Telling the Story of Electronic Music on Film

17. 10. 2019

Author: Martin Svoboda

Just a few moments in, The Sound Is Innocent commands one’s attention with its remarkably sophisticated audiovisual style. This documentary film about electronic music was made in international co-production and attended several workshops, including Ex Oriente Film. Filmmaker Johana Ožvold talks about how everything has to come together to make this movie a success.

68 minutes isn’t very long. Most of your peers aim for at least 80-minute films. Needless to say, a lot of them don’t benefit from it.

I didn’t feel any need to earn my filmmaking stripes by going for some ideal runtime. The film’s length should make sense and we felt good about the final, almost 70 minutes. I didn’t care about the length as much as about being efficient. I wanted to find a way to reach both experts and regular people, which is not an easy thing either. I’m not entirely sure yet if I’ve succeeded, we’ll see after the screening. But I feel quite good about it after some early feedback.

Your film boasts a very sophisticated audiovisual style. Aren’t you a little worried that the viewers might find it hard to absorb all of the information when they are overwhelmed by images and sounds?
I appreciate films that can be watched multiple times and you can discover something new every time. I don’t really mind if viewers miss something the first time they watch it. In a way, I tried to make even the style itself work as an information layer. Not everything is put into words, some things can be sensed, understood through the images. For instance, the principle of combining technology is not described in words but in a visual metaphor – we see various pieces of 20th century equipment, falling off the assembly line straight onto a single pile. There’s no explicit explanation as to what it means but I hope it’s quite clear. I trust my audience.

The sound for your film is logically based on the story but how did you find the right visual style?
I wasn't trying to capture music in images – the visual layer is meant to complement the content of the film. If you recall, in each chapter I change the film language just a little bit to better match the content and to make the whole movie more interesting. The most important thing that affected the visual style was the location – Slovak Radio. Radio as a medium has strong historical ties to electronic music and, more importantly, Slovak Radio is also based in an architecturally interesting building that has some pretty universal features for this type of space but it also has its own particular charm.

How did you manage to arrange a shoot in a building that operates 24/7?
It wasn't too hard, really. It was built at a time when radio was the dominant medium so that today it feels too large for its purpose and it was easy to arrange props there for three weeks consisting of a giant pile of junk radios. It isn't a trick, by the way – all of it was done on camera. When we happened to need more space, we planned the shoot for holidays when there are much fewer people in the building.

Parts of your film were shot in France. Did it strain your budget?
I guess that considering the circumstance, France was the less demanding part of the production. At the radio building, we had a large crew and expensive equipment. In France, it was just a few people and we tried to save money as much as possible. For instance, instead of flying, we drove a van. Strangely enough, one day of shooting in France turned out to be cheaper than in Slovakia.

Who are the most important crew members for you?
First and foremost, my husband Martin Ožvold who did the sound design and score and he also picked the main respondents because he’s much more at home in this music genre. Then there’s my cinematographer Šimon Dvořáček. We’ve been working together for a long time because he’s a good guy and a good partner for creative debates. We have similar interests and aesthetic sense and I haven’t done any film without him – he’s definitely a core member of my team. Editor Zuzana Walter had a key role in this project; we’ve also worked together before. This time she was also an assistant director and so she was involved in every aspect of the process. I also have to mention set designer Antonín Šilar, sound designer Adam Voneš and co-writer Lukáš Csicsely. It was very exhausting for all of us, we got on each other’s nerves in the editing room but I mean that in a good way – we just wanted to do our best and we were all very engaged. The final film is our joint work. When we have a press conference for the premiere, I want them to be there with me.

How did you manage to fund the film?
I was lucky that my thesis film Black Cake won several days of post-production at UPP. It was a good prize but the time would be enough just for another short film. Our producer Kristýna Michálek Květová and I agreed it would be better to convert the prize into a co-production deal. The same thing happened working with Soundsquare – Pavel Rejholec reached out to me because he liked Black Cake and asked whether we had any plans and eventually we had a co-production deal. From the beginning, we had some basic funds, which was obviously very pleasant. Then we received a development grant from the Czech Film Fund, perhaps because we were accepted to attend a workshop at the goEast Festival in Wiesbaden. 

Did you find the workshop useful?
Definitely! At first, I was a little averse to the idea of attending workshops. I was a bit resistant and felt it was just an unpleasant obligation. It was mainly Kristýna Michálek Květová’s effort; she started signing us up for various workshops and pitch sessions, which helped the project a lot. Our trips helped to win over more co-producers they also helped me to fine-tune my ideas. At the goEast workshop, I realized that I had to save the film from being too local, which it certainly was at that moment. We had a great feedback and identified certain glitches that might have become flaws later on. Thanks to a new resumé, we got a French co-producer on board.

How did you save it from being too local?
Initially, I wanted to focus on Czech music a lot more. That’s because I’m a big fan of Zdeněk Liška’s electronic experiments. In the end, I decided the film should be much more universal. I also desperately wanted to avoid entangling the movie in the issue of communism and normalization. I really feel that our generation shouldn’t have to keep reflecting on the consequences of communism. Unfortunately, a lot of people still expect East European filmmakers to do just that. I felt that Western producers tried to push me a little bit into highlighting these topics. I didn’t but it helped me understand the expectations and sensibility of the European market and I was able to react in some way.

What about public broadcasters? You've only mentioned Slovak TV...
Slovak TV was essential because they allowed us to shoot in the radio building – unlike in the Czech Republic, the two institutions are connected. They also provided some funding. I’m really grateful for the support we received from the Slovaks – as opposed to Czech TV – as well as for the way they treated the project. While Czech TV also became a co-producer, their contribution was so small – one quarter of the amount from Slovakia – that it was almost symbolic. As a filmmaker I felt that even though they might find the project compelling, they don’t trust their viewers to like it. Anyway, we’re thankful for any kind of help. Both broadcasters were also important partners when it came to in-kind support.

What are your plans for distribution?
In our case, it would be totally pointless to release an author-driven film in a traditional distribution system for, let’s say, two weeks and expect that any moviegoers would simply find it. We plan an event-based distribution that will be tied to a discussion or another type of additional program. That’s the only way we can possibly draw some attention. We have to tackle each screening individually and hope that a lot of people visit several unique events rather than a few people scattered in traditional screenings. Right now, I’m personally involved in sorting out our distribution and promotion. I also edit our website. I’m involved with these issues every day, arranging each event and each screening. Although we have a team of people who work on these tasks, it’s still necessary to come up with possible screening locations, suggest a specific marketing strategy for each venue, visit each screening, shoot a promotion video, make a radio ad. It’s a lot of work but I think it’s meaningful. Today, film directors can’t afford to dismiss distribution as something that will just be done in the old conventional way. I thought I’d already be working on a new story around this time but I had to face the truth. If I don’t want our joint work to go to waste, I still have to try and get people to see it.  

You studied film directing at FAMU. In our context, people usually expect that documentary filmmakers come from the documentary film department.
I’m interested in documentary film as a form, and I also like being around documentary filmmakers. But I feel that a film directing graduate would find it easier to shoot a documentary film than the other way around. I don’t want to give up fiction films. Perhaps I can’t see a solid enough border between documentary and fiction. I don’t really care whether I’m making a fiction or a documentary film, it’s always a film, an audiovisual medium. And I’ll always use all available audiovisual devices to say what I want to say in that given form. 

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