WHERE (SOME) IDEAS COME FROM (SOMETIMES)

I like to think of Errol Morris as the David Lynch of the doc world. His First Person series, as I understand it, was built around the work of his team of researchers, hunting down the weirdest bits of Americana they could find, like parrots who were murder trial witnesses, or autistic slaughterhouse designers who are so good at their job because they can fully empathize with the livestock.

I don’t know If Lynch consciously looks for the odd and surreal or if they’re drawn to him. Given his predilections I’d bet that he’s the magnet. One need only look at his art as well as his films to really understand his commitment to a singular vision. Inland Empire was the last of his films to grace the screen, and I was 100% convinced of everything I saw; I just couldn’t tell you what the hell any of it means.

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I had a long running idea I never found expression for. It was just an idea with no story, about someone watching their actual lives on the screen; they’d see something they didn’t like, re-spool the film, and splice the bit they didn’t like out. Playing the reel back, everything would play the same until the bit that was no longer there. Now that it was gone, what follows played back differently. Or put another way; changed action, changed consequence.

I finally got it out of my system in the early-oughts, adapting Gogol’s Diary of a Madman for a contemporary setting. The film’s a mess, and I won’t subject you to it, but it was a catharsis. With that out of my system I could move on to other things (though they say you make the same damn film in different variations your whole life. We’ll see).

So now I’m thinking of a doc I worked on and which premiered last week: Fredrik Gertten’s Bikes vs Cars. The title seems pretty specific; the battle between cars and bikes. But one of the first things Fredrik explained to me was that that was not the meaning of the title. He’s an avid biker, who gets around not only his native Malmo, but every place he travels on a bike. His interest, he said, was not in painting it as a battle (which in the David and Goliath sense would have an obvious favorite anyway), but as an analysis: Do we build roads and infrastructure for bikes or cars? How do we choose between the two? Etc.

Fredrik comes from a journalist’s background, with an activist streak. Bananas was born of an examination of where our produce comes from, and exposed the rampant employee abuses by Dole, and Big Boys Gone Bananas was the immediate follow up that journeyed right along with him as Dole fought back. Bikes vs Cars comes from his own passion for biking, but is informed by his journalist’s nose.

I’ve got 3 big projects I’m working on, all of which to some degree talk about the world as we know it slipping away, whether by climate change, peak oil, psychotic militias… take your pick. I didn’t plan it that way, but I guess that’s what drives my inspiration now, in search of solutions, not getting on a soap box in Hyde Park barking out “the end is nigh!”

The challenge I run into is not to handle the inspiration to literally. If it sits for a while and gestates, if I doodle and imagine somebody involved somehow in that world, then sometimes it germinates into something useful; either a fictional character I can dive into, or a character I might hope to meet. I’m pretty absorbed with the migrant issue these days, especially refugees from Syria since that’s partly where I’m from. So I’ve gone out to where some of them are staying near Helsingborg, not with the goal of finding that right character, but just to meet people and get a sense. But if, and as, stories emerge… that’s where magic is born. I don’t think it has to be from an intent going in, but it does require open eyes and an open heart.

And just maybe, a wicked Lynchian pompadour.

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FRESH CUTS

014At a meetup last week largely devoted to eye tracking, Theis MacMadsen talked a bit about a media conference he’d recently attended. Hollywood, he said, was employing eye tracking tests to gage where on the screen their audience is looking, and whether they could save on elements that aren’t being actively looked at.

I assume that most of us would argue that they’re, as usual, well off the mark, and that those details, the ones that aren’t being actively regarded, are part of the construct filmmakers use to make sure that an audience can concentrate on what you do want them to see.

Would that scene work as well if there were fewer people in the café? Or less visual debris in the background? Sci-fi is obviously its own animal, but for all the components of those two shots, I’d argue that there’s no fat on them. And the reason the film works as well as it does is because it does such a convincing job of showing that world.

Documentary works differently. Instead of building up the world you’re portraying, you mainly have to reduce the world you’re looking at, making choices about which details really matter and should be brought to the foreground, and which can stay in shallow focus or be out of shot altogether.

Anyway, getting back to Theis and his chat about Hollywood and its eternal quest for ways to cut corners and streamline their expensive productions (and who can blame them really?). So how do you make the watching experience as lean as possible? As it turns out, the same way as you atrophy eye muscles. The studios are experimenting with reversing the technique of eye tracking. So if you’re looking at this point of the screen…

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Instead of drawing your eye’s attention to this point…

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They move it to where your eye has been tracked.

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In effect, your eyes and body need never move at all. All the desired action comes to you. So imagine you’re plugged into a VR or 360 headset, and the whole screen slips over so the desired image lands right in front of you.

The idea freaked the hell out of me. The frightening bits (losing that choice, making the experience more passive etc) are obvious, but damn if the potential isn’t exciting too. Assuming a filmmaker’s goal isn’t to fully couch-potato viewers, then there’s a whole wide narrative language to be explored. I can only imagine it as abstract for now, but imagine if you could harness that kind of image slip and employ it not as a gimmick, but as a storytelling tool.

