Sound design for prison: Michel Wenzer

Tom Allan is a multmedia journalist into environment, social issues, and community. He has worked for the BBC, the Guardian, FSRN, PRI, and Leith FM. This is his account of the masterclass with Michel Wenzer at the Scottish Documentary Institute, originally published on the Radio Doc Blog.

On Friday I attended a sound design masterclass with Swedish film maker and composer Michel Wenzer. Earlier in the week I’d seen Wenzer’s film At Night I Fly at the GFT in Glasgow, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival. Ten years in the making, it depicted life in New Fulsom jail, a super-max prison in California. The film had a particular focus upon a group of prisoners participating in an "Arts in Correction" program.

Michel’s route into filmmaking was unconventional – he has been a truck driver in Bosnia where he began to develop an interest in still photography, taking images of soldiers. Returning to Sweden, he wanted to get more involved in the arts, and he would have gone to art college in New York, but he wasn’t able to afford it. Ultimately he trained as a composer, and sound and music are still central to how he constructs his films, particularly his early shorts about the prisoners, and for this reason I’m going to focus on these in this blog post.

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Twelve for the Future (and learning Finnish Tango in Helsinki)

Faroes.jpgThe EDN’s Twelve for the Future is a project-driven co-production workshop for Nordic documentary producers and directors, so it was a great honour to be included as the first-ever Scottish project, supported by Creative Scotland's 'Creative Futures' programme

Putting aside any Scottish claims of Nordic DNA from visiting longboats in the distant past, the film I was taking to the workshops is set in the Faroe Islands and so is very Nordic. The programme was spread across two workshop sessions, the first in Denmark in September 2011, and the final part in Finland in late January 2012. 

Part One: Copenhagen

The first session was held outside Copenhagen in the seaside resort of Marlielyst. I only know how to say ‘carrot’ in Danish, and ‘tea towel’ and ‘biscuit’ in Finnish, which is very limiting. Thankfully, the workshops were held in English. 

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Diaries from a Sahrawi tent (3): Disco in the desert

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(Continued from part 2.)

Day 4

I want to start the film with the 'wall of shame' as it is known from a beautiful song, as a way to introduce the history of Western Sahara. In order to get there, we had to get permission of the Polisario Protocol Bureau and get a police car escort. I asked Khadra if she would consider coming with us. She immediately accepted and offered that some of her family members join us. That meant two daughters and her son and his wife and a few kids!

They asked me to go and buy camel meat so we could have a picnic in the desert. The two Land Rovers were loaded with pots and pans and meat. It took a 2-hour drive across sand and stone to get there. The police car was driving sometimes at the front, sometimes at the back, trying to foresee danger. It felt like we were in a car chase movie! Meanwhile in our Land Rover, music was blasting out of the speakers and the women were waving their arms in the air and singing along. They have many revolutionary songs with wonderful rhythms. It was impossible to film or take photos, as the car was shaking so much. But I want you to imagine those beautiful, rather large women, with every inch of skin covered but their eyes. And some of them had large black sunglasses. In total disguise, yet having the time of their lives!

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Bart Simpson – obsessed with corporations?

bart.jpgThe Scottish Documentary Institute was lucky to have Bart Simpson in town for a masterclass. Of course I’m talking about the Canadian producer (and now also director) of documentary films. I first came across his work with The Corporation. The film won many awards at festivals including Sundance, Toronto, and IDFA.

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Diaries from a Sahrawi tent (2): Chasing goats

Day-2-.jpg(Continued from part 1.)

Day 2

Woke up with the anticipation of visiting Algiers. It is such a beautiful city, built on hills and looking at the sea. People compare it to Marseilles, but actually it is more beautiful. White buildings with beautiful blue iron balcomies. Large pleasant avenues with trees and gardens, and the constant view of the sea. Having a rest from walking through the casbah, we saw that the cinematheque was playing one of my favourite films, Touki Bouki, so we went in. There were four of us! The sound kept breaking down, but it was still pleasurable to see the film on a big screen in Africa.

