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.


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


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!


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!


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.


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.


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." 

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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DRM: a return to Edison and the MPPC

After releasing acclaimed films without digital rights management (DRM), Scottish Documentary Institute experienced no negative side-effects or rise in piracy. In the second of a series of posts looking at threats and potential of the digital space, Nic Wistreich compares DRM to the birth of cinema. 

Thomas Edison, photo by Louis Bachrach, restored by Michel Vuijlsteke (Wikimedia Commons)

The monopoly that created the independents that created the studios

Imagine having to pay a license fee every time you filmed something or screened your work. At the start of the 20th century, the Motion Picture Patent Company (MPPC) in America controlled patents around cameras, film and projectors, and demanded fees for anyone screening or filming anything. The MPPC were able to dictate what could get filmed and screened, telling a young Alfred Zukor who had just bought the rights to a big French success: “The time is not ripe for features, if it ever will be” (as described in Timothy Wu’s excellent Master Switch).

Zukor, who would later head Paramount, became an early rebel who refused to play along, as was Carl Laemmle who declared himself ‘an independent’ – the first to use that name. Laemmle wasn’t independent for long, his company Universal became one of the biggest studios on the planet, as did those from other ‘rebels’ and ‘independents’ Willhelm Fuchs (20th Century Fox) and the Warner brothers Jack, Sam and Henry. When Laemmle started to make ‘independent films’ without paying a licence, he was sued 289 times in a three-year period by the Edison Trust, and eventually fled New York to the west coast with Fuchs, Zukor, the Warners and others, further from the MPPC ‘spies’ and lawyers, and closer to the Mexican border if a quick escape was needed.

It’s hard to avoid the irony that the founding of Hollywood was driven by people trying to dodge the copyright and patents on technology. These patents had created an unhealthy monopoly, and had they prevailed they could have prevented America’s rise to dominate cinema (France at the time produced twice as many films as the US). And yet the film industry’s view of open video today – which similarly believes that video technology is too important to be owned, locked down and controlled by one company – has undoubtedly been damaged in the piracy debate.

One US producer, well respected for his web-savvy approach, confided to me in 2008 that he didn’t like open source, calling it "the same as piracy" - in spite of thousands of open source projects from Wordpress and Mozilla to Redhat and Canonical running large, multi-million dollar, legitimate businesses. Somehow the issue of open technology – which powers every website in the world through HTML and the majority of smartphones through Android – has become confused with a filmmaker’s right to chose the price of their film, when they are quite distinct subjects. An open license around technology is not the same as saying every film must also be shared for free: open technology is about freedom from monopolies, not freedom from profit.

Photo by James Gubera (Flickr/Creative Commons)Free as in speech, not as in beer

Nowhere is the confusion of open tech and piracy more entwined than in the subject of digital rights management, the copy protection added to content to attempt to limit the ways consumers can use that content. As an architecture that can stop you playing the DVDs you bought overseas on holiday when you get home, or moving your Kindle files between tablet and phone, or accessing purchased downloads after you upgraded your computer, DRM has long been unpopular with consumers, yet to much of the film industry has been viewed as an unfortunate but important way to limit the risks of piracy.

If you ever tried to copy or sample a rented VHS as a kid you might remember how in a pre-digital age, copy-protection succeeded in limiting small-level copying – copies ended up a technicolor mush. But in the digital era it’s redundant. At best it is an inconvenience: but no system exists that’s uncrackable as people can always digitise their audio or video output (or simply film the screen). And once a DRM-free copy exists, anywhere in the world, it destroys the economic value of the DRM-encumbered version.

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