In a sense it completely changes what my role as an editor is and would be in this brave new world. As Brian Chirls says “sounds like the editor needs to learn how to code.” Maybe. At the very least, editors who’ve always used tricks to hide and / or enhance edits have a bit of an inside track when it comes to understanding how the eye functions in making connections. But whatever the case, I have to say that the horizon for narrative possibilities is more and more apparent. Just imagine shooting a doc in 360, where you get to see not only what someone says, but the listeners reaction. The ability to choose which POV you see, and to watch it over to see the other side, or even something altogether different.

There’s a big wave coming, where tech changes everything. There’s bound to be a lot of bad to go with the good, but I like to think my eyes are open.

THERE IS NO DART

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It’s funny how the question I ask every client or student, “what is it that you really want to say?”, is always the last one I come up with for my own stuff.

I’m building a story world now, not too different from reality (for those who’ve seen Channel 4’s Black Mirror, semi-future with cool tech but everything looks more or less the same as our world – same deal as what I’m going for). The story world is founded on cloning, but beyond the obvious “what is it to be human” thing, I don’t have a central reason or message to anything yet. For me it would be a drag if I did.

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I’ve generally always started a story… anywhere. Then developed it, built it, then pulled it apart as I got closer to the core, so I could structure it in a more interesting way. It’s a pain in the ass in one way (how many drafts do I need to do this time?!), but I do love the process, inefficient as it is.

But to come back to this “what do you want to say business.” I get all paranoid when I start to wonder about re-drafting in service of the goal, because I don’t want to sacrifice dramatic structure just for the cause of clarity. Does the message give the film a greater significance if it comes across more clearly? If I stick to my guns and stay on the dramatic angle, then aren’t I blowing an opportunity to reach an audience?

I don’t think so.

If it takes away from the cathartic film experience then it’s akin to sabotage. The danger is amped up in doc, where you have a limited time to get information and character across, while telling a story., and the temptation is to be more literal than is necessary.

If any of you have seen Jesse Moss’ great the Overnighters, you’ve seen a film that follows a very specific story. Along the way, it touches several angles of intolerance, the environment, economic injustice, etc., some of them pretty direct, others almost as an afterthought. But the film is constructed to drive the dramatic arc. So instead of a message film, you’re treated to a riveting portrait that happens to leave little easter eggs for you to digest. They’re what really lingered in my mind after the screening.

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When it comes to our sanitation documentary, Brown Gold, we always get back to one story question : how much do we need to talk about and show human shit? One of our lead characters sums it up nicely with a photograph of a woman standing in the Kibera slum, handing over a Peepoo toilet bag with shit in it. As she says “ it’s like it disappeared. It doesn’t smell. The stigma is gone.” That Peepoo is a thin film of material. Everyone knows what’s in it and what it smells like, but it’s being handed around a group of people because nobody literally sees or smells the shit. If you see the crush of humanity in Kibera and see the Peepoo arriving, we don’t need to have a big talk about sanitation to get the point.

So that’s how I work with “message”: write it down on a card or something and stick it on your wall so you don’t forget it, but don’t spell it out. Keep your bag of shit opaque but present. It’s the old adage of show don’t tell.

When I’m working on a film and shooting is still going on, I can, as someone not physically and emotionally invested in the shooting process, guide the director to get the stuff that fills in the missing emotional blanks. It’s subtle, but if running can become the central image of one film as a powerful metaphor that just looks like running, or an empty chair in an empty room can mean something that replaces words, then I think you’re getting to impact that goes beyond simple information. Like Stalin said: one death is a tragedy, 1,000 is a statistic.

Never thought I’d quote Stalin.

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In my little clone world, I’m not at the “central message” stage yet, nor am I trying to be. The fun bit comes in the conjuring. The really fun bit comes when you find the magic trick but ignore it. I’m always happiest when I get fooled by my own smoke and mirrors.

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p.s. A useful guide for documentary filmmakers, even if you’re not thinking of outreach or longer term engagement with a given film if the Impact field guide. It’s an amazing tool to identify what a project might be able to do beyond being a film, and can have an interesting effect on your writing. I use it to home in on story objectives even when I’m not the one following through on outreach, because why you make something can be as important as what you make, as far as energy and focus goes. Enjoy.

THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE (OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE SHOTS)

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It took me a while.

After years spent on a particular project, one that’s jam packed with “information”, it took me a while to recalibrate my view after stepping back from the informational grid, and remember that doc is visual. Goddamn right.

I’ve had my guilty moments, when the scale of what seems important to be said hijacks the feeling I want folks to walk away from a film with, explaining as much as possible instead of letting a certain reality fall into place all on its own via the context I can create in the editing suite.

Jesus, even that’s getting too technical. How about sometimes just letting images speak for themselves…

Great scene. A perfect example of why I loved the Wire. It didn’t just slam you with slices of life from some of the nasty parts of life, it knew how to take its time and tell the story with more than just words. You can hear the wheels grinding in the characters’ heads while they figure stuff out.

