Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (7)

Today was a messy day

We have such a long list of characters and stories that we want to explore. Transport, of course, is one big challenge. Then people not having a concept of time, saying "yes, I will be around" but not being able to pinpoint a specific time – and if by miracle they do then it is us who are being delayed... And if that was not bad enough, the unpredictable keeps happening.

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This morning we were meant to carry on filming with our sculptor. However, he happens to be one of the elders, and one of the candidates for presidency decided to visit our village. We had to hang around till the distribution of free T-shirts and leaflets were over. But who knows, we may have shaken hands with the next president, who may last for a few months before getting shot or removed by a military coup.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (6)

Today is International Women's Day

Women in Bijago culture hold a very important role and are feared by men! They definitely talk louder than men... and very direct. But their role in the villages is still locked to farming, fishing and looking after children.

However, they have a phase in their life around their 20s when they abandon children, husband and family to move into a dedicated female house in order to allow their body to be taken over by male souls in need of purification. Then they can do anything they like except having sex (with men). They go wild dancing and doing mischief. Completely possessed, they have their own language, only understood by other women who went through that phase – and by the sacred drum player. We are talking to one tomorrow.

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Anyway, today we remain in town to attend a football game with a difference: The first female football team in Bijago and Guinea-Bissau played to half a dozen admirers.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (5)

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

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Cinema on a motorbike

Today we went on filming our sculptor and our canoe maker doing some interesting interviews, but you can catch up with those once the film is finished.

Living up to the Scottish Documetary Institute's philosophy of bringing films everywhere, we did the first-ever cinema screening on the islands of Bijagos. In fact it was the premiere of a film my co-producers Luis and Sana had shot in the villages we are now filming. The idea is to bring back the images to the people who had taken part in that film and also welcomed us in their space.

We had to travel to the village on our motorbike which keeps running out of petrol. Of course we ended up carrying a generator, white sheet, speakers, projector, etc. Most of the people tonight had never seen any moving image, let alone a two-hour film. It was mayhem trying to put up a screen against a house. No nails to fix it!

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (4)

On unsustainable filmmaking

Today we started filming an old man who is a sculptor specialised in statues embodying spirits. Of course we had to start by selecting the tree, then request for the tree to be cut with the usual ceremony of cloth, palm tree wine, and egg.

Then once again the tree nearly fell on the camera. I'm starting to believe that they have never cut a tree before or Nindo (God) really doesn't approve of this documentary yet!

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This is our balance sheet after a few days of shooting:

  • Number of trees sacrificed: 3
  • Number of eggs thrown at trees: 2
  • Number of gallons of aguardiente and palm wine: a lot
  • Number of chickens to be sacrificed: 2
  • Number of goats to be sacrificed: 1
  • Number of taxi drivers sacked: 2 (They keep forgetting to pick us up. Yesterday we had to walk three kilometres carrying equipment on our backs.)

This is what is not known as sustainable filmmaking! However:

  • Number of jobs created: 20
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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (3)

Getting to know the village and its inhabitants

Today we went on filming the making of canoe. In no time at all, they transformed this magnificent tree into the shape of the canoe. They worked from early morning till 4pm, only fuelled by Palm wine. Then two women came with a tiny bit of cooked rice. Whatever happened to the 50 kg we bought the previous day? The men grumbled a bit... Not an argument I wanted to get involved in!

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The women had to yell a warning when approaching the men's workplace, only allowed to come in with the food when the men said so.

The Bijagós are a matrilineal society, which means that land, animals and children belong to the women. The brothers of a child's mother have authority over the child. As uncles, they effectively become father figures for the children. Women are not heads of villages but they have economical power within the family. They are the providers and the nurturers. Bijagó women choose their husbands and request their hands by cooking a special rice dish. If the man eats it, then they have agreed to matrimony.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (2)

Day 4: how to request permission to film

Bubaque is the main island and the capital of the Bijagós, centred around the port. You only get one boat a week linking the Bijagós to the mainland, but slowly the French are developing this lost paradise into a tourist venue. Speed boats are now wheezing around the islands, making the traditional canoe a death trap.

In order for us to travel around the island we rented a motorbike with a trailer at the back. Just enough to fit our small team of five! Of course it keeps breaking down.

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Carnival has been going on in full flow for three full days but we resisted the temptation of spending too much time with 'exotic' photography and ventured to the village where we are planning to follow different characters, in order to negotiate (again) permission to film.

