10 MIN READ
Writing Journeys appears every Wednesday. In the series, Nepali nonfiction authors and storytellers reflect on how they learned to tell powerful stories, who taught them, and what practical suggestions they have for others. Their answers are honest, reassuring, and useful.
Last week, Niranjan Kunwar explained why he trusts the ‘the writing process’ and why he shares drafts with others. Three weeks ago, Shradha Ghale discussed writing as “a constant reckoning with your own limitations” and two weeks ago, Kunda Dixit celebrated the power of writing simply and clearly.
This week, filmmaker Kesang Tsetan discusses what he calls “the process of discovery” — how he discovers his story as he goes.
“It’s a matter of riding that process, of encountering, furthering, the questions and insights being generated,” he says. He also offers thoughts on interviewing and on character development.
Kesang Tseten’s films include the award-winning Who will be a Gurkha and a trilogy on Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf States. Current projects include the pre-Buddhist Bonpos of the Himalaya, a revisit of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf, and a revisit to the site of We Corner People. He is also working on a Nepali feature inspired by Les Miserables. He received a Bachelor's degree from Amherst College and a journalism degree from Columbia University.
Coming next week: Sujeev Shakya
Kesang dai, what do you like about making films? What's the most fun or satisfying part?
I like almost every part of making a film. I like the process of discovery.
It begins as a blank slate, when you have little inkling of the nature of the film, the nature of the undertaking. The story begins to unravel, you get that inkling, when you get to the filming site you encounter the reality, which will be your ‘material’, with which you interact, each part of the process generating other parts, other actions, other decisions. You begin to have the feel of things that might deliver, or yield, the narrative.
This discovery process, of course, tends to be fluid, which is to say, you’re considering a number of threads. It’s often not set in stone, you have several possible narrative threads and they each imply something particular...this is the uncertainty and the thrill of finding yourself in the midst of process.
And this process continues, in different forms at different stages. In the middle of filming, it's about capturing units of material that will yield the story, as it were, towards the end. And then again in editing, it's pretty much a similar process of understanding or discovering your story.
How would you describe your approach to telling nonfiction stories through film?
I don’t think the inner dramaturgical approach is that different whether it is fiction or nonfiction. In fiction, if we are talking about film, you’d write a script, so it’s coming out of your head, but what’s in your head is experience, memory of experience, interpretation, and inflection of experience, which is once again from the world, but you are absorbing, interpreting, inflecting, so it is innately dialectical, both inner and outer.
In a nonfiction film, the difference is you’re setting out into a social, physical world, encountering that world, and capturing that on camera, but you will at some point have to react to what’s captured, interpret, inflect, and so on once again. In that sense, they are not different at all. Of course, the mechanics of filming, capturing, and what is involved in fathoming things from your mind, is different, but not so, essentially, in my view and in my experience, as someone who’s written both short stories and scripts.
How did you learn to tell stories/film/write? What tips, realizations or activities — big or small — helped you to improve?
By doing. There’s no other way but to do it. Of course you might look at examples. You do look at examples, you watch films, you read books, you listen to various prescriptions, ways of doing it, but most of all, you learn by doing.
Doing, listening, absorbing, doing, understanding how others respond to your work, whether it’s writing or a film. The process of seeing how others see or respond to your work, and the ideas and intentions you set out with, seeing how they match up or don’t match up, and delving into why and how, is crucial. Because, ultimately, editing a film, let’s say, or writing a story, they’re not about executing the commands of an editing software or just typing the words, it’s your mind that is directing all the decisions and choices, of the image, the beat, the scene, the word, the sentence — the content and the form.
Everything helps, watching films, reading certainly, but almost above all, doing it.
Did you have favorite teachers? What made them special?
I have favorite practitioners, certainly. Where documentaries go, which is the bulk of my work, I have learned so much from the works of Frederick Wiseman, the Maysle brothers, Erroll Morris, and Ross McElwee, to name a few.
From Wiseman, I got inspired toward so-called ‘observational’ filmmaking, which essentially showed that people in action, doing what they normally do, is much more telling, or showing, than people telling you what or who they are.
So much of the documentary depends on people revealing themselves, and seeing them in their normal relation to their environment is far more revealing and interesting than asking them to present themselves to you. The actual social processes these snippets of actions reveal are fascinating, they are why we watch documentaries.
Do you have favorite storytelling strategies? Are there ‘rules of thumb’ that every filmmaker uses?
