Sam Goldwater is a freelance director based in London. He has made short and mid-length documentaries for clients including Samsung, UBS, Dazed Digital and British Vogue, and his film Nashira – about a self-governed matriarchal village in Colombia built by civil war survivors – won honours at the Campaign Brand Film Awards and the Lovies.
For an episode of a UBS-branded series in 2016, I went to rural Colombia with producer Emma Yuille and a small crew to work on a story about the tiny village of Nashira. Colombia had at that time the dubious accolade of hosting the longest running civil war in the Western Hemisphere, which had been raging for 50 years between the government and the FARC guerrillas. The village is home mostly to those displaced by the war but survivors of domestic violence or homelessness have been awarded places, too. Unusually for a highly patriarchal country, Nashira’s administration is exclusively female. There are men and boys around like any other settlement, but the head of each family is the mother or grandmother and to move there people go through a careful application process based on need.
The basic scenario was full of drama! But my concern was what we’d do there exactly – what was going to drive the action? We were about to arrive at this village, people would be going about their normal lives – what was going to give us that crucial pull that has the audience wondering what will happen next?
We created some built-in redundancy, time to make mistakes or follow the wrong leads and still come back with enough to make it work.
Two things ended up being crucial in this respect. First, on these branded projects, often the shoot days are limited – you have a bit more kit and crew than you tend to on most editorial shoots but very little time. You have a strictly defined schedule and you barrel through your planned scenes and get out of there. For Nashira we had a couple of pages of research but not enough to accurately imagine a scene-by-scene script, so we pushed for more time on location. Six days rather than the usual four meant we’d have some built-in redundancy – not every scene would need to be used; we’d have time to make mistakes or follow the wrong leads and still come back with enough to make it work.
The second aspect that helped us was one of those rare examples of everything just falling into place – it just so happened that we’d be there at a pivotal moment in Colombian political history. The government was to hold a public referendum on this basic question: ‘Should we make peace with FARC guerrillas?’ The issue has been highly contentious for decades, with awful crimes committed by both sides, so I’m massively simplifying – but that’s essentially what it came down to. This became our, ‘What will happen next?’ – could the survivors of the war forgive their enemies? Which way would they vote?
You could say that’s an element of invention, of course it is, but in a sense it allowed us to tell the story more truthfully than we’d have been able to otherwise.
In a practical sense, there was still a problem – we’d be there in the run up to the referendum but have to leave a couple of days before the vote itself. That ticking clock of the countdown was too good to miss though, so we shot some images of various radios in people’s houses while we were there and, once back in the UK, wrote a script for a Colombian radio show to read as if they were contemporaneous news broadcasts, including one announcing the actual verdict.
You could say that’s an element of invention, of course it is, but in a sense it allowed us to tell the story more truthfully than we’d have been able to otherwise. The “faking” of the news broadcasts was one of several interventions we made, actually. In my earlier films I’d figured that the best way to make honest work was to have a small footprint, try to be invisible and just be alert to what’s happening around you, catching real events as best you can. For Nashira we did things differently, instead workshopping our scenes with the residents to give us blocking and scene structure a little closer to fiction film. We’d talk to people, work out what they might ordinarily be doing, what positions they might take in an argument and have them “play themselves” over multiple takes and camera positions, more like you would on a traditional drama.
The results are certainly different to what I’d have got with a stealthy, observational approach, but I think no less valid or even less true. My attitude had previously been, ‘How do we make the camera invisible?’ For the best scenes, I’d often try to be the least interesting thing that was happening. But for Nashira it was different – I felt the camera could be a catalyst for a heightened version of real life. What will it see?