Developing Factual Ideas
Development Lessons From Three of the Best Films at IDFA 2013
2013 was another enjoyable year of festival going including Cannes Film Festival (where I enjoy eavesdropping on producers in the American Pavilion) and Sheffield Doc/Fest (where I tend to prioritize industry panels over screenings). However, IDFA in Amsterdam is always my chance to concentrate fully on watching films over anything else and typically watch around 25+ films over the course of several days. This focused immersion in documentaries is guaranteed to be thought-provoking and often throws up several interesting themes or trends; here’s a round up of my top three favourite films from IDFA 2013 with an attempt to articulate what makes them successful. I’ve chosen these documentaries on the basis that of the 22 films I saw these were the ones I found most enjoyable and that have stayed with me, and I would definitely watch them all again.
But beyond being enjoyable, what can we learn from these films that could help us when developing and pitching our own films? As I’ve noted before, buyers like to see the following in a pitch – and by extension audiences like to see in the finished film:
- Unique access to a person or place
- A compelling narrative, preferably still unfolding
- New light shed on a familiar subject
- Passion and/or expertise in a subject on the part of the filmmaker
- A unique approach to storytelling
- A topical hook or timeless story
- Universal themes that audiences around the world can identify with
In no particular order here are my top three films from IDFA 2013.
Morgan Neville’s joyous documentary shines a spotlight on the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, Judith Hill and Jo Lawry. Most of these women started singing in church choirs and had spent their lives making other (often inferior) singers sound good. Some found bliss in living this lifestyle, others found it purgatory. At once triumphant and heartbreaking, the film acts as a tribute to the singers who brought shape and style to some of the most memorable songs in popular music such as The Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. Intimate interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Sting are interwoven with rare archival footage and a spine-tingling soundtrack; but the stars of the film are undoubtedly the backing singers, some of whom had decided that, having seen the pitfalls of fame from twenty feet away, they preferred to stay in the shadows.
- Work with an insider who can give you unique access and insights during the development phase. Neville, an experienced director of music documentaries, was hired by Gil Friesen, an industry veteran from A&M Records who had the idea to make a film about the people behind the spotlight. This pairing provides passion and expertise, both valuable assets when pitching a film to funders.
- Find a question that will set your film rolling and give it it’s narrative shape. Friesen’s original question was “What goes on in the world of back-up singers?” The film actually seems to ask the question: What happens to back up singers? Although the narrative is largely told in retrospect, the film is structured in a way that tells the history of back up singers, and therefore provides us with an unfolding narrative, especially as the archive footage allows us to watch as the women age several decades over the course of the film.
- Identify what will capture the audience’s attention and give them a reason to care. Neville was well-versed in obscure music history, but it soon became apparent that he wasn’t the only one who didn’t know much about backing singers; there were no websites and no books. There was a real knowledge gap to fill and an untold story to tell, so suddenly he had a quest. This film both sheds new light on a familiar subject and also has a compelling ‘underdog’ theme that all audiences can relate to.
This observational documentary is an intimate portrait of a marriage. Ushio and Noriko Shinohara are Japanese artists living in New York. Married for forty years, and bound by years of quiet resentment, disappointments and missed professional opportunities, they are locked in a hard, dependent love. The film begins in Brooklyn, where the couple struggles to manage their creeping poverty. Examining each artist’s complicated history, the film reveals the roots of their relationship. Ushio Shinohara achieved notoriety in postwar Japan for his avant-garde “boxing” paintings, and in 1969 set out for New York City in search of international recognition. Three years later, at age 19, Noriko left Japan to study art in New York and was instantly captivated by the middle-aged Ushio. She abandoned her education and her wealthy family’s support to become the wife of an unruly husband and, a year later, mother of their only son, Alex.
At 80, Ushio continues to obsessively pursue the painting and sculpture he crafted half a century ago. Coming off a recent, poorly received show in which he sold no work, he’s become increasingly desperate to establish his legacy in the final years of his life. Meanwhile, Noriko, 59, is at last coming into her own. With a renewed passion for art, she throws herself into illustration with her “Cutie” series, which viscerally and humorously depicts her challenging past with Ushio. Through “Cutie”, she channels the unpleasant aspects of her life into a body of paintings and drawings steeped in a colorful explosion of woman power, sensuality, and fantasy that acts as a counterbalance to the reality of Ushio. The film leads to a joint exhibition offered to both artists, providing Noriko with a long-awaited opportunity to show her new work to the public. The two work—together and apart—to prepare for the installation.
Through present-day vérité scenes, archival footage and animated sequences of Noriko’s drawings, the documentary brings us to understand that the stark differences in the Shinoharas’ art and personalities are the basis for a deep and challenging symbiosis, one rooted in a vital creative spirit. At its core, Cutie and the Boxer is a film that reveals painful universal truths about the life of the artist and how the creative process intersects with reality, identity and marriage.
