It’s 3 p.m. at the BOZAR museum in Brussels, I’m sitting in the café with Making Men’s film director Antoine Panier. The noisy background drowns the mic on my iPhone, hampering my attempts to record our conversation, but Antoine resourcefully suggests using the mic on my earphones. It works perfectly. A project exploring masculinity which also includes a dance piece, we discussed learning the choreography, heavy equipment and shooting in Zimbabwe.
The camera man
“In my family you could embrace both your femininity and masculinity, that has never been a problem. But of course, facing society, it’s not everywhere like that,” says Antoine.
Growing up in Brussels, Antoine’s father never forced his son to follow the male stereotypes, instead he was enrolled in ballet classes at the age of six. Being the only boy, his parents thought it would be good for him, but the young Antoine felt that he was swimming against a current of societal norms.
“At the time, society was not so laid back about things and indeed, I had feelings that I wanted to fit into some stereotypes. My parents were telling me, ‘You can be who you want to be’. Outside the house, there is always a lot of pressure on young men for them to become ‘real men’.”
Antoine loosely followed those expectations, getting married, raising a daughter and having a ‘proper job’, however there was a feeling that a reflection on manhood was missing.
“My mother was an activist feminist, but there hasn’t been a debate about the role of man in the society–not comparing it to the role of women. So, I started talking to Harold George (Making Men choreographer & founder of Dunia Dance Theatre) about that, he was very much interested and that’s how it started.”
Learning the steps
Harold calls it “the stuff that has been winning awards”, for former dancer Antoine, learning the choreography was important in his experiment to create a new type of camera work.
“Filming dance is quite challenging,” he says. “The subject is constantly moving and instead of filming the dancers in a static way–on a tripod, I wanted to take advantage of my background as a dancer, to try a new approach. To be close to the dancers, follow them in their: movement, steps, breathing … everything.”
“I worked with a stabilizer, it is handheld, which helped to follow the dancers and be in sync with the choreography.”
“You have to do the steps and keep the dancers on your monitor. This requires a lot of work in the studio–to pretend you hold a camera to find the best angle and then when you shoot, the whole sequence has to be right, for yourself, but them as well (dancers) they have to be good in that take.”
The stabilizer is powered by three motors which keep the camera steady and in the right direction. 53 years young, Antoine concedes that after a few hours shooting, you start to feel your shoulders and arms, but credits the gym and yoga for his ability to resist the strain.
“I’m still quite fit for an old man!”
The lighter piece of equipment, a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera allows non-Hollywood budget filmmakers to render images that are big picture quality. An advantage not lost on the Brussels native.
“On a filming set it’s huge equipment (cameras), there is no way you can hold that. Or you have camcorders, but the output of the image is not the same. Digital cameras that record video–the quality of the image is very close to those in cinema, which means that we can work with a very shallow depth of field.”
Lo-cation & ‘gistics
A quarry, field, woodland and rock formation. Different types of terrain, but all feature as settings in the film. “It was a really amazing experience,” says Antoine.
“We went three times, the first time (2014) was to scout for locations. We got some help from someone based in Zimbabwe (Filmmaker Romeo Chandiposha) to preselect some locations for us.
“We went for a week, hired two dancers so that each time we would visit a location, we would start shooting to see how it feels and looks on the screen. The two dancers did a good job because it was based on improvisation and the choreography hadn’t been created yet. With the beautiful light of Zimbabwe, the images were just wonderful. It was very inspirational.”
The crew returned a year later with a choreography to shoot the film, but all of a sudden, things changed. Locations that were accessible before weren’t anymore, for a number of reasons. “One of the locations, a private field, someone had committed suicide and they wouldn’t let anyone go there anymore. Other places, a quarry, the owners had changed, and they wouldn’t let people come in that were not part of the staff.”
“There was that very nice place in Domboshawa, all of a sudden there was a new rule that you couldn’t film unless you had a special agreement. When we went, we had to pretend we’d just do photography, but film. At some point we had to leave because they caught us filming, they said ‘You need to leave now or you’ll be fined’.”
Thankfully alternate locations presented themselves and production went uninterrupted.
Shooting hours were long starting at 6:00 to catch the first rays of light. “It was a very small crew: Me, Romeo, the dancers and Harold, but we managed.
Four young men at different stages of their life, transitioning from childhood to adulthood going through the initiations, rituals, joys, fears that come with it, form the story of Making Men. It was important for the dancers: Glendale Mudzimu, Peter Lenso, Carlton Zhanelo & Tatenda Chabarwa to understand the themes and interpret them in their unique way. No one did this better than Tinashe Jeri who appears exclusively in the film.
“He is so expressive, wonderful in improvisation. There’s that scene where he is in doubt with himself, whether he will go into his adulthood.”
“He’s dancing with another dancer (Peter Lenso) who is trying as a big brother to calm him down, telling him it’s going to be ok. Just calm down. Tinashe is so convincing in that role, he just did it spontaneously, just with the heart and feelings. He understood what we wanted. Actually, I think that scene … he makes the whole film. He makes the whole project.”
Harold also appears in transitory scenes between the main ones. Doubling as the narrator, flashes of himself as a masked creature, take the audience down his memory lane.
“He is reliving some parts of his past. The scene in the shower, he’s troubled, getting a bit emotional, those images come like blasts from the past, through different smells, his writing, listening to music. During his young age, he had a lot of apprehension, about the kind of man he was about to become.”
“This creature represents this guide, who is actually nice, but you don’t know that because you’re scared, it’s an apprehension. But in the end, it’s fine. It’s just life. Life is ok. Just take it the way it is, and it will be fine.”
Tracking the sound
Ears are well stimulated during the film, trance-like music of the fireplace initiation or the tension filled beat of the big brother guiding the young brother, the soundtrack is perfectly in tune with Making Men’s theme. Antoine identifies the music of the Domboshawa scene, which may come as a surprise to those who are not familiar with the classical genre.
“It’s Antonia Vivaldi’s “Nisi Dominus: Cum demerit” sung by Philippe Jaroussky a countertenor, very high-pitched voice for a man. He is very very famous, beautiful voice.”
It all started in a dance film festival near Salt Lake City, Utah, the Making Men film won awards for ‘best film in all categories’ and ‘best storytelling’ heralding what was to come. From Dallas to Florence, the film has been nominated and won prizes for best: experimental, juror, audience, inspirational and director, to name a few.
All this success could easily inflate egos, but Antoine has a grounded take on it and stresses the importance of being selected. “All festivals are not a competition,” he says. “You’re selected or not and that’s it.”
“Being selected for us means a lot, as it’s our first project as such, co-creation, (film and dance piece) for me it was my first dance film, it’s quite rewarding indeed.”
Projecting the future
Creating a new way of shooting dance with the stabilizer, learning the choreography, working in Zimbabwe, winning awards, while satisfying, have fed Antoine’s hunger to bring the same level of creativity to future projects exploring different subject matter.
“Dance is probably my favorite way of expressing things. I’m not a dancer anymore, so filming is a wonderful way for me to express myself in an artistic way. It’s a bit vague at this stage because we are still very much into Making Men, but seeing how the public received our project … I think there will be something else!