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Documentaries Screen Residencies

A series of documentary film residencies at the Scottish Documentary Institute.

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Robbie Fraser is a Glasgow-based producer & director (Pure Magic Films).

When I consulted with the Scottish Documentary Institute at the start of the long road of making my next documentary feature film, FAMILY GOLDMINE, Sonja Henrici had one immediate piece of advice which has proved extremely useful for the project: apply to Eurodoc. The program exists to give new-ish producers a solid grounding in the European production landscape, to allow them to hothouse their projects on both a creative and commercial level, and to encourage them to start to form alliances, make connections and work internationally. I applied, and was accepted to the class of 2012.

Each year the chosen group – divided into two classes of 10-15 producers from all over Europe and beyond – meets for three week-long residential workshops. These take place in different host cities over the course of the year, in last year’s case we had a week each in Verviers in Belgium, Gera near Leipzig in Germany and Nimes in France. In one of the classes the main language spoken is English, in the other, French – but producers came from all over. We had Italians, Swedes, Norwegians, Bulgarians, Moroccans, French (loads of), Belgians, a Turkish producer, a very memorable Russian, and even a couple of Chileans. An immediately friendly group with a diverse slate of projects.

The program has a distinctly French feel – no bad thing – it’s run from Montpellier by Anne-Marie Luccioni and Marie-Sophie Decout in conjunction with French documentary grandee Jacques Bidou. But my class group, the anglophone one, was overseen by Heino Deckert – a seasoned German producer, distributor and sales agent, but, perhaps more importantly, a giving and convivial teacher and imparter of wisdom. In fact, Heino began his career as an early Eurodoc participant, and has built his business on the connections he made there.

Producers can often – of course largely inaccurately – be viewed by crewpeople, directors, and members of the public in general, as predatory, hard-hearted, granny-selling number crunchers. When you put a group of us together, however, it is not long before our softer side is in evidence, as stories, aspirations, dreams and old wounds are shared. The hopes we have, the risks we take. At the root of every independent film production, and at every turn, is risk. The person who shoulders that risk, and takes a stand to make the project happen, is the producer. The mutual critique on which Eurodoc is founded is based on that understanding of the nature of producing, and makes a fellowship out of it. Classes kick off with each project receiving a kind of benevolent interrogation, both from the leader and the others in the group – with a close professional and social bond soon forming. While the feedback given might focus on the more technical aspects of co-production treaties or financing plans (and on those fronts Heino’s knowledge was encyclopedic), we were also very much encouraged to discuss the creative side of the projects, through to pitching and packaging. My group displayed a gratifying level of trust, sharing and insight on all fronts, such that by session two our discussions would sometimes ascend to an almost psychoanalytical level. This course is one where the emotional investment made by producers is recognised and nurtured – one of the rare places that can happen. I was one of two producer/directors in my class, and we were viewed – tolerantly – as mild oddities, rather than pollutants. But the emphasis really is on support for the producer.

The days are very, very long at Eurodoc: the classes are broken each day up with larger ‘plenary’ sessions with guest speakers, screenings of films by tutors and former participants, one-to-one expert sessions, coffee breaks and lunches, dinners and cocktail sessions, during all of which each host city was given a chance to (and did) showcase its cuisine and shine. From breakfast on there are planned and unplanned learning and networking opportunities. 8am until midnight, for 6 days, it’s full on – the Eurodoc team does not let up.

Session three, in October, is set up almost as a mini-pitching market, with a broad range of European commissioning editors – from ARTE, RAI, SVT, YLE and many more – taking several days of one-on-one meetings with producers. (There was no representative from the UK – we’re viewed, rightly, as a bit disengaged, which is a shame.) For me the meetings were very positive, and led to further talks and meetings after Eurodoc and conversations with broadcasters, sales agents and film festivals, some of which have borne fruit, and others which will, I hope, before the project is done.

As you may have heard, documentary film can often involve filming actual events that are happening in the present tense in the real world, at times of their own choosing and not the filmmaker’s – a pattern which does not always conform comfortably to the funding rhythms and editorial deadlines of broadcasters and film funders. My film is a long term (shaping up for 2 years) portrait of a very special family in Mali, with a very special gold-mining project (and intervening coups d’etat, a war and the odd bout of malaria). Eurodoc proved an invaluable scaffolding in the first year of development filming, helping me shape the project from story to financing plan, and showing me how to own it as producer, as well as director. With the support of Creative Scotland and BBC Scotland, and my executive producers Spring Films in London, the project looks like it will be finished early next year. If it comes out as hoped I would very much look forward to screening and discussing it at Eurodoc, if invited, and put back in a bit of the good karma which I was given.

Sources 2 is an advanced training programme for European film professionals working in the field of script and story development. 

In October 2012, freelance artist and film-maker Karen Guthrie attended Sources2 workshop in Graz, Austria. 

It’s Sunday afternoon and here we are, all standing at the tiny Graz (Austria) airport luggage carousel, the airport billboard advertising that the local ski season is being opened by Swedish House Mafia. It’s got a certain kind of cool, Europe, hasn’t it? Though people do still style their hair in mullets a lot, it must be said.

A disparate and international group of film people bundle into our large taxi and make our way through that efficient-looking industrial farmland they seem to have around European cities (what have they got against hedges?) on our way to what is a rather nice hotel in Graz city centre. They’ve even organised bikes for us to zip between hotel and course venue (at this early stage we don’t realise that this is probably the only journey we’ll have time to make this week). No cycle helmets – this is Europe remember, and they do things differently here.

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We’re swiftly grouped into one of three – two groups are fiction to our one documentary team, led by Argentinian-born writer Gualberto Ferrari. We familiarise ourselves with the Theatre am Lend, our home for the next 7 days. It’s comfortable and supplies the endless stream of coffee, snacks, lunches and dinners required to keep the show on the road – sitting in a room all day appears to make everyone very, very hungry and I quickly learn to appreciate the pumpkin – the revered seasonal food of the region. The all-women Sources2 office has decamped from their base in Berlin to here and runs the operation with just the right style of warm efficiency. We’re all very impressed at how easy they make it look, though we all know how hard they must need to work to pull these Herculean events off.

