The Scottish Documentary Institute was approached eight weeks ago to produce three short films for the Edinburgh International Culture Summit happening at the Scottish Parliament this week. Ministers and cultural policy makers from around the world are discussing how art and culture can build bridges between nations. You'll be able to find the archived video of their sessions here.
We produced one doc, one animation, and one drama – each of these five-minute films were screened at the beginning of one session.
The pressure to deliver films in response to the ambitious brief of the summit, in very short time, and of course on tight budget was tremendous. The conditions of production could not have been worse...
While most of us on Sunday were caught up in the frenzy of the first weekend of the Olympics, one of our documentary champions was quietly fading away. Funny enough, his first film, Olympia 52, was a documentary about the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics.
He died as he lived, discreetly. Hard to find more than ten photos of him (he often responded to that request with a photo of his cat), even fewer interviews, a few photographic exhibitions – but a world legacy of 52 films which hit the poetical core of humanity in this world.
French filmmaker Chris Marker, better known for La Jetee, is at the origin of the essay film, a form pitched between documentary and personal reflection, exploring the subjectivity of the cinematic perspective.
Last October I wrote about my experience filming in Maputo. The film is now finished and ready to be distributed. It will be premiered in Maputo in September at the Dockanema festival, in presence of the characters who took part in the film. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there. I would have loved to watch them watching themselves, and see if the meaning I tried to create out of their different stories means the same to them and to the local audience.
Most calendars run from January to January, others from September to September, and SDI's calendar from 19 June to 19 June… Why? Well, we're 'Making Docs Happen' at the Edinburgh Pitch!
Our array of panellists is your dream family. New to the family this year, we have a fantastic group of women: Claire Aguilar (ITVS), Diana Holtzberg (Films Transit International), Debra Zimmerman (Women Make Movies), Sabine Rollberg (WDR/ARTE), and Elisabeth Hulten (ARTE France). I am sure they will be charmed by Edinburgh and our gentle approach to discovering talent. This is what the Edinburgh Pitch is about, our storytelling and humanity.
And to help me facilitate the day, as ever, we have Tue Steen Müller, our documentary cultural ambassador, who has helped so many emerging filmmakers from all over the world, and many moons ago decided to embrace SDI vision and team and make Edinburgh a yearly pilgrimage. Together we selected a wide range of projects and Tue will spend a day prior to the pitch polishing any rough edges.
I love discovering new films at festivals and testing just how memorable a film becomes amongst so many more. So a month after Hot Docs, which films have stayed with me?
Planet of Snail
This IDFA winner by Korean director Seungjun Yi is a beautiful love story of a deaf-blind poet and his wife. He is extremely tall and child-like; she is very short with a serious face. She uses finger braille to communicate with him. Her fingers were like butterflies liberating him from his silence. The film employs exceptional observational cinematography to capture those intimate moments and the way they share and experience the world. I was mesmerised and immersed in their world.
Sundance award-winning Danish director Mads Brügger goes to extremes in order to expose how easily diplomatic accreditation can be bought in Africa for purposes of illegal trading. From setting up backroom deals with corrupt consuls and brokers to creating his own business in the Central African Republic, he takes us on an extraordinary journey of corruption and deception. There is a huge irony to this film: to be able to expose how power truly works, the director acts as the main character, and the film turns into a well-crafted black comedy that gets exponentially more dangerous the deeper he goes. We know from the beginning that he is not real – but the situation and the dangers are very real indeed. I would not normally go for such acting in documentary, but the ability to navigate between danger and comedy by making the audience an accomplice allowed the director to create various perceptions of reality within one film.
Sweden had a very strong presence this year at Hot Docs, and the following are among my favourite films.
Hot Docs has an amazing and magical pull as a documentary festival that brings together filmmakers from all around the world – but more importantly, year after year, Hot Docs develops new ways of increasing their local audience. This year, they offered free screenings to students and anyone above 60, creating the most challenging, yet welcoming audience one could dream of. Toronto as a city is also exceptional, being littered with single-screen arthouse cinemas. Almost every neighbourhood has a their own non-commercial screen, making it one of the best in North America. Whether living in the East or West, Midtown, or down by Lake Ontario, Toronto cinephiles with their insatiable appetite for classic, foreign and challenging cinema are never likely to go hungry.
And now the Bloor cinema is dedicated to documentary alone, can you believe this! Owned and operated by the Hot Docs festival, the theatre has been restored to its former glory, retaining its original 1913 architecture and its art-deco charm, but equipped with a great screen and the latest acoustic panelling to further enhance the viewing experience.
Our arrival in Tripoli was an anti-climax, all the clocks had stopped. There was no life at the airport, even the duty-free shop was closed, the shelves empty. A driver from the British Council had patiently been waiting for our delayed flight. We would soon learn that time is of no consequence in Libya... But this whole workshop was going to be a race against time: delivering basic film skills, engaging our 13 participants with creative documentary, showing them clips of doc gems so they open up to a new form of storytelling – beyond their Aljazeera experience – and produce a short film suitable for international festivals. Yes, I agree, we were asking for the impossible – but hey, we are filmmakers!
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!
The 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.
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.