‘Beyond Pretty Pictures’ Panel

Technology continues to revolutionize documentary filmmaking. Increasingly light-sensitive cameras liberate filmmakers to capture nighttime scenes; miniature, waterproof cameras are cheap; skeleton crews allow subjects to feel more comfortable revealing themselves. In this year’s “Beyond Pretty Pictures” panel, these ongoing innovations serve as the jumping off point for a wide ranging conversation on the art of nonfiction. Moderator Omar Mullick (These Birds Walk) quizzed Linda Västrik (Forest of the Dancing Spirits), Ewan McNicol (Uncertain), and Victor Kossakovsky (Demonstration) on how they harness technology to tell better stories.

Check out this short clip, an exchange on how doc subjects see themselves on film and how they react to these reactions.

If this excerpt peaked your interest, you can watch the whole thing on our video page or download the conversation as an audio mp3. Our panels were filmed by our friends at Columbia Access Television.

Posted July 10, 2014

Going to the Dark Side with Animator Jodie Mack of ‘Dusty Stacks of Mom’

We’re perpetually in search of interesting new approaches to the documentary form. That’s why we we were thrilled that both critics and audiences responded enthusiastically to the most unique experience at True/False 2014, Dusty Stacks of Mom. In it, experimental filmmaker Jodie Mack utilizes stop-motion animation to explore her mom’s old poster shop and the familiar images that people choose to hang on their walls. This odd and hilarious journey is structured around a reimagining of Pink Floyd’s iconic album Dark Side of the Moon with new lyrics sung by Mack herself.

Dusty Stacks returns to Columbia this Wednesday, July 2, as the centerpiece of Light Your Light Shine, a program of Mack’s animation structured like an experimental film rock concert, complete with opening acts and a blowout 3D finale. Let Your Light Shine is the final installment in Ragtag Cinema’s 2014 Homebrewed Series, their fourth annual survey of American microbudget filmmaking.

For a quick preview of Mack’s work, check out her irresistible take on a classic pop song, Unsubscribe #4: The Saddest Song in the World.

I got the chance to talk with Jodie a couple months back about her mom’s poster factory and constructing a film around a classic album. We chatted via Skype while she worked on a collage in Paris.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: Hey Jodie! I wanted to start by asking about your relationship to your mom’s poster shop and all of the stuff there.

JM: I actually worked there in high school doing data entry and rolling posters. Another one of my chores was taking inventory, counting all of the individual posters once a year. So I did actually feel pretty familiar with the material. And its been interesting returning there as an adult, having this material in mind, where the images they used to sell end up and how popular some of them still are.

T/F: Do you consider the movie a documentary?

JM: I think it’s definitely a type of documentary. Documentary was definitely a genre I was hoping to speak to when making it. I’m generally a more abstract, experimental filmmaker, but in all cases it’s the material that guides the way I want something to go.

I thought about lots of documentary strategies for conveying information and how animation functions as part of that in documentary. There’s certainly a lot of animation in documentaries these days, but there is also graphics and charts, titles or what not, things like that. The big question when starting out was how to convey information . . .

I like musicals and I’ve made a musical before, so it seems like in some ways, yeah, it’s just the voiceover narration being delivered in song. Totally normal, totally conventional (laughs). Do you think it’s a documentary?

T/F: Yeah, definitely. One of the things I was really thinking about it while watching is how ubiquitous these images become and how they take on new meanings as they spread out into the world. I thought that was something that you documented.

JM: Yeah, I hope so, it’s tricky because I’ve sort of taken on the lowest forms of imagery. I think that some people might find it hard to engage with. I don’t know how it comes of, if I’m celebrating it, or critiquing it or just paying attention, just noticing.

T/F: So when you chose Dark Side of the Moon you locked yourself into making a film around the actual album, and keeping the time signatures of all of the songs?

JM: Yeah, that’s right. There is some mild divergence, like “Money” is a little bit shorter.

But yeah, as an experimental filmmaker, I like to make films with rules. It just seemed like an interesting way to guide the content and mood (going back to the question how to convey information).

A lot of things wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided to take on the album. There would be no mom’s head on a prism, the crazy vocal solo or the moment where she’s a rock star.