First thing on Monday, Gualberto maps out the format he’ll take with our group of projects - Nina Pope (my co-producer and DoP) and I are joined by Stefan LechnerLieven Corthouts (& later, fresh from IDFA, his producer Emmy Oost), Madhureeta Anand & Johannes Rosenberger, Walo Deuber & Rose-Marie Schneider and Ruslana Berndl. The project subjects range from Chernobyl to nuns to refugees to my parents. Africa comes up quite a few times.

Our workshop will discuss each project in detail in rotation across the week, each project getting typically a 2 hr discussion every few days. We’ve all read each others’ treatments in advance (these vary to a rather interesting degree though all are presented in English – most are much longer than is typical in the UK), so know the bones of what is ahead. Clearly Gualberto has both read and watched a lot of our material in advance. (He continues to work on our material at night at the hotel, though when he tells me about simultaneously enjoying old Rod Stewart videos on the telly, I wonder if this homework is entirely helpful).

My film is much further ahead than most in my group (i.e. in production rather than development) and this concerns me a little at first. It makes you feel a lot more vulnerable to show raw rushes than a paper treatment that can be re-edited or even erased on the spot. However, as we all know, having a hard drive of rushes is very far from having a film and I’m here to approach the film afresh, so having a room full of trustworthy, talented strangers is just what I need.

Each project is dissected and interrogated by the group led by Gualberto, clips and tasters are viewed, and often what the director energetically tells us about their subject turns out to to be even better than what’s been written: I’ve found this happens in pitching workshops I’ve done before, but as Sources2 is not focusing on the showy performance of pitching an idea in public, we are mercifully at liberty to get down to the minutiae if we want to – it’s a delight, if a knackering one, and leads us into some astonishing personal revelations that remind me why documentary film-making is where the most awake people I’ve ever met are.

Nina and I are the only native English speakers here and more than lucky to be working in our mother tongue – if I find the course intensity tiring think how much more it is for everyone else – I’m amazed they can summon anything beyond jibberish after lunch. To my group’s occasional dismay, I refuse to correct their delightfully flawed English as I enjoy it so much: ‘Here we begin to interfere with each others’ exposes’ being a case in point. The dynamic of a collective effort on each and every project is followed and Gualberto is extremely focused – to the point that he needs to be reminded to allow us the coffee-breaks we expect if we are to devour all the excellent pastries they keep leaving outside our room.

In between sessions and over lunch we have all-too quick chats with some of the fiction writers and directors from the other groups. They come from all over the globe and I can genuinely say I’ve never had a more stimulating week of conversation – ranging from the sexual politics of modern Turkey, to the influx of Russian dancers into the Bollywood scene, to how well Norway deals with snow (not as well as is always reported here in the UK, it seems), to the cuisine of Uganda, to internal politics of the Swiss Protestant church and mountain biking in Belgium (where I’m sure there are no mountains?).

I also enjoyed dropping listeners’ jaws with my ‘No, really, this is the true story of my family, and we’re making a film of it’ – it was endlessly helpful to hear the insights of a truly international and culturally-unbiased peer group.

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Back in the room, Gualberto rigourously emphasised the importance of building a structure in all feature documentaries – taking each project to task on probable starts and ends, even those whose directors were still in the starting blocks. However hypothetical these discussions were, they remained helpful to all of us as we drew parallels in our own projects and recounted experiences we- after all, how many of us indie doc directors ever get to watch another at work and see fresh techniques in action? At one point I remember recommending all-female crews as the antidote to macho film subjects, and there were enjoyable digressions into how to engage with Somalian refugees (as a postman as well as as a director) and with Lisbon’s fado music scene (as a guitarist and portrait photographer, as well as a director).’d had that could prove helpful to each other. Characters were discussed, sometimes watched in clips, and honest feedback offered. My father (on film) did not have to open his mouth to evoke appreciative laughter from the group – something he could perhaps develop for comic effect in real life….Directorial approaches – investigative, playful, strategic – were all shared after all, how many of us indie doc directors ever get to watch another at work and see fresh techniques in action? At one point I remember recommending all-female crews as the antidote to macho film subjects, and there were enjoyable digressions into how to engage with Somalian refugees (as a postman as well as as a director) and with Lisbon’s fado music scene (as a guitarist and portrait photographer, as well as a director).

Sources2 kindly programme the odd trip out (the thrill of the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum cannot be done justice to here) and some guest speakers to give our weary heads a rest: I caught Barbara Albert speaking about her new film The Dead and the Living and Manuela Buono of Taskovski Films talking about something you hear a lot about in doc circles now - ’cross-platform’. As an unofficial godmother of the UK net art scene (I learnt how to write raw HTML back in the the heady days of 1994) I come to such talks with a lot of scepticism, so much being touted as groundbreaking online now was old hat even by the late nineties. It’s just that most audiences were not online in those days, so it was all niche.

It’s never easy to exactly wow an audience who have to watch your cursor click and the wifi buffer, but Manuela offered a nice tour of the kind of American and European online plus TV projects that big broadcast players like Arte have been funding. I had to admit I knew of almost none of them - One Millionth Tower and Empire Me (which might have travelled if it had had a better English title!) being a few tackling the kind of big global subjects that – for better or for worse – the WWW as a medium attempts to describe. Towards the end of Manuela’s talk someone from my group whispered to me ‘What’s the difference between this and a ‘film with a web site’?’. If we’d had more energy left that evening this might have been a good question to throw open to the room, but truthfully we were all by then looking forward to throwing open the door to the bar.

After what felt like much more than a week’s work, I travelled homeward via Munich with our tutor Gualberto – we listlessly browsed the airport shop with its pumpkin-seed based local confections and talked about what was next for us, once we’d left our immersive Sources2 bubble. Our group meets again in March 2013 in Vienna and we all have an action list to complete by then – one thing’s for sure, our films have all pulled out of the slow lane and the journey is underway.

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The EDN’s Twelve for the Future is a project-driven co-production workshop for Nordic documentary producers and directors, so it was a great honour to be included as the first-ever Scottish project, supported by Creative Scotland’s ‘Creative Futures’ programme.

Putting aside any Scottish claims of Nordic DNA from visiting longboats in the distant past, the film I was taking to the workshops is set in the Faroe Islands and so is very Nordic. The programme was spread across two workshop sessions, the first in Denmark in September 2011, and the final part in Finland in late January 2012.

