Digging a hole

1989Making films is probably the most boring profession in the world — as well as the most glamorous.  They say making films is like going to war: lots of hanging around while not knowing what the hell is going on; and then a sudden, brief, unsatisfactory burst of action.

Although documentaries are generally more boring than feature films they can be more interesting to make.  When making observational documentaries, you follow an interesting character around and let him tell the story; this means you constantly hear unexpected things, get led into unexpected places, meet new people — none of which would be possible in a feature film in which every word, gesture and action is controlled.

The problem with documentary is that you end up with loads of material (footage) that you then have to go through, and this can be excruciating. I recently saw a Romanian documentary called Constantin and Elena and the director said he had made about 50 hours of material which he had to cut down to 90 minutes. It took him years.  And the documentary films I have been involved in have as much, if not more, footage.  It has always struck me as being such a waste that all this footage never gets seen. In my opinion documentary footage should be in the public domain, but that’s another story.

Currently I am going through a stack of footage that was filmed in Bucharest just after the revolution, in early 1990.  My plan is to make a documentary about the turbulent aftermath of Romania’s revolution, all of which happened 20 years ago.  It is fascinating stuff.  There was a moment of pure anarchy in January 1990 in which people on the streets were discussing Communism, Democracy and the rights and wrongs of Iliescu’s deft seizure of power (through his “National Salvation Front”).  That moment of anarchy, during which there was a surge of hope and raised expectations, lasted about a month and was rapidly followed by cynicism. By Spring 1990 that raw political energy was being harnessed by the political parties.

My “footage watching” routine is like this: I get up in the morning and turn on the DVD player; as I brush my teeth the latest tape starts playing; I listen in to people passionately shouting “Down with Iliescu” or “We love you Iliescu” as I grab something to eat; then I sit down to go through a days worth of material filmed on the streets of Bucharest in early 1990.  I was expecting this to be desperately boring but found it to be both addictive and compelling; you never know what will come next.  As midnight approaches I put in another disc and end up watching until 2am.  I also turn on my laptop, take calls and do other stuff, but always with one eye and half and ear on the footage, always looking for that gem.  And there are many, for example today I followed a bunch of priests walking through a public institution spraying water around the place, presumably to exorcise it after Communism.

But what gripped me the most was a sequence of a guy shoveling out a basement.  This was exactly the kind of material I could safely ignore, this was the time to have lunch or make that difficult call, and so I didn’t pay it much attention. After all, why watch a guy shoveling dirt in an unknown basement (and with footage you have no idea where most of the locations are, unless the filmmaker is next to you).  But he was still there 20 minutes later, shoveling away patiently, and so I sat down to watch. How much longer can this go on? Gradually I realised there was something appealing about the way the light fell on the basement walls, which were stained by damp and interesting colours as if painted by an artist.  The original film had been shot on VHS video tape and has not been edited in any way (unlike everything we see on TV today, all of which is heavily edited).  It was like seeing a genuine bit of reality TV.  I became hooked.

What made this material compelling was the fact that this guy was so into his work.  When someone is really into what he was doing it becomes interesting to watch, perhaps because he has techniques which look impressive.  He was into his shoveling, the filmmaker was into filming it, I am into writing about it, and hopefully you are into reading it.   I think this would be true for any activity, in other words I believe you can make any routine activity seem interesting if the person doing it is enjoying it.  There is another sequence in this material where a sculptor is chipping away at a marble head; sure it was interesting but somehow the anonymous digger is more so.  The digger was working alone (the sculptor had an audience), he was working in a damp basement (not the sunny outdoors) and he was doing a job that will never be admired by anyone. And he was doing it with pride.

The digger, who I assume was located under the artists’ house, was carefully, almost delicately, moving the dirt into a number of small buckets. Then he would place the buckets high up on the window that was at the height of his head.  He would then perform a neat jump up to the window, that was probably at a height of 2 metres, and get outside.  Then he would empty the buckets into a wheelbarrow and disappear for a few minutes.  At this point a normal filmmaker would have turned off the camera and found something better to do with his time, but our filmmaker (Laurentiu Calciu) has the patience of a saint, the stubbornness of a mule, and he knows when to keep the camera on.  A dog wandered into the shot, sniffing around the buckets, making friends with the digger’s feet (which had reappeared by now), and generally fitting in well to the scene.

And that was it, that was an interesting little sequence from my day of footage watching.  Unlike every documentary and feature film that we see there was no story, there was no beginning or end, there was no character (not only did I not hear the digger’s name mentioned, but I couldn’t even get a glimpse of his face), there was no point.  And yet it was fascinating, inspiring, uplifting to see a guy do such a shitty job with such obvious pride and care.  Why don’t we ever see stuff like this on TV?  I think the broadcasters would be too embarrassed to risk showing such material.