Another scene (redundant here maybe but even so) could be an instructional video on doing po-lice work…

Awesome.

I had a whole wall of cue cards up a while back. Some had themes, some had scenes, some listed what needs to be said. I took ‘em all down then tried to put them back up on another wall. They wouldn’t stick (message from the heavens perhaps?), until Annika wrote on a card then jammed it up right over my monitor. It said…

CINEMA

Goddamn right.

So now I do my cue cards on Scrivener (great script management app for anyone interested), and when I lose a thread I can go back in there to find it. Or I can look up at the word CINEMA and rekindle a little inspiration.

I did a stint on the show How It’s Made, where I’d do the visual cut of how an object or product gets made. A new object every damn day (you really don’t want to know how airplane food gets made, as if you ever did). I learned a few useful skills about showing process, but walked away from the gig feeling a bit traumatized by the sheer mechanization of purely descriptive storytelling.

But then I came across a real inspiration, something that plays the silence, and the sound, beautifully. And of course, where the stars are the sheep.

I’d never been hypnotized by sheep until I saw Sweetgrass. If you want to be hypnotized by a sheep, you should watch it too.

But again, there’s a time and a place for everything, so now I’m reigning in some of the visual treatment I’ve been working on, and looking for the balance between it and information.

Is this all common sense? Maybe. But sometimes I really do need to get out of the edit bubble and play around a bit, and recapture what it was that drew me into that story in the first place.

Cinema. Goddamn right.

SAFE ZONE

smart-idea-13When I was a kid a visit to family or friends was always surreal. It inevitably started a bit awkward as I got used to another kid’s world. And it could well stay awkward, but I’d eventually end up either saying or thinking stuff like ‘jesus! They can toss each other into the walls?”, or `”this pasty, cold skinned, emaciated girl is dead. Or has something I don’t want to catch.”, or “alright, they’re 11 brothers and sisters, but 4 of them sharing a room?.. Really?”

Those visits were always a glimpse into a whole other way of living, or a way different enough from my own to start my lifelong appreciation for context. Sometimes it ended with “do we have to go?” (at the labyrinthine country mansion), or “come and get me now or I’ll tell everyone your darkest secrets” (during a sleepover that suddenly felt like it was happening at the overlook hotel). However it ended, I never walked away saying to myself “hey! They’re just like me!” More like a feeling of gratitude that I lived in my weird little world and not someone else’s.

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Directly and indirectly it seems to me that those formative year happenings are a big part of why I see the world the way I do. Without that particular level of experience I might not be able to look at material and see something that I can stretch beyond the confines of how it might have been shot. Hell, it might even explain why I’m naturally friendly with some people, and naturally suspicious of others.

I got to thinking about all this at a supper the other evening, where my kid and four others were happily sitting around a table together staring at their respective phones, tablets etc. I started wondering (after thinking “goddamn kids!”), Just what does it do to a person when what surrounds doesn’t ask those natural questions? I’m not even talking socially, just ways of seeing. Like remembering that cousin Billy’s sofa is way better for building a living room fort with. Or how Philippe’s basement is open turf where anything goes. Or how renting a movie at so and so’s will make the time fly by way faster than arguing through a game (even if that does mean watching a live U2 tape. Again.) If instead you end up playing the same game you play every day, what does that do to your story?

As it happens, the events of Ferguson were and still are highly visible at the same time as this supper was generating all these questions in my head. The optimist in me was thinking “alright, this must be the dam that opens that’ll get the conversation happening. Here’s a map from Gwynn Guilford at qz.com that shows just how hard the conversation hit globally on twitter, via the hashtags #HandsUpDontShoot , #BlackLivesMatter , and #ICantBreathe

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It’s hard to imagine that level of interaction without the tech to back it up, much less the ability to put it into context so fast. There’s an unprecedented conversation taking place, and everyone’s invited. It’s a beautiful story full of hope.

That story, however, is incomplete unless you look at the context. Emma Pierson, also from qz.com, prepped a chart that not only followed the tweets, but put them in their respective camps. Very generally, the red dots are conservative, and the blue are liberal. The reds “sided” with the cops, the blues with the questions of unnecessary force and police brutality. (a far more detailed and worthy description can be found here.)

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I’d say that two conversations are happening, and that the one is barely aware of the other. Less a conversation really than two opposite sides of Speaker’s corner. How can there possibly be a conversation if these folks don’t visit one another and build forts with each others sofas?

Naturally that gets me thinking about how I tell a story, as a writer, editor, whatever, specifically in documentary. I mean it’s not as if you come across a lot of documentary filmmakers who say “global warming is a goddamn myth!” or even “maybe that dictator had a point.” There’s a clear moral thread that runs through most doc, and that makes sense. But I don’t know that it’s the best thing for it if it means not telling the bigger story and getting some context.