Part One: Copenhagen

The first session was held outside Copenhagen in the seaside resort of Marlielyst. I only know how to say ‘carrot’ in Danish, and ‘tea towel’ and ‘biscuit’ in Finnish, which is very limiting. Thankfully, the workshops were held in English.

Introductions were made and the twelve directors and producers presented their projects to the group. The films were fantastic, all at different stages of production, and all very inspiring. They ranged in topic from a journey through the Libyan civil war to life on a very unique farm in the north of Denmark.

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I had arrived in Copenhagen directly from filming and straight off a 37-hour ferry journey from the Faroes. Still swaying with sea legs and a little culture shocked after so long away from the mainland, I suddenly found myself presenting the film to the group. It was a good point in the production to reflect on things. Only a week earlier we had been lowered down to a ledge on a 400ft cliff on a rope, held only by twenty men. We had been filming a hunt and spent the night on a tiny ridge covered in muck and drenched by rain in thick mist, trying very hard not to fall asleep and drop off the cliff. There was also the eating of quite a lot of different seabirds (see pot). An acquired taste! So being back was taking some adjusting.

We divided into two groups to workshop the films in detail. Our tutors, Jannik, Lisa, Ulla, and Mikael were fantastic and held back no punches and it was great to have the different perspectives from the tutors. We staggered off home with lots of notes and musings (and sandwiches smuggled out from the hotel breakfast buffet).

Part Two: Helsinki

We next met in January, in Helsinki. I think it was the coldest place I have ever been, -35°C one night apparently. Breathing in sharply through my nose was my first mistake, drinking too much frozen vodka possibly the second. This time the workshops were held during DocPoint, a fantastic documentary festival in snowy Helsinki.

After catching up on the progress of our projects during the four month hiatus since Copenhagen, we readied the films for pitching. The next day we would meet with the Nordic broadcasters and funders.

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The pitch was not public, and only to the workshop participants and the financiers. A rapid fire session of twelve five minute pitches ensued, all now slickly honed in the workshops. Then we had one to one meetings with the funders and broadcasters which were all very constructive. Then suddenly it was all over and we headed for well earned drinks.

That night we dined on minced reindeer and berries (no presents from santa ever again for us). The perhaps unlikely swansong of Twelve for the Future was Finnish Tango. The real star of the show being the incredible tango master pictured, who seemed to be the don of Finnish Tango from what we could see. Initially we were twelve awestruck wallflowers watching the magic, but after some close studying of the moves (and more frozen vodka) we made it onto the dance floor.

My tango skills are rubbish to say the least, so I ended up doing a kind of mashup of Finnish Tango and The Dashing White Sergeant, skillfully insulting two cultures simultaneously though the medium of dance. That done we had a snowball fight (badly photographed below), the perfect final evening to the programme.

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The film festival was still running for a few more days so we then got to enjoy some great documentaries and explore Helsinki.

I can’t recommend the programme highly enough, in the four days of the intense workshops I learnt a lot from the mentoring and about the Nordic documentary world but also I met a great group of fellow directors and producers who where at a similar stage in their film making. I look forward to seeing how all the films evolve and seeing everyone who was on the programme again soon.

 

Editor’s note: ‘The Nightshift’ in this article refers to Carol Cooke’s interactive documentary series The Nightshift, not to be confused with the Bridging the Gap short documentary Night Shift.

Arriving at Crossover Lab 2 in Antwerp, I felt like a definite contender for Channel 4′s hit series Faking It. Targeted at “creative professionals with a unique crossmedial concept” and billed as “the answer to all your questions”, it seemed like the perfect course for me and my latest project. The Nightshift originally began life as a photo documentary on prostitution which I had developed for the BBC’s Why Poverty pitch. However, having spent the summer on ESo Doc learning all about the wonders of multi-platforming from the likes of IDFA’s Caspar Sonnen and Katerina Cizek from the National Film Board of Canada, I was beginning to get a wee bitty overexcited about The Nightshift’s cross-media potential and had a lot of questions that needed answering.  So Crossover couldn’t have come at a better time and I was delighted when I found out I’d been accepted.

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What I’d failed to realise however was that by the end of this five day workshop, I would be doing a live pitch at the 2011 European Games Summit in front of a panel of award winning ‘Games Masters’ and some of the biggest names in the industry. It was at this point total panic set in and my Faking It journey began because, what I’d failed to mention in my application, was that I hadn’t actually played a computer game since I was 12 so my last experience of gaming was as a skateboarding Bart Simpson on my big brother’s Amiga.  And now, 16 years on I had just 5 days to develop my very own game and convince some of the biggest players in the industry that it could be a hit. Cue Faking It titles and an utterly exhausting but totally inspiring following five days…
Day One

With the big pitch just 4 days away, our first session at Crossover focussed on getting to know you, getting to know your project and getting to know your audience. Using the tried and trusted concept of User Experience Design (UDX), we were challenged to identify an ultimate persona for our projects and develop a unique user journey for them. Analysing everything from their use of facebook all the way through to their biggest fears, this proved to be a really challenging but thoroughly rewarding exercise in audience and project development that pushed every aspect of The Nightshift under the microscope and forced me to consider why, where, when, how and how much my ultimate persona – 28 year old Stephanie from Glasgow – would interact with it.
Day Two

Fresh from the soul searching and psychoanalysis of Day One, Day Two at Crossover began with an introduction to multi-platform pitching and treatment writing which, we soon discovered, has a much greater emphasis on the intended audience than there is in traditional documentary pitching. So unlike my big pitch for Barefoot in Business at ESoDoc the month before – where my only reference to my audience was with “this is a character driven documentary for international broadcast and theatrical release” – my pitch on Friday would have to be all about my audience and my ultimate persona, Stephanie.

So, what was going to attract Stephanie to The Nightshift and what would her user journey entail? It was time for me to get to grips with the frighteningly unfamiliar world of gaming which first meant getting to grips with the language of the industry. From nurturing and solving all the way through to aiming and fighting, it turns out every game that has ever been invented can be summed up with just one verb so our first challenge was to identify the key word that would characterise our individual user experiences and drive our game’s development. Indecisive as always, I opted for two and spent the rest of the day brainstorming, experimenting and pitching with the ever inspiring Crossover Team and Lab mentors in my new and surprisingly fun role as Games Master.
Day Three

Having gone from a petrified ‘pre-historic’ gamer to an overexcitable 21st Century ‘Games Master’ within the space of just one day, it now was time for me and my big ideas to undergo a serious reality check. So just how easy it would be to bring these big ideas to life? What exactly would I need? Who would I need?  How long would I need them for? And, most importantly, how much would all this cost? It was out with the unrealistic and, bit by bit, in with the makings of a really exciting, achievable and affordable final concept – and perhaps the first glimmers of hope that I might just have what it takes to Fake It in front of the panel on Friday.

