SDI has been running very successful workshops in creative documentary storytelling from Edinburgh for the last seven years, however when we were invited by the British Council and the Bangladesh Documentary Council to train 16 inexperienced filmmakers and make four films in six days – that was definitely a challenge not to be turned down!
Many of us still go on assuming that creative documentary means “sleek aesthetics attached to an interesting topic.” The type of workshops we run focus on the effective and creative structuring of a story in order to engage an audience.
We arrived in Dhaka via Dubai and after a shower we met our group (14 men and two women) as well as few local documentary filmmakers that same afternoon. We started the workshop by screening the Oscar nominated film Burma VJ. It was very moving to see our new audience glued to the film. Burma shares a border with Bangladesh.
That evening we were introduced to the crème of Bangladesh arts and film scene over a Chinese dinner including the head of News from ATN Bangla, and learned that “everyone is a poet” in Bangladesh. Great premise for documentary storytelling we thought.
Day 1 was an introduction to what makes a creative documentary through presentation and analysis of case studies. All the films were selected around themes that may be of cultural / political interest to the group. They also covered different genres of documentaries, allowing us to explore the different technical, structural, creative tools used. The reception of the examples by our cohort was very positive, sending the group to discuss and share ideas. The discovery of the creative freedom used in contemporary documentary surprised and excited our participants and turned this session into a lively ice breaking session as well as building on their knowledge of documentary. It was very interesting, yet a challenge for them to begin to understand the difference between factual and documentary filmmaking.
Day 2 started with presentation of individual ideas for a 3’ documentary. The group briefly discussed every single one. We then proceeded to vote on the best four and then form production groups. We ended up with one story around a disabled beggar who turns out to be a shrewd businessman: "My Dream”; a rickshaw puller who needs to go working despite his old age in order to pay for his daughter’s studies: “Calling Home”; a market where people gather at dawn to sell their labour: “Waiting for Godot”; and a traffic police man who struggles under the pressure of directing Dhaka traffic: “Bitter Lemon”. We insisted that the two women should have a go at doing camera work. We subsequently discovered that there isn’t a single camerawoman in Bangladesh. The group was supportive of this proposal. In the afternoon we held a technical camera and sound workshop which is when we discovered that many of our filmmakers barely had any technical skills.
Day 3 Each group went to its own location in order to further research characters and story. A production coordinator and at least one camera assistant assisted them. In Bangladesh you cannot hire a camera without at least one camera assistant (included in the price of camera!). They were given only one tape to shoot in order to stop them hoovering images and force them to think prior to switching the camera on. Sonja and I travelled in between locations in order to help them visualise their ideas. At the end of the day we looked at the material shot and held group discussions about it – in order to help them to focus on the story in hand and images required to express it.
Day 4 The groups returned to their location in order to apply what was discussed the previous day. There was a huge improvement on the quality of the material – not just technically but in their ability in expressing their story visually. The ones who struggled most were the ones who could not let go of a drama approach – wanting to control their character and turning their images into an illustration of their vision.
Dhaka does not have many tourists nor many Europeans living there so we were extremely well looked after by our colleagues and the British Council and had a chauffeured car at our disposal, which was the most welcome form of transport considering the heat and the heavy traffic congestion. Sometimes it took us two hours to get back to our base. That was our window into Dhaka and Dhaka certainly looked at us in a way we are not used to in Edinburgh. We tried to ignore it by using the time to plan, twitter and blog.
On Day 5 we drove to our editing rooms. We had four films to edit in two days! Fortunately the four FCP suites came with an operator each so we could work in parallel. When we got to the first facility house we were faced with a tall building in the early stages of construction, only to discover that our editing rooms on the second and fourth floor were the only flats with walls, doors and windows. One must laugh and yet respect the enterprising spirit of not waiting until a building is built in order for business to be open. We also had to learn to work around the frequent power cuts.
On the last day we had to work through the night in order to make up lost time and pull together our 15’ DVD (4x3 min) of Dhaka Stories. We insisted that they should make the most out of sound design. Despite huge emphasis on the creative role of sound in documentaries screened in the previous days, somehow most of them assumed that music would carry the images and reacted in disbelief when we told them that they could only use sound. That was a huge learning curve for them, but a challenge that brought a new interest in sound and its creative potential.
Once the films finished they were surprised by each other’s results – all the films had moved from an ordinary topic to a story with a new approach. The workshop challenged them at many levels: a new understanding in the difference between a topic and a story; how to play with reality in order to tell engaging stories; the role of visual metaphors in documentary and above all the importance of sound in order to communicate emotions.
The creative part of the documentary is our contemporary equivalent of The Greek chorus, which provided the necessary insight to help the audience follow the performance – i.e. communicating the invisible. Not everyone got it, but at least all of them understood that documentary is a lot more complex than they assumed it to be.
The certificate ceremony and screening was very moving – unfortunately we had to leave on the same day, after a final lunch and many group photos. Barely back for two weeks and we get a great piece of news: The charity Action Aid decided to fund the university fees for the daughter of the rick shaw puller, after seeing the films during our premiere at British Council in Dhaka. What a great result after an unforgettable trip!