spirit that blessed him with healing powers,” it would be easy to dismiss him as a crackpot.

02

Our next question: “What happens in this world?” And as he discussed the practice and belief we only got more confused, still unclear about what the character really looks like (he’s shy), or any detail beyond what we imagine in our minds. Time to dive into the material.

We had to push him to show us footage of his main character, because he felt he hadn’t gotten close enough yet, that he needed more time to overcome the shyness. If we hadn’t pushed we wouldn’t have seen his character in the middle of a mad healing ritual, collapsing on the floor along with a bunch of others in a disorienting flow of camera work trying to keep up with the chaos. It’s a jumble, a mess, and a beautiful illustration of the wild, unpredictable nature of this ceremony.

And suddenly we had it.

As a pitch pilot trailer, that scene proved so much; that he has exclusive access to something totally unique, that he knows how to capture that material on the fly, and that there is a cinematic film there to be had. Leaving him with all that to stew in his head, we left him to dive back in.

05

still confused

In the end, he figured out that he still had lots of work to do during the pitch. He clung to the matter of fact strategy in his verbal pitch, without answering the huge questions raised by the trailer. The audience had no idea what the film was about, but they were intrigued by what they’d seen. He had two choices then: to reign in the madness and make a more conventional trailer to better align with his words, or to do what I always encourage creators to do: use the trailer to ask a question, then answer that question in your words.

Pitching is an art, and how you convey information to your audience tells them a lot about how you do it in your films. If the pitch is all about information then it might be interesting, but it doesn’t tell us anything about how your film will be put together. My own approach to this film would have been to frame it as an examination of faith through the story of one man tortured by his own. Acknowledge the skepticism in the room and give it a role in the film. Invite us to a zany place that just might make us question our own cynicism. Let us meet and listen to people who can articulate a faith that we have little to no understanding of. All we can really do is ask the creators questions, and hope that those questions aren’t too leading. They are after all their films.

01

When we introduced ourselves my colleague and I showed a few examples of trailers that we thought worked well. One of my choices was the one discussed in my last entry, and it got a hell of a lot of discussion going; of how much information to push through, how to use the pilot in a pitch, how to tailor the pitch to the pilot, how to leave the audience hungry for more: how to be an entertainer when you pitch.

At the risk of sounding like a snake oil salesman, that is in one sense what you have to be. You have to take what you are curious about and believe in, and anticipate what others will want to know about it. You need to consider what you think will happen in the story and run with it. Go down the rabbit hole of your story world and mine it for the richest scraps you can. What drives the characters? What flaws do you see? How do you film someone who’s shy? How do you get us to understand what it’s like to play blind football?

If I’m doing my job my well of questions is bottomless. If the creator is doing theirs, they’ll answer those questions and more in the film.

 

 

WAR STORIES

 

offline2

The scene: A small coastal town in North Africa; a deep sand beach, and across the street, a luxury hotel, complete with pool, outside lunch buffet, and ultra aggressive, dive bombing seagulls. They’d steal the croissants right from your hand.

But this isn’t mere idyll. We’re here to work intensely, helping creators to shape their projects during this, the last of three major workshops that drag films, kicking and screaming, from ideas to full fledged works in progress. This is project Greenhouse, and as contentious as it is for an Israeli organisation to be running an event designed to develop documentaries from the middle east and Arab Africa, once you get past the politics, you find that ultimately everyone just wants to tell their stories and make a difference, and help their peers to do the same. 16 Projects; Tunisian, Israeli, Arab Israeli, Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, Sudanese, Iranian, and all of them opening my eyes to stories I’d never otherwise hear about.

I’m one of 4 editors, brought in from across Europe to spend 3 days chained to our edit suites, working with 4 filmmakers apiece (actually I only got 3), swapping computers, software, operating systems, and of course stories.

____________________

“You have how many hours of footage?”

“Aha. So it seemed like a good idea to put every shot in the same bin?”

“Undo Goddamit! Oh… it’s a PC. Pinky not thumb, pinky not thumb.”

“Match frame! MATCH FRAME! Why won’t the %*#@ match frame work?! Whoops, AVID, not Final Cut.”

“Where’s that great scene with the kid outside the tent? Oh… yeah, that’s from her project…”

I have a therapist, and I send her a special thank you across the cosmos every time I use the mindfulness exercise she gave me to help focus and heal. I was thanking her a lot.