With the final concept confirmed, it was time to inject some ‘emotional resonance’ into my project with the help of a word cloud (pictured below) and mood board (see above). So, did I want Stephanie to find her Nightshift experience challenging or comforting? Funny or frightening? Insightful or inspiring? And, what did I want it all to look like?  Ultra modern or minimalist? Subtle or in your face? Taking the verb challenge from the day before to a whole new level, this was a fascinating exercise that forced me to really get to the heart of the project and my motivations for making it and then bring it all to life with the help of Crossover’s genius graphic designer, Adam.

The_Nightshift_Word_Cloud

Day Four

With the final pieces of The Nightshift puzzle now in place and just 24 hours until the big pitch, Day Four was all about rehearsals, rejigging and the writing of the ‘elevator pitch’. As a woman of many words, I struggle to even say my name in 140 characters let alone describe my most ambitious project to date.  However after much editing and abbreviating, I was finally within my word limit and fair chuffed with the following – “a 3 part interactive journey into the world of prostitution for anyone who has ever wondered what it is like to sell your body for sex…”

After a tentative tweet to the outside world and some encouraging feedback from Crossover’s followers, I was back at the Watering Hole for an afternoon of pitching, feedback and frantic re-writing until I finally had my presentation down to a comfortable seven minutes and could relax with a few nerve settling local beers and an extra big portion of Moules Frites.
Day Five

So the day of the big pitch had arrived and, in spite of two rather bleary eyes and a serious dose of sleep deprivation, I was feeling surprisingly calm. Having discovered just how strong my Scottish accent was at ESoDoc the month before, I was steering clear of the caffeine and gradually re-mastering the art of speaking slowly. Although with the prospect of an expert panel in front of me and an unforgiving audience of avid, and at times unforgiving, gamers tweeting live to a big screen behind me, there was no controlling when my nerves and my apparently incomprehensible Glasgow accent may make an appearance.  Just like ESoDoc my entire 20 minutes in the spotlight remains a bit of a blur – well apart from beginning my pitch by asking loud and clear in my microphone headset just how exactly the wireless mouse that I had just been handed works. That was perhaps not the best way to start a pitch when you’re trying to Fake It as a 21st Century ‘Games Master’ – however according to the official feedback and the encouraging number of offers and business cards that I left Antwerp with, it appears this new media novice may just have pulled off the seemingly impossible. Cue Faking It credits and an extra big Belgium beer to celebrate!

If Crossover Lab had its very own word cloud, I’m pretty sure ‘Intense’, ‘Challenging”, ‘Inspiring’ and ‘Illuminating’ would all feature. This is a course that takes you well out of your comfort zone but really does provide the answer to all your crossmedial questions, so I would highly recommend it to any other documentary makers and new media novices like me who are keen to take their projects to a whole new level. So thanks again to all the Crossover team, my mentors and my fellow participants for making it such an enjoyable and rewarding experience and thanks to the Scottish Documentary Institute for selecting me for this unforgettable trip to Antwerp, and to Creative Scotland’s Creative Futures programme for funding it.

 

The Rogue Film School: Meet and Greet

Whilst on the 16.27 train from Clapham Junction to Crawley many peculiar thoughts entered my head. First of all, why Crawley? Werner Herzog had chosen the furthest hotel from Gatwick Airport for his first European and third-in-all Rogue Film School, a hotel that happened to sit on the fringes of this town. Secondly I had to remember to breathe as I found myself reliving the moment the email fell into my inbox with the subject heading, ‘Congratulations!!!’

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I happen to recall that in the moment of receiving that email I had been in a pub, somewhere in Edinburgh, with, as a coincidence, the director of photography of the film that I entered The Great Flood, Scott Ward, and one of the editors of the film, Fiona Reid. Within that second all sound faded out of my cacophonous conscious state and all sight focused on the wording of the email, I looked to them pale as coconut milk and asked, ‘Should I go?’

On the train to the Friday evening’s Meet and Greet I found myself re-enacting that moment over and over. I looked around at my fellow train passengers, and in doing so a surge of euphoria entered my body recognizing the fact that I had been chosen as one of sixty others seemingly sufficiently rogue enough to be asked to attend this unique opportunity.

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Arriving at the hotel I asked reception where the Rogue Film School was taking place. Anxious anticipation now provided a false state of bravado. I darted towards the desk where only two people sat still preparing and organizing our passes. To the right hand corner of my eye however, a figure lurked in a dark grey suit. He turned in a flash, Werner Herzog stood there and I almost bumped in to him head on. He smiled, extended his arm and asked ’Hello, who are you?’ in that ever so distinct voice. ‘Marcelo de Oliveira,’ I mumbled, shaking his hand. ‘We’ll be five minutes,’ said Bernie, the coordinator of the seminar. ‘Oh, sorry,’ I said before quickly turning around and rushing for the bar with other sheepish looking Rogues who had experienced a similar fate.

Expecting my fellow Rogues to be mostly British and European I was incredibly surprised to find a table by the bar filled with people from all over the world. A heavily tattooed denim clad guy from Los Angeles named Rich sat next to me and immediately asked, ‘Are you in a band?’ Things were becoming distinctly Herzogesque.

Finally Bernie announced the start of the proceedings and herded us into the secluded bar where canapés and drinks from the bar followed our registration. Werner individually introduced himself to each Rogue, his notes attached to him so that he could specifically talk to each individual about their submitted film, whilst also finding out a bit more about them.  ‘You are the one who went to Patagonia?’ he asked upon my turn whilst his eyes gazed at his notes. I nodded, wide eyed and in complete silence, ‘I really loved the photography of your film,’ he said to me as emotion in the form of elation, a quivering jaw and a general bodily shaking sensation took hold (as I’m sure it did to my DOP later upon hearing this compliment). ‘I am trying to make a film about dying peoples of the world but no one is interested in funding it at the moment,’ continued Herzog. A thousand thoughts raced through my head, should I leap into the abyss and go for a co-production? Should I see if he would like an assistant? Should I volunteer all my knowledge in order to help him and be a researcher? ‘Oh yes, I know, it’s tough,’ said I picking on a prawn canapé.

