Our reporter Sam Stone headed to Open City Documentary Festival’s annual Audio Day to experience the packed programme of workshops and masterclasses.
Multimedia artist and journalist Sayre Quevedo’s workshop was captivating from start to finish, and covered what he has learnt about personal non-fiction storytelling. Through insights into his own work, Sayre shares the four essential elements for successfully weaving personal stories and documentary: time, trust, balancing presence and distance, and respect.
It was making The Quevedos (for which Sayre won this year’s Whicker DARA runner-up award) that taught Sayre the importance of time. The story follows how he gradually came to know his mother’s estranged family and the secrets that had kept them apart for so long. It follows Sayre’s journey over time as he learns about his family’s past, a process that cannot be forced or rushed. Recording started 6 years before the final release of The Quevedos when, aged 19, his mother picked him up from work and he documented their conversation in the car.
The Return uses interviews, archive recording and audio diaries to tell the story of poet Javier Zamora’s return from the U.S. to El Salvador. Over 20 years after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border at nine years old, Javier is forced to travel to El Salvador for a visa. Through making The Return, Sayre learnt the importance of trust when creating a portrait of another. He explains that it is rare for people to explicitly tell us who they are. Instead, time and trust are needed for someone to let their guard down and show us who they are on tape.
Sayre’s short non-fiction film Espera (which also screened at this year’s Open City as part of their ‘Shorts: I Have Seen Nothing, I Have Seen All’ strand) taught him the importance of both having presence and distance when making personal work. Espera captures an intimate conversation between Sayre and a former-lover on their last night together. The inclusion of whispers, breaths and silence reveals the vulnerability and tenderness of the interaction. Presence is particularly important in the piece, as it shares an emotional conversation between lovers as opposed to a formal exchange between subject and interviewer. This showed Sayre the value of having conversations as opposed to conducting interviews. However, he also uses Espera to discuss the importance of developing distance as an author too. He waited for five months before listening back to the tape and being able to start editing the piece.
Finally, Sayre talks about his work on Re:Construcción, an interactive multimedia exhibit exploring the legacy of the Salvadoran Civil War. The project was a collaborative piece with other artists and organisations and has toured across El Salvador and the United States. Working on Re:Construcción highlighted the importance of respect to others and to oneself when making documentary work. He elaborates that this can mean thinking about how and why you are choosing to tell a story, and being there for your subjects even when it doesn’t improve the story itself.
The session was equal parts heartwarming and informative, providing a rough guide to an approach to audio storytelling which is both strong and sensitive. Aptly, the session ends with a quote from the writer James Baldwin…
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Sruthi Pinnamaneni’s masterclass is both intensely informative and very funny. One moment she is telling us about how she tried to take up smoking (and failed) in an attempt to “fix” her voice for radio presenting, the next she is sharing in miniscule detail how successive rounds of edits work for a successful podcast. Sruthi is a Senior Reporter at Reply All, a podcast about how people shape the internet and how the internet shapes people. Her personal interest is finding the “darker stories about characters who reveal themselves in layers”.
The masterclass focuses on the production on no-doubt one of the darker of these stories, although it might not seem that way from the outset. Sruthi’s talk focuses on All My Pets, a story about the YouTube pet vlogger Taylor Nicole Dean that she produced for Reply All in 2018. Initially Sruthi’s interest in Taylor was sparked by a cute picture of one of Taylor’s pet geckos, next to a little toy gecko. Sruthi’s finds herself watching over 30 of Taylor’s pet videos in a week, and is captivated and confused by the world she sees. She wants to find out what Taylor’s new YouTube fame is going to look like and how it will affect her. As Sruthi dives deeper into the story she discovers a hidden world of gossip forums and pre-teen fans, with a viciousness and intensity akin to the high school movie Mean Girls.
Through a step by step insight into the making of this particular story, and clips of tape throughout, she discusses the process of forming an engaging audio documentary. Sruthi describes journaling every night to try and get a handle on the story as well as recording, listening and transcribing the piece over and over in order to get to the final script. It is joyful as opposed to overwhelming to listen to her describe this editing process, mostly down to Sruthi’s funny and relaxed descriptions about “getting all the bad words out in order to find the good words”. She is also constantly sharing helpful advice such as trying to find a fresh pair of ears for each edit and aiming to under-explain instead of over-explain to keep listeners interested.
Despite having heard various clips of the twists and turns of Taylor’s story in Sruthi’s masterclass, I find myself listening to All My Pets on my journey home a couple of hours later. In the following week I then listen to another six episodes of Reply All. Not only have I learnt a lot about audio making from Sruthi’s class, I’ve also become hooked on another new podcast.
The audio day finishes with ‘The Dark Room’, presented by the collaborative project In The Dark and led by one of this year’s Whicker judges Nina Garthwaite and the Whickers 2018 RAFA winner Isis Thompson. In the Dark is best known for its live listening events at venues across the UK and Europe. Both Isis and Nina are independent radio producers and teachers on UCL’s Introduction to Radio module so they are the perfect leaders for this constructive crit and feedback session.
The session differs from the other audio events of the day in that there is no set ‘talk’. Instead the audience members sit in a circle and listen to clips of short radio documentaries provided by other members of the group. Some have submitted their audio beforehand, others decide in the moment to ask for feedback. The session is very relaxed; initially I assume that I will just sit back and listen but soon find myself becoming involved in the discussion and asking for advice on my own work too. Since the class focused on work in progress pieces, I decided not to report on the details of the individual clips and projects. However, I eagerly scribbled recommendations for radio documentaries and practical advice for making audio work in my note pads. The advice includes using a sock as a makeshift windshield when using a phone microphone, and conflicting stances on using piano music in sound design (Nina: not a problem, Isis: definitely a problem). I leave the session feeling fizzy with excitement to put all this advice to good use and hopeful to return and share my own clip next year too.