One First-Time Fimmaker’s Quest: Move to a New Country and Stay There Until You’ve Made a Film
“I made this deal with myself that I would sell everything, buy a one-way ticket, go to the former Yugoslavia, and not come back without an observational documentary.”
In 2004, after visiting Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time on a side trip from his brother’s wedding in Europe, photographer Shawn Convey came back with a million new questions and a deep urge to portray the area more humanely than had been done in the international coverage of the Balkan wars. He also wanted to have an opportunity to move from being a photographer to a filmmaker. “I landed in Dubrovnik, I hitchhiked to Mostar, and that became my home base for about four years,” explained Convey to No Film School.
Two years into his search, he first heard about the Wolves, a motorcycle club of Bosnian war veterans in the small town of Livno who, among other humanitarian deeds, have taken it upon themselves to defend a herd of wild horses. “It's not the type of place where you see middle aged guys trying to save animals, so I got into a car, and I drove there. The next thing I know, I'm up at the top of a mountain with a whole bunch of grizzled guys showing me horses.” In 2013, after living in Livno for eight months filming them mostly by himself, he had the material for Among Wolves, a visually exquisite portrait of a Bosnian biker gang regaining humanity in the wake of war.
Convey sat down with No Film School to talk about what it took to make this cinematic, observational doc work, why reality is the opposite of handheld, and why doc filmmaking is like passing a new college-level course every week.
No Film School: You started as a photographer with no experience in film and this is your only documentary to date. What were some things that translated from photography for this, and what did you need to learn that was completely new?
Shawn Convey: Everything that I do as a photographer translated some way. I mean, with photography, you try to tell a story with a singular frame. Here, you actually have the luxury of building scenes. But that in itself is very difficult to wrap your brain around as a still photographer. I was very beholden to the observational documentary format because, to me, that's real, and if I'm going to be depicting a people, I want it to be real. I don't want it to be my over-editorialization.
Of course, the whole process is, by nature, editorialized and constructed, but I wanted to keep it as pure as possible by still keeping both their truths and my truth of my understanding and marry those two. So, how to actually build scenes? That was a work in progress. And to be honest, while I'm very proud of what we did, but I feel like most of that education, the a-ha moments of how to build a scene correctly came more in the editing.
When we were sitting down and going through the 425 hours' worth of footage, that's when I started realizing how a scene could've been built, had I known more about the process while I was filming. How do you build that into a scene that's translatable to an audience without holding their hand, but at the same time without boring them completely to death? And I know our film actually is on the slower side. But to me, that's all true. That's true to their life, and that's true to life in general. If your life was like a Marvel film all the time, that would be really exhausting. It's just not the way that life is. Life is usually about the minute details and figuring out how to act, react, or not react to those details.
"Of course, the whole process is, by nature, editorialized and constructed, but I wanted to keep it as pure as possible..."
NFS: Can you explain what your philosophy or the shooting rules you gave yourself to make sure it was true to the idea of an observational documentary?
Convey: I would never ask them to redo anything. I mean, there were a couple of things where I asked them, "Let me know the next time you're gonna jump in your Range Rover so I can get you to pull out." Actually, the Range Rover made me ask them things more than anything else. I'd have to establish the shot as to where they were, so I’d say, "Can you drop me off and drive around the mountain and come back?" Other than that, I would never, ever ask them to do anything. I never suggested that they do anything or go anywhere. I just asked them to keep me in the loop.
I came up with this weird set of rules. When I said I never have done another documentary, that is true, but I filmed one other thing, with a woman who is now my wife. When I met her, she was going to India on her second internship and I filmed this amazing NGO with her that focuses on victims of human trafficking and violent crimes, and especially children of sex workers.They were using this very organic form of dance movement therapy for rehabilitation. There would be these huge rooms filled with like 40 and 50 orphan children. It was impossible to follow them all. So I taught myself to be insanely patient and frame up something. Frame up the scene in a way that a story could be told, and you can see what players could play in that story. Look at who the actors are, and decide, is that going to be representative to what you're trying to portray? So I carried that over to the filming of the Wolves. You have to be overly prepared. You have to be incredibly lucky. And you have to be incredibly patient. For an observational documentary to work, you need all three things. You can't have the camera in your bag, and you also can't not rely on luck, because those magic moments are only gonna happen outside of your control and you're not directing the action in front of you. Then you have to be patient.
Once you think something is going to happen over here, and you can see stuff in your peripheral happening to the right of you, you can't just move because you haven’t got the thing that had already started. You have no context or understanding of what's going on over there, but you also just lost the opportunity of something that might've happened that you anticipated was going to happen in front of you.
"You have to be overly prepared. You have to be incredibly lucky. And you have to be incredibly patient. For an observational documentary to work, you need all three things."
NFS: All the visuals in the film are very captivating. Can you illuminate us on what you were shooting with and what your crew was like?
Convey: I mean, it was a real skeleton. To say it was a skeleton crew is an understatement. It was mostly me and a friend of mine that I had made in Mostar who would help me set the lavs on the guys and help me carry stuff. And he would also translate for me, just do on-the-spot translations, like, "We are going to go do this," or, "Leo wants to tell you this." Those kinds of translations.
