In 2010, award-winning documentary filmmaker Brad Leitch was conducting volunteer peace work for a human rights organization in Northern Iraq. It’s a trip that catapults his decision to amplify social issues and causes through filmmaking.
Given his background and skills in video production, Leitch was part of a storytelling project at an Internally Displaced Persons camp. Yet due to increasing levels of violence—in what would later become ISIS controlled territory—a decision to cease filming was made.
“There is power in the hands of a storyteller with a camera and how you use it has real consequences for real people,” says Leitch. “Our decision to not go forward with that story, in that moment, was because of deep concern for the community and the participants involved.
But for the Vancouver filmmaker, there was more to uncover—another story to tell. On the day before being leaving Iraq, Leitch met a local who survived the 1988 Halabujah Chemical Bombings, who also ran a museum commemorating lost those affected by the political crisis and tragedy. Capturing roughly one minute of interview content, the man equipped Leitch with a DVD of footage visually detailing the atrocious aftermath of the bombings; he asked Leitch to use the footage to create something for sharing with the people back in Canada.
“I felt a responsibility and obligation to respond to that request, to share this with others and to honor the story of the man who shared his story with me,” says Leitch. “Eventually I finished the video, and put this no-budget, grainy film on YouTube thinking nothing would really happen with it.”
But the project didn’t go unnoticed by the public, garnering the attention of a museum curator in New York. The finished film is now featured in a permanent exhibit on mass atrocities at the Canadian Museum for Human Right where visitors can heed and learn from an important moment in history.
To learn more abut Leitch’s commitment to his community and filmmaking prowess, we sat down to chat more. Read on below.
Marmoset: We saw you studied Peace and Conflict Transformation, how do you think this helps shape or guide your contents purpose?
Leitch: At the same time I was working on the Halabjah chemical bombings video I was working for my B.A. in Peace and Conflict Transformation. I had a class at the time called Trauma and Recovery and the university professor allowed me to create this video as part of an assignment. It was the encouragement I needed to process the material and then to create something with it. Peace and Conflict Transformation at its core is very creative work. The degree forcused on everything from interpersonal conflict to large scale social change movements. Whether a conflict or dispute is between two next-door neighbors, or warring nation states, there is no simple method or easy formula to building peace and transforming complex conflict at a structural, cultural, relational and personal level.
During my studies, one of largest Indigenous led social movements in recent years was springing up across Canada called Idle No More. I quickly found myself in this movement, educating myself in teach-ins and walking alongside others in marches and sit-ins in in downtown Winnipeg. Eventually I would be invited to take my camera into some of this work, working alongside First Nations across Canada.
M: How does this type of education and background influence your work today?
Leitch: My degree in Conflict Transformation affects so much of my work: from how I deal with the practical and logistical challenges of film production, down to how I shape and edit the very content and purpose of what is being created. I love thinking about my process as a filmmaker. Many of the short documentaries I’ve worked on are low budget community funded projects that are commissioned by local community members who invite me to come tell a story with them. This contributes to a collaborative process.
As I’ve grown more work as a documentary maker people see some of my past work and approach to subject matter. When I’m invited to come tell a story with a community they’ve often had a chance to see something of my past work and I think that has contributed to building trust as seeing my approach to storytelling and conflict and engaging local issues that can be complex. I often find myself working with people who have a shared vision towards resolving conflict in the spirit of peacebuilding, truthtelling and restorative justice.
M: What’s a project where your documentary made waves or helped further progress?
Leitch: I tend to make very local films, made for a very local audience. And I love that. That being said, a documentary I directed and produced in 2015 was called Reserve 107. We had a budget of $6,500 to make this film, which included equipment and crew (myself and my wife Adrienne), three weeks of production and a lot of volunteer hours to take it to its finish.
Music was important to me on this project so a third of the budget was spent on music; this was my first project working with Marmoset. Reserve 107 tells the story of a landless Indigenous community in Canada, the Young Chippewayan First Nation, that is seeking justice for 30 square miles of Reserve Land that was stolen by the Government of Canada and given to a group of Mennonite and Lutheran settlers in the early 1900s.
