The following article appears in the current issue of DOX Magazine.
In testing the permeability of the various borders and boundaries between fiction, nonfiction and visual art, the conversations in Copenhagen this year, as in any other, went beyond genre into the actual artistry of storytelling in film. While many filmmakers, artists, and professionals from other disciplines that feel compelled to make films, move deeply into this process in a fairly intuitive way, there are few established festivals and forums that specifically nurture, showcase and help find support for film work that falls into undefined territories. Continuing to creatively riff upon its founding ethos nine years ago, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival pushed even further with this year’s impressively diverse and challenging program selections, as well as in the 27 projects that were chosen to pitch at this year’s CPH:FORUM.
As part of its ever-growing roster of talks and workshops, this year festival programmer, Niklas Engström, put together a wonderfully inspiring master class / roundtable of filmmakers and sound designers called Sound Design in Documentary Films. In a two-hour discussion, the panelists shared samples of work—most appearing in this year’s program—to illustrate how soundtracks and soundscapes are used as an integrated part of a film’s language, “exploiting all the countless possibilities that exist to support, expand and shape narration,” discovering a film’s identity through the exploration of sound and music in creating cinematic pieces.
I tend to concentrate on the New: Vision and New: Vision Expanded programs when I go to this festival because I know some of my deep-seated ideas about narrative structure and storytelling in film will be turned upside-down and backwards. And this was so, this year more than ever, in terms of how soundscapes not only enhance, but shape, narrative structure. Every natural (or unnatural) sound reproduced by art “colors” the space in which it is presented to the public, not of the space it is supposed to reproduce. If we hear a storm, the howling of the wind, a clap of thunder, etc. in film, we hear it in the timbre appropriate to the soundtrack, not in the timbre of an actual forest, or ocean, or voice, or whatever the scene is supposed to represent. Every sound bears the stamp of the space in which it is actually produced, but this sound can also be created in a studio with effects, a live orchestra, creating a bespoke aural palette made specifically for a certain story.
Just as a film shot preserves the viewpoint of the camera, a sound recording orientates, as well, whether it is through abstract sound, non-sync sound, collected sound, delayed sound, or effects created in a studio using symphonic instruments. Sound, even more than vision, in film can release the fixed, immutable distance between the spectator and what is happening on screen. Not only as viewers, but as listeners, we are transferred from our seats to the space in which the events depicted on the screen are taking place. The shapes of visible things have several sides, right, left, front and back. Sounds have no such aspect and layers of sound do not necessarily tell us from which “side” a shot was made. Thus, using sound filters enables a visual artist to build a defined character for images that might be clichéd in some way, whether the shots are of a person speaking, a portrait of a city or place, or, perhaps, the life of a building, as in Pedro Urano and Joana Traub Csekö’s HU Enigma, which is actually more of a portrait of an idea, about as abstract as one can get in film.
During the session, when asked about the mechanics of finding one’s way into this kind of aural portraiture, Urano said, “It comes down to being true to yourself; you create it yourself. It’s a personal thing, organic in essence.” Urano and Csekö’s 75-minute film from Brazil, features the crumbling structure (and eventual destruction) of a university hospital complex as its main protagonist, an exposed “body” or representation of the past. While the film’s visuals are stunning, it is the sound design that makes this piece incredibly powerful. Through the perspective of this completely manufactured soundscape, a viewer can constantly alternate between the objective appreciation of the pure beauty of the architectural images, and a more personal relationship with not only the building itself, but the place and time in which it was built and the ghosts of the thousands of people who worked or convalesced there.
Phillippe Grandrieux’s film, It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve - Masao Adachi, won the prize for the New:Vision Award. This feature documentary, also showcased in the workshop, offers a beautiful example of how a film’s unique aural culture can be increased like any other, how composite sound enables us to “see” the dimension of space and its place in time. The ear can distinguish more delicate nuances than the eye, and Grandrieux, as a filmmaker in love with sound, knows that there is a considerable difference between perceiving a sound and identifying its source. He used this knowledge to great affect in his film about the criminalized and long-suffering life of Japanese director, Adachi. (Pictured above left, Danish sound designer, Peter Albrechtsen, and filmmaker, Phillippe Gandrieux.)
We are accustomed to drawing conclusions about visual things from the sounds that accompany them. This “defect” can be used nicely in film since the slow recognition of a sound may cause a far more profound tension than the approach of something visually unrecognizable. These possibilities for meaningful dramaturgy create a slow and gradual process of recognition, enabling the natural resistance of the consciousness to give way to a “reality” that is easily audible. (Film still below from It May Be That Beauty.)
Danish sound designer, Peter Albrechtsen, another participant in the workshop, did the sound design for Vibeke Bryld’s short film, Bedtime Stories from the Axis of Evil, which appeared in the Amnesty Award program. In Bryld’s film, we visit three countries, all of which are governed by authoritarian regimes. But, they are also three countries with vastly different cultural narratives, and so Albrechtsen created three distinct and allegorical soundscapes for Baghdad, Tehran and Pyongyang, North Korea. Acoustic “close-ups” make us perceive sounds which are mixed in with the accustomed noise of day-to-day life, but which we never hear as individual sounds because they are drowned in a general din of noise. If a sound can be featured in “close-up,” such a sound immediately makes us aware of its effect; at the same time, its influence on the action is made manifest. This appears to be Albrechtsen’s particular forte in his sound work. After Albrechtsen recounted the director’s shocked reaction to watching her film once the sound mix was added to the fine cut, Bryld told me later that she was, indeed, speechless and immediately needed to view it again, since she was hard pressed to recognize the film she had cut together without these enhancements.
As in a silent film, or a segment of a film whose only sound is silence, film sound can be scarcely perceptible, intimate things conveyed with the secrecy of an eavesdropper. Subtle associations and interrelations of thoughts, emotional or intellectual linkages, can play a decisive dramaturgical part in building emotional resonance for the images. It could be the (authentic) sound of the song that chimes when it’s time for Japanese children to go home for dinner from the playground, as it is in a transcendent scene from Grandrieux’s film. Or a ticking of a clock in an empty room, a slow drip from a burst pipe, the moaning of a little child in sleep.
In a close-up in which the surroundings are not visible, a sound that seeps into the shot sometimes impresses us as mysterious, simply because we cannot see its source. It produces the tension that arises from curiosity and expectation. This use of asynchronous sound, then, acquires considerable importance, for if the sound or voice is not matched with the picture of its source, it can, and does, grow beyond the dimensions of the latter. The creative means by which a director can convey pathos or symbolic significance is precisely to use sound asynchronously, something experimental and jazz musicians have known for decades. (Film still from Bedtime Stories.)
It is the business of sound in film to reveal for us the acoustic environment, the aural landscape in which we live, the sounds that move beyond human speech, that speak to us in the vast conversation of life going by. Poets hear these significant sounds of life and try to describe them in words. Sound designers allow them to speak to us directly from the screen. Sound contextualizes story and creates emotional resonance that visuals unaccompanied by sound cannot begin to tap into. In order for a director to open him- or herself up to a story’s most profound potential in this way, he or she has to create the capacity to go deeply into the “truth” of a story. There, the right sounds will emerge and in the words of one filmmaker, “You will hear your movie.”