Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (17)

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A safe canoe

The intrepid filmmakers are coming home

When we first got to Bubaque from Bissau, our ferry got lost and took over 12 hours to get us to its destination. Yesterday we heard that this boat had broken down half-way through and people had been stranded without food or water for over 24 hours, only to be towed back to Bissau. So no boat for us... We had planed to rent a small plane in order to film above the canopy of the islands and pretend our cameras are birds.

That did not happen either. It seems that we would have had to confirm the confirmation that had already been confirmed. Confused? Yes, so am I. My guess is that, because of the trouble with the ferry, the plane operators received a better offer and conveniently forgot about our confirmed confirmation.

Getting out of Bubaque has proven as difficult as coming there. Anyway, we finally managed to rent a private boat and get ourselves to the mainland ready, for a long wait at the airport and another sleepless night in Bissau.

We now have many hours of footage to translate. Need to find several native speakers in Bijagó and Creole with fluency in Portuguese. Even in Lisbon these will be hard to find... Impossible to start editing the material without subtitling. We are going to opt for an editor who speaks Portuguese so we can save English subtitling till later.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (16)

No matter how experienced you are in documentary filmmaking and all things African – no shoot is like any other. And in particular, this shoot is like no other. Trapped in what has been described a 'closed society' – the Bijagós archipelago – Noé Mendelle struggles to find some sense of balance between traditional and modern influences. When a blog becomes your only place to vent, irony is inevitable. Raw, unfiltered and dispatched on the same day, here is the latest post in her series.

This is our last day in the Bijagós

Today was a day of ceremonies. The main one was to get Iran to enter into the sculpture the making of which we had been following for the last few weeks.

  • Eggs smashed: 4
  • Palm wine: 20 litres
  • Clothes: 3
  • Chicken sacrificed: 1
  • Goat sacrificed: 1
  • Future president met: 1

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Sculpture not yet possessed by Iran

How do you know if a spirit has entered into a sculpture?

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (15)

The island of Uracane

This is our last trip to another island. Time is running out. I m not looking forward to another camping trip. Despite constant attention, the spots on my legs are looking like craters and are all getting infected. My toe is still home to a worm farm and starting to look beyond repair. God knows what my Edinburgh doctor is going to make of it... I'm struggling with my right foot and Luis with his left knee. What a pair of wobbling directors!

On our arrival I changed my mind. It was such a pretty beach were we landed at, and such a lovely village! Too bad that villages are always a few kilometres into the forest. I would have loved to do a dive. Ancumbo was different from other villages we had seen so far. All the houses had big terracotta pots to keep the rice. They gave a majestic look to the place.

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Village with pots for grain

Our arrival always creates a buzz, but here you could see that not many people had seen a white person before, let alone two women and a man! Some kids run away crying, but adults and braver children would come and stroke our skin and hair in disbelief. I can't wait to bring a ginger Scot along!

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (14)

Abu in Formosa

Today we got back into our canoe in order to move to another island: Formosa. We were welcomed at the beach by some strong lads to carry our luggage, and then we set up our tents inside their local disco. A lovely round house, with beautiful paintings. Our host, Aliu, had build it in order to make sure the young in the village of Abu would have some form of modern entertainment at weekends and would not feel the need to leave the island.

Abu is the first village on this trip where I felt genuine love and use of the Bijagó tradition beyond the motions of rituals. There is a genuine attempt to combine it with modern life. Children are encouraged to go to school all year round. We saw them playing until bell time, and then a couple of older children took them through the drill of physical exercise while singing, and then they all scattered in their classes, eager to learn.

For the first time children were not excessively on the top of us and no begging went on. At last we could have conversations without feeling that a fare meter was clicking.

We met one of the old chiefs who is in charge of one of the Iran (spirits embodied in a sculpture) living in the village. Apparently this spirit is a mischievous one who is not accepted by the other Irans and lives alone in the hut built for him. He put a spell on two large stones and anyone trying to move them gets hit by disaster.

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A chief, an Iran, and the two stones.

But it seems that this old man managed to tame his Iran and somehow developed a peaceful relationship. I think the chief was even proud of having a difficult Iran! His cheeky giggle when he spoke about him said it all. He may have many funny stories to tell but he won't share them. Not because we are foreigners but because our fixer is of a younger age. The entire Bijagó society is organised around the six different phases of a human life. The elders only reveal their knowledge bit by bit.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (13)

Running with canoes

While camping in Canhabaque, we did not get a minute of solitude. Our tent became a point of entertainment for children and adults. Whenever we got back to base we had to switch on the generator in order to recharge batteries. Of course we were greeted by a long queue of people wanting to recharge their mobiles (mainly used to play music) and another long queue hoping to watch TV. It appears there is an association between the sound of a generator and television. Meal times were a bit tricky, with 20 pairs of eyes looking at everything we put into our mouth. We managed to 'consume' 12 kilograms of rice in five meals!

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Louisa and Marianna

Just before we left we did a quick interview with one of the young women who hung around us. Marianna is 20, and her dad has been away for several months to do his initiation. He too appeared at our door step and she was taken aback to see him. However, tradition does not allow him to talk directly to his wife and children. He needs to use a child as a messenger to pass along updates. The sad thing is that even once his initiation is over, he will not be allowed to return to his wife and children. He will have to marry again. This part of the tradition is now being questioned by many young men who emotionally suffered from that rupture of family.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (12)

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Imagine this sacred drum playing throughout

3 days in Canhabaque...

