By Joshua Bell
There are a lot of different philosophies on becoming friend’s with your film subjects while making a documentary. One school of thought is that if you get too close, you lose objectivity and can’t make certain creative decisions while shooting and editing for fear of what your friend will think. The second approach, and the one which I tend to subscribe to is that through getting as close as possible to your subject, you access the inner workings of that person and ultimately, their character comes alive on screen.
There are always exceptions to these rules, but I think that intimacy with character is crucial for any film’s success.
For my feature film documentary, In Between Songs, accessing a deeper understanding of Aboriginal culture and specifically a family struggling to survive, it was essential for us to get to know Djalu Gurruwiwi and his sister, Dhanggal in a real way. We earned the family’s trust over twelve years of visiting the community. Every trip to Arnhem Land, we delved more completely into what was truly happening in the family and on every trip they opened themselves more completely to us on-camera.
Although, we were told things in confidence that could not become part of the story, they helped us understand the inner workings of the community and all of the complexity involved in the larger family relationships. Even though we caught some of these conversations on tape, we built a rapport with the family where they knew we would protect their story. As the English language is a bit of an issue with didjeridu master, Djalu, we were able to access his sister and family matriarch, Dhanngal, more completely in the interviews. As she is well-educated and very articulate, she created beautiful sound bites and understood what needed to be said and how to talk about delicate issues skillfully. She has a way of clarifying the differences between Yolngu culture and Western culture to outsiders, as she has been doing it for years. As a result, the film is as much of Dhanggal’s story as it it Djalu’s, even though Djalu is the person most identifiable and celebrated within the world of indigenous music.
The closeness we share continues to this day, now three years since we last filmed at Birritjimi Beach. I recently heard from the family that when they watched the film, they “alternated between laughing and crying”. The journey of the film was as much an opening for we as filmmakers, as it was for our subjects.
This week on December 4th at 8 PM, we’re excited to share the film in New York City with Sacred Arts Research Foundation. Bringing the story of In Between Songs to another group of eager viewers creates further connection between sacred music, indigenous culture and the outside world. These connections, in my opinion, would only have been possible by getting to know our subjects as friends and family – and this bond will last a lifetime.
For More Reading on the Subject
In Between Songs Official NYC Screening
Sacred Arts Research Center @ The Ark
107 Green St. #G55Brooklyn, NY, 11222
Thursday, December 4, 2014
In Between Songs can be bought on DVD from Cinema Libre Studio.