We’re very pleased to announce that the Story Lab Cuba 2016 have recently been announced. Erik Knudsen will be delivering the Story Lab Cuba 2016 workshops at Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in San Antonio de los Baños near Havana between the 21 November and the 2 December 2016. You can book your workshop or find out more here.
You may remember from a previous post that I was in Cuba in December 2014 conducting a Story Lab workshop at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television. During my free time, I used my iPhone to shoot a little documentary with a young man, Alejandro, and his friends, entitled In Waiting (12 minutes).
Inspired by the questions he raises about the situation he and his friends find themselves in, I was moved to act spontaneously and shoot this film. This is something I do once in a while and I use whatever tool (camera) comes to hand – in this case, an iPhone 6 Plus. The film was shot in one afternoon and one evening. I have made several short films in a similarly spontaneous way, including Vanilla Chip, A Dog’s Farewell To His Master and The Yoruba Tree. There is also a direct connection between this documentary and my photographic essay on Cuba, Cuba In Waiting, which recently exhibited at the Dean Clough Gallery in Halifax, UK.
Despite recent signs of a thawing relationship between the United States and Cuba, many in Cuba feel stuck and despondent about their situation. Since the revolution in 1959, nothing much has changed. Many have left Cuba, and continue to leave, particularly the young, and the country continues to exist in a state of limbo. This short documentary, In Waiting, tells the story of Alejandro, a young educated man in San Antonio de los Baños in Cuba, frustrated by the repressive stasis of the country, concerned for his future and, above all, torn between the idea of leaving Cuba – like all his friends intend to – and staying to change it. Alejandro meets up with his friends one evening and asks himself: how will Cuba change if young people do not stay to change it?
In Waiting is now complete and will be made available soon on this site. At the moment it is being considered for the Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival 2015 and cannot be screened until they have made a decision whether to include it in this year’s festival. Either way, it will be made available soon and it may coincide with the release of The Raven On The Jetty in April 2015.
I’ve just returned from delivering my Story Lab Cuba 2014 workshop at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y Television in Cuba and am very pleased with how it went. I had a wonderful group of participants, all experienced in film or related fields such as journalism, with an age range from 25 years old to 58 years old. Participants came from Spain, UK, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.
We spent two weeks exploring creativity and story. The first week was predominantly exploring creativity, story and narrative through a series of exercises, discussions and screenings, while the second week was predominantly driven by each individual developing a screenplay supported by individual tutorials. We finished with everyone reading their completed screenplays to class and critiquing them.
EICTV is based just outside San Antonio de los Baños, which is a 40 minute drive from Havana. The surroundings are beautiful and peaceful and this provided a perfect backdrop and context for creative work.
I promised participants that at the end of the workshop they would emerge with screenplays for short films that they would be very pleased with. And they were not disappointed. Because of the way I like to develop ideas with people, I know that what emerges is going to be something that, first of all, they are surprised they had in them and, secondly, that will have such a strong connection to them and their creative aspirations, that they will feel very close to the work, proud of it and connected to it. Getting the seed right and understanding approaches to story and narrative makes it possible to have first draft screenplays that are very close to being ready to go into pre-production.
I was amazed at the quality of work these participants came up with. Stories that mattered; stories that came from the heart; stories that powerfully dealt with a range of profound themes. Diverse stories that reflected the character of each individual. Unusually, in every single case, I felt these stories to be very good and deserving of production. In fact, I know that most participants are going away to look at realising these works and I look forward to this happening.
It was an immensely enjoyable workshop. Hard work keeping tabs of the work of 12 people in such a concentrated periods of time, but well worth it. The stories emerging from the participants truly inspired me in my own work. In fact, I got so impatient that I decided to try out my new iPhone 6 Plus to make a little on the spur of the moment documentary. Through my good friend, Oriel Rodriguez, I was introduced to a young man, Alejandro, who, like so may other young people, are so frustrated with life in Cuba. Unlike every single one of his friends that I met, he has no plans to leave Cuba. When I asked about how he dealt with these issues, he started telling me about how he hangs out with his friends in a particular square every evening and they talk about their frustrations with Cuba deep into the night. They have no money, no opportunities, no entertainment and no incentives to invest in fighting to change Cuba. The psyche of the youth is so broken, the only option is to find a way to leave. So I decided to make a little documentary about it and spend an evening shooting and doing some interviews. This could actually be the beginnings of a bigger feature film and because of this initial shooting, my mind is abuzz with ideas circulating around a kernel around this theme. More to come on this in due course.
