The craft of film-making

“So you’ve finished a film recently?” the academic from a well-known university asked. The tone was one of amusement, as if she had found a mouse under her chair and it was dead. “So you’ve found a dead mouse under my chair?”.

I replied yes, it had taken some time but now it’s finally done after a year and a half. She asked, “So what was your role in the film?”. I said quite matter-of-factly, “I did the camera and was the director”.

“Ah, the technical stuff?” she queried, and gave a disparaging laugh.

Yes, the technical stuff. The research, then the script reworked and revised and then revised some more, the camera work across four countries and around 30 locations working from early dawn to late night in all kinds of situations. The transcripts of interviews and the translations from the four regional languages, and the final painstaking corrections of the English language subtitles. And then the long, long hours of editing, trying to turn 50 hours of footage into a 47 minute film. Yes, all very “technical”. I was upset that my creativity was not being recognised. Then I realised, why be ashamed of this word technical. Yes, film-making is indeed technical. It’s not that different from a university engineer building a bridge or a 60 storey building.

Yes, film-making is a craft, not only an art, and it takes a lot of patience and skill and time and energy. And yes, it takes a lot of knowledge about what one is doing. It seems in this multimedia digital era, where a child can (and often does) cut and paste digital footage into a film (and that’s a good thing, the ease of technology), it’s often forgotten that documentary film-making can still require so much of the film-maker.

It’s easy to dismiss a documentary filmmaker. It seems we have to be Al Gore or Mike Moore to be perceived as a good documentary maker. But in this digital day and age, even a 10 second clip on a mobile phone can become a documentary film depending on its content. And then we have an effort like ours – 47 minutes after more than a year of hard work. And I do say “ours”, because this film was due to not just long hours but an effort of collaboration by many people, those who funded us, did research for us, helped us to go to the right locations and gave advice. Sometimes it was people we had just met for the first time who allowed us into their busy lives, who simply assented to go on camera to tell us about their work and fears, to trust in us. To be disparaging of such a collaborative effort is not only inhumane but more simply to lack any imagination whatsoever.

We need to welcome all kinds of efforts at multimedia, not just from the Gore’s and Moore’s. From the simple mobile telephone-handheld 10 minute shot of a dam inside Burma (taken at great risk to the videomaker) to the 3 hour-long feature, we need to relish and revel in their efforts. If one is socially activist, why be restricted to just words at a seminar or the written article. Why not multimedia, when the power of the visual can provide such clarity to a life situation. If one wants to be engaged in the public sphere, why would one wish to denigrate the power of film, or the small efforts of the filmmaker as she or he tries to bring some small slice of reality in the visual medium into your lives.

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