From the Binger DocLab workshop, Willemien Sanders looks into the development of The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song.

Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders, lecturer, department of media and culture studies, Utrecht University.

The autumn 2010 issue of DoX also reported on Doc Lab participants Jasmina Fekovic and Pietra Brettkelly. Some events Fekovic planned to include in her project on art collectors and collectormania were delayed and so is her project; she is still in preproduction. Brettkelly’s film, Maori Boy Genius, about Maori ngaa rauuira going to Yale, premiered on 13 February 2012 at the Berlinale.

In autumn 2010 DOX reported on Doc Lab, an 18-month documentary workshop initiated by the Amsterdam-based Binger Film Institute. The lab is aimed at developing selected projects from start to finish, hence its duration. Started in May 2010, we’re nearly two years on now. So what’s been happening since the kick-off? After the initial sessions in June 2010 (see DOX #87) the participants gathered in Amsterdam again in November 2010 to attend sessions about storytelling by Jennifer Fox, about narration and drama by John Appel, and about creative postproduction by Patrick Lindenmaijer.

In addition, Michael HaslundChristiansen conducted a case study around Armadillo and participants had an individual session around their projects with their mentors. Christy Garland is one of the participants and her project, The Bastard Sings the Sweetest Song, was mostly shot when she arrived in Amsterdam in autumn 2010. The Bastards was entered as a project about birdsong competitors in Guyana but the focus of the story has shifted somewhat to the main protagonists Muscle and his mom Mary.

For the November meetings the main question for Garland was what the purpose of her story was: “What is it that you want the audience to feel as they walk out of the theatre? How have their view been altered? What am I showing them that they don’t already know and how does it connect to their own lives?” she summarizes. Watching, analyzing, and discussing her footage with other filmmakers offered a muchwelcomed, fresh approach because they do not have the biases Garland has about the material: “Things that I had taken for granted, or never actually realized…”, such as the complex morality of her protagonists.

The post-production workshop seemed to come too soon but was actually well timed, or late if anything: “I found that part of this workshop would actually have been very useful before I shot … to avoid the damage control that we now have to perform with certain inconsistencies in the material” concluded Garland. One of the most important consequences of the November workshops for Garland was “… that I will be looking at my footage with much greater awareness of the thematic and narrative possibilities”. At this point, Garland felt she had a strong beginning and a strong end but was unsure about the middle, the second act. Her idea was to first show how Muscle and Mary struggle: Mary drinks, Muscle threatens her, Mary disobeys, and Muscle in the end locks her up. The third act would start from Mary’s death. On a cloudy tuesday morning in May last year I meet with Garland again. She tells me about her session with another advisor, Molly Stensgaard, a Danish editor working with Lars von Trier. Molly Stensgaard last Saturday, aptly called The Heart of the Story.

Stensgaard is praised for actually getting to the heart of the story, which in Garland’s case meant getting the structure right. Mary’s death is intercut with the death of one of Muscle’s birds Stensgaard suggested that Garland start from the current situation of her protagonists, as the process leading to it is not the story of the film. The film is about how Muscle and Mary deal with love and loss, about cruelty as an act of love. Because Mary drinks too much and runs the risk of falling and hurting herself, Muscle locks her up. It is his way of saying that he doesn’t want her to die. In the current set up, Mary dies at the end of the second act. Stensgaard suggested bringing her back at the end of the film.

One question to explore in this morning’s session is how to do that. Curious to know what happens in sessions like these, I am invited to attend. So this morning Garland, fellow participants Balster van Duin, Maria Jose Cuevas and Coach John Appel first watch a rough assembly of scenes, some 20 minutes long. It’s meant to give an idea of the visual style of the film, some key scenes, and an idea about the characters. They then lock themselves in a meeting room to discuss Garland’s questions. Garland first tests Stensgaard’s idea of starting from the current situation of Muscle and Mary. She proposes to use the second act to create a more complex picture of both.

About cruelty as an act of love

All think this is a  good idea but Appel observes a lack of balance between the two protagonists. Where Mary seems to have plenty of dimensions, being both an alcoholic and a poet, with a troubled past and plenty of wisdom, Muscle comes across as a rather flat character, harsh on his mother and fanatical during the bird fights. Is there useful material in Garland’s footage to show various dimensions of him? Scenes that might show warmer sides of Muscle are discussed: how he takes care of his singing birds, scenes that show him in his role as son, husband, father, grandfather, and friend. And then Garland suddenly remembers scenes with Muscle’s wife: while Muscle controls his mother, Muscle’s wife controls him. She also remembers he told her he used to have a stutter as a kid, and he was very insecure back then. Slowly, a possible 3D Muscle emerges.

In searching her material to check how suitable it is to deepen the character of Muscle, Garland tends to rush through because ‘nothing happens’. But the others want to watch it. As Appel points out, it is sometimes in the most banal that powerful images of people are hidden. With a single scene displaying uneventful stuff, a protagonist can gain an extra dimension. Here, the importance of precisely cataloging the material surfaces. Another question concerns the search for secondary characters. Muscle kind of mentors a friend of his. But Garland doesn’t have enough material on him. What about one of Muscle’s sisters, Paula? She sometimes takes Mary out. But is that enough? And Junior, Muscle’s son? Maybe… Or June, Mary’s sister who also drinks, is a lunatic, but sometime gets it just right: “There’s been a departure” is how she announces Mary’s passing away. However, all these people are in Garland’s footage haphazardly, which means she needs to consider how to introduce them.

Using scenes and shots in more metaphorical and symbolic ways.

How to work out Mary’s death is another challenge. In the cut they watched, Mary’s death is intercut with the death of one of Muscle’s birds. Now Garland remembers the children found a dead bird and buried it, complete with ceremony and cross, and she filmed it all. Why not combine the two? Garland also wants to use some of the footage of Mary walking in the streets, being free. So what is the best way? Then there is the need to ‘establish’: where are we and what do the surroundings look like? This is first a matter of including more establishing shots. But an opportunity opens up to consider the film’s key themes: captivity versus freedom, interior versus exterior, confinement versus escape.

There is consideration of the new idea to use the first act to introduce Muscle and
Mary in their situation and the second act to peel down the layers and show a more complex cohabitation, ending with Mary’s death. The possibility of the third act working on a more metaphorical level is discussed. Using scenes and shots in more metaphorical and symbolic ways might help in dealing with the key themes and with Mary’s death. One question to address could be what Muscle actually inherited from Mary, what he took with him. As Garland did not shoot with a symbolic representation in mind she will have to find a way in the editing to achieve such a metaphorical level. In the discussion, the song birds have faded somewhat into the background. Appel reminds Garland to keep them present. They are a powerful addition as they represent the capturing and caging of something natural and beautiful, which both reflects and contrasts with Muscle’s and Mary’s struggle. For homework and to prepare her editing Appel suggests Garland catalogue her footage more precisely so that various scenes are easier to find. And Garland realizes she will have to go through the footage again without discarding the banal and ordinary but doing the opposite: looking for individual scenes that show a different side of the protagonists. As Appel puts it: “Now you know everything you didn’t know before.” She can look at every scene from this new perspective and reevaluate it. this workshop helped to confirm the structure of the film, conceive the visualization of her main protagonists, further thematize freedom and captivity, and address lacunae in her material and ways to deal with them. Later on that week there was an editing workshop with Stan Neumann. Garland was off to Sheffield’s Meet Market in June and started editing at the beginning of July.

The film is now finished and had it’s premiere at HotDocs and returned to Sheff Doc Fest in the Global Encounters strand earlier this year

 


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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