Alla Kovgan: Shoemaker
by Marta Renzi
How does an award-winning filmmaker share her insights and experience in only two hours? Alla Kovgan chose to outline the process of making the short film NORA – from the original decision to focus on Nora Chipaumire as subject/story, to tips on editing. Along the way we were treated to a mini-list of other inspirational film artists, as well as pithy advice from this one. Kovgan is articulate, direct, opinionated, ambitious but unpretentious about her craft: “as a director you must communicate with passion – and be able to answer questions.” Kovgan did both.
“When Nora walked into the room, all heads turned!” – Kovgan remembers. “This is a magic moment for any filmmaker. I was struck by Nora’s unique presence in life and on stage.” The question was, however: “Can this presence be as strong in front of the camera? Stage presence doesn’t always translate to screen presence.” In addition, presence alone is not enough to make a movie: there needs to be a story. “Nora’s story of growing up in Zimbabwe had a clear trajectory and clear end point when she left for the US.”
How do you write a script for a dance film, turning the facts of a life into a poetic film biography? You begin with a series of conversations. Chipaumire shared with Kovgan her memories of growing up in Zimbabwe, filled with details of places, people and politics. Kovgan created from their conversations a poem of 12 stanzas or episodes, which remained the structure for the film.
Together Kovgan and Chipaumire worked on developing the characters in NORA, avoiding clichés and stereotypes. They would ask: “How does one represent “SOUTHERN AFRICAN COOL OF 1980s” – or “A SOUTHERN AFRICAN MAN IN LOVE”? (renowned director of BIRDS; SNOW and several collaborations with DV8 Physical Theater) to join the project. Hinton and Chipaumire then met in London to complete the three-way collaboration, the project enriched by each artist’s particular sensibility and background.
“In so many dance films, I ask – why are they dancing? But because NORA is the story of a dancer, we wouldn’t have to justify why she dances!” They looked at many different locations - “more than one for any given scene and movement image,” Kovgan advised. “Don’t stop with one. Get ten! The more you push, the deeper you’ll go, and the more discoveries you’ll make.”
Continuing their research, and planning for technical and cast limitations, the team created a set of rules for the film:
* Chipaumire would play multiple lead characters in the film – herself as a young girl, as a teenager, as an adult, as her mother and her father.
* There would be one other professional dancer – the Burkinabe performer Souleymane Badolo playing multiple supporting characters.
* Each character would have a different vocabulary in different scenes.
* The film would be populated with many other characters – grandmothers, aunts, dancing women, children of different ages, revolutionaries, etc. – all played by non-professional performers.
* Each shot would be a choreographed tableau created with static camera according to a precise concept of light and composition.
* There would be limited camera movement – meticulously choreographed dolly and tracking shots only. No hand-held camera.
When asked if NORA was shot with more than one camera, Kovgan answered pointedly, “Always one camera. Watch the film NINE for what I call the football game approach to shooting. Where’s the focus? What’s the relationship? Who are we dancing for? We’re not just covering dance, we’re creating images!”
Kovgan also outlined her editing process, much of which was learned editing alongside her mentor, veteran editor Bill Anderson, while working together on the 2003 Emmy-nominated documentary TRACE OF THE TRADE. Kovgan touched on the creation of successive folders in Final Cut Pro: from DAILIES to PULLS, ASSEMBLIES, ROUGH CUTS, FINE CUT and PICTURE LOCK. She recommends duplicating sequences at every stage of the process so you can always return to previous versions. “Once in the editing room, you need to look at the material with new eyes to see what it has to offer. Say you had five takes. First PULL everything that is usable from all the takes. If the whole take doesn’t work, don’t discard it. Part of that take might inspire you to have fresh ideas about its content.” Together Hinton and Kovgan worked on editing NORA for about 6 weeks in London.
In conclusion, here are some inspirational words of wisdom from an artist: “Be ambitious – know your strengths; do what you’re good at, and work with people who are really good at what they do – why spend all your time making something and not get the best result?”
“We are shoemakers. If the shoe is no good, who will wear it?”
DFA has been the fiscal sponsor for several of Alla Kovgan’s projects and will soon sponsor her next project, LET ME CHANGE YOUR NAME, a narrative feature based on the life and work of Korean choreographer Eun-Me Ahn – Alla’s second collaboration with David Hinton.