Something Wonderful on a Mountaintop

In November & December, two fun-loving filmmakers from London spent time at Jhamtse Gatsal, shooting footage for a documentary they are making. This is an email interview of Andrew Hinton and Johnny Burke for Jhamtse Gatsal News.

Questions by Sangey Tsering & Dorjee Norbu (class 9) and Dawa Dorjee & Raju Kumar (class 8), our own future film pros!

Making a film at JGCC

First, tell us a little about yourselves.

AH: I was born into a family of circus acrobats but ran away to study politics at university.

JB: I am 38 years old, I have three older sisters. I have lived in many different countries (because of my dad’s work changing place). I studied History and English Literature at University, for many years I was a bookworm, but then I got into making films instead.

When or how did you become interested in film? Or what age did you start doing film?

AH: One day I was watching TV and heard a voice from behind the camera asking a question. A light bulb went on in my head. I thought “Wow, there’s a person there. Every day they get to wake up and go to work filming people.” It was like discovering the tiny people who live in radios and deciding I wanted to join them.

JB: I got interested in film at age 23 when I was living in Japan, and made a first film to help people arriving in Japan understand what to do and what not to do. I then went to London and got a job in a small TV production company, setting up all the equipment, and making cups of tea. After 18 months I left and went freelance…15 years later I’m still learning about how to make a good film.

There are so many different jobs — why did you choose filming?

AH: Filming allows you to endlessly feed your curiosity about the world. It’s an excuse to get in to all kinds of situations you would never otherwise explore – like a remote children’s community in Arunachal Pradesh.

JB: I wanted to be a writer, but I wasn’t good enough, so I started making films instead. It’s easier than writing books.

Where did you learn?

AH: I did a Masters degree in Media Production but discovered the only ways to really learn filmmaking are to do it, or to watch others doing it. The best way to watch others doing it is to become a runner, so I made tea for film crews for the first year or two until I knew enough to be given more responsibility (like choosing the biscuits or deciding where to have lunch). From there I have spent many years building contacts, experience and confidence. I hope I never stop learning. Shooting at Jhamtse was the most educational (and rewarding) experience of my career to date.

JB: I didn’t study film, or go to film school. I learnt by watching film people who were very experienced and asking them a lot of questions, and then copied what I learnt from them, until I could create my own ideas and methods. I have been lucky to have a number of film Mentors who have helped me a lot.

What is the benefit of telling a story through film?

Charlie Chaplain kidsAH: I love film’s ability to transport audiences and take them on a collective emotional journey. I did some shooting during a screening of a Charlie Chaplin film at Jhamtse and the expressions on everyone’s faces was the clearest indicator that cinema really is a kind of magic. Theatre can have a similar effect but film’s ability to be shrunk into a dvd or digital file makes it much easier to travel. I think Charlie Chaplin would be thrilled that his stories are still bringing joy today.

JB: The films I like the best tell a story. I like films to be beautiful, and for them to have good sound, but ultimately all that is less important than the story and the people in the film. A film with good characters and a good story can draw people into what happens and they feel like they are also living the life of the characters, asking: how will the story go, will it be happy, will it be sad? And hoping for a certain outcome.

Film is a good way to get stories to people because it is so accessible, you can compress a whole life down into a 1 hour film, which normally in a book would take weeks and weeks to read.

Why do you choose to do documentaries? Do you do any other style of films?

AH: I was a producer in London for a few years and worked on music videos, concert films and some horrible corporate films to pay the bills. I’ve also worked on dramas and fiction projects but I’m drawn to the real. Truth is always stranger, and more exciting, than fiction.

JB: I only do documentaries, although I do like watching movies as well. The UK has a very strong tradition of documentaries, which help to portray the world as it really is (sometimes), and hopefully change things for the better (sometimes).

How did you know about Jhamtse Gatsal?

AH: Back in 2012 I received an email out of the blue from a production company in San Francisco who had heard I was in India and commissioned me to travel to Jhamtse to shoot a short film about Chris Reuth. He was working to install an educational hotspot there. Almost as soon as I arrived I realized what a special space it is and decided to come back and make a longer film.

JB: Andrew told me about it.

Why are you making a film about Jhamtse Gatsal?

AH: I think Jhamtse is amazing and I want the rest of the world to agree.

JB: It is a jewel in the dirt! A place no one knows anything about, where something wonderful is happening on a mountaintop!

What is the first step in your process of making a documentary film?

AH: For me it starts with a feeling in the chest. It’s a moment of instinct or connection, when you’re drawn to an idea or a person or a story. Everything else flows from there.

