Hot Docs review: ‘Position among the Stars’

8 05 2011

You won’t find a stronger documentary that so beautifully brings out Indonesia’s churning social and religious questions than Position among the Stars (Stand van de Sterren), which screened recently at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival. Earlier this year the film took home the Best Feature-length Documentary at IDFA and a World Cinema Special Jury Prize at the Sundance festival.

Directed and shot by Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich, it’s the concluding film in a trilogy following a poor family living through modern-day Indonesia’s tumultuous decade of change. (His first two films The Eye of the Day and Shape of the Moon won the Joris Ivens Award IDFA – 2004, and the World Cinema Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance – 2005.)

Position among the Stars continues Helmrich’s 12-year documentation of Rumidjah, an elderly Christian grandmother living in the world’s largest Muslim community, and her family. Rumidjah struggles to keep her non-observant Muslim sons on track, and to provide for her granddaughter’s uncertain future in an increasingly globalized economy. Through the microcosm of a single family, we see all the issues Indonesia is struggling to come to grips with today.

Helmrich’s cinematography style is astonishingly intimate. Using his unique “Single-shot Cinema” method – his excellent website where he describes his trademark style is here – and an array of relatively cheap consumer cameras, he brings the audience into startling moments of truth in the family’s life.

After a screening he answered some questions about his film:

Describe your filming technique and how you got such intimate scenes with this family.

I didn’t want to be just an observer, and standing, shooting scenes from the outside. I wanted to be a participant, among them. As I filmed, I was just being with them, together.

There is a drama going on always, and when you get to know people you can predict what will happen, and I just make sure that I get the right angle from the right place. I call it single-shot cinema. At a scene, I shoot in a single shot and only in the editing it gets cut.

I also used five different cameras, normally I have just consumer cameras, but they are all specialized in certain things. I use them like a painter would use a brush. So I can say that in this situation, “this camera would be best.”

In the scene of the boy running (ED NOTE: a long scene with multiple shots of a young boy running through Jakarta’s alleys after he’d stolen some clothes) I just ran after him, and he ran away… but I knew where he would go, I knew his labyrinth by then. So when I had a number of my shots and I thought “if I want to make my story round I should do something extra – I should do with the camera what he wanted to do himself.” The boy wanted to fly. So I took the little camera and put it on a bamboo stick and lifted it up to get a kind of a crane shot.

How much time did you spend with the family, and how did you meet them?

I was there about 14 months, almost every day, actually living their life for that time. This is the third part of a trilogy, the first I shot almost 12 years ago, so they know me quite a lot.

In 1990 was the first time I went to the village where my mother was born, and it was there I met them. Rumidjah’s husband was still alive, he was about twenty years older than her and he still could speak a little Dutch. Because of the old colonial tie. So it was a great bond between us and we became friends. It was just before the fall of Suharto (May 1998.)

And then I hired Bakti (Rumidjah’s son) as a driver and I was seeing what was happening with the family. And it was historical, this change in the country because the Suharto family was a dictator and he had to step down, and there were huge protests, and it was similar to what is happening now in Arab countries. And I saw that what was happening in their life was a microcosm of what was happening in greater Indonesia so I thought, I’d better focus on them.

Can you talk a bit about the themes you pulled out?

The main reason I decided to focus on religion, economy and politics is because it’s the three things that are very much changing and making this turmoil in Indonesia. If you look at every newspaper they are really the three main things. The economy is booming, but there is a also a kind of reaction from the religious part. And politics of course, you have to cope with these events.

Helmrich said he doesn’t plan to film a fourth installment, but if something were to happen in the family that was important with respect to Indonesia, then “I’m ready.”

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NFB playlists

28 02 2011

NFB playlists1
I recently spent a morning browsing the NFB’s excellent resource of film playlists. The playlists have been a feature of the new www.nfb.ca website since it launched in January 2009. Invited guests and their own staff have grouped together films around themes ranging from the powerful to the whimsical, the obvious to the obscure.

I have one conclusion…. You can get lost in there! The only way I can justify spending hours watching ten of these films at a time, is by rationalizing that it’s the duty of every young filmmaker to see the work of filmmakers that have gone before them.

Thanks to the playlists, it becomes a delightful chore. They are a useful tool for whittling down the wonderful selection of films available on the website. They also provide insight into the making-of certain films and in some cases, the historical context that otherwise would be lost to someone of my generation.

