Link to Part A: Documentary Project
Links to Part B: Blogs
Haven (2019) by Zhen Wang, Kelly Morales & Haiyin Li
As one of the fastest growing vegan cities in the world, Melbourne is home to some unlikely activists. Former Victoria Police Officer, Jan Saunders, was once in conflict with her career. Today, we meet her at her vegan B&B, where she encourages us to embrace a mindset of compassion.
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The aim of our documentary film was to show people that activists are not always who we expect them to be. In thinking this way, you too have the potential to be an activist for animal rights, or a health advocate, or a vocal environmentalist. I respect protests and marches about veganism because this kind of activity is what made me open my eyes and mind to it in the first place. When the vegan protests outside Flinders St Station happened, I was excited. My enthusiasm was not shared by the people who saw this protest and thought that all those involved were deserving of death threats, and other things of that sort. Giving a voice to Jan, someone who partook in this protest, is the same as amplifying the voices of those who people choose to ridicule without further consideration. My approach to everything I hear is now ‘listen first’ and then ‘judge’ based on scientific facts and gut feelings. Do not merely accept what the biased media presents to you. My documentary encourages this thinking. Place yourselves in the opposing side’s shoes and that is empathy.
To outline the successful elements of my film is a difficult process for me because I still have the mindset of never being proud of what I create. I think we struck gold with interviewing Jan because she is so comfortable speaking on camera. After talking with my peers in class, some of whom were not as lucky, I realise this is an advantage of our film. I think our interview audio is pretty good too!
Next time, I would use more suitable equipment – a lapel mic and a camera we are comfortable using. It’s also been interesting for me to relinquish total control and let Zhen have full access to our edit while I do not. While this meant I didn’t spend hours and hours of my days editing non-stop, and learning to accept things as they were, it also meant that I did not have as much influence over creative decisions as I would have preferred. There’s only so many times I can make suggestions in the edit room before I become a total nagger. That’s the test of team work. However, next time I would much prefer to keep the copy of the edit myself. In hindsight, we should have also considered the huge role that social media plays in activism in this modern age. It’s so obvious now that I think about it, because vegan documentaries usually feature a website link to encourage further independent research.
I’ve always considered veganism a topic that’s far more philosophical than just about food. But diet plays such an important role in this understanding, that I have learnt to consider the practicalities of adopting the lifestyle as well. In my perfect world, everybody is vegan by choice. The animals currently being bred for food, research or entertainment are homed in sanctuaries. The new animal populations roam wild or otherwise in harmony with human existence. It’s incredibly naive, but I have always felt that I am compromising by expecting the people around me to consider veganism. But it really is expecting too much. I met Jan and upon hearing her stories, and her struggles in feeling alienated from people who are not vegan, I realise that in my lifetime I will not be able to limit my meaningful interactions to solely people who share my perspectives — or at the very least, are willing to listen. That’s something I should have learnt a long time ago.
I loved the Food On Film studio so much because I got to make new friends and put my technical competency to the test. I was able to surpass the limits my social anxiety places on my ability to interact with others, and actually interviewed a stranger for longer than forty minutes (which I hadn’t done before). I’m glad I chose this studio, and give my thanks to Kim, my classmates, and Zhen & Helena for making it such a memorable one.
mele host (2019). Vegan Militants Block Melbourne Streets. Seven + Nine News. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axMTrm0isOs&t=1s [Accessed 25 May. 2019].
As it stands right now, I believe one of our most significant problems is the length of our film. After cutting an hour of dialogue down to ten minutes, it’s still too much for a micro-doc.
Our solution is slow-going. We continue to have conversations about whether there is something we can cut down further. We replace some interview scenes with silent shots. It’s gradually coming down to a more respectable time limit. I am putting weight on this issue because I think it’s about more than just having a time constraint. Having this time limit encourages us to use certain clips sparingly, and thus, more meaningfully.
