Insights: Dan Faber on Filming Panama’s First World Cup Team
2017 MA Ethnographic & Documentary Film graduate Dan Faber recently completed a short documentary about Panama’s World Cup team, a short version of which was broadcast on Channel 4 this weekend, with the longer version taken on by the distributor Journeyman for overseas sales. Detailing what qualification meant for a country plagued by poverty and gang violence, the film is viewable online here. Here he recounts his experience making the film, offering advice to others who are making their start in filmmaking
I was working on this Panama project, and not much else, for almost 6 months. I pitched the idea to One World Media’s Production Fund, which provides small grants of £1000 to emerging filmmakers and journalists alongside invaluable guidance and support throughout the process. I made a small taster based on an initial trip to Panama, which I then used to pitch to other outlets, receiving funding to expand the film from Channel 4. The project’s scope ballooned and shrunk so many times that in the end they balanced each other out, and the final result is actually surprisingly close to my original pitch. As a first-time filmmaker being given any kind of opportunity or funding feels like a real blessing. You feel that you have to make the most of this precious opportunity because so few are afforded to young people in film or the arts in general.
The learning curve was steep but very rewarding. Here are the key things I learned, which should be useful to anyone looking to make their first film:
1) Do as much work as you can before pitching. This is really important. Everyone has ideas; the more you can show the commissioner how your idea will be realised, the better. My pitch to Channel 4 included a 5 minute taster tape which was essentially the film in miniature. It had interviews with all the major characters, and was structured as I proposed to structure the film itself. It therefore showcased story and character, the things that commissioners often seek more than anything else.
2) Start your film small and expand based on interest and funding. Pitch your idea as a short; maybe even make the short. If it has the legs, expand it into something larger. A first-time filmmaker’s priority should be to get a foot in the door and establish themselves. In the process of trying to maximise this film’s potential I considered various versions of it, some up to 100 minutes in length. Like many dreamy-eyed first-timers I envisaged that my first film would be a huge feature that would make waves worldwide. It only took one discussion with a producer in the industry to convince me that pursuing this would be a terrible idea. Getting feature funding is notoriously tough even for established filmmakers. Without any deadlines or oversight it would likely have splayed out into a ‘passion project’ that would never get finished. It’s far better to make something short and sweet than long and boring. It’s also a far better use of your time.
3) Record everything. I kept a production journal throughout noting down all my thoughts; both creative and strategic. Every day I would write down how I felt about the project, and what I had achieved. Without much funding or oversight on the project originally, I had no accountability to anyone and was concerned I would lack day-to-day motivation. This gave me the sense that I was at least accountable to myself. If I did nothing in a day, I had to write that down and therefore face up to it. This method may not be for everyone, but it was incredibly valuable for me. I’m also certain I’ll look back on it in future projects for guidance when I run into similar situations.
The world of film is nebulous and ever-changing with technology. There’s no rulebook and few traditional “ways in”. But this is not to say that it’s impossible to get into at all. Things work in a more haphazard, coincidental way than other industries. You just have to put yourself in as many relevant situations as possible, be as organised as possible, and be prepared to learn as much as you can.