It’s such a weird album because it’s so many people’s point of entry into counterculture. Older folks know every note.

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

image from Dusty Stacks of Mom

T/F: What was the hardest part about shaping the film around the album?

JM: Yeah, well, there was definitely a discrepancy between the pacing of the album and how you want things in cinema. In music, and especially Pink Floyd, your impulse is to jam and linger. Sometimes in film you want to cut to the chase.

It would have been a lot harder if I didn’t have all of these musicians doing different instrumentation tracks. It was still tough. Dark Side of the Moon is a very complex album and being able to shape it with other people was important because I wanted it to feel different than the album.

T/F: Why did you decide to work with different musicians for each song? Why not work with the same musicians through the whole project?

JM: Well, a couple of reasons. In general I knew from other projects that that sort of commitment is a lot for one entity to handle. But also I thought that it would be interesting to make it an exquisite corpse, especially it being DSotM, something that’s been covered so many times. I thought it would be interesting to force this upon it and see where it went.

I tried to stay honest to what people did. And then there were some surprises. Someone had to drop out and so I did the kazoo solo.

T/F: (laughs) Yeah, I liked the kazoo solo.

JM: Yeah, animation is always really time consuming, and I sort of forget how complicated it is to do sound.

T/F: Could you describe the process of the animation some for an animation noob?

JM: Yeah, sure. All of it is 16mm stop-motion, so it’s on a film camera with reel to reel. So I take a picture and move and then take a picture and then move it, 24 frames per second.

It’s all stop-motion animation, no digital effects or anything like that.

T/F: Finally, what was the total time making this film? How long did this project take?

JM: Three years. Not of continuous work. It’s really kind of hard to say, from the first session to when I premiered it, it was three years. I shot for few days and then I didn’t even touch it again until the summer of 2012 and then I finished it in the spring of 2013. So it could be three years, it could be nine months. I felt it percolating a lot. Hard to say.

Posted July 1, 2014

Up to Speed: A Chat with Director/ Cinematographer Nick Bentgen of ‘Northern Light’

This week, Northern Light (T/F 2013) receives its theatrical premiere at the Maysles Cinema in New York City. It screens at 7:30PM nightly through June 22. Filmmakers Nick Bentgen and Lisa Kjerulff will be in person at Thursday and Friday’s screenings. For tickets, visit this page ( http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/669737).
-Chris Boeckmann

From a snowmobile driver’s perspective, a race consists of careful maneuvers and breakneck turns. For the detached viewer, it amounts to, literally and figuratively, going in circles. Five hundred of them, in the case of the Sault Ste. Marie I-500, the race at the center of Nick Bentgen’s Northern Light.

In his directorial debut, Bentgen observes the households of Walt and Isaac, strong-willed, hardworking racers who reside in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Walt is a dedicated father and seasoned rider whose racing career seems to be at a standstill. Isaac is a young and ambitious rising star, married without children. As resolute in its vision as its characters are to their sport, Northern Light is an immaculately photographed and intricately structured study of their world.

One of its fundamental interests is competition, which looms heavy over the community. Sport, which the film observes not only in snowmobiles but also in bodybuilding and auto racing, is an alluring, inescapable presence that’s frequently at odds with an even bigger competition, capitalism. Bentgen’s camera registers the physical and emotional tolls of both.

But as much as it is an essay about the American struggle to balance checkbooks and athletics, Northern Light is also an incisive character study, wedding empathy and scrutiny to bewildering effect. This is a film where characters perform tender acts of altruism one moment and engage in casually bigoted dinner table conversation the next. Bentgen trusts us to navigate — revel in, really — all this messiness.

Too often nonfiction films take characterization and plot tips from the tidy world of fiction. A meticulously constructed film of ellipses and characters who inspire wildly conflicted emotions, Northern Light seems to find its storytelling inspiration from some completely new world: the real one.

A year ago, I interviewed director/cinematographer Nick Bentgen via Skype a week before his film celebrated its New York premiere at BAMCinemafest.

T/F: I’m wondering if Northern Light is very different from the film you set out to make.

