The Importance of Staying "Open" While Crafting a Documentary Film

Written by Josh Bell, director of In Between Songs

During a recent Q & A with documentary heavyweight, Doug Pray, after his film Levitated Mass, he was asked about how he was able to gather so many candid and revealing interviews on-the-street. Many of the voices heard in his film were found on the spot; people offered insightful reactions and thought-provoking material and none of it was planned. I have thought a lot about this concept of openness both in my career and specifically while crafting In Between Songs. Knowing Doug personally, I like his fearlessness in regards to changing approaches to story and his ability to adapt while working in the field.

My initial thrust for the film focused exclusively on traditional and non-traditional playing styles of the didjeridu, or didgeridoo. I interviewed numerous well-respected players and craftsmen from outside traditional Yolngu culture and got a broad sense of musical technique and approach.

However, from the moment I first sat down with Djalu Gurruwiwi in 2001, and then over the days, weeks and months in Arnhem Land, I grew to understand that the story of the film was much greater than the didjeridu itself.

For Yolngu Aboriginals spread across Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, traditional yirdaki,or mandapul is almost never played outside of a ceremonial context. Players from an early age may practice, learn, craft and “muck about” with the instrument, but the performance of the instrument almost always takes place with dancers, singers, and clapsticks. The song cycles performed, countless generations old, carry a spiritual and metaphysical weight that cannot be understood completely by Westerners.

Djalu speaks to it in the film expressing that the Western style of playing “is like the guitar.” It’s rhythmic and musical and can sound beautiful in its own way, but it does not carry the same significance.

Moreover, traditional didjeridu is just one dimension of countless aspects of Yolngu life. It does not exist in a vacuum and cannot be discussed on any real level without delving deeper into all the physical and spiritual layers of their culture. Additionally, the present financial, environmental, educational and social challenges faced by Djalu, the Gurruwiwi family, and all Aboriginal people across the world, speaks to the state of modernization amongst all indigenous people.

Had I continued down the path of focusing the film on didjeridu music alone, the content would have been flat and the film would have probably lacked story altogether. What helped guide me through the project was keeping my ears and eyes attuned to what I saw, heard and learned during my time spent in the community. Through the trust our team built over the years making the project, we were given access to a very rich and intimate look at an Aboriginal family caught between two worlds.

In Between Songs celebrates the legacy of Djalu Gurruwiwi as a traditional didjeridu master, but in many ways, the instrument takes a back seat to the growing tension of daily life within the clan. I consistently wrestled with how to place Djalu’s musical greatness within his own vision for his family. However, listening to Djalu and his sister, Dhanggal, sharing lengthy conversations with both the children and elders, sharing meals and hours long 4 x 4 trips through the bush, the film evolved and I grew both personally and professionally. They helped guide me towards what was most important and the film became what it is today.

My advice: be respectful, stay open, watch carefully . . . and keep the camera close by.

Josh Bell is a renowned photographer and filmmaker who creates stories that are both soulful and substantive. His work includes In Between Songs, which is available on DVD through Cinema Libre, as well as videos for Sesame Street and a music video for the hit song “Cannonball” by Glee’s Lea Michele.

Doug Pray’s film Levitated Mass reflects the acclaimed LACMA exhibit, now open to the public. His film will be screening in Los Angeles at the Nuart from September 5th-11th and will appear in the upcoming Seattle International Film Festival.

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