Showing posts with label Cuba. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Cuba. Show all posts

PRODUCTION JOURNAL: Making A Short Film with Abbas Kiarostami in 10 Days

RIP to the legendary Iranian filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami.

I can only think of two ways to honor the man; by watching his films and studying his filmmaking philosophy and methods.

Here are some of his movies that I recommend: Taste of Cherry, Close-up, and The Wind Will Carry Us.

In the meantime, here's a quick glimpse into Kiarostami's filmmaking philosophy and methods courtesy of Martin Snyders' article, "Here’s What It’s Like to Make A Short Film with Abbas Kiarostami in 10 Days":

After graduating from Columbia University and toiling for years as a screenwriter, I finally made my feature film debut in 2013 with an independent, romantic comedy called "Missed Connections." The film won multiple audience awards at festivals, reached number one on iTunes’ independent sales charts and The Playlist even suggested me as a "filmmaker to keep an eye on." Things were looking up. I went to Hollywood, represented by a major talent agency, drank numerous coffees and pitched a myriad of ideas and yet something was missing.
I didn’t know it at the time, but what it was, was telling stories that mattered to me and symbolized the kind of films I wanted to make. I was pitching ideas and working on scripts I thought could sell, all the while forgetting why I got into film in the first place — to tell stories of ups and downs, class and religious differences, self-identity, broken families, uprooting from one place to another. Actual life themes that had embedded to me like leaves to stone.  
So after a series of false starts on various movie projects, I put writing on hold, moved with my new family from New York to Texas and focused on a tech entrepreneurial venture. Film would have to wait…only it couldn’t. Through some divine intervention, I happened upon this Indiewire article on Abbas Kiarostami’s workshop in CubaAbbas Kiarostami? Cuba? Here, along with Louis Malle, Eric Rohmer and Michael Haneke, was a master filmmaker whose films I was incredibly passionate about. I thought, what better way to be immersed in film, strengthen my filmic voice, grow as a writer and deepen my artistic practice, than with the master himself — in Cuba no less.  
I knew I had to go on this journey so that I could find my passion again.
Weeks later, after arriving at EICTV, the renowned film school in Cuba, I was sitting in a theater, with 52 other passionate filmmakers, hearing Abbas Kiarostami, utter these words: 
"I’m not here to teach, I’m here to remind you of what you already know."
And thus began my 10-day filmmaking journey in Cuba as one of 52 participants in Abbas Kiarostami’s Workshop, produced by Black Factory Cinema in conjunction with EICTV. The program launched with a series of introductions, lectures and screenings, and culminated in each of us presenting our final short film in the Glauber Rocha Auditorium.
"Work begins with a theme," Kiarostami told us through a translator. "It makes things easier."
All of our films would be created with under the theme “Simply Cuba," which was selected by Abbas himself. In 10 days, we would have to write, cast, shoot and edit our film, in addition to helping others in whatever capacity was needed. I worked as a camera operator, translator, script consultant, producer and assistant director.  We would have to work under seemingly unattainable constraints, but Abbas’ certainty that we would be happy with ourselves, and our work, proved to be prophetic. 
That night, we all gathered under a thatched roof on campus and shared our backgrounds, drinks and danced — a mélange of filmmakers and artists from all over the world, open to the possibilities that lay before us, each hoping to feel a pinch of Abbas Kiarostami’s magic.
On the second day, we had to "pitch" our ideas to Abbas in front of one another. "Shorts don’t necessarily give us possibility," he said. "Keep them simple." The purpose was not just to get his approval to move forward with filming, but for him to help us streamline our concepts: "If you can’t explain your story succinctly, you don’t know your story. Explain the image, the visuals. Who? How old? How do we see it? Imagine you’ve set the camera and are ready to roll."  
It was in the spaces between our pitches where I found most of Abbas’ pragmatic insights into filmmaking and storytelling: "Begin with the people and the location…match the characters to their real location…this doesn’t mean it will be a documentary, when you inject your story it becomes personal…short stories need an ending; you need a small adventure; something unexpected. Build the story image by image."
That night my story would begin to take shape, fall apart more than once and transform into something new before shooting my first frame.
"Don’t fall into doubt," Kiarostami advised. "If you see something you like, capture it."
Black Factory and the film school arranged location visits to a tobacco factory and several neighboring villages. It was at these locations and with the locals that we were advised to find our stories. It was amazing to see how 50 different filmmakers found 50 different stories all in the same place, each of us searching for inspiration and truth both within and out. It made me think of the quote by Virginia Woolf, "If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people."
