What can films premiering in a pandemic year tell us about filmmaking? A lot.

At AFI Fest’s reconfigured pandemic-style festival, No Film School was around to learn from filmmakers. We focused in on the festival’s New Auteurs category, which contains works that “push the boundaries of contemporary cinema” and are overall pretty cool.

Here are our takeaways. 

You don’t need a flawless idea for a film, you need hard work. And time.

If you feel disappointed that 2020 is not the year to make your feature, check yourself. More time might be the best thing you never asked for.

In Chuko Esiri's search for the idea to make his first film, he realized that sometimes you get an idea about a film, only to realize with time (and numerous script re-writes encouraged by co-director and brother Arie Esiri) that your idea is flawed. Good filmmakers will take that as a challenge to dig deeper for the real film, the best film. The Esiri Brothers debut Eyimofe (This is My Desire) was in the works for over a decade!

Arie had gone through school in the camera department, while Chuko has studied to be a producer. The brothers' experiences coming home to Nigeria after studying abroad were central to creating this film.

“I handed off the first draft of the script to Arie—who gave me very uncensored notes,” explained Chuko Esiri in the Q&A after the AFI Fest premiere.

That was 10 years ago.

“Because I had gone to boarding school, [Nigeria] was very alien to me,” continued Chuko Esiri. “I had this fantasy of what I wanted my life to be. I had to come back to do my National Youth Service. Along that journey, I found I became reacquainted with my country. I fell in love with it again. I found a great sense of purpose and desire and inspiration in the place…the world changed. As I encountered more people, and the migrant crisis became more in vogue, we were seeing one kind of film from literally one side of the ocean.”

"Along that journey, I found I became reacquainted with my country. I fell in love with it again."

Seeking to share a different perspective, Eyimofe is a visually lush, alluring saga (shot on 16mm!) of two Nigerians yearning to emigrate abroad. The film had its U.S. premiere at AFI last month and BFI London where programmers call it a “great contribution to the burgeoning independent Nigerian new wave.”

You can see it next at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.

"We chose reactions instead of gore, because it gives unease."

Break the rules, but know why you are doing it.

A lot of filmmakers see making the first feature as the chance to show the world your opinions on the style of filmmaking. Do you know the rules? Do you follow them, or do you break them?

As it turns out, many of us want to break the rules! But beware, many first features are plagued with trying too hard to make something weird just for the sake of it.

For her first feature, filmmaker Jeanette Nordahl used the crime genre as a useful package to explore themes of family dysfunction and whether one can break free from the cycle of what is laid before. The result is Wildland, a heinously stylish Scandinavian gangster thriller that had its U.S. premiere at AFI Fest.

The Guardian describes it as having “the makings of a big hit.”

For every rule she subverted, she had a reason.

For example, one of Nordahl's choices with Wildland was to infer violence on screen instead of showing it outright. When asked in the Q&A following the American premiere, Nordahl explained her directorial choice.

 “In developing the story and the visual style of how we would tell it, it was always about trying to turn things upside down,” explained Nordahl. “What if we don’t see that? What if we see the reaction? I think that is much more interesting. We chose reactions instead of gore, because it gives unease. It makes things uncomfortable and creates a kind of tension.”

“We lived with Ricardo’s family, and we had small equipment... no electricity.”

Use your limitations as your creative force.

You can decry what you didn’t have to make your film, and that's why it didn't come out right.Or you use your problems as your solutions.

Alejandro Telémaco Tarraf first read a poem published in Piedra Sola (which translates to Lonely Rock) by Argentina’s most influential folk singerAtahualpa Yupanqui. He fell in love with the poem and wanted to find this imaginary rock. That journey took him to the village of Condor where he spent a year living in the community in the remote highlands. Little by little, he became a welcome figure, eventually using an indigenous cast to play versions of themselves in his first drama/doc hybrid feature Piedra Sola that had its U.S. Premiere at AFI Fest and will be playing next at IFFR.

Instead of bringing in a big crew that could have potentially destroyed the delicate friendship Tarraf had struck up in Condor, he and his DP Alberto Balazs adopted a different approach.

We lived with Ricardo’s family, and we had small equipment, some lights we could power with a generator but no electricity,” explained Tarraf in the Q&A after the premiere. “We learned by being there, from environment, from light, from living there, and working with what is available. The idea is always that film has doc and fiction, and we wanted to maintain time to exist in those shots.”

Balazs agreed.

“Light is completely different than anywhere else, there are no trees in this landscape,” added Balazs. “We did experiments with day for night, with the moon as the source.”

“We are getting at the metaphysical,” concluded Tarraf. “While still appealing to the five senses. You can let time exist, but you still have to put the camera in the right place.”

Thank you, filmmakers!

Have you made a feature that has lessons for us? Please share them in the comment.