NFB Roche playlist
The NFB’s Guest Playlists include film groupings by the following people, some of whom are in-house producers and filmmakers:

* Douglas Roche: The Strength of Peace (Magnus’ film Uranium, Terry Nash’s If You Love This Planet, and Martin Duckworth’s Return to Dresden are included in this list)

* Tre Armstrong: Dance, Music and Passion

* Donald McWilliams: Norman McLaren: Hands-on Animation

* Colin Low: Recollections from a Distinguished Career

* Alanis Obomsawin: a Retrospective

* Gil Cardinal: The Aboriginal Voice

* Katerina Cizek: Manifesto for interventionist Media

* Thomas Waugh, Ezra Winton and Michael Baker: Challenge for Change

* Adam Symansky: Donald Brittain

The guest authors of their collections take one of two approaches in their selections: either they focus on a theme or a particular filmmaker. Cizek’s playlist brings together 11 films on “the philosophy and practice of ‘Art as a Hammer’.” Her picks range from 1944’s short Democracy at Work to 2008’s RiP! A Remix Manifesto.

NFB symansky playlist

Symansky’s collection brings together eight Donald Brittain films, each written up with a personal recollection of Symansky’s about the “making of” of the film. The writing alone is an invaluable resource for younger filmmakers like myself.

In the NFB’s Expert Playlists, their resident collections expert, Albert Ohayon, put together six useful lists:

* 10 Great Films from the last decade you may not have seen

* The 1960s: An Explosion of Creativity

* The 1950s: Television and the Move to Montreal

* Canada’s Diverse Cultures

* Bill Mason: Beyond the wild, beyond the paddle

And finally, the Thematic Playlists comprise almost sixty collections of films and clips, intriguing because there’s such a huge variety. Where else can you access groupings ranging from ‘Winter Sports Movies” to “Canada’s got Treasures!”?

Treasures indeed.





2-minute trailer for Horses for Orphans short film

1 01 2011

Posted it on YouTube early this morning to ring in the new year:

Hope you enjoy it!

This is the first film by Blue Cyrus Media, the production company started earlier this year by myself and Charlotte Gentis.

We shot on location in Brazil in March 2010 and have just completed a 20-minute version for the charity’s website. Although not a documentary in the strictest sense of the word – this version is meant to promote and explain what the ‘Horses for Orphans’ charity is doing on their website www.lostchildrenoftheearth.com – it will tell a story using documentary techniques. Hopefully it will be poetic and moving as well.

We do plan to go ahead and try to make a documentary about the main character, horsewoman Ingela Larsson Smith. We’ve invested enough to film throughout two trips to Brazil, but I will be looking for finishing funds to edit and produce it sometime later this year.

Happy New Year everyone!

– Tobi Elliott





Storytelling from the fringe

6 12 2010

“Fringe” is a word I used to dislike very much. Maybe because I’m too conservative…? Traditional? Or maybe because I’m the kind of gal who likes to include everybody. Why should we celebrate “fringe” unless we want to practice exclusion as a society? No one should be on the fringes of community!

However, my gripe with “fringe” is possibly the very reason I’m working to become a documentary filmmaker. This is what causes me to go to those the mainstream considers “on the outside” and invite them in, by letting them tell their story to a wider audience who might not otherwise get to hear it.

Telling your story is a powerful way to invite people into your life. Through storytelling, others are invited into your conversation, and you grow into their community. Memoirs, first-person narratives, personal documentary journeys – these could all be just as easily defined as “testimonials” because they testify to where we’ve been, and who we become through the individual circumstances in our lives.

With that in mind – and because it was free, thanks UBC Dialogues! – I attended a panel discussion on “Storytelling from the Fringe” Saturday at the Whistler Film Festival. You want to hear about the juicy scoop on the films don’t you? Well, sorry to disappoint, I didn’t see a single one.

Saturday night’s film A Life Ascending directed by Stephen Grynberg was sold out, and I wasn’t into seeing the German thriller The Silence, although it looks very good. So no movies for me in Whistler, however I did go later that evening to see the striking film Fair Game in a Vancouver theatre – the fascinating account of Valerie Plame being outed as a CIA agent by the Bush administration, and the “discovery” of non-existent WMD that lead to the Iraq war.)

But here’s a good roundup of the fest. I was happy to note that the one film I would have liked to see again after watching it at Hot Docs, Marwencol, won a $2,500 documentary award for “an intimate portrait of an artist who lives between fantasy and reality and whose miniaturized world magnifies our own.”

It’s an incredible film, a fascinating portrait of an artist using toys in to-scale human dramas to deal with the psychological aftermath he lives with after receiving a vicious beating. Here’s an interview with director Jeff Malmberg.

But back to what I did see…

Documentary directors Gwen Haworth (Not Kokura and She’s a Boy I Knew), Nettie Wild (director of A Rustling of Leaves: Inside the Philippine Revolution (1988), Blockade (1993), A Place Called Chiapas (1998), and Fix: The Story of an Addicted City (2002 ) and experimental video artist Daniel Cockburn talked about their experiences in making films “from the fringe.”

