Monday, September 03, 2007

Film and Feeling. (A revisitation.)

Originally uploaded by yasmin the storyteller
“How vain it is to sit down to write, when you have not stood up to live.” - Henry David Thoreau, 1817 - 1862

Often I’m asked by young film enthusiasts, what it takes to make a good film. My answer is always the same.

I have no idea.

I don’t know the first thing about film, and I’ve never claimed to be a good film director, or indeed, a good writer.

I do, however, have some hunches. And they are as follows:

I suspect a filmmaker is fundamentally no different from a novelist or a poet, or even a painter or photographer.

We all just want to tell a story. Or to put across a feeling we have about humanity, as we observe it.

I believe these feelings and observations must stem from a clear intention, and a sincere personal concern for the human condition. No use pretending, because sooner or later, the viewer or reader will see through your mask.

As artists and storytellers, it’s easy for us to slip into the trap of being obsessed about form rather than content.

After watching films by auteurs such as Hou-Hsiao Hsien or John Cassavetes or Yasujiro Ozu, I am always in awe of the style in which they delivered the emotions of the story.

I have to remind myself constantly that it was the emotions that moved me rather than the style.

When viewing a sculpture, it is the feelings the sculptor had about his subject that touches me deeply, and not the hammer and chisel he used to shape it.

Many years ago, I found myself sitting at the edge of a giant metal block somewhere inside Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard in Napa Valley.

When I looked up to survey the cold bronze, which chilled my back as I leaned against it, I was overcome with emotions. It was a beautiful sculpture of a mother and child by Henry Moore.

I could feel, without words or explanation, the empathy Moore felt for the unconditional love the mother had for the child in her arms.

Walking through Pablo Picasso’s old villa in Antibes just outside of Cannes, I caught sight, from the corner of my eye, what looked like the carcass of a white dove, laid out on a wicker chair.

When I approached it, I discovered that it was nothing more than some crumpled bits of paper, carefully put together to look like a dead dove.

It wasn’t the pieces of paper or the way Picasso crumpled them that moved me to tears. It was the sorrow he felt upon finding a dead dove on his balcony.

“Painting cannot be taught,” Picasso himself once said, “it can only be found.”

Or as my partner and soul mate Ali Mohamed puts it, “It is like riding a bicycle. I can give you a rough idea of how to do it, but in the end, you’ll have to feel your own way through.”

This, I believe, applies to writing and filmmaking too. We have to feel our way through.

"A poem begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness." - Robert Frost, 1874 - 1963

In two of Kobayashi Issa’s haiku, centred on the humble spider, we are able to observe emotions far bigger than just about spiders.

“a broken web –
a refugee spider is still
looking for a home”

“don’t worry, spider
I keep house

Perhaps it’s just me, but in these haiku, I found deep compassion. Far from being afraid of spiders, the haiku master clearly cared for them.

And caring about something or someone lesser than you is a powerful statement about humanity.

Therein lies the genius of haiku. In just a few words, a writer is able to convey a feeling which could very well save Mankind, seeing the way the world is heading these days.

Now, at last, we might know how to begin. And the way to start writing isn’t by writing at all, but by living. It isn’t about creating something from thin air, but about documenting our personal feelings about the things that we see.

Or to put it crudely, how are you going to be a storyteller if you have no story to tell?

Perhaps, in the end, there are no such things as creative people; there are only sharp observers with sensitive hearts.

“A man travels the world in search of what he needs, and returns home to find it.” – George Moore, 1873 - 1958