All of which makes me think about how highly structured the media and publishing industries are, how little room for creativity there really is.  Everything must be in the format that they decide is appropriate. Anything else is rejected, in the name of the public interest of course.  If you don’t have a good “story” there is no way that your film will ever be considered for funding, or broadcasting, and not only must it have a good story but it should be about a hot subject that is considered relevant by the media right now.  it has to have a “hook”.  And you should be someone who is recognised as a “safe pair of hands” (i.e. you can deliver to their formula) so they don’t actually risk a penny of their money.  You can’t just make a film about your grandparents and expect the media to buy into it (although Andrei Dascalescu did just that with his film Constantin and Elena, which HBO have just bought, proving that rules are made to be broken).  How about a film about a guy digging? No way.  Nobody would take you seriously. Even discussing it would make you look like a lunatic. So I can’t share with you what I think is the best part of my 20 hours of footage.

But if you look at some of the really big stars you realise that they have bucked the trend, they have done their own thing, they’ve gone outside the formula.  In publishing it is almost a commonplace that all the greatest writers were rejected by the main publishers.  I know that JK Rowling was.  And the film industry is littered with similar stories. For example, Time Bandits by Terry Gilliam, one of the most imaginative films I’ve ever seen, was rejected by all the main studios and was only made because George Harrison had the vision to back it.  Obviously one has to be totally determined about ones project and make it despite what your industry peers says.

There is a really interesting interview with Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, on his website.  He is asked who he writes for, what is his target audience, and he says with obvious confidence that he writes for himself, that he is his own worst critic, the toughest boss.  This makes perfect sense as this approach gives you total control over the creative process, and it should be standard advice given to every wannabe writer and filmmaker.  If you write for yourself you always know where you stand and you are not victim to what you assume others want; it gives you a clear line to follow (your conscience) and is surely a good basis to produce a creative work.

But publishers and editors in the media don’t see it like this.  They set themselves up as arbiters of public taste; they set the rules for what the public wants (and doesn’t want) and they set the formats by which you must follow if you want part of it.  If you try and discuss a new idea with them the chances are that your idea doesn’t fit.  Every time I have discussed an idea with a publisher or editor an indulging, pained look comes over their face and they cut me short and explain why I really shouldn’t bother as it’s not what the public want.  They can hardly bear to even listen to your idea before they reject it, almost as if they know you are not the type to come up with a decent idea.  They already know a small group of people who can offer new ideas.  You are not part of that group and probably never will be.

I don’t want this to be a general complaint about the publishing and media industry, although it might sound like that.  This is just how it is.  I realise that they have to establish rules, they have to work out ways of filtering out the crappy ideas that are pushed onto them every day, but my feeling is that they are not really open to new ideas unless they come from someone who is already established (for example, if JK Rowling has a new idea all publishers would jump, but if an unemployed housewife from Edinburgh  proposed a novel she would find it almost impossible to get anyone in publishing to seriously consider her idea).

Where does this leave us with our film about the events in 1990?  Actually it makes me feel rather positive.  I know we need to just keep working on it, we need to make it for ourselves and once we really get into it we will build up a momentum that will make it attractive to others. If we can come up with a trailer and people can see how interesting and dynamic our footage is (and our editing concept) they will want to be part of it.  And by doing it ourselves we will be able to maintain the kind of artistic control over the process that will result in a great film.  If we submit to a TV station or a funding source too soon we risk losing our independence, as most funders will want to make it more relevant, edgy, up to date and sensational (always thinking about getting maximum audiences rather than creating the best possible film) and they will find it impossible not to interfere.  We have to do it our way, to our own standards, without compromise, and with a lot of determination. And then the film will fly.

4 Responses to Digging a hole

  1. Monica WM says:

    Why don’t you make a film ONLY with your favourite bits of footage? Call it 1990: A Lunatic Cut, if you want – and post it here. And YouTube? Have a go.

  2. Ioana Nemes says:

    oh rupert, but the point is that you have to make that film (force laurentiu to do it) and then see what happens. for me it looks like a good documentary is as precious and unwanted/unuseful as an art piece. you just have to do it. and then see if anyone is interesting. pitty that laurentiu is such a talented guy but lacks determination/ambition. quite sad actually…

  3. Dear Monica and Ioana

    Thank you both very much for your interesting comments. I agree with all you say here.


  4. Manuela says:

    I have a feeling of regret that I wasn’t born earlier, so I could live the terror of the communist era and the after revolution drama. I could only read about it. That’s why I’d be very interested to see your documentary. I don’t wanna see another historical insight, stuffed with information and relevant images but with no human feeling. You seem to have collected lot of precious material, and I’d love to see it all.

    I don’t think you should worry if the TV stations will buy or you will find a large audience. The idea of your documentary sounds great and I’m sure that once you finish it, you will get a lot of appreciation(and hopefully some good money too).

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