Category Archives: Blog

January 3, 2017: Why It’s Worth It

January 3, 2017: Why It’s Worth It

A recent post on the documentary film listserv, Doculink, posed the question: “Is making documentaries worth it?” Here is my reply:

One day, back in 2005, I returned home to find a magazine on the coffee table featuring an essay called, Anatomy of Flight, which detailed Jacks McNamara’s challenge to authentically navigate the space between brilliance and madness. I was immediately inspired to make Crooked Beauty, a documentary that was as novel in form as was the radical language and progressive principles that Jacks used to address their mental health struggles. And given how prescient the subject matter was, I intuited it was time to get out of the ‘studio of my mind’ and make a film that would inspire tangible change for communities in need. That is why it’s worth it.

We make documentary films to indulge our private passion for a particular subject while offering the public a means to refresh their most steadfast values and beliefs. All the better if you can cultivate community with your work on the grass roots level. I never imagined myself as an activist or advocate for any cause or issue no matter how much I identified with or supported it. But after seven years of presenting my mental health themed docs in venues of every size and stripe imaginable, I’ve discovered that worth is defined less by the number of awards and critical accolades one’s film might garner, and more by the palpable, collective inspiration felt by people yearning for transformation.

J–, please try this: write out the ‘purpose’ (a better word than, ‘worth’) of your work–whatever that might be–in one sentence. I don’t mean to over simplify the complex, logistical challenges of making a documentary film. But I do believe that clarifying one’s purpose and going to bed and waking up with that can be liberating. For example, mine is: I am committed to making emotionally immersive films that help alleviate human suffering by cultivating beauty and building community through live, conscious dialogue.

Given today’s unsettling political climate, I truly, passionately believe that making a documentary film based on no more that one’s personal interest in the subject is shortchanging our selves, our work, and our communities of a vital opportunity to experience meaningful, even transcendent, change. To consider one’s audience is to make ‘worth’ manifest.

January 2, 2017: Weaving Light

January 2, 2017: Weaving Light

I tramped through the forest on Hornby Island, grateful to be weighed down by twenty-five pounds of digital camera gear rather than twenty-five canisters of analog film. Though giddy at the prospect of recording hours of footage on a thumbnail sized card, I still felt driven to make critical choices about which images to harvest. Why film a spider web as the obvious product of an insect’s handiwork when a slight twist of the focal ring can transmute that same web into an undulating veil of light? Literally illustrating Madigan’s song lyrics with readily identifiable images would unnecessarily turn the music inwards upon itself. On the other hand, forsaking representation for abstractions transforms the forest into a habitat of metaphors where more expansive feelings and ideas can take root. I am not producing a parade of pretty pictures. I am cultivating an ephemeral field of colorful cadences, shimmering idiosyncrasies, and dark impressions as a broader stage for Madigan’s traumatic, transcendent, and redemptive music. This is the web I weave.

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January 1, 2017: Swinging in the Rain

January 1, 2017: Swinging in the Rain

On August 1, 2014, the day after I took my very last psych med, I traveled to Hornby Island in British Columbia for a one-month residency where I’d learn how to use my first digital SLR camera; a Canon 5D Mark lll. Hornby Island had a population of 800, a downtown consisting of no more than a food co-op, a café, and a gas station, and no street lamps at night. There was nothing to distract me other than my fear of turning on my camera. That fear was a more powerful deterrent than the sunless skies, frequent rainstorms, and assortment of Seinfeld DVDs I had brought with me. Compared to the direct and intuitive relationship I’d developed with analog cameras over the past thirty-five years, my initial experiences with digital cameras felt serpentine and mediated. The pixilated LCD screens, endless user menus, buttons, and dials confounded me. I studied the 5D manual, poured through numerous online forums, sought the advice of shop technicians and professional filmmakers—but never turned on the camera. Not once.

Late one afternoon, almost two weeks after my arrival, I was napping in a small cabin in a forest of ferns and redwoods as the rain pounded the roof. Lying on my back, I saw an irresistible performance of crystalline water droplets dancing on the skylight. I pointed my camera towards the ceiling, flipped on the power, and was stunned by the 5D’s charcoal-like rendering of light and shadow. As I gently turned the focus ring, pools of crisp raindrops and silhouetted redwoods mingled in the space between glass and forest. I composed the image and was moving my finger towards the record button when the rain suddenly stopped and the night fell like a stage curtain. Luckily, I awoke the following morning to a hearty downpour and quickly harvested the very first image for Whisper Rapture. It was love at first sight and I kissed my camera smack on its hot shoe.

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March 20, 2015: Welcome to the Whisper Rapture Blog

March 20, 2015: Welcome to the Whisper Rapture Blog

This mindful memoir will chart the evolution of my music and mental health documentary, Whisper Rapture: A Bonfire Madigan Suite. With heart in hand, I will guide you along my serpentine and mercurial path as I nurture this cinematic symphony to fruition. I will share my tribulations and triumphs, my cultivations and revelations, and my dances with divinity. I will also stitch, tangle, and unravel the intertwined threads of creativity and madness – a beautiful mess ripe with shadows and luminosity. To Oz!

