Ever wonder how documentary editors and filmmakers craft a compelling story from mountains of raw footage?
In this article, we’re going to explore this challenging craft and give you a behind-the-scenes look at the documentary creation process with Italian filmmaker, Francesco Clerici.
Francesco is the director and editor of Hand Gestures – a documentary about the process of creating a bronze cast from one of Velasco Vitali’s famous dog sculptures at the Battaglia Artistic Foundry in Milan, Italy. The film has won numerous awards at festivals in and outside of Italy.
Let’s take a closer look at his creation process.
FEP: Please tell us a bit about your background. Do you have formal training in filmmaking or are you self-taught?
FC: I am very much a self-taught filmmaker. I never studied editing, directing or cinematography and I don’t mean that as a good thing! I am continuously asking myself whether my choices are “correct” or work well. One beneficial part about being self-taught is that you have less precedents to follow and you can really trust your instincts. My educational background is actually in Art History and the relationship between Art and Cinema and I also run workshops on film language and film making at secondary schools and educational centers. Sometimes I feel like I’m learning more then I teach!
I think the part of my background that’s contributed most to my development is growing up in a small town with my grandmother, watching her sew and farm while my grandfather built houses. My family in general was/is very influential in my life and career, they’ve helped me a lot.
FEP: What attracted you to the documentary format? Have you always wanted to be a documentary filmmaker?
FC: To be honest, I don’t even know what I want to be now! I love making documentaries and I love witnessing the historical change in processes, dialects, skills, traditions and so on…I think most of this was born from my time spent at university.
I think what attracts me to the documentary format is searching for poetry and humanity in what we see and experience in real life. I find it amazing how a film can be a ‘temporary gift’ or small story of what’s happening today, how an action or a gesture can be transformed into a historical fact or short-novel and how a humble human being “can become a hero” (quoting Claire Simon).
FEP: Do you have any role models? If so, what is it about them or their work that inspires you?
FC: While shooting this specific film I was not really thinking about anyone in particular but of course there are some directors and films that have shaped my idea of film making in general. For example, Vittorio De Seta — unfortunately not very famous outside of Italy— made incredibly beautiful short documentaries in the fifties; most of them set in Sicily and with almost no dialogue, that focused on the life of fishermen, farmers, and mine workers.
Some other sources of inspiration include Nicolas Philibert, the Maysles brothers and Ermanno Olmi, as well as pieces from the National Film Archive for Industrial Film of Ivrea.
FEP: Hand Gestures follows the making of a wax dog sculpture by Italian sculptor Velasco Vitali at the Battaglia Artistic Foundry. What drew you to this topic?
FC: I visited the Battaglia Artistic Foundry many years ago when I was at school and it stayed with me. The foundry is in the heart of Milan, yet when you walk through the doors it feels like taking a step back in time. Things are exactly how they used to be in the 4th Century BC. I find it fascinating.
Also, there is very little practical knowledge about the art of casting bronzes, it’s not a job you can learn at school or study from books, the only way is by apprenticeship. These artisans work primarily with their hands and their craft can only be attained through the hands-on experience passed down by the maestro.
There’s a Franz Kafka quote that I like, “Intellectual labor tears a man out of human society. A craft, leads him towards men.” The challenge — and my desire — was to pay homage to the craft itself, trying to use cinema to narrate it in the most invisible and honest way.
FEP: You directed and edited the film. Was that your plan from the beginning? Did you encounter any difficulties doing both jobs and did you have help?
FC: I decided move forward on my own with the support of Velasco Vitali (the sculptor of the wax dog model) who was the invisible co-author and screenwriter of the film and the first to believe in this project. And with the support of Jon Barrenechea (Head of Development and Marketing at Picturehouse), who executive-produced the film and organized a sales and distribution strategy plus scheduled tours and film festival screenings.
I could also count on the amazing audio work of Massimo Mariani and my “audio engineer quintet”: Mattia Pontremoli, Fortuna Fontò, Michele Brambilla, Emanuele Pullini and Francesco Mangini.
