As part of Beesum Communications involvement with the Weeneebeg Aboriginal Film and Video Festival, we will be printing various articles about the filmmaking process by Paul M. Rickard, the Executive Director of the festival.
What does a director do anyways? According to the Internet Movie Data Base (www.imdb.com/Glossary), a director is:
“The principal creative artist on a movie set. A director is usually (but not always) the driving artistic source behind the process, and communicates to actors the way that he/she would like a particular scene played. A director’s duties might also include casting, script editing, shot selection, shot composition, and editing. Typically, a director has complete artistic control over all aspects of the movie, but it is not uncommon for the director to be bound by agreements with either a producer studio.”
Although this definition applies to a movie set, it could as well apply to a director of documentaries, but instead of working with actors, you’re working with real people with real-life stories. But becoming a director for a movie is difficult, not everyone can do it, nor will they have the opportunity.
I remember reading a book once that had a professor of a film course ask his class of 100 students to put up their hand if they wanted to be a director. The whole class put up their hands. Then the professor asks, “Okay, everyone put your hands down, except for five.” So 95 per cent of the class put down their hands, and with the remaining five hands up, the professor says, “that’s how many of you will get to direct a film. If you’re lucky!”
The moral of this story is that everyone in film school wants to be a director, but in the real world, it will be difficult to become one. This is not to say you will not work in the business. If fact, there are many people working in film besides being directors. There are actors, editors, production assistants, gofers, or camera, sound, researchers, and writers. But to become a director, it takes a bit more hard work and chance to direct your own project. For me, it took over 10 years to direct my first project, and it was a documentary!
Even though I directed and shot documentaries for both Wawatay and CBC North over the years, those projects were always for someone else — projects I don’t call my own. I’m proud of the work I did there, but I think there is a difference in directing for other people and directing your own films. For one thing, directing your own films requires a lot more blood, sweat and tears into getting it made. The first film I consider my own was Ayouwin: A Way of Life that was aired on TVO as part of its Aboriginal film series back in 1987. My second film was Okimah which I directed at the National Film Board of Canada in 1989.
In fact, my first film was supposed to be Okimah! But nobody wanted to give me a chance to direct it, let alone get it started. It took me three years to get that film off the ground. At the time I was still training at the National Film Board of Canada as a cameraman and approached a producer about the idea of making Okimah. But it went nowhere. The impression I got was that they thought I was only a cameraman and didn’t know anything about directing. This kind of made me more determined to prove myself, and others that I could direct. So my plan was simple: direct and shoot a short documentary to show what I could direct. With the help of Wild Heart Productions and Catherine Bainbridge I proposed to do a documentary about my father on his trapline that will follow him over a course of two weeks. So with a small Hi8 camcorder and a soundman, I headed up north and shot the documentary.
I ended up shooting the whole process of setting a trap from start to finish with over 12 hours of video, which I had to edit to a 24-minute piece. It was a daunting challenge to get all that video into such a short amount of time. The documentary eventually aired on TVOntario as part of its Aboriginal film series. The cost of the video: $5,000 (one third of which came out of my own pocket).
It was a year later that I once again approached the National Film Board of Canada about Okimah, at which time I was a producer at Maamuitaau. Using my first directed documentary as collateral and the Okimah proposal in hand, I applied under the Aboriginal filmmakers program of the NFB. A producer, Germaine Wong, read my proposal and called me up to say she wanted to produce it for the NFB. This was June 1988. I didn’t renew my contract with CBC North and made a decision to take this opportunity to direct Okimah, which I thought might never happen again. Within three months I was out directing my second film.
My first challenge of directing was finding a cameraman. I know that I wanted to hire a cameraperson for this film because I didn’t want to direct and do camera myself, which takes a lot of time away from actually directing. But finding the right cameraman was difficult. I met with a lot of potential cameramen from Montreal and Toronto, but they were city folk-they either knew very little about the north, Cree people or living off the land. The last thing I wanted was a cameraman to complain about the living conditions at a goose camp. No toilets, make your own fire, put up your own tent and slug the equipment through the swamp, get wet and cold in the process. But I eventually found Nigel, a cameraman from Newfoundland who had experience working in the north and in Native communities. I also got to hire my friend Nick who was a soundman, and Robin as a camera assistant
But two weeks before I was to leave for the shoot, my producer and I got a call from the executive producer of the English department of the National Film Board, who wanted us to shoot the documentary on video instead of 16mm film. I said “no way.” And so did my producer. After a brief discussion and persuasion to why Okimah should be shot on film, the executive producer agreed. I guess she must have felt that the film did not require film, and that video was just as good. But I think there is noticeable difference to what is shot on film vs. video. Film has more of a real vibrant quality that you cannot get on video. Plus this was my first project to be actually shot on real film stock. There was no way I was going to shoot it on video. This was the National FILM Board of Canada after all.
