David Fedele – Guerilla Documentary Maker

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Bikpela Bagarap

Hi David, I really liked Bikpela Bagarap, particularly the style you used to tell the story of these mistreated people. It felt a bit long in some places but overall I thought it was great. I particularly liked the use of sound, just from a purely narrative sense it worked wonderfully, and it definitely created the mood you were aiming for. Have you made any films previously to this one? What first encouraged you to pick up a camera and start shooting?

The first film I made was a film called PNG Style, which really was a ‘film by accident’. In 2006 I went off into Papua New Guinea travelling solo for 3 months, just to get away from life really. A few days before I left for this trip, I bought a little consumer camcorder and decided to take it with me. Though I had never really used a video camera before, I used it to document my trip, and also used it to combat loneliness on my travels. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I had this “romantic” notion of one day putting all of this random footage together somehow to make a documentary. I think I shot about 16 hours of footage, and for a few years these tapes just stayed in a plastic bag on the shelf. It wasn’t until I met another filmmaker Rebecca Kenyon in London in 2009, that we decided to edit the footage into a film. This film went on to win “Best Documentary” at Portobello Film Festival 2010 in London. This encouraged me to pursue making documentary films, along with a love of travel, culture and discovery, and a natural ability of storytelling. I am particularly interested in exploring, cultural, humanitarian and social justice issues.

What sparked your interest in the problems of Papua New Guinea?

Very little is known about Papua New Guinea in Australia, though it is literally on our doorstep. I guess I didn’t know too much about the country and the problems it is experiencing until I actually went there in 2006 and saw what was happening with my own eyes. I was inspired to return to PNG to make Bikpela Bagarap by chance, when I read an open letter online written by an Australian that had lived in Papua New Guinea for 43 years and had recently returned back to Australia. He wrote of the terrible environmental, social and cultural disasters occurring in PNG associated with illegal logging by Malaysian logging companies, and how essential services particularly health and education had actually GONE BACKWARDS in the time that he had been there. I called him up, and within the week I had bought a ticket to PNG. Less than a month later I was in the jungle of Papua New Guinea making this film.

How did you fund the film, did you just wing it?

I fully funded the film myself. I obviously tried to keep the costs of making the film to a minimum, and the best way to do this was to undertake all parts of the filmmaking process myself.

Bikpela Bagarap felled trees

It seems like you don’t have a crew, what are the advantages and disadvantages of working solo?

I don’t have a crew at all – I just work as a one-man film crew with a small camera, and without a tripod. Working without a crew, I find that the project you undertake then becomes absolutely personal. Your relationship with who you are filming is revealed to the viewer as they are watching the film, though they may not realise it at the time. And working solo makes this even more apparent and important. Without forming personal relationships, this film would not have been possible. In saying that, obviously language and communication is critical, and though I can speak some Tok Pisin (one of three national languages in PNG), whenever I went into the bush or the logging camps to film, I always went with a local man Abraham, who helped with with language difficulties, translation, and general cultural issues. Without Abraham this film would not have been possible.

I spent a lot of time with the people in my film, eating, drinking, talking, sleeping and just ‘being’. A lot of the film was shot undercover in two of the main logging camps deep in the jungle, and the surrounding villages, and as I was exploring such sensitive issues, I had to keep as low a profile as possible. If I had a film crew with a whole lot of equipment, this would have been impossible. The major disadvantage with working without a crew is obviously the practicalities of doing both the picture and sound yourself – though I have never actually worked any other way, so it just feels normal to me. And also having that creative team or partner with you to bounce ideas and thoughts off, and also just for general company. I spent many nights alone with my own thoughts!

The lack of a narrator gives the film an edge, and the documentary isn’t edited in a conventional manner. Why did you want to tell the story in the particular style that you did?

I was never going to use narration to tell this story. Certainly narration can be used effectively in documentaries, but I am very much more interested in an observational style of documentary filmmaking. Originally I was thinking of making this more an ‘investigative’ film, and the first cut of the film did actually include my voice, but I soon realised that this wasn’t required. I wanted to let the story be told through the voices of the local people, the people that are actually experiencing and being effected by the logging in PNG – there is no need to hear the voice of a white man for this story to be told. This obviously presented some challenges, as the film is raising awareness of a particular and very real issue, so I decided to use text on the screen to assist in storytelling, and also provide some background, facts and context to what is being seen.

I am very much interested in the idea of observational and minimalistic filmmaking. In the edit, this involved using as little cuts as possible, and not using any additional music or other effects in the making of the film. Though I am relatively new to documentary filmmaking, it is very clear that a documentary is NOT reality, it is just the filmmakers interpretation and expression of a certain reality – but I want to show something that is as close to reality as possible.

Do you have any plans to revisit Papua New Guinea?

This is a very good and difficult question to answer. I definitely have a love/hate relationship with Papua New Guinea. I love this country for what it was, and what it could be, but hate it for what it has become. It is a spectacularly beautiful and culturally rich country, and the people are extremely beautiful and welcoming, but at the same time, it is a country absolutely gripped by corruption, greed and exploitation. I see the country absolutely as a social experiment gone wrong, where you can see with your own eyes today the terrible effects of colonialism and capitalism. Not as a story that happened in the past, but an ongoing story that is happening right now. In the 1930′s almost 1 million people were ‘discovered’ by white man in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Now only three generations later, it is a country dependent on the ideals of the western world.

I have now spent two periods of three months in PNG, and both times have vowed never to return, but in a weird kind of way I feel like I am addicted to the country and its’ social problems and dilemmas. So in answer to the question… I have no immediate plans to visit PNG, but there is no doubt that I will return one day.

Are there any other stories you want to tell, or issues you want to raise? What’s next?

There are so many stories that I would like to tell, and hopefully will one day. Right now I am focussing on submitting Bikpela Bagarap to human rights film festivals, and getting the film seen by as wide an audience as possible, to raise awareness of what is happening in PNG.

Read our review of Bikpela Bagarap here. Visit David Fedele’s website for more on his work.

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David Knight is, for all intents and purposes, a human. I mean, he must be right? He has all the essential features necessary, and certainly talks a good game. When he’s not writing words with his hands on a keyboard, he’s speaking words with his mouth on The Bunker podcast.

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