Fundamental structure and access for shooting a short doccie on child assault in South Africa.
Just came back from the last session of my Masterclass in Groningen in Holland. Great to see all the usual suspects again and the invited guest lecturers. Want to blog a bit about that in the next few days – been a great experience – but travelling away from SA also helped me gain some new and out of the box perspective on my ongoing film project.
While I have started shooting, I don’t want to dwell too long on my experience of the technical side until a bit later – as important as it is. I have actually found the structuring and planning and the need to evolve any type of pre-shoot script during shooting to be of far more importance than I ever imagined. For anyone who might have been in the dark on all the structuring side as I was, a great starting point is:
How to Write a Documentary Script a monograph by Trisha Das – (if you do a google search, it’s the 52 page document).
I have been wondering whether to write openly about the subject matter I am working on. It is of course seen as ever so unprofessional to give away what you’re working on. Firstly – talking too much could help set myself up for a mighty fall even more than is necessary, but I also feel that being as open and democratic about the process as possible helps me in terms of getting decent feedback and might also hopefully help others trying to make the jump into video and doccies with a photographic background. To be very honest too – gaining open access to the subject I am covering has been a very long (and still ongoing) process that gives me some insulation from any insecurity that I might have that I am being too open about the subject matter.
The general subject itself is to look, broadly speaking, at child assault cases in a certain area in the Western Cape in South Africa. Specifically though I don’t want to look at the issue head on – apart from it not being possible given the legal ramifications and of course – moral restrictions of looking at such a sensitive issue as child assault cases, I wanted to rather focus on all those intimately involved in such cases on a professional level, including the counsellors, NGO’s, Social Service workers, Forensic Doctors tied to the Department of Health, the IO’s (Investigating Officers) with the FCSU (Family, Violence, Child Abuse and Sexual Offences Unit within the South African Police Service) and the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority: Equivalent in the UK to the Crown Prosecution Service).
On the face of it – it seems that the topic speaks for itself and would be something that can be conveyed powerfully with little need for playing around (from a structural and editorial point of view) with even a simple linear progression of subject matter making do. You have characters faced with great and overwhelming outer conflict that requires some sort of resolution. A plethora of inciting incidents can be identified: Recently for example, there has been a relative crisis with the implementation of the Sexual Offences Act in South Africa. It appears as the relatively recent legislation did not prescribe sentences to 29 types of offences – including sexual assault, sexual grooming and exploitation – there has been confusion in the courts to the point where it has been advised that certain cases not be prosecuted until further notice and further instruction from the High Courts be dictated. Or the alarming rise in the number of cases where the perpetrators of child assault cases have been as young as 4yrs old. Such things has lead to exasperation amongst those working closely with such cases and would be a solid starting point from which a resolution can slowly be coaxed.
But – I feel – to really convey the overwhelming nature of these types of crimes it will be the inner conflict of the people that work closely with such cases that I will need to develop to truly get across the gravity of the subject. Something that is far more subtle and harder and requires much more time and diligent attention to put together. In making the child survivors and perpetrators almost secondary characters – I ultimately want to convey the ‘unseen horror’ of the situation through the slow revelation of the true (and heriocally distressed) characters of those working on the cases.
Some people with whom I have discussed the project have asked why I don’t get perpetrators’ PoV (sorry – Point of View) as well. While it would be powerful and certainly meet the criteria of giving a journalistic balance in viewpoint – I really don’t think it will be necessary:
One thing my recent Masterclass has taught me is that access doesn’t always equate best results. (In my humble opinion) it seems ever so slightly 2-dimensional, sensationalist and almost to dilute the emotional journey and empathy I want to create with my central characters.
Now – in so doing – I agree that the flip side of the argument is that I risk becoming too one-sided. And for this I have yet to make a decision as to whether the doccie will require a 3rd person narration to go with the obvious 1st person (‘talking heads’) narration that the piece will be strongly tied to. If the characters are too intense then maybe it will be better to give a more general perspective with a 3rd person narration as well. Writing such narration though will be a very interesting experience indeed for me and will cross that bridge when I come to it.
All in all, I am glad I took a moment to think about the whole piece before I began shooting. As someone once said – things get so much more complicated when you start and I can certainly bear witness to that.
I’m sure more developed doccie makers might read some of this and question some of the process. All in all though I am happy with the slowly evolving direction of the doccie project. One thing that continues to worry me though is the sheer number of protagonists – all passionate and great for the project – I am trying to incorporate. I think at 1 point or another – I will have to tie myself to fewer characters to avoid making the piece too convoluted. But having a structure is a godsend. My first self-taught golden rule of film-making is to def go into these pieces – however simple they may seem in structure – with a definitive plan – even if it evolves drastically by the end – otherwise you may find yourself not doing justice to even the most basic of video projects.