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Sundance/Slamdance Docs: Into the Life of the Others (Part 1)

February 1, 2017 | By
The Good Postman (2016)

The Good Postman (2016)

Sundance and her little sister, Slamdance bring together some of the best independent documentary filmmakers from around the globe. Despite language and cultural differences, the international filmmakers all wanted to disappear into the background so that they could observe people going about their daily routines, immersing the viewer into the diverse lives of the people populating these unfamiliar worlds.

The Good Postman (Sundance) takes us to a dying village on the border of Bulgaria and Turkey, a migration route for refugees fleeing war in Syria. The local postman seeks support from sympathetic elders in his bid to become mayor in order to enact his plan to revitalize the community by resettling young emigrant families in their town.

Three years ago, when he first became inspired by a news story about old ladies welcoming refugees with sweets, director Tonislav Hristov did not realize how timely the story would become, “It was a hard time convincing the financiers because there were too many refugee films out. They were not sure they wanted to support another one. At the end of the day it is a very current issue.”

Much like other countries, Bulgaria was experiencing a right-wing backlash against refugees. As Hristov looked into the story, he made contacts in the village through a university friend whose father was born in the village. The first person he was introduced to was the postman who knew everyone. Introductions to the elderly ladies followed and the director discovered how the women connected with the plight of the current refugees because of their own past history during World War II.

Before filming, the director spent six months visiting, getting to know the stories, developing trust with the villagers. Hristov learned of the upcoming election for mayor, slowly becoming more interested in the postman and his ideas to save the village. He was able to use the conflict of the election as a finite timeframe for the film.

Because of all the preparation, Hristov did not need to spend a long time shooting the film. As his third collaboration with director of photography, Orlin Ruevski, the D.P. pretty much knew the way the director liked to shoot. Their main discussions centered on how Hristov wanted the film to look, an area that was very important to him. To develop a strong sense of place and capture the visual landscape of the border town, they decided to use wide shots and shoot in a 2:35 aspect ratio.

“In the process, I was taking photos of homes and places. We went through those photos and talked what, where, and how to approach the shoot. So we knew very well before we started shooting,” explained Hristov. “For a documentary, I used a bigger crew. We used this big camera and cinema lenses. We had assistants, a focus puller and a light person.”

Hristov did not know how villagers would react to the ideas that the postman was putting forward about re-populating the town with refugees. The director concentrated upon filming the reactions, “For me it was most important to catch people’s reactions, than to the question itself.” He could use the questions as voice over, or if needed, go back and film the questions.

Diaz Ramona

Diaz Ramona

Motherhood (Sundance) takes place in the Philippines at the world’s busiest maternity hospital, which averages 60 deliveries a day, and as many as 100 deliveries in a 24-hour period. As the immersive film continued, the personal stories of several of the women took shape.

As often happens in filming a documentary, the story and characters revealed themselves in their own time. Director Ramona Diaz started out with a different idea than what evolved. She had intended to make a film about access to reproductive health in the Philippines, but when she visited the Jose Fabella Hospital she changed her plans.

“The images I saw at the hospital – the nurses who did their best to tame the noisy chaos of Emergency Room arrivals, the crowded corridors, the premature births and cramped recovery rooms with double occupancy of single beds – gripped me and wouldn’t let go,” said Diaz.

Except for the neo-natal intensive care unit, the production gained access to all areas of the hospital. The director “hung out” for some time in advance of production to get to know the staff and figure out “how the place ran,” so she could “hit the ground running” once the crew arrived. In order to follow specific patients during stays that averaged 3 or 4 weeks, filming was scheduled for about a month. The director could not choose who to follow ahead of time because patients were in the hospital for short time periods, but she was experienced enough to know that stories would “pop out while we were there.”

Diaz decided on a cinéma vérité approach to capture daily routines. Becoming a part of the ebb and flow of the activity, so that the presence of the crew was so regular they go unnoticed, the camera became a silent character as the intimate narratives emerged.

Because of the sensitive situations they would encounter with the patients, Diaz wanted a female cinematographer. Nadia Hallgren had the reputation as a strong vérité, observational shooter. Diaz also knew the director of photography had to be physically strong, a necessity for the long hours of the grueling shoot. Also, since Hallgren did not understand the language, Diaz had to guide her on what to shoot. To do that Diaz had to listen intently and stay involved in the unfolding events.

Motherland (2017)

Motherland (2017)

“I was doing sound. I told her to follow my boom. Whatever I moved on, she would move on too. That was my way of directing,” explained Diaz. “And I would very quickly whisper to her, ‘This is what’s happening. This woman is missing her baby, so we have to follow this.’ As a director in a vérité situation, you’ve got to be right there in the trenches. I am following 2 or 3 patients. Things are happening to them simultaneously. I am making choices on-the-fly because I think something is going to happen here. I call it ‘zen filmmaking’ because you really have to be in the moment.”

Machines (Sundance) draws us into a foreign world: the heart of a textile factory in Gujarat, India, revealing the backbreaking toil and monotonous drudgery that sustains the hard-pressed laborers who come great distances to secure these jobs. Director Rahul Jain followed migrant workers through the bowels of the massive structure: a labyrinth of machines, chemical vats and bolts of brightly colored cloth. The unregulated industrialization was strangely reminiscent of what history tells us working conditions were like in early 20th century America, before child labor was banned and 8-hour working days were established.   

Jain was affected by the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh. “A film is a naked director. You’re kind of looking at somebody,” He continued, “From my experience, it is a combination curiosities I’ve harbored throughout my life.”

Although various workers were interviewed, there was no story arc for any character. While Jain wanted to evoke a strong sense of place, he did not want to show the experience of one person; he wanted “to liquidate or isolate the experience of everyone who was there.” The director needed to move in “broad strokes” to convey this experience. To engage all senses and make the audience really be there in the factory, Jain admitted that if he were allowed to bring vats of ammonia into the movie theater, he would.

Jain worked with cinematographer Rodrigo Trejo Villanueva, who won Sundance’s Special Jury Award for Best Cinematography for Machines. The director was attempting to understand a reality that was very different from the one that he, or the audience, was in, trying to capture the “beads of space time” that he would eventually “put in a necklace” that became the film. 

“I wanted to let the images and the sensorial nature of the film to speak for itself,” claimed Jain. “I did establish a very intimate and almost telepathic relationship with Rodrigo in terms of what we were doing.”

Machines (2017)

Machines (2017)

In prepping for the shoot, they addressed philosophical and practical concerns. The filmmakers, walked around the factory for two months to understand what they had to shoot. Filming took place over six months divided into three shifts of two months each, staying in the factory 24/7, living among the workers, sharing their wretched experiences.

“It was quite difficult on our spirits. It heavily weighed on us at the end of the whole turmoil,” revealed Jain. But the crew was not fully subjected to the hardships that the laborers endured. “We had the option to leave. I was in a very privileged and powerful position in comparison to my subjects.”

The director does not believe reality can be written, so he did not write a script. He let curiosity guide him, in an accidental, “stumbling upon way.” Aware of the intrusive nature of filmmaking, establishing intimacy with the workers was paramount, a process that took time. The team made plans every day about what they wanted to achieve, but with the express purpose of getting lost in the moment, making the shoot very fluid.

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