NB: I was staying in this cabin that my dad and his siblings all shared — it’s actually my grandpa’s cabin, he passed away a long time ago — and I knew I wanted to tell a story set in this place I spent a lot of time in as a kid. I had only a few DVDs with me. Nashville was one and also Two-Lane Blacktop. When I first found the I-500, I remember thinking, “Oh, this is just likeNashville and Two-Lane Blacktop!” Of course it’s not. It’s nothing like that, but still, I kept coming back to those masterpieces while I was making this movie. Gradually it became its own thing.

T/F: The reason I ask is — perhaps this is something that’s entirely accomplished in the editing, but it feels like there are so many moments where you have a clear idea of the film you’re making, of its themes. For example, during the race scene when you manage to capture Emily and James, two characters who don’t really seem to know each other, in the same frame as one tells a crewmember that God’s going to bring their team to victory and the other complains to his buddy about body aches.

NB: Well, yes. By the second or third week, I realized the film was about this community, that this place was the story, regardless of who we eventually ended up focusing on. So like Nashville or any movie that’s a large community portrait, I felt it was fair game to let anyone pass in and out of the story. So sometimes people you haven’t met will just appear, you’ll get a little bit of their story and then they’re not in the movie anymore.

During the race, we were very lucky that multiple people we had been filming with were in the same place. It was irresistible to put them in the same frame. Also, we only had one camera, so microphone placement was very important. We had to decide who the story was about on that shooting day. That shot where James and Emily are in the same frame is this beautiful moment. They’re on completely different wavelengths and yet they’re in the same community.

T/F: So on that day you chose to put the mic on Emily.

NB: Right. With a verite doc, I feel like how you make it is so tied up with why you’re making it because you have such limited means. We knew it was a big day for Isaac, and with Walt’s team, they didn’t have a radio system we could use. There were logistical reasons why we chose to put the mic on Emily, but it was the best choice. She became so excited, and the story totally funneled through her in this great way.

T/F: Going into the I-500, it doesn’t feel like Walt has much chance of winning the race.

NB: Walt has a philosophy of life that I really appreciate and respect. That’s why I spent so much time filming with him. The bigger things he focuses on — spending time with his family and working hard — make him a really captivating subject. And flawed, like all of us. Early on, I asked him, “Do you think you’re going to win?” And of course he wants to win. And he’s done well in races, but I don’t think that’s why he does it. He doesn’t do it to win. Isaac has a much different philosophy. He’s out there to win. I think that contrast is why they’re interesting as subjects.

T/F: If Walt doesn’t race to win, what’s the draw?

NB: Speed. There’s this scene we cut where he says “Once racing is in your blood, it never goes away.” He grew up doing it. Lots of the guys who are into snowmobiling got into it at a very young age.

T/F: Structurally, I find it interesting that you frontload a lot of really challenging moments, particularly instances of sexism and homophobia.

NB: Our one strategy in editing — or dilemma, I guess — was being true to the environment Lisa and I were in when we filmed. Maybe it was just by happenstance, or maybe it was conscious, but the final movie is structured a lot like our experience there. At first, we didn’t know these people, and with any stranger, you take a lot on assumption. In any community, there’s xenophobia or some other issue that prevents you from identifying. As you’re watching the film, I want you to go through that process of estrangement and then become closer with these people and feel like a part of the community.

T/F: One of the reasons your film stands out from a lot of other observational documentaries is the photography. You consistently use a tripod. I’m wondering if your camerawork changed very much over the course of production.

NB: It’s funny, I really feel like the first month or two is the best photographed stuff. That’s partly because the camera was a barrier, this wall I put up. Emily, Walt, Isaac — I connected with all of them at different times during the shoot. If you watched the 300 hours of dailies, it becomes clear that I start caring less and less about what the image looks like as I become more interested in what’s going on. But we did have a rigorous rule set. The first rule was to use a tripod whenever possible, and the second was to not screw with the camera if at all possible. There are a lot of times where the camera feels like a fly on the wall, and that’s because it is: it was just left there.

northernlight_promo1

T/F: Was documentary new to you?

NB: The film’s editor Yoonha [David Park] and I have grown up together in the film industry. We went to school together, and we worked for a music website called Pitchfork where we had 15 minutes, maybe an hour, with our subjects. That was a good early experience.

