Category: Reflections

Happy New Year 2016

Happy New Year 2016. I hope you have a year of peace and love.

We here at One Day Films have had a busy 2015 and are very much looking forward to 2016, where we have new projects and activities planned. In 2015, Erik Knudsen and we at One Day Films were engaged in quite a few things. Some of these highlights included Erik Knudsen moving in March 2015 from being a Professor of Film Practice at the University of Salford to being a Professor of Visual and Digital Culture at Bournemouth University, where he is setting up a Centre for Film and Television Research (He still live in the North West of the UK, where One Day Films is based). As part of this move to Bournemouth University, his Arts and Humanities Research Council funded project, StoryLab International Film Development Research Network, also moved to Bournemouth University and it was formally launch in September 2015 with a visit from the project partners based in Malaysia, Ghana and Colombia. This is a project which, over the next two years, will explore the development of independent cinematic storytelling in Malaysia, Ghana and Colombia.

StoryLab Research Network Team Visiting Erik Knudsen at Bournemouth University.

StoryLab Research Network Team Visiting Erik Knudsen at Bournemouth University.

This project is in part on the back of Erik Knudsen’s interest in independent film, particularly world cinema, and in April 2015 a book chapter he wrote called Dependencies and Independence In British Independent Film was published in the book Independent Filmmaking Around The Globe (University of Toronto Press). He is looking forward to his forthcoming journal article, The Total Filmmaker – Thinking of Screenwriting, Editing and Directing As One Role, which is due to be published in the Australian academic journal New Writing.

An extension of Erik Knudsen’s academic work includes his visiting Professorship at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in Cuba where he goes every year to conduct a workshop. This has now settled down to being a regular StoryLab Cuba workshop and this year he had seven wonderful students with whom he worked over a two week period developing their creativity and storytelling.

StoryLab Cuba 2015 Participants

StoryLab Cuba 2015 Participants.

As usual, Erik Knudsen loves going to Cuba, not only to work at one of the best film schools in the world, but to visiting friends, taking photographs and being inspired:

Cuban men having a laugh in Havana

Cuban men having a laugh in Havana.

Taxi waiting to take you into there Havana Night

Taxi waiting to take you into the Havana night.

Of course, the previous year, 2014, Erik Knudsen published a book based on an exhibition of his Cuba photographs entitled Cuba In Waiting.

2015 was an exciting year for One Day Films. First we released Erik Knudsen’s The Raven On The Jetty. It showed in a number of cinemas in the UK and in addition to being available directly via One Day Films, the film is also available on iTunes, Amazon Prime and Google Play. In parallel, we also published a unique book: The Raven On The Jetty Production Scrapbook and DVD of the Film. During the making of the film, of course, we made 30 Vlogs about the making of the film and we hope that this total package gives viewers of the film a complete experience of our commitment to quality, thought-provoking independent filmmaking. A first for us this year was commissioning Mark Duggan to make a short film, The Rabbit, based on a screenplay by Erik Knudsen. This was a highly successful collaboration and marks the beginning of One Day Films commissioning work by other independent filmmakers.

Marvo, one of the stars of The Raven On The Jetty

Marvo, one of the stars of Erik Knudsen’s The Raven On The Jetty.

A departure from our usual activities involved Erik Knudsen participating in an unusual project just outside Paris, France. The Dance In Time project is run by one of One Day Film’s company directors and long standing supporter, Paul Clarke, who runs innovative educational and ecological projects across the world. Erik Knudsen joined Paul Clarke and his team at a chateau near Paris, Millement, and Erik was able to contribute to the discussions taking place between a number of prominent Australian educationalists.

Paul Clarke and his organising team at Millement near Paris

Paul Clarke and his organising team at Millement near Paris.

Engaging with the place and its special vibrations at Millement, Paris

Engaging with the place and its special vibrations at Millement, Paris.