And so I listened to people’s stories, asked questions and dug deep within to guide me to my story.
By the following (fourth) day, and what already seemed like months, I was working on two other filmmakers’ shorts, translating and AD’ing during the day on one and camera operating that night on another. It was like being in film school, attended only by collaborative pros, and inhabiting a romantic character in one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novels, who co-founded the Cuban school with Fidel Castro in 1986.  
Everything felt magical, surreal, and I could literally feel my abilities as a filmmaker growing, and an experience, unlike any other, manifesting before me.
However, this dreamlike haze would be short-lived. The following day, I lost my location and actors in a series of Kafkaesque episodes that ended with a definitive "no" from the powers that be at the tobacco factory (aka the Cuban government). As if that wasn’t enough, I was committed to working on another film (a wondrous tale about a grandmother, her granddaughter, a cow and a farmer) the following day, so for a moment it would seem that I would be leaving the program without a film.
But in Cuba, sometimes it’s best to let things take their course. So while on set the following day, I spent time during lunch talking to some of the people in Pueblo Textil and happened upon a story that resonated with me, a story about the sacrifices people make for their families. That night, drinking Havana rum and enveloped in a canopy of humidity, sounds and ideas, I wrote the script.
The following morning I put together my cast (professional actors were brought in for auditions at the school the previous day), found a location, consulted with Abbas and liaised with my producers so I could shoot the following night. While I directed professional actors in my short, many of the participants did work with non-actors, and Abbas offered some pearls of wisdom to those: "Get close with kindness; forgive their early mistakes; don’t direct them too much; let them lead their lives and record; you need to direct them in a way where they don’t feel it, and you will get what you want."
And the beauty about this advice is that I heeded it for my film as well. I created an environment where the actors could inhabit the world and the emotions of the story I had written. All I did was block the movements, set the camera and watch in awe as they worked. 
The second half of the workshop we spent editing and finishing our films. Some finished quickly and jutted to Havana an hour away, while others, myself included, spent countless hours obsessing over every cut, every line of dialogue and every minute detail. As any filmmaker knows, it’s in post where the ingredients come together. And it was here, during post, where the words of Abbas began to take shape; the aphorisms, poetic asides and words of wisdom began to reveal themselves in the film I was making. "If you learn the formula you will be a copycat," Kiarostami told us at one point. "The art is in the variety."
Not only had I written and directed something unlike anything I had previously made, but I had also done the cinematography, a challenge I feared, but ultimately came to face. In the end, I think every filmmaker in the workshop came to face a unique obstacle and each came away having grown because of it. Of the 52 films presented on the final day, no two were alike. There were dreamscapes, stories about friendship, a lost dog, sexuality, hope, fishing, broken families, love, a myriad of stories that define who we are and who we want to be all beautifully wrapped in a ribbon of what was, "Simply Cuba."
As the lights descended in that same Glauber Rocha theater where it all began, and the first film came up, a tale about a sister on a voyage to deliver her sick twin ropa vieja, I couldn’t help but smile, with a tinge of sadness that it was coming to an end. The magic, lunacy and beauty of the past two weeks — the friendships built, the experiences shared, passions reignited and the knowledge imparted by our friend and teacher Abbas. So while I would like to believe that the result of my film "Cinco Años (Five Years)" was what was in me, in my "capacity," I can’t help but acknowledge that it was also a result of Abbas Kiarostami’s time with us. 
Nevertheless, he was humble about the process. "I have nothing to teach you," he said. "The result is what was in you."
In closing, I’m reminded of the photo I posted on Instagram of my three-month old daughter the morning I left for Cuba. I wrote "with heady anticipation I depart for what I hope to be a life transforming experience — 2 weeks in Cuba to make a film as a participant in Abbas Kiarostami’s workshop. My goal is to leave this trip a better filmmaker, artist and person." While becoming a better artist and person remains to be seen, I can certainly say, I came away a better filmmaker. 
Thank you to Abbas Kiarostami, Ahmad Taheri, Liliana Diaz, Estephania Bonnett and Juliana Revelo from Black Factory Cinema, Yaite Luque, Tanya Valette, and all the others at EICTV, the beautiful people of Pueblo Textil, and of course, my actors and fellow filmmakers for this tremendous experience and gift.
We’re going to be launching a campaign soon to help us promote our film at international festivals. Please sign up here for details on fundraising, premiere and screenings.