Some evenings, I had the good fortune of being able to attend Ruth Goldberg’s class on Alfred Hitchcock. She is an inspirational teacher, and like a previous series of classes I attended some years ago about Robert Bresson, I felt truly inspired by re-looking at one of the all time masters, Alfred Hitchcock. Not only the films, but the discussions that Ruth expertly guided were very interesting and enlightening.
I believe that I will be doing another Story Lab workshop in Cuba in 2015 and look very much forward to that.
It was great to be able to contribute to the Content Malaysia Conference 2014 held in Kuala Lumpur last week. I was invited by acting Director General of FINAS (the Malaysian Film Development Corporation), Dr Megat Al-Imran Yasin, who asked me to give two talks: one on the relationship between higher education research and the film industry, with specific reference to my experience in the UK; and the other on my experience of leading a media school – the then School of Media, Music and Performance – into the MediaCityUK development at Salford Quays in Manchester, UK. The latter was in direct relationship to ambitious plans by the Malaysian film and television industries to develop a Media City in Kuala Lumpur by 2020.
I hadn’t quite realised the scale and importance of the Content Malaysia conference until I arrived. The conference was taking place in one of the poshest hotels in Kuala Lumpur, The Mandarin Oriental, right next to the famous twin Petronas towers, and while this was a business to business event, attended by mainly people from the film and television industries, it was part of a larger public KL Converge event taking place at The KL Convention Centre next door. My first talk took place just before the arrival of the Minister of Communications and Multimedia, who was to formally give his blessing to proceedings. As a consequence, there must have been about 250-300 people there. My second talk, the following morning, was attended by about 150-200 people.
The fantastic attendance by both important political people and media entrepreneurs, filmmakers, producers, distributors etc, was an indication of the tremendous efforts Malaysia is making to have an international presence in film and television and to be the leading producer and hub for media content in the South East Asia region. They are pumping millions into this effort, including through incentive schemes to attract productions to Malaysia, the building of the Pinewood branded film studios at Iskandar, next to Singapore, and through their extensive efforts to sell media content at all the leading film markets across the world. They realise, rightly, that content is at the heart of every media industry, hence the title of the conference. (There was also a storytelling masterclass running alongside the conference.)
While there, I learned a lot about what is happening in Malaysia and South East Asia in general and met some very ambitious people. Of course I already know Dr Megat Yasin, the Director General of FINAS, but while there I had the privilege of making friends with Hassan Muthalib, the father of Malaysian animation films and the leading scholar on Malaysian cinema, and Sheen Singh, the CEO of Passion Productions, the leading service company for international advertising companies shooting in Malaysia. Both have a keen interest in working with new and emerging talent so we had many conversations about that, life and art. It was also great to be able to meet up with my PhD graduate, Nico Meissner, who runs the Cinematic Arts programme at Multimedia University. I suspect that this programme is going to become an important player in the ambitions of Malaysian cinema and look forward to following, and perhaps participating in, these developments.
My talks had two simple themes. First, I wanted to stress that research and development is a critical aspect of any successful industry and that a mature relationship between industry and higher education could provide an effective context in which new ideas and talent development are explored and nurtured. This is particularly relevant given the financial challenges that many broadcasters and film companies find themselves facing. Gone are the days when Higher Education was simply thought of as a training provider of fodder for media employment. Smart companies see universities are partners through whom they can explore and develop new talent. No one really knows what is going to happen next or what they even like – until they see it. Higher Education is about encouraging students to take risks, to develop creatively, to build critical rigour into their thinking and to develop their courage. The industry does not want us to deliver hacks, but graduates who are able to adapt to and shape the future. This is why our primary business is not training, but education. On the other hand, real engagement with industry provides students with an opportunity to more fully understand the challenges and opportunities open to their creative impulses and aspirations.