During the year Erik Knudsen was able to develop two new projects that we hope to start production work on in 2016. The first is a photographic and film installation entitled Doubt. Final discussions are currently taking place with a gallery in the UK and we hope to make an announcement soon. During 2015, Erik Knudsen also wrote a screenplay for a new feature film – TITLE of FILM PROJECT to be announced soon. We are currently in negotiations with a number of potential partners and we hope to commence production of this film before the end of 2016. More on both these projects will be announced soon.

We are looking forward to bringing you more quality, thought-provoking independent films. We hope that the world in 2016 sees more love and peace. We want to continue making our small contribution to making the world a more spiritually enriched place where love and peace can blossom, one little story at a time.

A tree of life



Cinema of Poverty

 

Balloons hanging from lamp post

Photo of a park bench

A gate by railway

A poverty that is humble. A poverty that submits to a higher state. A poverty that is simple to the point of being foolish. A poverty that has no yearning for wealth. A poverty that is confident in its silence. A poverty that enriches the poor. A poverty that breeds faith.

These are the qualities I seek in my work and living.

To be generous in my poverty. To share my poverty. To offer it up to feed the thousands. Where can I find this poverty and how can I make it real?



Sandy Lieberson Guest Lecture

I was very excited to be able to invite my good friend Sandy Lieberson, the renowned film producer (Executive at Fox in charge of films like Blade Runner, Alien, and a producer of such films as Performance, Rita, Sue and Bob Too and so on) to come and talk with my masters students at the University of Salford.

Sandy Lieberson Meets Salford MA students 2014

 

The three hour session was very informal and allowed students not only an opportunity to discuss Sandy’s experience, but to discuss their own ideas and thoughts about their futures. I think students found this very inspirational, for Sandy’s generous advice and encouragement is based on a wealth of experience that spans traditional Hollywood right through to digital independent film. Sandy was keen to challenge students’ notion of employment and concepts of what the ‘industry’ actually is. Interestingly, many students are still stuck in thinking of going into employment in a definable industry based on past models, but Sandy was able to shed some insightful light onto how the context of filmmaking has and is changing. Independence, proactive engagement, innovation and self sufficiency were themes that kept coming up, as did the importance of personal interaction with potential collaborators and commissioners. The idea of ‘getting a job’ is no longer what many students think it is, as there has been a profound shift in the state of the industry and where the future of it lies. Students were encouraged to have their own web sites and to make sure that their work was visible. A commitment to quality and innovation emerged, too, as key ingredients for a successful future.

Sandy continually tried to get students to think of the internet as a new tool for engaging with industries, audiences and fellow filmmakers. Traditional television and movie industry structures are being usurped by the sheer scale and flexible functioning of the internet. Even talent scouts from various established companies now use the internet as a key tool for discovering new talent, testing new ideas and, indeed, building new business models that are a far cry from the top down approach to film commissioning, distribution and exhibition of the past.

When a student asked Sandy what made a good CV, Sandy simply said: ‘a good CV is one that makes me want to meet you in person’.

A wonderful session, thanks to Sandy and the students.



To Apply, Or Not To Apply!

That is indeed the question on my mind at the moment. In nearly 30 years of regularly trying to get film funding from the British Film Institute (BFI), and for a period while it existed, the UK Film Council, I have never received a penny. Even during the 1980s and part of the 1990s, I was invited in to meet a number of the heads of production – and indeed, I know and am still in touch with a couple of them – and I never succeeded in getting any support. And here I am again, wodering whether to apply, yet again, for funding for my new film The Raven On The Jetty. To apply, or not to apply, that is the question!

Drawing of Hamlet and skull

It could be that my proposals and ideas over the years were rubbish, or in the competitive context, simply not up to scratch. This could indeed be the case for a number of my proposals which, in retrospect, I am glad got no further. However, for the projects that did go ahead and that I managed to get made – somehow – I have received sufficient feedback from television broadcasts, cinema screenings, Q&As, festival screenings, online feedback, students and academic peers and so on to know that at some point during those 30 years, someone within the BFI should have picked up on something that I was trying to make. Even if just once.

My suspicion is that there are patterns at work and that these patterns are much more interesting to contemplate.