____________________

The scene: a luxury hotel suite, but the bed’s been hauled out in favor of a desk and makeshift viewing corner. It’s not the most comfortable chair in the world, but there’s a cactus shaded balcony overlooking the Atlantic. I’ve got a limited amount of time, a massive amount of footage, and a filmmaker who’s had her project dissected so many times that certainty is in rare supply.

We start with questions. Lots of questions. An abundance of questions, all geared towards reaching what they really want to say. I’ve found that my role is as much psychologist as editor. Hand-holder, friend, sometimes police (especially when time grows short). What’s actually happening in this village? What do you need to have happen to get your point across? If, in the trailer, you want this Bedouin woman to have more power in the film than she does in reality, will there be backlash that affects her, or your access? I know you love this scene, but how important is it really? Buckets of questions, often repeated. It’s the best way to lock in a creator’s convictions.

Of my three projects, the trickiest was by an orthodox Jewish woman, who grew up in New York and emigrated to Israel some years ago. I have to say it was awesome conversing with her, sounding like she just walked into a news vendor’s on Coney Island. This was the first of my two Bedouin stories, and the most challenging creator to work with. Mercurial, self-deprecating, prone to wild digressions, and passionate about her characters.

The first trailer she showed me had me convinced I knew the protagonist, described in detail in her proposal. … Not at all. A few hundred questions later I finally got out of her that it is in fact the “protagonist’s” sister whom she wants to build up into the lead character. It’s just too bad that in Bedouin culture it’s not so simple to either film women, or build them into leaders. But there’s enough footage of her to get by with, and if we show her as strong as possible, and diminish her opposition, then we can recreate an impression of her accomplishments. As always, that got us going on the “truth” question, and how honest it is to make it seem as though, for example, her character can walk freely around, when mostly she can’t. It’s damned honest, if 99.9% of Bedouin women can’t walk around at all, and she walks alone even once. It’s called context, and narratively speaking it’s a license to exaggerate.

____________________

cu

The scene: it’s 7:40pm, 20 minutes to the deadline for submitting trailers for tomorrow’s pitches. My third project, a very personal story (and Bedouin story number 2) has had me riveted since I firs read the proposal. The trailer she had didn’t do it justice, but that’s why we’re here.

We talked a lot. She smoked a lot. I thought a lot. And together we spent some extra time defining a strategy: what needed to be said in the pitch, what needed to be shown in the trailer, and how to put it all together. We did a paper cut of the trailer, deciding on a structure that would put all her elements in a good order before we made a single cut. I fought to keep certain shots that I thought were redundant out, she held her ground. She went to hunt for fresh material in her hard drives, Ai started assembling the structure.

So again, it’s 20 minutes to deadline, and it’s time to watch the 3 min piece and soak in the beauty. Hit play…

Fade to black, and we look at one another, each with an expression that says “what have we done?”

It’s 7:45.

She starts to say something twice but can’t get it out. I channel the adrenaline coursing through me towards the “t’aint” between my heart and my brain, squint, and cast a line out into the ether, asking for a solution.

She’s just about to finally get what she wanted to say out on the third try, when I get a flash and cut her off: “Let me try something!!”

It’s 7:50.

I hit play.

Fade to black.

We look at one another and smile. I’d taken a chunk of a shot I fought to toss away, and slammed it in the beginning. What I thought was scrap, was now the first shot of the trailer. The shot is raw, with harsh sound and lots of tension. And because it was there at the beginning, everything else in the trailer fell into place. We’d made a kick ass trailer together, that also helped her to prep her pitch. Our collective instincts were solid for the overall structure, her specific instinct in keeping that shot around was solid for the last minute save, and a moment of inspiration saved the day.

It was 8:00pm.

But a “deadline” in Morocco is exactly what you think it is: a suggestion. She took the trailer back to her room and worked some more on it overnight, then handed it in the following morning. The deadline became 8am instead. And the world didn’t end.

darkest

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At most workshops I don’t do any actual cutting. I’ll work with every project (anywhere between 15 and 25) and give them tips on what they can do to their trailers and pitches. Greenhouse was the first time I did limited projects with more involvement. I do love getting my fingers into lots of different pies, but I have to say, helping just a few of to actually bake is a hell of a rush. A schizophrenic one yes, but a rush all the same.