STORYTELLERS SPEAK: LESS IS MORE
Storytellers Speak is a series presented by A-BitterSweet-Life through which filmmakers from all over the world share their experiences and insights into the art of cinema. NYC-based filmmaker Liam Billingham shares his experience working with ECPAT-USA on a PSA to spread awareness on the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children. Approaching sensitive subject matter while communicating a powerful message, filmmakers can learn from Billingham and the PSA the golden rules of “Less Is More,” “Show, Don’t Tell,” or, as master filmmaker Robert Bresson expresses, “THE IDEAL WOULD BE TO SHOW NOTHING AT ALL.” But how does one achieve these golden rules that deeply engage audiences into cinematic storytelling? Let’s take an inspiring lesson from Liam Billingham, follow him on TWITTER, and visit LIAMBILLINGHAM.COM.
Last summer, through my work as a producer at BRICARTSMEDIA in Brooklyn, I was given the opportunity to partner with ECPAT-USA, an organization whose mission is To protect every child’s basic human right to grow up free from the threat of sexual exploitation and trafficking. Our goal was to make a PSA.
For many filmmakers and audiences, I think the word “PSA” conjures up specific images. I would venture to guess they aren’t good ones. We remember images of mistreated animals, sappy music, and b-list celebrities. It isn’t the most interesting material to make or to watch.
The team at ECPAT was keen to make something that didn’t feel overly preachy or sentimental. I was committed to making a short film that told a strong story and made an impression.
As we sat discussing it, the image of an empty hotel room being cleaned flashed into my mind. The idea that something has happened, that it was wrong, and no one is speaking about it seemed to me to be at the heart of what this PSA was about. It also reminded me of Michael Haneke’s films and his use of withholding information as as a way to build tension; likewise Chantal Akerman, with her suggestive shots of locals and environments.
Michelle, Carla, and Sarah at ECPAT-USA were enthused about the idea, and we began working on our script. We took the stories of a few trafficking victims and put them together, spending hours over notecards, rearranging the order of lines, trying to find the best possible way to tell the story, and connecting the words and images.
We shot the film through ECPAT’s connections to a hotel chain in a few hours. Beyond the writing, the most difficult part of the process was the editing. Once we had the incredible voice work of VICTORIA NEGRI in the can, it became about finding the right moments to cut. To be sure, we knew what images we would pair with which lines, but the cuts became the most aggressive part of the piece. I tried to cut on words and images that would create painful connections and contrasts.
In the end, the film has no cleaning person tidying up the room. It has only the suggestion of the rooms being done up. It’s even emptier than we had planned, but I think the emptiness is key to the main goal of this film: to use the suggestion of an event to plant ideas in the mind of the audience. We were reminded of an age old lesson in storytelling: Less Is More. We create an impression, and the audience fills in the gaps with their own imaginations.
For some filmmakers, PSA is a dirty set of letters. For me, it was an opportunity to pursue a vision that spoke to what I think film can be: minimal, impressionistic, and lacking in sentimentality. Most of my favorite films have one of these qualities, and it’s something I pursue in my own fiction and documentary filmmaking. For the film to have an important social cause only enriches my experience working on it.
As budgets get smaller and difficult films harder to make on a larger scale, I encourage filmmakers to seek out opportunities to make PSAs: help advance the form and use it to experiment. Let’s remove the impression we have of PSAs and turn them into an opportunity to make good work.
DoesYourHotelKnow is an awareness campaign by ECPAT-USA that alerts hotels and travelers alike to educate themselves about the signs of sex trafficking, with a call to action. Check out the campaign here: http://www.http://www.ecpatusa.org/code And share on social medial using #DoesYourHotelKnow. Thank You Partners: The Code Org, CorpTrav, EmpireCLS, EndCrowd, Experient, IGLTA, IHTI, Maritz, Real Hospitality Group, & SITE.