SUNDANCE DIRECTOR’S LAB DIARY: SAODAT ISMAILOVA

Director Saodat Ismailova directing a scene from her "40 Days of Silence" at the Sundance Lab. Photo: Fred Hayes

The Sundance Director’s Lab is currently wrapping at the Sundance Institute in Utah, and we have two filmmakers blogging about their experience. First up is Uzbekistan writer/director Saodat Ismailova, whose project, 40 Days of Silence, is described like this: “Four generations of women under one roof in Uzbekistan look to each other for comfort as they try to overcome their destinies.”



Yesterday, June 19th, the director’s lab came to the end. When I look back at the past three weeks of my life it already seems like it was more than a year ago… I will simply divide the process into three weeks as it was and how I experienced it…

Week one: Scary, frightening, timid, why am I here? Will it be any good for me? Shouldn’t I be in Uzbekistan casting and location scouting? There is a self-built wall of distance between me and everything around me — luckily I can escape to the Deli where I can have my latte and dive into my laptop and the safe territories of my project and mind…

Discoveries — so much to learn… trying to push myself further to break through certain limits… hmm… I am able to act… My subtle unconscious memories of the past can be pulled out and help my work… my fellows are so different and amazing, new worlds to discover… the connection to my advisors starts creating a safe environment and confidence…

Week two: Scene One: Lord, how am I going to handle my three scenes? Especially when I confronted an amazing crew willing to help me while filming… they trust in me… I am the one to decide everything and drive the flow of the shoot… Actors, how am I going to connect to them, how am I going to pull out from them what I need? and three of them are so different… Will my cinematographer understand my vision, and my editor my rhythm? my advisors ah… a choir of critics… hmmm….

Discoveries — I am able to defend my ideas… I am strong enough to pick up advice I agree with, and push back on the suggestions I disagree with… I am patient… great! My crew is extremely supportive! They are just wonderful to work, to chat, to share gum or drinks, to laugh! I am working on the emotions of my actors… interesting… I don’t even need half of the dialogue I wrote … emotions can express everything! It is not only me having a hard time… all of the other fellows have ups and downs… good not to be alone on it, we can share our experiences…

Week three: Scene Two — here we are again… I thought after making one scene the rest will flow easily, but that’s not necessarily the case… again it is scratching inside… the fear has come back… the second scene… there are seven actors to handle… I cannot concentrate on all of them at the same time… shall I make one dolly shot for the whole scene? Or make cuts? Can I push my actors even further?

Saodat Ismailova with DP and Creative Advisor Caleb Deschanel at the Sundance Director's Lab. Photo: Fred Hayes

Discoveries — the dialogue of the scene has changed! Actually the most important words came out while rehearsing! I should be careful with ethnography and treat ritual as human behavior, not as a ceremony… the ritual is rich color that supports what is actually happening with my characters… advisors start understanding my language of filmmaking… my cinematographer and editor, I just don’t need to say much to them, they know and feel what I need… isn’t it amazing? I want my Sundance crew in Uzbekistan to make this film!!! We connected in the second week, there was an amazing comfort on the set and mutual understanding…

Scene Three: Taking shower in the morning, missing my family and after reading the latest news from Uzbek-Kyrgyz border, I needed some physicality and some aggression in the next scene. So I decided to change my plans and shoot the fight scene between my two main characters… it was also a good decision to take on material with a different spirit to round out this three week experience…

I am so meticulous with the camera on set and here I was confronted with opposite situation, I have probably shot 20 takes of the same scene, finding out what is the best way to film a fight… hand held camera? Static? One wide shot? Jump cuts? The important thing was to decide that it is not the camera that choreographs the scene and actors, but it is the characters that lead the camera… and it was an amazing experience… the very last scene was also the one where I got what I needed from my actors… interesting how the rehearsal of fight scenes happen… and how amazingly important it is to have the actors fresh when on set… it seems to be the first take is the best one for truth of emotions… good lesson to learn…

It was all so much fun and a pleasure when I look back on the Lab… the fun was that since the scheduling was so tight I have been surviving mostly on my instinct as a filmmaker… which was a great gift for me…

Really the hardest day is today…when my crew is gone… it is sad to lose people I got attached to, people that understood and supported me…

Here we are now, looking forward to the Screenwriters Lab… there is so much to work on…

Saodat Ismailova was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where she graduated from the Tashkent State Art Institute, Cinema Department. She was invited to Fabrica, Benetton’s communication research centre in Italy. In 2005, she was a part of the Artists-in-Berlin program of the DAAD. Since 2004, Ismailova has been in charge of documentary films on the music of Central Asia for Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian Institute. She has made three short films which screened in international film festivals, including the award-winning documentary Aral: Fishing in an Invisible Sea.