I thought about mentioning our lack of B-roll, but that’s not accurate at all. We have plenty of it, but we are missing relevant B-roll. When Jan talks about her experiences as an activist, it would have been perfect to have access to footage of her activity, or even for us to film at a vegan march in Melbourne. Right now, this is virtually impossible. We acknowledge this and compromise with a second-tier clip of the endangered animals the vegan activists fight for. In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to make compromises. We would be able to wait for the next vegan march or protest, and film this within the time constraints placed on our work.
We went into this shoot with an open mind. The difference in documentary compared to feature films or fictional web series, is that I can’t go into the interview with a script. While I was content with almost everything we collected, I was disappointed with our footage quality, as a lot of our shots are either overexposed or too shaky to be used as b-roll.
My vision was very much a documentary that could be labelled beautiful. Aesthetic shots of scenery, unmoving symmetrical shots, playing with light and shadows, asymmetric framing to emphasise a subject, POV shots of animals, close-ups of food, movements in slow motion, etc. were all things I would have been excited to see. They are commonly seen throughout Chef’s Table (2015). In hindsight, I should have taken on the role of cinematography to capture shots varying in depth, distance and height. I should have taken advantage of the amount of space we were offered in a 20 acre farm. I believe Jan’s words are beautiful, but just that extra step to making our film aesthetically pleasing is what I hoped for.
In the face of needing more b-roll material, we then filmed at Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. In this space, we were offered the opportunity to roam at our own pace, film in a leisurely manner, and discuss what we could use. Thus, perhaps in a situation where we wouldn’t be constrained by a strict time limit, we would have achieved greater and more unique aesthetic quality at our first shoot.
Fox makes a valuable suggestion about documentaries which feature a lot of dialogue, text, or words in general. After a few minutes, our minds will register these words as a monotonous array of nothing valuable. Viewing audiences do not process spoken word or text as well as we might expect them to, or ultimately want them to.
Our interview was quite heavy in speech. Though we were making a 6 minute micro-doc, we thought it safest to record at least an hour of footage of just interview answers, since there was a slight chance we wouldn’t be able to return for another shoot. This was a helpful strategy that ensured we collected a rounded perspective of Jan’s opinions. However, it also meant there was much to cut. “As a general approach, select the information you think is vital and then eliminate half of it”, (p. 234).
So during the editing process, we cut everything that didn’t evoke any feeling in the three of us. Then, we played with what was left. However, we needed a fresh pair of eyes. People to process every aspect of mise en scene for the very first time. I showed smaller clips of these edits to my friends, who essentially became my test screen audience. I asked them questions, to discern what was necessary and unnecessary in painting Jan’s story. It can be overwhelming, from a viewer’s perspective, to try to make sense of everything when there is somebody new speaking, in a new location, with unfamiliar music playing. In the midst of this chaos, it is natural to lose some effect of the interviewer’s dialogue. However, we can minimise this by ensuring all unnecessary ‘filler’ dialogue is cut to maximise audience comprehension. When a viewer does not register the light-hearted manner Jan suddenly takes on when she talks proudly about her successful business, then how can we expect them to feel happy with her?
Fox also reminds us to “show, don’t tell”, (p. 234). We trust that our audience can interpret meaning from an unnarrated clip. While voice and text are useful, a manipulation of pace, rhythm, and tone is far more influential on a new set of eyes and ears. We utilised spaces and gaps, to further emphasise a point just made through the use of silence. I guess I would also make my own suggestion, that a dialogue-heavy documentary can be useful too. It is in this kind of environment, that silence becomes much more powerful and appreciated.
Fox, B 2017, ‘Shaping Reality: The Postproduction Process’ in, Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice, 2nd edn, Routledge, Milton, pp. 213-250.
Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc. (2008) is a big-picture look at America’s corporate farming industry, and the way humans, environments, and animals have been affected in the rise of its unsustainability.