On the research side, many of us in the practice led academic world continue to be engaged with filmmaking or media practice, exploring and reflecting critically on what we are doing and as a consequence hopefully making a contribution to the industries and crafts we work in. Our engagement with, and guidance of, for example, our PhD students, who are themselves often from, and will be returning to, the industry also offers opportunities for the development of cutting edge new ideas and the creative practice of individuals.
Training is almost a separate issue, though not quite. A university will never be able to deliver a fully trained end product. This is not in the interests of a university and in any case, every company and producer needs different things and while organisations like Skillset in the UK try to standardise training across the sector, this has in my opinion not been a success. There are strong training outcomes as a consequence of a student’s education and these can form an excellent basis from which industry can build further training in situ. Invariably, when industry thinks of universities as training institutions, they are disappointed.
Actually, where most training occurs is in the independent and fringe sectors of the film and television industries. Hollywood, for example, relies on a deep hinterland of film production activity outside of the majors ranging from fairly large scale independent work to the fringe projects of small indies. This is where the talent gets trained, where they develop their unique visions and where Hollywood goes to find such new talent and new ideas. The majors cannot in themselves take risks, develop innovations or develop new talent. So in any strategy about creating a sustainable film industry, I would look strongly at how the independent sector can be encouraged and nurtured without stifling it with policy driven initiatives.
All in all, the opportunities for fruitful and mature interaction between higher education and the industry will be best fulfilled if this relationship is built around notions of research and development. Malaysia has an opportunity to skip a stage in the development of this relationship and encourage a mature relationship between its still developing media and film provision in its universities and its film and television industries.
As for the Media City developments the Malaysians are considering, my second theme, I wanted to focus on the idea that ultimately what makes a successful film industry is not buildings and technology, but people, their ideas and their stories. Technology has changed to such an extent that big buildings are no longer necessary to house most production activity, with the exception of high end productions. In fact these same high end productions are vying for the attention of especially young people in competition with low end content produced by ‘amateurs’ and distributed on such platforms as YouTube. What happened to book publishing in Europe with the advent of the Gutenberg Press in the 16th century is about to happen to film as a consequence of the digital revolution. How many of the 250,000 books published each year in the UK will make their authors money? Was money the main motivation for the writing of the vast majority of these books? Yet all these books contribute to the sustaining of a publishing industry that has enriched our lives.
When thinking of building a Media City it is therefore worth pondering this brave new world and understanding the fundamentals of what makes creative people tick. When you look at successful creative clusters around the world, they were originally built on informal clusters of small and medium sized companies in the proximity of a decentralised university. This latter point is important, as it relates to my earlier comments about the creative interaction between industry and universities. A decentralised university allows for creative and informal interactions with small and medium sized enterprises and practitioners who are ultimately going to drive innovation. The big players can then come in on this bedrock of innovation and enterprise. Where the big enterprises try and artificially create a hub of innovation, there is a high potential for long term failure. One could end up with fantastic and expensive buildings with wonderful facilities, but all the creative talent is hanging out in a poorer part of town because that’s where all the innovators hang out.
In the development of a Media City, I therefore think it important to create a very open and informal environment, cheap and flexible and, above all, designed for people to hang out. Inhabitants must be able to shape their own spaces and have flexible arrangements around the available technologies. Because of the nature of our businesses, it is always going to be dominated by a sea of small and medium sized enterprises, so I think it worth considering designing facilities and the relevant costings with this in mind.
The other thing to bear in mind is cultural and geographical diversity, particularly relevant I feel in a country like Malaysia. Why have just one big Media City? In what other ways can one develop media activity and media businesses across the country? The idea of having a concentration of an industry in one city is perhaps based on old business models and technologies and is perhaps one that should be questioned.
I look forward to having further discussions with people in Malaysia about these themes. Unlike in the UK where the industries and their infrastructure are pretty fixed, and very hard to change in any way, the Malaysians still have malleable infrastructures and institutions, which I think makes it a very interesting place to be if you’re a filmmaker or a film entrepreneur.
Today is my last day in Malaysia before heading back to the UK. Yesterday I spent nearly 7 hours walking the streets of Kuala Lumpur taking photographs and ended the day in one of the oldest restaurant bars in KL – the Coliseum – where I had a nice cold beer. KL is hot. The Coliseum dates back to 1921 and it still has the feel of a colonial haunt.
