The facts after-the-fact: International and UK delegate attendance at the 20th edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest rose by 18%, breaking all previous delegate numbers. A total of 3,129 delegates from over 60 countries attended the five-day festival, up from 2,657 last year.
Memory is somewhat more subjective…
As I walk in the opposite direction of a wave of delegates – all perfectly bar-coded, with their swaying passes hanging from their necks, eager to be scanned – I think to myself “enlightenment is the other way.” Some of them manage to steal the customary glance at my own pass – equally swaying, equally tagging my presence across the geography of the festival to later create a virtual map of my experience. I’m heading to the Crucible, one of the various venues hosting the festival, with a very specific sense of purpose. But allow me retrace my steps, for the sake of coherence:
My personal experience of Doc/Fest revolved around meeting one of the living filmmakers I most respect – Walter Murch.
Day 2 was always going to be day 1 for me, as our illustrious guest writer, Imogen DeCordova, was already covering some of the key films on the first day (see Part 2). But despite planning to attend a couple of earlier screenings on that second day (13th June), due to other parallel commitments I was nowhere to be seen when Shoei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes was screened that morning, and the sudden torrential rain in the afternoon killed my chance to watch Google and The World Brain on the outdoors screen on Howard Street.
Therefore fate dictated that the first film I was to watch was Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse…
Made as a collage of source materials that were originally conceived as individual films, Hearts of Darkness recounts, in considerable detail and with unprecedented access, the behind-the-scenes hardships in the making of Apocalypse Now. Although the film centres around iconic director Francis Ford Coppola’s commitment – with personal thoughts that expose his vulnerability and self-doubt as an artist – it’s also an incredible insight into other contributors’ descent into the darker recesses of their souls. Particularly poignant is lead actor Martin Sheen’s abandonment into the role, which involved physical self-harm, resulted in a psychological breakdown and culminated in a heart attack. Coppola’s accounts are all captured at different stages of the film’s long production and of his career, yet it’s his final comment that best sums up his post-Apocalypse posture.
When his grey-bearded self says that one day, “a fat teenage girl from Ohio will borrow her father’s video camera and become the next Mozart”, he is simultaneously reflecting on the unnecessary apparatus of the filmmaking machine – forced upon an artist by an inflexible industry – and expressing a hope for a digital liberation some of us working independently already enjoy. His message also reflects Jean Cocteau’s belief that filmmaking will only become an art form when its tools are as cheap as pencils and paper.
Marked by Kermode, the digital future and backward tradition…
Salma was one of the most eagerly anticipated films at this year’s festival. Its director, Kim Longinotto, was the recipient of the Doc/Fest Inspiration Award in 2010 and this new film follows on her track record of tackling controversial topics.
The film’s depiction of personal artistic expression overcoming oppressive circumstances is in itself enough to draw you in, but this is also a fascinating insight into a closed culture. Thanks to Longinotto’s ability to extract honest contributions from her subjects, we get first-hand accounts of a religious-based patriarchal tradition that is entirely constructed on the suppression of women and their womanhood.
Although it slightly lacks in visual economy, the film’s greatest strength simultaneously lies in its capturing of subtle details. The director’s acknowledgement in the subsequent Q&A of the possibility of having got the balance between the poetry and the factual wrong was refreshing, and the reasons she presented were more than valid from a filmmaking perspective.
One of the benefits of checking Doc/Fest email updates as you progress through your day is that you come across very interesting last-minute additions to the schedule. For me, this came in the shape of a presentation in the Crossover Lounge with Tom Perlmutter, Government Film Commissioner and Chairperson of the National Film Board of Canada.
There, this soft-spoken professor-like figure introduced us to a brand new, yet-to-be-named digital platform the NFB will be launching which is set to revolutionise access, commissioning, distribution and promotion of documentaries. He was quick to highlight the difference between this service and platforms like Netflix. My favourite point was his criticism of their “missed opportunity of making navigation a tool for discoverability”. From what I heard, the heart is in the right place and this tool is set to be a game-changer for both documentary makers and doc enthusiasts alike.
Evening came, and with it The Fear of God, screened at the Library Theatre. Another prestigious inclusion in the Films on Film strand, this was an extended version of a well-known BBC documentary celebrating 25 Years of The Exorcist and benefitted immensely from the presence of its director, Nick Freand Jones, and its presenter, the critic Mark Kermode.
The film is almost as much of a relic as The Exorcist itself, for it features pretty much every single key contributor with insightful recollections. Whether you love or hate The Exorcist, it is definitely a film that captures something that goes beyond dramatic content. The documentary touches upon that, but never truly dissects it – precisely because, whatever ‘that’ is, it is not tangible, let alone explainable in words. Arriving just in time for the Q&A, Kermode was not only the source of further anecdotes about the film, but a genuine, sincere presence. His love for The Exorcist is touchingly undiminished with time and he was at his most captivating when he expressed his more personal and private feelings about the film.
With one step after the other, and that very specific sense of purpose, I finally arrive at the Crucible, where the appropriately named From The Godfather to The God Particle masterclass is taking place. And the speaker is no other than Walter Murch.