In Nettie and Gwen’s case they spoke about filming subjects who are often marginalized from the mainstream, and in Daniel’s case, about his extremely experimental films which – for most people – kind of defines “fringe”, even though he himself was reluctant to subscribe to the term. I’m going to focus on what Nettie had to say because her approach is closest to the kinds of stories I want to tell. And as a sought-after mentor in documentary film who has worked the longest term of the three as a filmmaker, she has a lot of wisdom to offer.

Nettie said that every day she’s filming or editing, she has to ask herself: “Why on earth am I doing this?” She said she is aware that she comes as an outsider to her documentary subjects. Whether in the Chiapas, the Phillipines, or a relationship between a drug addict and a non-user on Vancouver’s streets, Nettie gains access to a world she doesn’t come from through trust and friendship. But it can only go so far. She knows she can only “walk alongside” these people in order to tell their story – which she describes as “high stakes dramas” – and is only allowed as deep as her subjects will take her.

The answer to her question though, is the people themselves who trust her with their stories. Because they’ve been courageous enough to open up and make themselves vulnerable to a perfect stranger, she has an obligation to fulfill, a film to make. This is also why Nettie says she works for a full year following the release of any of her films to ensure it gets as wide a distribution as possible. This is to honour her unspoken contract with her subjects: they let her into their lives and in return she works hard to bring the story to the public, right next to the blockbuster showing at Cineplex.

In Nettie’s case, it seems the “fringe” element is the classic reason documentarians exist: to bring the stories of life on the lonely edges of what we know into the light of the known and acknowledged. (There’s a new book out about Nettie and her films from Anvil Press, and a retrospective of her work will be showing January 15 – 17 at the Pacific Cinematique.)

While Nettie’s stories tend to use a linear, direct-line narrative, Daniel’s experimental videos are far from linear. It took him about 3.5 minutes to explain his latest film You are here to the audience, and even then he had to say the film never makes it clear where the story is set or how his characters are related. In his case, the unconventional mediums Daniel uses to encase his stories is the “fringe” element. (Click here for a good interview with the director about the film.)

Gwen’s perspective as a filmmaker from the fringes is very different yet again.

Her up-close and personal documentary film She’s a boy I knew is an “ethnographic autobio pic” of her family and ex-wife’s experiences and emotions as the filmmaker underwent gender reassignment from male to female. In this case, the subject matter is the fringe area.

Gwen spoke about her determination to honour the voices of those making themselves vulnerable to the camera – her father, mother, sister, best friend and ex-wife – and spoke about how she strove not to centre the film around her life as a transsexual lesbian.

I thought Gwen’s comments were powerful because the tendency in filmmaking is to focus the action on the “hero” – the classic protagonist-going-through-fire. In this case the principal actor chose to truly tell this story from the fringes, from the perspective of those around her.

So far… I have to say that compared to these folk, my storytelling from the fringes has been limited thus far. But there are a few: about a Young Man who decides to quit life on the streets and his home in a Montreal squat, a Woman whose faith goes counter to ordinary human logic as she bucks the odds and brings healing through horsemanship to the “lost children of the earth”, and a couple of Trappers in northeastern BC who love the bush and animals enough to get risk getting involved in the regulatory system around oil and gas extraction.

More on that story to come…





Trappers, beavers, farmers and gas, oh my.

15 11 2010

Nice beaver carcass (still intact). Still from footage shot by T. Elliott

I had a thrilling and productive time during my trip last week to Northeastern BC as I researched a couple of stories.

One priority was to firm up details about a project we’re doing for the B.C. Trapper’s Association, which ended with the predictable result that instead of talking turkey (and dollars and cents), we ended up filming a few sessions of beaver/otter/fox-pelting instead. (What’s the point of talking with the camera off, anyway?)

The beaver skinning and the otter fleshing-out were graphic, but I was OK with it. Mostly. But the fox being skinned out almost made me revisit my excellent dinner of elk meat I’d eaten earlier that night. Apart from that, I got to film a snare-tying workshop with the Fort St. John Trappers, and on my last day in the north, a mercy killing of muskrats who would have starved to death in a slowly freezing pond in Dawson Creek. Altogether, a bush education to whip the city-smarts right out of me!

The other story is bittersweet for me. I was privileged to attend the arbitration hearing of a local farmer who is refusing to settle with a gas company in the matter of compensation for their use of his land. The matter is about a year old since they already put the pipeline through his property in Fall 2009, thanks to an order for right of entry from the Surface Rights Board.

