By Vijaya Cherian
One lone American filmmaker sets out into the Nuba mountains of Sudan and later, Cairo to tell the story of Sudanese refugees fleeing Africa’s longest-raging civil war. In an exclusive interview with Digital Studio, Davin Hutchins shares the challenges of creating his documentary The Art of Flight.
I|~||~|Davin Hutchins|~|It has been twenty long years since Sudan’s civil war first began; it has claimed many lives, displaced millions of Sudanese from their homes and plunged the country into poverty. For many Sudanese who have given up hope of ever seeing peace return to their land, Cairo is the first step in the journey to their freedom.
They believe that from Cairo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will help them relocate to another country. Unfortunately, only 20% make it beyond Cairo. The rest languish in Egypt, where their illegal status does not permit them to work or send their children to school. Today, an estimated three million Sudanese live illegally in Cairo.
“When you go to Cairo, you immediately recognise the Sudanese; they are everywhere,” says Davin Anders Hutchins, a 34-year-old American journalist and filmmaker who came to Egypt in 2002 to get a Masters degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Cairo while also planning at the same time, to do a film. “I knew back then that I wanted to do something intimate, something that would drive me,” he says. And then, when he saw the Sudanese people, mingled with them and got to know them better, he realised that it was their story that he wanted to tell.
In July 2003, armed with six months of research material and a fair idea of how he wanted to go about his storyline, Hutchins set out alone into the Nuba mountains of Sudan and later, Cairo to shoot. In November 2004, the filmmaker arrived in Dubai with a copy of The Art of Flight. The two-hour documentary traces the migration route of the Sudanese from the Nuba mountains all the way through Khartoum to Cairo, where the story picks up with three main people — Hutchins, the journalist who recounts the obstacles he faces in telling the story of the Sudanese people; Jere Maluk, a refugee from Southern Sudan, who has to navigate through a maze of bureaucratic mismanagement at UNHCR for the slim chance of getting resettled to America; and Magda, a human rights activist from Northern Sudan, who elects not to apply for refugee status because she is convinced she will one day return to a peaceful Sudan. The film explores all three characters’ relationships as they cross paths in Cairo during the span of one year.
Hutchins himself is no newcomer to the Middle East and Africa region or to the rigours of filmmaking. In fact, he even speaks Arabic fairly well. Having spent the first five years of his career with CNN, reporting and producing feature stories before moving on to other TV channels, his skills have been well honed.
This documentary, however, has been his biggest challenge to date. It meant producing a film with a limited budget, filming in highly militarised societies, giving the film a certain quality so that it would be accepted at film festivals and more importantly, getting refugees to trust him and talk to him.
The film begins in the Nuba mountains, a unique area in Sudan because it has been under a ceasefire for almost two years now and it has been honoured by both the rebels and the government. The reason the peace-building efforts in the Nuba mountains has worked is because a small group of 40 unarmed men have employed both Sudanese government and rebel soldiers and incorporated them into something besides holding a gun. “If there must be peace in Sudan in the next year or so, this is the model that stands a chance of succeeding,” says Hutchins.
||**||II|~|cover2d.jpg|~|On the 1,600 km train ride from Sudan to Cairo, the train broke down thrice, says filmmaker Hutchins.|~|Shot primarily on mini DV camcorders and edited on a Sony Vaio laptop, The Art of Flight is an intense film that keeps you immersed in the story right from the beginning. Hutchins used DV camcorders for this documentary because of the secrecy of the whole project. At the post phase, however, he gave the documentary a 16:9 look so that it could be screened at film festivals.
“My film has a raw feel which I think is aesthetically being accepted at film festivals. No doubt, there is a lot you can achieve with a crew, lighting, a cameraman and a post-production house but the only way I was going to be able to sit down in refugees’ homes was with a small camera that wasn’t intrusive and intimidating. The whole idea is to be a fly in the wall of the activity that is going on there,” he explains.
Hutchins began his journey with the Panasonic PV-DV9513-CCD camcorder. “It is one of the first US $2000 feature cameras, which came with three chips. It gives really high colour quality but it’s a model that is in between the Sony PD150 and the cheaper camcorders,” says Hutchins. “The good thing about this camera is the way it is shaped. You can put a light on it and come up with the same visuals and effects as a PD150 or you can take it off and look like an ordinary tourist. Sometimes in Sudan or Cairo, that’s what you had to do if you didn’t want to draw attention from the authorities especially if you were shooting something sensitive. It was a big advantage to have that versatility,” he adds.
All of the opening scenes were shot on the Panasonic but the camera broke down one day before Hutchins got on the train for a six-day ride to Aswan. “I think it was the moisture because it was raining in the Nuba,” says Hutchins. “Luckily, very low in my backpack, I had hidden another Panasonic. It was meant to be a backup in case the other one failed. Later, I replaced the first Panasonic with another. Three of my cameras didn’t survive and then a friend loaned me a Sony with one chip and I got myself another Panasonic,” he explains.
