The Unspoken

Gavin Banks, Director of Photography of Tropfest 2011 runner up THE UNSPOKEN, interviews the director, Jason van Genderen, on the Dungog Film Festival site.

Can you tell us a bit about THE UNSPOKEN?
It’s a video portrait of my dad, as he nears then end of his battle with lung cancer. The narrative explores my relationship with him, what life skills he’s instilled in me and what I’m grateful for. It was an intensely personal film to make, but it carries some very universal themes about the love of family and the grace of ageing.

Why a film… what was your inspiration?
For me, I closed my eyes one day and pictured standing at my dad’s funeral… unable to deliver a eulogy. Then it came to me – the idea of telling my father what he means to me whilst he’s still alive to hear it. It seems so common sense yet so controversial all at the same time. How do you do that without seeming like you’re writing him off already? I decided I wanted to make a short film that was shot with love, compassion and beauty. Being an artist himself, I knew he would appreciate the aesthetic… and being a film, he could replay it (or stop it) as many times as he wanted to – soaking up the affirmations at a pace he was able to handle.

Was the film scripted shot-by-shot prior to the shoot or did you use another process?
Well, we started with a very rough storyboard but it only illustrated some basic camera positions, pictures I could see with my eyes closed when I thought of my dad. We filmed him at home (with my mum) in their own environment, it was a very ambient and organic shoot, things just appeared and became stunning shots.

This was a very personal film. Seeing as you are pretty good with a camera yourself, why get Gavin Banks (me) involved?
Sometimes, you need to step beyond your own abilities and vision to make something better. I’ve worked with you on a number of projects now, mostly commercial, so had been longing to work with you on a film which would allow both of us to explore our interpretations a little more. Whilst I have filmed in the past, it’s not something I readily enjoy… especially when there’s far more talented DP’s around like you Gavin! What I enjoy most about opening the concept up to your eyes and vision is the ideas you bring to a composition, you have a wonderful eye for seeing things as a story in a frame – and I love that.

What was he/me like to work with?
JVDad was very cool, he understands and trusts what I do so he didn’t question us once during the shoot, even when we asked him to take his shirt off to reveal his emaciated frame. I talked him through the basics of why I was filming him, but naturally the full context wasn’t going to be relevant until I could present the final film. And Gavin – you’re super easy to work with and are always open to my ideas and ill-informed suggestions. I think we have a very natural understanding of what the other is looking for, that’s why we can work so seamlessly together. Neither of us have ego-driven work styles so we’re both quite chilled and easy-going, I dig that. It would be interesting to see one day if I was holding the camera and you were directing Gav, how would that flow? Let’s try it!

Mmmmm… food for thought – you’ve suggested that a few times now! How did your mum and dad respond to the idea of being filmed?
They were totally fine. I think they’re so used to seeing me filming or with a small crew, it was all a bit of a novelty but nothing more than that. Luckily my parents are both pretty open-minded, so they had no issues with me wanting to make a story about them. Having said that, they’re also not afraid of speaking their mind, and if they didn’t like what I was doing they would absolutely tell me!

What was the most confronting part of the process for you – pre, production or post?
Definitely post-production. There was almost 12 months between the shoot and the edit… it took that long for me to come to grips with finding the right words to express what I was trying to say. It’s funny, on reflection – you and I spoke for about an hour on the phone about doing the shoot, then the actual shoot was about 2/3 of a day, then almost a year of procrastination, then the whole edit & sound came together in less than a day.

How did your dad react to the finished film?
It was emotional of course, but he was also intensely proud and humbled. For a man who never thinks much of himself to see someone express that on film – it’s a pretty confronting experience. They both loved it though, and mum called me afterwards to say they’d watched it pretty much daily for a week since. How sweet is that?

Nice. How would you describe the experience of being a Tropfest finalist?
Manic, intense and amazing! To have the opportunity to screen your work in front of such a massive live audience is unheard of. Tropfest has become symbolic as a launching pad for so many film makers – it just has so much credibility now and opens doors. It’s not just the night itself, it’s the broader representation they provide afterwards, representing your film to other festivals globally, plus publicity and industry introductions.

How do you manage your hopes and expectations… any advice for future finalists?
You just can’t… hopes and expectations are wild animals that can’t be controlled. My best advice to future (potential) finalists is to focus on the message and uniqueness of your story, rather than the prize. If you have the magical idea that’s perfectly born, then the awards, screenings & prizes will take care of themselves – they’ll happen organically. Don’t ever try and replicate other films or ideas – always focus on your own voice and unique story. And don’t polish something if it’s better raw… sometimes we are our won worst enemy!

Did your dad (and mum) go to Tropfest?
Unfortunately not, dad was too unwell to attend. However – Foxtel came to the party (after reading about the film before Tropfest) and offered to install it for him so he could watch the live telecast – which he did. It was a very moving gesture and meant the world to both my folks and me.

After seeing the other films, and the audiences responses to the comedy shorts I didn’t hold a lot of hope of placing. Were you surprised when The Unspoken won second place?
Actually, yes. Whilst I knew it was a strong film, it was also very risky for a live audience. Placing a film like that in amongst comedies can work both ways can’t it? It’s not like people can clap and cheer loudly after seeing a film full of gravity and emotion, like they do after a rib-tickling comedy. As I stood by the stage, I was just really blank… expecting nothing, but quietly hoping we may pick up something. To win Runner-up was a real surprise, it was a wonderful gesture from both the judges and the audience.

Do you think that the culture of Tropfest is changing toward more ‘serious’ films with a message?
I think Tropfest is continually evolving. It’s definitely changing from the traditional punchline comedy of years gone by. I think audiences are more demanding now anyway, with their exposure to YouTube and social media – they are after higher-concept ideas, something more nourishing. Even comedies are becoming more intellectual, it’s great to see the depth of films growing.

Where to from here?
Next stop… a reality documentary titled ME&MEGAN. My partner and I spent last year separated by 12,000km, as she volunteered in Ethiopia and I kept the fires burning at home in Gosford. We each had a pocket video camera to record daily video diaries, the 100’s of hours will now be fashioned into a compelling story about love and life apart. We have a Facebook page with some 6,000 followers – jump on and check it out!

What is your best piece of advice for other filmmakers?
Never stop looking and observing life. The very goings-on outside your window are the greatest inspiration for story telling. Challenge your environment and ideas… explore things that inspire you – there’s films in every conversation!

See Jason’s previous Tropfest entry MANKIND IS NO ISLAND, which won Tropfest NY 2008, below. The film is shot entirely on a cell phone, using found signage on the streets of NY and Sydney to tell a touching story from the very heart of two cities.

See also an interview with Tropfest director John Polson about the impact of mobile phones on filmmaking here.

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