SHEFFIELD – How do documentary filmmakers tackle the most taboo stories that can’t be shared openly, while respecting the ethical, legal and personal sensitivities of their subjects?
In a session titled “Filming the Unfilmable” on Saturday (June 8) at the 2019 Sheffield Doc/Fest, a panel of filmmakers set out to explore the innovative techniques and artistic license used to bring delicate issues to the public’s attention.
Moderating the panel was Krishan Arora, an international content consultant at SBS Australia.
In July 2011, a lone wolf carried out a domestic terror attack on the Norwegian island of Utøya in which youth members of a political organization were targeted. During the attack, 69 people were killed, and 110 individuals were seriously wounded.
In the years following the attack, Swedish director Carl Javér felt the need to make a film about the infamous experience, explaining that he wanted to remove the power from the terrorist and instead allow the survivors to carry their stories. The film follows four young survivors of the attack.
Javér chose to focus on the method of reconstruction in his emotional 96-minute film Reconstructing Utøya (pictured), in which four survivors recreate their memories in a black box studio with the help of actors.
“For me it was important that they had free creativity to use this method because they were reconstructing a memory where they had no control in 2011, so it was important that this time they had control in a safe environment. We had a psychologist on set at all times,” Javér explained.
Though a psychologist was on set throughout the filming process, the Swedish director explained that the aim of the project was never to serve as therapy, but rather to make this unimaginable event filmable and share the stories of the survivors. As a result of their involvement in the process, however, many of the survivors involved described cathartic release and growth.
“They all came out with something they felt important for their process,” he said. “Survivors who weren’t in the film said they wanted their own reconstructions.”
Colette Camden’s innovative documentary Married to a Paedophile, meanwhile, employed actors who lip-synced along to real-life audio recordings of families whose lives have been turned upside down after their patriarchs have been charged with having child sex images. All names in the film were changed to protect their identities.
“The threat to these families was just too high to put them on camera,” Camden noted. “So if you can’t put them on camera, let’s try this unusual, risky art form to have actors replace them and keep the original sound.”
Throughout the 90-minute Channel 4 documentary, five actors matched every inflection and breath from the audio recordings, blending the world of drama and documentary for an authentic, naturalistic feel.
Early on, the filmmaker and her team believed that the original audio would have to be as clean as possible. Soon, however, they realized that clean audio felt quite cold and sterile, so instead the producers kept the sounds as flowy and fluid as possible.
“When the actors came in to replicate that, they literally had to pull a coat hanger out at the exact same time with the exact word while also getting the whole demeanour right,” Camden explained.
“It was like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach. It was incredibly difficult. They had to have the audio broken down into different segments and learn it over weeks. They learned it by music, they learned the rhythms.”
But how much artistic license was there in how Camden visualized the dialogue in Married to a Paedophile?
“Loads, actually, because you could move things around for more freedom. It was ‘how can we transpose this audio into different sequences?’ When you see ‘Kate’ digging angrily in the garden, [the real-life contributor] was actually talking energetically on a walk and she was understandably angry about everything, so we decided to make it look like she was digging a garden. That sort of thing happened a lot, and it was just how much we could get away with,” Camden said.