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A Small Section of the World

Lesley Chilcott.
Lesley Chilcott.

Award-winning filmmaker Lesley Chilcott was in Dubai recently to present her latest documentary, A Small Section of the World, which will premiere on OSN’s Sundance Channel in February 2015. BroadcastPro ME brings you an exclusive interview with the film’s director

When asked what makes a film an Oscar winner, Lesley Chilcott says no one knows for sure. Chilcott, who co-produced the 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, insists there is no secret formula to winning an Oscar.

“It’s a mystery to me. There are so many good documentaries but we can never tell what makes one a winner. It’s a surprise every year at the Oscars. Everything from craftsmanship to storytelling counts, but no one knows for sure what clicks.”

The filmmaker was in Dubai recently to promote her latest documentary, A Small Section of the World. The film is about the coffee farmers in Costa Rica who started the first women-run micro mill in the country. It follows the impact of their perseverance and shows how these women overcame adversity to change the culture within their small section of the world. This film is about women’s empowerment, the risky business of harvesting coffee beans, and how a cup of coffee can transform lives.

Chilcott directs both documentaries and commercial projects and conducted a documentary master class in Dubai during her visit.

She has produced longer form documentaries and started directing shorts in 2012. Last year, she directed the short film Codestars for code.org. It garnered more than 20m views online and was the number one video on YouTube for two days. The film resulted in four million children taking coding lessons.

“A Small Section of the World also began as a short documentary, but the stories of the coffee farmers were so compelling that we made it into a 60-minute film,” she explains.

Chilcott wrote the treatment of the documentary, which revolves around the lives of four lead characters who talk about the coffee revolution in Costa Rica and go back in time to talk about its history and culture. The rest of the interviews are based on their stories, and the viewer learns about the world of coffee farmers through their eyes.

Shot on an ARRI Alexa, the film focuses on a village of female coffee producers in the Talamanca mountains in Costa Rica, documenting their lives as they start the first women-run micro mill in their country.

“My DP (director of photography) Logan Schneider and I made a pact in the beginning of the shoot that for interviews we would allow zoom lenses, but for everything else we would use prime lenses, which is very unusual in a documentary. We had to change the lenses constantly, but it was worth the effort as that gave the scenes a very filmic look,” she explains.

Chilcott is a fairly tech-savvy director and loves to use technology to her advantage. One of the reasons she moved from producing to directing was to have more control over her films. However, on this particular project she had to do a lot of production work because she had the skillset to do so and having an extensive production experience came in handy. The film is co-produced by Chilcott, Josh Lieberman and Maresa Wickham.

Since the primary language of the film is Spanish, Chilcott used a translator for her interviews.

“I was very nervous about the interviews because I do not know Spanish very well. I was not very comfortable to use a translator, but it did not come in the way of our communication with our characters. In fact, it came as a big surprise to me when our protagonists told me things they hadn’t shared with anyone else. We built trust and became friends during the course of filming,” she explains.

Chilcott is now taking Spanish lessons, and the Costa Rican coffee millers are learning to speak English. Not being a coffee-drinker, Chilcott had to do a lot of research on the history of coffee and people’s obsession with it. She flew down for the last of the coffee harvests in November 2013 and ended up making the film in under a year.

Interviews being the backbone of the documentary, Chilcott made sure the sound was recorded well.

“We did not use the camera’s recorder but recorded the interviews using a separate digital four-track deck, the Sony DCP50. I shot some additional days. We only had a budget to shoot for a certain number of days, but a lot of times my DP and I would sneak out and use the DCP50 to record.”

The entire documentary was filmed on a single camera – except for one scene when one of the daughters of a founding member of the coffee mill goes to a conference in Italy, a second camera was deployed for a more cinematic look. Most of the film was shot in natural light, although interviews were carried out indoors when it rained. Additional crew was used and more lights were added to the kit to ensure the rain did not hamper the filming.

Post-production was done in Santa Monica in Stitch Editorial using Avid Media Composer, and some effects used Adobe After Effects. The titles were done in New York, and the film was edited by Chris Catanach.

Chilcott points out that although the film is a documentary, she tried to give it a stylised look in the opening titles. The film opens with such extreme close-ups of little coffee beans that they look like giant loaves of bread, with the titles superimposed on them. Two types of 100mm macro lenses were used to achieve this look.

“We are so out of touch with our food. I wanted the opening sequence of the film to be a metaphor for the journey of the coffee bean from the farm to the coffee-drinker’s cup. We wanted to film the whole coffee-making process. When you have your morning cup of coffee, you should think of all the people involved in the process,” she explains.

Chilcott says that she followed a roadmap to give the film a structure and keep track of the budget, but there were several detours.

“At times, you find something more interesting and there’s no way you cannot include that in the film. As they say, it never happens as planned, but every bit of this journey was worthwhile,” she says.

In all, she conducted 15 interviews, though not all of the women are in the final version, in order to keep the documentary within its time limit.

Chilcott points out that in a documentary, you don’t necessarily want to introduce your audience to a lot of people at the beginning. The story should gradually build up. Although it was hard not to include all the interviews, the director had to take a call, and the repetitive ones were removed to give way to the most interesting stories.