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

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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…





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.