SURVIVING THE DIGITAL LEARNING CURVE

Posted: December 14, 2008 in Documentary films
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I studied film making at Bristol University in England back in 1968. It was a period of time when every young person wanted to be making films – just as they do now – but we did not have the digital technology prevalent today. So I learned to use a 16mm Arriflex camera and a Beaulieu, and learned to edit sound on the cutting table, with a razor and tape! In 1972, when I was 26 years old and living in Hamburg, Germany, I made a short experimental film called PowerPlay which was screened for the public in Hamburg. This 16mm black-and-white film uses the amazing hand movements of Czechoslovakian puppeteer Dragan Todorovic to create an allegorical visual poem illustrating the relationship of suppressor to suppressed, and was inspired by the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Russians in 1968.

After that, I produced and directed a feature-length documentary in a small village near Lake Zwai in Ethiopia, which was broadcast on German TV in 1974. We used an Arriflex so old that it was literally held together with hairpins. The making of that film would have made a fascinating little documentary in itself, as one catastrophe followed another. Our VW bus broke down, for example, and Roby, the sound guy, took it back to Adis Ababa for repairs. After three days, there was no sight or sound of him so Michael, the camera man, decided to try and find out what had happened. Remember – we were in deep bush and had no cell phones in those days. So Michael – who had never ridden a horse before in his life – borrowed the chief’s horse, took along a bottle of gin, and set off into the sunset. Now I was left alone with nothing to do but play with the kids and wait for Michael and Roby to return. After three days of waiting, I’d had enough. So I borrowed the chief’s second best horse, and off I went, headed for the main road about 10 miles away. Half way there, the horse just stopped and refused to go any further. I dismounted, took the rope around its neck over my shoulder and pulled that bloody horse all the way to the main road. There was a little hotel there and on the veranda sat Michael and Roby, drinking beer. Ah yes – the joys of being a film producer with no budget! Anyway – I joined them, had an ice-cold coke, and we continued with the filming.

Over the years, I’ve made several films, including the short called SURRENDER, which was broadcast on the Independent Film Channel for three years. That was shot by Samuel Henriquez on 16mm, but unfortunately, the lab doing the negative cutting managed to scratch the negative all the way through and the whole thing had to be digitized at great cost. I was devastated, but decided that from then on, I would confront the new digital technology and learn how to use it – myself.

The first digital “film” I made was INDIA – AND OTHER THOUGHTS. This began life as a personal travelogue of my journey through southern India, and it can hardly be called a film, although that is what it has become! It consists mostly of still shots, manipulated for color and contrast in the simple Zoombrowser program of my Canon digital camera. Half way through my trip, I discovered that the camera could take 15-second digital movies, so I began to play around with that. Along the way, I kept a travel journal on a tiny cassette tape recorder. When I got home, I thought I would put together something to show my friends – you know, the usual boring slide show – but then I started working with Windows Movie Maker and managed to fashion a credible film compiled of still shots, 15-second video clips, the very rough and raw original voice recordings on the cassettes, and a voice-over narration that I recorded on a mic plugged into my computer. Talk about do-it-yourself home movies!! I transferred it to DVD and held a public screening, along with some great Indian musicians and an Indian banquet at my house – and it was a great success! That film is now distributed by RenewMedia on Amazon.com and there’s a trailer on my website.

So now that I had mastered these simple processes of learning how to use a digital still camera and a photo editing program and Windows Movie Maker – which all seem like child’s play now, but at the time required quite a learning curve on my part – I decided to try my hand with a digital film camera.