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (1)

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

Day 3 of travelling

It seems that we are reaching Bubaque, one of the main islands in the archipelago of Bijagós, off the West Coast of Africa. Pitch dark over sea and sky.

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It took flights from Edinburgh to Lisbon to Casablanca to Bissau. And then a boat from Bissau that managed to get lost, break down twice, and now has to move against the current. We have been on it for ten hours and still a long way to go!

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Scottish independence and the film industry

This post was first published on the Huffington Post blog.

When I heard producer Iain Smith say that "separation" was a problem, I initially assumed that he, as chairman of the British Film Commission, was using the unionists' preferred term for Scottish independence. However, it soon became clear what he was really talking about: "The separation of culture and commerce has been debilitating for the British film industry" -- a struggle Iain has been witnessing since the early 1970s when he graduated from the London Film School.

I had come to this debate as part of Glasgow's Short Film Festival, trying find out about implications of a Yes or No vote in Scotland's upcoming referendum. Six film industry representatives were to discuss "what independence might mean for our film culture."

Instead, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the panelists spent the best part of 90 minutes moaning about the miserable status quo. Belle Doyle, who was in charge of promoting filming locations at Scottish Screen and Creative Scotland for many years, put it like this: "It breaks my heart that there is not anything we can look at to say that the film industry is thriving."

She pointed out how many other places were in a position to offer financial incentives to attract international productions in a highly competitive market. Professor Philip Schlesinger, a cultural policy researcher, reminded us that "we don't have a film policy yet," with the Scottish Government's 650-page white paper, Scotland's Future, only devoting one paragraph to the film industry and Creative Scotland's recently-published Film Sector Review "coming as close as it can to suggest a break-up of Creative Scotland." 

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David Archibald, Philip Schlesinger, Belle Doyle, Iain Smith

"It's simply a matter of [government agency] Scottish Enterprise to engage in 'enterprise'," Iain Smith said, making it clear that this was about attracting investment, not publishing yet another report. "How many reports by Scottish Enterprise have there been already," Belle Doyle asked, "about eight? I can't tell you the frustration to see why there has to be yet another consultation, another report." Or, as an audience member put it:: "Creative Scotland don't have enough cash, and Scottish Enterprise have the cash but don't recognise film."

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Film's monopoly problem with digital

Not before time, the new year started with some promising news about selling films online. For the first time, the annual decline in DVD and Blu-ray sales in the US has been outstripped by the growth in digital sales, rentals and subscriptions. Home entertainment rose 0.7% in 2013 (PDF source). $6.5bn – over a third of total consumer spending – came from digital rental, retail and subscriptions, with download-to-own rising a hefty 48% on 2012. The figures don’t even include subscriptions bundled with other services (like a cable company’s deal with Netflix) or advertising-supported VOD like Hulu or YouTube.

Screenshot of Hulu website

Of course, a chunk of this growth has been for television and traditional film, and the biggest beneficiaries continue to be the studios and large rights owners. For independents – as Scott Harris detailed in his frank description of the struggles self-distributing Being Ginger – digital distribution is typically a lot of work for limited gains. Why is this?

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What's your starting salary?

Four months ago, Scott Harris released his first feature documentary, Being Ginger. He skipped the film festival circuit and premiered it at the two largest redhead festivals in the world while simultaneously making it available for download through his web site. He wrote a blog post for us about why he decided to take that route. Four months later we’ve asked him back to fill us in on how things have gone. Below he gives the graphic details.

Before I decided to become a filmmaker I was actually an Engineering student at The University of Texas.  One of the great things about the Engineering program at UT was that they kept detailed records of the job offers graduating students received.  It meant that when I was a sophomore I could go down to the employment office and I could see that if I maintained my current GPA I could expect a starting annual salary of around $45,000.

Then I became a filmmaker.

Filmmakers don’t talk about how much money they make – ever

I’ve always found it disheartening when I’ve gone to festivals and heard filmmakers talk about how they had to invest $100,000 of their own money into their film. I’ve always wondered if they ever made it back, either when the film aired on BBC Storyville, or later when it showed up on iTunes and Netflix.

But no one ever talks about money (except to say that no one goes into documentary filmmaking to get rich.)

Well, in honour of my time at Texas, and in the hope that it will help someone else, I’m going to lay out exactly how things have gone for me thus far.

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

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