A Tale of Cows, People, Passion and High Tech
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Barbara Sumner Burstyn and Thomas Burstyn : A Tale of Cows, People, Passion and High Tech
Saving Some of the World's Poor Families, One Cow at a Time
Title graphic: Peter Proctor (left), one of the pioneers of bio-dynamic farming, interviewed by cinematographer Tom Burstyn (right), who captures Peter's story on his Sony HDV Z1U, as they pass through the Indian countryside by train.
We wanted a way to combine our talents. Tom is a cinematographer with nearly 70 films and mini-series to his credit, including an Emmy® nomination as DP on The 4400. I'm a journalist who used to work for the main newspaper in New Zealand.
You could say our doco work is our love child. While we have 5 kids between us we didn't want anymore and have turned that energy into making a particular kind of "emotional doco" as an extension of ourselves.
This one just seemed to happen. We bought a book on biodynamics as a guide for our 10-acre farm in New Zealand. Then we discovered that the author, Peter Proctor, lived near us and he was planning to move full-time to India. We called him up and asked if we could make a little film about him. Peter instantly agreed, with no knowledge of who we were at all.
We called the finished film "How to Save the World: One Man, One Cow, One Planet." It's about Peter, about the use of cow manure to make the compost that restores life to depleted soils, and the connection between western agricultural practices and India.
A PASSAGE TO INDIA
As a journalist I've always gone into dicey situations with openness. It's about your attitude. When you have a deep sense of curiosity, people warm to that and don't try to block you. Wherever we went, it worked. We found no one suspicious of us.
We have had a couple of film school grads work for us and I noticed they bring a well-honed skill set with them and not much else. If you aspire to independent filmmaking you have to bring more than your skills to the work. You must bring your humanity.
While it's good to have the technical aspects sorted out, who you are comes through in every frame. Our most important preparation for the trip was being real human beings.
The unobtrusive little Sony HDV Z1U camera was also a big help. Crossing borders is easy with camera gear that looks amateur. No carnets or bonds, no excess baggage, everything into the boot of a taxi. Our carry-on is a camera backpack, empty save for the camera and inflight reading material.
The rest of our gear was two mics - a Lavalier radio and a shotgun - a tripod and a light. We used our single 250w soft-light to augment existing lighting rather than as a key light, and a range of pre-cut gels. And seven batteries. Tom says he went overboard, but we never ran out of power. Shooting days, we took what we needed in the backpack, and maybe the tripod.
The camera was set-up once, when bought, and never adjusted again. We found the settings that gave the highest quality, least-processed output and left them there in the PP1 menu. All we worried about was not missing the moment and prayed to the gods of sharp focus and clear audio.
We started the trip with only the rough idea to make a film about an amazing old man. Obsessed by cows and their central role in the development of humanity, at almost 80 he decided to leave the comfort of his New Zealand home and move to India.
We arrived a few months later and followed him around India for three weeks. We found an organic revolution surging across that complex landscape. Our elderly hero was mobbed like a rock-star wherever he went as he showed marginal farmers how to make the compost that would restore the soil stripped of nutrients by chemical farming.
BACK HOME FOR THE REAL WORK
Of course we hit a brick wall when we got into the editing room with our new Mac, Final Cut Pro, and 48 hours of footage, none of it logged properly. We'd been lazy, and overwhelmed by the gigantic flow of life in India. We had no structure, and we argued long into the night over the minutiae of a sequence and its meaning.
In the end we decided to use our physical journey as the timeline to build the film on; politics, arcane beliefs and techniques, cows and their manure, and the obsession of our main character, all clustered upon this slim thread.
It was only as we plowed through all 48 hours of material we discovered there was a bigger story: the intrinsic link from western agriculture to the marginal farmer in India. We didn't start with that realization; it was something that played out on the screen. Our journey is the audience's journey.
TELLING THE STORY
We had our story. Now we had to find a way to tell it. The first job was to provide subtitles translating the English of India into western English. I did it myself, and it was a lot of work. We preserved India's colloquial language when we could, but when it was really tortured we took the spirit of what they were saying and made it Western. It's a balance between respecting the speakers, expecting the viewer to make some effort, and still keeping everyone happy.
To finish, we needed a narrator and music. We exploited all our contacts to find a way to attract our narrator, Peter Coyote. His work as an activist predates his acting, and he liked what he saw as our film was taking shape. He hooked us up with his local studio, arranged a cut-price deal and sat in front of the mic in San Francisco while we listened in on the phone in New Zealand. He has deferred his own fee until the film makes enough money to pay him.
Music was more of a gamble. We wanted Mercan Dede, a Turkish-born turntablist and DJ now based in Montreal. He integrates his electronic trance music with traditional acoustic instruments from around the world, a sound so unique that nothing else would do for us. So we laid his music over a sequence from the film. Then, through a friend of a friend of a friend, we found his contact information and sent it to him. He loved it, and amazingly offered us his music for free.
Distribution is our next hurdle. We hear all the time that we're fragmenting as a society, that there is no mass market, and that communities-of-kind are the new market frontier. Let's hope that's true. So far so good!
Our story is about real people, whose humanity is very recognizable
With no formal distribution, the film has been seen in Cambodia, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US, the UK, and India. All of those are in English. A farming group in Indonesia are doing a translation themselves, and will be spreading the film there.
The target market for our film has welcomed it generously. It's also broad enough to intrigue every cow-loving, organicesque urban/suburbanite.
In truth we started out as greenwashed chardonnay socialists. By the end, we were committed believers. And perhaps that's the key to the success of our film. We trusted the process and by some miracle found our film along the way.
LESS MONEY = MORE FREEDOM
We paid for the trip out of our savings. We made the decision to forgo paying off our mortgage or buying a second home or having a holiday. We have consciously downsized our lives, reduced our consumption spending, drive one very small car and many other lifestyle changes to make this film and the others we have planned. I guess we are putting our money where our mouth is.
Having to fund everything by ourselves gave us freedom. Mainstream filmmaking has to reach mainstream audiences. Ideas and scripts are tailored to attract money and distribution. The money owns you and your story, the way you tell it, and how it is seen. But as we increasingly own the means and distribution via the Internet and other community-activated schemes, we take control of our own media environment.
Taking control of storytelling and the tools are of course Creative COW guiding principles. As the reality sinks in of what we can achieve as storytellers facilitated by technology, we'll see the phenomenal growth of real documentaries.
Barbara Sumner Burstyn is a journalist whose awards include the 2004 Qantas Media Awards Social Issues Columnist of the Year and finalist 2004 Qantas Media Awards Columnist of the Year. For a list of Tom Burstyn's accomplishments, see his IMDB.com entry. Barbara and Tom commute between Canada and New Zealand.
Veteran network DP Tom Burstyn on his increasing transition from 35mm film to digital HD...