When I look at the application guidelines, I see a wall. This wall is made up of sentences around certain self-evident clichés: ‘quality’, ‘talent’, ‘freshness’, ‘vision’, ‘dynamic’. The wall is also made up of processes that seem to exclude: the application form, the type of questions being asked and the style and language being sought. While designed to extract key information about a project, it ultimately favours those who know how to sell themselves and their project in a language that those assessing can relate to. Fair enough, perhaps, but having sat on many funding selection panels, festival juries, academic peer review assessments and job application panels, I know that judgements are made on the basis of the values and tastes of those who make decisions. We can envelop these underlying values and tastes in very sophisticated language in a pretence that there is some notion of objectivity. But these decisions are always subjective and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. (However, this is why I have always believed that it is essential for a nation that wishes to truly reflect its diversity and plurality to decentralise decision making processes around funding. Instead, what we have in England is effectively a quasi government department with a very centralised approach to supporting independent film.) But what if you do not fit into this paradigm? What if your values and tastes are different? What if your background and experience means that you have different priorities or a different understanding of what constitutes the ‘spirit of our time’?

So, I find myself asking: who are these people behind this wall? What are their values? On what basis do they really make decisions? Are my values represented somewhere amongst that group of people?

I recently completed a book chapter for a Canadian book coming out in 2013 with the title: ‘The Meaning of Independence – Independent Filmmaking Around The World’. My chapter is entitled: ‘Dependencies and Independence in British Independent Film’.  In this chapter, I build on a personal experience of more than 20 years of working as an independent filmmaker in England to explore, from a highly personal perspective, the relationship between the independent filmmaker and the institutions established to foster independence. In my experience, to get access to formal funding and outlets in England in particular is directly related to one’s relationship to highly centralised institutions and policy:

‘What is the effect of such a heavy concentration of gatekeeping on the independence of independent filmmakers? This would require a closer textual analysis of key works, but there is a lingering sense that while the exploration of the film form has been relatively diverse, a traditional perspective on content around class and heritage still dominates the subject matter of films supported. In Eyes of the Beholder[1], I argue, in the context of the UKFC development of screenplays, that the UK films that audiences eventually see on the screen do not reflect the quality and diversity of the available talent across the nation, but is a direct reflection of the values and aspirations of the gatekeepers who select, commission and steer the development and production of the works. The values and aesthetic appreciation of various ethnic and cultural minorities, for example, are not seen on the British screen, nor are the spiritual and religious interests that occupy many people’s thoughts, or certain perspectives on a number of moral dilemmas that challenge the values of the media-political elite.’

In the case of The Raven On The Jetty, I have my doubts about its fit into this paradigm. My racial and cultural mix, my character, and the way that I consequently see the world around me, is not one that I have seen in films funded by the BFI or its predecessor, the UK Film Council. I find myself drawn to films from other countries to see my values reflected. From talking to fellow filmmakers and discussing my films in various contexts, I know that I am not alone. We have just about enough money from private investors to make The Raven On The Jetty on a shoe string micro budget. Though additional finance would enable us to do a number of additional things, in particular with wages and salaries, and, importantly, with distribution and exhibition, we can nevertheless make a cracking film. Do we want to curtail the amazing freedom that we have?

The whole reason why communities have artists in their midst is that these artists, through their unique perspective and vision, throw fresh light on the communities in which they live. Many of these artists will not speak the language of those few who select, may not have the same priorities and may also have minority perspectives which actually represent the hidden voices we need to hear.

I am reminded of a cartoon I once saw in a Toronto newspaper many years ago. Unfortunately, I don’t have a copy of it, so suffice to describe the image. A group of 4 middled aged men sit around the end of an oval shaped board room table. They are dressed in black suits, black ties and each sports a black handle-bar moustache and slickly combed black hair. They are facing a middle aged man sitting alone at the other end of the table who, exactly like them, is dressed in a black suit, black ties, sports a black handle-bar moustache and has slickly combed black hair. One of the five at one end says to to the lone man at the other end: “Quite frankly, Harry, we like the look of you”.