I’ve got an end of the world project that I’ve been semi-developing / semi-neglecting for some time now (I don’t mean I’ve been planning the end of the world, just a project about it.) My knee-jerk is to think “get back to farming, shut down industry and when the big die off is over the planet and its survivors will be better off. How many skills and how much forgotten information would we need to relearn just to make a go of it, was the basic premise behind an early draft. Now I’m wondering “do we need more tech instead of less? Do we push the envelope as far as it’ll stretch and whatever hybrid mutant species comes out the other end is what’s meant to happen? I don’t know. Hell,

I don’t even know if I could survive without a wi-fi signal anymore. But I’m happy that the kid in me is building those forts and asking those design questions. It’s why I wonder and worry about what comes out the other end of the “device” grinder, and what kind of stories those kids will be able to or interested in telling.

SHOP TALK

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I’m no expert when it comes to hang outs in Copenhagen. What I did discover last Friday after an evening Copenhagen Dox screening was that it doesn’t really matter where you go: it’ll be packed, loud, and smell of beer. Perfect place for a chat about the deeper aspects of editing.

Mariko Montpetit and I ended up at the Taphouse, the city’s self-proclaimed mecca of beer halls, with the largest draft selection in town. We got the last of the salami/cheese snacks in the place, and with delicious ales in secured, got to talking.

I wrote a piece, echoing our conversation then sent it to her. I‘d paraphrased, of course, not having recorded the conversation at the time. She sent me back her own thoughts, proving that Danish beer is stronger than I thought. She was a good sport about it though.

Whatever text below is in quotes is my paraphrasing of Mariko. The italicized blocks are her corrections.

It’s really nice reading your blog! It’s like reliving our conversation through your ears and eyes. It’s interesting how much we absorb what we need from the world around us. Re-reading the notes I’d taken throughout the festival, I also see the aspects I’ve absorbed which related to my current concerns, the two films I’m currently working on. I ended up writing loads after reading your blog, got inspired somehow – hope you don’t mind…

I didn’t.

She’d just seen Mr. X, a film on the works of Leos Carax, and I’d just seen Pirjo Honkasalo’s the 3 Rooms of Melancholia, which wasn’t as melancholic as it sounds, partly because it’s so hauntingly beautiful.

Mariko was in town for the premiere of a project she’d helped edit, one that exhausted her to work on, but was the kind of rewarding project that keeps you in the game in spite of diminishing returns. I mean let’s face it, doc isn’t a place to build a fortune, it’s a place to do what you love.

Josh’s film was, and we both use the term often, a real fever dream (and if you’ve seen The Act of Killing or the Look of Silence you know that’s true. Check out the list it falls under.) The film I’m working on now is more like a volcano waiting to erupt; the main character is on the eccentric side, and the events in his life are less than ordinary. The difference is really that fever state. The previous two were darkly intense, the kind of thing you never put down, which is hard when you’re dealing with that level of horror.

“Besides, I really don’t want the burden of weeding through tons of whatever material and do damage control. (more paraphrasing here: she’s not really a “whatever” kind of woman). I love working with precise material, footage shot with a purpose in mind.”

Really? Sometimes I love doing that: hewing that rock and exposing someone’s vision. The way I see it the vision is in every choice made during a shoot, no matter how spontaneous or random.

That’s a half-truth. Because I sometimes hate it as well, if it becomes about “well that shot’s out of focus for 5 minutes,” or “why are you shooting cutaways of a model ship when you have a relevant argument happening in the background?” It’s times like those when I wish I still smoked. But luckily those are few and far between. And anyway, I still harbor the desire to do my own stuff, so sifting through raw, rough footage is the next best thing to making choices on location. I get to feel that one notch higher in the film’s voice.

“Yeah, but that can cut the impact of the material. I mean you spend so much time sculpting it into something that works that it kind of diminishes what you should be able to feel and respond to when you’re editing. How do you get past that zone of over-familiarity, or knowing the truth behind that footage to know what you’re feeling is real?”

That’s my eternal struggle. Keeping the content fresh when you’ve watched it X number of times in X number of configurations. In one way I have an easier time in fiction, because I’m always conscious of the artifice. The tricks of montage make more sense to me there when I’m trying to construct an emotional arc for the audience. But in doc I always have to fight the context of the footage; deciding whether or not to put things out of sequence, what to amp up, what to tone down, what to reveal and when, and what to ignore. It all happened. It’s all part of someone’s life, but if it doesn’t advance the story, it’s gone. You deal with the fallout later.

“Ok. Go ahead and sculpt as much as you like. But how much time do you have to work on a project? What’s the least amount of time you were ever given to cut a doc?”

About 2 months.

“Yeah. See, in the UK I get stuck with 5-6 week deadlines. Makes it a bit tougher to spend ages “finding “the film.”

So how do you build?

“I build towards one scene. Whatever that scene is, it’s the crescendo. Everything that comes before (or after depending on whether it’s a catalyst or an ending) has to emotionally build to it.”

