Or my process in creating the Northam Convergence Refugee Rights documentary.
In 2013 I made a film about a three day convergence to Northam detention center to protest for refugee rights. Since I put the film online a number of people in the campaign have told me they found the film very good.
Here is an article looking looking at a number of the things I did in the film, that I think is relevant to anyone making a film about a protest or activist group.
Clear central idea
From the outset I decided to make a film about refugee rights activists and the campaign to end mandatory detention. With a focus on the politics of the reasons it exists and why fighting against it is important.
This helped right throughout the production from what questions to ask in interviews, what to shoot (and not to, so I didn’t have too much footage to go through) and what to cut in the edit.
It is also useful in avoiding going down a couple of tangent’s and losing people’s interest with a lot of ideas and stories that aren’t connected in a coherent structure.
Understanding the issue and campaign
Having filmed a few refugee rights convergences to detention centres and generally being in touch with the campaign I have a fairly good understanding of the issue.
This allows me to have an idea of how the actions would play out thus knowing what to film and especially in the case of interviews what questions to ask so I could draw out important points. It also helped compensate for not having any time for pre production.
Quick tip: if you really are pressed for time and don’t have much background knowledge, reading a couple of articles can help a lot.
I used a dual narrative for the film, one being about the convergence and the actions as they unfolded the second being more like an essay and going through the broader issues.
The convergence had a good progression of events from arriving and experiencing the shock of the immense security of Northam detention centre to a vigil at night that was emotionally engaging followed by a protest the next day and finishing off with dance journalism that climaxed with a couple of arrests.
Then the analytical side worked into the actions, which in many cases is a natural fit. Like talking about the important of the campaign making connections with refugees set against the backdrop of the vigil that could be seen from the detention centre.
I think it is important to use the streams together, you need the narrative of the event to drive the film and keep the viewer interested but it will be lacking if it doesn’t have the political analysis, which far too many films leave out.
Filming the protests
This is the first time I’ve used a monopod to film a protest and I wish I’d started using one earlier. Having filmed handheld, which is often too shaky especially during long speeches. Used small rigs that I find are too heavy over a long shoot. Tripods are nice for speeches but then too cumbersome to knock of several shots of people chanting or marching. Having a monopod gave me the right combination of speed, versatility and steadiness.
I tried to get as much variety as possible, which is particularly important in keeping a half hour film visually engaging. Too many films just have a wide shot, which is good in establishing the scene and if it’s a large crowd will be inspiring. However if thats all you see, the film will get boring.
I got shots of people chanting both groups and individual shots, these worked well for montages. Banners, placards and flags looked great as overlay footage for interviews. Then the candlelight vigil and dance journalism kept the film visually interesting.
I shot everything from a variety of angles not just eye level. Since we see pretty much everything from eye level, shots from different angles are more likely to engage someone visually.
Then I got shots of the detention centre without any activists in the frame. This was great to illustrate comments people made at just how inhumane and intense the security of the place is (guess I should thank the government for setting up multiple lines of police, horses and dogs just to articulate what the place is like).
Worth noting most of my footage is of activists protesting and this goes back to my central theme of being about the campaign to end mandatory detention.
Quick tip: Hold your shots still, ideally for ten seconds. Especially when on placards as they make great overlay footage for interviews which generally set a slower pace than chanting, thus you might not want to change shots quickly. Too many times I see placards flash on and off the screen before I can even read what’s on them.
The key thing I wanted technically was clear sound and a background that wasn’t distracting. I used a lavalier mic to get the sound and in most instances found a quiet spot at the camp with the tress in the background.
I did this to keep the audience focused on what the person was saying rather than being distracted by something going on in the background. This is especially important if someone does show emotion when making a comment, so you can capture it clearly.
The interviews are really important in getting across the political analysis. Whilst there were two speaking platforms, which worked well for passionate moments or introducing a topic the interviews are stronger at keeping the viewer engaged with a lengthier analysis of the issues.
I staggered the interview over the convergence, allowing me to get a comment about most events. People are most likely to talk about what is fresh in their mind. If I had done all the interviews at the end of the convergence, the best comments would have predominantly being about the dance journalism. Whilst being good, I also needed something about how people felt towards the vigil and arriving.
Don’t feel worried about asking people for an interview (I sometimes feel shy and nervous, for reasons unknown) as the vast majority of people I’ve asked say yes.
Quick tip: Come up with a few questions before any interview. Nearly 90% of the time when I ask: “is there anything else you want to say?” people say no, regardless of wether I’ve asked two or seven questions. Yet when I ask something like “what are the underlying causes of mandatory detention, like scapegoating…” I often get really good articulate answers. Knowing what questions to ask goes back to having a central idea and being familiar with the issue.
It’s in the editing process that I build the structure of the film, especially as I didn’t have a script to work off.
My process went like this:
- Watched through all the interviews to find the best bits and then organise them into a coherent structure, where every issue raised built upon the last.
- Next I went through the speeches and pulled the best bits out and put them with the interviews, though in this case I was placing the speeches with the action they where spoken at.
- I refined this constantly, over half my time editing was spent doing passes over the timeline until I got it all place. Including removing a lot of thinking words like “um” until the film flowed. Every new pass I got a little bit more comfortable with cutting some comments shorter and getting rid of others.
- Then I dressed it up with overlay footage, montages and music.
- I tried to keep the overlay footage relevant to what the people are saying and if it wasn’t possible then I didn’t use it. As opposed to having a bunch of footage playing that made no connection whatsoever to what people are talking about and just left the viewer wondering what is going on and thus disengaging.
- For montages I focused on people chanting, holding candles or dancing. Stuff that has movement in it and with the chanting could get some messages across. I often opened scenes with montages to set the mood and engaging the audience before explaining what the action is about and people’s connection to it.
- For music I used creative commons songs, though I didn’t flood the film with them. Mostly it was used for emotional moments to set the tone, such as when people are talking about the importance of protesting at detention centres in letting refugees know people care about them. For the actions I relied heavily on David Rovics’ “no one is illegal” song. David Rovics’ puts most of his music out under a creative commons licence, it is a great source for songs to go with protest films.
- Next up was audio mixing and levelling. This entailed making adjustments to the audio in the film, so you didn’t have to adjust the volume whilst watching. As well as getting the right balance between chanting in the background of interviews, as I wanted more depth in the audio of the interviews than just dialogue.
- Then came colour grading. For this I basically made all the shots of people protesting warmer so the viewer was more comfortables with them and contrasted this to shots of the detention centre which were cooled down to encourage the audience to feel uncomfortable towards the centre. Kind of played on the idea of bringing warmth to cold places, there is a shot at the start of the film that transitions from being cold when it is on the centre to warm when it pans to the activists. For the interview’s I created vignettes around them to further keep the audience focused on the person speaking.
- Finally I created titles for the people speaking and did credits. I avoided using titles to explain what each event is, as I think that comes across more powerfully if you can show what the event is.
Quick tip: use multiple passes over the edit instead of trying to get each section right before moving on to the next. Else you risk getting worn out when you hit the end and you won’t have the energy to do a good conclusion.
I hope this is helpful and feel free to ask any questions or give your own tips.