Time to get to airport, only to discover that we had two seats but bad luck: the pilots were on strike, so we may or may not have a plane... So we waited and waited, and two hours later we were rushed through customs (yes, it seems they can do it) and onto a plane to Tindouf. Our poor fixer Hamdi had been waiting for us there for the last 30 hours.

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Berlin – one day left of freedom

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(Part of Lou's diary from Berlin.)

10th Feb 2012

I wake up in a small hostel room, having left Tali's flat in East Berlin. I am nearer the centre now, near Hauptbahnhof. Happily the hostel changed my booking from a 6-bed dorm to a 2-bed room, and my room-mate, the morning light reveals, is none other than Tamara Scherbak, an experimental film-maker from Canada who I already know from the talent campus at Reykjavik. More importantly, as anyone who has shared a room in a hostel will attest to, she does not snore violently. 

I have one more day of freedom before the Talent Campus starts and have been warned that, once it starts, there is barely any time to watch films let alone explore. So I bolt out of the hostel early to make the most of things. It is slightly warmer: all omens are good.

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Diaries from a Sahrawi tent (1): Recalling two weeks in hell

The Scottish Documentary Institute has been commissioned by Aljazeera to make a six-part series on Poets in Protest. One of them is on the Sahrawi poetess Khadra who happens to be an old lady living in exile in one of the Polisario Camps in the middle of Sahara.

Map: Wikimedia (Creative Commons)For those of you who do not know about the Sahrawi cause, these citizens of Western Sahara not only got colonised by the Spanish many moons ago. Once they managed to become independent, the Morrocans moved on their territory, pushed them out, and build a 3,000km wall around it. They also planted over 8 million land mines to make sure that the Sahrawi will not cross back into their land. Algeria gave the Sahrawi liberation movement, the Polisario Front, refuge on its territory and set up several camps for people to live – and so they have for the last 35 years. The war has moved into diplomacy rather than military and therefore they now live peacefully in those camps but In a state of complete dependence on international aid.

With Roxana Vilk, the producer of the series, we decided that Al Khadra will be the perfect example of grassroot poetry. She uses words instead of bullets in order to express her anger at Morocco's invasion. 

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Lessons from Denmark

Photo: Per Palmkvist Knudsen (Creative Commons)Over the last few years the Scottish Documentary Institute has been cultivating close ties with Denmark, and the more we work with them the more we are envious of their system. While we go on and on talking about the politics of financing film and TV, Denmark has become one of the major European players in film – and it has a population similar to Scotland. How come?

For the first half of this year, Denmark is taking over the presidency of the EU, and to celebrate it, once again it is film that is being pushed. Danish embassies are organising screenings of some of their films all around Europe.

In UK we keep on asking: Why does a country need to spend people's tax in order to subsidise films? Why can't cinema take care of itself?

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Why we should build our own nations

Although this headline may sound like it, this is not really a post about the independence debate in Scotland. It's more about what independent filmmakers can learn from politicians when it comes to nation-building.

I explained in my previous post about the Virtuous Circle why it's particularly important for documentary producers to take their audience with them across projects, rather than starting from scratch with every film. 

In tech speak, we want a toolkit that combines Customer Relationship Management (i.e. your audience) with a Content Management System (i.e. your films, each on a dedicated website) – and fully integrates with event management, fundraising and social media. 

It was during last year's election campaign of the pro-independence Scottish National Party that I first came across powerful software called NationBuilder, geared towards political use but flexible enough to be used for all sorts of campaigns, including outreach to those niche audiences of documentary films...

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Amy is blogging!

Just a quick note to say that Amy Hardie, acclaimed director of The Edge of Dreaming and Head of Research at the Scottish Documentary Institute, has started blogging at Amy on the Edge.

Her latest post is on why impartiality is not the right aim for her.

We recommend that you sign up for updates from amyhardie.com, as Amy has some very exciting projects coming up!



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