Indigenous rights and title to land remains a taboo topic for many across Canada, it remains a huge source of mistrust in communities today and has even led to violence at times, but in the small town of Laird, Saskatchewan, the former land of Reserve 107—an old injustice is providing new opportunities for dialogue—friendship and a fierce determination to right the wrongs of a past.
When our film was finished, it gave me great pride to see Indigenous and non-Indigenous community members take this film and hold their own screenings and continue to tell their story. The film participants were awarded a peace medallion for their work together and the film has picked up a few awards with over 200 screenings across Canada and around the world—including a screening of the film at a convention in Namibia with ten thousand participants. Also, the film participants and myself were invited to our nations capital by a Cree senator to have a screening of this film on Parliament Hill just weeks before Canada’s 150th anniversary. It was a powerful experience to see it play in parliament, and to witness the participants afterwards tell their story and speak truth to power in the very halls of power.
M: Have you ever been surprised along the way when filming a documentary?
Leitch: I’m always endlessly and marvelously surprised, by the people, by the issues, by my own lack of knowledge and awareness, by the politics and complexity and tragedy and beauty of the human experience. It’s why I love what I do. It keeps me messy as a human, keeps me on my toes, to keep thinking, and learning and listening.
I have conducted well over five hundred interviews in the last ten years and after the on camera interviews I spend a significant amount of time again in the edit just listening to people and their stories and experiences. Sometimes when those stories involve a participant’s very deep trauma it can be difficult material to work with. Other times you hear a story once or twice and you think wow that is profound. Then you hear it a third time and suddenly hits you in a new way and you are breaking down in tears alone in your small dark edit suite.
M: What’s some advice you’d pass along to your fellow filmmaker?
Leitch: Don’t worry about not being the expert of the story. Don’t be afraid of not knowing something. Some of the best research and learning happens by just showing up and being present with people. Find ways to nurture your curiosity in your daily life by asking everyone around you second and third questions—because the first question is for niceties, but your follow up questions to people’s answers are when you start to get into the deep and interesting experiences of people.
M: When it comes to using music in your films, what’s your approach?
Leitch: I feel very strongly that music is my voice in the work I make. One clue into what I as the filmmaker feel about the content in any given moment can often be revealed by the music selection.
I can be picky and easily spend days on the Marmoset website finding exactly the right sound that I want. There’s an excellent selection of music that’s high quality and curated from a pool of amazing talent. Marmoset makes music licensing easy. Everything is clearly described to walk you through the process of finding the right music, identifying particular genres and sounds, to purchasing and obtaining the right license for your needs. And if you still have questions, I would encourage filmmakers to get in touch with Marmoset—as I have over the years. They have an amazing, hands-on team who are super friendly and quick to respond to any questions you have. These are some of the many reasons I come back to Marmoset again and again on the projects I work on.
M: We love how you utilize your skills as a filmmaker to focus your documentaries on important issues entwined within the community. How would you define documentary filmmaking as a tool and practice?
Leitch: There are many reasons why I love storytelling and filmmaking. With some of these commissioned documentaries around particular local conflicts, what I love is that these films demonstrate the potential for meaningful change, that there are deep lessons and recipes and ingredients for peacebuilding and social transformation in each one of the films I make. I love the idea of having these films be like tools in the toolbelts of peacebuilders and activists and just ordinary people wanting to work for a better world to undo poverty, suffering, racism, oppression and violence wherever it is in the world.
Brad Leitch is the producer and filmmaker behind Rebel Sky Media — a Vancouver based agency providing clients with videography, producing and editing services.
A creative music licensing agency, Marmoset works with storytellers of all backgrounds and through all mediums. Music for filmmakers and other content creators, song licensing isn’t a one way road — the artists on the other side are the unseen creators. Without them, so many projects would be creatively lacking in soundtrack and ultimately, incomplete.
Because of the multifaceted nature of the music licensing world, we’re slowing things down to catch up with our artists, to witness and share their origin stories. Acknowledging our unique backgrounds is what brings us together as a community — especially during a hazardous climate where it’s all too easy to feel divided and removed from one another.
Through sharing our artists stories, we hope you’ll join us in celebrating artists who come from all walks of life. Our first singer-songwriter and Marmoset artist Blossom kicks off our series, hailing from Trinidad & Tobago. Read on to learn about her transitioning experience moving to the United States, who encouraged her to follow her calling into music and what the definition of community means to her.