The first film that I shot myself was THE SWAHILI BEAT, using a small Sony prosumer camera that did a fantastic job with color and even with sound. I didn’t even have an extra mic, but simply marched out onto the beaches and into the towns along East Africa’s coast and began. I hadn’t really even intended to make a film – I started off just shooting tape to show to my daughter, Sophie, since I wished that she was with me. But my mother had just died, and I was remembering the many family vacations we took at the coast – in Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu and Zanzibar – where we lived on the beach and in the warm Indian Ocean. In those days, my parents often took us to ancient ruins along the coast, like Gedi. All I remember is being incredibly hot and sweaty and hungry and annoyed by flies and wishing we could just go to the beach and wondering why we had to visit these forlorn places in the first place. All these years later, I discovered a fascination with this history and its ruined sites, and I thank my mother for having given me the gift of curiosity about them. So as I meandered along on my little self-made trip, I began to realize that I was, in fact, making a film about the history of the Swahili people. Somehow, I discovered that I have a very steady hand with the camera, and I learned to create wind breaks with palm leaves, bits of cardboard, anything I could find, since I had come so unprepared. That film was picked up for distribution by Documentary Educational Resources (DER).

WALKING WITH LIFE was a different story altogether. I have always been interested in human rights and I had learned about an organization called Tostan that works in Senegal and many other African countries to bring human rights education to ordinary people, most of whom are illiterate. this is an African program run by African people. It’s had amazing results, and in Senegal, has triggered a re-examination of ancient beliefs and practices through the lens of human rights. The title of the film comes from a Senegalese proverb: “You must walk with life, or you get left behind.” My film documents how the program works and tells the stories of various individuals whose lives have been dramatically changed by their new knowledge. For example, women from over 2000 villages have publicly declared that they are abandoning the ancient practices of female genital cutting and forced early marriage. That movement is spreading across West Africa like wildfire. Other issues that are changing because of human rights are girls’ education, health and hygiene, citizenship and a spreading understanding of democracy and how it works.

I shot this film on a Sony VX2100 on miniDV. What a fabulous camera! It’s much larger than the first camera I used, but lightweight and easy to operate. It does a great job in poor light and has two built-in filters, interchangeable with the flick of a switch, which is really important when filming in Africa as one always has such stark contrasts between sunlight and dark skins. This time, I really paid attention not only to capturing whatever was going on, which ranged from a dramatic traditional wrestling match with thousands of spectators to a quiet interview in someone’s home, but also to my cinematography. I tried to find moments of poetry and beauty, to let my camera dwell on unexpected moments and to capture the tiny details – like a lady’s decorated finger-tips – that would bring the film to life. At the same time, I was using a shotgun mic and a HUGE mic sock to protect against wind. In fact, that was always the main problem: The wind. It is always blowing across the plains in Senegal! Also, African households and villages are not quiet. They are filled with the sounds of sheep, goats, chickens, donkeys, children, cooking, radios, TV’s, people chatting – it’s extremely difficult to find a quiet spot for an interview!

Having got the hang of digital filming, I thought I would try my hand at Final Cut Pro and I took an intensive 2-week training course in Manhattan. When I was a film student, I had a talent for editing, especially sound editing, and I found that that talent was still there, although it had been latent all these years. I loved learning Final Cut Pro, but I decided that after all, good editing is really a job for a pro, and that the learning curve I would have to undergo to become a pro would be long and difficult and at my age, it wasn’t worth it. So I always hire an editor – for the last two films on Africa, it was Perry Finkelstein, of ProVideo Productions in Smithtown, New York. We had great fun working together, and a lot of laughs – and finished two respectable films. If you go to my website and watch the little video called KENNY MANN TALKS ABOUT FILMING IN AFRICA, you will hear someone starting the film by saying “Action!” and you’ll see me giggling. That was Perry.

My next project is a documentary about my parents’ extraordinary life and work in Kenya. It’s called RIDING THE EQUATOR. Shooting is more or less completed – I’ve been collecting material for more than 10 years, and I am in the fund-raising process to start post-production. Unfortunately, though, this film was shot on miniDV and now everything has to be High Def!!! I haven’t learned yet, whether I should give up on this project or not, or whether miniDV can be converted to High Def – no it can’t, that’s for sure. So that’s going to be a giant hurdle to deal with. Any suggestions?? I don’t even like High Def. At least, what I know of it. And I’m told that digital films will be shot on memory cards and of course, they can be shot direct to DVD now. So I’m sure that the remaining 30 years of my life will be dedicated to mastering once again the skills of digital film production.

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