Building Community through Filming Community

The process behind collaborative filmmaking in Johannesburg and Montreal

18 mins read

Documentary filmmaking is often a very process-oriented practice. As many filmmakers know, what happens behind the camera can be as fundamental to the final documentary as what has been filmed in front of it. Our relationships with the people and communities we document are critical to creating what eventually appears on screen. Yet how do we build from that same approach to deepen our relationships within our filmmaking community? The documentary community, if there is one, can also greatly influence, transform and contribute to the films we make.

For the last two documentaries I directed, I experimented with a process of ‘collaborative filmmaking’ that aimed to build on the idea that collaboration could push beyond the camera frame. Inspired by the early days of “Direct Cinema” documentaries at the National Film Board (NFB), this process included inviting other documentarians to participate in making a film together. Taking a self-consciously educational approach, over a period of a few months we watched films, discussed Direct Cinema, and shared our different approaches and practices in making documentary.

Finally we hit the streets, filming in a single neighbourhood over the course of one day. In Quebec, we filmed St-Henri in Montreal for the documentary St-Henri, the 26th of August (2011), and in South Africa, it was Jeppestown in Johannesburg for Jeppe on a Friday (2012).

While every film is made through a process of collaboration with the crew at some level, whether documentary, experimental or fiction, these documentaries took a conscious position to learn together. This meant taking time during preparation and pre-production to do focused seminars, watch and discuss films and to talk collectively about approach.

St-Henri and Jeppe were an attempt to bring the social-change aspect of documentary into the process behind the camera, and in so doing, strengthening relationships among filmmakers in the documentary community.

This process has been an experiment and my approach is certainly not a template, but I hope it begins to provoke a different kind of discussion around the role that political documentary can play within a broader project of social change.

Process is political
From the outset, the approach I developed for St-Henri and Jeppe was influenced by my experiences of collective learning practised in anarchist spaces. In groups formed around shared political dispositions, we experimented with collective learning, reading and writing. It was a process that not only fostered deeper discussion and clearer ideas, but also created strong bonds between us. It built camaraderie through practice: the doing-together of being-together.

Above all, the camaraderie I experienced within the anarchist context was built around play and playfulness, even if the topics were often heavy and challenging. Through creating open, non-judgmental and non-hierarchical spaces we were able to experiment with ideas. This playful and collaborative kind of politics had an effect on the way that I started to think about making documentary films.

I started with some intuitive questions: How could the process of making documentaries foster camaraderie and affinity? How could we make the process more playful and more collective? Could we simultaneously strengthen our documentary community while making a documentary?

As filmmaker Danny Boyle wrote online on May 21, 2013, in his “Fifteen Golden Rules of Moviemaking,” in Moviemaker Magazine, “the texture of a film is affected very much by the honour with which you make it. Your working process—the way you treat people, your belief in people—will ultimately be reflected in the product itself. The means of production are just as important as what you produce.” If the means of production are critical to what is produced, could we devise a way of working that reflected our political dispositions? And further, could we bring back some of the original spark that had first inspired people to make these kinds of documentaries? I was struck by the making of À St-Henri le cinq septembre in 1962. A gang of francophone filmmakers at the NFB in Montreal decided, “Let’s go!” and set out with cameras in hand to explore the neighbourhood of St-Henri.

This kind of spontaneous, collective effort is rare these days. Competition for limited funds is stiff, and a sense of ‘documentary community’ can be hard to define at times. I was inspired to create a space for freedom and wonder for our generation of documentary filmmakers. I wanted to encourage exploration and playfulness, without judgement, worry or woe. To use the constraints of the project itself—one neighbourhood, one day—as a way to create a spontaneous game, a space of play from which to look at the world with fresh, wide-open eyes.

Dérive: Wandering
The template for the process was fairly simple.

Supported by the tireless and courageous efforts of my Montreal-based producers, Sarah Spring and Selin Murat of Parabola Films, we embarked on what would be a process of discovery for us all. The first step would be writing and exploring the neighbourhood.

In Montreal I worked with Denis Valiquette, who grew up in St-Henri, and in Johannesburg I worked with filmmaker Arya Lalloo, who lives a stone’s throw from Jeppestown. After our success in Montreal, Parabola Films took the leap and followed me to South Africa for Jeppe on a Friday, teaming up with South African co-producer Elias Ribeiro from Urucu Media.

Wandering through the streets of the neighbourhood and exploring its every detail, we started to compile some preliminary research to identify stories, dramas and tensions. We approached the neighbourhood in the spirit of Guy Debord’s dérive, best translated as wandering, looking for the social relations and contradictions that mark the territory. In 1958, Debord defined his concept in “Théorie de la dérive” as the following: “In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.”

From these adventures and explorations, we began building a list of potential stories, and various documentary directors were invited to participate. The directors were discovered through word of mouth, affinity and shared formal interest. For each film, the group of invited ‘unit directors’ was composed of a mixed level of experience—some were veterans while others were at the very beginning of their careers. We were also conscious of trying to invite women directors and other underrepresented filmmakers into the process. In that way our group itself would have distinct approaches and points of view on the filmmaking process and on the neighbourhood we would be filming.

Once we had our teams, we presented our previous research, and continued the dérive with the unit directors. Ultimately, it was up to each of them to propose or choose a story they would film over the course of our one selected shoot day.

Over the next few months, we came together with fellow documentary filmmakers once a week. Each meeting served as a check-in to share updates about characters and research, flesh out story ideas, watch films and discuss visual style, ethics and approach. Coming to the weekly sessions wasn’t compulsory, but it was encouraged. It was here where we really started to learn from each other and build lasting connections and knowledge. The discussions often veered away from the project at hand and people talked about what else they were working on or issues they were facing in their own projects.