Coming to Malaysia not only enabled me to run a 2 week workshop on the Cinematic Arts programme at Multimedia University, coordinated by my PhD graduate, Nico Meissner, but I was able to find time to take quite a few photographs mainly in KL and to start work on a new film project. I am in the early stages of developing a new film project and the hardest part is getting the crude skeleton down, which I have now done. Being away from all the normal routines of one’s daily life can help to provide the focus required for this kind of creative work and I am now very excited about my new idea as it starts to take actual shape. More on this in due course.
Working with undergraduate students is a rare thing for me and it was great working with a number of the Cinematic Arts students at MMU Malaysia (those who chose editing). Having taught students all over the world, I am continually reminded of how students across cultures and contexts are usually concerned with similar themes and are struggling with similar issues and problems. Lack of confidence is often a common issue and perhaps a little more so in Malaysia. The education system here is very focused on exams and reinforces in students the notion that some things are correct and others incorrect. A lot of my effort was therefore focused on supporting the students in making their own decisions independent of expectations and based on their feelings and impulses and encouraging them to develop courage to take risks. Add to this, a socio political angle in which Malaysia in a sense is obsessed with development – that is, effectively copying what and how things are done in the west – and we have a cocktail of ingredients that students have to overcome to tell their stories the way they want to tell them. One good example of this – which we dealt with in my workshop – is the reinforcing of the idea that the classical narrative is the only way to tell a story. There are other ways of telling cinematic stories and in fact these other ways may indeed at times be more appropriate for the kind of stories that these students want to tell about their lives in Malaysia. The Hollywood model that so dominates our screens and the literature on storytelling and screenwriting is a model that many in developing countries try to replicate without at least questioning its relevance to their own traditions, priorities and sensibilities.
My workshop was on editing. It’s hard to separate out editing, writing and directing in terms of relationship to story (they are essentially three different stages in a process of the same thing) and we explored the relationship of story and narrative to feelings, looked at different narrative structures and approaches and then explored the modes and forms of editing. In the two weeks, the students did four practical exercises. There was a strong connection to screenwriting in particular.
This generation of students are the first on the Cinematic Arts programme at MMU Malaysia and the university is investing heavily in expanding Cinema education. New facilities are being built close to Pinewood Studios in the south of the country, close to Singapore, and the programme is going to move to these new facilities and evolve into a separate school. Work is being done on developing a new vision and strategy for the school and there is no doubt that in terms of film education, this is one of the main institutions in Malaysia. This ties in with efforts to develop a strong indigenous filmmaking culture in Malaysia. I am a Visiting Professor with them until the end of 2015 and look forward to continuing to make my small contribution to this ambitious development.
I recently travelled to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur on university business. When travelling to this part of the world, I never cease being amazed at the scale of material progress there. Malaysia got independence from the British in the same year as Ghana – 1957 – and yet the contrast in fortunes since then could not be starker. Kuala Lumpur is a sprawling metropolis, every bit as modern as a typical European or US city. It has some rough edges to it and there are parts of it that are poor, but the infrastructure, such as transport, is extensive and works really well. Singapore is a much richer city and highly advanced and organised. If anything, there is a controlled feel about Singapore that you do not feel about Kuala Lumpur. The streets of Singapore are clean, as is the subway system, and there are strict codes of behaviour that most seem to adhere to. Skateboarding in an underpass, for example, carries a fine of approximately £500 and I saw no evidence of youths hanging around on street corners. In some ways there is a sterility to the city which I have heard some people say puts them off wanting to live there. On the other hand, walking around the streets of both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur at night felt very safe.
Singapore in particular has some wonderful places to walk around. I came across a Buddhist temple in Chinatown and the interesting thing about this temple was that there was a ceremony going on in the temple which was completely open to the non-worshipping public. I, like many others, was able to walk around the temple while worshippers performed their ceremony. They seemed completely unfazed by the presence of onlookers:
The chanting was mesmerising and hypnotic. The power of the sound of the words being chanted was there to feel. Even if some people were not partaking in the ceremony, which lasted all day, some worshippers would simply pop by, light an incense stick and briefly and quietly express their faith.