CASE STUDY: The Fidel Castro Tapes

I normally reach out to filmmakers and producers when I write a case study but it is a long and involved process of outreach and interviewing and then creating the case study for Film Strategy. Lately, I have been busy with my legal work but I am also developing a documentary based on archival footage and photography and so I have been doing my research on all fronts. Lo and behold, I ran across this case study on a PBS documentary about Fidel Castro based on archival footage, The Fidel Castro Tapes, at Peter Hamilton's great website: Because I found it so useful, I felt I had to share it. 

We wondered about the challenges of creating an archive-based film about an 88-year old Spanish-speaking personality who can be dangerously controversial, and who is the founding father of a government whose people are still blockaded by the US. 
Castros producer Tom Jennings earned a Peabody with the Smithsonian Channel for MLK: The Assassination Tapes. We covered in depth his ‘no narration, no interview approach at last year’s MIPDOC. 
Here is our Fidel Case Study in which we explore with Tom my favorite genre, archive-based History. 
  • The original concept came from Hamish Mykura at National Geographic Channel International.
  • “I met with Hamish at MIPCOM in Cannes to explore ideas.  It turned out that he liked my style of using archival footage to tell stories – shows that have no narration and no interviews, but that let the edited archives tell our stories. Hamish wanted to tell the life story of Fidel Castro in the same style.”
Pre-production Planning
  • Jennings did some basic checking to be sure there was enough footage, especially English-language clips that could tell the story.
  • There was a concern that telling Castro’s 70-year political career would be too much to realize in the ‘no narration’ approach.
  • “We considered adding interviews.  In the end, we decided to try the ‘no narration’ style, and if it didn’t work we would use a narrator. “
  • NGC International negotiated the U.S. rights with PBS.
  • NGCI would be the lead network.
  • “We then had to find a balance between how NGCI and PBS wanted the story told.”
Key Terms
  • PBS had U.S. broadcast rights, while NGCI had international rights.
  • “There were a few sticking points – mostly regarding rights in the Caribbean.  I’m told this is a common sticking point for copro’s these days.”
  • Jennings regains rights to the international program after 10 years.
Key Challenges 
We asked Tom to describe his ‘Big 5’ challenges:
  1. Fidel in English
    “Finding as much footage as possible where Castro speaks English. It’s out there, and we found it from NBC, CBS, Critical Past, Yale University Archives, CBC Canada, and other sources.”
  2. Partner Balance
    “Striking a balance between NGCI and PBS.  The PBS show is 56 minutes.  The NGCI program is just under 45’. This was one of our most difficult issues, especially regarding licensing footage.  The additional footage in the PBS version would be for U.S. rights only.”
  3. Editorial Approach
    “Halfway through the production, after the first rough cut, the networks agreed that narration would be needed – Fidel Castro’s story was too vast to rely solely on news reporting.  This required a fresh approach, which slowed us down a bit.  However, once we turned that corner and each network was happy with the narrative style, the process moved smoothly.”
  4. Cost…
    “Sometimes the cost of footage is prohibitive.  We found an amazing interview with Castro by the CBS talk show host Ed Sullivan—it was recorded just days after the revolution, and in Havana!  It was remarkable and I very much wanted it in the show.  However, not only was the CBS fee for the footage extremely high, but its use required clearance from Ed Sullivan’s estate and perhaps additional fees.  In the end, my team talked me out of the Sullivan footage.  We would have spent 20 percent of the footage budget on 30 seconds of the show!”
  5. … And More Cost
    “Cost again came into play as we finished the edit.  Rare archival footage can be expensive.  And even though we were using a lot of footage from Cuba, the U.S. network footage was adding up.  This led to awful moments when we had to decide – ‘do we keep this shot and cut something else?  Or do we cut it so we can use three times as many other shots in the show?’ It’s never an easy process, but to stay within budget it has to be done. “
Key Sources / Costs 
  • More than 40% of the footage came from Cuba.
  • “Their footage is inexpensive.  We paid $200 a minute from one archive in Cuba – compared with anywhere from $50-100 a second for similar US footage.”
  • “You must work with Cuban archivists to access their material since their logging system is not the best.  Everything was on three-quarter-inch tape.  We would pull the reels from which we wanted footage, and one of their editors would cue up the shots and then make 1-to-1 copies onto a Beta tape.  It took time, but it was worth it.”
  • “We used several other footage sources.  We believe NBC has the best archive of news material of the major US networks.  They have worked with us on several footage-only shows, and once again unearthed material in their vaults that no one knew existed. “
AP Archive