Now, I must get back to work. To apply, or not to apply…

 


[1] Erik Knudsen, Eyes of the Beholder, Journal of Media Practice, 5: 3 (2005), 181-186.


 



Sight & Sound’s Greatest Films 2012

Every 10 years, Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, asks a number of film critics and film directors to vote for their all time greatest films. A few days ago, they announced the Critics’ Choice and the Directors’ Choice. As with previous years, apart from a slight shuffling of positioning, there were no real surprises. For the critics, the first two were Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Welles’ Citizen Kane, while for the film directors the top two were Ozu’s Tokyo Story – a personal favourite of mine – and Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Still from Ozu's Tokyo Story

There are some truly great films in these two lists and it makes me want to go and watch them all again. Tokyo Story, in particular, is a stunning film and nothing short of a masterpiece, one that has influenced me a lot.

What strikes me as interesting about both lists is that in the top ten, there seem to be no films from less than 35 years ago. In fact, the vast majority of them are well over 40 years old. One could draw a number of inferences from this: for example, that there was a golden age of cinema; or that more contemporary films lack qualities of depth and vision; or that those running the film industries are less motivated by a love for the art of cinema; or that those selecting the films are revealing their age by referencing films from the formative stage in their lives when they were discovering cinema. There may be some truth to all of these possibilities. However, I believe that these choices reveal a different phenomena at work.

A still from Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc

There is an old saying that goes something like this: ‘Young men (and I assume young women, too) reject their fathers and embrace their grandfathers’. I recognise this in my own experience, too. I seek to rebel against the culture in which I live and thereby stamp my own authority and my own vision on my life and in so doing, I challenge those I instinctively – rightly or wrongly – deem responsible for this world that I challenge: my ‘father’ and the near contemporaries just before my time; those who compose ‘the establishment’. There is no doubt that in order to move forward, I need inspiration, and guidance. I believe that in order to shape the future, I need to know and be inspired by the past and the idea of continuity. In as sense, to discover some, perhaps indefinable, underlying movement of some development or evolution in which I play my little part. So it is natural for me to skip the ‘establishment’ generation of my contemporary world to look to my ‘grandfather’ and beyond for that inspiration and guidance.

For me, the consequence is that the most influential filmmakers are from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Ozu, Hitchcock, Ford, Fellini, Antonioni, de Sica and so on. I have very few contemporary filmmakers whose work inspires me to any thing like the same degree – the exceptions include directors like Ceylan and Kiarostami, for example – but there is a swathe of filmmakers who make up the current establishment whose work does not inspire me, except in the sense they make me feel driven, sometimes from a sense of anger or despair, to make alternatives that challenge current practices.

This is not a unique phenomenon to film. Copernicus, that quiet priest in Poland whose work fundamentally changed our perception of the universe and the motion of planets, happened to be interested in antiquity and antique mathematics. As a consequence, he discovered some interesting formulas in some of Pythagorus’ work – some 1500 years before him – that he found interesting and inspiring. He started to work with them. All his contemporaries were going in a completely different direction and he challenged these established views. It took him 10 years to publish because he was so embarrassed about how his line of enquiry was so different to what his contemporaries were doing. His inspiration came from deep in the past, a past most of his contemporaries had lost interest in.

Another example would be Andy Warhol, probably one of the greatest pop artists of the 60s. He was actually quite a private man, particularly later in life. After he died, the contents of his home in New York were made public and the striking thing was that he didn’t own a single piece of contemporary art. His collection was entirely antique and classical works. His inspiration must clearly have come from the past and he was, of course, reacting against those immediately before him in the modernist movement. Similarly, it could be said of Picasso’s cubist period, that this was inspired by his love of ancient African two dimensional art.