The sounds in this particular clip are not uncommon, as are those heard in the rest of the documentary. We are offered a clean marriage of voice, music, and non-diegetic sounds. The interview audio is so crisp and unpolluted, that I imagine I’d be super excited to edit this film, due to the range of possibilities when it comes to combining different sounds together. I personally maintain, like Martin (2011) does, that clear sound is essential when you want people to listen to your message. As great as it can be to be immersed in a wild combination of ambient sound effects, I appreciate clarity of voice far more. The sounds in this clip have different intentions. The strong machine sounds emphasise the unnatural quality of this particular source of food production. The cow’s moos remind us that these are living beings. I cannot imagine the same effects had these clips been totally silent. I was conflicted by the use of the music track, however. A rock-type song in this kind of context? But now I understand that it has been used for its build-up of intensity, to emphasise the grandness of large-scale corporate agriculture, and its influence on our life choices.
The sound in my own documentary is a bit different. A lot more of the sound is natural ambience that we recorded on-site. As explored in the reading (Martin, 2011), these sounds are a replication of the experience of standing in the centre of Jan’s farm. They “[create] a sense of reality for the viewer, the sense of ‘being there’” (p. 1) themselves. Our interview has recorded both voice and the sounds of birds. At the shoot, I considered this noise to be a negative thing. But then I rethought the connotations of hearing content bird sounds — that is, life, vivacity, harmony in nature, etc. These were the themes we wanted to capture in our documentary anyway. We considered before shooting our interview that our sound should not be affected by the rain or wind we were standing in and were lucky enough to ensure this at the time. The sounds of other animals were added into the mix in post. They are present throughout the film, however, not enough to overpower the voice. The sound we are using in our final montage is by far, my favourite. It is a simple music score both light and airy. The first time I listened to it, it reminded me of taking a deep breath of fresh air at Jan’s farm. The second time I listened to it, it was edited to accompany quick images of nature. It conveyed an appreciation for these images, for the environment, and for animal life, that a rock song would not be able to achieve.
Food, Inc. (2008). [Documentary Film] Los Angeles, CA: Robert Kenner; Richard Pearce; Eric Schlosser; Melissa Robledo; William Pohlad.
Martin, J 2011, ‘Being there: the creative use of location and post-production sound in documentaries’ in de Jong, W, Knudsen, E, & Rothwell, J, Creative Documentary: Theory and Practice, 1st edn, Routledge, London, pp. 287-304.
Link to scene breakdown.
It took us driving from 8am to arrive at our shoot location in Smiths Gully, at 11am. It’s not convenient for us to drive there multiple times, to look around, block, and plan, like I usually would before a shoot. While spending time in this area before filming would have helped us accurately plan, and picture what our footage would look like and what our audio in this space would sound like when filming, this is a place of business and a home – before its title as our film location, and this needs to be respected. Therefore, we could only plan based on images and in large part, imagination. It was difficult to follow our shot list developed from this scene breakdown, and much easier to go with the flow and direction that our subject (and other guests) felt comfortable with. We’ll see in our edit, whether this spontaneity worked to our advantage or not.
In film, to make an argument without words requires the audience’s understanding that the filmmaker is saying something through the manipulation of what we see — that is, through editing, shot height, colour, pattern, timing, etc. It also requires a level of trust in the audience — that they are not ignorant and passive viewers, but are active enough to conjure meaning from the sequence of shots and come to a conclusion by themselves, without a voiceover, song lyrics, or commentary guiding them to it. Our Daily Bread (2005) on surface level might seem like it is letting an audience think whatever they want to think, but that decision to include ‘shot A’ and nothing else at that point in time means that there is still an intent to make the audience think about shot A for a particular reason. The audience’s response is not entirely subjective. The mise en scène is subtle in getting viewers to think about real life events and how their instincts and minds respond to what is on screen. That cognitive process is complex and different for every audience member, but it is important for us to pay attention to. For example, a central theme of our documentary is our subject’s kindness. We have heard stories about it through different people. Through silent b-roll of our subject interacting with her animals, caring for them, and painting her in a positive light, we encourage love and respect for animal life without needing to explicitly state this. Through the animals’ comfort in this exchange, we show this interaction and love is not an extreme in the Saunders household, it is the norm. Our timing and pace (cuts) will be slow and unhurried once we arrive at our subject’s home, for this serene feeling is how she makes everyone feel.