Common sense maybe, but she’s right. That centerpiece becomes the nexus for all your other decisions. You figure out how to maximize its impact by what comes right before, right after, the character’s behavior, the tempo and rhythm of your cutting. When in the film does it happen?

Mariko picks up again after reading my text…

That’s a combination of what Josh talked about in his masterclass (all the film building up to that last scene with the blind dad), and what Daniel Baremboim talks about in music construction. But I don’t have one way of building. I think shapes and construction can change depending on the story and material, but ultimately what both Josh and Baremboim speak of is transformation. This one might be a way out (I love quoting Baremboim): Sometimes in music… “there comes a fantastic vertical pressure on the horizontal floor of the music. At that moment you know, that the music cannot continue anymore, the way it was before.”

(By the way, there’s a link to his Reith lecture (part 3 of 5)

(this series of lectures has taught me so much about editing)

I’ve been working on a project for the last 5 years now, and I only ID’d the centerpiece recently. Now the rough cut I assembled is taking form based on getting to that moment. If I do my job well, it’ll be a doozy. But the process of getting there can take time, particularly when the “moment” isn’t dramatically obvious. When you start getting into frames, or revisiting old material to find a better cut of something, then re-discovering material that means something different now, everything can change in a moment, usually for the better.

“That’s also why I like having the director with me. When those moments happen and you have to make big decisions like that… It’s key that the director be part of that process. If only to take the responsibility for it out of my hands.”

Mariko corrects me again (good thing I checked!)

I wouldn’t say taking responsibility out of my hands, because as an editor I have great responsibility. Niels (Pagh Andersen) blatantly says being an editor is like being god; you frame what to look at and how to look at. That’s a lot of power… and in my book, that’s a lot of responsibility, on my shoulders. But I also see my role as an editor as to absorb the vision of the director, be a sponge.

Sometimes I talk about the part I played in the impact of Josh’s films in terms of proxy; so by proxy, I was part of a historical game changer in Indonesia. I also talk about the courage to have a point of view. Josh had the courage to hold his point of view in that context and intervene with cinema. He takes responsibility for it. I can’t be the only one taking responsibility. I’m aware of the power I have as an editor, I won’t yield it for someone who won’t take responsibility, or something I can’t believe in.

So if I try to rephrase what you wrote….

I like when a director can keep a fresh eye, so not looking over my shoulder all the time but being engaged in the film being made. The moments you referred to, making big decisions, I do like to run them with the director. Hopefully by that point, there is already a good communication between us. (but of course, sometimes the only way to move forward when the director is not present is to make those decisions.)

All of which I agree with. As an amendment to my paraphrase, I’d simply say that I interpreted what you said as meaning you didn’t want to be the one to find and impose the vision. The difference being that someone who works well in the field who doesn’t necessarily have the same chops in the edit suite, and needs someone to flesh out what they got. There are plenty of folks out there who work that way, and I feel very comfortable in that zone. I love cold-playing a new version of something back to a director and blowing their minds. Sometimes it’ll piss them off. Sometimes it’ll just surprise them. But if a director can still be surprised by their own material, then that’s already a win-win situation. It’s not about derailing a vision, it’s about questioning assumptions.

Short and sweet. Then I ran out of quotation marks and she ran out of blue type.

One thing we definitely agreed on was that it was really nice, for once, to be able to go and see films at a festival for once instead of just attending workshops and events. And that sometimes sitting at a bar drinking Danish beer is as fun as creating a little world in a dark room.

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Chronicle-of-a-Summer_image_03Instinct, I’ve found, is one of the trickiest tools there is.

If I’m on set, running something live, making decisions on the fly: no problem. it’s not exactly a cakewalk, but if the choices are: make decisions or die? Not much of a choice at all.

Editing is a whole other animal. There’s comparatively more time, so I feel like there’s less pressure to instantly make the “right” decisions. Surely without the immediacy of being on a shoot, you can make more enlightened, creative decisions. Right?

But my own experience has been that time is often the enemy. Given too much of it, one CAN tend to err on the side of caution, instead of listening to instinct. It’s not a rule, and it gets clearer with experience, but it’s there.

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So I’m watching Chronique d’un été the other night, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s 1960 documentary following the lives of several Parisians. There are fascinating slice of life moments playing cat and mouse with the headier interview style, and in spite of the overwhelming intellectualism of French cinema being there the whole time, there’s a deep well of soulfulness to discover. I last saw it about 15 years ago. This experience was totally different.

What hits me on this viewing is the razor sharp timing. The moments when the film shifts from hardcore verbal analysis to visual poetry occur at precisely the moment where I felt the need to back off from the literality of words, and meditate a little on what’s been said. And that visual reprieve gives me exactly what I need to feel Rouch and Morin’s deeper message.

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I’m working on a film right now, and trying to strike a balance between the Cartesian and the poetic. What does the audience need to know, and what do they need to “know”? It’s the centuries old “show don’t tell” thing, and there’s a very, very big difference between telling a documentary audience a story, and showing it to them.