The temple was large and housed other types of worshipping opportunities, such as prayer wheels.
And on several upper floors of the temple there was a substantial museum hosting a wealth of ornaments from Buddhism.
The ceremony apparently lasts all day. The sheer discipline and dedication involved in worshippers chanting all day is amazing and is one example of the tenacity and commitment faith can induce in people.
Late in December 2011, I visited Ghana on a holiday. I was in Ghana for the New Year’s celebration. Unlike the UK, where people take to the bars, streets and private homes to celebrate with plenty of drink, I was surprised to find that Ghanaians all go to church to celebrate what they call Crossover. These ceremonies are marked by evangelical singing, chanting and enthusiastic prayer. I went to the national football stadium in Accra and joined 40,000 revellers who were being led into the new year by a charismatic preacher and his entourage onstage. It was like a rock concert and the atmosphere was electric and moving.
In many ways, the energy I saw in that stadium reflected the energy I felt across Accra and to some extent in other part of the country that I visited. There’s an entrepreneurial energy about the place which suggests a growing economy and sense of self sufficiency. The recent discovery of oil lends to that impression, though the ever present issue of how the vast mineral wealth that Ghana possesses can yield benefit for the ordinary person is still a serious one that has yet to be addressed sufficiently. Nevertheless, large modern shopping malls are springing up across Accra and there seems to be no shortage of shoppers. In fact you can get anything now in Accra.
I also met some Chinese investors who are building a very large business and shopping complexion the outskirts of Accra. The Chinese property boom seems to have peaked and these investors are looking to Africa to make property investments. They told me that as far as they are concerned, Africa is the placebo invest at the moment. They were selling shop and business units and there was great demand for these units even before they had started building. Ghanaians were paying cash advances for these units. Corruption and complexities around land ownership remains the main stumbling block to the Ghanaian economy taking off, but despite these impediments, there seems to be a lot of activity. I am convinced that the is a lot more money in Ghana – and Africa in general – than meets the eye. The notion that Ghana is a country that needs aid is far from the truth; what is clearly needed is trade and if the issues around corruption could be dealt with, countries like Ghana would take off economically.
The film business, too, seems to be thriving. walking the streets of Accra, one will see these vans bedecked with posters and surrounded with hordes of sales people selling the latest DVD release of a locally produced film. These are digital films commercially produced on budgets somewhere between £20,000 and £50,000. Because of the methods of distribution – direct DVD and VCD sales – these films are distributed far into the rural communities and the result is a lively film business. They are local films, with local stars telling locally relevant stories and they are very popular. Nigeria, of course,mis the powerhouse of film production in Africa, so the Ghanaian market is also flooded with Nigerian films.
From a Western perspective one may question the quality of most of these films. But who are we to make a judgement; the films sell. What is the difference between rubbish that costs £100,000,000 to produce or rubbish that costs £20,000 to produce? I did, however, come across many Ghanaians that complained about the aesthetic and narrative quality of their films. And when it comes to documentaries, the tradition of locally produced documentary films – apart from promotional and basic training documentaries – is virtually non existent. There will one day be a market for quality fiction and documentary films and it will have to be Ghanaian filmmakers and Ghanaian audiences that grow together to create this quality cinema. The money is there. The entrepreneurial energy is there. The technology is there. The audiences are there. The filmmakers are ere. What is the magic ingredient that will help Ghanaian Film cross over into a new era?
Having just returned from a trip to China – my first visit – I am struck by the sheer scale of the country. I visited mainly some of the biggest cities – Beijing, Hangzhou, Shanghai and Hong Kong and when people talk of the booming economy, I now know what they mean, first hand. Concrete high rises have been erected everywhere over the past decade or so and the traditional architechtural heritage is being swamped, if not lost, in this massive expansion. However, I was very fortunate to be able to visit The Forbidden City, which is an impressive experience.
Shanghai was particularly fascinating. The colonial past lingered firmly within the impressive new skyscrapers dominating the skyline and, like Hong Kong, had a feel of a long standing trading relationship with the rest of the world.
I managed to spend a little time taking some street photographs. I love taking pictures of people. Keep an eye on the One Day Films Website for some street photos from China that I am currently preparing.