Most of the jobs I could get as a filmmaker were often doc-style. I wasn’t usually given a lot of toys or money, so you tend to fall into this documentary style regardless of what you’re filming. After a while of shooting documentary, I realized it was the best way to tell stories because you can’t control everything. And then you have to make decisions very fast. It’s also the best way to learn to be a DP.

T/F: I’m wondering if you can talk about photographing the I-500. Your technique feels pretty unconventional. You don’t get a whole lot of coverage of the race itself. You don’t mount cameras on the snowmobiles or stick cameras all around the track.

NB: It’s funny, I feel like the race scenes are more conventional than I ever expected them to be. There are also more of them than I figured. There are three in the movie. Initially, I set out with this really crazy artistic tactic. I said I was going to film the race in case I needed it, but my plan was to film from the checkered flag of one year to the green flag of the next year, never showing a race. But I figured out that it was completely not true to the experience of people in this community. I really needed the viewer to care a little bit about those races because all the people I’m filming care a lot. If you don’t care at all, you don’t understand where all these people are coming from. So it became a big part of the film’s narrative.

At some point, I saw Senna and said, “Well, I’ll never be that good. I’ll never make anything that thrilling.” There are also logistical reasons why it’s shot the way it’s shot. We had one camera, so there was no way to keep track of all the racers . You’d need eight cameras on the track. It would have become a big production. Instead, I decided to embrace the tools we had. When I later saw the footage, I thought it felt like a removed version of a race, which matched the aesthetic of the rest of the movie. The camera is never telling you how to feel, and you have to find other ways in.

northernlight

T/F: I sort of want to ask you about the way you use nature throughout the film, but it seems like a silly thing for you to discuss.

NB: I haven’t done that many interviews. After you’re done with a film, it’s easy to put everything in a this-is-the-reason-why box. But my favorite filmmakers, Altman especially, say there’s not really an explanation for everything. The whole time we were making the film, we wanted to get across the experience we had. It was more a tone we were going after. And nature is just an all-encompassing thing that dictates life. I feel like explanations are easy enough to do, but it limits what the movie is or what a story can be. I don’t really have explanations for everything.

T/F: That seems like a good place to stop. (laughs)

Posted June 19, 2014

Second Take: ‘Gallant Girl A Journey to True/False’ by Sarah Goodman

Sarah Goodman, director of When We Were Boys (T/F 2010), just released the new short film Gallant Girl A Journey to True/False. In it a woman from the past journeys through the Missourian landscape to the present day and finds herself swept up in a spectacle that she can’t quite understand. This film is part of our new “Second Take” series of short films created at the Fest by T/F alumni. Check it out below.

Posted June 13, 2014

‘Making Magic/Realism’ Panel

This year for the first time, we featured a panel with the visual artists who transformed our city, turning the mundane into the fantastic through their own interpretations of “Magic/Realism”. The Odd Fellows Lodge hosted T/F bumper director Jarred Alterman, T/F 2014 poster artist Akiko Stehrenberger, sculptor Taylor Ross, who made the interactive mechanical sculptor in the Missouri Theatre lobby, and “TransPlant” pod installation artist, Leland Drexler-Russell. Artist and writer Anne Thompson led the group on a discussion of ideas and inspiration, which you can watch below thanks to our friends at Columbia Access Television.

You can take also take this conversation with you as a mp3 here.

If this chat sparked your own creativity, you should know that we are now accepting art installation proposals for T/F 2015 when our theme will be “The Long Now”.

Posted

Remembering Malik Bendjelloul

We’re still reeling from the punch to the gut we received a few weeks ago, the news of the sudden death of our friend, the Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul. We met Malik in 2012 when he came to T/F with his first and sadly only feature, Searching for Sugar Man, the story of the rediscovery of lost singer-songwriter who inspired a generation half a world away. Both the film and its energetic and endearing director connected profoundly with Fest goers, especially at a packed closing night screening at the august Missouri Theatre.

Malik also participated as a judge in our signature game show, Gimme Truth!, happily filling in at the last moment after a cancellation. He immediately struck up a friendship with GT coordinator and all around T/F get-shit-done specialist Jaime Goncalves. Jamie recently noted “Malik treated an intern 12 years his junior as an equal. What could better show a man’s values?”

You can watch Malik’s performance on Gimme Truth! below.