We got invited to a unique event: the crowning of the new queen of Canhabaque. Here, you can only be queen if you are beyond 60, in the last phase of your life, and of course having done all the various initiations. The potential queen needs to have several meetings with her family to decide if she accepts the position. It means saying goodbye to her family, friends and village. She moves to a new home and a new village and will reside there till death.

The ceremony is three days of festivities with the sacred drum playing messages throughout. The queen-to-be sits in her hut with a screen in front her door and can only communicate or watch the festivities by peeping through it. The drum is meant to be the mode of communication for the queen, her mobile!

Many chiefs of villages come to take part. They too can only be made chief once they are 60. This age class is so important to Bijagó culture. The young work for the elders who, bit by bit, give them their knowledge. We are very curious to see what is happening now, with the young having access to schooling and others forms of knowledge. Will killing a chicken in order to make decisions persist over other avenues of information?

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Village chief

The chiefs are all dressed with colourful drapes, an extraordinary choice of hats, and objects around their necks. They all carry lovely handbags with important objects such as their wine tumbler made from a horn. They all have a dog. When the chief dies, the dog is killed and buried with the chief in order to protect him in his afterlife.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (11)

Local network was down – now back online!

So far we have been following characters in villages around the island of Bubaque, the main urban space, if we can call it that. Today we left our modest but comfortable hotel for a trip to another island, Cahabaque.

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We landed on a paradisal beach but then had to walk several kilometres through a forest, beautiful but hellish having to carry our equipment, tent, food and water for five days. Thank goodness a few kids were waiting for us on the beach and delighted at the prospect of earning a few bobs. What a workout! And of course we are wimps next to those skinny kids, all muscle and strength!

This had been my shopping list to survive 5 days:

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (10)

No matter how experienced you are in documentary filmmaking and all things African – no shoot is like any other. And in particular, this shoot is like no other. Trapped in what has been described a 'closed society' – the Bijagós archipelago – Noé Mendelle struggles to find some sense of balance between traditional and modern influences. When a blog becomes your only place to vent, irony is inevitable. Raw, unfiltered and dispatched on the same day, here is the latest post in her series

A presidential pain

Insect bite cream tubes: 3
Ibuprofen for headaches: 32
Meeting with presidents so far: 1

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Extra security for our documentary production?

This must be the most presidential week of my life. Having met leading candidate for presidential elections at breakfast four days ago, we returned to our hotel today to find it surrounded by a crowd of performers and taken over by strong military presence, only to meet the ex-president of Timor in our hotel. We are staying in Casa Dora, a modest hotel with small traditional huts: a bed, a cold shower and a great cook – wonderful but not the place where you would expect to find VIP clients, let alone presidents. This little island is getting very crowded, and those official visits seem to become bank holidays for everyone, bringing our characters into town... and costing us another day of shoot.

I hope that, if you managed to put up with my extreme sense of humour so far, you got curious enough to go and check where the Bijagós are. Everything is extreme here:

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (9)

Recipe for talking to the dead

We got up really early this morning to try and catch up with those 'initiated' guys I talked about. I'm really puzzled: why would someone give up his village, wife and children to wonder about for months or years? 

It is so hard to interview through translators. Our fixer/translator speaks very basic Portuguese which means exploring any abstract thought a challenge. And yet here we are, trying to find out about spirits, death and religious ceremonies with a complex set of rules and signs.

I can't say I'm anywhere near to understanding our 'initiated', but at least I was able to ask about the toys they carry around their neck. Those teddy bears are their spokespeople to the spirits. It is reassuring to know that teddy bears and spirits go hand in hand!

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Teddy bear becomes spirit spokesperson

Later on we went to talk to a spiritual facilitator communicating with the dead. One of the guys in the village wanted his father's spirit to come home. When someone dies, a chicken gets sacrificed in order to decide whether he gets buried at home (if he was good) or in the forest (if he was bad). But somehow the wondering spirit needs to be lured back home through a special ceremony. Women do not appear to be so demanding, they just get buried in the forest, and their spirits just wonder off without creating any trouble. So we filmed another ceremony:

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Can we 'sell' a film about a world without money?

We launched the pay-it-forward concept with FUTURE MY LOVE at IDFA in Amsterdam a few months ago. This blog post about the thinking behind it was first published on the Huffington Post blog. We're republishing it here on the occasion of I AM BREATHING now also being available as pay-it-forward.

"To challenge economy is to challenge ourselves," says filmmaker Maja Borg. "It is far harder than complaining about the banking system." Maja's debut feature Future My Love tells a story of idealism and failure, looking at concepts for both our personal lives and society as whole. "Economy is a human relationship," states the film's tag line.

Contemplating the ideal of a world without money (or, respectively, a relationship without possessiveness), the film focuses on Jacque Fresco's ideas for an economic system in which goods, services and information would be freely available. Fresco's Venus Project (Wikipedia) and the related Zeitgeist Movement have hundreds of thousands followers worldwide. In charge of audience relations for Future My Love, I could possibly tap into a large existing community.

With a thought-provoking Scottish-Swedish co-production that has been critically acclaimed, toured international festivals for more than a year, and won a Green documentary award, what could possibly go wrong?

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I AM BREATHING
FUTURE MY LOVE
PABLO'S WINTER
STEM CELL REVOLUTIONS