Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Michel Orion Scott visits UT: Notes on Documentary

Michel Orion Scott has been documenting life, the universe and everything for a long while - this year his latest effort screened at Sundance - "Over the Hills and Far Away." But to understand an artist's work we often have to go...
One of his earliest films, "Beginnings and Endings" was an experimental venture into the death of his grandmother through the eyes of his mother - a compilation of 8500 hand painted frames, with a voice over of the story. Although Scott's "Beginning" may have been abstract, he sees any good film making as art. What really made this a learning experience for Scott was the joy he got from constructing a film - now he admits this is still his favorite part of making a documentary: the process. It must be something you care about and enjoy.
Funded by a film grant, Scott traveled to Bolivia to make a fiction film based on a South American myth. Scott said his experiences with the indigenous Bolivians were fantastic, but the film itself was a humbling experience. Being a student, Scott didn't cover as much as he needed to while in Bolivia, so the end product fell a bit short of his expectations. Even so, the trip prepared Scott for other rugged adventures he would have later like...
The Sundance film discussed above, "Over the Hills and Far Away" is about a couple who decides to take their autistic son to Mongolia and search for healing via horseback (the child responds to horses). Obviously, shooting on horseback doesn't seem like an ideal situation. The whole ordeal was very physically demanding.
What spurred the project was Scott's work on narrative films in Hollywood: after a particularly brutal job in an art department, Scott decided he didn't want to do film if Hollywood was all there was. Oddly enough, he met a man speaking about an indigenous African tribe at Whole Earth Provisions - he was the father of the autistic child mentioned above, and it was his suggestion that kicked off the project.
Although Scott doesn't usually use talking heads in his films, he felt that not including expert information on autism would be irresponsible. Autism is such a complex disorder, Scott felt that the audience needed some explanation of the child's condition.
The project was shot on HDV, and although many people knock this media's quality, I think the images are crisp and clear. Selecting HDV worked well for Scott, since the camera he used had to be rugged and versatile.
"Over the Hills and Far Away" is a recipe for successful documentary. The story is catching, the characters are unique, the images are beautiful and the personal impact is compelling. After only seeing a few extended clips, I already find myself rooting for the family, hoping that their son can be healed. I also think this documentary benefits from Scott's varied experience in his career - a respect for indigenous tribes, a dynamic shooting style, and a vitality eveident from scott's desire to produce quality film. I'm going to make my best effort to see the entire feature this spring break at SXSW film festival. Any fans of documentary should do the same.


  1. Thanks for that field correspondence.
    I will agree, the film appears to be nothing short of captivating. I'm actually bummed I won't be here for SXSW during the break. But, this film will not stay on my "To Watch" list for very long at all.
    My thoughts are what an amazing experience and opportunity Michael Scott had to create this film with such an incredible story to tell. If I took anything away from this was that to seize the opportunity to make a great film and to have fun doing it. In the hopeful future as a documentarian, this will be an inspiration. Going back to what Christian had metioned in reference to Michael.. enjoying what your doing is a very important aspect of building something worthwhile. And as Michael said doing that will almost garauntee something that is special.
    I like how he tried to make the documentary as “realistic” and as objective as possible, while creating a very emotional and personal film about this family. But also, the film speaks out to issues surrounding autistism, therefore, staying relevant. I think a good documentary is multi-faceted in this respect. As Ellen says find a “microcos”m that fits into a larger theme/movement/issue.
    As far as the first two films, I liked the experimental short. I will say that I was drawn more into focusing primarily on the images than I was listening to the VO. So, at the closing of the film I had a vague understanding of what it meant. But, it was great. The second film clips were a little confusing (as Michael did say that they were three partial clips). Although it was a narrative, it had documentary feel to it with its VOs and "b-roll" style footage.
    Needless to say, I'm SO curious as to the process and ending of the family's journey in Over the Hills and Far Away and can't wait to see the film in its entirity.

  2. Watching Michael Scott speak was the highlight of my week. As a film student soon to graduate, his success with the feature documentary gave me some hope that I could do something I love and be successful at it too. His open way of speaking about how hard it was to make Over the Hills and Far Away and about his ego-bruising narrative made the whole interview incredibly enjoyable.

    The clips of Over the Hills and Far Away that we got to watch were impressive. The shots are beautiful and well framed. There was a lot of camera movement in the footage we saw which brought to my attention Scott's human presence in the story. It's always easy to forget that someone is behind the camera and telling the story that the audience is seeing but (from what little we saw) I definitely felt that he too is a character in the documentary, whether it was intentional or not. The difficulty of the trip becomes even more pronounced this way.

    I was impressed with Scott when he spoke about having to keep an emotional distance from the family. It had to be hard to do as they were traveling together, eating together, riding, looking, seeing, experiencing, being, hurting, and hoping together for a month. I've seen documentaries where the documentarian obviously gets very emotionally involved and although it's usually touching, I don't believe that documentary makers should get too close while making a film. The same is true of other professions-being a doctor for example. You help as much as you can in the most effective way that you can but beyond that you have to let people live and choose for themselves.

    One last point-he noted that a lot of documentaries he had competed with at Sundance hadn't gotten distribution and that the business side of making films was tough and frustrating. I'm glad he was honest about that even though his film is doing much better than most. That someone so talented is subjected to the same troubles as almost all filmmakers is disappointing but his success with this film demonstrates how far force-of-will and risk taking can get an artist.

  3. Hearing Michael talk last week was great. I think it’s amazing, and a bit inspiring, that only half a decade after graduating from UT, he’s got a documentary showing at Sundance. Too cool.

    What intrigued me the most about Michael and his work was that before he started Over the Hills and Far Away he had decided to quit film altogether. He had worked in Hollywood and become fed up with its politics and egoism. But by following his own personal interests, Michael was able to not only find his way back to film, but to make a film about something he was passionate about.

    As someone who also marches to beat of his own drummer, so to speak, it is nice to hear from someone else who did not want to work within the system. Truthfully, I myself have felt rather lukewarm about film for a little while now. I have no desire to move to California or New York and am somewhat apprehensive of dealing with the ego game that Michael found himself at odds with.

    Yet by staying true to his passions, Michael was able to find his way back to the medium and to success. It's rather telling that Michael ended up with this family not by attending a film festival or a film discussion, but by going to a lecture on a totally unrelated topic he cared about. In essence, simply by actively pursuing his hobbies, his film career took care of itself.

    More than discussions about technique and theory, I think film students need to hear stories like Michael’s so that we do not forget that you can stick to your guns and still have a career in this industry.