To our surprise, Malik returned to T/F and the Missouri Theatre stage in 2013, just a week after winning the Best Documentary Oscar for Sugar Man. He also met with area high school students as part of the True/False Academy.

Malik with David at T/F 2013. photo by Rebecca Allen

In the weeks since his death, memories of Malik have begun coming in around the web. Michael Dunaway at Paste Magazine wrote Malik a Thank You Note, recalling their meeting at T/F 2012. And at The Talkhouse, directors and fellow T/F alum Ondi Timoner, Peter Nicks and Alison Klayman shared their impressions.

Finally, the Swedish television program KOBRA produced an entire episode in memoriam. It contains samples of Malik’s work and interviews on his approach and philosophy. You can watch the episode here.

Posted June 10, 2014

‘Only the Young’ Online from P.O.V. Until June 4

Only the Young (T/F 2012), a charming and candid look at the lives of three California teenagers, is available free streaming until June 5 from the PBS doc series P.O.V.

In his “Forever Young” dispatch from True/False 2012, critic Eric Hynes noted:

Viewed in a certain light, Only the Young’s attractive cast, hip subculture, and sunny California setting, could work alongside MTV’s reality soaps. But you won’t find any typecasting here, no genre boxes, no preconceived notions of youth imposed upon the subjects—or at least none that the supremely articulate characters wouldn’t cop to on their own. For Garrison, Kevin and Skye (who, at 16, has an emotional intelligence that outdistances pretty much everyone I know), fashion is fun but not defining, religion is relevant but hardly central, and class is negotiated but not exactly transcended. Co-directors Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet are both in their early 20s, just a few years removed from the experiences of their subjects, this age proximity serves to repel intergenerational objectification as well as “state of the youth” sloganeering, freeing the filmmakers to make a movie out of what and how they see. They frame on-camera parries as deadpan two-shots, playfully score slow-mo skate-stunts to classic soul (because why the hell not), and never stoop to exclamation when ellipses work just fine.

Also covering the Fest, Hammer to Nail’s Michael Tully boldly announced “after only one viewing, I’m ready to file Only The Young in the all-time coming-of-age canon”.  And T/F associate programmer Chris Boeckmann, collecting his thoughts on the film, declared Only the Young “one of the most exciting documentary debuts of the past decade”.

But please, don’t take their word for it. See Only the Young below.

Posted May 6, 2014

May is Doc Month at Ragtag Cinema

An exciting series is happening each week in May at Ragtag Cinema. Thanks to the support of our friends at Landmark Bank, May is officially Doc Month at Ragtag, featuring the theatrical releases of five compelling new documentaries. The series includes three T/F 2014 selections returning to CoMo, a portrait of a fascinating artist and a film from our very own T/F co-conspirator David Wilson!

Let’s take a look at the films:

Opening May 2: We Always Lie to Strangers

wealwayslie

David Wilson, a founder of Ragtag and True/False, and AJ Schnack, a Mizzou graduate and True/False alum (Kurt Cobain About a Son, T/F 2007amp;) co-direct this fascinating, tender documentary portrait of Branson, Missouri. Located in the Ozarks, Branson hosts more than 7.5 million tourists a year, but its population barely numbers 10,500. As they follow four different families over the course of five years, Wilson and Schnack offer a nuanced look at the city as its residents grapple with economic uncertainty and social change. “Elegant. The filmmakers’ biographical ties to the region, though never explicitly spelled out, show through in a deep-rooted mood of chivalry, the kind of bittersweet, affectionate tone one associates with home. ” (Leah Churner, Reverse Shot) Opening night 5pm screening only will include a special musical performance from the Lennon Family, who are featured in the film.