JB: Getting out of bed in the morning and having a strong coffee

How long does it take to make one movie? Or about how long will it take to make the JG film?

AH: This film has come together relatively quickly considering it will be over an hour long. My last film, Amar, was shot in a day and edited in two or three. But that was unusual. Normally it’s anything from a few months upwards.

JB: For a 60 minute film: Filming is usually 2-6 months, editing 2-3 months, finalising the film 2 weeks (Note: I have a film I started making 10 years ago which still isn’t finished!)

How do you edit so much footage down to a short film? How many total hours did you shoot to make the finished film?

AH: I’ll let Johnny answer this one.

JB: Total hours approximately 60-70. The process is very painstaking (and painful). You have to watch all the footage very carefully, trying to sift out the most memorable, important and emotional moments. The ability to concentrate for a very long time is essential, and to be able to measure your mood and response to the material, so you need to be quiet and still in your mind, so you can really listen and see what is in the material. The next stage is to take the best bits, and to sort them into an order, so as to tell the story clearly. The final stage is to ‘fine-cut’ all the shots, so they are not too long or too short, so they flow smoothly from one transition to the next, and to add music and titles. Finally you have to watch it as if you are seeing it for the very first time, even though in reality you have seen the footage hundreds of times!

Do you get bored when you are making a film all day?

AH: Not when Tashi Drolma is anywhere nearby.

JB: Sometimes it is tiring, but never boring. (I did edit a film about trains once which was very boring, and I often fall asleep when watching films in the cinema…)

Why do you work differently than what Vishnu taught us? With him, we spent lots of time creating scene cards, and you guys mostly just shoot whatever is going on around you.

AH: Every filmmaker finds their own ways of working, and each project is different. Vishnu has a wealth of experience and it’s amazing that he has been to Jhamtse a couple of times to share that with everyone.

JB: I learnt a lot talking to Vishnu, which was great….The main reason for the difference is that we are making a documentary and Vishnu was teaching you how to make a drama (a made-up story).

What is your best memory of your stay at Jhamtse Gatsal?

AH: The welcome back to the community after 16 hours in a jeep was something very special. I loved looking at the full moon on the zoom lens with all the kids. The arrival of Meep, when everyone was shouting C-O-W! C-O-W! But my favourite was the kids shampooing their hair and faces. That makes me laugh every time I see the footage of it.

JB: Arriving and being met by the whole community was a wonderful surprise.
Recording Madam Yangkyi singing her Tibetan songs. I got goose-pimples up and down my spine and arms……Playing the game where you throw the stone and jump on one foot. The constantly changing weather in the valleys and mountains. The night of the bonfire and party when everyone was crazy dancing. The best rave I’ve ever been to!

What are you doing now?

AH: I’m on a flight to the US. Outside the window is a frozen landscape with icebergs in the ocean and snow over the ground.

JB: I’m in a small room in Soho, London, editing the film……!

What is your next project?

AH: I’d like to make something about people and animals communicating with each other.

JB: A film about Syria, a man and woman who fell in love with each other while in prison, who communicated through a small hole in the prison wall. When they were released they got married and had three kids.

Thanks, guys! We all loved the time you spent here with us.

Andrew Hinton at Jhamtse Gatsal

Andrew Hinton at Jhamtse Gatsal

night welcome

breakfast giggles at Jhamtse Gatsal

foggy morning near Jhamtse Gatsal

Johnny Burke at Jhamtse Gatsal

sunset shooting

sunset in Arunachal

arrival of the cow

meeting Meep the cow

Tashi Drolma and poop

Lobsang meditating

shooting morning assembly

translation work in the edit house

kung fu break

kung fu break

astronomy fun with the filmmaker

the view from spaceship earth

Tenzing Yangkyi

makeshift music recording studio

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5 Responses to Something Wonderful on a Mountaintop

  1. Beezy says:

    What a wonderful posting, boys! You really captured Andrew and Johnny in a special way in this interview and photos.

    It brings back very special memories of being at Jhamtse Gatsal with them, sharing the ride up to Gatsal with Andrew, sharing the guest house with them, and especially watching them work.

    I can’t wait to see the film!

  2. Jerry says:

    Fabulous, and can’t wait for the premiere — red carpet and all

    Thanks to Andrew and Johnny

  3. Suresh Mathew says:

    Its Beautiful


    Suresh Mathew

  4. Stacey Piculell says:

    This is wonderful! So impressed by this work and I can’t wait to see the film!

  5. Mark Foley says:

    Can’t wait to see the world premier of the best documentary ever! I really enjoyed the interview with Andrew and Johnny. Thanks for sharing this.

Comments are closed.