The shooting lasted two weeks, five days spent in Moose Factory and the rest at the goose camp. I thank my family for participating and being so patient during the shoot. Especially my dad, who I now know will not do more than one take of a shot, which I learned the first time when I asked my dad to redo something he had already done because the camera wasn’t ready. He asked: “Why?” I had to explain that the camera wasn’t rolling and my dad got somewhat upset and said in Cree, “He’s (Nigel) is not doing a good job.”
As well, my dad got mad a couple of time with my film crew because they would scare off the geese that were approaching the blinds by moving around too much to get the shots and sounds. I had to explain to my crew that they had to keep quiet and still and at the same time try to capture the geese on film! It was a difficult shoot, but we managed to get what we could that ended up in the final film.
Okimah to me is my first great film. I think I did justice to what a traditional goose hunt is today for most Cree families in the James Bay region. I know some things are done differently in areas, but nonetheless it’s a good film. But I sometimes feel bad about other important scenes that never made it to the final cut, for example: gathering spruce boughs for the flooring of the tent, making cranberry jam, cooking the dried goose, setting snares, hunting for partridge and other small details that go on at a hunting camp. There was only so much time to put everything into an hour-long film.
One of the biggest challenges of working with my family was the Cree language and its translation on screen. When interviewing my parents, I know that they tell stories when answering questions, which is great. But to incorporate that into film can be difficult. For one thing there is the time limit of what to show and tell and the film/video medium cannot do justice to Cree storytelling. It was difficult to cut down my parents’ responses in Cree into what I ended up using in the final film. Plus, using subtitles was hard — how do you keep them short and to the point to what is being said in Cree without losing the meaning. It’s one thing for a Cree speaking person to hear and understand what someone is saying in the language, it’s another story for someone who needs subtitles. What I found most intriguing is audience reaction of Cree people in the north to people in the south. People back home had a wonderful time with my father’s stories and laughed at the right moments. But for those reading the subtitles — that did not happen. Subtitles will always be a challenge to use in films. Something for you up and coming filmmakers to think about.
The editing took over four months to complete. But in actual fact, the rough cut only took a month and a half, which looks similar to the final cut of the film. But having such a long time to edit gave me a chance to work out some of the finer details. In most cases outside of the National Film Board you don’t have that much time to edit. In editing Ayouwin and other videos, I only had 15 days. But being the NFB, I had the luxury of time to edit, something I don’t have now with my independent projects.
One last hurdle followed before completion – audience response. You’ve might have heard of audience response of a film before its release. It’s a time when an audience (in my case – other filmmakers) gets to ask questions and give feedback to the director of what works and what doesn’t. In some cases, their ideas are good, in others not so good. In one instance, people were confused of where all the hunting took place, which I clarified with voice-over. In another case, some audience members didn’t like the idea that a goose was alive after it was shot and a scene with my father chasing one as it tried to get away. People were squeamish about that. But I said, it part of the hunt. As well, some did not like the idea of using the killed goose as a decoy. Again it’s the way things are done up north. One comment that made me mad: “if it’s a traditional goose hunt, how come you use guns, boats and a helicopter.” I think the viewer was naive and thinks we all still live in teepees and hunt with bow and arrow. My response was “just because we adapted to new materials and tools, it doesn’t mean it’s not a traditional goose hunt.” But those scenes stayed it because that’s what happens at a goose hunt. I realized that showing a film like the goose hunt means something different to people in the south than it does up north.
The final stages went smoothly, which included sound effects, music and sound mixing, followed by a final print and showcasing the film. In all, it took one whole year from the time I proposed the film in June 1988 to final print in June 1989. The total cost of Okimah: approximately $350,000.
What did I learn from this whole process – it helps to show what you can do as a director by having made a small video at the start, which will give you more opportunities to make the films you really want to make and direct. As well it’s a good learning experience to work with seasoned professionals as your crew and learn from them. Also it helps to have a producer that believes in you and your film, and your vision. I think with all the experience I had from working at Wawatay, Maamuitaau and as a cameraman on other National Film Board productions gave me the basic know-how and confidence to make something special that I believe in, as in the case with Okimah.
Paul M. Rickard is a filmmaker from Moose Factory, Ontario, who has been involved in filmmaking for over 15 years. He directed Okimah and produced the series Finding Our Talk for APTN. In the next issue Paul will discuss hitting the festival circuit with Okimah – the parties, speeches, screening, awards – and finding a new job.