The Calgary Underground Film Festival caught our attention with their off-the-cuff three-day documentary festival that runs November 21-23.
CUFF is known to bring that perfect dose of riveting flicks to the Calgary film scene and with CUFF.Docs, it will be no different, focusing entirely on the documentary genre.
BeatRoute caught up with two directors with screenings at the festival. We wanted to go beyond the casual promo chit-chat and delve deep into the documentary world. Making documentaries takes much more than a camera and a couple friends to help with the shoots, a misconception we often get caught up in with all the worldwide accessibility we now have to technology and the Internet.
However, that does not mean documentary making is closed territory.
That being said, what does it take to make a compelling documentary? What are some struggles documentarians encounter along the way? Chelsea McMullan (My Prairie Home) and Shaul Schwarz (Narco Cultura) share their expertise with the genre and offer insight on the documentary-making process.
BeatRoute: What is one of the greatest challenges filmmakers encounter in the business of documentary making little known to the public? I know one of them is money. Could you elaborate on that aspect and touch upon other challenges we may not be aware of?
Chelsea McMullan: I think time is the greatest challenge facing documentary filmmakers today. Gone are the days of Frederick Wiseman, Allan King and the Maysles Brothers, who would document over months or even years. Now there is a very limited window of time to shoot and edit an entire film and, to be honest, I think it shows in the quality of work being made. This, of course, relates back to money. I also think that it has to do with television’s relationship to documentary: broadcasters now generally don’t want to invest in long-term and expansive projects. This isn’t universal, of course, and there are some excellent exceptions, but the standard is an expectation of a quick turnaround. Reality television also plays a role in the dumbing-down of documentaries; there is an expectation of reality-based mediums to be both salacious and prescriptive. I think if you are trying to work outside of a straightforward talking-head, POV, or journalistic approach to a subject, it’s going to be an uphill battle to get it financed. As Canadians, I would say we are pretty lucky that there is an institution like the National Film Board of Canada: right now there are some pretty great producers, there like Lea Marin and Anita Lee, who want to produce work, which explores new approaches to documentary in both content and form.
Shaul Schwarz: To me, it always boils down as a documentary filmmaker to access. I always want a very raw, very real feel. It sounds easier than it is to actually be there in the right moment and follow a character and be “kind of unknown” or a fly on the wall, because, in reality, we’re not flies, we’re people with cameras and microphones. It’s the hardest thing, but it’s also the most important thing, it takes the most time and it makes the best movie. If you have real great access, if you’re able to be a fly on the wall, which I think that’s what we worked so hard on Narco Cultura. And it’s just gonna be a different film then just setting up things or talking to people and interviewing them. Verité-style, at least that’s my obsession.
BR: What are some of the challenges that both the documentary maker and the fiction filmmaker encounter pre-, during and post-production? In what ways does it differ?
CM: From my perspective, documentary filmmaking tries to capture a world, while fiction filmmaking is trying to create one. The challenges that arise are pragmatically related to those two approaches. As a documentarian, you are trying to embed yourself into a space and convince people to trust you, which requires a lot of strategizing, instinct and patience. In fiction filmmaking, you are building it all from scratch, so the logistics of that can be quite difficult. You also need to earn the respect and trust of both cast and crew. I like to work in hybridity, so I feel like I often encounter challenges from both genres melting into each other. On My Prairie Home, we’d be staging an elaborate musical number one minute and then shooting cinema verité following Rae [Spoon] on tour across the Prairies the next.
SS: It’s very different because the fiction filmmaker, while editing is obviously an extremely important step for them, the script is written. It might change a little bit and maybe even a scene will get cut; you have to choose the right take of an actor but, at the end of the day, the story has been pre-written, pre-made and acted. With our documentary, we shot over 100 hours and that’s actually considered a lot if you take into account that we worked on it for three years. So obviously, there’s endless amounts of different ways of putting it together. You know, you might have a lot of great stuff, but do you have everything it takes to tie together a scene. In fiction, if the actor didn’t hit it, if the light wasn’t right, if something just didn’t work, at least you knew what you were going to need. In documentary filmmaking, many times you really don’t know what you’re going to need so you’re always hopeful that you created yourself all the tools to be able to connect it together.
BR: What has to be done for a documentary to be successful with the public?
CM: I think we need to give audiences more credit. Generally, the films that get promoted and distributed either have a celebrity in it, or are essay films about the making of some invention, like the paper clip or a font. All that work has its place, but those usually aren’t very cinematic documentaries. I think broadcast television can be a real hindrance to exploration of the documentary form because, at the end of the day, the format is too restrictive as they are trying to catch as broad an audience as possible. I think audiences are hungry for more challenging documentary filmmaking, but those decisions are being made for them. On a hopeful note, so I don’t sound too ornery, I think that social media has become a real democratizing factor. Buzz can really build around a film whether or not it is being promoted through mainstream channels. I think a film can really build momentum in a way that it couldn’t before.
