by Matylda Wierietielny 03/08/2015
The first two weeks were hard. Apart from all sorts of difficulties that had to do with adopting to a new, unfamiliar environment I have never before visited, a thought that haunted me was: what have I been thinking? That I can just randomly arrive in Havana with no pre-established connections to the music industry and somehow meet someone suitable for my project who agrees to participate, who has the time and who makes a good film character? The clock was ticking and I wasn't even sure how to start.
Then one day by a strange coincidence I met someone who put me in touch with someone who gave me a direct phone number to José Luis Cortés, a musician credited as the creator of timba back in the 80s. The next day I called him, two hours later I was on my way to his recording studio and that same evening I started filming. Don't try to convince me that filmmaking is not predominantly about being lucky.
But the reflections I want to share with you have to do with the mode of filming and are prompted by Giulia's post Observational vs. Collaborative Filmmaking. Unlike Giulia, I didn't do much careful thinking about my filming style, mostly because I had about 6 hours between the phone call and the moment when I turned the camera on for the first time. Worse still, I started the project shamelessly unprepared. I did read about José Luis a lot in academic books but there was no way for me to check out his photos online before the meeting which led to a disaster of me not knowing which person of all the people in the studio was him and asking him for his name, a question that I believe he hasn't been asked in a while. Very soon during that first meeting I realized that the choice I am facing is not: collaborative vs. observational, the choice is: should I go ahead and film with José Luis and his band or should I withdraw politely and hope for another lucky coincidence. I considered staying or leaving because it was clear that if I decide to stay I will have to play entirely by their rules: adjust to their schedule, film what and when they let me to film but also assume their lifestyle to some extent. José Luis is a person that likes to do things his way. I had my doubts but I stayed.
It seems to me that the filming mode is very much conditioned by the film's subjects and their circumstances. I like the idea of collaborative filmmaking but in my case it simply wasn't an option. The musicians let me film everything I wanted to film but the idea was: we do our job, you do yours. They were too busy with rehearsals, recordings and performances and I don't think it would have worked well if I wanted to discuss the filming style with them or screen the footage and watch it together. Two short interviews that I filmed were the only two meetings initiated by me for the purposes of the film. I also planned to initiate and film an informal conversation about timba among the brass section musicians but I never found a suitable time to do it. Everything else was things happening and me being there with the camera.
At the same time I feel very detached from the term 'observational filmmaking', from the kind of films David MacDougall and others made. In fact I felt very detached from the academia and academic filmmaking in its entirety. The one term that came to my mind once while filming was not observational cinema but, please don't judge, reality tv. That was because I accompanied José Luis in various situations: before and after performances, when he was happy, sad, tired, angry; I caught on film him laughing and making jokes but also him yelling at the band members. I had to remind myself to stop filming at times because what makes an interesting scene in a documentary film is at the same time somebody's life happening right there, on the other side of the lens. I can only hope that my filming was tactful. But an equally challenging task is already awaiting in the editing suite, a challenge as to how to adequately represent the complexities of what I have witnessed.