One of my concerns is that many young aspiring filmmakers are shockingly ignorant of the masters of the past, only having an awareness of what has been made over the past 10 or 20 years, and I wonder what their future will be and what legacy they will be able to leave for those who follow us. If that ignorance is then mixed with a tinge of arrogance that frowns on the so called inferior technology of the past, the future of film looks bleak. However, I am pleased to say that I have also met a few young filmmakers whose interest in the past is profoundly genuine and this fills me with considerable reassurance. These are usually individuals who are not afraid to stand out from their peers, and the contemporary fashions shaped by peer pressure, to embrace the inspiration of past masters whose works to many might seem old fashioned and classical. There is no shame in rejecting your ‘father’ and embracing your ‘grandfather’.

A still from Fellini's 8 1/2

Reverence for the old masters is, in my opinion, a necessary ingredient for anyone wanting to innovate in the present to help shape the future.



Discovering A Theme

One of the things I do with my students when I go to the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in Cuba to teach, is that I ask them to work on a little creativity exercise involving them playing with imagery from two unrelated habits in their lives. What is amazing is how, when you help them free up their minds about playing freely with imagery, strong themes start to emerge which they feel an immediate personal affinity to. Evocative themes and stories emerge out of what seem like unrelated imagery and with focused attention and loose minds, where we throw out as much conscious thinking as possible, meaningful and sublime projects emerge. Importantly, they are projects with themes that the students feel a necessary connection to. Actually, one could take random events from one’s life and once one does what Kipling says – ‘drift, wait, obey’ – the muse takes over and what is revealed is that everything one notices and everything one is interested in is connected by the person and in this connection lies the themes that probably will be with that person all their life. Each of us probably tells the same story over and over again, but we circumnavigate these recurring themes that we were probably born with, or at the very least developed in our childhood. In the circumvention, we explore different narrative forms in differing contexts and, hopefully, we become better and better at telling that deep seated story.

Man Smokes A Cigarette With Birds in Halifax UK

As I have rediscovered an old passion of mine, photography, I have been going around seemingly randomly taking photographs. (Nothing is random, just like there is no such thing as a coincidence – a discussion for another time.) Sometimes when I look at other photographers’ works, I see that they often pull everything together in themes that usually are related to a physical place, a specific culture, or an identifiable person or group of people. The theme in question often comes out of a specificity that has some socio-economic or cultural parameters that is generally well understood.  Not always. However, as I go around taking photographs, seemingly randomly and often in circumstances that have been brought about because I am somewhere for other reasons, I could find no obvious ‘project’. I love just going somewhere and taking photographs. There is no ‘assignment’, no ‘project’, no ‘statement’ and no specific ‘exploration’. I work myself into a state of mind where I’m not thinking, into the zone, as Beckham said about taking free kicks, and in that state I just see and press the shutter.

Destitute Crosses Street in Hong Kong

However, as I start to reflect on what I’m doing, I realise that there are themes that emerge from these apparently random shots; themes I was not aware of when I first started shooting them. I realise that my themes are not bound by a place, a particular culture or a particular socio-economic context. I am drawn to feelings, specific feelings that transcend any particular culture or particular context. These are feelings that permeate all my work and no matter what I do, they will seep into everything I create. Having said all of this, photography is, by its very nature, about the specific physical surfaces of the world in which we live, including place, space and people. However, the beauty of what can be done is to take your viewer to a timeless, space-less place where feelings and thoughts have no form: they just are.

Woman On Doorstep in Havana Cuba

I am now starting to collect and curate my photographs into narrative collections which hopefully will start to reveal these themes and work for other people. In the photographic section of the One Day Films website, you can see examples of how I am starting to put together themed collections from what were originally – seemingly – random shots. First my collection around my regular trips to Cuba, which is now starting to take shape as Cuba In Waiting and, more recently, my exploration of feelings of spiritual doubt in a series tentatively entitled, Doubt. Enjoy.



Another Old Song: Danny

I thought I would share another old song that I recently recorded in my study using Garageband. This song was written a long time ago, when I looked something like this:

Photo of Erik Knudsen ca 1975

You can listen to the song here. Enjoy:

 



Robert Bresson’s Films

I’ve just got back from two weeks in Cuba, where I was running my regular Creativity Workshop at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television. During the evenings of my second week, I was fortunate enough to attend a series of wonderful evening classes run by Dr Ruth Goldberg from the State University of New York. She was doing a series of screenings and discussions on the work of Robert Bresson. I couldn’t have been more fortunate, because Bresson is probably the filmmaker who, alongside Dreyer and Ozu, has most influenced my work and thoughts on film.