Filming this documentary brought along a host of challenges as Hutchins was doing it all by himself. “In the US, we call it guerrilla filmmaking, where a single person does the shooting as well as the editing. It’s basically a one-man band. It means being lightweight, using mini DV cams etc,” explains Hutchins.
In several instances, he had to film himself because he was a character in the film and was travelling on his own to Sudan. “I used to take my tripod and keep the neck extended. When I would get out of a helicopter or talk to somebody, I would just shoot myself back here. There was, of course, the risk of taking a lot of shots in which I wasn’t in the frame but because I was editing it myself, it wasn’t so bad. I knew my ratio would be about 100 to1, which means for every 100 minutes of tape, I would get at least one minute of tape that I could use.”
Hutchins began filming on July 5, 2003 on the eve of his trip to Sudan and completed it on July 3, 2004. The storyline also, therefore, focuses on the lives of the three characters over a span of one calendar year after which, he spent two months editing the footage on a Sony Vaio.
“I purchased one of the early Vaio models. It’s a Pentium III with 30 G/bytes hard disc. On this, at a time, I could do about five or six-minute sections. I also had an external hard drive with a capacity of 20 G/bytes,” he adds.
According to Hutchins, the Vaio was perfect for his purpose. “American computers couldn’t have done this. For one, Sony thought early about what things are necessary in an operating system (OS). Most PCs have a lot of things going on in the background and when you are dealing with video, it’s too large and requires a lot of processing so you want as few applications running in the background as possible. The Vaio seems designed to do that. Otherwise, if you are processing a clip and something happens and it stutters, you have to start over. I couldn’t afford that risk,” he says. ||**||III|~||~||~|As Hutchins planned to show this documentary at film festivals, he wanted to mimic the 16:9 look. “At film festivals, there is a certain expectation of the kind of look that a film should have. Traditionally, there has been the celluloid look and the video look. But now, we are beginning to get into the space where you can also mimic the film look,” he explains.
Software like Film FX, a US $100 plug-in, can help mimic the film look . Film FX takes the interlaced frames of the video and merges them into a single frame and blows it up. One software that Hutchins would have liked to work with is Cine Look. “Unfortunately, the cameras and the software I was using already locked me into a world … and you need to make such big decisions before you begin a film,” he warns.
Hutchins himself had worked out a couple of strategies on how he would mimic the film look. For one, he used guides so that in post, he could use the markers to crop out the parts that weren’t usable and give the video a 16:9 feel. After that, he relied heavily on Adobe’s Film Effects.
The good thing about using Adobe was that it could accept many different kinds of files whether they be mini-DV files, jpegs or even Quicktime. This was crucial for Hutchins, who on some occasions had to rely on his Olympus digital still camera, to take the visuals that he could not have taken with his camcorder. Also, his camera had a Quicktime feature on it, which enabled him to take the odd video when he wasn’t allowed to film with his camcorder.
“The result I have got with this is a kind of shuttery, old 1960s 16mm look but it’s worth it,” says Hutchins. “There are many times when I was nearly arrested because we are not allowed to tape certain things. The reason I got away was because I used the miniDV,” he explains.
In post production, Hutchins would then use Adobe Premiere to bring together all of his different formats and work them into his documentary. “Ten years ago, audiences would not have been prepared to accept a film like this that uses many different techniques but today, they have become more receptive and that opens more avenues for us to tell stories that can otherwise not be told,” explains the filmmaker.
“And that is what is great about the technology today. It gives you a great deal of flexibility to tell your stories. Filmmakers also should be moving to a point where they should be thinking of their laptop or their camera as a pen. When you write for a magazine, for instance, no one refers to the kind of pen you use to write your stories. It’s the story that is the focus and the good thing is that we are now getting to such a point, where so much of the creative intelligence is in the filmmaker’s hands. I don’t have to focus too much on how I am going to shoot it. The film is more story- and character-driven. Also, this film could not have been shot with a digibeta or a HDcam and with a lot of lights because we were in refugees’ homes.”
By using technology that was compact and versatile and mimicking the film look in post production, Hutchins was able to put his subjects at ease. “You can get a more honest performance out of what they are doing than you would otherwise,” he asserts.||**||IV|~||~||~|Shooting with these cameras, of course, meant that the filmmaker would have a lot of work to do at the editing table. “I was averaging about a minute or two a day in post. It was painfully long and laborious. Also, when you are doing a film on your own, technically, you have to solve many of the problems yourself,” he explains. And in most cases, he did figure out alternatives. For instance, where a refugee was saying something intimate and he couldn’t zoom in while filming, he increased the zoom in Premiere to simulate that effect.
