Whether we like it or not, as filmmakers we are creating historical documents. But what is more important, a personal experience or recorded history? Human history, experience and memory provide the lush backdrop for Sankofa, a documentary/sci-fi/found footage film from Kaleb Wentzel-Fisher.
Centered around a woman on a mission to reclaim Earth's history, Sankofa is a film about memories, how we view ourselves and what it means to observe history through a camera lens versus experiencing it firsthand. While the narrative is confined to one room, its experimental elements are bursting with life and the film itself becomes a living document of what it means to be human. I spoke to the first time filmmaker about how Sankofa found its form and what he learned along the way.
Here I was trying to make a movie that, simply put, asks the question: What's the point of making movies?
Video is no longer available: vimeo.com/ondemand/sankofa
NFS: The film is clearly touching on our fetishism with memories, especially those recorded, and it's almost absurd to see the emphasis humans have on documenting their reality vs. experiencing life. How did this all start?
Kaleb: Film and video has always been the way I have chosen to express myself. It has driven me for years, and has changed the course of my life many times over. The idea for Sankofa really came to me while hunting down the Brutalist monuments in the former Yugoslavia. During the trip I had taken with me two Super8 cameras, a DSLR and a GoPro along with a couple of tripods and a bag of gear. I was so excited to capture the monuments on film as I had only previously seen them in pictures. But when I reached the first monument I realized how impressive it was and I really just wanted to take it in and experience it for myself, not lug cameras around and look through viewfinders and screens.
Sankofa was a way for us to explore these ideas for ourselves, and maybe even a way to rationalize our desire to make films.
NFS: Human monuments are stand-ins for human memories, which this film suggests are our most important treasures. How did you decide how the film within a film structure would work?
Kaleb: As excited as we were about some of the experimental aspects of the film, this was our first film and we didn't know for sure that anything would work. The final cut was a result of countless re-toolings, changes, and long, tough discussions about what worked best for the narrative structure. The scripts for the documentaries were written after filming had wrapped. We captured amazing footage of the spomeniks and the areas where they were built, but without a specific treatment. We knew basically what each piece was meant to do narratively, and what ideas we wanted to explore in each section, but the actual dialogue and the edits came after the fact.
Human memory is inherently flawed, and those seeking to be remembered will build monuments emphasizing the qualities they want remembered. However, as time goes on, the way in which these monuments are perceived changes, cultures change, values change, and those who built the monuments die or lose the ability to reinforce what they intended to memorialize. Sankofa was a way for us to explore these ideas for ourselves, and maybe even a way to rationalize our desire to make films.
The set itself was built completely out of wood for about $1,500.
NFS: The lighting & production design in the Sankofa is awesome. I love all the contrasting black to white frames, you did so much with a small space. How did you build and light the space? Any advice for people working on stories that take place in one small environment?
Kaleb: I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Riccardo Falletta, our production designer. He spent months designing the look of the ship and its interfaces. The set itself was built by Tom Bonynage and Kito Colchester, whose ingenuity brought Riccardo's design to life. Our producer, Fabian Diering, found us an amazing old warehouse where we had one month to put everything together and shoot the film.
The set itself was built completely out of wood for about $1,500. The lights in the ship were fluorescent bulbs from the hardware store which we wired to switches, allowing us to turn on each row in sequence. The interior was made of white masonite panels which worked perfectly as a bounce. The lights and the panels created an even, shadowless space, which was exactly the look we were going for. Lighting it this way meant we didn't need to rent a single light which saved us time and money, allowing us to really focus on the film.
You have to make those mistakes to be able to learn from them.
Little rooms don't have to be limitations. If you think of them instead as opportunities, they can really promote some big ideas. If you stick to the constraints they present, you find that you really have to refine your ideas. Also it really helps if you spend a lot of time on/in your set. Every morning I would sit in the ship alone with the camera and just take pictures. I'd lie on the ground or prop myself against the wall, trying to see the space from all angles. I found I could see the space in new ways, and could both plan my shots and improvise more effectively.
NFS: Did your thesis or feeling about documentation vs. experience change at all while making the film?
Kaleb: As we made the film these thoughts [about recorded media] really started to weigh on me. Here I was trying to make a movie that, simply put, asks the question: What's the point of making movies? At times I would ask myself what's the point of taking all these pictures, but ultimately I realized that every experience is valid, and some of the best experiences I have had are making movies and taking pictures. So in a long roundabout way, I guess what I am trying to say is that the process of making this movie was incredibly reaffirming.
NFS: What were major mistakes you made making this film that you will rectify on your future projects?
Kaleb: We had originally planned to shoot a miniature model ship after principal filming, but when an opportunity arose to get a cheap green screen studio in the middle of our shoot, we jumped at it. Sadly, we were totally unprepared and also didn't really know what we were doing. Trying to save a few bucks actually cost us a day with our actress on an already short shoot. We could have waited and done the proper research before going into the studio and we would've gotten better results. I learned that there are certain things you should prepare for and it’s imperative to take the time to do so. As my brother always tells me, "Socks and then shoes."
We made other mistakes while making our film but I don't regret any of them. You have to make those mistakes to be able to learn from them. To be honest, I was scared of failure. It's not easy asking all of your friends and family for money and help on a project that’s going to take years. But in the end I was more scared of going through life not knowing if I was capable of doing it.