And so the majority of the time, it was me. When Martin Langner was in town, I was really lucky because then it would be the three of us, and Martin has tons of documentary experience, like 20 years of cameraman experience. He's incredibly talented. He matched his style with my style. He saw the way I shot and he just mirrored it. To this point, to this day, we still argue over who took some of the shots. I'm eternally grateful for him, and he's just so talented.
I remember when this started in 2012 and then through 2013, I used the 5D Mark II and Mark III, and then Martin came with the C300. For the lenses, I used old Zeiss primes, just the SLR Zeiss primes that Contax made, and most of it was actually shot on my favorite lenses worked, just like the 50 and the 85. I just loved the way that they give shape to the people. They're just gorgeous, gorgeous lenses. But also, because the region was so beautiful and wide and panoramic, a wide angle lens was just overkill. I never shot wider than 28mm. You're already looking at scenery that is just gobstopping and huge onscreen. I didn't need a 16mm or 14mm. That was just unnecessary.
So, for sound, there's an on-camera mic and one lav, so we did the best we could. We also were lucky enough to have a really talented sound designer, Johannes Kunz from Berlin, who did really beautiful, organic sound designs.
NFS: The footage was all very steady, and especially knowing you're in the backs of cars on dirt roads, in very rural environments, can you speak to your preference for stabilizing the movement? It’s another departure from the world of photography.
Convey: So when I did my photography, I didn't use a tripod that often. I was so afraid of going handheld for this, especially with DSLR. I was almost always on a tripod. That was the other unique skillset that Martin brought to the table is, he was very comfortable handheld.
So when the motor rally scenes, if you ever see the camera bobbling on any level, that's definitely Martin. That wasn't me. Since then, I've gotten quite better, but that was my beginning, and I didn't want to mess anything up. Knowing, again, going back to my rules, being patient, overly prepared, and luck, for me to throw in the factor of my inexperience in holding a DSLR and capturing the kind of image that I like, that was a variable that I couldn't risk.
We also did an insane amount of micro-stabilization in post. I was doing that for months. I don't believe in this whole vérité concept of shaky cameras. People will often say things like, "But it's so still, it's not real." And I'm like, "If your world is shaking, you need to see a doctor, because in life, your world, should not be shaking. There's either an earthquake, or you're having a seizure." It's weird to me how technically, shaky camera has somehow translated into organic or realistic, lifelike camerawork. When really, all it was was the fact that [in the beginning] documentary photographers had little 16 millimeter cameras, and they were shooting on film, and there was no stabilizers, and they had no budget. It had nothing to do with reality. It just had to do with the technical limitation that we've far surpassed now. So I don't believe in unnecessarily shaky shots, and we try to keep that to a minimum.
NFS: Your brain is processing the images coming from your eyes. We have our own stabilizing plugin built into our brains.
Convey: Absolutely. We light correct, and we color adjust. We do all that. So there’s no reason. That also drives me nuts when you see in a documentary, a room super green because of the fluorescents, and they're like, "That's the way it was." I'm like, "That's not the way your brain sees it. You don't walk into a room that's green ever unless all the walls are green, and they're gelled green. That never happens."
NFS: Having started out with no experience but having committed so profoundly to making Among Wolves, what would be your advice for others?
Convey: You have to need to make it. And something in you has to make that your only path. If it's something that seems like it might be cool, I would say just don't bother because it's an enormous, enormous amount of work that is a constant struggle. This has been a 12-year journey for me, and I honestly, I put in 40- to 60-hour weeks every week since I've started on this project, and it was never funded. We did two Kickstarters, and the rest was my own funding and favors of asking people. It's obscene that it’s a completely unprofessional and unsustainable way to work. So it has to be something that you need to do. Especially observational documentary. I mean, I'm coming to think that I need to maybe dabble in narrative work just to make my passion for the observational documentary sustainable because the narrative filmmaking world is far more even and sustainable than the observational documentary one.
So that's the biggest thing. You're constantly lying to yourself throughout the process that the next step will get easier, or the next hurdle will get easier, or the next part of the process will get easier. It occurred to me, coming close to our festival premiere at Chicago International, that's obscene. That's just a silly way to think. There's no way that a mountain climber who's trying to summit Everest thinks that getting the next step closer to the top is gonna get easier. No, it's gonna keep getting harder, and then you're all the way at the top, and then you have to go all the way back down. It's like, so you get your festival premiere, and then it's just like, "Well, now what are you gonna do for distribution? Do you have an outreach plan? Do you have a budget for outreach? What's your festival strategy?" It just keeps going and going, and these aren't things that any of us are really trained in. Even those that go to film school, they don't teach you any of those things. I'm surrounded by filmmaker friends, and none of them know how to do it either. You basically have to learn a college-level course every week and then hope that it works out. It’s not for the faint of heart. But if you do have that passion, you're probably going to tell a good story.