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Palm Springs Festival – Part 3: The Video Editing Workshop and Moving Forward and other Issues with the Child Assault Documentary I have been shooting

I spent an important day away from the photography side of things to do a Video Editing course with Fletcher Murray.  The course itself was educational and I got to ground myself better in the important post-prod side of shooting video.  I have been undertaking a doccie last couple of years concerning the front line services, including counsellors, forensic doctors and police department involved with the dark issue of dealing with the deluge of child assault cases in the main township of Cape Town called Khayelitsha where as many as 1 in 3 children will suffer some form of sexual abuse by the time they are 18.

I have shot a fair amount of footage – mainly talking heads though – but have been unable thus far to move it forward.  One problem has been technical, falling a bit flat at the first edit stage partly.  In the past pre-digital era, editing was more formulaic but these days, editing is increasingly one of the most important part of the doccie production process and knowledge of it and technical know-how of prem pro or final cut is essential even if I am not going to edit the final cut myself ultimately.  It is not just techinical though – knowing what to cut and what to keep – even when I know my story intimately has been difficult for me.

Taking the course was important and will allow me to begin to move the doccie forward again.  But it is not just on the technical side where I had issues:

For starters, while being a strong and important topic to tackle, in practice there is not much leeway of what can be shown.  I was hoping to depict the gravity of what was being dealt with and essentially the ‘unseen horror’ (which could never be shown directly for obvious reasons) through the emotions and reactions of those working with the issue.  But what has happened essentially given the monumental task of achieving access through South African Governmental departments and of course the police force is that access is very controlled and restrictive and what essentially I have is a whole load of talking heads.

Professionals are also hardened to the issue and it is very hard to capture the emotionality of the subject and therefore the ‘unseen horror’ with people who have to protect themselves and form a professional barrier between their personal feelings and the terrible nature of what they deal with on a day to day basis.  And it is especially hard when the access is limited to a series of interviews.

I also realised a while back and even at the Palm Springs Photo Festival where I was pulled in so many directions – from photography to time lapse and then back to video editing – that I have very much spread myself a bit thin professionally and something had to give.  I see myself as a photographer first – but also know that I got into it as a photojournalist with a love and training in essentially telling linear stories.  The days for doing that in photography are essentially gone or going but in documentaries the possibilties are there and very much relevant.  I certainly feel that I will possibly end up in this field one day – but for now I have had to put the documentary on the back burner as I decide what to do and how to get the essential B-Roll that will make or break the doccie.  I have ideas and with more ideas about editing and the principles behind it will certainly help.

The Thing about On-screen Interviews…

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I have done a few interviews in my time – usually to get the information for a written piece or for quotes to go with a photo story but never on film for a doccie.

Turns out that – as a rookie – setting up can be as daunting for the interviewer as it is for the interviewee.  The whole process transforms completely and to be honest – works against everything that helps make for a free-flowing sound interview.  For any broadcast journo this is all of course obvious and part and parcel of the job – but not being used to the process it is interesting to quickly go over a few of the issues I faced:

The first thing that changes is the ease with which I was used to communicating with any subject – with video – even the basic canon 5d mk II set up – you suddenly create a whole host of barriers to simple fluid communication and the interview becomes a slave very much to the technology that sits between you.

For starters there are a couple of glaring continuous 800W lights on the subject and extra film crew hovering just out of shot that makes the subject and interviewer less at ease – Mostly though – the prob with on-camera interviews are things like the fact that you suddenly have to ask the subject to paraphrase questions continuously (as I’ve said before the piece will focus on first person narrative and talking heads.. my voice won’t be on the film).

This then means that you have to stop and start sometimes which breaks the ease and flow of natural conversation.  Being constantly still and quiet on the set as well so audio doesn’t pick up any extraneous noise is also an issue for someone like me who fidgets and moves a lot naturally.

Simply put – the problem with on-film interviews is that the process itself gets so much in the way.  For a piece that is all about examining the emotions of those working on the front line of child assault cases, it is proving to be an issue and I am looking to work round this.  Ultimately, I think sacrificing some technical polish from interviews for more comfort and better on-screen reactions from the interviewees is def worth it.

In this case, it was lucky therefore that our subject – Dr Genine Josias – one of the forensic doctors involved in the project has a great presence and is natural and calm (more so than I am!) in front of the camera.  This made the process more relaxed and much easier to handle.  My film crew are also much at ease and helped also put Genine in a good space.

Two old tricks that came in handy – common to broadcast interviewers – that work very well is:

1/ The pregnant pause:  After an answer always give the subject time to add more.  Never ask the next question immediately.  This technique is especially useful with professionals who are used to the interview process. It is usually during these simulated moments of discomfort that the best and most unique answers can be attained.

2/ Get to chat and connect with the subject beforehand.  This greatly helps to put them at ease.  In my case, I have years of contact with many of the subjects on the film so this is not a problem.  But certainly, with people that I don’t know so much, it is worth sitting down and having informal chats with them before the whole circus begins.

Our next interview situation will be with front line service counsellors and we have the added dimension that a Xhosa interpreter will be used.

Success with the tv interview process all comes down to putting the interviewee at ease in my humble opinion.  The more time I have doing this, I am sure the better it will get.  Whatever though – I do feel much more at ease behind the camera and can’t wait to get back to where I belong!

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.

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