Chronique d’un été strikes a fantastic balance between explanation, and “gut” explanation. There’s enough that’s familiar in the characters that I can empathize with them, and that means those pauses from information conjure a hell of a lot of self-reflection. Obviously I try and look for that in my own cuts, but with a fresh lesson in its importance I’m paying more attention.

But isn’t that shying away from instinct and towards the brain?

Shit. You’re right…

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Another aspect of re-watching Chronique d’un été hit me: the urge to pause and google. I managed to fight it, but man-o-man. No easy thing.

It might only be because I saw 4 (count ‘em: 4!!) films on the big screen at Copenhagen DOX, which is more than I’ve seen in… a long time. But there were a lot of moments where I wanted to hit pause so I could look up stuff that was either directly or indirectly conjured by what I was seeing. No I didn’t pick up my phone and look something up in the middle of a screening. But if I were catholic I’d be guilty anyway, right?

How do we watch what we watch now? I don’t even have a TV in the house, nor do I expect or wish for one anytime soon. A phone, pad, laptop offer far more flexibility in accessing content. So I ask myself: Do I have a harder time “immersing” because the context has changed, because I’m not in the bosom of the silver screen? Or does that fail to happen because times are what they are? Or because I’m not 25 anymore?

We try and craft submersible worlds for the people who watch our content. But let’s face it, every generation has been that much more conscious of the artifice of those worlds. We haven’t helped matters by being all meta about the stuff we put out, except in buying those next few moments of credibility: we’re in on the joke. When it comes to doc, the craft has adopted a lot of the visual language and cues of fiction, boosting the drama in one way, drawing attention to itself in another.

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I’m not always successful at resisting the urge to look something up when in the middle of a film (usually, but not inevitably). Though I will say that watching the Overnighters at CPH:DOX, there was a riveting dramatic cue at the beginning that paid off big time at the end, in spite of the film being the least visibly arresting doc I’ve seen in a while. The characters were strong enough (thinking a kind of modern day Harlan County USA) and that promise was compelling enough that I never flinched. So there’s that as well: that American style arc that plays at shock tactics that I can’t deny is effective.

Still, that kind of engagement, for me at least, is a little rarer these days. It’s one of the reasons I put a lot of faith in interactive content. It’s working out some kinks, ok, a lot of kinks, but there’s a lot of promise in the potential to engage with content. Will that googly question be integrated into the package? Does that make a shit storyteller, or a crafty one? Time will tell.

In the short term at least I take a lot of solace when I’m personally immersed in the content I’m cutting. That means there’s at least a healthy nugget of story in there, right? There has to be, or else my instincts go the way of the dodo, and therein lies madness.

THE SANDBOX

08If I had to pick an overall feeling for this year’s CPH:DOX I’d have to call it skepticism. Apply that towards gov’t (Citizenfour) or creative convention (the works of Oppemheimer) or industry practice (any damn forum this year), and you can feel the restlessness in the room.

I have to say that J. Oppenheimer’s masterclass was refreshing, if only because he makes a point of addressing the artifice of filmmaking no matter the genre, and the “contract” that exists between audience and filmmakers that implicitly allow suspension of disbelief. Of course folks are aware of a camera in the room. Of course they’ll behave differently than they normally would. And it’s absurd to assume otherwise.

07What’s amazing and ultimately controversial about the Act of Killing is that Oppenheimer amps up the artifice. Somewhere down the line he made the decision to push reality into self-described “fever dream” territory, to try and bring the viewer into the emotionally vulnerable state that would be more elusive using straight up, fly on the wall documentary techniques.

But I’m doing a disservice to a far more involved description of his process. Instead get a taste of his articulate discourse here.

So what’s the message? Get the audience where you want them to go by whatever means necessary? Conventions are limited so forget ‘em?

I think it’s more about never forgetting that documentary, no matter how activist in nature, no matter how grave the subject, is ultimately an act of creative expression. And by extension, the tools need to be as flexible as an individual’s creativity.

There’s a reason why so much of the conference at the festival revolves around technology, platforms, and, as Tribeca guru and industry big wig Ingrid Kopp puts it, the “participants formerly known as the audience.” Ms Kopp assaulted our brains the other night in a talk about the sandbox that currently exists, in part shared by both creators and participants, and the innovation that’s both driving and being driven by that collaboration. (tech-geekoid-long distance folks check out their Hackpad workspace for samples of what Tribeca works with)

Tribeca’s viewfinder is pointed solidly forward, but not at the expense of what’s driving it that way. Every leap that’s come before, every restless urge that birthed the moving image, the radio, print, the internetwhatever, is firmly represented in everything that’s come since, and very little of it is altogether gone. It’s been absorbed into the fold and used to forge something new. What the hell is the internet? It’s a huge hybrid thingy with insane potential. Bearing that in mind should act as a soothing balm to whomsoever is terrified at the prospect of “losing” an art form.

Especially storytellers. The problem (or my problem anyway) when I think about new platforms or evolving media is that I spent a long time perfecting a craft. Now I have to throw that away? Learn some new stuff that just might be a flash in the pan? “No way!”