Objectively, it was a fascinating glimpse into the process that grinds through every layer of community and industry when a culture experiences a massive economic shift from one resource base to another. We’ve already witnessed it poignantly here in B.C. with the decline of the softwood lumber industry, and we’re seeing it again as oil and gas replaces agriculture as the most lucrative product out of BC’s Northeast. Personally however, it was hard to witness firsthand what happens to the people who get caught in the middle of that process. Progress must be allowed, but for those still using the technology of the last resource boom, it’s a hard time of adjustment.

Wheat field near Fort St John, BC

This land is no longer valued as BC’s breadbasket (the fact that it ever was would take most people south of Prince George by surprise.) Month by month, revenues increase from natural gas exploration and drilling in the north, as the earlier generation of resource extraction, agricultural use of the land, gradually loses its value.

The shifting resource hierarchy can be described by a term land assessors use to evaluate it: “highest and best use.” According to BC Assessment’s glossary, Highest and Best Use means: that reasonably probable and legal use of vacant land or an improved property that is physically possible, legally permissible, appropriately supported, financially feasible, and that results in the highest value. (Appraisal of Real Estate 2nd Canadian Edition, 2002)

It basically means that land will be assessed according to its most lucrative utility. Whether that’s a BC Hydro substation replacing a corn field, or a quarter section of marginal quality farmland being leased to a gas drilling company, the shifting priorities of the burgeoning population require that the land use changes along with it. In the south of B.C. in the populous Fraser Valley where I live, you can already see the change in the landscape as farms in the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) are gobbled up and rezoned for residential and commercial use. (Another post on another day about issues with the ALR itself in the north – a citizen’s movement would see it abolished entirely in the regional districts east of the Rockies.)

And now, the same thing is happening in the north of B.C. that has already happened to many parts of Alberta. “Highest and best use” no longer applies to land solely for farming and agriculture, but more and more, it perfectly defines oil and gas activities.

As we all know, the world is looking for a source of energy that’s cheaper and less damaging than oil. “Dirty oil” is impugned for causing wars, sickness, pollution, crippled economies, foreign government takeovers, and basically, just about the total decimation of life on planet Earth as we know it. But with more advanced technology, we’ve tapped another resource that has lain dormant for thousands of years: natural gas. Trapped in shale rock, the gas has been waiting for generations for the right technology to release it so it can be transformed into electricity and consumer products, a relatively clean burning fuel that can heat homes, drive cars and cook food.

Perhaps it’s a simple matter of priorities. Do we want bread, or to heat our houses and use electricity?

Or are there other options that we’re simply not looking at hard enough?





Logging lessons

24 10 2010

My partner Charlotte and I have a similar penchant for thoroughness. And perfectionism. Not that it’s a bad thing. Those are very good qualities to have when you’re researching a story or checking out facts. However I’ve learned it can become a bit of a problem when you’re stuck for days (weeks! months!) doing something detail-oriented like… logging.

We’ve learned the hard way that one can put too much work into a preparation stage of production.

One of those lessons is that when going through 60 hours of video, you do not need to notate certain things. Such as:

1. Bad clips. We started off by marking V (video) and A (audio) as ‘OK’ or ‘bad’. The reasoning was that it would make it easier as we searched through Sony’s XD-CAM transfer software, which lets you enter metadata like ins and outs, comments, and mark a clip ‘OK’, ‘Keep’ or ‘No Good’. It has a handy Search box that will pull up any text you associate with a clip, so we thought it would be useful to mark when we had good or bad audio and video.

However, it’s not. Logic prevailed a few weeks later as we realized you really don’t need to search for bad clips. If it’s bad, don’t mark it OK. You’re not going to need to search for it if you can’t use it.

2. Marking every single clip. I thought I was doing us a service by writing something for every clip (out of 2,500) like this:

  • 1011 – no good
    1014 – Inge rubbing foal.  next to Katy holding bay mare.
    1015 – not a great angle.  of MS Inge rubbing on foal (after working on it with a rope.)
    1016 – MS of Inge rubbing on foal.  not a great angle
    1017 – not good
    1018 – shot of boy sitting on fence watching.  not real compelling shot.
    1019 – no good
    1020 – nice shot of Inge working with lead rope and getting foal to back up all next to her mother.  end shot of foal drinking from momma.  also mom tries to bite Inge.
    1021 – nice MCU shot of Inge stroking foals head/neck while drinking.  also she successfully approaches foal’s hind quarters while its drinking.
    1022 – Inge and Katy walk away from bay foal and mom “excellent we’ve done them all.”

