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.
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.
Last week we had the pleasure of screening the Scottish premiere of The Woman with The 5 Elephants at Edinburgh College of Art, with a long Q&A by director Vadim Jendreyko.
85-year-old Svetlana Geier dedicated her life to language. Considered the greatest translator of Russian literature into German, Svetlana has just concluded her magnum opus, completing new translations of Dostoyevsky’s five great novels—known as “the five elephants.”
As a precocious teenager living in Ukraine with an unusual facility for languages, Svetlana was brought to the attention of her country’s Nazi occupiers during World War II, and found uneasy refuge translating for them. She fled in 1943 and never returned … until now.
In this film, there’s something from which you can’t run away, which is… It sounds like by talking about it, I’m defending myself from my tyranny, a cleverly narcissistic procedure almost… And because I’m talking about it, it’s as if everything is fine. I admit, therefore it’s as if I’m very brave.
But it’s not like that, it’s not something that I’m proud of… even when I look at it today I feel embarrassed for having done something I didn’t quite realise I was doing, but I still did it. It doesn’t save me from anything; the film was made under those conditions. So by re-editing the film, not to show that I’m brave or to show what I did wrong – there is no bravery in showing what I did wrong when what I did condemned the relationship I had with Santiago. Now, that was the footage and that was the relationship, so if the film has to be made and if the first film failed because it didn’t show what actually happened, I only had two choices. I could either show what happened and expose myself to the critics of ‘He’s such a good guy for showing this, he’s redeemed himself, this film is a redemption, he saw the light, he’s almost a saint’.
In this film we didn’t try to disguise the sound cuts. There’s always continuous dialogue instead. And another thing we don’t have is editing… I mean, there is association but not an obvious one, like, for example, someone saying: “I went to Montevideo.” Then you cut it with someone else saying: “Montevideo is a very beautiful city.” You start hooking these themes, which is a classic way of making documentaries; things go hand in hand and evolve through very obvious connections. In this film that doesn’t happen, instead, the themes change dramatically without the need to indicate it, and all the sequences happen in a single shot so when they’re over it’s a clear indication for the audience that there’s been a cut, therefore the film also tells the story of its own edit.
‘When I started talking in the first person the film started to exist’
Noe Mendelle: In contrast with Santiago’s voice, you then took the decision of using someone else’s voice, not yours. How do you explain this?
The film is very close to that sensation of celebrating nostalgia, which I think of as being the conservative idea that the past is better than the present, and that one needs to recover the past, which is impossible, so all that’s left is sadness and melancholy of the time that went past and the feeling you can’t invest in the present. From that you get the happiness of the past too. Nostalgia is necessarily melancholic and conservative. The past is better than the present and therefore, sometimes, better than the future… And I didn’t want to convey that in the film.
Santiago’s freedom and the concept behind the film
This excerpt follows Noe Mendelle’s remark on this scene. She asked João if he thinks this was the only moment of the film where Santiago exercised his freedom.
Santiago told me once: ‘I find my hands very beautiful and I remember making these gestures as a child, like an exercise, whilst listening to Bach.’
And he asked me to do that in the film. So you’re right when you say that maybe that is one of the only moments in the film in which he’s exercising his freedom. To be able to do what he wanted to and be proud of it to the point he wanted it to be filmed. And he’s absolutely free and happy doing it, because it’s important for him and it’s beautiful.
The film became possible when I realised that these off screen moments were essential for the film
13 years later, when I got back to the edit suite I asked for the transcripts, but these only had information about the actual shots. There wasn’t a single sentence about what came before or after, so I had no information on all the off-screen conversations that took place. I started looking at what came before and after the planned shots and realised that what explained the artificiality in the film was outside of these shots. And the film became possible when I realised that these off screen moments were essential for the film. The off screen that I didn’t control or what I thought I didn’t need to control. And those were my conversations with him, that in the end were the things that weren’t the object of my obsession with control, of the obsession with the aesthetics…
At the end of the 80’s, Brazil elected its new president, called Fernando Collor de Melo. One of the things Fernando Collor de Melo did was to suspend all the laws that supported film production in Brazil. So for three years or maybe a little before that, whilst he ruled the country, Brazil didn’t make any films. I think there was one film, maybe two, maximum, which was a real problem for production companies, such as the one I have with my brother, Waltinho, where we used to make TV series, documentaries and features.
Suddenly we couldn’t do that anymore. So we, like any other production company in Brazil, had one solution only, and that was advertising. We all started making adverts. Video Filmes, which is our joint production company, became one of the biggest advertising production companies in Brazil. The other production company was Fernando Meirele’s O2, based in São Paulo.
"I didn't want to be a woman looking over my shoulder. I rather go towards things that frighten me – and draw attention to the situation." (Penny Woolcock)
Penny Woolcock, born 1950, grew up in Argentina's English ex-pat community before settling in England in 1970, working in factories and other jobs. Even as a school girl she was more interested in the edges of things - for example the life in the favela underneath the bridge she passed every week on the way to church. She only took to filmmaking in her thirties and never formally trained as a filmmaker, which has led to some crew members commenting: "You work really differently." Penny says: "Ignorance can be bliss!"