INTERVIEW with Stephen Jones, director of El Mar, Mi Alma which is touring the UK right now.
El Mar, Mi Alma has grabbed an avalanche of awards this at film festivals from Australia to Europe. Shot entirely on 16mm film this motion picture is a visual love song to the surf blessed land of Chile, its people, and the ocean that defines it. With environmental themes, the film paints a picture of Chile's beauty and association with the sea, centred around the affectionate and intimate act of surfing.
Starring; Dave Rastovich, Ramon Navarro, Gabriel Villaran, Dane Ward, Chris Del Moro, Crystal Thornburg-Homcy, Joel Parkinson, Leo Acevedo, Diego Medina and Cristian Merello.
Steve, can you please tell us about how this came about? El Mar's backstory?
My partner and producer of the film, Chilean/Australian Tatiana Velasco and I became involved with Dave Rastovich at a time when he was planning to go to Chile to protest against whaling at the IWC conference in Santiago. We both have a background in environmental work. Tatiana has a strong connection with her homeland, and the struggles of her people, and I a good knowledge of the coast and surf spots there, together we worked with Rasta to put together a campaign along the Chilean coast aimed at getting support for Rasta's anti whaling campaign and to raise awareness about local environmental issues. Rasta had his surfing friends join us along the way and we organised the Chilean surfers to come onboard.
We were in pre production when Tatiana met Hawaiian cinematographer Dave Homcy and his great love Crystal Thornburg at an event called 'The Happening' in Bondi, a surf/art/music night. Homcy has worked closely with the best in the surfing world but hadn't captured Rasta on film and wanted to do so, as well as take part in the environmental campaign. He said - if you want to make news shoot video, if you want to make history shoot film. At the point we decided to shoot film. Together with Homcy we captured the surfing and coastal culture of Chile on 16mm film, these images are the vision in the film.
Did you know what the movie would be at that point?
We had some direction and idea of what we wanted to produce but by the end of the road trip we had a clearer picture of where we wanted to go with it. It was an extensive tour. We traveled over three thousand kilometers in three weeks meeting with school children, universities, mayors, ministers, artists, fisherman and surfers. In between it all we found the time to go surfing and pretty much scored everywhere we went. The intention was to basically capture and record as much of the journey as possible.
We focused on capturing the surfing and scenery on film and the campaign road trip on video. During pre production and whilst on the road we had the intention of producing one piece, a documentary style movie of the environmental campaign taking in the surfing action too. At the end of the road trip, after taking time to review the content and collect our thoughts we decided to divide the project into two parts. A surf/art piece using the 16mm content and a more dialogue based documentary of the road trip and environmental campaign.
Tatiana and I stayed on in Chile for a few months after the crew left. In-between surfing, eating and drinking with family we continued to travel, shoot and interview people along the coast. This included a trip down south to Osorno and Bahia Mansa to interview Lonko Paillamanque a Mapuche chief.
During these few months we discovered a poet with a guitar, Chilean musician Manuel Garcia. Garcia is a Trova artist - a form of folk music that integrates public sentiment. This music was banned during the Pinochet dictatorship but has since been revived. Garcia is a new proponent of this form of music. His songs are incredibly beautiful. On hearing his music for the first time I was completely swept away. It was obvious this was this music we needed for the film, just the sheer beauty of his music and from a sociopolitical stand point. After seeing him in concert we managed to meet with him and discuss the philosophy of our project. Garcia came onboard.
So the movie taps into the pulse of Chile?
The heart and soul of this film not only shines through the incredible surfing imagery showcasing some of the worlds most talented surfers on one of the worlds most wave rich coastlines, it also shines through the commentary and cultural elements that do not ignore the signals and worldwide pulse of sub-cultures and emerging radical change.
Not only did we want to showcase Chile's natural landscape via a surfing journey, we wanted the opportunity for Chile to speak for itself. To be a real insight into Chilean culture, its rich poetic tradition and the raw day to day struggles currently effecting the people of coastal Chile. To illustrate the poetic tradition we've drawn upon Pablo Neruda, famous Chilean poet and 1971 nobel peace prize winner for literature. Neruda has a ghostlike presence throughout the film, his words are present through song as the journey unfolds.
Why was it important to create this?
To inspire and inform. What we captured on film is a piece of history. A time and place. Unfortunately, shortly after we finished shooting the coast of Chile was struck by a massive earthquake and tsunami, some of the locations we shot are no longer the same. These images literally are a historical reference to these places.