Marmoset:When did you move to Portland, Oregon?
Blossom: I moved in 1994 from Trinidad & Tobago and I lived there on and off again between spending the school season here.
M: What are some of your favorite summer memories you have of being back home?
Blossom: Going to the beach with my cousin. The freedom I had in Trinidad was fun. You know, they just let us kids run around because everyone knew each other. I really liked that sense of community and the safety I felt — also just simply being around my culture.
M: What did that transition look like when you were moving here to the states?
Blossom: There was definitely some confusion as a kid. I moved to Tigard and I was the only black kid in school for a few years. It was a cultural transition that kind of slapped me in the face but also showed me how adaptable I really am as a person. It was like stepping into a whole new world.
M: Looking back on your childhood was there someone who inspired you to create music?
Blossom: My uncle. He and my dad were in a band before we moved to America. In the summer, I would spend time with my uncle and aunt in Gig Harbor, Washington, he taught me how to play the steel drums and how to really listen to my musical ear — it inspired me to stay close to music.
M: How do your origins tie into culture for you? How do you think these things shape who you are as both an artist and person in general?
Blossom: Growing up, the door was always open — family, friends, community, the door was always open. I’ve enjoyed this kind of community lifestyle, to have that kind of helping hand. We can’t do everything by ourselves — it was a hard lesson for me to learn because I’m a very independent person.
In a way, having community means having someone who supports you, someone who catches you when you fall — because you can’t catch yourself every time. This really has shaped the way I’ve built my community now; it’s affected how I go about being an artist today, how I create music with others and how I work with other musicians.
Thanks to Blossom for taking us through parts of her origin story. Hit play below to discover more about her journey as an artist.
Everyone has a story to share. Yet as humans we’re inclined to stick with what we know, to stay in our lane of what feels familiar. It’s a mode of avoidance that works well until we’re required to see beyond our own experiences. But it’s a cycle we can break and should.
To do just this, the creative studio powered by filmmakers, Even/Odd teamed up with Lyft to create “America is an Idea, Not a Geography” — a stirring series incorporating photography and filmmaking to amplify the voices and stories of immigrants.
The project circulates around immigrant families of different national backgrounds, all connected through Lyft as a means for generating a living wage.
A big “conversation” on how immigrants fit into the economic picture continues to exist — American born citizens equating the influx of immigrants to less job opportunities across the board. But one piece of the discussion rarely is addressed: how immigrant workers are carrying the weight of the burdensome, more intensely laborious work. They’re showing up for the work many are rejecting and refusing to own. Most importantly, many are sidestepping the human rights portion.
Lyft’s short film series tackles this very notion in the most ambitious way possible, by passing the mic to their community — the drivers who uphold the services, the oil and wheel to their machine.
The series “Nine Numbers” film, directed by Mohammed Gorjestani and Andrew Batista, follows Cesar Virto’s life as a business man/writer/Lyft driver — he happens to be undocumented. A recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, Virto’s story has a weight of unpleasant truth; his youth plagued with barriers due to his undocumented status.
The project features background music from Marmoset artist, Drew Barefoot. The licensed song “The Forest in Bloom” sets the stage for this complex, heavyhearted issue. The song is meandering and reflective — Virto’s story isn’t of defeat but is the glimpse of a long journey, contrasting moments of highs and lows.
Virto’s story is ongoing, he still faces many questions of his status as a DACA recipient. We invite and encourage you to watch & listen to his story here.
Animator Genís Rigol Alzola tells stories through vividly surreal animations. Wildly experimental, the animator pieces together eye-catching and colorful worlds with imaginative narratives as creative accomplices. But there’s another film element punctuating his visuals — the incorporation of abstract sound design.
Rigol’s animation, Irudika was his first animated film where he stepped into the role as sound designer (with support of sound design expert and colleague, Pau Anglada). Purposed to convey emotion, the sound design is a driving force behind every action, creating a unique personality for each character — distinguishing protagonist from foe.