But it slows me down way too much as I get wrapped up in trying to find a place for every little piece of media. It’s like I don’t want to leave anything out. Everything looks useable for something. But in doing this painstaking note-taking, I found I would lose sight of the big picture. What is essential to the plot? What images and sounds will advance the storyline? Which clips can we abandon because they’re not perfect quality? Only the very best needs to be marked up, and even then, don’t take too much time with it because you’ll end up coming back to it again and again anyway.

3. Transcribing every interview. This was a harder lesson to learn. Again, our tendencies to thoroughness dictated that we needed write down every detail of every interview – some of which were two hours long – in order to get a sense of how to write the story. We thought we couldn’t write until we knew what every character had to say.

While that is true, we also learned a far greater truth: it doesn’t make sense to write everything out until you have screened every clip at least once, so you don’t waste your time writing something out from day 4 when a better one on the same topic comes up again in day 8. We wouldn’t be in this situation if we’d logged every night as we filmed, but this shoot was a unique one. Charlotte was working alone as shooter and producer, and she often had 12 hour days in the fields with the camera. At that point we didn’t have enough equipment and were borrowing someone else’s MacBook to upload the clips to multiple drives for storage, and there wasn’t time or battery power to go through every clip at night.

Also, our main character and the leader of the project, Ingela Larsson-Smith, is a unique individual with almost perfect recall, someone who could talk about any aspect of the project in endless, fascinating detail, while using as many variations as one could ever wish. Every day, Charlotte had her debrief about what had happened that day and what she anticipated for the following day, so we ended up with a lot of similar-but-not-identical clips.

If I could do this logging marathon over again, I would take my great friend and mentor, Magnus Isacsson‘s, advice, and mark in a very general way the interview clips I want to come back to, and listen to them ALL before I start transcribing. It’s simply a huge waste of time and energy to notate everything before you’ve heard the rest of the interviews.

However, it has been a very good learning curve and I don’t regret how painstakingly we’ve learned it. We are precise. We are thorough. We just need to take shortcuts.

And get ergonomic office chairs…

PS: here’s an interesting journal from a first-time documentary filmmaker, Caleb Clark. I’m considering doing the same thing as a general sum-up after this project is done, hoping it would be useful for someone else.





Industry jobs are open for former oil and gas ministry underlings

11 10 2010

The Tyee and The Public Eye report this week a third case of a senior energy, mines and petroleum resources’ ministry official going “directly from being on the province’s payroll to working for a major petroleum interest.”

Michael Lambert was a former executive director of strategic initiatives for the ministry’s oil and gas division. According to his job description, he’d been responsible for developing laws and policies to “facilitate natural gas development opportunities.” Now he’s working for Encana, a major pipeline player in northeastern B.C.

In an interview with Public Eye, Lambert said one of his principle tasks at the ministry “was working on the new Oil and Gas Activities Act’s environmental protection and management regulation. “Industry, of course, would have wanted the lightest environmental reg possible, I suppose,” he commented. “That’s not what they got.”

The former bureaucrat said he was in contact with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers during the consultation process for that regulation. But “everybody had a say and often a conflicting say,” including the natural gas producer he’s now working for: Encana Inc. Although he stressed the firm didn’t have any “undue influence.”

Lambert said cutbacks at the ministry convinced him to compete to be an environment land use planning advisor for Encana, one of several companies moving to develop British Columbia’s Horn River Basin — Canada’s largest shale gas field.” (from The Tyee and Public Eye, by Sean Holman)

Interesting, no? Or maybe it’s not a conflict of interest at all that someone would go directly from working for the government to create a new Act to regulate the oil and gas industry, to being hired by the industry itself to implement those same regulations.

I don’t know. Someone tell me I’m not seeing a plain ol’ case of regulatory capture here.

The Act itself is hardly newsworthy. Reading through it, I get the impression the OGC just wants to make doubly sure they have done due diligence in advising oil and gas companies to:

1. Communicate with “affected parties”

2. reduce to plain English the highly technical terms if their extraction processes

3. Reply to the questions and concerns of affected parties

4. Fill out the appropriate reams of paperwork to prove they have done so that….

they can get their seal of approval from the Commission and a pat on the back for all their consultative pains.

The interesting part of the new Act I found was under the “Guidelines for Consultation and Notification | October 2010.” Here, the Commission advises the Company to inform themselves of “best practices for engagement … in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers’ Guide for Effective Public Involvement, available at www.capp.ca.”

CAPP is "the voice of Canada's upstream oil, oil sands and natural gas industry."

 

Is the ministry/Commission/government really that involved they would actually suggest the company to check with their own lobby group’s handbook for dealing with landowners?

Who is regulating who?