- Find compelling characters with an unfolding story. Director Zachary Heinzerling was introduced to Ushio and Noriko by producer Patrick Burns and was immediately drawn to their colourful personalities. This initial gut instinct is worth paying attention to – and noting down – as buyers and audiences will likely be drawn to the same things that you are. The challenge is to keep that feeling alive during a long, and probably difficult period of development. Great characters are one part of the equation; they ideally need a narrative arc that will unfold in front of the camera. What started out as a portrait of Ushio metamorphosed, once Noriko became more comfortable with the camera, into the story of her struggle to assert herself. She only recently had established her own studio space away from Ushio and begun to deal with their turbulent past through a series of drawings and paintings. The filming took place during a period of re-birth for Noriko. After years of playing back seat to her attention-grabbing husband, she was ready for someone to tell her side of the story.
- Identify the points of conflict within their relationship that the audience will identify with. The struggles that Ushio and Noriko have gone through, though intensely personal, are universal. Heinzerling saw their story as one that would not only appeal to art-lovers, but also wider audiences who could relate to Ushio and Noriko’s lives. Career disappointments, gender roles, marriage, aging—are issues we all encounter in adulthood.
Noriko Shinohara and Cutie (Photo courtesy of Dogwoof)
- Find a unique creative approach that will bring the story to life. The director did not want his film to be a biography of the artists’ lives and work, but rather a story that unfolded in a dramatic way—more akin to a narrative film. He decided that he wanted it to look and sound like a narrative film; to fully immerse the audience in the Shinoharas’ odd world. The textured cinematography and sound design help illustrate the way in which they live, bringing the dynamism of their work and lives to the screen. The music, composed by the prolific saxophonist Yasuaki Shimizu, plays off of the more imaginative and whimsical side of the Shinoharas’ life and art, but also hints at the pain and sadness that lies beneath their playful nature.Heinzerling was also influenced by Japanese Neo-realist cinema, films of intense inner turmoil and drama, that are presented in a very honest and unsentimental manner. The tension exists beneath the surface, and arises in moments that are more powerful because of the quiet anticipation that precedes them. Ushio and Noriko hold a lot of their pain within. They joke about their past marital problems, Noriko’s suffering, or their son’s troubled upbringing—but there is a lot of seriousness behind those jokes. He also uses animations of Noriko’s drawings of her alter-ego Cutie who suffers at the fate of her insensitive, husband Bullie. (“Bullie” plays on “bull” or ushi in Japanese, referring to Ushio.) As the stories from her art play out in dream-like sequences, the audience is transported into Noriko’s mind. Viewers simultaneously gain a deeper understanding of both Noriko’s past, and the method she uses to cope with it.
The film’s protagonist Arunachalam Muruganantham (known as Muru), is a school dropout who realised that women in rural India had a sanitary pad problem; they were risking infection by reusing damp rags. Having identified a problem he decided to do something about it and set out on an at times hilarious journey of discovery, experimentation and invention as he worked out how to make hygienic disposable sanitary napkins. He faced numerous obstacles, not least when his wife left him after accusing him of being a pervert, but overcame them to become an unlikely hero who has empowered rural women across India and beyond.
- Many western filmmakers travel abroad to find subjects but sometimes stories are best told by people who are local to the area. IDFA’s Head of Industry Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen was quoted during the festival as saying, “It’s more interesting to have filmmakers from that part of the world telling their stories, rather than outsiders.” With more and more funds being set up specifically to help fund filmmakers from developing and underrepresented countries this could give you an advantage when pitching if you have a personal connection to a particular region.
- Sometimes not being an expert in a subject can give you a storytelling advantage. Indian director Amit Virmani was interested in exploring issues of rural development and women’s empowerment in India but as an educated, middle class, overseas Indian, he was apprehensive. “How could I possibly have a sufficient understanding of the issues facing India’s poor? It’s bad enough when Westerners make patronizing “poverty porn” on India, but what if the condescension came from a fellow countryman?” However, when he found Muruganantham the pieces fell into place. “You know social entrepreneurship increasingly seems like the pastime of the rich? Affluent-types doing good in order to give something back to society, and so forth? Well Muru never got anything from society, yet here he was, giving something back nonetheless. This guy was on the outside by virtue of the fact that he was an insider!” And much of the charm – and humour – of the film comes from a man (two men, in fact) exploring a subject about which he had absolutely no education and less first-hand experience.
- Humour is a hugely powerful with which you can engage your audience. I missed the public screening of this film so watched it at the end of a very long day in the press suite. I’d barely got settled in to it before I had to stop the tape to tweet about the film:
Amit Virmani has achieved what many filmmakers find impossible: he’s made an entertaining ‘issue’-based documentary. I’ve watched dozens of documentaries on worthy subjects and this was the first that actually inspired me to visit the film’s website in search of a way to donate to the cause; turns out they don’t want money right now as it acts as a distraction from actual action in the field
. How refreshing!
Read Development tips from IDFA 2012