the insufferable (and rewarding?) process of creating

As I’m writing this, time passes and I’m closer to the deadline for finishing my first film. Tomorrow, at 7.30pm (California time, while back home everyone is deeply sleeping), I will be screening my first documentary short made in the US at an auditorium in Stanford University, along with seven other beautiful short documentaries produced within my MFA. As we all struggle to get the last details in order (last minute sound design changes or, if you’re like me, remixing the whole film and trying to make it stick together and changing every at last minute – something I have become known for), I’m procrastinating hard – can you tell that I’ve hit a creative roadblock? – and trying to reflect on this overwhelming process of making films on such tight deadlines, relentless constraints and still dealing with the overall experience of being a foreign student being far away from home.

And surprise, surprise, I am not entirely happy with my work.

Yesterday, as I was trying to get distracted from the pending deadline, I was listening to Inês Meneses’s Fala com Ela, where she and Rui Poças – for my non-Portuguese friends, he’s a Portuguese cinematographer – discussed his relationship to filmmaking, and how he loved making documentaries. He mentioned, eventually (and I hope I am not distorting this, but I could be – exhaustion’s got the best of me), something along the lines of how making a documentary is about showing the world as it is, and how you struggle to obtain this absolute truth that is most faithful to the world you are trying to represent (and how you often fail in this fight, more often that you actually succeed), while making a fiction film is about conforming the world you’re in to a your own version of truth.

As I heard these words, I sank in my chair a little. I questioned myself all over: am I doing justice to this little piece of the world that I am claiming to be able to represent? Am I delivering truth with this film or just a bunch of mindless truisms? Am I making art or just pretending to make it? Am I even good at this?

Just what the fuck am I doing, anyway?

Back in early October, while I was pondering on the great questions issues of documentary filmmaking

I am not an artist. I am not a filmmaker.

These are some of the not-so-encouraging words that I have repeated to myself, almost like a mantra, throughout these past three months, as I tried to convince myself that I am my own thing, that I do not want to fit any one-size-fits-all category of whatever it is that I have come here to do. Categorizing my life here, or trying to fit all of my hopes and dreams and aspirations for the future into an expression, a word, makes me feel anxious – am I supposed to commit to this for the rest of my life? What about all the other things that I want to do? And what if I’m just not good enough at this and I don’t succeed?

People sometimes ask me about my occupation; this happens every other day, and it is with much surprise – “oh, wow, that’s amazing!” – and skepticism – “so, exactly what is it that you do?” – and every other possible reaction in between that people receive this piece of information. When asked about what I would like to do in the future, I often say I would like be a filmmaker – or a documentary filmmaker, a videographer, an aspiring something-something, or just another of the many variations of the same title that I (and many others, most likely) have used in different occasions when having to come up with a simple phrase that would encapsulate my professional existence, mission in life and personal aspirations. Yet I find myself constantly wondering if this is what I want to do with my life, if I want to devote all of my time to this art, if it’s all even worth it – and what for, in what world, with what luck?

Throughout these 11 weeks (which have, by the way, felt like a year and a half, but now I’m surprised they have gone by so fast) I have been researching, writing, shooting and editing a 5-minute film, as well as helping in one of my classmate’s shoot. It’s not a piece of cake – in fact, it may very well be one of the most draining experiences in my life. The pressure to be constantly creating is overwhelming, and sometimes you just run out of ideas – and you crash. I have had sleepless night – but hey, this wouldn’t be Sleepless in America without them sleepless nights, right?… right? -, days where I did not eat anything and days where I binged on not very healthy food (that’s a euphemism right there), days where I was the most sociable person and days where I just avoided seeing people as much as possible. Grad school life is unforgiving, and you can never turn off the voice in your mind that says you don’t belong here – but with time I’ve come to learn how to ignore it, at best, and to just keep pushing through regardless of the circumstances.

Early November, taken during Jake’s (the guy in the picture) shoot in a quirky hotel in Berkeley, California

Creating is a demanding, exhausting, emotionally overwhelming and not always satisfying process. Having to showcase your work when you feel that it’s still unfinished is nerve-wracking, having to present and defend ideas you’re not entirely certain about leaves you feeling as if you’re standing on the edge, and being critiqued on a regular basis pushes you off that edge and leaves you feeling powerless, hopeless and dumb. I had never experienced this kind of constant feedback and attention before, and I used to just stick with my gut and hope for my best, I am now being learning how to deal with this constant questioning that is continuously playing inside my head, and learning to make the best use of it.

I am not absolutely happy about what I have made so far… Yet. But hopefully, I will be, eventually, as has happened in other films and exercises before. This, I guess, is the ultimate realization of these 11 weeks: the satisfaction, the reward, the high you get from making something that you love and are proud of is usually delayed, not immediate, it comes with time and appreciation of yourself – it comes with loving yourself as a creator, which is something that I struggle with.

A big and special shoutout to Jake for being a good and patient partner, who accompanied me on the shoots and made sure I got everything right (and if in the end I still didn’t, I would cry on his shoulder about it and he made sure to make me feel better about myself. Such a good guy – and friend!). Also, another special mention to the other members of the Stanford Documentary MFA ’19 cohort – and here’s their names, because they deserve it, in no particular order: Laura, Barna, Dinesh, Ellie, Jun and Whitney, whose selfless insight has helped plenty and whose beautiful films – and they’re all so different from each other! – will be premiering tomorrow along with mine: here’s to the well-deserved break that we’re getting, to a wonderful 2018 and to making plenty of more films together!

Attempting to make cinema with a 16mm Bolex film camera somewhere in Colma, California

– Inês.

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