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How I Make Film

“Seeing is an act of creation.”   – Thomas Walther, Photographer

I neither shoot nor record images. Shooting propels one’s intentions towards the subject, while recording wrests an image from its native place. What can the world present to me outside of a climate-controlled sound stage, unfettered by the dictates of a script, and uncluttered by expectations? Where will I harvest that dialogue? How does the sentient earth invite me to cultivate a dynamic exchange?

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I seek a more participatory relationship with the animate landscapes and city surfaces within hiking and biking distance of my front door. A quivering tree branch beckons like a finger; a splash of light winks at me from a shimmering puddle; restless shadows on a building side are passageways for my curiosity. These configurations of textures and gestures distinguish themselves by virtue of their fundamentally ephemeral nature; they are borderless, mutable, shape shifting entities. Engaging them is a process of deep listening with my eyes. I hear them call me from within my field of vision, and I respond by tenderly pointing my attention in their direction.

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Even though ‘image’ is at the root of imagination, I must hold lightly to any conceit that I am producing – or even finding – an image. Leaves and chain link fences rustle in anticipation of an indeterminate score as I raise my camera lens like a conductor’s wand. Then I roll the focus ring from side to side, and cast my curiosity back and forth through deep space until an image suddenly manifests quite literally from thin air. The images that enter my camera are offered to me. I often bow to my subject after I’ve received an image because making film this way is an act of gratitude. And a dance. Not forcing my ideas onto my subject keeps me from stepping on its toes. The world keeps spinning and light slips quickly! Each image is written on the wind and can evaporate as immediately as it appears. I am a kite, shifting and composing my self and my camera in relation to the animate mood of my subject.

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The world and I play one another like instruments – a graceful, empathetic, and harmonious orchestration of light and sight. As image after image coalesces like notes in a musical passage, my muscles and bones begin to vibrate like cello strings. The edges of my flesh and the borders of my heart disappear. No longer a vessel for anger or a mechanism of madness, I am humbly suspended in Wonder, Contentment, and Compassion. I feel indefinably large and intimately woven into all matter – into the Divine. There is no self. There is no film. Only the pure, unfiltered, sustained breath of the ineffable.

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What’s Up, Doc Opera?

Whisper Rapture is the echo of an enduring exchange that extends outwards like ripples from a stone tossed into a vast pond. Although my process of manifesting images is serendipitous, even magical, I have concrete plans for the film’s formal structure and how I hope to effect a palpable sense of bliss and illumination within the viewer.

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My first step, after months of harvesting thousands of images as described above, is to arrange each and every one of them into carefully annotated subject categories. For example, a folder labeled, Trees, will contain sub-categories of tree iterations such as; Trees With Sun Balls, Tree Shadows, and Trees Surrounding Telephone Poles. After placing one of Madigan’s songs into my editing platform’s timeline, I’ll begin choosing images with visual pulses and vibrations that rhythmically compliment the music, rather than how specifically they illustrate a particular song lyric. I’m deliberately foregoing a Bonfire Madigan stage performance because her music is the featured character of the film. Embodying her songs instead of literally picturing her words allows the images to perform the songs and invites the viewer into a more emotionally immersive space in which to receive the music. For more detailed insights about how and why I construct alternate representations of talking heads in documentary film, please see my essay, Crooked Beauty and the Embodiment of Madness.

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I’m thrilled to liberate myself from the conventions of continuity editing in favor of a more radical collision of images that do not specifically refer to one another in terms of content or where they were originally filmed. The picture flow will be entirely motivated by how sympathetically the visual tones, tempos and textures resonate with the music across the cut. In this way, rain puddles dancing on a skylight will cut to flickering shadows slinking across a washing machine followed by a tapestry of barbed wire and billowing weeds without feeling like a series of jump cuts. Whereas the images in my prior film, Crooked Beauty, existed as long takes over which we heard the featured character’s narration, the visuals in Whisper Rapture will function more like notes. They will appear onscreen only as long as the music can sustain them. Over the course of the film, the rhythmic intensity of the montage coupled with the intimate scoring of sight and sound will swell into an ecstatic collage of operatic proportions, thus re-imagining the traditional music documentary as a Doc Opera.

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While Madigan’s avant-garde pop and punk-influenced chamber music is essentially the featured character in Whisper Rapture, her story of trauma and transformation must be heard. Her autobiographical testimony on madness, art, and mental health activism is the social justice core from which the songs will emerge and the narrative thread that stitches them together. We will hear Madigan’s voice-over narration between each song as we see her kinetic cello playing silently rendered in extreme slow motion in a darkened, starkly-lit space. The dramatic interplay between her expressive performance style and the shadows that slip through the folds of her undulating clothing will graphically embody the emotional fabric of her transcendent life story.

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I’m making Whisper Rapture: A Bonfire Madigan Suite to cultivate beauty and help alleviate suffering in these chaotic times. This cinematic rhapsody will celebrate the enduring potential of our human spirit and help us feel that all things are delicately interconnected; that we don’t just exist in the world – we are of it.

xoKen

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