As sound designers ourselves, we’re in awe of Rigol’s distinct vision and ear for great sound composition. His videos consistency chosen as Vimeo Staff Picks, we reached out to learn more about his creative process and how he approaches sound design in video. Read on and watch more of Rigol’s work below.
Marmoset: What drew you to animation as a medium and what inspires you to create?
Rigol: I've always liked watching movies, reading books and comics. I also like looking at paintings and buildings; getting out of myself for a bit and seeing experiences from the perspective of others. For a while, I wrote quite a lot but I got stuck fast, as it felt like I was saying the same over and over—I didn't like how my writing sounded.
M: A lot of your work feels contextually abstract, even the transitions kind of make everything feel so fluid, moving the narrative with ease. Can you offer us a glimpse into your creative process?
Rigol: I guess what works for me is having a necessity to form an idea. This is the big secret: sit down and write. It can be a nightmare for a while, but it will always come around. It's always easier when I work with people, then it’s almost just saying stupid things one after the other and after a while, somehow we have a starting point. It’s making the idea into something that’s the difficult part—during the process I never know if the idea is actually good; some things can only be recognized once the work is finished.
What works for me though is reading. Lately, I’ve been reading theatre since it’s more aligned with what I want to write. But reading the plays feels like I'm being rude to the writer—as these texts are written down to be acted out rather than being read as text.
The other approach is to pay attention to reality, although this isn’t easy to practice. I used to carry around a small notebook to write down the things I see. But honestly, most of the time I open the notebook and read what I wrote, I ask myself what was I thinking. In the instance an idea stays with me for enough time, I’ll then start developing it further.
Generally, I can't finish the story with just a script. Instead, I need to work on the storyboard and the animatic then slowly understand what I want to say. To be honest, my stories may be only be excuses to do some experimentation with visuals. I'm trying to improve this lately and give more importance to the stories, but writing well is very difficult.
M: How would you characterize your animating style?
Rigol: I feel like I’m still looking for my style, but a lot of my friends who used to draw have a similar look. I think this kind of thing is easier to identify from an outside perspective. I've collaborated with many talented people like Olga Capdevila, Marc Torices, Pau Anglada, Martí Sawe, Irkus Zeberio, Maite Caballero or Alexis Nolla among many others, and I've adopted a lot from all of them. Oftentimes I'm scared my drawings look like other people's drawings.
Animation is a long and slow process, which can be very boring at some point, that's why I like to draw in different styles and switch from one to the other in relation to the story. But sometimes this can cause you to get lost in it and get distracting.
I draw on paper as much as I can, especially at the beginning of a process. I'm a bit obsessed with learning so I try to practice in different ways, sometimes I work on life drawing, or compose on color and abstract, sketch from the mind, or work on comics. I try to do as many different exercises as I can. I never really like what I end up having but while I'm doing it, I enjoy the practice. For a while I studied quite a lot of life drawing, paying attention the aspect of depth. I recommend this a lot, especially if you are in 2D animation.
M: Your animations’ sound design packs a punch. How do you approach creating sound to picture?
Rigol: The last animation I released Irudika, is the first project I've done the sound on my own. The reason for this was that there was no budget for it, but I couldn't have done it without Pau Anglada, he helped a lot with the sound design. It was really fun and exciting and I would love to do more music and sound in the future. The only rule we had was not to use stock sounds, try to record our own original sounds and not be very literal on the action. For the voices we worked with some synths, as we didn't want to have regular voices as working with actors can be expensive. We wanted all of it to sound like some kind of weird nightmare. I also try to get into the mind of each character to imagine what's going on internally.
Sound is very powerful and can change a lot a visual’s mood; I keep this in mind so it doesn’t hurt the animation. While I was new to doing sound design on this film and my knowledge is very limited, I think it improved the animation overall, even if it made the video a bit darker and dreamier.
M: What’s a project you’re super proud to have created? And what do you have in the works next?
Rigol: I'm proud of all the projects I've done without a big budget, like Gutter Fest: The Movie, Irudika or Blanc Festival. Right now I'm working on a six-minute short-film but since I'm working solo on it, the process feels too slow.
M: What do you think is the most rewarding thing about being an animator?
Rigol: As my beloved Aggie Pak Yee Lee said when she was asked the same question in Sundance: “My favorite part is when it's done!”