Jujube/methods-session-2

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Methods_lens-based#Session_Two

An interview about the project: Ambacht

What are you making?

I am making a documentary of an artist couple in the south of Rotterdam, the owners of a cafe named Koffie & Ambacht. (Ambacht means craftsmanship in Dutch.) Gilbert is an artist/collector. Lies is furniture restorer and chef of the cafe. After meeting him for the first time, I was intrigued by Gilbert’s character and envisioned a kind of portrait video of him. But as I got to know the couple, I decided to make the portrait of the two of them and the key spaces in their lives — namely, the cafe and their studio on the first floor of their house across the street.

One artistic experimentation in the documentary is to combine continuous audio footage over still portraiture from the video footage. During our interview, I had the camera running for 20 minutes in one spot and 20 minutes in another. I am now in the process of selecting frames from the interview and freeze them in different lengths to see how certain moments can be emphasized. It’s an experimentation in the aesthetics of the documentary and how it might support the narrative.

Why are you making it?

Interesting people appeal to me. I first met Gilbert on a bike tour around art spaces in Rotterdam. He told us that “you need anger to do this” and that “I hate the word jazz” before proceeding to play a dissonant record to the crowd. I was particularly curious about his comments on Rotterdam South and his attitude towards music and art.

I thought I could learn a thing or two (without being overly cynical) about the place I had just moved to through the opinionated, if not rebellious, take on the arts in Rotterdam and the Netherlands. It's also the first substantial movie I am creating. Beyond the topic, I am learn about the forms and procedures of filmmaking, which are important new knowledge to me.

The shoot happened over two days. One was mostly on the environment of and a concert in the cafe. The other was a sit-down interview, in which I asked them about their backgrounds, changes in life and identities. Gilbert and Lies responded strongly to culture and people around them and articulate their (dis)connections to these with their idiosyncrasies.

I started referring to the project as a documentary because it became clear to me that I was trying to portray these people in an honest way. And since they are such characters a narrative will probably develop through the editing.

Does this relate to other things you have done?

This documentary relates to my fundamental interest in people. This interest intensified during my time in NYC as a playwright. I started writing plays in more or less the same way: by having two voices in my head talk to each other. That was how I created stories about human nature. I also took photos of people on the subway for a year in NYC, all the while imaging stories behind each individuals in those images.

Another, more implicit framework for this work dates back to my days as a (human) geography student. The literatures of cultural geography have left an imprint on me where I contemplated much about the individuals and interactions that defined a unique place (as opposed to space or landscape). The relationships a person has to their dwellings, work/practice and other people in their lives have continued to amaze me, both intellectually and emotionally.

A lot of my works are seeded from serendipity, rooted in the daily moments. Like some of my past projects, I'm also using this one as a self-reflective exercise to learn about myself from the (new) people in a (new) place in which I find myself. I am shaping more of that into my methodology.

How is it different to other things you have done?

The medium of film (and within it, documentary), the workflow of the production and the technicality of operating a camera and monitoring audio are all new to me. For this project, I learned from scratch how to produce a video shoot, a process as challenging as it was fulfilling. Even though I scripted the questions, I improvised much of the interview and left the decision about narrative to the editing.

What are the most significant choices have you made recently?

I made a choice to let go. I started with a directorial instinct — for example, I pictured a portrait of Gilbert alone until I realized that the dynamics/equanimity of the couple was far more honest and important to what I wanted to show. I also scripted questions and planned certain scenes. However, once we were on site, I gave a lot of space to my subjects and the environment. In fact, they became inspirations for new directions that I did not come up with rather than mere subjects. The workflow resembled more the relationship between the director and the actors than that between a designer and the typography.

Another choice I made was to recruit help. At first I wanted to do everything on my own, but after talking to a mentor, I realized my inexperience in film production had given me a wrong estimation of the scope of the project. I ended up having someone monitor the audio, which proved to be more than worthwhile. What I am learning is that to make a moving image like this requires more than one person, and the communication and compromise that come with.

Is filmmaking something you want to continue pursuing?

I am not sure if I will continue making film at this point. It will become clearer to me after the editing. I don’t consider myself a filmmaker right now but I do feel something significant present. If the end result matches what I have envisioned, I might pursue this path further.

Post-project followup

I finished making the film in December 2018. To summarise the timeline: I coordinated 2 days of shooting in October (consisting of 1 full day of shooting b-roll + concert and another full day of interview, plus some meet-and-greet time). I spent two and a half weeks on editing in November and December. (In between those months I worked on other projects and did not do much about this project.)

I ended up using 25 percent or less of the footage, which, I was told, was normal for documentary. The resulting film was around 15 minutes. The narrative I found in the footage did correspond somehow with my intention -- emphasising the relationship between the couple in the cafe. I showed the film in a group critique and to Barend and got valuable feedback.

Positive:

  • the theme is clear (love)
  • 15 did not feel that long; subject was actually interesting
  • some transitions are good

To be improved:

  • there's a lot of "talking" -- what can I do to show more?
  • the image is not focused/shot with an aperture too big for the purpose
  • opening scenes (of cafe setup) do not show enough (and the quality of the images/shots are not great)
  • opening soundtrack is usually what people hear when a bar closes (rather than opening)

In the making process I realised I could only be invested in editing for a certain period of time. Once the trepidation of the new interface (Adobe Premier, in this case) faded, I was able to identify the usefulness of the footage and construct the narrative with the tool. This part was fine. What was difficult was that once I found the structure and had done what I considered "finessing with it," I could not stay with the footage any longer. Or it would frustrate me. I realised later this was a sign that I did not have enough footage to "push" the story to the direction. When I staged the interview I asked questions I thought would elicit a personal response, but in the end it wasn't the answers that mattered. The most interesting material was what happened in between the shots (such as when the couple teased each other).

In an earlier methods class, I was asked if filmmaking would be something I wanted to continue pursuing. My answer to that is: yes, and with increasing craft.

Immediately after the project I started the project for the EYE research lab, the result of which was a 3-minute-and-a-half short film. I did more preparations in terms of camera work for that movie and was able to produce images of better quality (in order to convey the message through aesthetics). This short film was based on a script and a filming process responsive to the residency site. I was able to do many takes of the same subject/scene and experiment with different combinations. There was more repetition in the process, unlike the documentary.

How can I produce with a sureness towards the camera and ease with subject, in documentary settings or not? Practice (holding the camera, tripod, talking with the subject) seems to be a constant.