Filmmaker, producer, curator, civic activist and co-founder of the 86 International Urbanism & Film Festival in Slavutych Nadia Parfan talks about her studies at the National Film and Television School: NFTS in Beaconsfield and her internship at the Nowness platform in London as part of the Culture Bridges international mobility grant.
DIRECTING THE DOCUMENTARY
I was trained in the Polish school of film and that method of slow, aching observation. In the west you often here that the contemplative documentary is a dead form with nothing left to say. That's partly economics speaking because of the need for long-term financing in a world where everybody is interested in a quick turnaround.
Britain, of course, pioneered so much in media, innovations in TV and broadcasting. It is really their medium, coming up with things like Python and the like. I went there to see how they think. In Ukraine, the 'talking head' taped interview is considered bad form and here the documentary form and TV are different things. So, I wanted to understand their tradition of smart television documentary journalism. Then I settled on the (National Film and Television School: NFTS) in Beaconsfield, outside London. It's a top British film school, among the best cinema schools there are and that's reflected in the cost when you want to attend school in a major British metropolis. I was advised a short course called Directing the Documentary which was about the type of BBC-style documentary that interested me.
It was a five-day course for 10 people between 25 and 35 years old – eight women and two men. One person from Wales, me from Ukraine, an Australian and the rest British. Our teacher held classes daily from 10 am to 5 pm because the class is made up of people already working jobs and can't attend full-time, so they go for the minimal residency course.
During the course I was working on an idea for a new film with the working title "Miss European Rock" about Ukrainian cultural history and music. Working with my instructor Ian Cole, I was able to put a clear, internationally relevant concept together. It was really interesting to see the reaction of cinematographers coming from a completely different cultural setting to the archival materials I drew on for my work. This should help me tell a local story that it resonates universally and isn't just more local-interest cinema. One practical assignment we had was the "one pager"- a basic approach to putting together an entire film project.
I also wanted to see how these trends were applied in the workplace so I arranged for a three-week internship at Nowness, the curated video platform from Dazed Media in Soho, London. Their editors work a great deal with short-form media. It is quite a popular and prestigious global resource that gets lots of video submissions of original, short films under 15 minutes in length. I was responsible for sorting through videos in the first filing phase. I watched everything that came through, sorted through the films, divided them by genre, plot and offered critiques. Nowness receives 14 film submissions every day. I watched about 30 a day, a fairly psychedelic experience, most of it very high level work.
THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
The greatest challenge was the language barrier. I think I know English pretty well. I lived in the United States for a year and I often have to travel abroad on business and pitch projects in English. But I didn't expect the differences between American speech and British English or even continental English. It's not the accent, that's no problem. It's the word order, sentence construction, tone and complicated structures. The monolingual environment that native Brits live in makes exchanges difficult because it's so full of specific humour and references. It's quite uncomfortable when you can't express yourself freely, but I calmed down even though it didn't get easier and I never got completely used to it.
RECHARGING MY BATTERIES
Ukraine has its own visual style: we're making poetic cinema or stylish adverts or documentaries. It's in the latter that I think we should take an emotive or classic approach and not be stuck with one look. My most significant accomplishments are in the areas of lighting, scene construct and storytelling. While I was sorting through submissions in Britain I saw a lot of visual tricks I could use in all kinds of situations. I wanted to establish myself in that kind of documentarian tradition, grasping how they think in their model of hybrid journalistic documentary. Playwriting will also be useful to me as I work on screenplays.
This one thing has also recharged my batteries, so to speak. One problem in the Ukrainian film industry is the limitations imposed because there's so little money for production. A movie is made and the director has to justify inferior artistic choices because he says there wasn't the money to do what he wanted. Or there are huge films with huge budgets. But neither approach works. We're not good at efficiently budgeting the work. They asked us during the sessions: 'if you only had $100 for a budget, what would you spend it on?' We discussed how to shoot when you don't have any resources; where you can economise; what's not worth doing. I enjoyed that discussion, understanding that's how it is everywhere – you have to know how to budget. Our instructor advised us not to skimp on research assistants. I'm not sure what the analogue is for that job in Ukraine – part fixer, part screenwriter, part assistant director. Here, the director does all that since we shoot our films so slowly and painstakingly. But we really should be delegating these jobs to another person.
The British film industry is quite rigid and stratified and is focused on English practitioners; it's not easy for an outsider to get in and very difficult collaborate with them. A month's stay and a short course aren't enough. To find your way in you need a full education in a leading British school. Still, I went because I had worked with Vicki Thorton before (and used a Culture Bridges grant to work with Pavlo Yurov, the documentary theatre director, at Lviv's Drabyna Workshop) on a joint Luxembourg-Great Britain-Ukraine production - (N)ostalgia. Vicky introduced me to the producer of Netflix's The Bodyguard and I can consult with both of them when I need to. I've also made other contacts that could pay off, like Philip Ilson, the artistic director of the London Short Film Festival.
I thought I'd be shooting something for Nowness but it turns out that it's not that simple. Everyone wants their work on the platform and there's no shortage of directors. Even with my internship there I wasn't any closer to getting in. But I keep in contact with them because I'm working on a visually beautiful film and I'd like it to appear there.
Visit the British Film Institute (BFI), a non-profit that promotes cinematographic work. They publish monographs on great films of the past and sponsor emerging film projects and directors. They publish Sight&Sound, a dedicated cinema journal and manage the world's largest national film archive, film centre and the London Film Museum. They also organise the London Film Festival.
During my time there the London Short Film Festival was held. Typically, like all short-format film festivals, it's a very high-energy event but it's also very influential and offers a solid programme. I saw the Fishing With John (1991) mini-series there. Ingenious. Ironic. I don't know how it ever made it onto TV. Following the screening there was a SKYPE call with John Lourie who wrote, directed and acted in it. It was easily the coolest Q&A session I have ever been a part of.
There's also a very cool place — Bertha Doghouse. It's this multiplex where one screen is dedicated to documentaries - the first specialised documentary cinema in the UK.
Photos by: Nadia Parfan, wikipedia.