SS: Well, that’s a trick question. We’ll see. I hope our documentary will be as successful as it can be. I think the most important thing is to have a really compelling film. I think we could have saved a lot of time and it would have been a lot easier to interview a lot of different professionals. We’d probably get a more in-depth coverage, in a weird way, but the movie wouldn’t be interesting. At least, it wouldn’t be interesting the way I see a viewer digest[ing] a documentary. That brings me back to why access is important: I’m always a freak, if you will, of the verité, of letting the story really unfold in front of the camera. I think too many doc filmmakers kind of forget that, sometimes. The huge thing in Narco is to make it feel like a fiction and to tell a story through two characters. It’s not only their story, it’s really the bigger story, but we’re able to do that which is in a sense like you would in a fiction. It’s [a] hard balance, you know, it’s easier said than done.
BR: What are the greatest rewards of documentary making? What drives you to make documentaries?
CM: The money, the fat stacks of cash and the celebrity. I’m just kidding. If you are looking for any of those things, you are probably in the wrong field. I love documentary filmmaking because you become an expert in something often times outside of your own experience. It sort of forces you to live life in a hypersensitive way – to listen, connect and empathize with people and the world around you. I’ve documented some of the happiest and most traumatic points in people’s lives and it’s amazing to bear witness to that. I find that the times it feels most difficult and awkward to shoot are the times when usually it is most important, because those are the moments of people’s lives that we don’t really share enough. Also, more often than not, people want their tragedies documented. They want to feel like people are experiencing with them, that there’s value in their loss. That is what drives me to make documentaries.
SS: I’m 39, I’ve been a photojournalist since I was 15 so this is definitely in my blood. I tell people stories; that’s who I am, that’s what I will do probably until the day I die. Whether it’s for pictures, through film, through a short, through written, you know, they’re all different arts. But, in the end, I love telling people stories. I was happy to see that [Narco Cultura] is of interest to people [and that I was] able to get the support to do it. Narco catches on so many of us that it was always clear to me that this is an interesting topic and once I met the narco culture side, I thought it was really unique. I never understood why I never heard about it actually, because I would always hear that this is just gangs telling gangs and that this is Mexican jargon. Suddenly, I understood that this affects the heart and minds of so many millions on both sides of the border, so it was just a no brainer for me to push on it.
BR: What is some advice you would give to someone who has a great idea/story for a documentary but does not know where to start? What else would that person need other than passion and dedication?
CM: If you have a great idea, I would start with two things: (1) Write a treatment. It’s helpful to organize your ideas on paper, anyway. (2) I would try to start “embedding” yourself in the subject matter. I try to read any book I can get my hands on related to the subject in a direct or indirect way (also, those books are deductible!). Gain the trust of your subjects or the people related to it. If you can start to shoot, I would also do that. It’s okay if it’s just you shooting with a dSLR or something simple to begin with. Usually, when you are pitching your idea for financing, people making decisions like to see some footage you’ve shot. It’s also a good way to start getting subjects used to being on camera. Then, you need to decide which avenue you want to try to get financing through, whether it be on your credit card, arts council grants, broadcasters or a hands-on creative collaborator, like the NFB. I think the way you choose to finance a film is project-specific and dependent on how much money and artistic autonomy you want. There is no right way to make or finance a film though, you just need to decide how to start.
SS: It’s like everything else in life. You need skills — you can’t just be passionate — but I think that a skillful un-passionate person will lose eventually to the passionate because skills are going to grow as you practice, as you work with different people, different editors, different professionals. But, you can’t teach hunger. I think passion and hunger are really key and it’s in anything we do and it’s for sure in documentary filmmaking. I think I have a real advantage coming from a photojournalist background, in a visual sense, to [be able to] hit the ground hard and find the story. I had to really learn to be a better filmmaker, get a great crew and raise money and do good PR and push and do all the other things that it takes to line up [a] hopefully successful film. But my main ability is my hunger, my motivation, my belief that this is important enough that I won’t stop until the story is told. You can’t give really an advice to someone to be born talented, but you can tell them to try hard and believe. And I do think with our technology today, the fact that the cameras have gotten so small and so capable that we were able to pull this off with a [Canon] 5D and to make it look like it looks, shows that the tools are really giving us a great time. People say that real journalism is dead-end, but I think it’s never been more alive. There’s a great hunger to tell stories. If you’re doing good, people will listen. To make a feature film is years of work so brace yourself and work hard.
By Claire Miglionico
Illustration: Julia Minamata