How Music Can Help Shift Perspective In Film

Field Notes Interview #34: Ryan Bouman, Filmmaker

For filmmaker, Ryan Bouman, his work is about sharing stories we don't get to see and hear very often. His films for non-profit organizations take him around the world documenting powerful experiences. In his recent project, he went to Uganda to film DuncanAfrica, a collective of guitar makers that teach apprentices to make acoustic instruments and teach them to run their own business overseas.

Through this film, we get to see how the creation of instruments transcends language and creates powerful experiences and communication between people that moves beyond words. Using the track "Enjoy The Calm" by Marmoset Artist, Drew Barefoot, Bouman captures the emotion and sense of place and the stories told therein.

We chatted with Ryan Bouman about his recent film and how music played a critical role in conveying the complex perspectives throughout it. Read on...


M: When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

RB: As a kid I made a video for a class geography project in grade 7, and bought my first video camera and iMac with Final Cut Pro in high school. It grew as a hobby. I think I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but never saw a path that worked for me to make it happen. After attending a workshop put on by Capture in Minneapolis, I saw the path that I could start on and was given the necessary skills to get me started.

M: What’s you favorite moment of the filmmaking process?

RB: It’s those first moments in post-production. I will usually pick a music track that fits, grade a couple of my favorite shots or sequences, and watch how all of our hard work is really coming together.

M: What do you think defines a filmmakers voice?

RB: I would say, your perspective, which is always changing. The edit is where I really see it come out. You get to choose (to an extent) how you tell a story, what you say, and how you say it.

M: Do you always have a clear vision in mind when filming?

RB: I try to, but I think the vision always changes as the film begins to come together, and I love that about it. I love that I can be surprised while editing. I think it is essential to get as clear a vision as possible before shooting, let it go, and let yourself be surprised.

M: How did this project come into form?

RB: I heard about DuncanAfrica 4 years ago, before video production was my full time career, and more of a hobby. As a guitar player I was on board and excited about what the organization was doing in Uganda. I met with DuncanAfrica founder, Jay Duncan and we discussed the possibility of creating a film. However, financially it just wasn’t something that was going to work at the time. Fast-forward 3 years later, and I had been hired by another non-profit to shoot a promo in Uganda, and the DuncanAfrica school was only an hour from Kampala, where I would be finishing my trip. I decided to book my flight home for 3 days later, take it on as a passion project, and make it happen.

M: What are the different variables that come into play when filming in another country?

RB: Oh man, there is so much…especially when going to certain parts of Africa. I remember one time we stayed in this little compound in the bush in Ethiopia where I was given an electrical wire through the window that was connected to a generator that would only run for 3-4 hours each day. I got shocked multiple times, but it was the only way to charge my batteries. You have to pack all of your essential equipment as a carry on and pray your checked baggage doesn’t get delayed. You have to pack really smart. In some of the places I have gone, it is pretty rare to see white people, so you get a lot of attention. I have missed good shots because everywhere I turn there is a group of kids jumping in front of my lens, so excited that I am there. You, pull out a drone and all hell brakes loose. There’s a lot of logistical stuff to keep in mind to.

M: Tell me about magical moment when filming?

RB: Walking into the DuncanAfrica shop for the first time, I knew it was going to be something special. It was in the evening, the lights were off,  and I could see the sawdust glowing in the window light as it twisted and moved in the air. I could not wait to get started.

M: What did a typical day of shooting look like?

RB: I was staying at a little motel a mile away from the shop. I would get picked up each morning by a “Boda-boda”, or Motorcycle taxi. The driver would tie up my main camera bag to the front with bungee chords and I would sit on the back holding a monopod and carrying another sling bag on my back. We would drive through the beautiful landscape, past small communities, to the shop. I was shooting raw video on my Canon 5D Mark III, so I would shoot for an hour and then sit down for an hour, to offload and review footage to make sure that I was getting exactly what I wanted. In the evenings I would hike up to the top of the hill to get a few landscapes of the countryside and nearby city.

M: Were there any happy accidents when filming?

RB: Maybe it’s not an accident, but the photos on the fridge…they were a perfect way for me to introduce the viewers to two main characters who I was not able to get any footage of - Jay Duncan, the founder, who was home working from his Canada based shop, and Mwesige David, the first student of the school who had passed away from cancer. They were sitting beautifully on the fridge right next to the window on an overcast day, I didn’t have to adjust anything.

M: What’s the most nerve wracking part of filming?

RB: For this film it was certainly the interviews. I was by myself, shooting in RAW on the 5D, with two 64gb cards that allowed for 8 minutes of record time each before needing to be offloaded. I had to set up my shot, let the camera run, sit down beside it, conduct the interview, stay present with the person I was talking to, and then pray that they stayed in frame and in focus, and that we could get the right moment all within 8 minutes. It worked out pretty well. 

M: What role do you feel music has in film?

RB: I think that if your content (your visuals, narration, sound effects,etc) is what you are saying, then music is how you say it. I think it is a balancing act between how much the music is driving the film. If it is driving it too much, then you end up with viewers who might feel like they should be excited or moved by something, but don’t know what that is. If you don’t let the music drive the film at all, it has the potential to feel boring and loose people. The absence of music can also be a powerful tool that often gets overlooked, but can be very useful if used the right way.   

M: When do you know that you have something ready to show the world?

RB: I don’t think I have finished a film yet and thought, “everything about this is perfect!”  I have to get to a place where I am proud of my work, the client is really happy, I see what I might do differently next time, and then move on. Otherwise I will never get to tell that next story.

M: What’s coming up?

RB: Shooting for non-profit organizations, and development organizations is something I have been fortunate to get to do a lot of over the last year. I just returned from Haiti where I shot a film for a development organization that employs Haitians to build water filters for those needing them. That should be done soon. I am also working on a project that focuses on the wild horses of Alberta.