Portrait of Robert Bresson

And I’m not alone. Filmmakers such as Scorsese, Schrader, Ceylan, Kiarostami, Ackerman, Kaurismaki, Godard, Truffaut and many many others cite him as one of their greatest influences. Not many people know his films. He made 13 in 40 years, not a particularly prolific output, partly because he found it so difficult to get financing for his films. He was uncompromising in his approach, minimalist and beautifully simple. He had a unique approach to acting, which saw his actors – who were always amateurs – perform as what he called ‘models’. In other words, they didn’t perform, but, like the rest of the elements of his films, they were like blank canvases through which we transcended into the real substance of their souls. His visual approach was extremely minimalist and he would often focus on hands, feet and torso of a person rather than the traditional gaze on the face. However, this does not mean that he was disinterested in the face; quite the contrary. He created some of the most iconic images of the face in cinema and his imagery strikes me as very iconic, almost like the icon paintings of the middle ages: the gesture of the hands, the movement of the face and eyes, the framing of posture, all point to his background as a painter. His use of the interaction of sound and image was revolutionary at the time and remains inspiring now. He had an interesting approach to making sure sound and image complimented each other in evocative ways and never used sound purely to help legitimise the image. Even in his editing style, he broke all the rules. He would often cut scenes short, almost as if once he had met the iconic moment it was time to move on, irrespective of our traditional sense of time and space in films.

A still from Mouchette

Image from Joan of Arc

Image from Diary of a Country Priest

In these films, there are no back stories, characterisations and psychological motivations. This is pure Transcendental Realism at its finest told by a filmmaker who had little regard for fashions and what others thought of him. Here was a filmmaker concerned, above all, about the spiritual poverty of modernity, who cared passionately about his themes and the form of cinema and risked everything to make films exactly how he wanted to make them. When he won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in, I think 1983, for his last film, L’Argent, he was booed off the stage by hypocrite film critics and ignorant so called film lovers. He was 83 years old. First of all, how can one boo an 83 year old man off the stage for making a film. Second, how could one boo an old man with over 40 years of filmmaking behind him. Third, how could one boo an old man who, more than any other filmmaker, has influenced many of the contemporary filmmakers we so love. L’Argent is uncompromising and is perhaps his greatest achievement.

Image from Au Hasard Balthazar

I had been struggling to figure out my next film, but watching these Bresson films again reminded me of the beauty of cinema, the importance of the themes he was dealing with and the importance of having the courage to do what one thinks is right. I was inspired and I now know what I am going to do next. Thanks Ruth. Thanks Robert.

 



A Universe of Stories

 ‘The Universe is made of stories, not atoms’. (Muriel Rukeyser)

‘Every picture tells a story’. So the saying goes. Whether it be Einstein telling a story in order to explain his theory of gravity, an African elder teaching children about the history of their people, Brazilian miners sitting in a bar reflecting on a day’s work, young Chinese men and women expressing their feelings around their love lives, doting British parents teaching their children about the challenges of life ahead, Middle Eastern mystics trying to make us understand the connection between material life and infinity, a German accountant trying to give an accurate feel for the health of a company through the annual accounts, an Indian natural scientist trying to make us understand the significance of the lives of tigers, an American politician trying to express the essence of a national dream, a Japanese physicist trying to explain theories of the origins of the universe, a South African theatre company teaching people about AIDS, or a French archeologist trying to bring the past alive – we are not only surrounded by stories, but we seem imbedded in stories and stories seem imbedded in us; it almost seems impossible for us to make sense of anything, to engage with anything – whether these ‘anythings’ be facts, feelings or mysteries – unless it is through story.