For those who require an introduction, Murch is the editor of The Godfather films, along with other Coppola classics such as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. For me and many others, this is a man whose knowledge, technique and commitment to the art form have become a crucial influence.
Whether you’re watching any of the films he cut and designed the sound of, or reading his vivid metaphorical after-thoughts in the various books and interviews published through the decades, you’re always invariably learning and getting inspired. His knowledge and personal interests span a huge variety of areas, which in turn inform and enrich the art he’s become a master of. All this makes him a fascinating individual to listen to and this masterclass a privilege to attend.
The occasion for Walter Murch’s presence at the Doc/Fest is the World Premiere of the documentary Particle Fever, co-winner of the Audience Award, which has been blessed with his discernment and unparalleled skill. The masterclass was bookended by Iranian filmmaker Taghi Amirani’s enthusiasm in the shape of a passionate introduction and a very well conducted Q&A. As for the contents: everything you would expect and more.
Murch managed to deliver a session that was never over-reliant on retrospective. He made each stage current and relevant by drawing comparisons with a variety of socio-political aspects. It was a real treat to watch the ‘Prague Spring of 1968’ segment from one of my favourite films – The Unbearable Lightness of Being – and have the man responsible for putting it together describe the process. This wonderful blending of documentary and dramatic footage recreates a pivotal moment of unrest that benefitted from the first comprehensive coverage and worldwide dissemination from unknown sources. Murch had to travel around the world gathering this material. Today, as he put it, the other ‘springs’ only require a smartphone and social networking.
His thoughts on music were enlightening and humorous in equal measure. If film is “time-based, modular and specific”, music is “time-based, modular and abstract”. They go well together, because “they compensate for each other’s excesses”. The audience loved his comparison of music with saliva – something that “helps digestion of the visual content” – and the way he equated the inclusion of music in most films with the use of steroids – something that boosts the immediate sensorial experience, but is empty and detrimental in the long run.
The essence of the art of filmmaking was crystallised in the final image Murch projected: the black box and the snowflake (control vs. spontaneity). In relation to this concept, he left us with a question: “In this digital age, where do you want to place yourself in this spectrum?”
Our eternal search for answers permeates through the entire length of Particle Fever. This gripping film is set against the backdrop of the running of the biggest and most expensive experiment in the history of science – the Large Hadron Collider. But at its core lies the pursuit of the elusive Higgs boson, also known as the God particle.
Theoretical and experimental physicists are brought together here via personal behind-the-scenes portrayals that captivate and engage through their personality. The science is also made accessible thanks to their on-screen presence.
From a filmmaking perspective, we have a fine-tuned documentary which alternates between carefully-crafted imagery and looser handheld material which brings a sense of immediacy to key moments. Walter Murch’s touch can be felt throughout. In other words, there are no expendable shots and it is sharply put together from an overwhelming amount of footage.
Music plays a key part in bridging between the vital information – near hieroglyphic for most of us – and our experience of the film as a whole. One of my favourite moments, which contrasts with other more high-tech scientific aspects, is when revered theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed ceases to express ideas through words and virtually attacks the black board with mathematical formulas. The percussive music alternates with each bang of the chalk on the board with such momentous power that you feel you’re witnessing a primal form of expression – something which is later mirrored in his mention and inclusion of footage from Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.
As we exit the subsequent Q&A, I’m reassured by the sudden appearance of Head of Press Sarah Harvey. She’s here to secure my postponed interview with Walter Murch. After we begin to follow the unassuming master of filmmaking, her assistant finds time to point at the large Twitter feed being projected on the side wall: “Sarah just tweeted where we’re going. Up there…”
It reads, “On my way to the Yellow Bus with Walter Murch.” Only now it feels real, I find myself thinking…
But it also brings to mind certain overheard comments from previous days, when delegates complain about the lack of apps that would make their Doc/Fest experience easier, instead of having to browse through what they called the Yellow Pages for screenings and sessions. An unfair criticism which highlights how spoiled and dependent on technology we have become.
As I place my Kindle next to Murch, in the comfort of the appropriately near-sound-proofed yellow bus, he looks down at the audio recording app and clicks his fingers to see the sound wave alter shape in real-time.
Having just come out of the screening and Q&A of Particle Fever, I guess it makes more sense to begin with the question: Can you highlight any subtle differences between editing factual content and fictional material?
With factual content you are obliged to be respectful of the facts. Inevitably gets into ambiguous areas. I think the equivalent would be somebody translating from one language to another. You certainly have to translate the essence of what is being said. If you do a literal translation, on the other hand, that can be counter-productive and work against it.
So we are respectful of the reality but we also interpret reality, because we’re moving from one medium to another – the medium of reality and the medium of film – and you just have to accommodate certain things. Whereas in a theatrical invention, you have to obey some laws like… gravity, I guess, but other than that it’s questions of dramatic plausibility.
There’s a great line from Leo Rosten, the writer, who said “Truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” Reality doesn’t have to make sense, so that’s one of the challenges of making a documentary film – making sense of something that, on the face of it, has no obligation to make sense.