Opening May 9: Particle Fever (T/F 2014)

particle

You could hear the cry go out last October when two physicists were given the Nobel Prize for discovering the Higgs boson: “Would someone please explain?!” Fortunately, physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson had trained his cameras on the Large Hadron Collider since its opening, awaiting this moment. The LHC is the largest science experiment in history: a 17-mile-long tunnel on the French-Swiss border with immense data collection systems, designed and operated with 10,000 scientists and engineers from 150 countries, in hopes of replicating the instant after the Big Bang in order to see what we can learn about the atom—and life itself. “Particle Fever is that rare, exhilarating science doc that’s neither dumbed down nor drabbed up.” (Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York)

Opening May 16: Finding Vivian Maier

findingvivianmaier

In 2007, young Chicago historian John Maloof attended a storage unit auction and bid $400 on a box of photographs and negatives. Never publicly displayed, they were the work of a mysterious nanny named Vivian Maier, who secretly took over 100,000 photographs during her lifetime. Maier is now regarded as one of history’s greatest street photographers. In Maloof’s riveting documentary, he uncovers the strange, fascinating backstory by interviewing those who knew Maier. “More connect-the-dots detective thriller than traditional doc, John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s revelatory riddle of a film unmasks a brilliant photographer.” (Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly)

Opening May 23: The Unknown Known (T/F 2014)

UnknownKnown_MIRROR_300DPI_sml-600x340

“All generalizations are false. Including this one.” So runs the central paradox in the body of wisdom known as “Rumsfeld’s Rules.” The secretary of defense under Gerald Ford (he was appointed at age 33) and George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld claims his rules guided the policies he championed, including launching wars against Afghanistan and Iraq. Oscar-winning director Errol Morris offers up history through the prism of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, but this is more an inquiry into the philosophy of language than an unpacking of historical fact. “A cat-and-mouse game in which each player thinks he’s the cat, making it both thrilling and disconcerting to watch.” (AO Scott, The New York Times)

Opening May 30: Jodorowsky’s Dune (T/F 2014)

jodorwsky-dune

It was a match made in trippy heaven: in 1975, cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain) optioned the rights to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi epic Dune. Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali, the graphic artist Moebius, and Pink Floyd signed on to help. A phone-book-thick script was prepared and the 14-hour hallucinatory project that Jodorowsky called “the most important picture in the history of humanity” seemed to be on its way. But it was not to be. Director Frank Pavich’s inspiring tale of ambition and failure revisits the film that could have rendered Star Wars superfluous. “Fun. A loving testament to ambition.” (Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York)

Each film will play for one week. Daily showtimes for the following week are posted here every Monday by 5pm. Ticket sales become available each day beginning at midnight online here or at the Ragtag box office beginning at 10am each day.

See you at the movies!

Posted April 29, 2014

Suspending Disbelief with Daniel Vernon of ‘Miraculous Tales’

In Miraculous Tales we meet Mickey McGuigan, a charming 73-year-old farmer turned writer. Mickey takes us on a tour of his homeland, rural Northern Ireland, explaining magical cures for both livestock and people that remain an integral part of the culture. Along the way we meet numerous practitioners of the miraculous arts, including John Purcell, a charismatic evangelical preacher and faith healer.

Miraculous Tales played at True/False 2014 and will be screening beginning today at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada. I recently got the chance to chat online with director Daniel Vernon about his strange and wonderful film.

-Dan Steffen

T/F: For starters, could you tell me about how this project began? Someone told me it was originally a movie about farming?

DV: I was commissioned to make a film about farming in Northern Ireland for the BBC. It was a pretty wide brief so I know I had to find something or someone to focus on.

My first concern, as always, was casting. Find that character who leaps off the screen, someone the audience, and myself, will want to go on an adventure with. To make it even more challenging . . . make sure that person is a farmer so it fits the brief! This wasn’t the easiest thing to do. It never is. For over three months we scoured the Northern Irish border trying to find the ‘one’.

One day I was drinking tea with yet another farmer I’d met and was about to say my goodbyes. Then the phone rang. The farmer listened down the line with a serious frown and shouted for his wife. She shot out of the house like lightening and ran down the lane out of sight. “What’s going on?” I asked. “She’s off to stop a bleed” he said.

The call had come from a local farmer whose cow was bleeding to death. He was looking for someone with a “cure” to stop the bleeding. It was the first I’d heard of these cures and this set my imagination reeling. Just what is this strange belief system? Does it work? How many more people out there have these seemingly magic powers?

Our research eventually led to my main character Mickey McGuigan. We’d heard through the farmer’s grapevine that he was a man who had been documenting cures and miracles for years. As luck had it Mickey was not only a fantastic character but also a farmer (albeit a retired one), so despite the shift of focus for film the BBC were still onboard.

T/F: What’s True/False about your film?

