This film for SolarAid was shot on Mafia Island, Tanzania. We began shooting 30 seconds after meeting Athmani. I carried a small camera on a stick, and was accompanied by @Ralph_Greenland from SolarAid UK. Our translator was Irene Chalya from SolarAid Tanzania. It is essentially a vox pop. As filmmakers, we have a micro-footprint – in terms of resources, energy, mobility, cost – yet the images are cinematic and the sense of ‘being there’ is palpable.
Surprisingly perhaps, I think the sense of presence has to do with the editing than the footage. The first edit took a quite conventional documentary approach, with the subject’s voice wallpapered over by the translator. While this is efficient, it can often seem like the subject is just a vessel for information which needs to be extracted – which doesn’t really respect the subject as a person very much. And the subject fades into the background. Plus, there is a lot more to communication than speech.
As the edit progressed, there was a big shift in power from the viewer to the subject. It feels like a move away from conventional representations of Africa. Swahili is not simply and literally converted into English for the benefit of the viewer – who can be forgiven for forgetting the original speaker. Sometimes the viewer doesn’t even get a translation! You have to figure it out from gestures and context. The guiding principle is simply communicating as simply as possible. As a result, the text plays a number of roles: titles, subtitles, bullet points, non-literal translations, captions, and so on. Normally the tendency is to declare rules and stick to them. But communication is often far messier than this. We open up multiple channels. We piece things together. We translate and re-translate. Shooting pictures is another translation. Editing is another.
I feel there is the germ of a new attitude and approach here. It matters that the subject is Africa, which in a classic reversal of fate, is blossoming as the advanced economies stagnate. It also matters that SolarAid is different from most traditional charities. They have a social enterprise called SunnyMoney, for example, which sells high quality, affordable solar lamps as replacements for kerosene lamps, which are toxic and dangerous and keep people poor. They don’t give handouts. They are a new charity for a new Africa. I hope this short film becomes a significant step in representing this new world. We shot a lot of incidental film when we went to shoot A Long Wait. We want to bring as much of SolarAid’s work to people who may want to help. I feel this film reveals a path toward that goal.
This batch of footage from Tanzania is the first footage I shot after changing how I set my exposure to accommodate Technicolor CineStyle.
Normally when setting exposure, like most people, I purposely clip the highlights to see what bits of the image to watch, and then pull them down in the waveform monitor until there is no clipping. With CineStyle, this ensured that too often I overexposed highlights in a really ugly way. So I reversed the procedure and started opening the image up from being underexposed. I stop opening it when the dynamic range stops expanding. Often after this point, final adjustments affect only mid tones, which can be tweaked to taste.
As a result of underexposing about a stop, the images coming out of the camera look pretty good. They are a bit flat, but very usable. The images don’t have the typical grey look of CineStyle footage. Of course, by underexposing, you get more noise. But that can now be handled by Neat noise reduction in FCPX, which seems to work fine on H.264 camera originals. Some noise reduction is going to be necessary anyway to repair compression artefacts in the camera originals.