I’m on a journey of learning. I don’t think anyone simply qualifies into their profession and that’s the end of it. Everyday, from the moment you start your job, you learn, grow and improve. The you today is way different from the you from last year, and the year before that. So since I’ve been making films (videos I should say, but films sounds better!) I’ve been picking up techniques and ever-sharpening the kit in my toolbox of filmmaking. Furthermore I’ve been discovering my voice and also what I want to say.
So I’m compelled to blog today for a number of reasons. One is because I’ve been reading from a number of different sources about the amount of knowledge and information about the craft of filmmaking Shane Hurlbut shares with his readers. Shane is a very established and well known cinematographer. His blog (http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/) is leagues ahead of this one, but nonetheless it was a motivation to share the little I’ve learnt with anyone who’s interested. The second reason, the one that’s been creeping at the surface of my thinking for the last few days is my wondering about what kind of a filmmaker I want to be.
I joined twitter very recently (twitter.com/SafiyyahsDad) and discovered it’s a very newsy medium. By that I mean it’s far less like Facebook (at least to me) where friends connect with each other and it seems more about following various people as sources of information, entertainment and news. So with that discovery I noticed my behaviour on it changed slightly. Though I’m regularly keeping up to date with the news, I found myself sharing more and more things to do with current affairs, and making press release-like statements.
What does this have to do with this blog post? Well I suppose it’s because over the last few days I’ve been wondering about the future of my career and the kind of filmmaking I want to do. Being on twitter and being buried under a barrage of current affairs info has inevitably led me to think about journalism. Video-journalism more specifically. I’ve been wondering about how that squares with my current and general style of filmmaking. In an attempt to figure these things out, I want to share here the way I approach a basic short documentary, more specifically the interview process.
Interviewing for a spontaneous short doc:
‘Lutfi’ still fresh in my mind (https://vimeo.com/102573933) I can say my current approach is quite ‘casual’. I started off in my career conducting interviews in quite a heavy-handed way, trying to guide my subjects to give me the answers I wanted. This happens generally when you work for an NGO and the purpose is fundraising. I’m glad to say I’ve been able to move away from this thanks to colleagues and mentors; now it’s a much more relaxed method of letting the interviewee tell their story, but still trying to focus on a particular element of the story. It’s finding that particular element which is the difficult and strenuous part.
With Lutfi I was incredibly short of time so I had decided beforehand I wanted to focus on his love of photography. This was based on information I had already gathered in a brief conversation that took place earlier in the day, otherwise it would have been a time consuming process of probing questions eating up precious memory card space and battery life. I should mention I’m well aware that research plays a key part in documentary film making but I’m talking about the kinds of docs and interviews that an NGO or regular online/magazine feature filmmaker might be doing, where they have no idea who the heck they are going to meet when they get to a location.
So I began by asking him to say hello, tell us his name and a little about his relationship with photography. A tip to myself for future is to get subjects to repeat this statement towards the end of the interview. This is because generally everyone eases up by the end and you get a much warmer and friendlier opening line for your film.
After that I asked questions based on points that Lutfi mentioned in his answers. He was prone to going off on tangents so whenever he gave us a natural pause I’d make sure to jump in with a question that would get him back on track. It’s important asking open questions otherwise you’ll get answers like ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If I do fall into that trap then I’ll remember to follow up with ‘can you explain?’ or ‘why?’. It’s about playing dumb, letting your subject feel like they’re teaching you something. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that people don’t share the same level of knowledge on subjects so you have to make your interviewee feel they’re teaching you something new.
I’m still getting the hang of it, and where possible I much prefer having someone conduct the interview so I can worry about technical matters. In any case it’s a balancing act; going with the flow of your subject but making sure your subtly keep them speaking about things you can use. The more time you can spend in making them comfortable the more honest and unselfconscious they’ll be. It’ll really help in asking them questions that are a bit more direct. But never try and force those types of answers without earning the trust or your doc will come out contrived and very brief! I’ve been in those situations and always ended with boring and slightly false-seeming films.
And sometimes you get lucky, like I did with Lutfi, where he was just a really interesting and well spoken guy.
So with future posts I’ll include more details and techniques to my process. Keep up to date on twitter by following me at twitter.com/safiyyahsdad and if you didn’t already then please check out my tribute to Lutfi, war photographer from Jerusalem: https://vimeo.com/102573933