“The decision to use words minimally represents an attempt to match the film aesthetic to the footage, recognising that the audience’s focus on creating their own mental representations of the objects represented in the image is in itself the most meaningful goal.” (Hughes, 2013, p. 335).
The footage and sounds captured while making Our Daily Bread (2005) are mechanical and clinical, so the film’s entire aesthetic is thus mechanical and clinical to the point that it makes us uneasy. If our own footage of our subject’s farm home is capturing warmth, kindness, tranquility — then according to this statement we should aim to replicate these feelings through the film’s aesthetic. Ambient sounds that evoke these feelings in me are rain, forest sounds, and cats purring. Rather than commentary, these are the kinds of things we should capture and show to indirectly guide our audience to experience these feelings. I do agree that spectatorship and perception of our film is the most meaningful thing to focus on. However, I would suggest that the use of speech can also be powerful. While a basic instinct we have is to filter through long speech to be able to understand what is being said, words are how humans convey meaning. Our subject could tell us a story about a traumatic experience, or she could instead communicate her feelings about it through scars, artwork, etc. But why not a combination of both? In our film, we will find ourselves attempting a healthy combination of words with immense weight, and shooting images without words (movement, interaction, art, and still shots) to satisfy the understanding we now have that narration is useful, but not necessary to convey meaning or arguments.
Hughes, H 2013, ‘Arguments without words in Unser täglich Brot (Geyrhalter 2005)’, Continuum, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 347-364, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2013.772112
Unser täglich Brot 2005, motion picture, The ICA, Austria, directed by Nikolaus Geyrhalter.
Rabiger’s work on conducting documentary interviews was useful both before and after we conducted our own interviews during class. The idea of interviewing groups stood out for me, for the purpose of “putting [people] together who disagree” on a topic because both familiarity and “antipathy reduces inhibitions”, (Rabiger 2009, p. 464). When it came to our experience interviewing a group, I was surprised by the amount of comfort and energy in the space, exceeding most other on-the-spot interviews I’ve conducted in the past. The three students we questioned together were friends first, classmates second, and comically shared their opposing views on each other’s financial situations. Once we stated our purpose they were eager to participate. In a group interview in my own film, I would use more than one camera to capture reaction shots, accurately depicting the level of interviewee engagement, and also to aid continuity between jarring cuts. Our aim to “catalyze people’s thoughts and feelings” (p. 464) did not require much intervention on our part however. Emphasis on ‘much’ – there were instances where we had to remind the trio not to talk over each other, as the dialogue we’d pick up was almost indistinguishable through the yelling. I think we could overcome an issue like this in the future by initially explaining why talking over each other should be avoided, and offering a demonstration. The background noise in our interview and vox pops was distractingly loud. We can prevent having to correct this in the editing stage by using a quieter location.
My group has found someone we’re super keen to interview and most likely centre our entire documentary on (though we’re also remaining adaptable and open-minded to any unexpected events we can document). The lifestyle of our current interviewee is more than inspirational. It’s a step up from what even we would consider ourselves to be capable of. According to the reading, the metaphor or plot we’re considering depicting is “the one against the many” (p. 465) because this person challenges social norms in terms of diet, career, relationships, and connectedness to the planet. Though we are still in the research stage, from what we have learned about her, the “antagonist” (p. 465) of this story is the collective, oppressive, force of the meat, dairy and egg, and big pharma industries, and societal expectations as a whole. How our interviewee has responded to these challenges is our focus for now.
In terms of camera placement when we interview, we will direct the interviewee to look on-axis towards the camera. The interviewer will sit below the camera lens. The reading mentions that “the interviewer’s role [is] to ask questions the audience would ask if it could” (p. 468), and we have this responsibility to conjure honest answers from our interviewee. Because sitting down and watching a film is generally a “passive” (p. 470) experience, when the person interviewed talks to the camera lens, through it, and to the audience, the audience will feel expected to respond — and we definitely want to evoke a response.
Rabiger, M 2009, ‘Conducting and Shooting Interviews’, in Directing the Documentary, 5th edn, Taylor & Francis Group, New York, USA, pp. 462-482.