The Making of the tentatively titled documentary, Cycle on Ceylon.
Written by Guest Blogger and our very good friend, the amazing Michael Lutman.
It is nearly five in the morning and a mosquito possibly carrying malaria has joined me. She has alerted me now numerous times throughout my four hour power nap by whispering sweet buzzes into my ear. Just as I finally fall into a paralysed sleep, after a Late Nite of data wrangling, my heart is jumped by Jacqui Hocking energetically bouncing up and out of the room to catch the Gone Adventurin’ cyclist team brush their teeth, or something similar, on what I think is the tenth five am in a row. It is time to get up but these imaginary sandbags are crushing my head. As irritable as I am sleep deprived, I do get up. I know this is how you light a doco!
Some mornings, without the atmosphere’s guarantee, the sun moves steadily over the edge of the earth, and, for one brief hour or so, cast a soft bloom of gentle colour one could never quite reproduce, not even with a thousand thousand watt HMIs. This morning light, or the first of two potential “magic hours”, is made even more mystical when you realise that only a few souls have had the muster to bounce out of bed and live it. Lived it, and filmed it, we did, every morning with our weathered old gaffer-taped DSLRs.
Documentaries are all about moments, about capturing a reality typically unseen, or creating a new perspective reality by juxtaposing a dream and situation that inspires a viewer. But how do you capture it? What is necessary to capture a feeling, a mood, or a dream? Just like life, there really is not a gift wrapped, all-inclusive answer, it is more subjective than we prefer. From my perspective, thinking far back from being a delusional student with a miniDV camcorder, and today, being far short of limos and red carpets, is that you have to push yourself far beyond what is comfortable or easy, in the direction of what may seem like an unachievable goal. And, when it comes to docos, the goals start with catching those moments that will grab ones attentions keep it with a childlike wonder.
Although these moments come spontaneously, I believe it takes forethought as well. Jacqui and I planned all we could for this film, as one should, because more often than not a documentary will take the general shape of the treatment. Only, once the shooting is completed, and expectantly so, there are million fresh variables you could never have thought of until they occurred. This is what fills the gaps in summarised story, in outlined characters, in what your initial two-to-three page script could never have fit anyway. The changes to the detail are often the exciting segments of the film that define it and give the piece its overall resonance.
All this may sound subjective, or even appear to be excessive and unnecessary work, but risking the quality and range of footage seems hardly worth the gamble. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “after pre-production the film is done; all that’s left to do is shoot it”. Okay, so, maybe Hitchcock didn’t make docos but he did make a few hit flicks believing that pre-poduction was everything in filmic story telling. And, being completely truthful, we were stretched pretty thin prior to Sri Lanka and went into the shooting with more a rough outline in a couple disjointed note books than a complete treatment – I was busy trying to sale or show my doco about plastic in the middle of the South Atlantic, and Jacqui was sailing in the middle of the same ocean shooting yet another environmentalism doco (or, as I prefer, a documentary about acting logically, or moreover, responsibly). Thus is the crux and passion of independent filmmaking trying to do too much and/or survive. Which is why you do what you can from lessons learned, and put forth such ungodly efforts as aforementioned. But, I digress to back to the why, when I should moving on to the how…
One of the beautiful things about documentaries is that they can be shot a million different ways, as well as come about a million different ways. The reason you plan – even if it comes just before shooting, or scarier yet, while you have the camera rolling! – is that, an array of useful options are essential for the edit. These options are those bits in the middle of key beats of the treatment you could not fit in, nor could you have imagine them. Again, at the least as it pertains to whatever you think the film might be any point prior actually making it, you will absolutely need choice when it comes to post-production. To edit is to make decisions, shape the story. An edit is where you craft that ominous doco shooting ratio into something of interest, into a film that captivates. The edit is everything.
We were lucky enough to be in Sri Lanka, a place loaded with natural beauty and ancient ruins such as Sigiriya (a rock fortress covered with slightly “pornographic” wall paintings), and we have been even more fortunate to have a sponsor like BP de Silva that is as interested as we are to tell the Gone Adventurin’s spirited journey across this formal colonial island, until recently divided and uncrossable from a debilitating war, meeting its captivating people along the way. As glamorous as it may seem, a large amount of time was spent choking on rebuilt road construction dust in a rickety rickshaw, camera in hand as we chased the cyclist past every step of the way; following them along sacred temples, into beautiful waterfalls, through quaint villages, and past frequent AK47 brandished checkpoints throughout the north. Images certainly marked indelibly into memory. By going on this journey, in this way of bicycles, we were able to capture those segments outside of a guided trip, outside of our outline, and meet local faces wearing a history that gave us a glimpse into a world far from ours.
Despite the 30 years of civil war still shadowing, most of these people in remote impoverished villages showed so much kindness. The cyclist frequently stopped along the way to say hello, introducing themselves curious onlookers staring at their bright lycra and bamboo bikes, and try to explain why they were riding through their town. Before the explanation was made, we were often greeted with smiles and hands full of tropic Sri Lankan fruit – likely an exotic variety described in Singhalese or Tamil, which I cannot repeat and definitely could not spell! Varieties of coconut I never knew existed, what I think might of been smelly jack fruit, and, a little sour red blossoms you blew into to chase the feeding ants out before crunching a similar to the texture of a capsicum yet tart as a green apple. After each initial bite, came their careful peering followed by laughter or a smile depending on our face. I even received the nickname “Obama” from an overly friendly man with a squirt bottle was responsible for organising our stay at a monastery. This name either came about because of my inability to say “amma,” meaning mother, when trying to explain my background in Singhalese or simply because of my American heritage – and, the cyclist echoed my new endearment. Nearly everyone we encountered, was eager to share their uniquely Sri Lankan culture, showing a compassion to our strange-selves. That inspiring resolve is why I am so keen to share their story of transcending adversity.
Without much prodding or prying, some conversations inevitably drifted to what tensions led to the long bloody political conflict. Prior to filming, passionate discussions were had about the ethics and responsibility we would follow when dealing with the topic that for so long plagued the peaceful in Sri Lanka. More so than aesthetics, more over the process of making a documentary, and maybe the most important thing to me was how to address this elephant in the room while keeping the main goal of the film clear, to inspire humanity. How does one give justice to this backstory that was the cause of so much of the hardships without finger pointing? Philosophers have noted, and history has shown, to ignore the past is to allow the future to repeat its mistakes. With that in mind, not wanting to whitewash the story, what we did while shooting was to remember our main goal, to keep the definition clear, keeping it always about the people rather than government. Meaning, tell the history and acknowledge the reasons in a personal way, leaving the larger controversy for a political film. Hopefully by focusing on the story of this young out-of-place white-collared, business suit wearing, cycling crew on an adventure interacting with all Sri Lankans, rich and poor, farmer to social worker, Tamil and Singhalese, it will be the catalyst that changes policies and protects the country as a whole. Knowing all this is very idealistic, in a world besieged by greed and selfishness, I belive a positive film showing the enchanting lifestyles, the silly customs, innocence of children, and a dream of peace can at least help us savour the light moments hope rather than let the dark press us down.
So, when five in the am clicks round to some dance track on your filmmaking colleague’s iPhone alarm, try reminding yourself as you curse spitfire at the world – a curse debilitating that “feel good” techno artist that sings one verse really well with the assistance of auto-tuning – you have only a limited number those “magic hour” moments.