Don't be afraid to shoot strong, personal and unconventional films!

8. 4. 2015

Author: Filip Ĺ ebek

Documentary filmmakers from Central and Eastern Europe again have a chance to apply for and take part in the year-round workshop Ex Oriente Film. Within its three week-long sessions they can develop and fine-tune their projects and obtain valuable feedback and contacts from the acclaimed experts from all over the world. One of them, tutor of the first Ex Oriente Film session in Rijeka in Croatia, professor from the University of Tampere, director, producer and script editor Iikka Vehkalahti, told us about his experience with helping the filmmakers and how he sees the present as well as future trends in the documentary filmmaking and distribution.

Your project roughcutservice.com provides the documentary filmmakers with rough cut assistance, even remotely/online. What are the biggest benefits of this service? Can it fully make up for the personal meetings with filmmakers?
Of course, face-to-face work is the ideal way to communicate. But it is not always possible. Let´s have a look at a frequent case: You have done a lot of work on your film and reached a certain level that you are actually happy with. But you know that a fresh eye is really needed to reach the next, final level. As many great editors have said: "I really hope that after me, there will be a new editor, who will take it to the last level". And in this crucial moment time it is extremely important how professional, committed and specific the fresh eye feedback is. Very often there are commissioning editors in Europe providing that professional feedback, but often they do not have time enough to spend with your film. And in many countries around the world there is nobody to give a professional feedback at all. So, how can you get the top world-known professionals even look at your rough cut? It seems impossible to get them to fly for one day work. I have been asked myself many times to do it and I have found it really stressing: taxis, airports, flights, a new city… it all takes a lot of energy. At the same time, the possibility to work with interesting films is the reason why we are in documentaries. In a well-designed on-line system it is possible to get two top professionals, who can really concentrate on your film and give you the feedback in a totally committed way. And to get such feedback from two different people who both spend –according to our estimates- one and a half day with your film is, based on our experiences, enough. Of course sometimes it can lead to a two-week editing process, but that is not what we offer.

In your team, there are several prominent experts in the field of documentary filmmaking. According to which criteria have you picked them up?
It might sound naive, but the main criteria somehow were how much we “love“documentaries as a form of art with an important content. The others were how well we do fit together, whether we can get inspired from each other, learn from each other and have fun. Because it is joyful, interesting and rewarding to work with challenging, honest, important documentaries and to see that you can somehow support the director and help his or her team to reach their goal. Practically, when discussing whom to ask to join the group these were some of the questions we asked: Has he or she previous experience with tutoring or an advisory role in the editing process? Is the person capable of oral or just written communication online? Does he or she have experience working with filmmakers from different cultures and continents? And is he or she capable of supporting the filmmakers in their own vision of their film and finally, is he or she capable of supporting very different kinds of films? Of course, the group also has to be diverse enough to enable creative dialogue when working in pairs. Some of my present colleagues - Niels-Pagh Andersen, Menno Boerama, Erez Laufert and Jakob Hoegel I knew already from Steps For The Future.(steps.sco.za).

What mistakes do the young documentary filmmakers frequently make? It is possible to give some examples in general?
Mistakes are not made only by the young ones, we all make them. There are so many. For example: not to adjust the film to the audience; not to leave any space for the audience to create the final version of the film in their own heads; to play too much; not to be to stay simple and preserve the complexity of the issue at the same time. Not to be truthful, or not to be open to all kinds of filmmaking tools and methods. I, for example, do not understand a person who, by principle, says: “And I don’t use voice over“. It is like leaving out the music! What would such films as Citizen Kane, Sans Soleil or Sound Of Insects be without voice over? As I said: we all make mistakes all the time and often we make the most fundamental ones in the old age – such as those on the informative level (where are we, who is who, what is the question/dilemma/conflict/quest of the film, what is the role of the back story, etc.), which make the film is unclear and messy and at the same time full of too much detailed information. Very often the need just to finish the film already, to get rid of it or too get the film to a certain festival makes the team think: „we have to finish the film now“and rush it… But in fact, very rarely the film has to be ready immediately.

Which trends have you been spotting in the recent years in the field of documentary filmmaking? In the context of dramatic development in many countries, do the filmmakers tend to put greater emphasis on human rights at the expense of the universal human stories from the more "peaceful" parts of the world?
We were just recently laughing in of the one doc meetings, that some years ago there was a wave of films about Jews during World War II in every European country, then came films about the street kids, later there were indigenous people and then films about somebody fading away, dying. And at the same time there were of course always the identity crises of the filmmakers or the relations to their families. Nowadays, there are many films about fishing and of course about Maidan Square, as well as about female soccer teams or female boxers.Documentaries have always been the tools for social change, and yes, there are many activist films with the approach „the flag“ goes first, meaning the message is more important to the director than the story. But I believe that more and more directors can see that to have the story first also serves the message better.

Is it possible to trace a certain thematic focus and formal specificities of documentary filmmaking within each country? For example, do the Scandinavian filmmakers shoot more "artistic" documentaries with a greater emphasis on the visual part, whereas in Africa or the Middle East, there is more emphasis on the seriousness of the content, their documentaries being closer to the reportage style?
Yes, absolutely it is quite clear, but it is also a little bit dangerous to give the definitions. The issue is often important in the US and UK, where the journalistic tradition is strong. In Latin America many filmmakers try to reach a philosophical level additionally to political films. In Scandinavia, the different traditions mingle: narrative storytelling form US is meeting the more expressive tradition from East being also influenced by neo realism from South Europe. I actually like the passion towards film making in Eastern Europe.

What is your opinion concerning the hybrid documentaries using staged or dramatic sequences?
When the filmmaker is truthful to the audience and to him/herself, I see that it could be a really strong tool in documentary filmmaking.

Within our event, East Doc Platform, we introduced the second edition of Doc Tank, programme focused on transmedia projects. Do you think the future of documentary filmmaking lies in such projects?
No, I don’t. But I believe that new platforms and using the different combinations of the platforms will add new forms to the documentary film making. It is obvious that we will see the difference between cinema, television, festival and net/mobile docs more clearly. And that the platforms will also change.But the change will not be so dramatic or fast as some people hope, believe or are afraid of. In the area of distribution it is clear that a lot will happen there in the nearest years, and it can be very positive for docs.

During your long and rich career you were involved in a wide range of successful documentaries. By what criteria do you decide whether to enter a particular project or not?
There are all the unusual aspects, from the topic/issue to the quality of the producers. At the end the instinct plays an important role. But a lot of experience and information is needed to trust your instinct in the end.

Within the project "Why Poverty?" you initiated a project "Story Tent". Could you introduce it?
Storytent was created already before Why Poverty? The whole philosophy in Storytent is to make people to be subjects instead being objects of the filmmakers and media. And to create a safe, isolated space/ „confession room“ in the public place. And to build in the team the attitude of respect and openness to listen what people have to say. And then, on the final stage, in post production, to use still photos to force the audience to see, to really see a picture.It was actually an idea for transmedia, crossmedia or Internet as a first platform production. To start from the very core of storytelling, to produce something that could be used as well in television, net radio or printed media.

In the summer of 2015, you are going to take part in the first session of Ex Oriente Film in Rijeka, Croatia. In the recent years you have already attended several events organized by the Institute of Documentary Film. Where do you see the greatest benefit of such events?
Concerning the topics, I cannot really say. But otherwise, I want to believe, that the courage to be unconventional and not just follow only the main trends in television, make personal films is strong in Central and Eastern Europe. But look at the visual art or literature, I think it is possible to see the same trends in documenary films.

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