Powered by the People

It only took me a year and a half to finish what I consider the earliest documentary I ever started. What began as a practice project turned into an interesting story about an energetic red head who wanted to create a sense of community through a pedal-powered concert.

I was proud to screen the final movie at the Glow and Show at Cyclepalooza, a ten-day biking event in Calgary. Here is the movie within the movie:

A Touch of Kathmandu

Spending four weeks in Kathmandu working with Nepalese youth and shooting a documentary is like living in an alternate reality… one you can’t help carrying home. I have the luxury now of trying to make sense of it all in the editing room. Things I never noticed in the moment (overwhelmed as I was by the stimulation of a completely different culture) become clear upon review and reflection.

The story is shaping up and in a couple months I’ll be sure to share a screening of the final 20 minute documentary. In the meantime, here is a little bit of that experience I recorded overseas.

My First Documentary

I thought that the best way to learn how to shoot a documentary was to shoot a documentary. So with camera in hand, I tracked my subject, Heather Hendrie, in her attempt to build a electricity generating bike adapter. She thought she could build it in a day, and I naively thought I could finish a documentary short in a week.

A year and a half later, I’m finally releasing my first documentary short. I’m proud to say it will be premiering this Friday evening at an outdoor movie event during Cyclepalooza, a ten day celebration of bikes. Here’s the trailer:

It’s humbling to see the evolution of my camera abilities and how difficult it is get the right shot in changing outdoor lighting conditions. Nevertheless, the project has rewarded me with lessons in patience and persistence.

In life, I am quick to take action and impatient for results. In documentaries as in life, the meaningful things take its own time to grow and flourish. Strangely, through my computer screen I examine life more closely and fully than in real life. I can replay interviews and extract themes and nuance. I can observe the story of a year’s journey in seconds. Here on my editing suite, I am permitted the luxury of reflection.

Perhaps this says something about how I do tend to see things through a fog of ideas. Documentary video helps me crystalize some of those ideas in ways that feels practical. The ideas become real for me.

Editing is a process of reflection and meaning-making. Every cut is a decision that says “this is important” because it’s significant or it entertains or it simply moves the story along. One day, I’d like to reach this level of mastery where every cut is purpose made.

Like any meaning-making process though, I have to see the small moving pictures in the context of the larger stories. How am I able to see clearly in these moments of life if I don’t invest myself in experiencing and understanding life itself?

Sounds abstract I know, but it is eminently practical. On a small scale, Heather’s project is just a bike that generates electricity. But in the context of our collective dependency on energy, particularly fossil fuels, and its threat to the environment, the bike takes on greater significance.

So I remind myself. There are times to act and do your best. But there are more times where taking more time will lead to far better results.

My First Dramatic Film

I got to direct and edit my first dramatic short film! My crew and actors were comprised of a group of adults on the Eden Valley aboriginal reserve, none of who had technical or acting experience. We had less than five days to learn the basics, come up with a script, and shoot it.

And you know what? Despite the lighting not being quite right and the camera framing off, the story had an authenticity to it which really moved me. The realities on the reserve around addictions and the lack of any economic prospects make the story all the more meaningful.

You can watch the short video here:

The most important part of this story though is the impact it has had on the people who created it. Emil, the main actor, was stunned to see his own story reflected in the film because (I think) he saw his life and what was possible for his life. And perhaps in being the hero, in acting in front of a camera, in struggling to read the script, he felt the power of writing his own story.

I see the possibilities of fiction differently now. Fiction can be a medium that sometimes say more about reality than documentary can. For documentaries, you can’t always be at the right place at the right time. However good fiction can recreate or highlight those transformative moments in human experience. On the other hand, bad fiction like bad documentary oversimplifies or distorts our perceptions of the world. So in both cases, I feel a kind of responsibility to crafting something that is significant and meaningful. At least it is something I can aspire to.

Wish me luck.

Reel World Youth Filmfest

After wrapping up Reel World Youth and doing a final debrief with the teens at Alice Jamieson, I’ve come to the conclusion that life really is far more interesting than the comfortable illusions we are fed by daytime TV and cultural norms. Here’s a short video giving some of the highlights of this fun project.

What is next? Hard to say as this was a pilot project in education enhancement. Over the years I’ve come to realize that schooling is not the same as education and sometimes even runs counter to it. Because if education is everything society does to prepare people for life, then school in terms of influence plays only a small part. Yet at the time, it seemed like everything.

As someone who excelled in the school system, it’s a big shock to look back now and realize how the pursuit of marks, the segregation of subject areas, the standardized tests, need to conform to rules, and the need to always reference the authority… actually took away from my ability to learn adaptively. And by adaptively I mean learning how to do those thing where there was no external direction or routine to follow. Which in this day and age is pretty much what life is and will be.

So this experiment was one where we tried to break down the barriers between subject areas (English, technology, art, and history all blended together), to connect students to authorities beyond the classroom, to provide meaningful motivation beyond marks, and to give them a real life challenge. For the most part we were successful in making those connections. But there were tough lessons on time management, juggling the demands of curriculum, on technical glitches, and on frustration and relationships.

Nevertheless, I can see it is possible break the boundaries of conventional learning. It just takes a bit of thought and care.