Diary Of An Adventure Filmmaker: How To Choose Between The Infinite Ways To Tell Your Story

Leon and I have rarely argued on our expeditions and film projects together. Last week, however, we ran into a bit of a disagreement.

Specifically, we disagreed on how the Patagonia film should end.

With a week to kill before flying home, after completing the horseback journey up the Rio Santa Cruz we had embarked on a mission to try and understand the social consequences of the dam project.

We did this by interviewing a whole bunch of people in and around El Calafate, currently the social focal point of the project, from concerned citizens to environmental activists to government officials and research scientists.

We also took a trip to the Perito Moreno glacier, the most tangible symbol of what would be threatened by man-made interference with the hydrology of Lake Argentina.

Finally, before we left El Calafate, we interviewed each other about how our thoughts and opinions stood at the moment of departure from Patagonia.

None of this makes for particularly interesting viewing. It basically amounts to several hours’ worth of conversations.

The challenge, given the high upon which the physical journey ends, is to find a way to use this footage in order to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, but to do so without killing the momentum of the film altogether. Cut it out and the journey will have raised far more questions than it has attempted to answer, and the result will likely be an unsatisfying finale – a story without an ending, in fact.

Our original idea was to try and wedge excerpts of the interviews into the story sideways, finding points in the journey at which to jump out of chronology, ‘flashback’ style, and have the interviewees deliver select information in a trickle throughout the film.

But doing that would likely detract from the journey, and it’s the journey that brings the environment to life – which is critical in order to feel the impact that damming such a valley would have.

I still feel that this kind of device could work, and if we had time to do so I would really like to try it. But it could take a very long time to get right. And we don’t have a very long time.

So we’ve been looking at ways of simplifying it all down into a kind of epilogue to the journey.

And this is where Leon and I disagree.

Leon thinks that after the horseback journey ends, we should depict our trip to the Moreno glacier and our final understanding of what’s at stake. We should then show excerpts from the interviews, contextualised by the image of the glacier and Leon’s explanation of our efforts to untangle the social-political side of the dam story, and finish with Leon’s concluding words as filmed on the lake shore back in El Calafate, which would essentially hand the future of the story over to the coalition of private citizens who are all, for one reason or another, opposed to the way in which the dam project is going ahead.

I think that after the horseback journey ends, we should show excerpts from the interviews, contextualised by Leon’s explanation of our efforts to untangle the social-political side of the dam story, as filmed on the lake shore back in El Calafate. We should then depict our trip to the Moreno glacier, whose image would contextualise those words and show our final understanding of what’s at stake. Leon’s concluding words, as filmed on the lake shore back in El Calafate, would essentially hand the future of the story over to the coalition of private citizens who are all, for one reason or another, opposed to the way in which the dam project is going ahead.

As you will notice, the way in which we disagree is entirely academic. It is a disagreement over two ways we might use the same material to say the same thing.

This, to me, is one of the joys of factual filmmaking: there are unlimited ways to articulate the same truth and the same reality. The process of constructing a film like this is almost like detective work. Given the material you’ve got, how can you use it to build a picture of reality? What do you keep? What do you cut? And how do you assemble what remains?

Then, at the end of the day, you have to stop theorising and put one video clip in front of the other, which is, after all, what editing ultimately boils down to.

This is what we’ll do next.

And then, when intuition kicks in, we’ll be able to feel what works best.