Oaxaca Documentary Filmmaking: The Unpredictable

Stuff happens.  Erica wrote this on the classroom whiteboard about a day into our filmmaking workshop when the lights in our section of the village went out early in the evening of Day Two.  We didn’t erase it until the final day.  We finished the class discussion by candlelight that Josefina and Magda brought to our table — the tall velas from the altar room typically used for ritual life illuminated our classroom.  It was not easy to read the handout material.  This was the beginning of our five day adventure starting on January 31 to February 6, delving into the creative and technical challenges of making a documentary film.  Most of us were novices.  We imagined that we would point and shoot a video camera, do an interview, take some background shots and b-roll, slice and dice to edit (I confess I had no idea about the complexity of this), and put a 5 minute film together complete with audio, visual, title page, credits, and subtitles.  Hah!   We had our practice shoot.  Eric and I diddled around at 6:30 am on the third morning practicing and spent 20 minutes of our allotted 60 minute DV tape shooting clouds and sunrise trying to keep our hands steady so we didn’t get shaky film.  Then, we realized, yikes, we only had 40 minutes left to complete the interview and fill in with whatever b-roll we might need later to complete the story.

Stay focused, we were reminded.  Zero in on your story.  Go for the detail.  You can’t tell a story about the history of weaving in five minutes, but you can tell a story about what it means to be a master weaver, our instructors reminded us.  There are nine dancers who perform the Dance of the Feather.  An interview with one dancer who tells us what performing this dance means to him can convey the sentiments of the group.  The experience of an expatriate American woman living alongside a Zapotec family and how they have formed close bonds is universal among neighbors and friends the world over, and unique for this small village just 17 km outside of Oaxaca city.  There were three teams of two paired together for the week to create the story, develop the scenes, serve as each other’s crew, structure and conduct the interviews, shooting b-roll, selecting music, and edit.  The learning was intense and vertical.

Language and cultural differences challenged and rewarded us.  On Day Five, just two hours before our films are to debut at the premiere screening and fiesta, just as we had wrapped up the final editing and were getting ready to burn to DVD, the electricity went out.  We scrambled.  Mikel said, folks, this is what happens in “real life” on every shoot I’ve been on.  There’s always technical glitches and we learn to shift, adapt, scramble and figure it out.  A group of us climbed in the back of the blue pick-up truck, three computers, blank disks, and power strip in hand, me driving four on the floor, and we head to the other side of town to Eric’s house where we plug in.  Thirty-minutes before the guests are set to arrive at Las Granadas we get a call that the power has come back on.  It’s handy to have Telcel Mexican cell phones!  We have just one more tape to burn and we’re outta there.  At 7:50 p.m. we arrive back at our home base and do a test drive of the final films just as the 30 guests — village and Oaxaca friends and the people featured in our films begin to arrive.

To participate in a documentary filmmaking workshop in Teotitlan del Valle requires a degree of adventure and courage.  The process is fast moving, unpredictable and surprising.  We were suprised at what we discovered and learned about our subjects, our own competencies, and the challenges of working in a foreign country adapting to another culture.  Some of our films are incomplete.  We made choices.  For one team, there was enough time to create subtitles but not enough to write the opening title page and credits.  Another sacrificed subtitles for the title page and credits.  Editing was rough and ready.

Unpredictable.  But satisfying.

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