So when I figure on the evolution of film artistry itself, I feel a lot better. I wouldn’t want to see Grey Gardens made today, but nor could it have been made with the same panache even ten years earlier than it was. We’re talking about 1975. There was a zeitgeist not just in doc, but in film in general, auteur voices being found in what I consider a golden age of craft. If I try and imagine what it would look like as a doc made now, I shudder.

Unless maybe it was made as something other than a traditional film.

Could it be a web series? A home movie style collection that delves deeper as they get more comfortable? How much more flamboyant might they become if they were getting the regular feedback not just from filmmakers, but from the audience?

Maybe it’s something else.

That’s just one example off the top of my head, but the point is, especially in doc, there’s a tendency I’ve noticed to fall back on “purity” tropes, or some nonsense attitude that truth needs to be reflected in a naturalistic approach. I’m skeptical.

Listening to a panel on audience and empathy, I was struck by the choice of speakers. There was Brian Chirls, deep tech guru from POV. Closer to earth was Kerstin Uberlacker from We have a Plan, from Malmo, talking about the trials and tribulations of audience building for her project Ghost Rockets. And then there were the guys from Copenhagen’s Wooloo. Still wrapping my head around what they do, but short version: these dudes recruit their audience from the streets an turn the collaborations that come from it into art installations. “Art that costs nothing,” as they put it, and it’s hard not to get interested in that. So a full spectrum, from the peaks of binary right down to bubble gum on the soles of your shoes. What’s the connection? They’re trying new stuff. They’re not only telling the stories they see, but they’re involving folks in the process, affecting not only how many people see what they do, but what they actually do.

06And that’s probably what I think is most interesting. The fact that the audience, users, whatever the hell you want to call them, actually play a role in what we put out. I appreciate the unexpected a lot, part of the reason why I love documentary. You’d have to decide the limits of how participatory you want your story to be, but the options are out there, and the truth is it’s a great way to boost your audience.

Ingrid Kopp scared the hell out of me by saying something that I already knew: there is no way for the market to support the volume of documentaries that we’re making. Take a look at any festival catalogue and it’s clear as day. Despair, or use the occasion as an opportunity to reinvent yourself. Maybe both.

I’ve spent lots of time alone in editing rooms. Too goddamn much of it really. I’ve gotten stuck sometimes on that “purity” angle of storytelling. But I’m jazzed by the potential of what this new sandbox can achieve. Don’t get me wrong, I’m terrified by the financial models, or absence of, for the time being, but that’s the thing with sandboxes; they’re for playing in. And the skeptics: they keep the sandbox real, so welcome.

VIRTUALLY REAL

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A “joke” I used to tell:

“One day I’m gonna’ get a tattoo: two outlines of my body, one in green, one in red. So if you’re wearing 3-d glasses and I run at you, it’ll look like I’m running right at you.”

A smart-ass line, but it summed up a certain attitude, you could call it dismissive, towards tech and pop culture.

Likewise, “virtual reality” is one of those phrases that would normally make me guffaw. Maybe it’s the disposability of the stuff we invent and the culture we sow, but yeah, my cultural armor automatically snaps on.

But oh my what a difference actually touching the stuff can make.

I wish I could credit whoever it was who called VR (and by extension the Oculus Rift) an “empathy machine”, but my mind’s a blank, so let’s just call it that and thank the cosmos. Because it truly is an empathy machine. You experience scale, height, speed,, and your mind fills in the blanks of smell, taste and touch. And putting all those elements into play around a given context makes VR a powerful tool for communication and, again, empathy.

VR as a tool in fiction seems to be the next media evolution. Frankly it makes sense to immerse a viewer deeper into a story since we like to have more choices and participate a bit more. But I’m extremely curious to see what the greater impact on documentary and social problems could be if we’re truly able to drop someone in the middle of a situation.

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Journalist Nonny de la Peña is a trailblazer in the form. She’s produced pieces like GITMO, that puts you in the shoes (or bare feet) of a prisoner at the notorious prisoner of war camp in Cuba, or Use of Force, which hit me journalistically a little harder. You’re a spectator, watching border police beat to death Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican national attempting to re-enter the US. The tech is relatively primitive: you’re wearing the Oculus rift and headphones, and maneuvering head and body using a game controller. Yet all I really wanted to do was jump over the fence and help Anastasio. I felt that close. It felt that close to real.

The thing is, it’s not that the world has to be so “realistically” convincing. The models in Use of Force are blocky and jagged, limits of the technology right now. But the immersion into a true story that’s so violent and visceral is deeply affecting. It’s not a news report on your computer; you’re there, watching someone who really died like that die.