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With the canapés almost devoured Werner made an announcement regarding the nature of the next three days, he instructed us that he would show clips from his films as well as some of the films we sent in. As Werner continued to introduce himself to the other candidates I would see his instantly recognizable face come into focus between my fellow Rogues from time to time. Surreal and strange were the feelings shared amongst us in between beers.

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Marcelo de Oliveira is a filmmaker and sound designer who graduated with an MFA at eca. His graduation film, ‘The Great Flood’, granted him a place at Herzog’s Rogue Film School, earlier this year.

Day 1: Read, read, read, read.

I wanted to be as far forward as possible to be able to see Herzog’s every muscle move in his face, to observe every movement, to completely concentrate and to listen. My notepad quickly opened, my pen at the ready, my only purpose to be attentive and to write down everything he uttered.

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Werner entered the front of the room and took control of the microphone, a screen hung behind him and a projector fanned in front of him. Two speakers dangled either side of him. He welcomed us and began with his Rogue Film School mantra, ‘I will say this again, if you want to be a film director you must read, read, read, read.’

Forge, steal, pick locks…

Werner launched straight into his European Rogue Film School by delving into two topics advertised on the website: lock picking and document forging. However, he counselled that he was not trying to encourage illegal activities, but as a filmmaker one had to be prepared to step across the borders. ‘Film school,’ he stated, ‘will not teach you that we have a natural right as filmmakers to steal a camera or steal certain documents.’ He reminisced upon the stealing of a camera whilst at Munich Film School on which later he shot Fitzcarraldo, amongst others. Werner took out and passed around a brochure explaining how to pick locks. He recalled picking the locks of various summerhouses around Germany when he decided to walk around the country’s border, taking shelter in these rarely used homes in his quest to connect with his country. ‘Patience is required’ he informed us, ‘as is being tactile.’

Moving on to the forging of documents, Werner recounted one experience during the filming of Fitzcarraldo in Peru in 1981. Whilst having difficulties with the local authorities in a remote part of the jungle, a wharf that had served as a port for the ship in the film had been attacked many times and often burnt to the ground due to an ongoing border war. Military coups kept popping up, soldiers would fire at them and Werner could not move on with his filming further down the river. So he explained how he went up to the military camp to speak to the commander in order to allow him to pass.

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The commander asked to see a permit in order to let him continue on his way up the river. Werner said he needed to return to Lima in order to fetch it. ‘This story was an entire fabrication’, he roared above the laughter. Of course he did not have this document so upon his return to Lima, Werner forged the document whilst stamping the parchment with any stamps that he could find including a couple of German ones he had with him plus the addition of two fake signatures for that extra authentic aesthetic look.

Upon his return to the camp Werner showed the document to the commander who promptly stood up, adjusted his uniform, clicked his heels, saluted and instructed him he could move on. ‘Be street smart in filmmaking,’ he wryly commented to us. ‘Be prepared to do unusual things, it is encouraged.’

A hushed room, it’s silence merely broken with the deft tones of scribble, scribble, scribble. Already swept away by his insights, with a wrist writing evermore furiously than a bush fire in a gale, a grin pinned between my ears showed no signs of abating. Looking around the room it seemed I was not the only one enjoying this experience.

Sound Sound Sound

Now onto the more serious side of filmmaking, Werner began with a topic that seemed to surprise most in the room: sound. Yes my fellow filmmakers and Rogues, sound. Werner showed us the first of the films he had selected from our entries as examples of work that were open for him to constructively criticize, a film called Traum im Traum. It was an animation with specific attention to detail in the sound and a simple story aimed at children. Werner spoke about the art of being a boom operator and in doing so how I thanked the angels of film. He reiterated how boom operators move and how they are aware of the movement of the camera. Perched in a type of figure that resembled a cross between a rave dancer and a praying mantis, he adopted the pose of the lesser-spotted boom operator. ‘It is a very important craft’, he stated to us. He continued over the course of the morning to delve into the importance of a director paying attention to sound, how important collecting wild tracks is and how important it is to build up a catalogue of sounds. Werner spoke about the intensity of recording ambiences. Sound is a particular type of awareness and you need a cornucopia of sounds. He concluded by announcing that he really likes fanatical sound recordists! Before I could don my Che Guevara sound recording outfit he roared, ‘Bring life into your films through sound.’ This is cinema heaven, I thought.

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Music, admitted Werner, is his other great passion. ‘Establish a feeling for space’ he told us, ‘do not just use the panning of a camera in order to achieve this, you can also use music.’ Sometimes, he confided, he has the music before he has the film. This was the case in Fitzcarraldo, in White Diamond and, more recently, in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Werner spoke of the pace of the music whereby he insists in sitting in the studio live room with the musicians from where he can direct the flow of the music.

Not a festival of placid admirers

Although easy to gasp in wonderment in his stories and be floated down the enchanting stream of his enigmatic presence, not in any way was this a Werner Herzog festival of placid admirers. I imagined him to be in some cauldron surrounded by over affectionate yet ravenous people all wanting their share of him. Scrutiny and questioning from my fellow Rogues was relentless. He was questioned intensely and under minute detail over some of his filmmaking decisions throughout the course of the seminar. In this instance the well-informed crowd laid siege to the scene in Grizzly Man where Herzog is seen listening to the tape of his protagonist’s death. We do not hear the audio on the tape, a decision that was scrutinized by the Rogues. Werner maintained his principles that he wished to preserve the dignity of somebody’s death. A vacillating debate enthused over the use of intense footage in today’s films, for example in showing executions on the Internet. ‘YouTube has a dangerous side of revealing everything. Develop your own framework of values.’ There, the principles of Herzog, the man himself, appeared to be laid bare. He took the comments in his stride yet respectfully countered what others were saying. Werner re-iterated that this was his way of doing things and that he was in no way preaching to us as to how we should make our films. On the boundaries of what you show in documentary film Werner asked us to think about how far do we go? What do we show? He summed up by reminding us that we must form our own ethical perspectives, as he is not Moses.