If you’re interested in the approach of capturing people as they are, in a manner of speaking, it becomes very important to somehow convey that, and not to miscue them. That is to say, if you want people to be ‘natural’, the last thing you should tell them is to be natural. That would be like telling them to act. So you have to find ways, your own stratagems, to convey that. You’re not there to make friends with them, that isn’t your primary goal, for instance; so you yourself should obviously ‘act’ in a certain way to convey this. You have to remember they are also seeing you, watching you, interpreting, and so on. Thus, you should not miscue your subjects by instructing them in any way.
Of course, you’re liable to break this rule; you’re liable to sometimes suggest if they can sit so that you get the shot you want, for instance, but remember you do this at your own peril. They may begin to feel they should please you and thus stray from being themselves. I’m aware one could challenge this and ask what is truly natural, and maybe there is no such thing. But you’re there to make a film and you have to find ways that are more likely to yield what you want, to have some sort of method.
In your films, do you actively try to develop characters the way a novelist does?
That is certainly the aim. To have subjects that are developed as full human beings is definitely the aim, so while you may want to keep a focus on what the film is about, you don’t want to capture and show just what proves a point; you don’t want to make your subjects an instrument of a certain point of view or message. So balancing a natural flow and fuller expression of the character against, let’s say, the focus of your film is the big challenge. You want natural digressions but yet to keep to some narrative form and constraint.
At the end of the day, you want more, but the ‘more’ should come naturally, with the flow of the narrative. If you tell a joke, you need to say enough for the joke to make sense; but if it gets too explanatory, it kills the joke. So there’s form and content even in a joke.
When making a film, how do you know when you have enough material? Is there a kind of recipe for putting together a film — certain ingredients or building blocks you look for, such as so many or this, or so many of that?
To me it’s like a meal. You may overeat, or you may have a feeling you’d like another few morsels, but generally we know when we have had enough. That we may choose to ignore this feeling is another matter.
In shooting a documentary, you are encountering the reality of the environment and the people. Each thing you encounter, which you are capturing, is shaping your decisions, inflecting the narrative that is forming in your mind, without actually editing. There are always threads you want to follow, unexpected ones that emerge, thinking about these and making decisions as it happens.
At some point, you do begin to feel you’ve got the film; that you’ve got enough. Of course, you may the next morning get an idea you hadn’t thought of, but generally, you do begin to get a sense that you have enough. Or you go and film more, and then realize you don’t really need more.
Please say a little about film editing. William Zinsser once said that 50 percent of a first written draft can be cut. How much video footage gets cut?
Like it is in writing, we tend towards a very high ratio of material as compared to what we use. I have gotten as much as 50 hours to 180 hours of footage for a feature length film of 80 minutes. Digital technology makes it easy to capture a lot, so in a day, one might film five to eight hours. Some documentaries take 20 or 30 days of filming, and at times, you might have two people shooting. However, all the 100 hours of footage you capture may not be usable.
And then there are many times during an edit you need a particular shot, but it’s not there in the 100 hours of footage. Luckily, there may be a shot that can be a substitute, or you have to edit it differently so that the shot you wanted is not needed. At the end of the day, editing is the art of the possible.
How would you describe a script in a documentary or a feature film?
In a documentary, you start off with a definite interest in a subject, but you don’t really know what it’s made up of. In a way, you’re doing a documentary to find out. So you don’t really have a script, not as a set of decisions that are written in stone. Once you begin encountering the situation of your film, that sets off elements of interest, or leads. Then it’s a matter of riding that process, of encountering, furthering, the questions and insights being generated, building on and eliminating the fluidity of the leads. You go through this all over again in editing, in constructing the narrative, this time fed by the actual material you’ve got. So, the ‘script’ of your documentary emerges only after the edit of a documentary is complete.
As I’ve said, I don’t find the process of writing or constructing fundamentally different in nonfiction and fiction. Whereas in a feature, you do the ‘encountering’, or the research, the thinking, and create as much as possible a complete script, which is the blueprint of the film-to-be-made. For me, the draw of doing a feature is in writing the script, as it is done mostly alone. But writing the script entails the same muscles, addresses the fundamentals of dramaturgy, and the tandem of character and story/situation feeding each other. Often people have an idea of a character and a situation, and think they have a script. Certainly, it could be the kernel of a script, or a kernel of a kernel of a script, or just a character and a situation. But the script needs a completed universe, which is what dramaturgy is about.
Tom Robertson Tom Robertson, PhD, is an environmental historian who writes about Kathmandu and Nepali history. His Nepali-language video series on writing, 'Mitho Lekhai', is available on Youtube. His most recent article, 'No smoke without fire in Kathmandu’, appeared on March 5 in Nepali Times.
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