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So how do you chose your details? What makes it in to the final product to produce the effect of empathy? Well it starts with the story doesn’t it, and that’s what we touched on at a workshop hosted by BoostHBG in Helsingborg earlier this week. Oscar Raby, himself a VR artist was the nexus behind the workshop. His project Assent was the starting point, a deeply personal story about his father’s experiences as a soldier in Pinochet-era Chile, it’s a documentary in the form of a letter written to Oscar’s dad, and it takes us from through an abstract impression of a landscape, reconstructed through shared memory, imagination and fragments of light. As he put it himself, it’s not a pure documentary, but the term hits closest to what the piece is meant to convey and do. That was our first clue that the rule book doesn’t really factor into VR production (aside from story-story-story…)

The group I jumped into started from the idea of bullying. Memories of high school were the generator for some of the details, another was the very real limit of a day and a half to build the damn project

So how do you convey bullying, either as the victim or the perpetrator? We decided to step away from being too specific or literal, ultimately even forgetting about the image that got us all interested in the idea in the first place: being held under a pile of lives by an attacker. So we got reductive: work with the environment, pick one main task and if there’s time go beyond that.

What we ended up with was a school hallway populated by silhouettes and a jarring soundscape of distorted bells, conversations, hostile jeers, lockers slamming and fingers pointing as you make your way along the endless hallway towards the safety of the light at the end.

Writing it down, that doesn’t sound like much, impressionistic yes, but not much more. However, slap the Oculus Rift onto your head and dive into that hallway and the impression slams into you. It was rough, yes, and full of flaws, but the experience elevated the content and suddenly we had a piece. One that we’re all motivated to continue working on as well, as the potential became clearer the further along we got.

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So where does that leave us? At the portal to another way of thinking about how to tell stories, yes, but also with a whole new impetus to have strong stories to engage us with. Projects like Use of Force bring us closer to some of the reality we might not want to face, but imagine if you had a fear of heights, but could skydive, or were learning surgery but weren’t ready to operate on a live patient. Or wanted to box but didn’t want to get hit. Or maybe you’d like to show a bully what it’s like to be bullied.

The empathy machine has a way to go until it can accomplish all that with authority, but I’m going to enjoy the ride on the way, and without smart ass tattoo jokes.

AND THEN WHAT? pt2

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In which two documentary editors continue their discussion (the ethical bit), and enjoy very tasty Vietnamese salads. (I immediately remember that in Montreal, Vietnamese would be my go-to lunch when I’d be eyeball deep in a project. I don’t know why that is. Anyone who does and shares it here… I owe you one Vietnamese lunch.)

There’s an interview in the film I’m making with my partner right now, where one of the main characters meets an official from the sanitation ministry of Kenya. They’re talking about the slum of Kibera, and how projects always concentrate on one small area of the slum: “It’s a culture. They come and go, come and go.” Makes sense based on what I’ve seen: got something to test out? Bring it to the most disposable people on the planet. If you’ve seen the film the Constant Gardener, a fictionalized but not by much account of some of what goes on in Kibera, you get a sense of it with locals being guinea pigs for anti TB medication, anticipating a worldwide epidemic around the corner (Are they testing Ebola stuff right now I wonder).

So what’s the difference when it comes to filmmakers? You’ve got a story to tell, you go in, befriend them, spend time with them, and somewhere in them give them some sliver of hope: someone’s interested in my story! Something might happen! Then you’re gone.

I know the drill: we’ve got our own lives and taking on someone else’s problems above and beyond the context of your film is more than a little daunting. You can hope that it will somehow help the people in it, but above and beyond that, how do you determine where your responsibility rests?

The great Steve James did the Good Pitch with his film the Interrupters (see it now if you haven’t already!), at the same time as we were pitching our project, and he brought his lead character in from Chicago to Silver Springs to boost the level of the pitch and help get the film finished and, more importantly, out there. Clear example of using what you’ve got to get a film done, including the characters.

But not only did James partner up with a mass of anti-violence groups, youth groups, etc, but when that same character grew ill later down the line, James was able to successfully raise funds to battle her disease.

I’m not saying marry your characters, and hell, not every character is necessarily going to be folks you want to hang out with, but I can’t help but feel there’s a certain responsibility at play when you open a wound, to figure out what conclusion you have to bring your part in the story to, then do it.

The other editor, between bites of Mango salad, discussed how the scale of the projects he works on can vary, but since becoming a dad he tends to stick to slightly less dark material. I have to say, it does get harder to watch the horrific bits of humanity play out on screen when you picture your kids in your mind’s eye all the time.

The stakes are different when the story’s scale is more intimate. Then I think the ethical considerations have to be more about honesty. As we said in part 1, sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth. Maybe you alter the timeline of events slightly for dramatic effect. Or exaggerate a character’s qualities to either get the point across or make them cinematically as interesting as you found them in the first place.

My background was fiction, so I play perhaps a little more fast and loose with the literal “reality” of a story. But I think that’s the difference between journalism and storytelling. I’m a firm believer that if changing some of the details help the deeper truths of a story to come out, then that’s good. It’s all subjective anyway, and the voice you have comes out in developing a film whether you want it to or not. Might as well play it for its strengths.

I’m stretching away from the actual lunchtime conversation a bit, but this is the gist of it. And isn’t that kind of the point?