In Montreal, we met in St-Henri and often spent the evening watching films and drinking beer together after our discussions at our headquarters at the St-Ambroise brewery. We watched films like L’Amour existe (1960), Chronique d’un été (1961) and some of the series Chronique de la vie quotidienne (1977–’78), among other films.

In Johannesburg, two invited guests came to present workshops. Writing consultant and documentary director Pepita Ferrari led “Writing for Documentary,” with a specific focus on developing story arcs for a multi-character dramatic documentary, and doc guru Peter Wintonick gave a session on “Modern Incarnations of Cinema Verité.” In both contexts we did a camera workshop where the unit directors and their cinematographer could get some hands-on experience with the camera we’d be using.

In combination with our ongoing discussions and meetings, the workshop sessions allowed us to think through ideas and filmmaking approaches collectively, to discuss challenges we might face and to share our different approaches to documentary filmmaking. It also allowed us to develop a common visual language.

Through the development period, we also hit the streets together to do research, discuss what we found, take notes and share thoughts, concerns and inspiration with each other.

Finally, I asked each of the unit directors to provide us with a story outline so that we could work on developing a shooting schedule. This structure was less formal in Montreal, where a few of the directors decided to take a totally spontaneous approach to the shoot day.

Everyone who was involved in these two documentaries put a great deal of faith into the collaborative process. I continue to feel very grateful for all the trust I was given to embark on such a cinematic journey.

On August 26, 2010, and March 9, 2011, multiple film crews descended on St-Henri and Jeppestown, respectively. Each team consisted of a unit director, cinematographer, sound recordist and production assistant. The teams worked from early morning through to the evening.

Each unit had specific constraints and used a common set of visual criteria in order to retain a seamless flow between the various stories. For example, each unit used the same basic camera—Sony EX-1, EX-3 and in a few rare cases the Sony F-3—with all settings pre-adjusted. During each shoot we also had at least two roving cameras to cover B-roll and gather visual textures of the neighbourhood. All formal ‘talking head’ interviews were forbidden.

Of course, behind the scenes the production had to run like a well-oiled machine. With Sarah Spring and Selin Murat at the helm in Montreal we were brilliantly organized, transcoding and backing up footage on site, and ready for post-production the very next day.

Spring made the trip to Johannesburg to oversee the shoot on location, where she worked with a fine local South African team and our co-producer Elias Ribeiro. Thanks to the producers and crew, once again we had an incredibly smooth shoot day. Without on-site savvy and coordination, a project like this would not have been possible.

With all the planning and organization taken care of by our terrific production team, the unit directors were able to enjoy the day and indulge in the experience. It is hard to describe the sense of joy and pleasure the shoot held for all of us. It was truly a celebratory atmosphere as more than 50 people descended on Jeppestown and almost 100 people spanned St-Henri. Crews crossed paths and residents and workers became aware of the roving cameras spread out across the neighbourhood. There was a buzz in the air. You could almost feel the creative energy and excitement. At the end of the day, everyone collapsed at the wrap party and enjoyed a final celebration together, telling stories of the day’s events.

For the most part, the creative collaboration with the unit directors ended on the day of the shoot. Each director provided notes for the edit and gave their rushes to me (and Arya Lalloo in Johannesburg), and we began work with the editors: Sophie Leblond in Montreal, and Vuyani Sondlo in Johannesburg. From the compiled material, and using the time of day as a structural skeleton, we created the final film.

I learned an incredible amount from the time spent in these sessions and in the streets with other filmmakers. Documentary is a form with so many different approaches and ways of working. Everything from how you present yourself to your subjects to what kind of camera you use to how much you shoot is subjective. From the subtleties of intense time spent in research with characters to the spontaneous and observant roving eye, each style had its merits.

At a time when documentary feels more under threat than ever before, nurturing and building our documentary community is critical. Competition, the backbone of the capitalist system, does not make for a stronger documentary community; collaboration and mutual support do. For many of us, sustaining connections is difficult when we only see each other at film festivals or board meetings. The creative process allows us to meet each other at the level of praxis and collaboration. In this way we can learn from each other and start to develop a sense of what ‘community’ could mean beyond the frame.

St-Henri, the 26th of August (2011) was produced by Parabola Films, in co-production with the National Film Board (NFB) with Canal D and supported by SODEC and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.

Jeppe on a Friday (2012) was produced by Parabola Films, in coproduction with Urucu Media and supported by the Gauteng Film Commission (GFC) and Visions Sud Est.

Special thanks to producers Sarah Spring and Selin Murat, who have made these films possible, and to the core team of these two projects: co-director Arya Lalloo (Johannesburg) and co-writer Denis Valiquette (Montreal), co-producers Elias Ribeiro (Johannesburg) and Collette Lumede (Montreal, NFB), unit directors Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, Lucilla Blankenberg, Richard Brouillette, Tracey Deer, Claude Demers, Halima Elkhatabi, Sylvain L’Ésperance, Julien Fontaine, Ryley Grunenwald, Natalie Haarhoff, Paul Kell, Kitso Lynn Lelliott, Caroline Martel, Amy Miller, Kaveh Nabatian, Mujahid Safodien, Xoliswa Sithole, Brett Story and Karen Vanderborght.

Shannon Walsh is a writer and director of multiple award-winning documentaries, which have been theatrically released, broadcast globally, and screened in festivals such as Hot Docs, CPH:DOX, IDFA, DOC NYC, and many others. She was a 2020 Guggenheim Fellow and was awarded the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2023. Her book The Documentary Filmmaker’s Intuition: Creating Ethical & Impactful Non-Fiction Films will be available in December 2023, and her new feature film Adrianne & the Castle is set for release in early 2024.

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