  • AP Archive was terrific in finding stills of Castro that had long been dormant.  They had hundreds of great images, many of which had not been seen in decades.
  • “Finally, one surprising source was the State of Florida archives.  Florida has collections from residents who gave their personal photographs to the archive.  A man from Key West donated hundreds of photos taken during the Mariel Boat Lift.”
  • “These photos were free, so long as we credited the State of Florida.  It was a great resource and the unpublished photos made the show feel that much more unique. “
Complete List of Sources
  • AP Images; 
  • The Associated Press Corporate Archives; 
  • George W. Bush Presidential Library; 
  • CBS Television Archive Sales; 
  • CNN ImageSource; 
  • Corbis; 
  • Critical Past; 
  • Cubavision Internacional; 
  • Getty Images; 
  • Historic Films; 
  • ITN Source; 
  • ICAIC; 
  • John F. Kennedy Presidential Library; 
  • Los Angeles Times; 
  • National Archives and Records Administration; 
  • National Press Club; 
  • NBCUniversal Archives; 
  • NewsHour Productions LLC; 
  • Ronald Reagan Presidential Library; 
  • Roberto Salas; 
  • Andrew St. George; 
  • State Archives of Florida; 
  • T3 Media; 
  • United Nations Photo Archive; 
  • University of Maryland Special Collections; 
  • Cuban Revolution Collection; 
  • Yale University; WAMU 88.5.
Getting There
  • “Going to Cuba as a journalist takes time.  The U.S. requires a visa, as does Cuba through the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C.  They need to know as much as possible about your project – concept, key points, materials needed in Cuba, etc.  Juan Jacomino is the helpful second secretary.”
Cash Only
  • “Once you’re in Cuba – as an American – everything has to be paid in cash.  American credit and debit cards do not work — hotels, meals, taxis AND the cost of the footage all had to be paid for in cash.  We took $15,000 in cash.  To make things more difficult, we could not pay in $U.S. for the footage.  We had to transfer our dollars to Cuban pesos.  The exchange rate varies wildly depending on your location, so we were constantly looking for places that had the best rate.”
Fixer / Translator
  • “Also, I highly recommend hiring a driver/ fixer for transportation and help with getting things done.  There are several who assist U.S. news organizations and one was available for our trip.  Our guy, Jaime Robles made life much easier.”
  • “One of my AP’s Elka Worner, had been to Cuba many times and is fluent in Spanish.  Bring your own Spanish-speaking translator to Cuba — and don’t rely on the Cuban translators, who may not understand American English.”
Total Cost
  • “I can’t share the budget: it was competitive for a one-hour cable doc.”
Footage Share
  • “When we do these footage-only shows, nearly half of the budget covers footage costs.”
  • “The footage drives the show, and since there is no shooting involved, every frame of footage has to come from an outside source.”
  • “Underneath a lot of that footage we had to put recordings of radio and TV reporters.  The images were rare, but we couldn’t use just VO underneath the entire time to tell the story.  Hence, the need for radio and TV reports, which we had to pay for.”
  • Travel & production: 10%
  • Post: 20%
  • Footage & production elements: 40%
  • Staff / overhead: 30%
The entire process from first meeting with NGCI to Delivery was 18+/- months. 
  • Six months to negotiate the contract between the two networks.
  • “This can take longer than just dealing with one network.  Producers are responsible for any discrepancies between the two contracts, so a good lawyer is needed to ensure that everything agreed upon is correct.”
  • A few weeks talking with image vendors to get screeners of what they had.
  • “It took a few months to work things out with the Cuban archivists.  Once we had all the footage in house, the rest was editing.  Our editor worked on the first rough cut for six weeks.”
  • “Once we decided to re-tool the show with narration, it took about another six weeks to get it up to speed.  The main difficulty with the edit was trying to keep as much of the NGCI version in the PBS version.  We didn’t want to wind up doing two separate shows for the price of one.  While we came close to keeping both versions the same, it was difficult.  Each network had their own preferences, so we did our best to deliver two “very similar” versions of the show.”
Key Contacts
  • PBS: Sumner Menchero was the assistant director for PBS providing day-to-day oversight and editorial notes, while Bill Gardner was VP of Programming and Development with ultimate oversight on the project.
  • NGCI: Hamish ‘got things going, and Carolyn Payne was our EP and who guided us through their end of the process.’
  • PBS:  The Fidel Castro Tapes
  • NGCI:  Fidel Castro:  The Lost Tapes
  • PBS broadcast their version on Sept. 2, 2014.
  • NGCI has not set a date.
  • Reviews for the program were very positive, including here by Mark Feeney in the Boston Globe.
Watch the episodes on PBS.
Visit The Fidel Castro Tapes website.

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist

The COVID-19 “Get Back to Filmmaking” Checklist A 40-point checklist from development to post-production   by Danny Jiminian