Tag Archives: documentary filmmaking

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.

Documentary Filmmaking in Oaxaca: Before We Begin

The essential part of creating an extraordinary learning experience is to have everything confirmed in advance.  We still had some loose ends which we discovered on Saturday, the morning after our arrival.  The language and cultural differences created a challenge that even I, a seasoned Teotitlan traveler, discovered.  Mikel had been trying to reach Uriel to confirm his participation in the workshop, though I had secured Uriel’s agreement several weeks ago — or so I thought.  Cell phone service is intermittent here and we can only get a signal standing on the roof of Las Granadas, which means that calls coming in to us don’t always connect since we are downstairs on the garden level.  Then, there is the reliability of Internet usage and whether people check their email as frequently here as we do back in the States.  So, our students were arriving and gathering that evening and we needed to connect with Uriel to know he was confirmed with time for the location scout and the filming the next day.

We climbed into the old blue camioneta (pick up truck), me driving, Erica riding shotgun, Mikel standing on the flatbed, and drove down Ave. Benito Juarez to the home of Porfirio, Uriel’s uncle, where we are to meet Uriel.  It is an extended family compound where sons, daughters, their husbands, wives, and children work.  Uriel is a 23 year old weaver who is part of the family system of production.  His uncle is president of the church committee this year and a very distinguished member of the community.  He is also Eric’s uncle, brother of Eric’s mother, Dolores.  The family systems are closely connected and complex.

We all pull up chairs in the rug room and settle in to the connecting conversations that in Zapotec family life can go on for hours.  How are you?  How is your husband?  Are you well?  It is a back and forth between all who sit, a ritual that we don’t take time for in the U.S.  We are in a hurry.  The students are arriving in an hour and a half, but we cannot rush this.  We are guests in the village and must learn to adapt to the cultural norms of our hosts.  The conversation is in Spanish and I do not claim to be fluent.  I grasp concepts and words and miss a lot and translate some.  But, I do hear that Uriel has not gotten permission from the group leader for the Dance of the Feather to allow him to be in our documentary film and this catches me by surprise.  I assumed that when I confirmed with him in December, we were all set to go — that was two months ago.  We spend the next 40 minutes talking about what has to be done to get the permission, and learn more about Zapotec life in Teotitlan in the process.

The decision making of the group is essential to village cohesion and tranquility.  This is place where no single individual decides for others.  There is group consensus with a lot of discussion around the pros and cons of doing something, and this process for permission would be no different.  There are nine men who are members of the Dance of the Feather group.  Together, they will discuss whether is is okay for their cultural history and traditional dance can be filmed, even as a student learning experience.  So, our next step is to climb back into the truck and go visit the Moctezuma, the lead dancer who originaly assembled the group three years ago, going to the Temple to ask the Committee for the honor and priviledge of being named the official dancers to represent the village.  As tribute, similar to the ancient pre-Columbian practices, they brought mezcal, beer, and ceremonial bread, as an offering of their sincerity.

There are hand-hewn wooden benches under the palapa of the Moctezuma’s adobe house.  We take a seat and begin the explanation of the project again, and ask permission.  I am trying very hard to explain the scope of the week ahead of us:  six people learning how to make a documentary film, teams of two, three subject areas, one of them the Dance of the Feather.  You must write us a proposal and come to our meeting tonight at 6 pm to present it to the committee chair of the group, then the group will talk about it and let you know in a day or two.  I explain that it is important that we know in the evening because if we don’t get permission, we’ll have to shift and do something else.  He says, it can’t be done any other way, but it is important that we show up at 6 p.m. So, that is what we do.

Mikel and I pick Uriel up at 6 and go three houses down from Porfirio’s to the home of Uncle Pedro, who it turns out is the group leader and I have met him before.  He is part of the family!  We stumble along in our Spanish to explain and present the letter I have written in English and presented.  They take notes.  We are careful to be as clear as possible.  I can do pretty well in the present tense, but my anxiety in the moment creates a hilarious jumble of words that is very entertaining to the people across the table!  We hear that the Dance of the Feather is sacred.  It is only danced at official town celebrations.  To create a rehearsal in full dress costume would be a special request.  We make a promise to use the video for educational purposes only and not for any commercial use.  There is a lot of sensitivity in this village about gringos making money from the labor, traditions, and culture of this people.  Exploitation takes many forms.

I invite the entire group to the celebratory final screening of the video on Thursday night in anticipation of YES.  Will there be mezcal, the group leader asks.  Of course, I say.  The best from Chichicapan!  We all laugh.  Later, we get the call that four dancers will participate.  We are ecstatic, relieved and good to go!