‘We should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings.’

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On finding characters for documentaries he offered some interesting insights into working on the fly. Werner sees a quest in someone who pops out from the screen and becomes very human. ‘How do you introduce a person within a film’, he questioned? It is a very difficult thing to do. The film Encounters at the End of the World was made on the run. There was no time to properly research much yet he managed to persuade the seemingly un-persuadable. ‘There is no art of persuasion, only knowing the hearts of men,’ he explained. ‘People who touch you will make you want to listen to them,’ he stated whilst looking far beyond us into perhaps an abyss of experience.

Much is staged in his documentaries he told us; they are feature films in disguise. We search for a deeper truth in cinema. There is, ‘an ecstasy of truth – something that is beyond the sheer facts, something that points beyond the image itself. Guide the audience into this. These are moments of illumination.’

With that he galloped into yet another provocative statement, that he is ready to do battle with the cinema verité believers and will do so at any opportunity. ‘Cinema verité is the cinematic answer to the 60s’ he professed. ‘Today we have a huge onslaught on reality. Everything can be manipulated. Realities have shifted to the reality of brands and virtual imaginations.’

Werner implored us to move away from the facts and do something different. In Werner’s case it is through the ecstasy of truth. ‘Move away from sheer facts as they do not contain truth. Only truth can create illumination.’ With a battle cry against those who follow cinema verité Werner rallied with passionate eyes, ‘we should not be the fly on the wall. We should be the hornet that stings. Seize the opportunity to be a filmmaker. You are not a slave to be fact based. We are filmmakers. We shape the film. We are not slaves to the material. We are directors. Go absolutely and completely wild.’

Filled with the ecstasy of the truth and drunk with the desire to really go wild, stomachs rumbled, lunch beckoned and our first break of the day came as if it had been days since that early breakfast.

How do we beat the TV system?

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During the afternoon session we were introduced to the real world, specifically personified by Werner’s friend and Channel 4 commissioning executive, David Glover, to talk to us about how to obtain a TV film commission. I could see why Herzog was a friend of this seemingly standard TV commissioner when Glover fired straight into a question for all of us; ‘how do we beat the system? How do we make the types of films that we want whilst adhering to the broadcasters demands? Some documentary proposals felt like essays’ he said, ‘make sure the proposition is clear and appealing.’

Werner asked him what he looks for in a character. Glover responded that he had no real answer; it is his deepest fascination of a character that lures him towards him. Something hits him hard in the guts that this film has to be made. In feature films it is similar, never leave the protagonist out of sight.

With the concept of being illusionists fresh in our minds, the illusion of time played with our notion of the time. 6pm had come to pass and the end of a memorable long day resonated with the many echoes of that distinguished Germanic voice. My notebook bulged with words from that intense mind whilst my wrist ached from poorly trained frantic writings. The bar beckoned and with the fellow Rogues we unwound, mentally exhausted, whilst letting the information of the day settle with the aid of a second pint.

Day 2: Being a lion tamer

The morning session began with an unexpected occurrence, an occurrence that sublimely facilitated the forgetting of the Fitzcarraldean trial that was reaching Crawley train station first thing on a Sunday, whilst engineering rail works shut down the entire local network. There was, of course, the other painful recollection that it was indeed early on a Sunday morning. Werner began the day with the reading of the passage of the horse’s death from Virgil’s Georgics. His eyes gazed at the manuscript with intent yet they burned wildly, completely transfixed in the text. Werner read the passage with that distinct accent of his whilst we hypnotically stared, captivated in a long gone moment in time. He explained how Virgil saved his Antarctica film. Arriving with no notion of what he would find Werner stepped onto the South Pole, looked around and thought ‘We will do it like Virgil!’
‘Yoga will not make you into a great filmmaker as it empties out your thoughts’

Digressing somewhat into the notion of the outdoor spirit, Herzog encouraged us, film students, to do constant sports, particularly physically challenging ones. For example, we should try boxing or basketball, the choreography of which is good for understanding cinema, he said to a surprised audience.

With that Werner changed direction into the topic of producers. ‘I never stick to schedule and I finish much earlier,’ he proudly pronounced. ‘Try to see the film from their point of view’ he said; ‘do not go over budget and deliver on time. Do not, for example, produce a cut that is over 4 hours long. If a director cannot deliver the film then you are an incompetent director. The film will be wrestled away from you. At least earn your money for your film. Then you will understand the necessities of budget, financing and marketing.’

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‘Directing is practical. It’s an endless chain of humiliations, banalities, and you have to be a lion tamer out there. If you are not the lion tamer you may not make a film on time, to budget, nor make a good film.’ Must remember where I put that whip, those boots and the top hat, I thought.

‘Yoga will not make you into a great filmmaker as it empties out your thoughts’ he bluntly stated to scattered gasps. In provocation Werner asked, ‘Do we need to declare holy war against yoga classes?’ Werner championed the opposite of emptying oneself of meaning and thoughts, ‘You do not always have to understand all the ramifications of what people are doing. There are limits to understanding. Dismiss pre-conceived ideas in a documentary. Only find out what drives these men. Go there and make sure the camera does not fail in extremities.’

In Antarctica there was no clue as to what would happen but he went there with some order. Werner underlined that he does not believe in writing scripts for documentaries.’ This only creates dead films as seen on TV’, he said. He does not need a proposal for TV, though he will write one when it is needed. He does it reluctantly however, and is pushed to do it if it is necessary. Otherwise, he said, be cautious of scripting a documentary.

Werner probed us about character finding, how do you fall in love with someone and blindly follow him or her around? How do you introduce your character and bring the audience to like your protagonist? He showed us the beginning of Viva Zapata where Herzog claims that you cannot achieve any better than how Brando’s character is introduced to us. At the start of the film the other Mexican workers hide Zapata from the audience and yet, when he is revealed, you cannot help instantly liking him and it’s not just a question of camera positions.