When you see the documentary, however, none of this is visible unless you are keenly observing it to try and guess what techniques the filmmaker could have used. Instead, the viewer is easily absorbed on a visceral level in the story of the refugees.
We begin to hope, like Hutchins does, that the family in the film will make it beyond Cairo to a new home and a new life. “It’s like a game where you are trying to get from point A in Sudan to point B in Cairo. You don’t want to stay in point B; you want to move on to point C. But what are the odds of you doing that? How are you assessed, who is believed in the testimony and who isn’t? When you see how the whole thing works, you realise how serious it is for these people. Too many lives are at stake,” says Hutchins.
Although the film does primarily focus on one family and their quest to get out, we also see other smaller stories on some others who may have fallen by the wayside, some who get stuck in Cairo and some who have made it. “When you are talking about a phenomenon that affects 100s of 1000s of people, how do you do that in two hours? That’s why I incorporated these shorter stories of other refugees … they are about three minutes long and they are like markers for our main family. ‘Oh, this family got to Australia and that might be happen to us ... or this family is stuck here indefinitely’. “This is the kind of story convention I wanted to use because if you just focus on one family, you are suggesting that their experience is the entire experience and that’s inaccurate. There are many who go back to Sudan, change their identities and come back, there are closed files and there are torture victims. Everybody has a different story to tell so I wanted to include some other perspectives as well without muddying up the main storyline and confusing the audience,” explains Hutchins.
The Art of Flight uses very specialised music, which Hutchins derives from different sources. He traveled a couple of times to Turkey to record Sufi meditation music, played on the Ney and also recorded songs played by Sudanese Jazz musicians in their room in Cairo.
“This documentary features an original soundtrack by Al-Khafiyeen, a musical ensemble of refugees whose members keep changing as people move on. I imported all of my sound tracks onto the Vaio and then I used Cakewalk, an audio editing software to add reverb, widen the stereo and add additional tracks,” explains Hutchins.
For live performances, Hutchins used the stereo microphone on the camcorder. When he imported it, he maintained them as two tracks. “I have worked on sound before so I knew how to arrange them. Also, a friend of mine, who is a DJ in San Francisco knew my requirements and sent me some music by email, which I incorporated into the film. There’s so much technology around us these days that makes things accessible to us very quickly. We don’t need to wait for high-end products anymore and it makes story-telling easier,” Hutchins asserts. This is also why semi-professional digital equipment has become dear to low-budget filmmakers. While the quality of the images is fairly good, the cost savings are also exponential. “Already, the line between the consumer and the guerrilla filmmaker is so blurry now. There’s so much cross fertilisation that you can really blend both and this film shows that blurriness,” says Hutchins. When he does his next film, Hutchins hopes that he will be able to use even more compact technology so that his characters can interact in a more natural milieu. “Most people, although I have not shown it to industry professionals yet, don’t know that I have edited this film on a laptop. They say ‘it’s a good story and it moved me’ and that is the bottom line for me,” he explains.
At the same time, working on a laptop means there is always room for Hutchins to further edit his work in future without relying on a post production house. For his next film though, the filmmaker does hope to upgrade his Vaio and get a better camera. ||**||V|~||~||~|One thing, however, that Hutchins is not prepared to attempt again is a solo venture. “For me, telling my own story or telling a refugee’s perspective still limits the truthfulness of it. Also, you do need a minimal number of staff that knows the technology well. Even though I find it easy to use camcorders, it would have been nice to have two or three people who are proficient in filming and editing and speak the same language as I do,” he continues.
Hutchins asserts that it is important for people in the film industry to be aware of all stages of the process. You have a lot of editors who can’t pick up a camera and there are those who can shoot but don’t know the first thing about importing files into a computer. It’s very beneficial to learn every stage of the process from what kind of tools you are going to use — whether it be a lightweight steadycam — to where you are going to take your camera and what kinds of light you will need for certain shots. The better you can convey your idea in the field to an editor and the more he knows about how you shot it, the more everybody is thinking on the same level.”
There are also shots in the documentary that make you wonder how the filmmaker got a picture like that. “Being able to do anything on the fly is part of the whole idea of guerilla filmmaking,” explains Hutchins. “There are small wireless microphones that I would clip onto me and sometimes on the camera because sometimes in five seconds, you knew something was going to happen and I needed to be ready to capture it and have the sound to go with it. There are many times when in post, I’d say to myself I am so glad I got that and I wouldn’t probably have got it if I was thinking too much about it. You have to go with your gut instinct. You have to be on your toes and improvise and let the action dictate the recording of the film.”
Today, Hutchins is in Dubai, where he is actively seeking to network with other production firms to create a documentary production company that can export Middle East-based content to American and European broadcasters. “Dubai has the infrastructure in place. What it needs to do now is draw the creative people here so that they can complement the infrastructure that is available here and I hope I can be a part of that process.”||**||