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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Blue Cyrus Media presents…

12 01 2011

Charlotte and I recently registered our new partnership – Blue Cyrus Media – and we’re going through all the honeymoon tumult that you can expect with a startup. Our chosen passions are an interesting mix: Charlotte loves documenting horses and orphans in hot sunny climes (see the trailer in previous post)

and while I’m totally into it, I’m always running back to snowbound northeastern BC to capture the life and tribulations of a trapper who “manages animal populations” (ie kills them when necessary).

We’re an interesting duo to say the least. But the dynamics of a partnership aren’t what I want to explore here.

Starting out a career as a documentary filmmaker sounds great… but HOW exactly do you get there?

For answers, I look to my friend and mentor Magnus Isacsson, whose brain I get to pick on a regular basis. He got his start after producing radio (8 years) and television (6 years) for Radio-Canada and CBC in both French and English – can you imagine? – before he decided to strike out on his own as a filmmaker. Four years after he left public broadcasting he released his first film Uranium (1990), available on the National Film Board’s website (where you can access most, if not all, of the films they’ve ever produced online.) His most recent film Les Super Mémés premiered on the closing night of the Festival de Films sur les Droits de la Personne de Montréal.

And Barry Lazar, the man who actually got me into this medium of telling stories with his class on documentary filmmaking. Barry has also been the route of the working professional – for CBC, on various productions for other broadcasters, and even as a writer for the Montreal Gazette. His latest film won many accolades at last year’s Hot Docs – the fantastic The Socalled Movie – and is now touring the world and out on DVD.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I was sitting in Barry’s class at Concordia University, digesting the fact that I had found a career that would fulfill my passion for telling real-life stories in a format I can live with.

Outside Concordia University Jan 2010: A shopping cart that hasn't yet found its passion.

A year! It sounds like a long time… and it is if you’re measuring your progress by how much others seemingly can accomplish in a year. When I compare myself to these two and other filmmakers, I’m overwhelmed by how far I have to go. I’m tempted to make excuses: “But they’re more experienced than I.” “They already have networks.” “They know what the heck a production schedule looks like!” I think I can excuse their success and momentum of filmmaking by saying they’ve been “in the industry” and they “know people.” But does that really make a difference?

In today’s media-saturated world, in order to get someone to pay attention to your idea, and even more crucially to trust you with funding, you need more than a CV that includes university, stints on other people’s shoots and even a host of films to your name. You need connections.

One filmmaker I’m in touch with who has grasped that idea intuitively is Claudia Pelz, a producer who lives and works in Italy. After 14 years producing for television and doing a few documentaries of her own, she has seen the television market change drastically in the last two years. Most European broadcasters are no longer as interested in funding “one-offs”. They are looking for series and to fill slots in “theme days” with several documentaries at a time.

Claudia says she is keen to network with other producers and directors around the world because “networking is a possibility to serve the market requests… and will help small production companies and film makers with only one or two films about one topic.”

While her advice is crucial for the age we’re living in, some advice remains timeless. Magnus wrote an excellent document with just that: “Letter to a Young Filmmaker” (bottom of the page on left – click to download). I’d like to quote everything but here are a few choice tidbits:

  • It’s gonna be tough: “The most important… is to have something to say, or a story to tell, and a real urge to do it. Because this is not an area of work you’re going to enjoy if you’re not strongly motivated: the conditions are too difficult, and the competition for limited resources too stiff. If you feel like working in the field but you don’t have that drive for getting your own story or your own vision across, you might be better off working as a cinematographer, a sound recordist or an editor. These are all important and very creative jobs, all very challenging and indispensable to good filmmaking.”
  • But if you are determined to go ahead… first get your own experience: “Getting experience doesn’t necessarily mean directing your own film right away. It means doing things, hands on, which will help hone your skills and test your instincts. It could be writing for the student newspaper or doing stories for the community radio, making an activist video or even just a home movie.”
  • Five essential ingredients: “a good story”, “important issues”, “a point of view”, “good characters” and “emotion and drama”.
  • MOMENTUM: “to find all the resources needed to make the film… you need to create a momentum. You need to give your subjects, and the people who will give you the resources the feeling that your film has to be made, and that it will be made, because you are determined to make it. You need to make people feel that while, of course, you’re still a nice person (at least most of the time), respectful of others, saying no to you is not really an option. To quote Luc Jacquet, the director of March of the Penguins (the biggest grossing documentary ever in North America) “Even if you have no money, if you give energy to a film, it will eventually seduce a financial partner.”
  • Talk to the end-users at the start: “The smarter you can be about designing your film so that it will work for your intended audience, the more successful film you will end up with.”

See Magnus’ blog this week for some excellent suggestions on docs to watch about the reconstruction effort in Haiti.

International Support

From the series 'Inside Disaster'. Photo by Nicolas Jolliet. http://insidedisaster.com/haiti/

 





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.