You touched upon something which is sort of half an answer to another question of mine, so I’ll go straight to that one. Do you find any parallels between your work in translation and your approach and experience as an editor and sound designer?
Yes. I think there are, for me, and it was a discovery that I made. I didn’t suspect this, but when I started doing translation, from Italian (in this case) to English, it felt like coming home. It felt very familiar, because the kinds of questions you ask yourself in film editing are in fact very similar to the ones you ask yourself when you’re doing a translation. Again, it’s the borderline between a literal translation and something that is a better figurative translation of the essence of what is being said. Should I use this word, which is the literal translation, or should I use a metaphor that gets at something the author is trying to get at?
So it’s actually very good for me. When I finish a film, I have all of this excess energy and so it’s very relaxing spending a couple of weeks doing translations – to just gradually come back down to some kind of normal life for a while, until it starts all over again.
Let’s go back to the editing process, then. This has to do with your analogy of the black box and the snowflake, the simplicity of which really impressed me.
Bearing in mind that the pursuit of control is very much a characteristic of directors and that editors, by default, seek and present options in the editing process, how do you balance them in your own work? Basically, your own black box and snowflake – how do you balance them up?
I think it’s different for every person, but in my case I think it has to do with a high degree of preparation and study, taking pretty detailed notes and then taking photographs of the set-ups and choosing the exact, most representative frame – working on, as you saw, the card structure (or the scene structure) of the story…
Once I’ve taken all that on board, once I’ve done that preparation, then it’s easier for me to be spontaneous. It’s kind of the equivalent of if you’re exploring a new territory in the Amazon and you didn’t have a map, you would tend to stick to the river because you knew as soon as you got away from that, you would be doomed. Whereas if you have a map then you are freer to go up on the top of a hill or the other side of it, because if you start to get lost, all you have to do is look at the map and you can find your way back. So I like that security of mapping out the territory so that, paradoxically, I get free to get lost…
I have a question about Touch of Evil. Is that all right?
This is me coming up with a bit of an analogy. You do it very well – you and your analogies and metaphors are excellent, but this is my own. And it comes from my admiration of Bach…
Right. Good, yeah…
I would compare your work in Touch of Evil to conductor Tom Koopman’s in J S Bach’s St Markus Passion, which he took the bold decision to complete. I realise you had Orson Welles’s original notes to guide you, but how daunting was it and how much second-guessing took place?
It was daunting. Just because Touch of Evil has such an iconic position in the history of film, and Orson Welles, clearly, as a person, has an iconic position. And I felt very fond of Orson Welles. I never met him, but I liked him. So I was definitely obliged to the situation, to take it very seriously. On the other hand, when I read his memo, it was so full of his personality. It just streamed of off the page – so much, that I felt he was around somewhere. It really felt like he’d come into the room and given me these pages and then gone around the corner to take a nap. So that made me very secure.
The strength of the personality filled in any ambiguous areas. He was not specific in the sense of ‘I want at this frame to trim the last twelve frames of a shot’. He never said anything like that. He would say, ‘I think we need to quicken the pace here’.
So there was interpretation, but it was in the context of a memo which was so rich with examples and references to other things that once I started doing it I felt very secure in the process.
The more I learn, the more I read about your work in The English Patient, the more I’m impressed by how much of a perfect tapestry you managed to attain with that film. You have made that film what it is, in my view, you probably disagree but…
Thank you, but obviously, [screenplay writer and director] Anthony Minghella was a huge…
Of course. And he was an incredibly humble man, so he would probably pass the ball back on to you. But from a filmmaking perspective, the thing that really stays with me most is how coherent you managed to make that tapestry, with all the shifts in time, but in a very elegant way.
Perhaps my next question goes against this notion, because I guess you’ve already done something that I suppose you wouldn’t change with The English Patient. But of all the films you’ve worked on, is there a sequence you would go back to adjust or another that you’re particularly proud of? Probably when the film comes out, enough work and time have been put into it for you to know that you’ve done your best…
Yeah, I mean, I work equally hard on every film. Some films don’t succeed commercially, others don’t succeed critically and other ones disappear and some have been big successes. But from my own perspective, it feels to me that I’m putting in exactly the same amount of work and thought process. That makes it hard for me to choose any sequence.
I was very impressed with Particle Fever, particularly because at times I felt – and I hope you don’t take this the wrong way at all – like it was your first film. There was a purity to the editing. It’s very clear that it benefits from your experience and your knowledge, but at the same time, with the sound it felt even more adventurous than your usual self. This is my first, visceral reaction. It felt very free in its choices.
Interesting… Well, it is my first film, in the sense that I never edited a feature documentary before, so that is true…
Walter Murch, thank you very much for your time.
OK, very good.
Before we go, I just have to do this…
At this point, I reach into my bag for my paperback copy of The Conversations: Walter Murch and The Art of Editing Film, which I often refer to as The Bible. The discreet master of Cinema sitting across from me checks the spelling of my name on my delegate pass and then signs his own.