Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (10)

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

A presidential pain

Insect bite cream tubes: 3
Ibuprofen for headaches: 32
Meeting with presidents so far: 1

Extra security for our documentary production?

This must be the most presidential week of my life. Having met leading candidate for presidential elections at breakfast four days ago, we returned to our hotel today to find it surrounded by a crowd of performers and taken over by strong military presence, only to meet the ex-president of Timor in our hotel. We are staying in Casa Dora, a modest hotel with small traditional huts: a bed, a cold shower and a great cook – wonderful but not the place where you would expect to find VIP clients, let alone presidents. This little island is getting very crowded, and those official visits seem to become bank holidays for everyone, bringing our characters into town... and costing us another day of shoot.

I hope that, if you managed to put up with my extreme sense of humour so far, you got curious enough to go and check where the Bijagós are. Everything is extreme here:

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (9)

Recipe for talking to the dead

We got up really early this morning to try and catch up with those 'initiated' guys I talked about. I'm really puzzled: why would someone give up his village, wife and children to wonder about for months or years? 

It is so hard to interview through translators. Our fixer/translator speaks very basic Portuguese which means exploring any abstract thought a challenge. And yet here we are, trying to find out about spirits, death and religious ceremonies with a complex set of rules and signs.

I can't say I'm anywhere near to understanding our 'initiated', but at least I was able to ask about the toys they carry around their neck. Those teddy bears are their spokespeople to the spirits. It is reassuring to know that teddy bears and spirits go hand in hand!

Teddy bear becomes spirit spokesperson

Later on we went to talk to a spiritual facilitator communicating with the dead. One of the guys in the village wanted his father's spirit to come home. When someone dies, a chicken gets sacrificed in order to decide whether he gets buried at home (if he was good) or in the forest (if he was bad). But somehow the wondering spirit needs to be lured back home through a special ceremony. Women do not appear to be so demanding, they just get buried in the forest, and their spirits just wonder off without creating any trouble. So we filmed another ceremony:

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Can we 'sell' a film about a world without money?

We launched the pay-it-forward concept with FUTURE MY LOVE at IDFA in Amsterdam a few months ago. This blog post about the thinking behind it was first published on the Huffington Post blog. We're republishing it here on the occasion of I AM BREATHING now also being available as pay-it-forward.

"To challenge economy is to challenge ourselves," says filmmaker Maja Borg. "It is far harder than complaining about the banking system." Maja's debut feature Future My Love tells a story of idealism and failure, looking at concepts for both our personal lives and society as whole. "Economy is a human relationship," states the film's tag line.

Contemplating the ideal of a world without money (or, respectively, a relationship without possessiveness), the film focuses on Jacque Fresco's ideas for an economic system in which goods, services and information would be freely available. Fresco's Venus Project (Wikipedia) and the related Zeitgeist Movement have hundreds of thousands followers worldwide. In charge of audience relations for Future My Love, I could possibly tap into a large existing community.

With a thought-provoking Scottish-Swedish co-production that has been critically acclaimed, toured international festivals for more than a year, and won a Green documentary award, what could possibly go wrong?

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Diaries from an intrepid filmmaker (8)

I could have screamed with frustration this morning!

  • Number of appointments for the morning: 3
  • Number of characters not there when we turned up: 3

The cost of petrol is the same here as in the UK. We spend a fortune on transport that is not even reliable. Our motorbike broke down, and only two hours later we managed to get an old car without any suspension. Had we been assaulted and battered, my body would have felt the same! The owner was very proud of this pile of iron. When it seemed that my door was not closed properly, the driver proudly said: "A good driver knows every sound produced by his car." In this case it was an entire cacophony of screeching sounds.


Thank goodness the afternoon was a lovely surprise.

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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.


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.


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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