FEP: Tell us about your editing process. Do you go through the dailies at the end of each day? When do you start assembling your first edit?
FC: For this film, I went through the dailies at the end of each day to select shots and create a narrative that could already work. That’s my typical process but it can vary from project to project. In some cases, it’s better to see everything at the end with a more detailed overview and clear mind. Keep in mind though – this advice is coming from a self-taught editor who improvises a lot!
FEP: Hand Gestures is unique because it does not use music, voice-over or interviews, only the sound recorded in each scene. Was that always how you envisioned it? What were you trying to tell your audience?
FC: I wanted to stay away from the traditional documentary format of interviews/voice-over narration and do something different, more “open”. I felt that for this film, a voice-over would distract the viewer from the story: colors, details, and humans at the center.
I’ve always liked directors that used a ‘pure cinema’ approach, which is very visual. My challenge was telling the story of the artist and sculptors’ skills in the best way possible, while paying homage to the workers’ culture and dignity. I was hypnotized by their work, their time, their hands, their way of dealing with simple elements like clay, water, fire, or air. I wanted the viewer to feel the same way as I did.
FEP: You juxtapose archival footage with similar real-time scenes throughout the course of the documentary to show how the sculpture making process has remained almost unchanged over the course of time. Did you have that footage from the beginning? How did you find it?
FC: By the middle of the shoot, I knew I wanted to include old archival footage but it was extremely difficult to find. At one point I gave up – I finished a second edit of the film using only my footage and I was ready to finalize it.
Then, a 19-minute, 16mm film reel was found in the basement of the foundry. I wasn’t sure it would show the same work methods as those from today but I got very lucky. The footage was shot in the same building and some of the artisans in that film had taught those who work there now.
When I first cut the archival footage in I thought it helped to create an “timeless” feeling, giving viewers a unique experience not just related to today but rather a flow of time that exists only inside the film.
FEP: An interesting fact about this documentary is that it is 77 minutes long – a 1:1 ratio to the time in hours that it took to create the sculpture from beginning to end. Did you always intend to edit it that way? If so, did that pose any problems?
FC: This idea came about while speaking with Lino, the first foundry artisan featured in the film. After two takes, he helped me realize I wanted to give meaning to the timing of the film. It was meant to be an homage to their time at work, so I asked how long it would take to complete just one dog sculpture by Velasco.
I started thinking about a 1:1 relationship and I thought it would be the best way to make the viewer feel all the steps of their work, even subconsciously. At one point I had a final cut of 82 minutes (I had just added the archival footage which arrived last) and it felt too long. From there, it was easy to make those last edits and get it down to 77 minutes, keeping the time proportion. It flowed very naturally for me.
FEP: Did you have any editorial rules or style constraints that you tried to follow? For example: how did you deal with scene and audio transitions?
FC: It became very clear to me while watching the workers that I had to essentially disappear and become a spectator of their process. I wanted to remove all the usual stuff you might associate with directing including music, obvious editing techniques or styles, or demonstrating ideas. I was open to changing my mind but I always thought the way I wanted to tell the story was the simplest one.
FEP: It’s impressive to have a film do so well on the festival circuits. What advice would you give to novice documentary filmmakers? Is there anything you’d do differently?
FC: I think the best advice is to make a film honestly. Cinema has to be an act of love. When shooting, you have to believe in the characters, environment, details you are framing, editing and struggling for. Then you must try to understand how a viewer could love them in the same way you do. Finally, you need to be very persistent, strong, ready to fail and retry. Most of all – you need to be very, very lucky.
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This article was written by FEP contributing author, Zsófi Szemerédy. Zsófi studies Marketing & Distribution at the National Film and Television School in London, UK. She also produces the Indie Film Distribution Summit. She’s been an ardent Star Wars, Harry Potter, and sci-fi lover since the age of 5.