Rachael Wilson’s first feature length documentary, and the first 3D feature doco from NZ, gets its local premiere in this year’s Doc Edge Festival five years after shooting commenced in Vanuatu.
Already seen at a couple of smaller festivals overseas, once in 2D and once in 3D, the beginning of what would become Yakel lies back in 2004, when Wilson was working in Vanuatu with a British company shooting an active volcano, Mt Yasur, located a couple of hours’ walk from the tribal village on which Yakel focuses.
During the shoot Wilson met villagers and, in particular, the tribe’s chief Kowia Johnson. Finding him intelligent, insightful and – not to put too fine a point on it – approaching the end of his life, Wilson decided that the story of the isolated tribe and its attempts to preserve its way of life were a story well worth the telling.
Despite its isolation, the village is increasingly becoming a stopping off point for volcano-junkie tourists. One of Chief Johnson’s hopes, shared by Wilson, was that telling the tribe’s story on film might discourage some of those unexpected visits and allow the tribe to continue its existence in its own way.
It isn’t that the tribe has never had contact with the outside world. During WWII, Johnson was one of the young male villagers dispatched to help with the war effort – an experience which, along with contact with missionaries, only helped reinforce Johnson’s view that ploughing their own furrow was probably a better way for his people to go.
The tribe has maintained its limited relationship with the rest of the world with a reasonable degree of success, still living in a remote, roadless region without mains water or electricity.
The lack of the latter was something of an issue for Wilson and cameraman Michael Single, who needed to move data around and recharge equipment during their visits to Vanuatu.
Over the course of three years from 2007, Wilson and Single shot four times with the tribe. The shoots weren’t intensive, although Wilson and Single lived with the tribe in a hut built for them by the villagers. Wilson determined that it was important to contribute to the village so they spent time working with the villagers on day to day tasks.
Wilson also admitted that, initially, she wanted to get a clear understanding of the tribe’s way of life and reassure herself that what she had seen early on wasn’t a bunch of people performing their “primitive lifestyle” for the cameras.
Having decided to shoot in 3D at a time when 3D camera gear wasn’t really commercially available. Having built a rig to hold two Panasonic HVX202 cameras side by side, they shot with that – although the lack of ability to check much data on location contributed to delays in the post process. Some of what was shot wasn’t perfectly aligned, and software to correct that had to be written on the fly.
Wilson and Single have worked together for many years and she credits him with having got a handle on the use of 3D very early on in its recent resurgence, understanding the framing and pace of shots that would allow viewers to soak up more information than they would from a 2D frame.
Although little of the film is manufactured beyond asking people to talk to camera occasionally, Wilson and Single took advantage of that additional information tp compose those shots to include other “visual clues” to the life of the village.
Another advantage of shooting 3D was that the cameras could be situated further away from the action which, especially initially, helped the villagers adjust to the idea of being filmed for extended periods of time.
The story being told ended up more or less as originally expected by Wilson, although going in it was unclear how long it would take. Although Chief Johnson is an extremely articulate subject, he didn’t choose to share in advance when certain key events that drive the story might take place.
The Video Factory’s Graham McArthur did much of the work bringing it all together, with input from Dunedin’s Animation Research and TaylorMade.
Wilson was keen that the tribe speak for themselves, without voice over imposing a structure of interpretation of their words and actions. As sequences were edited, she had to return to Vanuatu to work with the Vanuatu Cultural Center’s Jacob Kapere to get translations done for the subtitles.
Wilson currently has an NZ-based 3D doco project and a Vanuatu-based doco project, which might be 2D or 3D, in development.
Yakel 3D screens as part of the Doc Edge Festival in Auckland on Saturday 28 April, Sunday 6 and Wednesday 9 May (all at Event Cinemas Newmarket). The screening on Sunday 6 May will be followed by a Q&A session with Wilson. In Wellington, Yakel 3D screens Saturday 19, Sunday 27 and Wedensday 30 May (all at Angelika at Reading Cinemas Courtenay).