Editing, commentaries and funding

Seamlessly adjusting his thoughts onto editing, Werner advised us not to shoot a large amount of material. Editing is related to what you are shooting. For example, Werner has never been a slave to continuity. ‘Material of great substance will always fit together. Be relentless with your footage. You have to be able to throw out a scene. Throwing away a scene is hard but it is the fate of filmmaking.’ Werner recalled how he was very careful with his raw stock, as he was conscious of the expense. Poverty and a question of filming in barefoot in the past affected his expense, but even now he tries to be disciplined and economical with his footage. He had thirty hours of footage for Cave of Forgotten Dreams. ‘With digital technology you can edit as fast as you can think’, he warned. ‘This is dangerous. You can make too many versions and become lost in parallels.’ Editors may be surprised, as may those who like to edit in their own space, to note that Werner always sits with the editor except if there is technical stuff to do.

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Commentaries can be an art form per se. There were wild commentaries in Grizzly Man and in Antarctica. He underlined that he tries to say something intelligent. He has no problem in being opinionated yet he stepped in to say that he is not totally wild about commentary. Interestingly enough he mused on being a character in his own films. ‘It is not too healthy to become a character in your own films – it becomes embarrassing. The joy of storytelling is throwing yourself in it, it is healthy to look at yourself with a sense of irony.’ Admitting he often makes up quotes at the beginning of his documentary films Werner summed up, ‘Think the unthinkable, go anywhere when making a film.’

Before the afternoon break Werner spoke about how hard it had become to find funding for his films in today’s climate. However, his determination to follow the topics he thought were achievable showed no sign of waning. Werner’s current project, a documentary film about inmates on death row, is not too expensive to film yet he confessed to us that the proceedings of this Rogue Film School seminar were to be invested into this film. A Rogue in the audience roguishly exclaimed if we were therefore all owed a credit on the film. Thunderous laughter resonated in the room, Werner laughed and smiled but without any further comment he moved on. By no means though did this seminar give the impression that it could feel comfortable sat among the ever- increasing ranks of gala fund-raising events by previous prime ministers or CEOs. There was passion in what was said and shared by Werner. Yet the fear that many of my fellow Rogues felt, that this would just be a session of anecdotes and memories, also failed to materialize even if some of the more biographical questions from the floor could have encouraged that type of seminar.

During the coffee break, I went up to Werner to tell him that I liked the idea of my fee going into his latest project. I reflected that I had wondered what would be happening with the money. I also commented that it was a shame that we could not choose which of his projects these funds could be applied to, as I would have preferred to have my money funding his dying languages project. Werner replied that right now the climate does not wish to know about endangered human species whose cultures are almost extinct. The TV channels, he mustered, merely wish to see films about fluffy animals. There was an air of resignation in the sound of his voice that perhaps reflected his perception that this project, although perceived as an incredibly important aspect of humanity to document, was as doomed as the people he is trying to film. His words resounded the saddest point of the seminar for me, that a filmmaker with the experience and achievements of Werner Herzog cannot find funding for a film that he is so passionate about. It was perhaps a little naive of us to assume that a legendary filmmaker such as Werner Herzog could just brainstorm an idea one moment and make it happen the next. That look of resignation upon his face brought my general mood back down to that of the real world, even if only for a moment.

Wild imaginations and the passion of people from within

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With the end of the break, Werner announced that the guest speaker would be Dr. Clive Oppenheimer, the volcanologist from Encounters at the End of the World who he met up a volcano in Antarctica. He had come to talk about wild imaginations and the passion of people from within. Him and Werner dove into a discourse about the fragility of human culture and civilization. They delved into the world of volcanic eruptions and pondered with great excitement and depth into how 74,000 years ago the population of the human race became decimated to as low as between 2-10,000 people due to the huge volcanic eruption of Mount Toba in South East Asia. Humanity was almost at its end. Fascinated in their personal, yet public imaginations, it seemed as if they were lost in their topics cocooned within a certain childhood splendour and curiosity. These conversations led Werner to step out from their world for a moment to ask us in the audience to imagine what would happen here in the UK if all the power were to be cut off, ‘after 2 weeks there would be pandemonium!’ he exclaimed.

Day two did not quite finish at that moment but continued in my mind, past the now traditional post class bar session and onto the 21:34 train from Crawley, elatedly musing upon the power of the human mind, it’s wonderment and our desire to tell stories even if these desires were slightly tarnished by the realities of financial restraints.

Day 3: Constructive Feedback

Our final day began with yet another strong note of caution. As if the previous evening and night had itself merely been an illusion, Werner jumped back into commenting on commentary and advised us to take it easy with text that is overloaded with too much depth. ‘There are moments when you can depart far from the text’, he said. He gave the end of Cave of Forgotten Dreams as an example.

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The commentary moves into the abstract form of perception with the albino alligators. Only once the audience is comfortable with the subject can you go wild but it is important to anchor it well. The audience has to be taken by the hand and guided through the film.

Werner then delved back into the staging of moments in documentaries. For example, there is the scene in the Kinski documentary where we are taken on a visit to his old house, which was all choreographed. The basic pattern of the trip was rehearsed. ‘Sometimes it is better to come as a surprise but here it was right to set up the scene. The real surprise renders the best effects but this is not only always the case. We must sometimes be quick to take drastic steps in order to solve a problem.’
‘Be cautious about festivals’

Turning the focus onto film festivals Werner delivered a scathing attack on the culture of film festivals. He called for a climate of cinema, ‘You have to get a film out to audiences. A movie is not alive unless it is played in front of audiences. Pay attention to what is going to happen with your film. There is a problem with film festivals. Today there are more than 4,000 festivals in which there will be an average of 4 good films. Out of 20 films up for awards at Berlin recently, 15 were garbage. Festivals have become dangerous. Only festival people see the film – there is no distribution. It is appalling that a film comes to life in the incestuous festival circuit. Be cautious about festivals.’