Woman Walking Dog by Bandstand

The ubiquitous nature of story means that we are not just consumers of stories, but we are all actually storytellers, employing various narrative forms depending on context, expressive tools and objectives. The computer game, the poem, the annual accounts, the documentary, the mathematical formula, the fiction film, the archeological exhibition, the sociology lecture, the theatre performance, the novel and the conversation are a few examples of the numerous narrative forms which all have the one quality in common: they are telling us a story. Perhaps this is because nothing really makes sense unless we feel it; our emotions and our feelings shape our engagement with the universe. Facts and figures are meaningless, unless they tell us a story that engages our emotions and feelings. Our arts and sciences are enveloped in stories and mythologies that allow us to engage with even abstract notions in a way that we can understand; they mimic the story of lived experience that we live out every day of our lives. Each one of us is a  protagonist encountering obstacles, turning points, climaxes and sub-pots. We are either involved in the battle for survival of one kind or another, or in a more spiritual experience in which stories engage us in the transcendental aspects of life, or, perhaps, a bit of both. No matter what walk of life you’re in, what field you work in, what language of expression you use, if you want to affect or engage another human being, tell them a good story with whatever tools you have to hand.



Hiding Truth

When I was about 11 years old, I started to learn to play the guitar. I had a music teacher who taught me something very important which has stayed with me ever since. I was at the time very keen to join a band and immediately wanted to play the electric guitar, so I asked my teacher if he would teach me on an electric guitar. He refused to let me do this and insisted that I learn on an acoustic guitar. (He also insisted that I sing straight away.) His reasoning was simple: if I learn to play on the electric, I will be tempted to immediately start using effects and tricks through the amplifier that would deceive me into thinking that I could play the guitar; whereas if I learned to play acoustic first, I would master the instrument and be much better placed to move to the electric from there. In other words, the electric guitar and all its wonderful possibilities might hide the fact that I couldn’t really play the guitar; whereas with the acoustic guitar I would have to truly master the instrument, as I would be exposed and vulnerable. The truth of my ability would be revealed.

He was right, of course. I learned to play the acoustic and then moved on to the electric. Here is an example of the sort of music I used to play in my youth, recently recored using Garageband (Song, vocals and instruments all by me, except the bass guitar which was played by one of my sons):

The ramifications of what he said live on in my filmmaking and my teaching. I believe that a great craftsperson, a great artist, a great scientist or a great whatever is able to express themselves very simply and transparently. The truth that they are trying to convey shines through and they are actually doing very little to get in the way of that truth emerging from their work. There is no pretension, no blustering, no trickery no disguising, no forcing – just pure beauty. Truth and beauty, beauty and truth – are they not the same?

We live, however, in a world that is complex and confusing. There is a lot of pretension, a lot of blustering, a lot of trickery – a lot of noise. In my field of filmmaking and photography, the amazing tools we now have at our disposal give us unprecedented opportunities, but there is a downside, too. The downside is exactly what my guitar teacher feared; a temptation to be distracted by the technology and its possibilities before being able to develop a mastery of the form and a true understanding of what one is trying to express. There are a lot of people who can do wonderful things with visual and aural technology. They can entertain, they can dazzle, they can impress… They can hide. They can hide the truth, they can hide the fact that they have nothing to say or the fact that they don’t know how to say it. They can hide the fact that they cannot really master their medium.

For me, a master always speaks simply, for they have nothing to hide. They lay themselves bare and open, indeed become vulnerable; a real sacrifice. And the truth shines through. I say to my students, if you cannot tell a moving image story using simple cuts, you cannot tell a story. Unfortunately, we have become inundated with visual storytelling that moves so fast, that dazzles. Is this a reflection of a fact that many filmmakers are hiding the fact that if they tried to be simple and transparent, they would reveal an emptiness behind their work? (Remember TS Eliot’s poem about ‘hollow men…’?)

Erik Playing Acoustic Guitar a long time ago

One of our greatest challenges at the moment is how to be simple and independent in an age of abundance and complexity. I have written an article about this in Widescreen entitled Cinema of Poverty: Simplicity and Independence in an Age of Abundance and Complexity. Have a look at it and I hope you enjoy it.