Different cultures = different challenges for documentary filmmakers
While documentary making is a difficult endeavour in any environment, filmmakers also face challenges that are unique to the culture and country in which they work. OnMedia’s Lesley Branagan caught up with three directors from different parts of the globe at the recent DOK Leipzig international film festival, where they sat together and compared their experiences, story inspirations and approaches.
Ahmed Nour from Egypt has made numerous independent films. Waves (Moug), his first feature-length documentary film, is about the Egyptian city of Suez after the Arab Spring.
What are the main challenges you face in your filmmaking?
Ahmed: Of course, everybody would say funding, financing and distribution. The other thing I face in Egypt is I’m not allowed to go on the street and film without permission. And to get permission, you have to pay money and have police accept and permit you to shoot, which is a very complicated process. We do go without permission and shoot, but it means you cannot use big equipment or a big crew, so then your style is affected. This is a big problem. Everything is a challenge – pre-production, editing, writing. I think our job is full of challenges all the time.
Daniel: I agree. It’s important to recognise that documentary filmmaking is an endurance sport. It’s about stamina and patience more than anything else. I think there’s a tendency today, with the hipster generation, to think that going out and making a film is just the glamorous stage of running around with a camera and shooting cool shit. But the main challenge is about getting to the heart of your story and that takes patience. I shot for almost five years. In shooting in Jakarta, I didn’t have the obstacles that Ahmed faced in Egypt – I didn’t need a permit.
Ines: In my film Living Monument, I made close-ups of people talking about the Srebrenica genocide. It was very hard to get them to open up. Some people had learned how to talk because they are members of a concentration camp association and they are travelling together telling the same story – they are in front of the camera: “blah blah blah” – no emotion, nothing! One woman was talking about raping like going to the market – it’s not the story I want to tell. I only accepted people who don’t have this kind of travelling story of the genocide. They said they wanted me to blur their face. I said, “no”, that I want emotion on their face, and they slowly, slowly open and then they make a story about rape in the war that is so hard to listen to, and makes you cry… This is what you face in the process of filmmaking – you have to know what you want from the film.
What sort of stories inspire you to make films?
Ines: In Bosnia you have so many stories that intrigue an auteur. I want to make stories that I understand and feel as my story. One is about genocide in Bosnia. The reality in Bosnia is so strong, I have an inner force to make this kind of story.
Daniel: I’m not interested in finding totally exceptional people or overachievers. I look for ordinary people who somehow constitute a microcosm of a bigger issue. I tried to make a portrait of Indonesia during this interesting time of political transition from dictatorship to democracy, and rather than treating that issue on the surface as a political issue, I went into an intimate story of three marginalised ordinary bus musicians, and trusted them and their story to be extraordinary in some way. And the advantage of focusing on the personal is that you have personal drama unfold that really helps the story telling.
Ahmed: I like subjects that give me the ability to create layers. I don’t like classic films where you follow a subject or event and document it. This is not my style. I like to work on creating mood. What should be extraordinary is how to tell the story. I don’t like exceptional heroes.
Where do you sell films? What are your hopes for the future of your film?
Daniel: Of course, I hope to sell Jalanan and make some of the investment back. What’s been unique is the resonance within Indonesia. Jalanan became the first documentary film to go into commercial theatres in the country. That was an amazing experience, to have created a story locally that meant something to Indonesians. We make our stories to be enjoyed for a wider audience. Documentaries used to be dry, boring, and now you’re expected to have a really good story to tell – there’s an appetite for it. The challenge and responsibility for us is to create engaging films.
Ahmed: I definitely agree. In Egypt you don’t have a chance to put your film in cinema, and your film is not for TV, so you’re in the middle – you have nowhere to go. I hope first to have the chance to distribute Waves in cinema theatres in Egypt and in Europe if possible, and to broadcast to a wider audience. This is why we make films. There should be some change in this strategy of TV channels, stereotyping audiences and thinking people won’t like certain films.
Ines: In Bosnia, we don’t have a market for documentaries. I make short documentaries, so TV stations don’t want to show them because they don’t fit the 55-minute slot. Also the length is not right for cinema. So, these films are lost for the audience. As an auteur, I make films in the duration that’s best for the topic. My film Day on the Drina was [about searching for the remains of Bosnian war victims in an artificial lake]. The digging in the mud was planned to last for two months. After one day [of filming], they said you cannot come back because you are danger for the forensic team. I made only a 17-minute film because I only had material from one day. Then this film won prizes and was well accepted at festivals. So I don’t want to be a slave of the slots on TV or cinemas. Festivals are the main channel for this kind of film.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.