Suspicious of the climate that reigns at festivals, Werner described how Sundance was a complete disappointment. Sundance has 3,600 submissions but it was full of younger people talking to him about film. ‘You meet young filmmakers who talk to you, but they just put on a show about how good they are. They don’t talk about the style of a film, their aim is how quickly they will be signed by a studio. It is a dangerous life of festivals. Beware of this secondary type of culture which circles around its own navel. They are too structured around cliques. You have the duty to find the distributor, to get the movie out there. Don’t neglect it.’ In a post session moment we Rogues mulled over his festival musings, a relief seemingly apparent as conversations agreed that these words were refreshing to hear at a time when film festivals appear often the only way for filmmakers to have their work screened. I recalled how having The Great Flood screened at a certain festival felt frustrating as the people who wished to view the film were often in other meetings over funding at the time of it’s showing on the big screen. Perhaps the funding of films and the screening of films should be held at different times, or even at different festivals? The Rogues pondered this and on the randomness of festivals in particular when a film can be rejected one year from a festival only for the same film to be accepted the following year at the same festival. Surely there must be a better way, we gathered without forming any real conclusions.
‘When an actor can milk a cow, there is something solid about them…’

It was now deep into Monday afternoon and the feeling that the end of this illustrious, illuminating seminar was definitely apparent gained just a hint of momentum when Werner began to talk about the longevity of film directors. ‘Very few directors survive longer than 15 years’, he stated. Filmmakers are very much in danger of being broken by the system. ‘Filmmakers don’t end well. Orson Welles for example had a very short life in cinema. You have to look at those who disappear. Very often it is about ego. They are lured into the abyss by earning too much money. If you are successful the system rewards you, if you are not the system punishes you. What can save us from this force? We are illusionists. It is best to do nothing other than be illusionists. If you have no other legs to stand on it can break you. When an actor can milk a cow there is something solid about them.’

‘Raising children brings you down to earth, do something different. It’s a good attitude to know how to handle a Kalashnikov. A man should know how to handle a hand grenade.’  There followed an exchange of views from various women in the group as to should women also know how to handle a hand grenade. Feeling the nature of his audience, Werner pushed through with his point, ‘You have to take it that you may be disconnected from your peers. Try to look beyond the profession that you are doing. The moment for me came after working on one film after another, for 10 years no one wanted to see my films. I was very lucky as I had a mentor and she said ‘film history is not going to allow you to quit’, and with that she munched on a cookie.’ With that and in wry defiance of his critics Werner uttered, ‘I’ll plough on doing my films because I know you’re all wrong.’
‘I am trying to make a film about dying languages but people are only interested in making films about fluffy animals at the moment, I envy you.’

Post coffee Werner set his sights on some more of our films. Some great examples of cinema were shown including animations, a trailer for a fabulous looking German winter set thriller made by Wim Wenders’ assistant editor, a cinematic black and white LA road movie starring a bunch of rock drummers made by Rich, the tattooed musician, and an Italian styled B movie with plenty of blood, guts and action. Werner took each film and criticized the flaws with dignity whilst singling out what he thought worked well. He advised where the film could be improved. For example, he examined the choreography of the actors in a wonderfully conceived single shot short drama whilst critiquing the director’s choice to over rely on her monitor specifying that directors should be watching the action instead. He also reflected upon the good acting performances of the two protagonists in Megan from South Africa’s short film about the misunderstandings of love.

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It was a requirement for each filmmaker to come up to the front of the class and stand next to Werner after their film had been showed. Megan sat herself back down next to me flushed from the experience of having had her film critiqued by Werner. Those of us around her passed on encouraging comments yet before too much comfort could have been afforded to her Werner called up the next person for his critique. ‘The next film I’d like to show is The Great Flood by Marcelo de Oliveria, where is he?’ That stern gaze scoured the floor of rogues. Reluctantly I raised my hand, ‘Ah, there you are, can we show it please?’ he called to the assistant at the back of the room. The lights wilted in the room as I feared the wrath of Herzog.

‘Can you come up here to the front please?’ The previous five minutes having felt like five seconds. Staring out to my fellow rogues I noticed the uncontrollable shaking of my hands. ‘Can you tell us how you came to find these people?’ My voice trembled with humility and fear. I told him how I went in search of the story of the spirit of noise that was not true in the end. He said, ‘do not worry about that’. I tell him of how difficult it was to go to Patagonia and the problems we faced in filming. My explanation summarized before Werner interjected, ‘There is great serenity in your film, it is deep with serenity. There is a good pace and rhythm, keeping to the rhythm of the pace of the footage and not pushed in the edit.’ He added to the other rogues that there is too much quick editing and not enough attention paid to the pace of the footage. Thank you Fiona and Josh, I thought. Werner then asked, ‘Did you do your own voice over?’ I humbly nodded, eyes down expecting retribution, ‘Stick to doing your own voice overs and I say this as someone who does his own voice overs.’ As the reverberation of that comment faded away within my mind I felt myself becoming incredibly emotional. Werner’s sentiments were the echoes of thoughts previously reflected by my father who, at that moment, had been very ill. Finally, with the shaking now spread to my toes he looked me in the eye and told the audience, ’You have been to this place where there are only fourteen people left in the world and their culture will soon be lost. I am trying to make a film about dying languages but people are only interested in making films about fluffy animals at the moment, I envy you.’ With that he ushered me back to my seat, I sat back down, my head spinning. My body trembled like someone walking barefoot for days in the Antarctic winter.

A final handshake from the man, a final smile, a perfect postscript

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Back down on Earth, a book and individual certificate signing signalled the end of the session. We were called up in groups, a final handshake from the man, a final smile, a perfect postscript. So the curtain came down on the thoughts and insights of Werner Herzog. His reasons for conducting his own seminars are very clear; his mistrust of the traditional film school mixed with the desire to share the experiences of a maverick filmmaker, one who goes it alone when necessary. Now in his third outing of the Rogue Film School and perhaps his last for a while, his desire to share the craft of filmmaking that is changing quickly and yet celebrate it as an art form was clear. Could it be that he is out of touch with the new ways of filmmaking in an over saturated digital world, or is it that he has truly mastered his craft in a way few others have? Interestingly no one mentioned 3D. Whatever the answer, for me this experience was one that constructed new inspiration deep down; an experience that felt down to earth and truly rogue.

In the bar for the last time with the last pint, we Rogues mulled over why this had been such a unique experience. Werner Herzog’s convictions and his stoic belief that he is on the right path stood out, as did the extraordinary insights into how he makes films. When Werner told us to look into the hearts of men, I assumed I would be looking elsewhere. However maybe I ended up looking into my own heart. Perhaps this was not new confidence, just a reaffirmation.

I shall walk on foot whenever I can, I shall look into the hearts of people when looking for a character in my next film, I shall not be a slave to facts, and my first film document has already been forged with complete success…

With gratitude and dedicated to Jader de Oliveira.

For more info on ‘The Great Flood’ please visit here.