The Urge To Stop Filming

Being a one man crew has advantages on the ground. I am nimble on my feet. Using available light I shoot handheld with my trusty Canon XHA1. For sound I mount a Rode shotgun mic on the cam, or plant wireless lavs on film subjects or in vantage points within the location. Should I need more than two channels of sound, I bring out the mean little Zoom H4N recorder. I take little space. I have the film production program at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to thank for teaching me the skills I need to be cinematographer, sound recordist, producer and director for this documentary. Though I’m wearing all these hats due to funding constraints (fundraising plans are in the works, will need your help!), I am also a very lean production as a result. There are times, however, when I wish my producing partner, Brook, or some other sagely confidant were next to me, so I could turn to them for advice.

I have learned on the production of One Day I Too Go Fly that I’m in the middle of capturing a really good moment if it becomes extremely difficult for me to keep the camera rolling. Mostly, it’s because what’s unfolding makes me uncomfortable. Often, the situation is one of moral ambiguity for a character I like. At other times, it’s because the scene goes against common notions of decorum.

I would love to illustrate with an example from the recent week of production in Lagos, but will have to save that for the short film about Exposure Robotics League (please stay tuned :-)). Instead, I’ll use another moment from the past semester at MIT. I was excited to learn that many of the first year students I’d been following were running for leadership positions in the African Students Association (ASA) at MIT. I turned up to film a lively election meeting. One of the students was particularly nervous about his pitch for the position and admitted that to me. I hooked him up with a wireless lav mic. One by one candidates made their speeches, charming the association’s members with humor and personality. Suddenly, in the left channel of my headphones I heard someone start taking a piss into a toilet. Then, over the trickle, a voice started practicing a speech. It was the student I’d laved up. He was nervous about speaking in public! He was rehearsing his impending speech! While taking a leak! And what did I do? I turned the left channel gain controls all the way down to null to give him privacy.

Later, I saw the scene I could’ve edited if I’d been bolder. We see the character, our nervous student, sitting in a couch with three others. We cut to another student currently speaking at the center of the gathering. We stay with her speech for a few moments, then hear the disorienting sound of our character taking a leak, then rehearsing. His speech and trickle are juxtaposed over the current speaker. We cross fade the two sounds until the rehearsal in the toilet is the sound in focus. We cut back to the couch, and notice the nervous student’s seat is empty. We cut to the men’s restroom door. It opens shortly after. Our nervous student walks out and quietly returns to his seat. His dread of public speaking is glaring at this point. And he never would’ve had to admit it. It could have all been painted richly with subtext. I wanted to kick myself for squandering the opportunity.

When I encounter myself on the verge of documenting scenes like this or scenes raising moral questions, I find myself compelled to push the Record Stop button. My head becomes flooded with questions. Should I really be documenting this? How do the people I’m filming feel about this? What will the audience think about them if this makes it into the film? Will the audience latch onto a hint of darkness and not see the gray in this moral dilemma? Or in the case of the pissing audio scene, will they just think I’m being crass?

The struggle is with myself in those moments. I have to wrestle with the non-confrontational part of me, the part that cares too much what other people think, and the part that doesn’t like to disturb the peace. I am learning to fight the urge to look away when the picture isn’t all clean, simple or pretty. It’s hard to keep filming in those times, but now I know it’s probably because the moment is worth filming.

August 17, 2012

-Arthur Musah

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