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Wednesday, 24 November 2010 21:22

Rebel with a Cause

Written by  John Law
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When first-time Filmmaker Kiran Deol set out to shoot a documentary, she didn’t make it easy on herself. Her film Woman Rebel, which is currently screening on HBO2 over the next year, has as its backdrop the controversial 10-year revolution in Nepal, when women made up 40 percent of the guerrilla army fighting against the government. The film follows the story of one of these women –– codename “Silu” –– on her unlikely journey from the jungle all the way to the halls of the Parliament of England.

Directed and independently produced by Deol (who got on a plane the day after graduating from Harvard University to begin documenting the story) and executive produced by Robert Richter, a multiple Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Short, Woman Rebel took three years to complete. The doc combines stunning footage of Nepal with unprecedented access to the People’s Liberation Army, and it was shot entirely on location in Nepal in conditions that were “extremely difficult” for both lighting and filming.

“We were there for two separate shooting periods, and the big problem right away was that there’s no power at all in most places we went to,” Deol explains. “We were hoping to use some Kino Flos or other soft source lights from Chimera or Lowel Light to supplement ambient. This would have been especially useful on interior locations, such as inside the character’s village home, which was about an eight-hour walk away from major roads and about as far from electricity. We also contemplated the idea of using solar-powered battery chargers or bringing a large car battery to power small industrial lights for shoots in rural areas without electricity.”

Deol and her cinematographer, Siddhartha Shakya, visited Electronics Home in Bishal Bazar to explore these options. Ultimately, however, the cost-benefit analysis of time versus difficulty of carrying gear didn’t make it worthwhile. “We would have gained approximately four hours of shooting with lights over a multiple-day shoot before we could expect to run out of energy when counting overcast days and monsoon weather,” Deol explains. “So in the end, it didn’t make sense for our team. Instead, we got some big halogen work lights from a hardware store in Katmandu, and we planned to use those with our Sony PD170 camera, which is a very small, rugged camera that’s very popular with news outfits in Nepal.”

Deol found renting the lights and camera in Katmandu “far cheaper” to do than having the gear flown in from the States along with insuring it. But when the team arrived at an army camp ready to light and shoot, there was no power, so they had to rethink their strategy. “We decided to ditch the halogen lamps, which were unwieldy to carry around, and instead used as much natural light as possible, filming in windows and doorways wherever possible,” Deol says. This approach ended up working to their advantage, especially for intimate interviews with Silu’s parents in their hut in the mountains. “To give you some idea of just how tough it was,” Deol says, “their hut was a four-hour jeep ride out of Katmandu, followed by an eight-hour hike through the mountains to reach them. So the less gear we had, the better.”

The skeleton size of the crew often meant that equipment was carried on the backs of either porters or crewmembers, so it was really important to keep the load as light as possible. “Wind-up camp lanterns LED 300 would have been feasible in size, but in tests proved to emit a dimmer and less-textured light than candles, fire and other ambient sources we would find on location,” Deol reports. About 90 percent of Woman Rebel was shot in exterior locations without the use of bounce boards. “I read in American Cinematographer that Slumdog Millionaire was often operating off of available light as well –– and chose to embrace the limitation,” says Deol. “In our case, I am convinced the limitations helped to create the look of the piece, as did a DP who was incredibly sensitive to available light and always adjusted accordingly.”

For the production’s second trip to Nepal, Deol and her DP switched to using the Sony HVR-Z1U HDV, which was rented through a Katmandu vendor. “It gave us a much better picture quality than the PD170, and more bang for the buck,” Deol says. “And the micro budget was another big factor in what lighting and camera gear we could afford.” Deol found the Sony PD170 to be “less intimidating” for shooting close-ups and better for night shoots: “It’s very versatile at night, though a bit grainy.” And when it came time to edit the film, Deol mixed the SD and HDV footage. “That’s usually a big no-no, but it worked out fine,” she notes. “And even though it was a very hard shoot, we got some amazing footage and I’m very happy with the results.”

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