DV: It didn’t take long for me to realize that Mickey would really help to knit these small stories together. After all he was a born storyteller, or to use the Irish Gaelic word, a Seanchaí.

Myths and folktales are still very much alive in Ireland. Mickey’s accounts of everyday life are a healthy balance of reality and pure imagination. I wanted to present this world of ‘miracles’ in the same way Mickey interprets them, with a willing suspension of disbelief.

Miraculous_Tales_1

Mickey McGuigan in Miraculous Tales

T/F: Yeah, it’s interesting to talk about the suspension of disbelief in a documentary. I was really drawn into Mickey’s stories by the sense of place that you create. Could you talk about your approach to capturing the feel of rural Ireland? It’s such a beautiful place, it seems like there could be a danger in making the film too pretty, too postcardesque . . . .

DV: Northern Ireland can look very picturesque but most of the pretty locations in the film were once scenes of great tragedy. I wanted to give the audience an impression of the location’s darker side.

The bucolic scenery in the film is usually contrasted with one of Mickey’s horror stories about people meeting a grisly end in that very spot. Sometimes a clue is given in a song as to what lurks beneath the surface.

The only place that seems to have been spared from tragedy is Mickey’s forest; it’s his sanctuary from the modern world. To give this location an otherworldly, Eden-like atmosphere, we used a very dense soundscape of the world’s rarest bird calls.

T/F: Yeah, I really love the sound design, how you weave together different elements, including a large dose of classic country music. How did you go about creating the soundtrack?

DV: The idea of using classic American country music came from the place itself. Country music is massive in Ireland. Tune into any radio station and chances are someone like Billy Ray Cyrus will be singing about their achy breaky heart.

I did a lot of driving on this shoot and heard a lot of country music. We tried a lot of these songs out in the edit. The mood just fitted, and the lyrics added another layer of story.

Aside from the music we spent a lot of time on sound design. Virtually all of the original sound was replaced. I wanted to transport the viewer to a world they thought they knew but felt completely alien. We may have got carried away with forest wildlife effects though . . . when I saw the film recently it sounded like Mickey had walked into in a cosmic menagerie.

T/F: While the miraculous cures are sometimes bizarre or outlandish, and sometimes (in my opinion) quite funny, you make sure to show what motivates them, the real pain and loss that are an inevitable part of our lives. How did you think about striking this balance? Did you ever find yourself cutting out something that was funny because you thought it would be cruel to include or encourage the audience to laugh at someone?

DV: I was aware from the start that an audience unfamiliar with this world would at first see it as downright bizarre. After all how many times do you see a man spitting in a cow’s face? However, I wanted to go beyond the strange spectacle and get to know the people, understand them and ultimately respect them.

I did come across some cures and situations that were just too bizarre to include though. It would have tipped the balance into sheer comedy. One such omission was a man who cured piles with a nutmeg!

T/F: Finally, I wanted to ask about your decision to feature evangelical faith-healer John Purcell so prominently. What made decide on him as a character? He forms a really interesting contrast with Mickey.

DV: I knew I wanted a preacher from organised religion to be a character in the film. I was interested in how pagan healing practices had been absorbed and incorporated into a wider belief system.

I was actually filming with another preacher I’d met, then one day he took me to the opening of a new church. After an hour or so of monosyllabic bible readings I was losing the will to live. Then John Purcell took to the stage. He was like a turbo charged Billy Graham and it blew my socks off. John had that fire in his belly I’d been looking for.

Miraculous_Tales_5

John Purcell in Miraculous Tales

Posted April 25, 2014

‘Place is the Space’ Panel

The sense of place is a fundamental aspect of cinema. In great films it is a part of every scene, a background presence that informs everything we see and hear.

Our panel “Place is the Space” investigates how filmmakers go about communicated this essential feeling. The panelists’ films take place in fascinating array of places, a small midwestern town struggling to hold on, a massive underground science experiment and a crowded city undergoing a major political upheaval. Moderator Beadie Finzi talks with Tracy Droz Tragos of Rich Hill, Mark Levinson of Particle Fever and Sherief Elkatsha of Cairo Drive.

This panel is available thanks to our friends at Columbia Access Television. You can also take this conversation with you as an mp3 here.

Posted April 17, 2014
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