The Effect Of The Camera: An Interview With Documentary Filmmaker Paul Gallasch

June 23, 2014

Documentary filmmaker Paul Gallasch filming with camera

NYFA: What is your background and what attracted you to the field of documentary filmmaking?

Paul Gallasch: I have always had quite a short attention span. I studied sports management and outdoor education at university but never really intended to go forward in that field. I also started a master’s in anthropology, but realized quite early on that I needed to spend more time out of the library. It was actually my ex-girlfriend who suggested documentary filmmaking as a way of combining my erratic interests, my love of travel and the outdoors and my interest in understanding people. It took a little while but I eventually listened to her, and now here I am.

NYFA: What lesson did you learn at NYFA that you’ve continued to apply to your work?

PG: Apart from all of the practical and technical knowledge, Andrea Swift’s focus on storytelling was very helpful. The course encouraged me to discuss and workshop rough-cuts of my films as often as possible, which I’ve tried to continue to do. And I still remember a bunch of Andrea’s little wise, counter-intuitive anecdotes.

NYFA: Your documentary Killing Anna has a rather radical premise in that it uses the documentary format to capture you, the subject’s fictional, revisionist history in dealing with a break-up. While this would undoubtedly be a fantastic story for a feature film, the fantasy in the film is elevated and disrupted by the presence of the camera in real life. What films or traditions did you draw upon when conceiving the film, not to mention your own personal inspiration? Was this your way of dealing with or working through the trauma or heartbreak that results from a break-up?

PG: The conception of Killing Anna was actually quite simple. It was initially based on an idea to perform Anna’s funeral as a ‘performance-art’ piece (based on a fear/fantasy I had), but then my sister suggested that I film and document the making of the piece. I had had such little experience in filmmaking that I didn’t really know the impact the camera would have on my plans and my life. Saying that, I had watched most of Ross McElwee’s films and had noticed the way the camera played a role in his life and storytelling. I am also very interested in Lars Von Trier’s work and the dogma 95 movement and had also recently watched The Five Obstructions. So I was very much thinking about film as a mode of experiment; especially with reality. In the end I think the camera and the film became an integral part of the grieving process/experiment. Firstly, without the expectation of the film I’m not sure I would have gone through with the funeral service in the end, and secondly, and what I came to discover about first-person documentary filmmaking is that it is essentially an indulgence in mindfulness. It forces you to pay attention to everything that you are doing, whether you are filming it or not, whether you decide to film it or not. And that’s not to mention the editing process. So yes, as I say at the end of the film, the whole endeavor was most importantly an excuse to allow me to focus on myself for a while, an external justification that gave me that space.

NYFA: And to follow up, what effect did the presence of the camera have in your fictional staging of Anna’s funeral?

PG: It was only once I started setting up for the day that I realized how much of an impact the filming was going to have. It was an early lesson for me on one of the central paradoxes of documentary filmmaking: the effect of the camera vs the possibility of broadcasting the story. I think the funeral itself would have been much more intimate and ultimately impactful without the cameras and lights but then no one else would have seen it. And as I said earlier, without the film to encourage me I’m not sure I would have put the funeral on in the end.

NYFA: Where do you turn to for inspiration? Your films range from personal tales to examinations of the world and people around us, ranging from introverted to extroverted subject matter. How do you balance this dynamic in your work and do you tend to have an idea beforehand or does inspiration just come from the aether?

PG: I’m the kind of person that pretty much always says yes to an invitation. So in a sense subject matter and the film’s direction finds me more than the other way around. Obviously I am making decisions in my work all the time but it doesn’t feel that way. I’m a fan of verité filmmaking (but of course these days that includes the great effect of the camera and the subjects’ awareness of editing and distribution) so I try to keep my expectations of a film to a minimum while I’m shooting and just focus on whatever it is that interests me, and let the writing of the story happen in the edit suite.

NYFA: Do you work full-time as a documentary filmmaker or do you supplement your work with other projects? What other fields and jobs are available to documentary filmmakers?

PG: I’ve been lucky enough to receive a couple grants recently for my own projects, which means that I have been able to focus more of my time toward them. Additionally I do some freelance cinematography, editing, sound and every now and then I teach.

It all depends on what type of ‘documentary filmmaker’ you want to be. The basic skills of a documentary filmmaker are broadly applied across a bunch of applications in media and storytelling.

NYFA: What about the way NYFA’s documentary program is structured—especially the Academy’s overriding philosophy of learning by doing—has shaped how you approach your work as a documentary filmmaker?

PG: NYFA’s doc program didn’t so much shape my approach as much as I chose the program because of its practical emphasis. The hands-on philosophy worked well for me because I was able to compliment it with my own theoretical research and musing. The course doesn’t try to do too much. It is essentially a dense, hectic, non-stop, more expensive alternative to growing up with a camera in your hand and making little experimental films. But it doesn’t do the work for you. You still need a passion for it.

NYFA: What role does photography play in your development and interests as a documentary filmmaker. Obviously, both disciplines are concerned with capturing the world around us, but do they require different skill sets or impact how you approach the other?

PG: Photography was my first foray into visual media and I can see the impact it has had on my work. If anything the lessons I learned when shooting stills (composition, lighting, mood, story, etc.) have allowed me to experiment more in the moving picture. For me there is no point capturing something with a video camera that can be expressed in a still (or the other way around). There are times that I wished I only shot stills (there is a simplicity to the medium that attracts me), but in the end documentary filmmaking is just another string to the bow of storytelling and allows a different range of communication.

NYFA: Any parting words of advice to aspiring documentary filmmakers?

PG: Don’t take my advice, take Werner Herzog’s.