“If you have a phone,” says Simon Tarr, “you can make a movie.”
“The good news,” Sandra Ruch adds, “is that everyone has a camera; the bad news is that not everybody is an artist.”
Tarr and Ruch drew from their rich experiences while speaking at Sawy Culture Wheel on Sunday at a lecture organized by the US Embassy in Cairo.
Making films since the early age of eight, Tarr recently received the Best Experimental Film award at the DaVinci Film Festival for his latest work “GIRI CHIT.”
Meanwhile, Ruch has co-founded the DocAngeles: The Los Angeles Documentary Film Festival which opens in 2011. Through her company Cinelixir, Ruch provides consultancy to documentary-makers as well as to the American Documentary Showcase, a program of the US Department of State, Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs.
Basics of documentary filmmaking
What is essential in documentary is having “a story that you must tell,” Ruch said to film students and aficionados.
The speakers also had pointers to those looking for funding. The Sundance Foundation and the Tribeca Film Institute offers grants to filmmakers internationally, while ITVS provides opportunities for co-production.
While documentaries may not be financially lucrative — “Michael Moore is an exception,” noted Ruch — their popularity is nevertheless on the rise.
There is no agreed upon definition of documentary film, Ruch told Daily News Egypt, except that they are “not fiction.”
Ruch found it easier to describe a “good” documentary: “You should have flashbacks about certain images” because they “resonated with the human soul.”
Tarr spoke to audiences about new practices in documentary-making. The emergence of “hybrid forms” meant that documentaries could employ other media, including animation. Israeli director Ari Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” is an example of a breakthrough documentary that was completely animated.
The content justified the medium in the case of “Waltz.” Animation made it possible for Folman to reconstruct his memories of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, while also overcoming the need to ask for permissions.
“We’re all savvy” said Tarr, addressing the issue of manipulation, and know that “anything onscreen has been manipulated in some way by somebody.”
Everything made is also borrowed, the lecturers said. Nina Paley’s piece, “All Work is Derivative,” was used to illustrate this point. Paley’s film was a reaction to the copyright claims she faced for the music used in her semi-autobiographical feature, “Sita Sings the Blues.”
Tarr and Ruch brought the classroom to the audience who were quizzed as to the technique used by Paley. “Stop motion,” answered one, about various illustrations of body-postures across cultures filmed in sequence to resemble a dance.
An audience member asked what differentiated Paley’s “documentary” from visual art. After stabbing at the question with “It’s not made up,” Tarr and Ruch agreed that labels were not as important. What is important, Ruch said, is for directors to “just make [the film], and make it your way.”
Another contemporary characteristic of filmmaking is recycling previous art; the fundamental practice of a “remix culture.” Primarily considered a musical phenomenon, the idea of ‘remixing’ is now also applied to images.
Tarr introduced the concept while pointing out that the neighboring rock band conducting sound-check was pounding at Neil Young’s “Rocking the Free World.”
A film titled “Remix” defined the phenomenon: “to combine or edit existing materials to make something new.” In a sense, Paley’s film “All Works are Derivative” carries the same message: everything is a remix.
A word of advice
The speakers provided advice and anecdotes to artists about selling their films. Before you make your film, Ruch said it was important to know whom you were making it for. This would help determine where you screen it.
“The first place to go to is festivals.” Festivals exist for every genre, and knowing where your target audience would attract potential distributors at these festivals.
Failing screening at a film fest, outreach is the best option, said Ruch. “Made in L.A” was an example of success through “grassroots screenings.” Outreach involves taking the film market to market, and selling copies after community screenings.
Success stories in documentary filmmaking and the secrets behind them were also shared. “Inconvenient Truth” grossed up to $50 million. Ruch said it had two things going for it: the name Al Gore attached to it, and backing from Paramount.
Consequently, director David Guggenheim received advance funding — a rare feat — for his current documentary criticizing American education, titled “Waiting for Superman.”
Lucy Walker’s “Countdown to Zero” was another example of a film with big bucks behind it. Walker who had also made a film about Amish community entitled “The Devil’s Playground,” and “Blind Sight” a film about blind people scaling Mount Everest — was backed by Participant Media to make “Countdown,” a film about nuclear proliferation.
In an animation workshop following the screening, Tarr proposed the theme HomePlus20 to his eight students: a 30-45 second animation imagining one’s home in 20 years time. The three-day workshop will result in realizing those ideas through animation.
Sandra Ruch and Simon Tarr will give another lecture on Thursday, 7 pm at SEMAT, 7th Elbergas St., Garden City.
Nina Paley’s piece, “All Work is Derivative,” illustrates that most artwork is borrowed.