Friday, February 20, 2009

Being young. With a camera, a recording studio and an editing suite.

Back in 2003, when I wanted to be a filmmaker more than anything else (well... other than a writer of fiction, a pianist and a poet), I sent in an application to the premier filmmaking school in India. I breezed through the entrance exam, mainly because it didn't take any preparation. It was a series of creatively challenging questions, exercises of the imagination, and I had a great time doing it. The interview, however, was another story. The panel of faculty sitting across the table from me - the women with their kohl-lined eyes and chunky silver/stone/glass jewellery, and the men in their cotton kurtas, smoking their cigarettes - only had one question for me: how many films have you made so far? I, with my eager portfolio of scripts and stories, wanted to explain to them that even if I seemed like I was green behind the ears, I was confident that I would make a good enough filmmaker. But I saw that it wouldn't matter - over the one week that I had spent at the institute prior to the interview, I had taken a good look at the facilities and realised how inexperienced I was, and how lost I would be if I was, say, thrown into an editing suite and asked to edit a strip of film. So I quietly replied, none. They hardly had any questions for me after that, and as a confident twenty-year-old who believed she could conquer the world, I felt more than a little cheated. Six years down, after having acquired some of the skills it takes to create film or video, and having worked in production intermittently, I see the fairness of the interview. I would have been completely and utterly lost if I'd gone there without any experience at all.

Last week, however, I attended a showcase of short films by young filmmakers, an experience very heartening in its demonstration of how things are different. I am wary of sounding like a finger-wagging old woman with folds in her skin by saying that things have changed since the time I was a young punk with zero skills or experience; just the passion for making films bursting through the veins under my skin. It could be that, of course, or perhaps it's just that it works differently in the USA, and has worked like this for a while here. Maybe it's a combination of both, I don't quite know for sure. What I do know is that all these young filmmakers (between 15 and 21 years) brimmed with the sort of confidence that comes not just from blind faith in one's own ability, but from the experience of having seen it in practice.

The young filmmakers' showcase was a part of the Talking Pictures Festival, organised by Percolator Films, from May 1-3. Percolator Films is behind the decade old Reeltime cinema and discussion series, and brought to Evanston (IL) its first ever film festival this year. The young filmmakers shorts (hosted by Boocoo Cafe) featured a number of local filmmakers, so there was the opportunity to interact with them after the screening.

My first observation on the shorts I saw was that there was a significant difference between narrative and technical quality. If I was really an unbiased judge here, I would use the word 'sophomoric' to describe most of the narratives, but having been there myself, I am wont to be more generous in my criticism. Not only were most of the plots and narratives based on subjects that you tend to lose interest in as you get older, but what struck me was that they were typically the sort of things that most people make their first few films on, simply because they're still overwhelmed and blown away by the possibilities of the medium. So ghosts, or possible ghosts, dominated the array of plots. Also featured was death, and of course, the ubiquitous, ever-predictable 'twist-ending'. (It took me back to one of my first video exercises, a three-minute conversation piece revolving around a political assassination, at the end of which was what I then believed to be a stunningly shocking revelation!) The technical quality, on the other hand, was quite outstanding. Take, for instance, The Intruder, by Mikael Kreuzriegler. It's set around the persistent denial of sudden and unexpected death, a plot that's been done to - well - death, in the creepiest, scariest, cheesiest ways possible. The quality of this film, however, was stunning. Mis-en-scene and sound were spot on, but these are among the first things you master as a young filmmaker. What surprised me was the camerawork, and specifically, camera movement that had clearly been scripted for editing. In terms of visual and aural quality, The Intruder was no less than a regular budget Hollywood film.

Then there was the animated short Marshy by Joe Felix, an interesting 'tragedy' of a marshmallow. As for the narrative of Marshy, it almost ended before it really began, but again, the quality of animation was very high. My favourite short of the evening, though, was Token Hunchback by Tim Reckart. This is an animated short, on the life of a hunchback who works as an extra in films. For me, this was the one film that scored highly on all criteria: the animation was very well done, and the narration was funny, quirky, poignant and insightful. Unfortunately, Tim Reckart wasn't present for the post screening discussion.

What actually got me thinking about the exposure and access that young people have to the media and media equipment was The Corner, by Maya-Rose Dinerstein. The Corner is a simple film in both plot and execution. It isn't a great film by any definition, just a really neat video exercise. What is noteworthy is that Dinerstein is 15 years old, and claims to have had no training in film, video or photography, other than being guided by her father (who is a professional photographer or cinematographer, if I'm not mistaken). This information, put together with the fact that Dinerstein's film, though unremarkable in every other respect, was technically sound, held me in thrall. At the post-screening discussion, when she spoke about the 180-degree rule, it was music to my ears. When I first started working with video, this was the toughest thing to master for most of my cohort. Even when I teach, I find that explaining this rule to students is the toughest part. I think, however, that it has less to do with instruction and more with having free access to equipment, to be able to spend hours with it, experimenting and learning by trial and error. (Incidentally, what follows from this is my reason for believing that to be a good film/media theorist, you've got to have worked with the medium at some point. But I won't go into that now. That's a discussion for another time.) Watching these young filmmakers talk about their craft with confidence made the event really heartening.

My first video camera was given to me as a gift when I was 17 or 18, and I promptly used it to shoot about 90 minutes of footage around a 16th century fort in Hyderabad, India. I was keen on having that edited, and took it to a commercial editor in one of the cheaper studios in the city. As he sat there in the cold, white studio, looking at the rushes, and I sat next to him, completely overwhelmed by the the interface of AVID, he started making conversation.
"Who shot this video?"
"I did."
"Hmm. Is it for a school project of some kind?"
"No, I'm doing it because I'm interested, that's all. And I'm in college."
"Hmm... what exactly are you interested in?"
"Filmmaking. Well, I haven't really decided what aspect I want to take up, but yeah, I'm interested in production."
"Well, it's probably a passing fancy. In any case, you'd be better off thinking about more practical career options."

At the time, I was able to brush this off because of the brazen lack of self-doubt that goes with being young. But it helped that I had plenty of encouragement from everywhere else. As for now, I can tell you that there are few things that give me as much pleasure and satisfaction as going through the entire process of production. An all-nighter at an editing suite, for instance, jogging back and forth through hours of footage, splicing and arranging and rearranging and placing things together in a coherent AV segment.

I wish I had started when I was 15.

P.S.: For anyone interested, this is a good, short instructional video on the 180-degree rule:

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