Over the years there have been a number of classic films that have inspired and motivated hundreds of thousands of surfers to explore coastlines and ride waves across every ocean. I can only hope that people enjoy this story, the surfing, the coastline, the characters, the music and the message. Hopefully El Mar, Mi Alma will inspire people to dream and travel for years to come and that future generations of surfers will appreciate and consider the creatures and communities we share the marine and coastal environment with.
Can you tell me what you are most proud of?
I'm most proud of the movie itself and the collaborative effort which has gone into making it. Working with so many amazing people; shooting film and traveling with Dave and Crystal, shooting and traveling with two of my all time favourite surfers Rasta and Parko, the people we met along the way and being able to give voice to their stories, shooting and surfing with the Ramon, Christian and Diego, working with Manuel Garcia and putting the poetry of Pablo Neruda to music is indeed an honour, and last but not least working together with my lady and producer Tatiana. Her and I have spent four years of our lives on this project, there's been highs and lows, it's taken a great deal of passion, patience and persistence, but we're there, well almost... our poor daughter, she's had to go through it all with us. I don't think she wants to be a film maker when she grows up.
A definite highlight has been taking the film on the road and giving people the cinematic experience.. sharing the film on the big screen and meeting wonderful people along the way. We've had great feedback from audiences around the world... from Byron Bay to Budapest. Another high point has been the feedback from film makers I've looked up to for many years, guys that have inspired me through their films and through what they do; Greenough, Alby, Witzig, Kidman, Frank.. I'm really proud of this.. and just thankful for the opportunity to part of it all.
How about movie screenings? Where can I watch it?
We had our world premiere in Chile at the seaside gardens of the Neruda museum/home in Isla Negra. Garcia accompanied the show with a live set. A large and approving crowd attended the outdoor screening... we felt we'd been given the sign of approval to take it to the world.
Since then we've been screening at festivals and theatres in Australia, New Zealand, US and Europe. We just got cinema release in Australia/New Zealand and are currently in the UK with further US shows planned for early November.
The film picked up 'Best Cinematography' at Yallingup Surfilm Festival, 'Official Selection' at Santa Barbara International Film Festival, 'Best Environmental Film' at San Sebastion Surfilm Festibal and 'Best Film' at NordNordwest Surf Skate Film Fest Hamburg.
(Keep up to date with screening info here.)
What problems have you encountered?
The film has been entirely self funded and independently produced. We did try very hard to get financial support through the screen industry in Australia and through several of the big brands to get a tie-in, but got knocked back, so many no's, they cited the 'credit crunch', or as I call it "the excuse for everything". So, yeah, financing it all has been the biggest hurdle and most difficult and stressful element of making the film. Post-production was difficult and took time as we ran out of dollars after shooting. You give everything to making a movie which has a slight chance of returning that investment. Recouping anything means organising world tours on a shoestring and getting the word out there about your film, keeping in mind we want to give people the cinematic experience as opposed to them watching it on a phone or laptop. You just try and keep the faith that maybe you can pull it off. Well that's the way we've been going about it.
DVD sales have dropped through the floor. The big companies give their films away as free downloads. Then you have piracy and bit torrent sites, I don't want to think about that. We're looking at all our options to navigate the best possible path for distribution and release. Post theatrical release, in some territories and in some instances, we'll go through a distributor. Ideally we'd like to sell direct to our fans from our website. We'll go the digital download road for those that consume films in that manner, but hopefully there are enough fans interested in the dvd/soundtrack pack which will include plenty of bonus footage, artwork and booklet.
And what does the future hold?
We're currently in post production on the documentary - part II. This follows more closely the campaign road trip and explores more deeply the issues raised in part I. It's something we're crafting as a TV doc with the hope of getting a broadcast sale. It's actually on pause at the moment while we focus all our energy on the release of part I. Again, there are finance issues. We need to return to Chile to shoot more, to see how change is impacting the people and communities we met on our original journey. If we're unable to get finance through the screen industry and/or companies we may try crowd funding to raise the funds to finish it.
Tatiana and I started a production company called Rebel Waltz Films. We're both interested in pursuing a career in film and documentary making, creating movies we think should be made. Tati studied film, I used to work in television, we'd both made some short films previously, but this was our first feature. We've put our heart and soul into it, hopefully it will set a foundation for the future.